Beau Bellham, the Marquess of Bellingham, was on alert. He was always on alert when he went out drinking with friends. As the only one not imbibing, he took the responsibility of ensuring nothing untoward happened. Beau didn’t drink. But he also didn’t fault his friends for doing so. He merely wanted to ensure they all made it home safely. They were sitting at a four-person table in an alcove near a window at The Curious Goat Inn, and Beau was waiting for the perfect opportunity to introduce an idea to his friends that they might just find…ludicrous. He’d been mulling over the various ways one might introduce a ludicrous subject to one’s closest friends when Kendall sat down his mug on the rough-hewn tabletop and said, “I think it’s time I find a wife.” Beau’s head snapped to face him. Apparently, Kendall would be the first to introduce a ludicrous notion tonight. Worth and Clayton were also staring at Kendall as if the man had lost his mind. Now, this stood to be an interesting conversation. An interesting conversation, indeed. As usual, Rhys Sheffield, the Duke of Worthington, was the first to speak. Despite his late father’s influence, Worth was a good man.
A bit of rogue when it came to ladies and a dedicated gambler, Worth enjoyed a good competition, and while he did his best to pretend as if he was devil-may-care, Beau knew that Worth would sacrifice his life for his country if it came to it. He nearly had once. Shaking his head vigorously in response to Kendall’s statement, Worth winced and sucked in his breath. “A wife? Good God, man! There’s no need to rush into anything so…permanent.” “We’re not getting any younger,” Kendall replied. “On the contrary,” Worth continued, “at nine and twenty, we’re pups. My father was over fifty when I was born.” Kendall was dedicated to his role as a new earl after the death of his brother from consumption. He took the title and its responsibilities quite seriously. Specifically, he’d taken up the cause of the Employment Bill his brother had been so dedicated to getting passed in Parliament before his death.
But with this talk of marriage, Kendall was clearly forgetting what had happened the last time he’d been betrothed. Beau decided it was time to speak. He narrowed his eyes on Kendall. “Are you certain you’re ready? It’s only been two years since…” He allowed his sentence to trail off. No need to open the scab that had healed over the man’s heart. Unlike himself and Worth, who’d both always been far more aloof when it came to dedicating oneself to a member of the opposite sex, Kendall felt things deeply. He’d been devastated when Lady Emily Foswell had tossed him over—just before they were set to marry—for a man with a title. Worth was dedicated to a bachelor lifestyle, while Beau considered himself married to his position at the Home Office. He’d even attempted to renounce his bloody title to serve in the Army, but the idea of him traipsing across Europe being shot at hadn’t pleased the Crown. Instead, they’d allowed him to use his talents in another way.
As a spy for the Home Office, his specialty was scouting out traitors, and there was honestly nothing he enjoyed more. “Thank heavens,” Clayton exclaimed, jolting Beau from his thoughts. “I cannot wait until I’m no longer the only one of us with the parson’s noose around his neck.” Ewan Fairchild, Viscount Clayton, had recently married and was just back from his honeymoon. The viscount loved his wife, politics, and science (in that order). Wealthy, friendly, and loyal, Clayton clearly adored his wife Theodora, and married life appeared to agree with him. Beau pushed his mug full of questionable-looking water around the tabletop as he contemplated each of his friends. The four of them had met as lads at Eton and remained dedicated to each other through the years. Each of them played a unique role in their group. Kendall was preoccupied with duty.
A loyal Navy man, he’d promised his brother on his death bed that he would ensure the Employment Bill was passed by Parliament, and he’d promised his mother the same day that he would see to the business of begetting an heir. The man carried heavy burdens. But Kendall didn’t relish the idea of having to find a wife, not after the Lady Emily debacle. Worth served as the comic of the group, making astute comments with the type of sarcastic humor he was known for. He liked to think he was a ne’er-do-well, but with his title and fortune, he wasn’t a particularly convincing one. Still, the man was loyal to a fault. He would never forgive Lady Emily, for instance, for tossing over his good friend, Kendall. Beau himself was always preoccupied with his latest mission, and he was currently obsessed with his hunt for the Bidassoa traitor. Someone in Parliament who was privy to the plans of Wellington’s force in Spain last autumn had betrayed the British army at Bidassoa by writing a letter to the enemy, revealing the strategy. The plan had been foiled, thank Christ, and the British had won at Bidassoa, but it didn’t make the act of the traitor any less dastardly.
There was nothing more important to Beau than finding the culprit and turning him over to the authorities for justice. Hence the ludicrous notion that was currently bobbing in his brain while they discussed Kendall’s want of a wife. “I’m entirely serious,” Kendall continued. “I must look to secure the earldom. I fear I’ve been too preoccupied with the Employment Bill. I’ve been remiss waiting this long to find a bride.” “I certainly won’t disagree with you that you’ve been too preoccupied with the Employment Bill,” Worth replied. “Obsessed is more like it.” Kendall shrugged. “Well, now that the Lords have tabled the vote until the autumn session, I have more time to rally the votes I need.
I might as well get about the business of looking for a wife in earnest.” Beau narrowed his eyes. A thought had just occurred to him. Another ludicrous thought. “I never bother to vote in Parliament,” Worth said. “Don’t happen to care for the hours. And all the arguing is downright exhausting.” Beau gave Worth a long-suffering look and shook his head. “God forbid you take an interest in your seat or any of the issues the country is dealing with.” Worth responded by providing them all with his most charming grin.
No doubt that self-possessed smile had been the downfall of quite a fair number of ladies. “I’m entirely confident you chaps can handle it,” Worth replied, clapping Beau on the back. “When the time comes for the vote for my brother’s law,” Kendall continued, addressing his remarks to Worth, “I’ll drive to your town house and drag you out of bed myself.” Beau laughed loud and long along with Clayton. “Let’s not talk of such unpleasantness,” Worth replied with a sigh. “You mentioned finding a bride, Kendall. That’s much more interesting. Now, how old are you again?” The duke shoved back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest, narrowing his eyes at Kendall. Kendall arched a brow. “The same age you are, old man.
” Worth was only teasing Kendall. They were all the same age, save for a matter of months. “Well, then,” Worth declared. “You’ve plenty of time to find a wife as far as I’m concerned.” “That’s easy to say, coming from a man who’s never given a toss about securing his own title,” Kendall shot back with a grin. Worth returned the smile. “I cannot argue with you there.” He gave the barmaid a wide smile and ordered another round of drinks for the table. “Yes, well, if you’re seriously looking for a wife, Kendall, the Season has just ended,” Clayton interjected. “It seems you’ve missed your chance.
The entire ton is about to retire to the country as soon as Parliament closes next week.” “I’m well aware,” Kendall replied with a curt nod. “The Season makes my skin crawl. Full of simpering maids and purse-eyeing mamas eager to show off their best behavior in the hopes of snaring a rich husband. I don’t want to find a wife that way.” “How else do you intend to find one?” Beau asked. Yes, his ludicrous idea just might work if this conversation took the turn he thought it might. “I don’t know how exactly.” Kendall took another drink. “But this time I intend to find a lady who loves me for myself.
” There it was. Kendall’s only allowance to Lady Emily Foswell. “Yes!” Worth pounded his fist against the table. The duke’s normally jovial voice had filled with anger. “I think we can all agree that Lady Emily is the lowest of the low. There’s no excuse for what she did, tossing over one man for another with a better title. As far as I’m concerned, she no longer exists.” Leave it to Worth to name the lady. Though it was true that Worth had been the angriest of all of them over Lady Emily’s behavior. And the most interested in ensuring Lady Emily knew that she’d inadvertently tossed over a future earl for a baron.
“Can we not discuss Lady Emily, please?” Kendall groaned and covered his face with a hand. Worth’s good humor returned with the arrival of the barmaid who’d appeared with their drinks. “Keep ‘em coming, love,” he said to her, before turning back to Kendall and adding, “I’m merely pointing out that if you want a lady who loves you for yourself, the Season and its ridiculousness are the last place you should go.” “Yes,” Kendall replied with a sigh, lifting his mug into the air in salute of Worth. “Didn’t I already say that? The Season and its fetes are the last place I should go, which is why I’ve avoided it like the pox for the last two Seasons.” “Oh, is that why you haven’t attended the boring balls at Almack’s?” Worth replied, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “I thought it was the tepid tea and small talk. That’s why I steer clear of them.” “You avoid them because they don’t serve brandy and we all know it,” Beau said, staring fixedly at Worth, his arms crossed tightly over his chest. Worth winked at him.
“That and they won’t give me the bank that Hollister’s will.” Beau rolled his eyes. Hollister’s was the duke’s favorite gambling hell. Hollister’s had given Worth carte blanche and he won and lost small fortunes there regularly. Kendall scratched his chin and stared blindly at his mug. “If only the ladies of the ton didn’t know I am an earl, I’d have a much better chance of finding a match.” Worth’s laughter filled the air. “I’d pay to see that. An earl dressed up like a common man to find true love. Has a certain poetic ring to it, don’t it?” Clayton laughed too and shook his head, but Beau merely narrowed his eyes further and said, “It’s not a completely outlandish idea.
” He tilted his head to the side. Yes. The conversation was turning in the precise direction he’d wanted it to. “What’s not?” Kendall had nearly forgotten what he’d said. “The idea of pretending you’re a commoner to find a wife,” Beau replied. Worth slapped Beau on the back again. “Are you mad, man? You’re not even drinking.” Beau leaned forward to address his remarks directly to Kendall. “Given the right circumstances, it could work, you know?” “Pretending I’m common?” Kendall replied, blinking. “I don’t see how.
” “Everyone in the ton knows him,” Clayton pointed out. “How would he ever manage it?” “Are you suggesting he wear a mask or alter his appearance?” Worth asked. The duke stroked his chin. His eyes began to narrow, too, as if he were also taking the idea seriously. Kendall glanced back and forth between Worth and Beau. “You cannot be serious, either of you. Clayton’s right. How would it ever work?” “No, not a costume.” Beau addressed his remarks to Worth. “I was thinking something more like the right…situation.
” Worth leaned forward. “Such as?” he replied, drawing out both words. “You two are frightening me, you know?” Kendall said. “You seem as if you’re actually trying to plot out a way this ludicrous idea might work.” Ludicrous indeed. Beau forced himself not to smile. “Like a …house party,” Beau replied to Worth, stroking his chin and completely ignoring Kendall’s comment. Worth inclined his head, his eyes still narrowed. “A house party, yes. I see what you mean.
” “But it couldn’t be just any house party, of course,” Beau continued. “It would have to be one given by someone who was in on the experiment.” “Experiment?” Clayton sat up straight. “There are few things I enjoy more than an experiment, and I just so happen to be about to send the invitations to my annual country house party.” Excellent. For his idea to work, Beau desperately needed Clayton’s help. “Experiment?” Kendall repeated, blinking. Beau snapped his fingers. “Your house party would be perfect, Clayton.” “Wait.
Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.” Kendall sat between Beau and Worth and he pushed against their shoulders with both hands. “A house party isn’t going to change my identity. Ladies of the ton will still know who I am at a house party.” “He makes a good point,” Clayton replied, taking another draught of ale. “Not if you invite only the debutantes from this Season,” Beau replied with a confident smile. “And not if you create the right circumstances.
” Kendall sucked in a deep breath and pushed his mug out of reach. “The ladies may not know me, but some of their mothers do. More than one of them has already been to court with an older daughter making her debut.” “That’s where the right circumstances come in,” Beau replied, crossing his arms over his chest. Worth scratched at his chin and smiled an even wider smile. “By God, I think you’re onto something.” Excellent. If Worth saw the merit of his plan, Beau stood a greater chance of convincing the other two. “I refuse to wear a mask if that’s what you’re thinking. That’s positively medieval,” Kendall said, shaking his head.
“Not a mask,” Beau replied, settling back in his chair and plucking at his lower lip. Ah, plotting something was such fun. “Or a costume, either,” Kendall continued, pushing his mug farther away. “Not a costume…precisely.” Beau exchanged a wolfish grin with Worth. “By God, I’m going to have the best time watching this.” Worth nodded. “Watching what?” Clayton’s nose was scrunched. The viscount obviously hadn’t caught on yet. “I don’t know what in the devil either of you is talking about any longer.
” “I’m talking about Kendall here pretending to be a servant,” Beau replied, the grin still on his face. Kendall blinked. “A servant?” “Yes. It’s perfect,” Worth added, nodding. Kendall turned and stared at the duke as if he’d lost his mind. “Perfect? Me? Being a servant? How is that perfect?” “That still doesn’t fix the problem of the ladies’ mothers recognizing him. Even if he’s dressed as a servant,” Clayton pointed out. “Ah, but it does,” Beau replied. He’d been waiting for this particular argument and was already prepared with his defense. “That’s the beauty of it.
Most people don’t look at servants. They don’t pay attention to the majority of things beyond what they need and want. My training as a spy has taught me much about the human failure to notice details. I’d be willing to bet that not one of those ladies of the ton will look twice at Kendall if he’s dressed as a servant and performing servants’ duties. He’ll be wearing livery, knee breeches, and a powdered wig, after all.” “And it has the added advantage that a servant will be in a particularly excellent position to discover how a lady truly behaves.” Worth brushed his long dark hair off his forehead with his fingers. “I’d wager she’s at her best when addressing a potential bridegroom and at her worst when addressing a servant. God knows, I’ve seen it time and again from my mother.” “You’re both truly mad, you know that?” Kendall replied.
“I dunno.” Clayton tugged at his cravat. “But it sounds like quite a lark to me. I’m perfectly willing to offer my upcoming house party as a venue for such an experiment.” Excellent. This was one of the advantages of his friends drinking. Ideas that might normally sound ludicrous were much easier to convince them of. “You’ve gone mad too, then,” Kendall replied to Clayton.