London’s Little Season has never been so scandalous
It’s the kind of vow often made on the battlefield. Darby Travers, Viscount Nailbourne, never imagines he’ll have to honor it. Yet here she is on his doorstep—his late comrade’s young daughter, and Darby’s new ward. Worse, she comes with the most overprotective, mistrustful, bothersome chaperone—the child’s aunt, Sadie Grace Boxer. Darby is quite sure that behind her lovely facade, the woman is guarding a secret.
Sadie Grace faced many trials working in her brother’s surgery, but none prepared her for the world she’s thrust into with his passing. Navigating the ton, with its endless ball gowns and parade of parties, is difficult enough, but hiding the truth about her niece while the sophisticated viscount watches her every move proves nearly impossible—particularly when his searing gaze tempts her to bare all. But when her family’s past catches up with her, she’ll have to trust in Darby…no matter the cost to her heart.
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The air was cool, the breeze brisk, but most of Grosvenor Square was still washed in sunshine, making a stroll reasonably pleasant. Save for a few nannies and their charges, the area was also conveniently devoid of possible interruptions. Residents of the square who did leave their homes headed directly into carriages, and visitors to the square did much the same in reverse.
Society was social only when it wanted to be, and when it had specific destinations in mind it might as well be wearing blinders.
Darby had counted on that when he’d first suggested the stroll. Propriety ensured, the chance of interruption slight, Mrs. Boxer feeling assured she was within easy reach of the duke’s mansion, the safety of her new friends.
Now he could kiss Miss Sadie Grace Hamilton senseless smack in the middle of the square and, save for a few raised eyebrows and giggles from the nursemaids, nobody would so much as give a damn.
And the stroll no longer a reason for an inquisition meant to pry her secrets out of her. What a lucky turn of events bringing the puppy to Marley had been, but then Darby knew himself to be a lucky man.
A lucky, apparently useless grasshopper of a man in Sadie’s eyes.
“You have the headache again,” Sadie said, the first words she’d spoken since they’d escaped the mansion ten minutes earlier. “And again, it’s my fault.”
Darby realized he was rubbing at his forehead beneath his curly crowned beaver and quickly dropped his arm to his side. Yes, he had the headache. The familiar vise had gripped his head while they were still in her bedchamber, and he doubted it would let go anytime soon.
“I believe there’s enough blame to go around.”
“You’re correct. There is. You certainly didn’t have to take my hand and drag me into the drawing room to announce that we had realized our attraction and were now betrothed. You made it sound as if we had been upstairs all that time because we were being…being…”
“Indiscreet. Try that one. Anyone who can’t think beyond Maxwell Boxer probably needs all the assistance she can get.”
“You can stop chewing at that bone now, my lord, if you’ll pardon the canine reference. I know what I did, and it wasn’t my most shining hour. However, indiscreet only serves to pretty up what they all must have been thinking.”
“You’ll have to admit it certainly eased us through your small deception without much trouble, as the ladies were so delighted to hear our other news. Apparently you’ve found new friends there.”
“Your friends were no help when they arrived with their ladies. Patting you on the back and congratulating you. I would think gentlemen would stand together.”
“You mistake them. They did stand together, believing they know what’s best for me, most especially since their ladies, as you refer to Thea and Dany, clearly approved. If each of them weren’t so obviously in love I’d think they were of the belief that misery enjoys company.”
“Or perhaps it was revenge for the puppies.”
Darby smiled. Gabe, Coop and Rigby had all arrived during the time he and Sadie had been absent. With them, they’d brought their gifts from him, the remaining spaniels in the litter, just so recently delivered to each of their domiciles with the viscount’s compliments.
The ladies were delighted. Marley was nearly over the moon when all the puppies were put on the carpet and they immediately began crawling over her, licking her, reducing her to helpless giggles.
It had felt so strangely wonderful to hear Marley’s giggles. That was what childhood should be. A time of giggles and puppies. And innocence. Or so he would like to believe.
“Shameless toadeater,” Gabe had said to him jokingly as the four men stood together, away from the fray, “making certain all the ladies love you. Now explain yourself. How the devil did you go from reluctant guardian to engaged man in five short days?”
Later, he’d promised them, over drinks at their club, and before Sadie was happily attacked by the ladies, much like Marley had been by the puppies, he managed to extricate her and, well, here they were.
He’d left Sadie to contemplate her future, their future, as they circled the square, but now it was time to move on to the next step. She hadn’t responded to his whispered announcement to her that he expected an heir from their bargain, but he was in no rush to push her on the subject. After all, he did know how to nudge…
“I gave the ladies only vague instructions. How many gowns did you order?”
“I have not ordered any gowns. I never asked for any gowns. Or the shoes, or the gloves or the bonnets or the scarves or the cloaks or reticules. I did not agree to having my hair trimmed, nor my fingernails buffed. I neither need nor want anything.”
“All right,” he said, trying not to smile. “Let me rephrase that. How many gowns—and the rest of it—have the ladies ordered for you?”
Sadie sighed. “Too many, too much. And for Marley, as well, but I saw the point in that, as she is growing very quickly right now and complained that her half boots have begun to pinch. The duchess assured me every piece was necessary, or else I would be an embarrassment to you, as your ward’s aunt. All the bills for the small army of tradespeople who have been tracking in and out of the mansion these past days will be sent to your direction. I should thank you, I know, and I do, but please understand I only agreed because of Marley.”
“Yes, Marley appears to be at the center of everything you and I have done these past days. So young and defenseless, and so clearly troubled. John’s death affected her greatly, didn’t it? I would imagine it would, at her age.”
I know it would, at her age. But I won’t think about that. I never think about that.
He guided Sadie to one of the benches situated along the square and invited her to sit down, then spread his coattails and sat beside her.
“She’s afraid. You’ve noticed that, as well. Susan, Marley’s mother, passed away when Marley was only just three, and she barely remembers her, which is sad in itself. I did my best to step in for her, coming to live with them, helping in John’s surgery, taking it over for the time he was away and…and until he died.”
She seemed open to telling him things now, so he decided to see just how much information might be forthcoming. “You never mentioned where John and Marley lived. Where he had his surgery.”
She looked up at him curiously, and he noticed that her eyes were shining with unshed tears. It hadn’t been the best of days for her, not for a many number of weeks and months, and he felt his heart soften toward her. She was quietly brave, and he admired her for that, as well. He could even forgive her lies—her one lie, for that’s all it had been, really. She had done what she had thought best under the circumstances. As had he, come to think of the thing.
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