Constance Wentworth’s task was simple: sidle along the edge of the ballroom, looking like a forgettably plain woman making a discreet exit. The safety of the archway lay a mere two yards distant when Robert, Duke of Rothhaven, turned his gaze in her direction. Surprise flashed in his green eyes, as fleeting as distant lightning on a summer night. Bollocks and bedamned, he recognized her. He lifted his glass of lemonade in a gesture of acknowledgment. More than ten years later, and he still knew Constance at sight, as she had known him. She’d had half an hour to adjust to the shock of seeing him, a paltry thirty minutes to reconcile the current man with memories formed years ago. Rothhaven’s height was striking, but so was his sense of focusing utterly on the object of his attention. He’d had the same quality as a much younger man. His entire being came to a still point, then he aimed every sense exclusively and intensely on who or what had caught his notice. He was worth noticing too. Deep-set emerald eyes, dramatic brows that gave him a slight air of inquisitiveness at all times. High forehead, dark hair pulled back in an old-fashioned queue. Features that blended Nordic power and Celtic ruggedness with just enough Gallic refinement that his portraits would be stunning even into old age. Once upon a time, Constance had contented herself with sketching his hands.
Given the opportunity now, she would be far more ambitious with her subject. She inclined her head, for it would not do to snub a duke, much less a duke who held sizable acreage in the neighborhood. That he’d completely misrepresented himself to her years ago, that he’d at one time been a friend, that he was hale and whole and not ten feet away made her steps as she wove through the crowd more urgent. Which is why she nearly ploughed into him, though his reflexes, as always, were uncannily quick. He bowed correctly. “Lady Constance, a pleasure.” With the whole ballroom watching, Constance could only curtsy in return. “Your Grace.” “You are looking well.” No emotion colored that observation, and Constance was looking well compared to when he’d known her previously.
She had made it a point to look well and dress well since then, though never too well. “Thank you, and Your Grace appears to be in good health.” When she’d first met him, he’d been a wraith, pale, mute, watchful, and bitter. “I have my dear brother to thank for my improved health. Shall we enjoy the evening air?” He offered his arm and Constance had no choice but to take it. Her very own sister, Lady Althea Wentworth, was the hostess at this ball. Her brothers, Quinn and Stephen, were on hand, and as far as the family knew, Constance and Rothhaven were at best distant neighbors with only a passing acquaintance. Would that it were so. The goggling crowd that hadn’t allowed Constance through a moment before parted like sheep for Rothhaven. His pace was leisurely, and he rested a gloved hand over hers, as if he knew she struggled not to flee.
“The quartet is in good form,” he said. “I do fancy Mozart done well.” “Do you still play the violin?” “Rarely. Do you still paint?” “Every chance I get.” He’d taught her to paint, though all he’d had at the time were oils, which ladies were dissuaded from attempting. “I rejoice to know that something of lasting value came from our association, my lady.” They reached the doorway to the back terrace. “May I slap you now, Your Grace?” “Best not. Your sister as hostess deserves to command all eyes this evening. Then too, your brothers might take a notion to remedy any insult done to you.
I could end up a very dead duke.” “Again.” “Let’s step outside, shall we?” Constance allowed that, because she loved to look at the night sky. Rather than lead her to the balustrade overlooking the garden, His Grace escorted her to a bench along the outside wall of the house. Music and conversation spilled through open windows, and torches flickered in the evening breeze. The terrace itself, though, was blessedly deserted. “How are you?” Rothhaven asked, taking the place beside her. He sat a bit too close for propriety, but his proximity meant Constance could speak quietly. “I am well. I paint, I attend the social activities I’m told to attend.
I dance, I drop French phrases into my conversation, I read but not too much. I have become a portrait of a lady. And what of you?” “The tale is complicated, and I will happily regale you with it at another time. For the present, might we agree to behave as if we are two cordial people acquiring a family connection through our siblings?” “We are acquiring a family connection through our siblings, more’s the pity. Your brother and my sister are in the advanced stages of besottedness.” How had that happened, when Althea had given up on polite society and Nathaniel Rothmere famously shunned company of every description? That he even had an older brother sharing Rothhaven Hall with him was quite the revelation to local society. All and sundry had taken Nathaniel as the titleholder, believing Robert to have died prior to reaching his majority. “Can we manage the cordial part?” Rothhaven asked. “I would like to try.” He sounded sincere.
He had always sounded sincere. “I don’t know what I can manage where you are concerned.” “Your ladyship is honest, as ever. Your forthright nature is one of your most appealing qualities.” “As if I give a hearty heigh-ho for your good opinion of me.” Constance rose, abruptly at the limit of her patience. “I wish you a pleasant evening.” Before she’d taken a single step, Rothhaven had risen and manacled her wrist in a firm grip. He did not hurt her—he was the last person to inflict physical harm on another—but neither could she leave. “You will please not abandon me to the darkness, my lady.
” “Why not? You are a duke, of sound mind, in good health, and the worst that can befall you on this terrace is that one of the Weatherby sisters will try to get herself compromised with you.” He changed his hold so his fingers interlaced with Constance’s. “You must not leave me alone out here, because I am generally terrified of the out-of-doors.” Constance’s first inclination was to laugh, scornfully, because Rothhaven’s comment sounded like a pathetic attempt at flirtation, but the quality of his grip on her hand stopped her. “You are serious.” “I am entirely in earnest. If you would assist me to return to the ballroom, I would be much obliged. I should never have assumed I was up to the challenge of wandering about an unwalled terrace under an open sky, even at night.” Constance had been angry with this man for half of her life, but that tirade could keep for another time. He was entitled to his fears, and she liked the notion of having him obligated to her.
She took his arm and re-joined the crowd in the ballroom, and before her thinking mind could stop her, she agreed to partner His Grace through the ordeal of the supper buffet as well. Sensory perceptions assaulted Robert—the scent of the beeswax dripping down the chandeliers, perfume and pomade in a gaggingly thick cloud, incessant conversation that beat at his ears like angry hornets, the stomping and gliding of dancers’ feet against the chalked floor… I will kill my baby brother. The thought was unworthy of a duke, but Nathaniel’s behavior—abandoning Robert amid the ballroom crowd—was heinous. Robert had ventured forth from Rothhaven Hall for the first time in years only because Nathaniel’s courting aspirations had required a show of familial solidarity. Robert had been about to excuse himself in the middle of a conversation with no less personage than Quinton, Duke of Walden, when he’d spotted a woman weaving through the crowd. She had slipped between the other guests like cool water trickling past mossy stones, and the quality of her movement—graceful, silent, efficient—had stirred Robert’s memory. He knew those blue eyes, he knew the curve of that jaw. Constance Wentworth was older, of course. Her figure was quite womanly now, and she was attired as befit the daughter of a wealthy and titled house. The subtle wariness hadn’t left her, though, and probably never would.
She’d done Robert the great courtesy of greeting him civilly, and now she had—true to her nature —allowed him the additional kindness of her company at supper. If she thought it odd that he all but clutched at her hand and sat nearly in her lap, she kept that sentiment to herself. He held out an empty plate to her as they waited in the buffet line. “I believe, Your Grace, the standard approach is for you to hold the plates while I fill them.” Because a lady should not have to carry even a plate. “Of course. My apologies.” Growing up isolated from all proper company had left gaps in Robert’s social vocabulary as vast as the Yorkshire moors. Even if he’d wanted to dance with Constance—which, of course, he did not because he could not—the time and the place were wrong. Constance could drop French phrases into her conversation in a proper Parisian accent.
Robert’s French was that of Provence, and he hadn’t realized there was a difference until Nathaniel had asked him about his odd inflections. “What shall you have to eat?” Constance asked. Lady Constance. The buffet presented another ordeal, for Robert’s palate was quite particular. “I favor fresh fruit and cheese, a bit of bread and butter. Meat served without sauces.” Peasant fare, oddly enough, was the best diet for minimizing the effects of his illness. “That appeals to me as well.” She had them through the line a few moments later, their plates only half full. “Come with me,” she said, leading him into a side passage.
“I cannot abide to eat in a crowd. I am afraid somebody will steal my food.” Her comment reassured him that she was still the same blunt, self-possessed, make-no-apologies female he’d met years ago. “Are you tempted to steal food that belongs to others, my lady?” “Not anymore.” She opened a door and preceded him into a cozy parlor. “My sister won’t mind us using her private sitting room when the alternative would be to make a scene before the neighbors.” Robert set the plates on a writing desk angled near the window. “My grasp of proper manners is shaky at best, but should we be alone here?” “You are safe with me, Your Grace.” “But are you safe from the Mrs. Weatherbys and Lady Phoebes?” he asked, naming the most malicious of the neighborhood gossips.
Constance closed and locked the door, then pulled the draperies shut. “We are safe from them. They are all too busy gawking at Althea and Lord Nathaniel.” “Did you close the drapes out of concern for our privacy or out of consideration for my peculiarities?” In either case, Robert was grateful. Constance was thinking clearly, while he was nearly overwhelmed with the need to be back at Rothhaven Hall. “Both. Let’s eat, and then you will answer my questions.” He owed her that. “Will you answer some questions for me as well?” “Perhaps.” Her ladyship took a seat at the desk, handling her skirts as gracefully as a princess managed her ermine robes.
She set about applying butter to her bread, her hands competent and mannish. Robert adored her hands. He’d missed much about her, especially her hands. She still wore no rings, not that such details mattered to a man longing for another five years of relative solitude. “What questions have you, my lady?” “Eat first, Your Grace.” Robert wasn’t hungry, or didn’t think he was hungry. His minders at Dr. Soames’s establishment had controlled everything he’d eaten for years, and he’d learned to separate himself from bodily appetites. Then five years ago, Nathaniel had fetched him home to Rothhaven Hall, where the kitchen’s efforts were so indifferent that food remained a means to an end rather than a pleasure in itself. “I still have the falling sickness,” he said, accepting the butter knife from her.
“I wasn’t aware it could be cured.” “One can outgrow it, or it can abate in adulthood. With me…” He considered his bread and butter. “I am not as prone to fits, but they still plague me on occasion. I also have staring spells, or so Nathaniel tells me.” Constance considered a deep red cherry. “You don’t know for a certainty?” He knew, more’s the pity. “I lose track of conversations. I see a certain look on Nathaniel’s face and grasp that he’s trying not to appear worried. Occasionally, I can hear everything going on around me, but I cannot speak or react to it.
Sometimes my vision will blur.” The list of symptoms from that point grew long and strange: blurred hearing, though explaining what that meant was beyond Robert’s powers of articulation. Forgetfulness that was in itself temporary. Strange lights in his field of vision, a sense of having over-imbibed despite not taking spirits, and crushing fatigue. A veritable buffet of miseries, and no pattern to which ones befell him when. Constance tossed the cherry into her mouth. “But what does it feel like when you are staring off into space like that?” In all the years Robert had been locked away out on the moors, nobody had asked him such a question. “Sometimes anxious, like when you’ve forgotten something, but you aren’t sure what. Sometimes blessedly peaceful.” “You aren’t in physical pain, then?” The same curiosity that allowed Constance to plunder his privacy as an epileptic made her a ferociously talented painter.
Robert was surprised that she’d held on to her inquisitiveness, given her family’s recently exalted circumstances. “I am not in physical pain,” he replied, but not carefully enough, because Constance regarded him across the desk, her expression disgruntled. “I want to be furious with you, but here you are, still frail in a sense, and all brave and honest about it. I cannot be as angry with you as I’d like, though no gentleman ignores correspondence from a lady. I violated every rule of propriety to write to you, and you never wrote back. I’m glad you are no longer in that awful place.” Robert still had her letter, still read it from time to time. Sometimes he simply held it in his hands or traced the pretty loops and curls of her penmanship. As long as he’d been out on the moors, he’d forbidden himself to think of her. Since coming home to Rothhaven Hall, he’d tormented himself with reminiscences.
“Are you glad you aren’t there either, my lady?” “Only a fool would long to be confined in such a place. The cherries are an exquisite choice with this Brie. Althea’s cook is a mage of the kitchen, even when all he’s doing is concocting a menu. The man has powers beyond human explanation.” She ate with such obvious pleasure that Robert did as she suggested and tried the Brie and the cherries. “This is…good.” The flavors and textures contrasted, which made a bland cheese and simple orchard fruit more complicated, more interesting. “I will request this pairing at Rothhaven.” She munched another cherry. “Is that where you’ve been hiding?” “I thought the interrogation wasn’t to start until we’d finished eating.
” She laughed, a soft chortle that illuminated her features with a rare and breathtaking warmth. “Touché, vieil ami. You were never frail of mind, were you?” Old friend. The closest thing to an endearment Robert had heard in years. “I am invariably disoriented after a seizure. Nathaniel is concerned that I will be declared mentally unfit by a hostile court, and all our lands and wealth will fall into the hands of crooked trustees.” Robert was terrified about the same possibility. “You still seem frightfully astute to me. Do you share your brother’s concern?” “When I can be rendered insensate for hours, forgetful of even the words coming out of my own mouth, I must acknowledge the validity of Nathaniel’s worry.” Constance stabbed a piece of cheese with the butter knife and held it out to him.
“Then you must have a plan in place for dealing with an attack on your mental competence. What have you in mind?” What Constance said made sense. Nathaniel had fallen in love with Lady Althea Wentworth, older sister to Lady Constance. A life of peaceful seclusion for Robert at Rothhaven Hall would be impossible to maintain without Nathaniel holding the reins. Another plan was needed, and quickly. “For the present,” Robert said, “I plan to enjoy my supper and your company. Perhaps you have a few ideas?” Stephen Wentworth reserved his most difficult conversations with his ducal brother for when he and Quinn were on horseback. His Grace of Walden rode with easy competence, and thus his attention when in the saddle was not commanded by the horse. Quinn chose sensible, sound mounts, up to his weight, and not given to fidgets or strongly stated opinions. Stephen, by contrast, was a passionate equestrian.
On the back of a horse, he was the equal of any man—or woman. He needed no canes, no inordinate caution. He traded his own unreliable leg for the horse’s four sturdy limbs and enormous muscle. In the saddle, he was free from physical pain. In the saddle, he sat as tall and straight as any dragoon. In the saddle, and there alone, Stephen was superior to his brother in skill, fitness, and confidence. The other reason for bracing Quinn on delicate matters when he and Stephen rode out was practical. Quinn was seldom alone. Jane and the children claimed his heart and as much of his time as he could give them, particularly when His Grace wasn’t wreaking havoc in the House of Lords or terrorizing his bank managers. If Quinn walked in the park, he took his older daughters with him or wheeled the baby in her pushchair while Jane sashayed along at his side.
If Quinn enjoyed a drink before dinner, he often did so while playing simple card games with the children on the rug in the family parlor. If he sat reading in the garden, Jane brought her embroidery to the same bench. Stephen’s brother was awash in domestic bliss, and seemed to have no clue how much difficulty that posed to any sibling seeking a private word with him. Stephen thus proposed a ride around the acreage of the Yorkshire property Quinn had earmarked for Constance to manage. “Constance has done a good job here,” Quinn said, giving his horse a loose rein to negotiate a winterbourne. Mungo popped over the trickling stream while Stephen’s horse, an un-confident fiveyear-old with more potential than sense, danced around on the near bank. “Constance takes management of her property seriously,” Stephen said, “as Althea has done with Lynley Vale.” Stephen, by contrast, trusted to good managers and spent little time ruralizing at his estate. His horse rocked back on its quarters as if facing a dragon determined to snack on equine delicacies. “Give the ruddy beast a proper swat,” Quinn said, watching this display from the far bank.
“If he makes this much drama out of a tiny stream, he’ll unseat you the instant he’s faced with anything truly challenging.” The horse danced back, then took a tentative step forward while Stephen remained passive. “He’s gathering his courage, Quinn. To force him now means I don’t trust him to sort out the puzzle for himself. The problem with a tiny stream like this is that the poor lad can hear it and smell it, but when it’s barely a rill running between tussocks at his feet, he cannot see it.” As if to emphasize Stephen’s words, his horse—Beowulf—craned his neck, raising and lowering his head. “For God’s sake,” Quinn said, “he’s dithering for the hell of it. You’ll ruin him by indulging these histrionics.” This advice came from a man who’d never given any of his children a proper swat, who’d never raised his voice to them, who had never once been heard to publicly express opinions differing from those of his duchess. He’d spanked Stephen exactly once, nearly twenty years ago and for a serious transgression.
Quinn doubtless still felt guilty over it. “Your tone of voice, Your Grace, is not helping the poor fellow to locate his courage, or me to maintain my patience. Walk on, please, and Beowulf will vault the dreaded chasm rather than be separated from Mungo.” Quinn obliged, and Beowulf—from a near standstill—gave a mighty leap to clear a stream a puppy could have gamboled over. “Good lad,” Stephen said, patting the horse soundly on the neck. “Well done, young man. Well done.” Beowulf trotted forward as if parading before the royal standard, then kicked out behind in an exuberance of high spirits. “I will never understand why you prefer ill-mannered youngsters to settled mounts,” Quinn said as the horses resumed walking side by side. “You, of all people, know what an injury can mean.
” “I, of all people, know what a severe blow to one’s pride and confidence can mean, and when I see a young horse condemned to a life of misery by poor training, I intervene where I can.” “And then a year later, you sell them for less than they’re worth.” Quinn understood money the way Constance understood portraiture and King George understood lavish self-indulgence. Money was to Quinn what grass was to a horse. The sine qua non of all noteworthy endeavors, the intuitive metaphor for any undertaking. Though sometimes, Quinn’s grasp of finances made him blind to other truths. “I find my horses suitable homes,” Stephen said, “and price them according to the owner’s means. I am compensated, the horse is well situated, and the new owner is thrilled with his or her purchase. I am not thrilled with the acquaintance forming between Constance and the neighborhood duke.” Quinn glanced back in the direction they’d come, though Stephen had raised this topic early in the ride, before Quinn could challenge him to a homeward gallop