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The Duke's Cinderella Bride

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«The Duke's Cinderella Bride» - Кэрол Мортимер

From plain Jane to society bride! Brooding Hawk St Claire, Duke of Stourbridge, believes Jane Smith to be a mere servant girl – albeit a remarkably attractive one! So when genteel Miss Jane is wrongly turned out of her home for inappropriate behaviour following their encounter, the Duke takes her in as his ward.Although Hawk is the first man to make Jane’s pulse race, she knows she cannot risk falling for his devastating charm. A marriage between them would be forbidden – especially if he were to discover the shameful truth about her…The Notorious St Claires
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Author’s Note

‘What explanation do you intend giving the Lady Arabella for my presence, Your Grace?’ She looked across at him anxiously. ‘After all, she will know that I am not your ward.’

He quirked dark brows. ‘Why not simply tell her the truth, Jane? That you begged to be allowed to come away with me?’

She gaped at him.

‘Do not look so concerned, Jane,’ he taunted as he lounged back on the seat. ‘No one, not even my sister Arabella, would dare to question what position I intend you to occupy in my household.’

And what position was that? Jane wondered dazedly.

Had she misunderstood the Duke the previous evening, when he had been so insistent she would travel under his protection? Despite what he had said to the contrary, was he now saying he expected her to become his mistress as payment for that protection?

Author’s Note

This last year has been an absolutely wonderful one for me, in that I celebrated my 30th Anniversary of writing for Harlequin Mills & Boon in their Modern™ Romance series and, to date, have succeeded in having published over 140 books and a dozen or so novellas. To now have this, my very first Regency romance, published too is fantastic!

The Regency period is one that has always been very close to my heart, and with Hawk and Jane’s story I have realised my dream of writing about a time that I consider to be one of the most romantic. The other good news is that this is the first of a quartet featuring the St Claire family, so look out for Lucien, Sebastian and Arabella’s stories, coming soon.

I hope you have as much fun reading their stories as I am having writing them!


Carole Mortimer


Carole Mortimer was born in England, the youngest of three children. She began writing in 1978, and has now published over one hundred and forty books with Harlequin Mills & Boon. Carole has four sons, Matthew, Joshua, Timothy and Peter, and a bearded collie called Merlyn. She says, ‘I’m happily married to Peter senior; we’re best friends as well as lovers, which is probably the best recipe for a successful relationship. We live in a lovely part of England.’

Chapter One

1816, St Claire House, London

‘I have no immediate plans to marry, Hawk. Least of all some chit barely out of the schoolroom that you have deigned to pick out for for me!’

Hawk St Claire, the tenth Duke of Stourbridge, viewed his youngest brother’s angrily flushed face across the width of the leather-topped desk that dominated the library in the St Claire townhouse, his mouth twisting slightly as he noted the glitter of rebellion in Sebastian’s dark brown gaze. ‘I was merely suggesting that it is past time you thought of taking a wife.’

Lord Sebastian St Claire felt the flush deepen in his cheeks under the steely gaze of his eldest brother. But this awareness of Hawk’s displeasure in no way lessened his own determination not to be coerced into a marriage he neither sought nor wanted.

Although it was a little difficult to maintain that stand, Sebastian acknowledged inwardly, in the face of his brother’s piercingly intense gaze. A chilling gaze from eyes the colour of gold and ringed by a much darker brown, and one that had been known to almost reduce the Duke’s valet to tears on occasion, and to cause lesser peers of the realm to quake in their highly polished boots when Hawk took his place in the House.

‘Do not take that insufferably condescending tone with me, Hawk, because it won’t wash!’ Sebastian threw himself into the carved chair, facing his brother across the desk. ‘Or is it only that you have decided to turn your attentions to me because Arabella failed to secure a suitable match during her first Season?’ he added slyly, knowing that his eighteen-year-old sibling had stubbornly resisted accepting any of the marriage proposals she had received in the last few months.

He was also completely aware that Hawk had hated his role as occasional escort for their younger sister. It had resulted in the marriage-minded debutantes and their ambitious mamas seeing the unusual occurrence of the Duke of Stourbridge’s presence at balls and parties as an open invitation to pursue him!

Until, that was, Hawk had made it known, in his chillingly high-handed manner, that none of those young women met the exacting standards he set for his future Duchess!

Hawk’s mouth tightened. ‘We were not discussing a match for Arabella.’

‘Then perhaps we should have been. Or possibly Lucian?’ Sebastian mentioned their brother. ‘Although it really should be you, Hawk,’ he continued tauntingly. ‘After all, you are the Duke, and of the four of us surely the one most in need of an heir?’

At one and thirty, and over six feet tall, his brother Hawk had powerful shoulders and an athletic body that was the pride and joy of his tailor. Today he wore a black jacket which fit snugly across wide shoulders, a pale grey waistcoat and paler grey breeches above highly polished Hessians. His thick dark hair, streaked with gold, was styled with casual elegance, and beneath a wide, intelligent brow were intense golden eyes, the straight slash of a nose between high cheekbones, and a thin, uncompromising mouth above a square jaw. All spoke of his arrogant and determined character.

Even without his title, Hawk was undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with. As the powerful Duke of Stourbridge he was formidable.

Hawk looked completely bored by this particular argument. ‘I believe I have made it more than plain these last months that I have yet to meet any woman who is up to the arduous task of becoming the Duchess of Stourbridge. Besides,’ he continued, as Sebastian would have argued further, ‘I already have two obvious heirs in my younger brothers. Although, going on your more recent behaviour, I would not be happy to see either you or Lucian becoming the next Duke of Stourbridge.’ He gave Sebastian a silencing glower.

A glance Sebastian totally ignored. ‘If either Lucian or I were to become the next Duke of Stourbridge, you can depend on it that you would not be around to see it, Hawk!’

‘Very amusing, Sebastian.

’ The Duke’s dismissal was absolute. ‘But following the…events of last month, I realise I have been somewhat remiss in not settling your own and Lucian’s future.’

‘Last month? What did Lucian and I do last month that was so different from—? Ah.’ The light finally dawned. ‘Can you possibly be referring to the delectable and recently widowed Countess of Morefield?’ he challenged unabashedly.

‘A gentleman does not discuss a lady by name, Sebastian.’ Hawk eyed his brother disapprovingly. ‘But now that you have brought the incident to my attention…’ he steepled slender fingers ‘…I could indeed be referring to your reprehensible behaviour concerning a certain lady of our mutual acquaintance.’ His voice was icy.

Sebastian grinned unapologetically. ‘I can assure you that no one, least of all the Countess, took our interest seriously.’

Hawk looked down the long length of his nose. ‘Nevertheless, the lady’s name was bandied about at several clubs—my own included. Many of your friends were making wagers, I believe, on which one of you would be the first to oust the Earl of Whitney from the Coun—from the lady’s bedchamber.’

Sebastian looked unrepentant. ‘Only because they were all aware that we were both totally in ignorance of the other’s interest in the lady. Of course, if you had cared to confide in either of us that you intended taking up residence in that particular bedchamber, then Lucian and I would simply have backed off and left you and Whitney to decide the outcome!’ He eyed Hawk challengingly.

Hawk’s wince was pained. ‘Sebastian, I have already had occasion to warn you of the…indelicacy of your conversation!’

‘So all this talk of the parson’s mousetrap is because Lucian and I inadvertently stepped on your toes last month?’ Sebastian could barely restrain his humour. ‘Or possibly it was another part of your anatomy we intruded upon? Although I do believe,’ he continued, as Hawk looked in danger of delivering another of his icy setdowns, ‘that you have also now tired of the lady’s… charms…?’

The slight flaring of the Duke’s nostrils was the only outward sign of his increasing displeasure with the trend of the conversation. ‘After the attention you and Lucian brought to that unfortunate lady I deemed it necessary to withdraw my attentions so as not to add further speculation to the impending scandal.’

‘If you were not so damned secretive about your mistresses the whole incident could have been avoided.’ Sebastian shrugged dismissively. ‘But I do assure you, Hawk, I am not about to marry just to appease your outraged sensibilities!’

‘You are being utterly ridiculous, Sebastian—’

‘No, Hawk.’ Sebastian’s humour faded. ‘I believe if you were to give this subject more thought, you would realise that you are the one who is being ridiculous in trying to choose my wife for me.’

‘On the contrary, Sebastian. It is my belief that I am only acting in your best interests. In fact, I have already accepted an invitation on our behalf from Sir Barnaby and Lady Sulby.’

‘I take it they are the parents of my intended bride?’

Hawk’s mouth tightened. ‘Olivia Sulby is the daughter of Sir Barnaby and Lady Sulby, yes.’

Sebastian gave a derisive shake of his head as he stood up. ‘I am afraid that whatever invitation you have accepted on my behalf you will just have to unaccept.’ He moved to the library door.

‘What are you doing?’ The Duke frowned at him darkly.

‘Leaving.’ Sebastian gave him a pitying look. ‘But before I go I have a proposition of my own to set before you, Hawk…’ He paused in the open doorway.

‘A proposition…?’ Hawk found himself so deeply disturbed by his brother’s stubbornness that—unusually—he could barely hold his temper in check.

Sebastian nodded. ‘Once you are married—happily so, of course—I promise I will give serious consideration to the parson’s mousetrap for myself!’ His step was jaunty as he closed the library door softly behind him.

Hawk sat back heavily in his chair as he contemplated the closed door for several long seconds before reaching for the decanter of brandy that stood on his desktop and pouring a large measure.


Damn, damn, damn.

He made a point of never attending house parties in the country once the Season had ended and the House had dispersed for the summer. He had only committed himself to spending a week in Norfolk with the Sulbys for the sole purpose of introducing Sebastian to the young woman he had hoped would become his brother’s future bride.

His own acquaintance was with Sir Barnaby Sulby—the two of them having dined together at their club several times. There had been no opportunity for Hawk to meet the other gentleman’s wife and daughter during the Season, the Sulby family not having received an invitation to the three balls at which Hawk had been Arabella’s escort, but Hawk knew from his enquiries that on her father’s death Olivia Sulby would inherit Markham Park and its surrounding thousand acres of farmland. As the younger brother of a duke such a match could be considered perfect for Sebastian.

Except Sebastian had now told Hawk—all too succinctly!—that he had no intention of even considering taking a wife until Hawk had done so himself.

Leaving Hawk committed to spending a week in Norfolk—a county of flat fenland so totally unlike his own beloved Gloucestershire.

It had all the appeal of a walk to the gallows!

‘There you are, Jane. Do stop your dawdling on the stairs, girl.’ Lady Gwendoline Sulby, a faded beauty in her mid-forties, glared her impatience as the object of her attention came to a halt neither up nor down the wide staircase. ‘No, do not come down. Proceed back up to my bedroom and collect my shawl for me before our guests start to arrive. The silk one with the yellow rosebuds. I do believe the weather might be changing, Sulby.’ She turned worriedly to her portly husband as he stood beside her in the spacious hallway in anticipation of the arrival of their guests.

Jane knew that Sir Barnaby was twenty years older than his wife, and he was looking most uncomfortable in his high-necked shirt and tightly tied necktie. His yellow waistcoat stretched almost impossibly across his rounded stomach, and his brown jacket and cream breeches were doing little to hide that strain.

Poor Sir Barnaby, Jane mused as she turned obediently back up the stairs to collect the requested shawl. She knew her guardian would so much rather have been out on the estate somewhere with his manager, wearing comfortable old clothes, than standing in the draughty hallway of Markham Park, awaiting the first dozen or so house guests who would shortly arrive for the start of a week’s entertainments and gentile frivolity.

‘Bring down my white parasol, too, Jane.’ Olivia frowned up at her, a young replica of her mother’s earlier beauty, with her fashionably rounded figure, big blue eyes, and golden ringlets arranged enticingly about the dewy beauty of her face.

‘Do not shout in that unladylike manner, Olivia.’ Lady Gwendoline looked scandalised by her daughter’s behaviour. ‘Whatever would the Duke think if he were to hear you?’ She gave an agitated wave of her fan.

‘But you shouted, Mama.’ Olivia pouted her displeasure at the rebuke.

‘I am the mistress of this house. I am allowed to shout.’

Jane smiled slightly as she continued on her way back up the stairs, knowing that the illogical bickering between mother and daughter was likely to continue for several more minutes. The arguments had been constant and sometimes heated during the last week as the household prepared for the arrival of the Sulbys’ house guests, and most of them had the phrases ‘the Duke’ or ‘His Grace’ in their content.

For the Duke of Stourbridge was to be the Sulby’s guest of honour this week—as every member of the overworked household had been constantly made aware, as they cleaned and scrubbed and polished Markham Park in preparation for ‘His Grace, the Duke’s’ arrival.

Not that Jane expected to be included in any of the planned entertainments, or even to meet the illustrious Duke in person. She was only a poor relation. Jane Smith. A distant relation that the Sulbys had taken pity on and charitably offered a home to for the last twelve of her two and twenty years.

Markham Park had seemed rather grand and alien to Jane when Sir Barnaby and Lady Gwendoline had first brought her here, her childhood having been spent in a tiny south coast vicarage, being lovingly cared for by her widowed father and Bessie, his elderly but motherly housekeeper.

But Jane had consoled herself with the fact that at least Markham Park was within walking distance of the sea—allowing her, during the brief times she was able to escape the seemingly ever-watchful gaze of Lady Sulby, to go down to the rugged shoreline and enjoy its wild, untamed beauty.

Jane had quickly discovered that she liked Norfolk winters the best—when the sea would seem to rage and fight against the very restrictions of nature as an inner part of her longed to fight against the ever-increasing social strictures that were placed upon her. For, after she had shared the nursery and schoolroom with Olivia, until she reached the age of sixteen, she had stopped being treated as Olivia’s equal and had become more maid and companion to the spoilt and pampered daughter of the house.

Jane paused as she passed the cheval mirror in Lady Sulby’s bedroom, studying her reflection critically and knowing as she did so that she was everything that was not fashionable. She was tall, for one thing, with long legs and a slender willowy figure. She wished she could say that her hair was an interesting auburn, but instead it was a bright, gleaming red. And, although her complexion was creamy, she did have that unattractive sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of her tiny nose. Plus, her eyes were green.

None of this was complemented in the least by the gowns Lady Sulby had made up for her. They were always of a pastel shade that did nothing for Jane’s vibrant colouring. Her present one, of the palest pink, was so totally unflattering with the red of her hair.

Of course it was very doubtful that Jane would ever meet anyone who would want to marry her. Unless the local vicar took pity on her and made an offer. And as he was a middle-aged widower, with four unruly young children all under the age of eight, Jane did so hope that he would not.

She gave a weary sigh as she collected the requested silk shawl from Lady Sulby’s dressing table, noticing as she did so that Lady Sulby’s jewellery box had not been returned to its proper place in the top drawer.

But Jane’s attention was diverted from the jewellery box as she heard the sound of a carriage outside, travelling down the yew-lined gravel driveway to Markham Park.

The Duke and his brother Lord Sebastian St Claire at last? Or one of the Sulbys’ other guests?

Curiosity impelled Jane to move quickly to the window to look outside. A huge, magnificent black carriage, pulled by four of the most beautiful black horses Jane had ever seen, was being driven down the driveway by a black-liveried groom. Two other servants dressed in black perched upon the back, and a ducal crest was visible on the door.

It was indeed the Duke, then.

He did seem to like black, didn’t he? Jane mused, even as she gave in to further temptation and gently moved the brocade curtain to one side, the better to be able to see the Duke himself when he stepped down from the carriage.

A groom had hopped nimbly down from the back to hold the door open for him, and for some inexplicable reason Jane’s heart seemed to have increased in tempo. In fact it was beating quite erratically, she noted frowningly. Just in anticipation of the sight of a Duke? Was her life really so dull?

She gave a rueful smile as she acknowledged that it would indeed be exciting to at last see the much-talked of Duke of Stourbridge.

Her breath caught in the slenderness of her throat as first a booted foot descended onto the lowered step, quickly followed by the ducking of a head as the Duke of Stourbridge stepped completely out of the carriage and then down onto the gravel driveway, straightening to take his hat from the waiting servant before lifting his haughty head to take in his surroundings.

Goodness, he was tall, was Jane’s first breathless realisation. Quickly followed by the acknowledgement that, with hair the colour of mahogany shot through with streaks of gold, and those powerfully wide shoulders and athletically moulded body, he was also the most handsome man she had ever set eyes on. His features were severe, of course, as befitted a duke who looked to be in his thirtieth year at least, but there was such hard male beauty in that austerity that just to look at him took Jane’s breath away.

In fact she did not seem able to stop looking at him.

There was intelligence as well as arrogance in that wide brow, though the precise colour of his eyes was something of a mystery as he viewed his surroundings with unmistakable disdain, looking down his nose at the scene before him. The sculptured mouth had narrowed, and dark brows were rising in haughty surprise as he turned to see his hostess hurriedly descending the steps towards him, rather than waiting inside Markham Park for him to be formally announced.

‘Your Grace!’ Lady Sulby swept him a low curtsey and received a haughtily measured inclination of that arrogant head in return. ‘Such an honour,’ she fluttered. ‘I—But where is your brother, Lord St Claire, Your Grace?’ Lady Sulby’s voice had sharpened to an unbecoming shrill as she realised there was no one else inside the Duke’s carriage.

Jane could not discern the Duke’s reply—could only hear the deep rumble of his voice as he obviously made his hostess some sort of explanation for his solitary state.

Oh, dear. Everything did not appear to be going to plan. Lady Sulby’s plan, that was. And an already thwarted Lady Sulby was not to be displeased further by the delay of the delivery of the shawl she had requested Jane to bring to her almost ten minutes ago.

Jane moved quickly down the hallway to Olivia’s room to collect the parasol before hurrying to the wide staircase with the required items, aware of the rumble of voices below as Sir Barnaby engaged his guest in conversation.

Lady Sulby had previously expressed high hopes of Olivia making a favourable impression on the Duke’s youngest brother, Lord Sebastian St Claire, and now that the young lord had failed to arrive Lady Sulby would no doubt be in one of the spiteful moods that usually had the servants running downstairs to the sanctuary of the kitchen at the first opportunity. Jane knew she wouldn’t be allowed the same privilege until after she had helped Olivia change into her dress for dinner and styled her hair.

When the family were at home Jane was usually allowed to dine with them in the evenings, but Lady Sulby had informed her only that morning that once their guests had arrived she would be expected to take her meals downstairs with the other servants.

Which would not be any hardship at all, when Jane considered the few dresses she had in her wardrobe. None of them was in the least suitable for dining with a duke, she acknowledged ruefully as she hurried to the staircase. And if she could deliver the shawl and parasol while the Duke still engaged the attention of his host and hostess, then she would perhaps manage to avoid the rebuke Lady Sulby was otherwise sure to make concerning her tardiness.

Jane could never afterwards explain how it happened. Why it happened. She was only aware that the staircase was no longer firm beneath her slippered feet, and that instead of hurrying down the staircase she instead found herself tumbling forwards.

Or at least she would have tumbled if a pair of strong hands hadn’t reached out and grasped her upper arms to halt her.

She found herself instead falling forward into a hard, immovable object. A man’s chest, Jane quickly realised, as she found her nose buried in the delicate folds of an impeccably tied, pristinely white necktie, her senses at once assailed by the smell of cologne and clean male flesh, both mingling with the faint smell of a cigar.

The Duke of Stourbridge’s clean, male chest. The Duke of Stourbridge’s perfectly tied cravat too, Jane discovered seconds later, as she struggled to right herself and looked up into that aristocratically austere face and discovered that his eyes—those eyes whose colour she had been unable to discern earlier, as she had looked down at him from the window of Lady Sulby’s bedroom—were of the strangest, most intense shade of gold. Not brown, not hazel, but pure, piercing gold, rimmed with a much darker brown that somehow gave him the appearance of a large bird of prey. The mesmerising appearance of a large, dangerous bird of prey…

Hawk’s mouth tightened at the unexpectedness of this physical assault. Having spent the last two days confined to his carriage, the comfort of which had nevertheless not been enough to prevent him from being rocked and bumped about on the sadly uneven roads, he wished only to be shown to his rooms and provided with hot water for a bath before he had to present himself downstairs, in order that he might be introduced to his fellow guests before they dined.

The hostelries at which he had dined along the way, and the inn he had had perforce to stop at the previous night, had been far beneath his usual exacting standard. And minutes ago his hostess, until then a woman totally unknown to him, had shown such want of breeding as to almost accost him as he alighted from his carriage.

Hawk had reflected long and hard as to the advisability of coming to Markham Park at all during the two days preceding his departure from London, as well as during the long, interminable hours it had taken to arrive here, and this latest incident of having one of the Sulby household servants actually throw herself into his arms only served to prove how correct had been his misgivings.

‘I am so sorry, Your Grace.’ The maid’s voice was slightly breathless, her expression stricken as she glanced warily down into the hallway, where Sir Barnaby and Lady Sulby could still be seen and heard engaged in conversation with Lord and Lady Tillton. The other couple had arrived with their son Simon just as Hawk was being taken up to view his suite of rooms by the footman, who had now fallen discreetly back from this unexpected exchange.

Hawk’s gaze narrowed and his mouth tightened as he detected a look of apprehension in the shadowed green eyes the maid turned back to him. He certainly wasn’t accustomed to having anyone, least of all a servant, accost him in this way, but he realised now that the girl must have tripped—that as he had ascended the stairs he had merely been standing in the way of her tumbling unchecked to the hallway below. Certainly there was no need for her to look quite so apprehensive on his account.

Although that glance down at Sir Barnaby and Lady Sulby seemed to imply that it was not his own displeasure this young girl feared…

Hawk’s mouth thinned even more at the realisation. He had always found Sir Barnaby to be a pleasant, even jovial companion on the few occasions they had dined together, so he could only assume that it was from Lady Sulby that the maid feared retribution for her ill-timed actions.

‘I really am sorry, Your Grace.’ The young girl moved to pick something up from the stairs that she seemed to have dropped when they collided. ‘I—Oh, I am so sorry, Your Grace!’ The girl gasped her dismay as she poked him in the stomach with the parasol she had just retrieved from the stair.

Hawk drew in a sharp breath at this second unexpected attack, and wondered incredulously if the last few minutes were going to be indicative of this week’s stay in what he had discovered on the drive here was indeed a flat, uninteresting fenland, with little to recommend it.

Including the delivery of letters. His own missive explaining that his brother Sebastian would be unable to attend after all had clearly not arrived, resulting in Hawk having to make Sebastian’s excuses verbally to his host and hostess.

In light of the ill-bred behaviour of Lady Sulby on his arrival, and the fact that Olivia Sulby, when introduced, had all the indications of being exactly the type of simpering miss Hawk found irritatingly exhausting, he could not help but frown as he wondered if perhaps Sebastian had been privy to some insight about the Sulby household that he had not.

Jane gave an inward groan as she saw the visible signs of the Duke’s displeasure, sure that such an illustrious person was completely unaccustomed to being physically accosted in this way.

Not only had she almost knocked him down the stairs, but now she had actually poked him in that flat, manly stomach with a parasol.

None of which Lady Sulby or Olivia seemed to have witnessed, thank goodness, as they still conversed with the Tilltons in the hallway below. But it could only be a matter of time before one or both of them looked up and became aware of the debacle taking place on the staircase above them.

Jane gave the patiently waiting footman a desperate look of pleading as he stood silent witness to the encounter—although she had to look hastily away again when she thought she detected a glint of laughter in John’s otherwise deadpan expression.

‘If you would come this way, Your Grace? I will show you to your rooms.’ John stepped sideways to allow the Duke to move around the obviously mortified Jane and so precede him up the wide staircase.

Some of Jane’s tension eased, and she gave John a grateful smile as the Duke did exactly that—only to once again find herself the focus of those all-seeing gold-coloured eyes as the Duke paused briefly and gave her one last narrow-eyed frowning glance.

Her smile faded, and she clutched the parasol and shawl to her bosom as she found herself held mesmerised by that penetrating gaze for several long, heart-stopping seconds. He took in her appearance from red hair to slippered feet, before those thin, chiselled lips tightened once more and the Duke turned to continue his gracefully elegant way up the stairs.

Jane breathed shakily as she found herself continuing to watch him, her breasts quickly rising and falling, her cheeks feeling uncomfortably hot, and her pulse racing as she stared at the broadness of the Duke’s shoulders in that perfectly tailored jacket, admired the slight curl in the darkness of his fashionably styled hair…

‘For goodness’ sake, Jane. I said my shawl embroidered with the pink roses, not the yellow.’ Lady Sulby finally seemed to have seen her on the staircase. ‘Really!’ She turned confidingly back to the Tilltons. ‘I declare the girl does not understand even the simplest of instructions.’

Jane knew, as she turned to go back up the stairs and saw Olivia’s expression of derision, that she had understood Lady Sulby’s instruction perfectly—that it was Lady Sulby who was being deliberately awkward. But it would serve no purpose to contradict Lady Sulby. Especially not in front of her guests.

The blush intensified in Jane’s cheeks as she reached the top of the stairs and saw that the Duke had once again paused on his way to his rooms, on the gallery overlooking the hallway this time. His top lip was now curled back in cold disdain as he stood witness to Lady Sulby’s waspish set down.

‘Your Grace.’ Jane gave a polite inclination of her head as she approached, and then hurried past him down the hallway, knowing that the blush on her cheeks would clash horribly with her red curls, and that the unattractive freckles on her nose would be rendered more visible by her high colour.

Not that it particularly mattered what the Duke of Stourbridge made of her. He was far, far above her precarious social station, and as such would have no further reason to even notice her existence.

If, that was, for the rest of his stay Jane desisted from falling down the staircase into his arms or attacking him with a parasol!

How could she have been so ungainly, so inelegant, so utterly without grace? Jane wondered as she sat down shakily on the side of Lady Sulby’s four-poster bed, dropping the shawl and parasol on the bedcover beside her as she put both her hands against her hot and flustered cheeks. The Duke, as had been obvious from that last disdainful glance in her direction, had obviously been wondering the very same thing.

Oh, this was dreadful. Too horrible for words. She just wanted to curl up in a ball of misery in the window-seat in her bedroom and not appear again until that beautiful black carriage, with its ducal crest and its illustrious guest inside, had rolled back down the driveway and disappeared to London, whence it came.

‘Whatever are you doing, Jane?’ A stunned Lady Sulby came to an abrupt halt in the doorway to her bedchamber, and a guilt-stricken Jane rose from her sitting position on the side of her silk-covered bed.

The older woman’s gaze moved critically about the room, a frown marring her brow as she saw the jewellery box on the dressing table. Jane had earlier intended returning it to the still open top drawer, but had totally forgotten to do in the excitement of the Duke’s arrival.

‘Have you been looking at my things?’ Lady Sulby’s demand was sharp as she swiftly crossed the room to lift the lid of the jewellery box and check its contents.

‘No, of course I have not.’ Jane was incredulous at the accusation.

‘Are you sure?’ Lady Sulby glared.

‘Perfectly sure.’ Jane nodded, stunned by her guardian’s suspicions. ‘Clara must have left the box out earlier.’

Lady Sulby gave her another searching glare before replacing the jewellery box in the drawer and closing it abruptly. ‘Where is my shawl, girl? And you have failed to bring Olivia’s parasol down to her,’ she added accusingly.

‘Which I need if I am to accompany Lady Tillton and Simon Tillton into the rose garden.’ Olivia smiled smugly as she stood in the open doorway.

Jane had not even noticed the younger girl until that moment, and avoided meeting Olivia’s triumphant gaze as she hurriedly handed her the parasol, her own thoughts still preoccupied with Lady Sulby’s earlier sharpness concerning the jewellery box.

Why would Lady Sulby even suspect her of doing such a thing? As far as Jane was aware the box contained only the few costly jewels owned by the Sulby family and several private papers, none of which was of the least interest to Jane.

‘It really is too bad of Lord St Claire not to have accompanied His Grace after all,’ Lady Sulby murmured distractedly once Olivia had departed for her walk in the garden. ‘Especially as it has caused me to rearrange all my dinner arrangements for this evening. Still, the influenza is the influenza. And I do believe that the Duke was rather taken with Olivia himself,’ she added with relish. ‘Now, would that not be an advantageous match?’

Jane was sure that she was not expected to make any reply to this statement—that Lady Sulby was merely thinking out loud while she plotted and planned inside her calculating head.

But Jane’s silence on the subject did not mean that she had no thoughts of her own on an imagined match between Olivia and the Duke of Stourbridge. Her main one being that it was ludicrous to even think that a man as haughtily arrogant as the Duke would ever be attracted to, let alone enticed into marriage with, the pretty but self-centred Olivia.

‘Why are you still standing there, Jane?’ Lady Sulby demanded waspishly as she finally seemed to notice her again. ‘Can you not see that my nerves are agitated? I shall probably have one of my headaches and be unable to attend my guests at all this evening!’

‘Would you like me to send for Clara?’ Jane offered lightly, knowing that Lady Sulby’s maid, a middle-aged woman who had accompanied Gwendoline Simmons from her father’s home in Great Yarmouth when she had married Sir Barnaby twenty-five years ago, was the only one who could capably deal with Lady Sulby when she was beset by ‘one of her headaches’.

A regular occurrence, as it happened, but usually relieved by a glass or two of Sir Barnaby’s best brandy. For medicinal purposes only, of course, Jane acknowledged with a rueful grimace.

‘I do not know what you can possibly find to smile about, Jane.’ Lady Sulby threw herself down onto the chaise, her hand raised dramatically to her brow as the sun shone in through the window. ‘You would be much better served returning to your room and changing for dinner. You know I cannot abide tardiness, Jane.’

Lady Sulby’s comment on Jane changing for dinner caused her to frown. ‘Did you not tell me earlier that I was to dine belowstairs this evening—?’

‘Have you not been listening to a word I said, girl?’ Lady Sulby’s voice had once again risen shrilly, and she glared across at Jane, not even her faded beauty visible in her displeasure. ‘The Duke has arrived without his brother, leaving me with only thirteen to sit down to dinner. A possibility I cannot even contemplate.’ She shuddered. ‘So you will have to join us. Which will make an imbalance of men to ladies. It will not do, of course, but it will have to suffice until our other guests arrive tomorrow.’

Jane’s own face had lost all colour as the full import of Lady Sulby’s complaints became clear. ‘You are saying, ma’am, that because Lord St Claire is indisposed you wish me to make up the numbers for dinner this evening?’

‘Yes, yes—of course I am saying that.’ The older woman glared at her frowningly. ‘Whatever is the matter with you, girl?’

Jane swallowed hard at the mere thought of finding herself seated at the same dinner table as the formidable Duke of Stourbridge, sure that after their disastrous meeting on the stairs earlier it was probably his fervent wish never to set eyes on her again!

As Lady Sulby had already remarked, it really would not do.

‘I am sure I do not have anything suitable to wear—’

‘Nonsense, girl.’ A flush coloured Lady Sulby’s plump and powdered cheeks as she bristled at this continued resistance to her new arrangements. ‘What of that yellow gown of mine that Clara altered to fit you? That will do perfectly well, I am sure,’ Lady Sulby announced imperiously.

Jane’s heart sank as she thought of the deep yellow gown that Lady Gwendoline had decided did not suit her after all, and which had been altered to fit Jane instead.

‘I really would not feel comfortable amongst your titled guests—’

‘I am not concerned with your comfort!’ Lady Sulby’s face became even more flushed as her agitata-tion rose. ‘You will do as you are told, Jane, and join us downstairs for dinner. Is that understood?’

‘Yes, Lady Sulby.’ Jane felt nauseous.

‘Good. Now, send Clara to me.’ Lady Sulby lowered herself down onto the cushions once again, her eyes closing. ‘And tell her I am in need of one of her physics,’ she added weakly, as Jane moved obediently to the door.

Jane waited until she was outside in the hallway before giving in to the despair she felt just at the thought of going down to dinner wearing that horrible yellow gown. Of the arrogantly disdainful but devastatingly handsome Duke of Stourbridge seeing her in that bilious yellow gown.


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