One Winter With A Baron – Christi Caldwell

Baron Webb was a rake, in dun territory and, at best, a mediocre sibling. As such, no respectable, unmarried lady in all of Polite Society desired him. Except Miss Sybil Cunning. To her, he was perfect for those very reasons. He also happened to be one of the sole remaining gentlemen who’d not departed for the countryside this London Season. As such, it had drastically reduced her pool of gentlemen of which to select from. Nonetheless, he would do. He would have to. The winter wind snapped the fabric of Sybil’s skirts about her ankles. She swept her gaze purposefully over the barren grounds of Hyde Park. Land that just two months earlier had been overflowing with riders, couples, and beleaguered nursemaids, sat empty with nothing more than the snow-covered trees as silent company. The baron was rumored to ride at this hour. Of course, gossips had been wrong on any number of scores and she, herself, was prime evidence of that very fact. She, the nine and twenty-year-old goddaughter to the Dowager Marchioness of Guilford, had been expected to wed the Marquess of Guilford. The gossip rags couldn’t have been more wrong on that score.

She grimaced. Not that she had wished to marry the gentleman. Oh, Miles, a childhood friend, was and always had been nice enough. Polite. Proper. Courteous. And hopelessly boring as every last nobleman who’d seen nothing more than a plump, bespectacled, bluestocking. No doubt, the very reason her mother had hoped they’d make a match together. Because that was, after all, the way the world saw her. Sybil was the logical, practical bluestocking.

A lady who’d never done a remotely frolicy thing in her life and wouldn’t know the meaning of pleasure, joy, or excitement outside the words she read in her books. Or that is how her well-meaning sister had phrased it. Exactly how she phrased it. And as it would have been very Sybil-like to point out that frolicy was, in fact, not a word, she’d let go of that particular detail and, instead, fixed on the accusation there. Two sentences. A handful of words. And just like, that she had questioned her contented-until-then existence. That was why she was here, seeking Baron Webb out. For if anyone knew anything of an immersive, feeling existence, it would certainly be one of Society’s wickedest rakes. “Where is he?” she muttered under her breath, the soft utterance carrying in the winter still.

Surely she’d not been mistaken. She was nothing if not meticulous in her details and planning on all matters, the least of which being helping her father with the upkeep of his botany records and Mother with the running of the household. Pushing her spectacles back on her nose, she fished her cold fingers inside her cloak pocket. Her hand knocked against the heavy sack of coins resting there. Ignoring them, she reached instead for the small scrap. She fumbled to make her gloved digits move enough to snag the page and then pulled it free. Teeth chattering, she skimmed the already well-memorized clipping from The Times. It is rumored that Baron Webb will be forced to sell his prized chestnut mount. It is wellknown by all of Society that Webb cares for the creature more than even members of his own family. As is evidenced by his daily rides through Hyde Park every morning at nine o’clock, regardless of the weather.

Yes. No mistake there. Refolding the page, Sybil stuffed the sheet back inside her green velvet cloak. Every morning. Regardless of weather. A gust of wind whipped snow into her face and she brushed the flakes from her lashes, blinking them from her eyes. Well, mayhap not a raging snowstorm. Mayhap that was entirely too much for a nobleman devoted to his horse and morning rides. Rides that, given the papers were, at best, short-lived. Sybil chewed her lip.

Or worse, mayhap the gentleman had finally abandoned London for his country estate as the peers were wont to do. All the peers except her own family who lingered in London until the day before Christmas. Mother’s distaste for the English countryside was so at odds with her husband and two daughters’ love of Leeds. Alas, in their family of four, not even the Viscount Lovell had a say or control. Despite the unfair fate women suffered through in a patriarchal society, the Viscountess Lovell controlled every and any aspect of the family’s decisions with Father quite content to sit in his office and pore over his botany books, ignoring his wife. As such, Sybil had concluded she had at least a fortnight to: one, bring Baron Webb around to her plan. And two, put a test to her very existence and, at last, have empirical evidence that, with her books and without a husband, her life could never be fuller. Another sharp gust whipped at her skirts, battering the velvet. Sybil shivered and huddled inside the garment. It wasn’t that she was one of those self-pitying ladies who bemoaned her spinster’s state.

She didn’t. She was, after all, the more practical of the three Cunning sisters. If a lady could not marry a good, respectable, honorable gentleman who hopelessly loved her…well, there really was no point in marrying. What she did search for, however, was some sliver of proof that there was nothing more out there that she was, in fact, missing—a full, immersive existence, compared to the full life with her books and lectures she lived. Which is why she required Baron Webb’s help. Desperately. In her scheming and planning, she’d not anticipated the possibility that he’d not be here. Nor could she simply go about crafting a new plan, involving an entirely new gentleman when so few remained in London. Time was of the essence. Sybil didn’t wish to return for a new Season and, yet, she needed a notorious rake or rogue to conduct her research.

“B-blast and double blast,” she mumbled. Of course she didn’t expect a rake would be one of the punctual sorts. She had, however, believed he’d, at least, adhere to that regard for time for the sake of his own pleasures. And by the papers’ accounts, riding was among his greatest. Gathering her hem, she stomped through the dusting of white that covered the riding path. Where could he be? Surely something was sacred to the gentleman? For her father, that something was his daughters and his flowers. For other men, it was their mistresses or their club memberships. She’d wrongly assumed the papers had proven correct in Baron Webb’s love for his damned horse. She stood shivering, while the moments passed by and not a single visitor strolled the park. Granted, a rapidly worsening storm hardly made it stroll-worthy weather.

“Or ride worthy,” she said at last, resisting defeat. Don’t be a foolish twit. He is not coming. He was, no doubt, one of those lords who didn’t do anything that would make himself slightly uncomfortable. She rubbed the numbed tip of her nose and then quickly dusted her gloved knuckles over the dripping appendage. Whereas her? Well, she’d always been of a strong constitution and a practical nature. Her father’s pride. Her mother’s woe. Her youngest sister’s admiration. Squinting into the whorl of snowflakes drifting down to the earth and blanketing the already covered path, Sybil accepted the unfortunate truth—he was not coming.

Logic suggested she return home. Fair exchange and no robbery. No one, Baron Webb included, the wiser to the spinster bluestocking who’d attempted to track him down in Hyde Park. His not being here was surely Fate’s way of intervening on her behalf. She chewed the tip of her gloved finger, worrying the damp fabric. And yet, if she abandoned her plans and returned home to her family’s comfortable townhouse and carried on her predictable life, then it was sure to be the only life she’d ever know. Yes, this was her last opportunity. Or rather, he represented her final chance to experience anything and everything she might have otherwise missed in her time in London—any of the excitement, adventure, or pleasures. All of it. And in the end, she was confident Baron Webb would help her prove that, despite her younger sister Aria’s lamentations, Sybil had, in fact, missed nothing.

She could then go on living her life free of regrets and wonderings. Sybil glanced around. Of course, he couldn’t have made it easier in simply being here when the papers said he was given to his regular morning rides. Blasted, unpredictable rakes. Then, that is precisely who I am seeking—an exciting rake or rogue. With a sigh, Sybil marched through the park, determination fueling her long strides. She had a date with a rake. Even if he did not yet know it. Now it was just a matter of finding him. Chapter 2 Nolan Pratt, Baron Webb was missing his damned morning ride.

And he never missed his morning ride. Even in rain, thunder, or in the rare instance of rainy old England—snow. Ice-tinged flakes pinged against the crystal windowpane. Yes, not even those miserable, cold flakes would put a halt on his plans. For of all the things he loved in life, of which there were few, galloping through Hyde Park astride Chance was one of the singularly most important ones. As such, it was frustration that found him at the sideboard the moment his visitor arrived. The grating shuffle of papers by that same visitor was inordinately loud in the room nearly depleted of furniture. “You’re going to have to sell the horse, Noel.” “Do not call me Noel.” God-awful name.

And then, “I’m not selling him, Pratt.” Nolan eyed the neat row of decanters. Decisions. Decisions. In a world where he was becoming increasingly limited in that very thing, any and all choices were valued. Whiskey. Nolan grabbed the bottle, a tumbler and made for his desk. The bespectacled, wiry figure seated before the broad mahogany piece once belonging to the late baron eyed him over the rims of his smudged lenses and frowned as Nolan kicked his heels onto the edge of the desk. “Very well. You’re going to have to sell your horse, Nolan.

” His disapproval stank more than the miserable fare Cook had taken to working up for evening meals. Alas, when one required one’s younger brother to handle the dismal accounting, one had to suffer through insolence and impertinence. “Not selling him, Pratt.” Nolan smiled widely, lifting the halfempty bottle of whiskey. “Not now. Not ever. Next?” “I’m your brother. The least you could do is call me by my Christian name,” The younger-byeight-years-fellow across from him mumbled, setting his folio down on the edge of Nolan’s neat and tidy desk. There were many things Nolan should do and not do. Being one of Society’s most wicked, dissolute rakes, the least of his crimes was referring to his brother by their bankrupt surname.

“Next, Pratt?” he drawled. With a long, disapproving sigh, Henry removed his spectacles and, whipping out a meticulous, monogrammed kerchief, dusted the faint smudge. “Nolan,” Henry began. Yes, everything with and about him was meticulous. Meticulous appearance. Meticulous marks through university. Meticulous manners and reputation. In short, everything Nolan never was. Well, with the exception of his finely tailored garments, that was. “You should have come to me sooner with the ledgers.

” Sooner. As in, before Nolan’s man-of-affairs had up and quit, leaving him without anyone to oversee the accounts. “Yes, well, I had more pressing issues to attend.” Wagering at his clubs in search of an elusive fortune. Drinking at his private tables when he’d proven unsuccessful. Replacing a mistress with another willing to overlook the meager allowance he set on her. Or temporarily. Even Claudine had gone off to richer pastures. His brother, astute in every way, could have easily challenged that very statement. Should have.

Henry never had been one for confrontation. However, he caught his chin in his hand and rubbed. That damned, telltale gesture of his frustration that would have marked him rot at the faro tables, if he’d ever been one to sit at those wicked tables. But he wasn’t. Never had been. Never would be. Nolan was wicked enough for the whole Pratt family of which there were now only three. Nolan, Henry, and their sixteen-year-old-sister, Josephine. Do not think of her… Do not think of her… Alas, it was nigh impossible to not think of the fresh-faced innocent, albeit troublesome minx of a sister who’d make her Come Out and would need a proper wardrobe and a debut ball and— Nolan poured another tall tumbler and downed the whiskey, welcoming the calming trail it burned down his throat. “I’ve organized the ledgers going back two years.

He really was a rubbish man-of-affairs,” Henry said, all business. “Was he?” Nolan drawled. He knew. Or rather, he’d learned too late. The numbers and signs in those books may as well be hieroglyphics to him. Useless, bloody fool. “Indeed,” Henry said with a quick, jerky nod. Warming to his topic, his brother grabbed one of the brown leather ledgers and popped it open. “If you look here,” he pointed to the details made from September of 1817. “He’s failed to accurately tabulate your expenditures, which could only mean—” He’d been fleecing him.

“—he was not as skilled with his accountings as Father had believed.” Ah, Henry. Poor, loyal, trusting Henry, who couldn’t see the truth with a thicker pair of lenses—all men were inherently bad. And his inherited man-of-affairs had been the model of it. Miserable, disloyal bastard. Apparently, in the man’s lifelong assignment to Nolan’s late father, loyalty meant nothing. He took a long swallow. Then, wholly dishonorable in every way, he wasn’t really one to judge. Nor did he give a damn if a man was loyal or whether he’d sell his kin for a sack of silver. It was simply a bloody inconvenience finding oneself with one’s pockets to let, all the quicker for some underhanded dealings by a fellow his father had trusted.

“What then?” he asked impatiently. “You can marr—” “Next,” he cut his brother off before he’d even completed that horrifying statement. Even so, a shudder wracked Nolan’s frame. Marry. Egads, he’d rather run naked down the streets of Mayfair in this bloody storm raging outside than give up his bachelor state. What had he to offer a lady, other than a penniless future? Henry went on with a cool practicality perfectly suited to his future as a barrister, and now a de facto man-of-affairs. “Sell Mother’s sets of sapphires and diamonds—” No. “That should allot you an additional,” his brother’s lips moved as he silently computed those damned columns, “three hundred pounds, which can cover Josephine’s upcoming Season.” He smiled, looking pleased with himself. As he should.

The two and twenty-year-old pup was a blasted wiz with those numbers. Once, Nolan had been envious of that skill. Along the way, he’d stopped hating himself for it and, instead, learned to live for his own pleasures, finding gratification elsewhere. He dodged replying. The sets were some of the few pieces that belonged to their mother and had been carefully set aside for Josephine. “What else?” Nolan was a damned rake but he still had some honor for an undeservedly loyal, loving sister. “Well,” Henry went on, shifting in his seat. “You can certainly do without the pearl sewing table.” Their mother’s pearl sewing table. His stomach clenched.

The irony not lost on him. That he, the coldhearted, ruthless rake, sat here with his insides twisting while his pup of a brother methodically spoke of selling off their mother’s treasured pieces. Nolan made a sound of disgust. He’d clearly indulged in too much drink. And yet, something had to go. A whole lot of somethings. “What else?” Henry drummed his fingertips on those confusing columns. Nolan compressed his lips into a firm line to keep from ordering him to bloody silence. “Josephine’s collection of perfume bottles.” Josephine, once more, having to pay the price for Nolan’s flaws and failings.

Over his damned body. Granted, it might be a worthless body but, still, he wasn’t a complete and total bastard. Tamping down his restlessness, Nolan finished his whiskey and poured another glass. He set the bottle down with a finality that brought his brother’s head up. “We’re done here.” Surprise flared in Henry’s eyes. “But we’ve not even gotten to Happiness Manor.” What a bloody foolish name, one of his equally foolish ancestors had handed down to that modest estate. “I’m sure we’ll be able to discuss the sale of it in the coming days. Most purchasers are off for the Christmastide season,” he pointed out.

“Yes,” Henry conceded, thankfully abandoning the point. He stood, hovered, and remained. Nolan dropped his feet to the floor and dragged his chair closer. “Yes?” he asked tiredly. “I do not blame you.” For his hopeless inability with mathematical calculations, he was clever enough to know whenever a man uttered “I-do-not-blame-you”, there was, indeed, some blame there for the taking. Another unwanted frisson of guilt riddled him silent. The small inheritance intended for Henry had been squandered away years earlier by his too-trusting self. Where would they have been had he sought his skilled brother’s help years and years earlier? Nolan, however, had been too proud and stubborn to reveal his weakness. “I’m building my own fortune,” Henry continued.

Unlike Nolan, who’d squandered his, theirs, and Josephine’s. “And then I’ll marry her.” Her, as in Lady Alice Winterbourne. The sister of one of Nolan’s former friends, now a reformed rake. A young lady whom Henry continued to delay and delay a formal wedding with and to. An odd pressure weighted his chest. Like a boulder being heaped there. He rubbed a hand distractedly over it. A ride in the park, that is all he lacked. He’d needed his usual daily exercise.

No other accounting for it. Through the silence, Henry continued to peer at him. Expecting something. Wanting something. “Perhaps you’ll thank me for not wearing shackles anytime soon,” he drawled with a wry grin. His brother scowled, transforming his usually placid features into a rendition of Nolan’s cynical countenance. “The lady will be my life. Our families will be united through marriage.” Oh, bloody hell. Now his younger brother was lecturing him too, no less.

A sorry day, indeed, for any rake. Then, when one begged the favor of that same sibling, one paid with different coinage. “You must make nice with Montfort.”

.

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