One scandal. Two broken hearts. A decade apart.
Lady Elise knows all too well the risks of falling in love. Her heart was broken by a rake. Instead of hunting for a husband, she helps other ladies escape the nefarious plans of unscrupulous gentlemen.
After a scandal costs Lord Thornston Elise’s hand and heart, he has lived on the fringes of the beau monde. But when his best friend, the Duke of Fairmont, requests his assistance, Thornston is torn. Helping Fairmont means facing the woman who holds his heart and soul.
Succumbing to temptation, Thornston re-enters Society to find Elise still unwed. But as he seeks to reignite her desire for him and earn back her trust, he becomes entwined in one of her investigations. When events take a dangerous turn, he might lose the woman he loves before he can win her back.
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I need another drink.
Harold Greenfield, the Earl of Thornston, tried to curtail his frustration. He had been enjoying a whiskey at his club when the Duke of Fairmont dared to disturb his peace.
Peering down his ducal nose, Fairmont declared, “It is time you returned to the fold.” Fairmont settled into the closest wingback chair and stretched out his long legs.
The fiery liquid that was about to go down Harold’s gullet spewed from his mouth. “Why would I do that?”
“I need your assistance.”
Squeezing the bridge of his nose, Harold considered the duke’s request. In the twenty years they had known each other, this was the first time Fairmont had come to him for help. It was an odd reversal of roles. This past decade, Fairmont had remained his only contact with polite society. Harold remained silent and consumed another drink or three. The man couldn’t be serious. Could he?
Fairmont rose to leave, and Harold uttered a sigh. The man was his best friend, after all. Following the duke out of the club, he stepped up into the lavish ducal coach.
Seated on the rear-facing bench, Harold glared at Fairmont. “There is no good reason for me to place myself at the mercy of marriage-minded mamas and the empty-headed young chits.”
“All you have to do is accompany me to a few engagements and assist me in choosing the next Duchess of Fairmont.” A smirk appeared on Fairmont’s features. “What do you know of Miss Glenda Heart?”
“Why do you subject me to this torture?” Harold stretched out a leg and kicked the duke in the ankle. “Why don’t you have one of your sisters help you?”
“Are you serious? Lily is lying in, and Elise is… well, she is Elise.”
Harold asked, “Wait, Lily got married? How was it you allowed her to marry before Elise?”
How long had he been away from the ton?
Initially, Harold had enjoyed his freedom on the outskirts of the beau monde. But recently he had grown bored. Perhaps it was time he too considered the idea of marriage. A shiver ran down his spine. No, he still had a while yet; he had only just turned thirty.
Fairmont looked out the carriage window. “Lily endured three Seasons before she threatened a scandal if I didn’t give my permission for Lord Crossworth to marry her. They were married two years past; you were invited.”
“But what about Elise? How is it she is not yet married?”
“She swears she is content.” Fairmont slapped his gloves against his thigh. “I’ve tripled her dowry, but no one worthy has offered for her.”
Unbelievable. Elise was a beauty. Maybe a little quiet, but she had inherited her mother’s kind and patient demeanor. How could it be that no one had offered for her?
“Elise must be… what… six and twenty now?” Harold, for one, didn’t believe it. “What do you mean, no one worthy?”
Fairmont turned to face him directly. Harold could feel the man’s eyes bore into him in the dimly lit carriage. “Oh, she has attracted every scoundrel, rake, and fortune hunter, but they all offered for her dowry. None of them knew one thing about Elise.”
Harold shook his head; he shouldn’t have had that last whiskey before venturing out with Fairmont. “What are you blithering on about? What would you have a blighter know before you deem him worthy of your sister?”
Fairmont cocked an eyebrow. “Lord Crossworth was able to answer all the questions on my test without any issue when he asked for Lily’s hand.”
“Test! What test?”
Fairmont shrugged. “It’s a list of questions I ask every suitor.”
Only Fairmont would come up with such an idiotic scheme. Harold had to ask, although he was certain he already knew the answer. “Do you have a test for the position of duchess?”
Blithely, Fairmont replied, “Of course.”
Harold blinked to clear his vision, who was the man sitting across from him and where were they headed? “What wretched event are you dragging me to this eve?”
“I was informed both the lovely Lady Beatrice and Miss Glenda Heart are to be at the Riverington Ball.”
“Are you mad?” The Riverington Ball. The exact location of his downfall a decade ago.
“I’m of sound mind.” Fairmont employed his ducal stare. “And you are going to assist me in obtaining the answers I seek.”
The coach finally rolled to a stop. What questions could Fairmont have on his blasted lists? How had none of the gentlemen come up to snuff, allowing Lady Elise to remain unwed? Had the years been kind to her? For the first time in ages, Harold found himself in front of one of the ton’s dwellings. Would Lady Elise recognize him?
Making his entrance with Fairmont would be a bad idea. His friend might be in the market for a wife, but Harold was not ready to give up his freedom or his mistress. Confirming his misgivings, every head in the room turned their way as they were announced. The ton appeared to have remained unchanged. Lords and ladies scrutinized his appearance and quickly dismissed him. Damn them all to hell. Harold no longer cared for their opinion, nor did he seek out their acceptance.
“Will Elise be in attendance tonight?”
Fairmont narrowed his gaze. “Why?”
Harold tempered his reply. “I haven’t seen her in years. I’d like to become reacquainted.”
Gone was the relaxed Duke of Fairmont. The man had turned into his childhood friend, Benedict Brownstone, the older protective brother. “Stay away from her. She doesn’t need your sort hanging about her. It will only encourage the other rakes of our set to take notice of her.”
Fairmont’s warning cut. What exactly did he mean by his sort? “What? Am I not good enough for your sister?”
Harold might not have exactly lived the life of a saint, but neither had Fairmont. He was honest, never cheated at cards. He was not a pauper. His estates generated a sufficient—others might say lucrative—income, and while he might not have the wealth of a duke, he could easily support a wife. He wasn’t a dullard, despite only completing one year at Oxford. If he hadn’t been seduced by a professor’s wife and expelled, perhaps he might have graduated. In his defense, he hadn’t any idea who the woman was until it was too late.
When Fairmont failed to reply, Harold put it to him again. “Are you saying I’m not worthy of Elise’s hand?”
“Thornston, you are my best friend, and I know you better than anyone. Stay away from my sister. Find some other lady to pant after tonight.”
The warning sounded more like a challenge. Harold stood ruminating as couples whirled past him. He scanned the ballroom, looking for Elise. His curiosity demanded to find out why she had remained unwed.
Fairmont gave him a look that suggested he considered the matter concluded. He then shifted his attention to a dark-haired beauty who came into view across the room. “I’m off to claim my dance with Lady Beatrice. Try not to cause a scandal while I’m away.”
Scandal. Harold had learned his lesson a decade ago. Never follow a lady anywhere. They were all conniving harlots at the ready to trap a man into marriage. He wasn’t interested in following any of the ladies this evening. All he wanted to do was to locate Elise. Was she aware of her brother’s requirements? How would Harold fare should he attempt the answers?
Hidden behind the pillar, he searched the dance floor for familiar faces—one in particular. Surely, Elise would make an appearance. She had always enjoyed dancing. When he and Fairmont were learning the steps to the various sets, Elise often assisted by partnering with them. She never once complained when he had trod upon her delicate toes.
Bored at having spent most of the night avoiding the gazes of debutantes and their mamas, Harold made his way to the card room. He spotted Lord Kilman, one of the few he would consider a friend, engaged in a game with a lady. Interesting. Lord Kilman was a skilled card player who was known to lose rarely. His lordship’s features were relaxed, but Harold caught the telltale tic in his jaw, which indicated only one thing: Lord Kilman was about to be defeated.
Who was the woman? Her hair shone like silk, a string of pearls expertly woven through her dark brown curls.
* * *
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