Sometimes an epiphany came like a crack of lightning, sharp and brilliant, and sometimes it came like a bit of hothouse strawberry lodged in one’s throat. Unfortunately for Sebastian Sinclair, Duke of Wessex, Earl of Badington, and Knight of the Garter, it was the latter.
This was what came of eating strawberries in October. It was unnatural to enjoy a summer fruit when the world had taken a turn toward gray and dreary. One could not expect to bend the laws of nature without dire consequences. He had made a mistake in insisting his gardener provide the fruit year-round. Yes, yes, he understood that now.
His eyes watered. He would have wheezed had he been able to draw breath.
He had been a fool about the strawberries, that much was abundantly clear now. And what would be the result of that blunder? His new winter boots had only just been finished, and now he would never get the chance to wear them. He had an assignation with Mrs. Dabney tonight, and she would go unsatisfied.
More important, if he were to die this very instant, his father and mother would have no grandchildren. Perhaps they would not care, being dead these past fourteen years. But as the corners of his vision blackened, Sebastian found he cared, even if they could not. He cared very much, indeed.
And as he admittedly possessed the soul of a butterfly, it was a rare experience for him to truly care. The intensity of the emotion left him breathless and shaken. Or was that the strawberry?
But still. He cared.
He was all that was left of his parents.
Oh, there were drops of his mother’s blood sprinkled about England. A second cousin in Derby, and an even more distant relative in Shropshire. His father’s brother had gone to the Colonies, of all things, and was now the grandfather of three American brats. Sebastian hadn’t heard from him in nearly a decade. They hadn’t even crossed the ocean for funeral, and he’d been left to bury his parents alone.
But all of these distant and American relations had as little to do with his parents as a robin to a falcon. They were both birds, to be sure, but that was where all similarity ended. None of these relatives were the product of who his parents were as husband and wife, of the life they had built together. None of them had been created in their image and raised on their morals and guidance, such as they were.
There was only Sebastian.
And if the strawberry stole his life this very moment, before he could marry and beget an heir, that was all there would ever be. As Duke of Wessex, he’d had but one true duty. One. To beget an heir who would continue the line of succession. If he couldn’t do that, did anything else matter? For heaven’s sake, if he expired now, childless, the dukedom would fall to a bloody American.
Dear God. Dear God.
Something thumped hard against his back. The offending strawberry flew up his throat and past his lips, landing on the plush, costly carpet at his feet. He drew in a deep, life-saving gulp of air.
“Are you all right?” Lord Abingdon asked.
Sebastian’s vision was still hazy. It looked like there were four identical men standing in his sitting room rather than just two. He blinked. Abingdon and his twin brother, Nicholas Eastwood, came into focus.
He blinked again. Miracle of miracles, he was alive!
But who knew for how long? Human bodies were ridiculously frail. Today he, one of the most powerful dukes in all England, had nearly met his demise from a ruby fruit the size of his thumb, despite having all his teeth intact. Tomorrow might be a riding accident, or an overturned carriage, or a cuckolded husband. Or a parsnip. Imagine, death by parsnip! That would be even more humiliating than by strawberry.
He drew himself up to his full height, which was still not quite as tall as the lanky gentlemen who faced him.
“Gentlemen, I’ve had an epiphany,” he announced.
They stared at him, then at each other.
“Dear God, no,” Eastwood said.
“Perhaps it would be better to keep such thoughts to yourself,” Abingdon suggested.
Ungrateful louts, the both of them. Had he not had a hand in both their marriages? They would still be blundering about, wifeless, had he not, at the critical moment, insisted they come to their senses. If he had kept his thoughts to himself, as Abingdon suggested, they would both be miserable now.
But no matter. They would do as he said, despite their protestations. Sebastian had yet to meet the man who did not do as he said. Such were the benefits of being a powerful, wealthy duke.
He moved to the walnut desk, removed a sheet of thick, cream-colored paper and his inkwell, and scribbled a few lines. “As it happens, your opinion on the matter is inconsequential.” He beckoned to the footman. “Inform Selkirk we will discuss the hothouse at four o’clock. And deliver this to Miss Eliza Benton.”
The footman bowed crisply, removing the half-chewed strawberry from the carpet as he did so.
“Wessex,” Abingdon said sharply. “Why must you persist in annoying Miss Benton? Is it really necessary to involve her in your schemes?”
Sebastian ignored the absurd question. Miss Benton was always necessary.
“I have decided to have a house party.”
Most of the marriageable ladies had departed London at the end of the social season and would not return until spring. But he did not want to wait until spring. The course was decided; now he must act. He would simply have to lure them from their snug homes and watchful families.
Abingdon looked baffled. “A house party in London? It will be the first of its kind.”
“I meant in Derbyshire, of course. At Perivale Hall.”
The bafflement increased. “But you hate the country.”
This was true. Weekly deliveries of unnatural strawberries aside, the country was dreadfully dull. It was also a repository of memories better left to the haziness of time. While he did not wish to forget, exactly, he much preferred the past to be pleasantly blurry. At Perivale Hall, those memories came into painfully sharp focus. Like all unpleasant things, he avoided it whenever possible.
“Wessex has his eye on Lady Whistall.” Eastwood sounded bored. “The house party is merely a means to cuckold her husband.”
“Nonsense.” Sebastian dismissed the notion with a wave of his hand. “The cuckolding happened last month, and I’ve no wish to repeat it. I don’t intend to invite any married ladies at all, except as chaperones for their maiden daughters. And Lady Abingdon and Mrs. Eastwood, naturally.”
Eastwood’s eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly. Likely he was remembering that Sebastian had once offered for Mrs. Eastwood. Sebastian smiled. He was indeed fond of Mrs. Eastwood, and not only because it annoyed her husband. It was, however, a delightful side-effect, and one he took advantage of at every opportunity.
“The point of the house party is not to dally with willing wives and cuckold their husbands. The point is to become a husband myself,” Sebastian announced.
This pronouncement was met with blank stares, as though he had suddenly sprouted a half dozen more heads and his friends weren’t sure how to break the news gently.
“Gentlemen, the time has come for me to find a wife.”
“Pardon me, my lady.”
Eliza looked up from her writing in hazy confusion. It always took a moment to reorder her thoughts to reality. “Yes?”
Pierce bowed. “A letter from the Duke of Wessex.”
Ah. The cobwebs cleared and she returned fully, if reluctantly, to her Mayfair apartment. Here there was no dark and brooding hero, no gay ballroom, no snowstorm. There was only a bored duke—or his letter, at any rate.
She sighed and took the paper.
“What scheme does he propose this time?” Riya Mukherjee asked from her corner, putting aside her book.
“I am not sure. He only says my advice is required and he requests I be at home tomorrow.” How odd. When it came to advice, the duke greatly preferred to give rather than receive. She frowned and reread the short missive, just to be sure.
“Shall we arrange to take a drive in the park instead?” Riya asked, her dark eyes sparkling roguishly.
Eliza laughed. “I do so enjoy disappointing His Grace.” But then what mischief would he get up to, if left to his own conscience? There was no end to the wickedness a man with unlimited funds and unlimited charm could wreak on the world, if he set his mind to it.
Wessex was far too handsome for his own good. Perhaps he would not be so rakish if his head was balding and not covered by thick, shiny sable. Perhaps he would be more inclined to use his brain for the betterment of mankind if he hadn’t an aquiline nose and square jaw to depend upon. Perhaps otherwise intelligent ladies would be less tempted to fall into his bed if his eyes did not remind them of chocolate, sweet and sinful.
She sighed again.
As though reading her mind—although, Eliza hoped, not entirely—Riya nodded. “It may be prudent to hear what His Grace has to say, while we can still correct his course of action.”
“Yes,” Eliza agreed absently. It must be done delicately, of course. Very likely Wessex only sought her advice in order to ignore it. He took as much pleasure in annoying her as she took in disappointing him.
She straightened her papers and put them aside. There would be no returning to her work now. Her thoughts were consumed by curiosity. What could the duke possibly need of her? If he merely wanted her opinion on which widow was ripe for seduction, or whether next season’s color of choice would be pale blush or deep violet, she would strangle him with his cravat.
Aggravating man, to leave her in suspense.
She sighed for the third time.
Riya gave a sympathetic cluck of her tongue and rose from her chair. The dark braid that hung to her waist swayed as she walked toward Eliza. “May I see the letter?” she asked.
Eliza handed it over without a qualm.
There was a quiet pause as Riya scanned the contents. Then, “I cannot read this. Is it in code?”
Eliza laughed. “No, although I am sure he would delight in the idea. You haven’t the practice, that’s all. His handwriting is dreadful and he has a terrible habit of abbreviating words that ought not be abbreviated. Pl is please, h is home, a is and, except when it is truly a.”
“You decipher his meaning so easily. He must have written to you many times, then. Is that quite proper?”
Eliza searched her friend’s face for judgment but found only gentle interest. “No, it is quite improper. If my parents were alive, or if my brother and his wife had not returned to the country, there would be consequences. But Aunt Mabel is mostly blind and half deaf, so that leaves only you to know.”
Riya frowned. “I have been derelict in my duties as your friend, then.”
“Nonsense. It is only the fact that he writes the letters at all that is improper. The letters themselves are entirely innocent, as you can see for yourself. Or,” she amended, “as you will see for yourself once you are used to his style. Look at it—he didn’t even seal it shut. Anyone might read it. He wouldn’t have done so if he meant it to be a love letter.”
There was mild skepticism in Riya’s dark eyes, but she nodded her agreement.
Eliza folded the letter and tucked it in the drawer with the others. It would be better to burn them all, but somehow she couldn’t bring herself to destroy them. Despite her assurances to her friend, she knew her brother would feel differently on the matter. Eliza had barely tasted freedom; to lose it now would be a tragedy. Even the softest whisper of impropriety would result in her brother ordering her back to his home and strict guardianship.
Not that her brother was a terrible ogre—quite the opposite, for Sir John was kind, and she loved him—but she did not wish to live in the corners of someone else’s life. She had spent far too much time there already. Her mother had died giving birth to her, and her father had not known what to do with a squalling infant, other than leave her care entirely to the nanny. Though her father had eventually remarried, his second wife had likewise died in childbirth, this time taking the babe with her.
Her father had spent the following years travelling a great deal, leaving Eliza and her brother with this relative or that. Her relatives had been kind, and she had been cared for, but always as an afterthought. When her father passed away two years ago, Sir John and his wife had opened their home to her. She was grateful and loved them both, but enough was enough.
She wanted a home of her own.
At present, she lived almost entirely independently with Riya, who was staying with Eliza for the winter while her brother travelled in Egypt. Sir John and Lady Benton had departed London for Hampshire a fortnight ago, upon learning that she was with child—for Lady Benton had a holy fear of London’s filthy air. Her brother had intended to take Eliza and Riya with him, but Eliza had convinced him it would be much better for them to stay in London, with Aunt Mabel serving as their chaperone. Sir John had reluctantly agreed, with the demand that their behavior and reputation remain above reproach.
He would not like to hear that she allowed Wessex this liberty, harmless though she knew it to be. It was the appearance of impropriety that mattered most of all.
She shrugged the doubt aside. It was only a letter! In six months’ time, on her twenty-second birthday, she would be free in truth. She had a sum of five thousand pounds from her mother, but more important, Hyacinth Cottage would be hers. John had promised to sign it over to her. It would be hers to live in and tend and just be. Together, the marriage portion and the cottage would be enough to live exactly as she wished. Her life would be her own at long last.
And—she glanced at the stack of pages she had pushed aside in favor of the duke’s letter—if her hard work continued to be rewarded, life would be perfect. She would want for nothing.
All she had to do was be very, very good.
Sebastian looked about the drawing room of Number 12 Upper Seymour Street. It was a lovely room and Miss Benton was the loveliest thing in it. Hair the color of moonshine. Eyes the ethereal blue of a twilight sky. Eyebrows oddly dark against the paleness of her complexion, all the better to arch in judgment.
Best of all was her pink mouth. It looked like a kiss, that mouth, with the upper lip forming a perfect half-heart and the lower a plump pout. A man might look at such a mouth and believe it existed solely to pleasure men. Sebastian knew better. Hers was not a mouth for kissing, and he was not fool enough to let those sharp white teeth anywhere near his more vital parts. No, this was a mouth expressly created for setting down a duke.
He adored it.
Just now, that mouth was pursed in a suspicious frown. Miss Benton rose from her seat as the footman announced him. Miss Mukherjee did likewise, and they dropped gentle curtsies.
“We have been waiting all morning,” Miss Benton said reproachfully. “Do you mean to keep us in suspense, or will you tell us to what we owe this visit?”
“The pleasure,” he murmured. “To what do you owe the pleasure of this visit.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
He grinned. Their sparring had not changed since the moment they had met three years ago at a London ball. He had been immediately taken with her beauty and wit; she had been unaccountably indifferent to his. They had made a bet that night: Could he discover the thing she wanted most and make it hers before the ball ended? He had and he did—the thing she wanted most being a dance with another man. It was not the stuff of fairy tale love, but it was the stuff of enduring friendship.
“You like me most when I am ridiculous,” he said, because it was true and also because it annoyed her that it was true.
She pointedly ignored him and tugged a pair of black gloves over her ink-stained fingers with such force that a small pearl button popped off. She seemed not to notice as it rolled across the rose-patterned carpet and settled at his feet.
He knelt on one knee to retrieve it. “I have decided to marry.” He glanced up at her, button held out in the palm of his hand, and found her staring down at him with genuine horror in her wide blue eyes. “I did not mean you, oh dearest Sigrid,” he said crossly. Since she made no move toward him, he stood. “There, take your button.”
“Thank heavens.” She waved away his offering. “Place it on the table for the maid, if you please. Shall I ring for tea?”
“If you wish,” he said, still mildly perturbed at her reaction to his momentous announcement. Really, would becoming his duchess be so very distasteful? She needn’t have looked at him like a slug that had left slime on her silk slipper. To punish her, he slipped the pearl into his waistcoat. He hoped the gloves were her favorite, and the pearl impossible to match.
“Why did you call her Sigrid, Your Grace?” Miss Mukherjee asked, her eyes alight with curiosity.
“Sigrid was a Nordic queen,” Sebastian said. “Sweden or Poland or thereabouts, of an age when they hadn’t yet completely made up their minds to be decent Christians.”
Miss Mukherjee, a Hindu, arched a sardonic brow at him before turning her attention to Miss Benton. “So, he honors you, then.”
Miss Benton’s look was quelling. “They called her Sigrid the Haughty.”
Miss Mukherjee smothered a laugh behind a cough. “Oh. I see.”
The tea arrived. Miss Benton poured his dish first, strong and plain as he always requested. He accepted it with a nod and took a sip, masking his wince as the hot beverage touched his tongue.
“Now,” she said. “You wish to marry. And is this the matter for which you seek my advice?”
“It is. If you would be so kind as to draw up a list of three or four excellent women, I shall invite them to a house party and make my choice from among them.” He steeled his nerves for another taste of tea.
“You are absurd.” She set her own tea down with a faint clink. “I cannot choose your wife for you.”
“Of course not,” he agreed. “I will choose my own wife. You will simply make the choice less overwhelming. England is full to the brim of marriageable ladies, each a paragon of everything that is good and praiseworthy, or so their mothers tell me. How is a man to choose? There are simply too many of them.”
Miss Benton would not be able to resist such an opportunity to manage his affairs, for she was quite certain of her superiority. He knew that. Still, he held his breath, waiting.
Her angelic head tilted. “What are your preferences in a lady?”
He looked at her before turning again to his tea. “Such as?”
“Such as hair, for example.”
“She should certainly have hair.”
The corners of her mouth trembled, but she did not yield to a smile. “Fair? Dark? Red?”
“I like them all,” he said after a moment of consideration.
She pursed her lips. “What of height?”
“Truly, I care not. Whatever a woman’s hair and height and shape, it is no matter to me. Short or tall. Slim, plump, and even more plump. I enjoy them all.” And why should he not? Women were such enjoyable creatures.
“Wicked man,” she murmured, but truly, he did not think he imagined the note of affection in her tone. “I should write this down.”
“Let me.” Miss Mukherjee glided to the writing desk and retrieved paper and pen. “You spent so much time writing this morning it is a wonder your fingers have not cramped into claws.”
To whom was Miss Benton writing? It gave Sebastian an odd, unsettled feeling not to know. Miss Benton was an unsettling woman. He was used to that. He pushed the feeling aside very easily, as though brushing aside a buzzing gnat.
But did Sir John know of her correspondence? After all, Miss Benton corresponded with Sebastian regularly—in that she accepted his letters, and never returned any of her own—and he found it doubtful her brother knew anything about it. That suggested the receiver of her letters was likely female.
Not that he cared.
“She should be of good family,” Miss Benton said consideringly. “The daughter of a marquess or duke would be preferred. Nothing less than an earl, by any means. She will have been groomed for this marriage from birth and understand her duties as a duchess, and how to run a large household.”
Sebastian blinked. Miss Benton was the daughter—and now sister—of a baronet, a long three ranks beneath an earl. Of course, such things did matter; he just hadn’t thought they mattered to her.
“Yes, yes, a lady whose family is as old as England itself would be preferable, and she must be above reproach, to make up for my own flaws,” he said. “The usual things a duke needs in a wife. What else?”
“An intelligent woman of good humor, else you will drive her mad within a fortnight,” Miss Benton continued, tapping one finger thoughtfully against her chin.
Miss Mukherjee dutifully wrote this down, speaking the words softly as the pen scratched against the page. “Drive…her…mad.”
Sebastian glared. “Et tu, Miss Mukherjee?”
“Of course you are all that is amiable, Your Grace,” she said hastily.
“To what do you object, Duke?” Miss Benton interjected impatiently. “Would you prefer a stupid wife? Or do you wish for an ill temper?”
“No,” he said sullenly.
“Very good, then.” She leaned sideways over the armrest of her chair in order to get a better look at Miss Mukherjee’s list. Her breasts squeezed together into plump mounds.
How delightful. He took a sip of tea and enjoyed the view.
“What do you think of Lady Freesia?” Miss Benton asked of a sudden.
He quickly lifted his gaze to her face. “Pardon?”
“Lady Freesia. She is the daughter of an earl, and the sister of your closest friend. Besides those excellent qualifications, she is a delightful girl. Have you considered courting her?”
“As a matter of fact, I have.” It would make his life agreeable to combine friendship with family, in some ways. Unfortunately, however, he had spent many an hour gleefully detailing his bedsport with this widow and that wench. How could he freely enjoy himself with his bride when Abingdon would know precisely all the ways in which he was debauching the man’s sister? “I decided it would be unwise.”
“Oh.” She frowned.
“Put her on the list for the house party, if you please, Miss Mukherjee,” he said. “I have plans for Lady Freesia, regardless.” He swallowed the last dregs of tea. There, now. That was done.
Miss Benton’s frown deepened. “Just what are you scheming now, Wessex?”
His eyes narrowed at her tone. “Do you imagine I would allow harm to come to Abingdon’s sister?” he asked frostily.
Her head tilted. He watched her consider the matter, weighing in her mind all the ways a man could harm a woman against the person she knew him to be. She gave a firm shake of her lovely head. “Not at all.”
He thawed. “Thank you.”
She held his gaze for a moment longer before glancing away. “Lady Margaret Gaither is the daughter of a marquess. And I believe she would be very happy with the match. She has sought your attentions at many a ball.”
Sebastian snorted. “Not Lady Margaret, if you please. She was very cutting to Mrs. Eastwood before her marriage. I don’t believe I like her.” A damning assessment, as he liked nearly everyone. It was seldom worth his time to engage in anything so absorbing as hate.
“Very well. I can’t say I am overly fond of her myself,” Miss Benton admitted.
“For heaven’s sake, woman!” He slapped his palm against his knee. “If you don’t like a lady, then don’t foist her on me! That’s hardly sporting of you. It should be the first question you ask yourself. Do I like this woman? If the answer is no, then scratch her right off.”
Miss Mukherjee wasted no time in putting pen to paper. “Friendly…with…Miss Benton. Well, then. Who does that leave us with?” She looked expectantly at her friend.
Miss Benton’s brow furrowed with thought. Then it smoothed. “Lady Jane Tavistock, Lady Louisa Evans, and Lady Abigail Ainsworth. Will three suffice?”
How many wives did a man need? “An adequate start,” he drawled. “I’ll let you know if more are required.”
She released a puff of air that was almost a laugh. “See that you do. And when shall this party take place?”
“A month from now.” Although...what if he were to choke on his breakfast, or be thrown from a horse? “Better make it a fortnight.”
There. He would be married by Christmas.