A Duchess A Day
Book 1 of the Awakened by a Kiss Series
An heiress with a plan…
Lady Helena Lark has spent years trying to escape her wedding to the boring, wastrel Duke of Lusk. She’s evaded, she’s refused, she’s even run away. When her family’s patience runs out, they pack her off to London to embrace the arranged marriage once and for all. But Helena has one, final hand to play: recruit a better, more-suited bride to take her place. With a month before the wedding, Helena arrives in London determined to recruit a potential duchess every day….
A bodyguard with a job to do…
Paid mercenary Declan “The Huntsman” Shaw vows never to work for another aristocratic client ever again. His last job, to escort a beautiful princess out of the country, saw him falsely accused, bankrupted, and thrown jail. So when a duke’s family wants to hire him to babysit a flight-risk bride, his first reaction is absolute no. But then he learns the payout would make all of his legal problems disappear. Reluctantly, he agrees to go undercover as a stable groom to keep the spoiled, petulant bride-to-be “contained.”
A most unexpected alliance…
Declan Shaw soon learns that Lady Helena is not spoiled or petulant but desperate. And impossible to resist. Helena senses an ally in her handsome, stoic groom and solicits his help. As Declan tries to do his job and keep his hands off, Helena pursues her duchess-a-day plan, trying to escape the forces that oppose them and fighting for the fairy-tale wedding they both really want.
A Duchess A Day
Book 1 of the Awakened by a Kiss Series
The full series reading order is as follows:
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A Duchess A Day
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. . . . . .
Newgate Prison was not for the faint of heart.
It was also not for the claustrophobic, the hygiene conscious, or anyone with a weak stomach.
Declan Shaw was none of these; in fact, he was a hardened mercenary (currently unemployed) and occasional spy (when the price was right). He’d seen a lot of hellholes in his life, but Newgate represented a new level of despair. After four months on the inside, he’d never been more motivated to get the bloody hell out.
Today, with no explanation, he’d been transferred from the subterranean general lockup to his own private cell. He was now in possession of a small barred window that looked out on a muddy mound. He’d been issued a weevil-infested mat and there was gruel twice a day, instead of once.
And someone was calling his name.
No, not his name. He was known to guards as “Prisoner 48736” or “Shaw” to fellow inmates. “Huntsman” was the alias by which he was known in professional circles, his mercenary brand, the name they called him on the London streets.
“Huntsman?” the voice called again.
“Aye,” he called back. If he didn’t claim it, someone else would. Everything was up for grabs in Newgate.
“Ah, yes, there you are,” said a voice, still yards away. From around the corner, the sharp tap, tap, tapping of delicate-heeled shoes punctuated an oddly singsongy male voice, followed by the heavy plod of guards’ boots.
“Oh, just look at you,” enthused the disembodied voice, “you are an imposing fellow. Size and bearing have done no favors in your plea for innocence, have they? None at all.”
Declan leaned against the cell bars, straining to see through the smoky gloom. The silhouette of a stick man emerged, slight but with a bold stride. The man snapped his finger at a guard, demanding that a torch be brought closer. He studied Declan like a collector in a shop.
“You may leave us,” he told the guards. “When I require you, I will call.”
Narrowing his eyes at Declan, he said, “And how have you enjoyed your private cell, Huntsman?”
Declan had not, in fact, enjoyed the private cell.
The man continued, “I could not bear to call on you in the dungeon. They were kind enough to move you here so we could discuss business, assuming you are amenable.” He flashed a hopeful smile.
He smiles too much for prison, Declan thought. “What business?”
“What indeed? You are known for such a wide variety of services, aren’t you?”
“At the moment, I’m known for captivity.”
“Quite so. But before the ghastly cock-up with the abduction, and the alleged murder, and that poor, wretched girl, your profession was . . .” The old man trailed off, studying Declan as if trying to envision him in some other setting. “Well, you were a sort of bodyguard, were you not? A tracker? Mercenary, I believe is the correct term? One of the finest in the country, according to my sources.”
“My name and my trade,” Declan observed. “You’re full of information, Mr.—?”
“Oh, do forgive me.” He frowned as if he’d used the wrong fork. “Titus Girdleston, at your service. I am the uncle and family steward of my nephew—His Grace, Bradley Girdleston, the Duke of Lusk.”
Another pause. Declan waited.
“Are you familiar with the Girdleston family or His Grace, the duke?” the man prompted.
Declan saw no reason to hide his disdain for aristocrats in general and dukes in particular. He didn’t do business with the nobility, not anymore, not since a certain royal duke had framed him for abduction and murder and stood idly by while Declan went to jail.
“No?” Girdleston repeated, his voice high and contemplative, as if Declan had stated a philosophy he’d never considered.
“Don’t work for dukes,” Declan said.
“Oh, pity. Well, I suppose I am not a duke, and I would be your employer.”
Declan sighed wearily and asked, “Employer for . . . ?”
“Oh, right. Well, you see, I’ve come because my family has a job for you. There is a young woman traveling to London. She comes this very night, in fact. Her name is Lady Helena Lark, and she is the daughter of the Earl and Countess of Pembrook. She is betrothed to my dear nephew, the duke. In the weeks leading up to the wedding, she and her family will reside in our ducal residence, as their own London townhome is under construction. This close proximity will help the girl become more accustomed to her future role as duchess. It will also allow us to keep an eye on her. Which is precisely the job I’m looking to fill, Huntsman. I’ve come to hire you to mind her, for the lack of a better word. Keep a close eye on her from the moment she reaches London until she walks down the aisle to legally wed my nephew.”
Declan narrowed his eyes. This is a joke.
Girdleston cleared his throat and continued. “By ‘mind her,’ of course I mean guard her safety, see to her comfort in muddy lanes or crowded shops, make certain she’s happy and looked after and—and this is where it gets a bit tricky, but no effort for you, I’m certain—keep her from bolting.”
Declan couldn’t help himself from asking. “Keep her from what?”
“Bolting,” the old man confirmed solemnly. He let out a sigh. “There has been some confusion and hesitation on the part of the girl, I’m afraid. The union has been several years in the making, due mostly to her . . . lack of cooperation. But now we are all in agreement on the wedding and happy future of this couple. Her parents assure me we’ll enjoy her full cooperation. That said, when she reaches the city, I should like to have a trusted man in place to safeguard against future incidents of . . .”
“Escape?” provided Declan. He actually felt sorry for whatever poor sod was hired. And the girl. If there was anything Declan understood, it was captivity.
“Oh, it’s nothing so drastic as ‘escape,’ ” Girdleston assured. “How shall I term it? The families on both sides of the marriage hope to remove incidents of distraction. Lady Helena’s time in London will be devoted to activities that should delight any bride-to-be: shopping, tours of her new residences, and parties in her honor. I wish for her to remain focused throughout the proceedings, with her eyes set firmly on the prize of matrimony.”
“Why isn’t she minded by her own people? Parents or staff?” Declan asked on a sigh. The sooner he validated this man’s problem, the sooner he would go away.
The old man nodded sagely. “Yes, wouldn’t that be convenient? Unfortunately, I’ve found her family to be wholly ineffective when it comes to minding her. And her particular brand of . . . oh, let us call it ‘spirited willfulness’ has proven too much for chaperones or maids.”
“So your natural next choice is an accused felon?”
“Oh, your alleged crimes do not startle me, Huntsman,” said Girdleston. “But I suppose you haven’t heard. There’s been the most astounding development in your case. Just this morning, in fact. The family members who accused you of abducting that poor girl have actually changed their claim. Dropped the charges, all of them. It’s only just hap—”
“What?!” rasped Declan. Shock and disbelief shattered like glass inside his head. He lunged, straining against the iron bars.
Girdleston nodded, his white teeth shown through his smile. “The family of Miss Knightly Snow have heard rumors of a sighting. The girl has been spotted several times in the South of France. A cousin, I believe, has been sent to recover her. The family is trying to be discreet, I’m sure you understand—”
“Knightly Snow has been found?” Declan demanded. He was in prison because he’d been hired to escort her to France and she’d mysteriously disappeared instead. He’d known all along that she was alive, traipsing around the Continent of her own volition, not abducted, and certainly not dead. Most of all, he knew that whatever she was doing was not his bloody fault.
He’d simply not been able to prove it.
He’d proclaimed his innocence before his arrest; and since they’d locked him up, he’d spent nearly every penny he had on lawyers to exonerate him. And yet the accusation and charges persisted.
“I want my lawyer,” Declan said. No victim meant no crime, and no crime meant he was free. His skin tingled. Fuzzy stars crackled at the corner of his vision.
“In due time,” assured Girdleston, making a clucking sound. “All in due time. First, I should hope my role as bearer of good news will inure you toward the offer I’ve made.” A pause and knowing look. “About the potential of our working together.”
“What?” snapped Declan. “We’ve bollocks potential, mate. I want my lawyer. I want out of this cage. I want to see my father. The list is rather long, at the moment, of the things I want, Mr.—”
“I would not be too hasty about my offer, Huntsman,” cut in Girdleston, “because I’ve come with more than news of the dropped charges. I’ve come with the potential of money.” He paused and raised his eyebrows.
Declan knew enough to say nothing.
“You’ll forgive my presumption about your current financial situation,” drawled Girdleston, “but I happen to know that you’ve spent months contesting your innocence. I also know you’ve paid lawyers and court fees, and God only knows the price of survival inside Newgate. Perhaps you will be set free, but will you be able to restore your life? Your livelihood?”
“Why do you care?”
“I don’t care, to be honest,” said the old man, “except that your desperation fits perfectly with my need for a soldier-for-hire. And when I say ‘hire,’ Huntsman, please be aware that I can make your financial losses of the last year simply go away. Poof. Like it never happened. And then some.”
Declan stared, forcing himself to listen. The shock and hope had dulled just enough. His survival instincts began to bristle, and he started to play the game.
He asked, “This girl? Your nephew’s betrothed? You believe she’ll consent to a ‘hired minder’ tailing her around London? To contain her . . . her—what was it? ‘Spirited willfulness’?”
“Now we’ve begun to see eye to eye,” said Girdleston, chuckling. “Actually, I believe Lady Helena may accept your presence more openly if you take on some service role in the household. An alternative identity, if you will. I was thinking you might fit well in the role of personal groom to the future duchess.”
“Oh God,” Declan breathed, turning away.
“I understand that you occasionally assume false identities or undertake some subterfuge in order to do your job more effectively,” Girdleston said. “And your time in the army would have made you a proficient horseman. Given the correct livery and proper bearing, I believe you would make a convincing stable groom. And certainly this position will give you reason to follow the girl about and redirect her should she require it. And you will be handsomely, handsomely compensated. Enough money, Huntsman, to never have to work again, if you so choose.”
Declan considered this.
He considered a young woman who required an armed guard simply to get married.
He considered posing as a groom, wearing livery and adopting the bearing of a servant, whatever that meant.
He considered what kind of duke sent his uncle to hire an ex-convict to guard his future wife.
But most of all, he considered the payout. Girdleston had been dead-accurate about Declan’s need to make considerable money, and fast. If it was only himself, Declan could live lean while he rebuilt his life. But he was not one man, alone—he had a duty to his father and sisters.
“How much?” Declan rasped. In the end, this was all that mattered.
Girdleston smiled. “£500, Huntsman. All payable upon delivery of this young woman into holy matrimony with my nephew the duke.”
Declan made a choking sound and stifled it with a cough. He’d been thinking of a number in his head that would make the job worthwhile. The sum Girdleston named exceeded it by several hundred pounds. He studied the older man with new eyes. What was so important about this wedding that justified the outlay of £500?
“And if I fail?” Declan asked, perhaps the most important question of the day. “What if this woman evades me or makes trouble? What if something goes wrong? In my experience, disaster proliferates when females are involved. You wouldn’t be making the offer if she was easy.”
“Oh yes, of course,” chuckled Girdleston. “Females, troublesome creatures, there is no doubt.”
“I vowed after Knightly Snow never to take on another female client.”
“Well then, I suggest that you not think of the client,” urged Girdleston, “think of the lovely payment. If you succeed, you will be a rich man.”
“I asked about failing, not succeeding.”
“Oh, right,” sniffed Girdleston, tightening his gloves. “How very thorough. If, for some reason, you fail to retain her, if you fail to see her down the aisle, you will receive nothing. Oh, and there is a chance . . .” he looked knowingly at Declan, “. . . that the informers who originally brought these charges of abduction and murder of Miss Snow might . . . revive their story?”
And there it was.
Declan gritted his teeth. He’d expected this. Of course the freedom and the money and the job were all linked.
“How can I be accused again,” he said tightly, “if Knightly Snow has been found in France?”
“Well, there’s been a sighting, I believe,” said Girdleston. “I cannot say if they’ve actually found the chit. Or how long that might take. A cousin is searching, as I’ve said.”
Declan swore under his breath and turned away. If he’d had more time, he would’ve been able to find her. But he’d been arrested, and expedited back to England, and languishing in the court and penal system since the girl went missing.
“Not to worry, Huntsman,” the older man said. “I have every confidence in you. You can manage Lady Helena. I would not have come if you couldn’t.”
Declan pivoted to lean against the wall. He refused to look at the man’s calm face as he (also calmly) drew him over a barrel.
Declan hated being drawn over a barrel.
But he was a survivor. He would not jeopardize this open cell door, nor the promise of £500. A large part of surviving was knowing when to say no, thank you, and when to make a deal with the devil. Declan had run out of options.
“I’ll do it,” he said, turning back. “Now get me the bloody hell out of this hellhole.”
. . . . . .
Lady Helena Lark had run out of options.
She had feigned sickness, perpetrated madness, and applied to be a nun. She’d declared herself too young, too old, too thin, too pale, and too disagreeable in every possible way.
For the last six months, she had simply dug in her heels and said no.
Before that, she had run away. Five times.
But her parents’ great wealth and influence had restored her every time. Today they had restored her to what appeared to be the point of no return. To London. To the townhome mansion of her betrothed.
Betrothed, Helena thought, rolling the word around in her head with a doomed inner voice. She took up the apple in her lap and frowned at it.
Consigned would be more accurate, she thought, taking a bite.
Bought and paid for.
“Do strive for a pleasant expression, Helena,” sighed her mother. “You’ve no choice but to marry the duke, you’ve known this all along.” The countess said this in her most placid voice, the voice of someone who’d been patiently stating inevitability for five years.
“Perhaps I have no choice who I marry, but surely my expressions are my own,” said Helena.
“Your life is very fortunate, darling,” the countess continued, “ample reason to smile. But the fortune comes at a cost. In order to enjoy the homes and gowns and holidays and esteem, you must accept the responsibility. We all have a responsibility.”
“You and Papa enjoy the wealth and position,” Helena said idly. “I simply want to be left alone in Castle Wood. With my apple trees and the crofters. And I don’t want to be married to a prize idiot, even if he is a duke.”
“For God’s sake, Helena, must you be so very dramatic?” droned her father. He squinted out the window at the bright stone facade of the duke’s townhome. Yellow-liveried servants scurried to greet the approaching carriages. “Marriage to anyone, even the very devil, need not be the end of the world. You will have the ceremony and accommodate the duke in a few small ways, and then your life will go on. Except that you will be a duchess. Every girl aspires to this, but it has been given to you by birth. You are making a fuss over a minor detail, in the grand scheme.”
“My life as I’ve known it will not go on,” said Helena, thinking of the forest and her orchard. “And it is not a minor detail.”
She took another bite of apple, wondering why she bothered to object. They’d traveled from their estate in Somerset for the sole purpose of marrying her off to the Duke of Lusk. The marriage joined two ancient families and (more importantly) tied the duke’s limestone mines to barges on her family’s stretch of the River Brue.
The wedding was an arranged match for which her parents had been waiting, immovably, unshakably, for five years. She’d fought the betrothal in every way imaginable, and they had been blind and deaf to it all. They had not punished or strong-armed or shamed. They had simply ignored her pleas and waited. Now some fluctuation in international markets caused a spike in the demand for limestone and, in their view, the wait was over.
Helena pressed her back into the carriage seat, refusing to moon out the window at the duke’s London mansion. She’d seen the hulking townhome, thank you very much. In the weeks before the wedding she would come to know it very well.
How suspicious it was, Helena thought, that their own London home was suddenly undergoing renovations. Now they were forced to live as guests of the duke and his tyrant uncle. Her mother expected her to smile about it.
She finished her apple, the very last of the harvest. This time next year, if she was married to the duke, the apples would be gone—destroyed by heavy limestone wagons trundling down the terraced orchard to the river.
The great irony was that the Duke of Lusk, a man who was as ridiculous as he was inane, couldn’t care less about the wedding. At best, he was wholly indifferent to her; at worst, he was openly bored. He was a thirty-year-old man-child controlled by his uncle.
But Helena would not be controlled, or lose her orchard, or leave the forest. And she would not smile.
But also, she reminded herself, she would not be difficult. The time for evasion had come and gone. The only solution now was to engineer some lasting means of escape—something that did not extract her so much as put an end to the betrothal once and for all.
Luckily, she had a plan.
If she could manage it.
If she could be pleasant enough, and forestall suspicion long enough, and be clever enough to pull together the necessary players.
If she could get the duke to jilt her for some other girl.
That was her plan, plain and simple. Well, perhaps, it was not entirely simple. Helena intended to find the most perfect, most provocative replacement fiancée for the duke, dangle this sparkling girl under his nose, and let love or passion or mutual ambition overtake them. When Lusk was entranced by someone else, he would finally stand up to his uncle and demand a wife he really wanted. And Helena would be free to slip away, back to the orchard and the forest that she loved.
The greatest challenge to her plan seemed to be finding the ideal girl to dazzle the duke. For this, Helena relied on Lusk’s open delight in traits like buxomness, shapely calves, and round bottoms. Also, his penchant for all-night parties, drunkenness in the middle of the day, and dancers. Never once had Helena chatted with Lusk when he did not broach these favorite topics. For years, she’d complained about his tedious vulgarity, but her mother dismissed it as boyish prattle. Helena knew better; it was a window to his soul. Now she planned to open that window and crawl out.
The line of carriages had scarcely stopped in front of Lusk House when her parents popped open the door to descend. They’d tried (and failed) to conceal their open delight at the prospect of having a duchess in the family, and they would be crushed when the betrothal fell apart. But if Helena’s plan succeeded, the duke’s change of heart would be his own choice. What could she do if he’d fallen under the voluptuous spell of some other girl?
Move on with a life on her own terms.
The earl and countess convened in the street, smoothing silks and readjusting hats.
Helena’s three younger sisters spilled from the second carriage and descended upon their mother with a barrage of complaints and requests and grasping governesses.
Her father’s dogs thundered from the third carriage, along with aunts and cousins and stewards and her mother’s maid.
Helena allowed the commotion to swallow her up. She’d learned through the years how to disappear in plain sight. It was ironic, really, how little the duchess-to-be mattered in her family’s quest to claim a title. She was like the cart that transported them to the fair and deserted in a ditch when the festivities were in view.
But now the fair commenced. The heavy oak doors of Lusk House swung open and Titus Girdleston stepped importantly onto the stoop. Someone remembered to produce Helena, and they thrust her forward like a virginal sacrifice.
“Lusk House welcomes you, my Lord and Lady Pembrook, Lady Helena!” Girdleston boomed from the stoop, extending his arms like an opera singer. He clipped down the steps and greeted her father with a robust handshake and bowed over her mother’s hand.
“Ah, Lady Helena, how delighted we are that you’ve finally come to London to stay,” Girdleston said, turning his thin-lipped smile to her.
“Thank you, Uncle Titus,” Helena said cordially. “A pleasure, I’m sure.”
She must not draw undue attention. Her plan depended on it. Belligerence only elicited tighter control. It was essential that she give the illusion that she could be managed.
“But where is the duke?” she asked, the words out before she could stop them. She’d learned five years ago that her fiancé would not appear for arrivals or departures. In fact, the Duke of Lusk was only present when Girdleston forced him. Typically, she was glad for the void, but it amused her to point out this flagrant rudeness. Then again, she was not here to amuse herself; she was here to set herself free. She beamed an innocent smile.
“The duke has been detained,” Girdleston rushed to explain. “Estate business, I’m afraid. He will join us presently for supper.” The older man narrowed his eyes, speaking to her parents. “But first, allow me to present the duke’s attentive and well-trained staff.”
He snapped his fingers and dozens of yellow-liveried servants scurried to form a presentation line that stretched from the carriages to the house.
Oh for God’s sake, Helena thought, squinting at the endless wall of yellow.
“How delighted we are to have you as our guests,” crowed Girdleston, “and we should like for you to think of our household as your household.” He gestured to the servants as if he had formed them from his own rib.
Helena sighed, looking at the long line of retainers. She made no claim of penury or modest living; she was the daughter of an earl, after all. She’d been waited upon by servants her whole life. Her father’s estate in Somerset was a grand manor house with boys to carry firewood and girls to scrape the ashes. As soon has she’d been old enough, Helena had elected to leave the main house and live with her grandmother, the dowager countess, in her summerhouse elsewhere on the estate. She far preferred the lively cottage tucked within the leafy boughs of Castle Wood to the mansion where her parents and sisters lived. There had been fewer servants there. A cook and housekeeper, a man to mind the livestock. And her grandmother. Oh, how she adored her dear Gran. She’d been the only family member who’d seen Helena’s free spirit, her love of nature, her curiosity and independence.
A fever had taken her some five years ago, and Helena missed her with an ache that never seemed to go away. She’d scarcely been laid to rest when her parents began to entertain the notion of using Castle Wood and their stretch of the River Brue to expedite the neighboring duke’s mining operation. Gran had forbidden the arrangement while she’d been alive, and she’d even bequeathed the wooded section of the earldom—known as Castle Wood—directly to Helena to protect it. But with Gran gone, there was no stopping her father from marrying Helena to Lusk. When the duke was her husband, he could do what he wished with the forest and the river.
“Renovations are never convenient,” Uncle Titus said now to the earl and countess, “but you couldn’t have chosen a better time to rebuild your London townhome. The duke is delighted to host you here. After all, soon Lady Helena will reside here with us permanently.”
Helena recoiled at the thought. She worked to keep her face serene.
“We’ve arranged a tour of the grounds and house tomorrow,” Girdleston went on, leading them up the walk and into the house. “But now let us provide nourishment and give our future bride and groom a chance to reacquaint. I’ve requested a restorative menu. Nothing too rich after such a long journey. Right this way, if you please . . .” He gestured Helena’s mother to precede him through the heavy oak doors.
Helena idled near the carriages, collecting two more of her apples from a crate.
So the duke would attend the meal. Normally she dreaded any scheduled contact with Lusk, but now every shared moment was an opportunity to more effectively matchmake.
Most young women, she knew, would pounce at the opportunity to become a duchess. When it came to foisting him off on some other girl, the title was his most significant draw. But surely Lusk had more to recommend himself than simply the dukedom. Some occupation or passion or quality that he’d been previously too drunk or immature to reveal?
“Helena, dear?” Girdleston called from inside the great hall. He beckoned her with the smooth, spooling gesture of a ghostly majordomo. “You’ll be gratified to know that I’ve set aside a contingent of highly trained servants for your exclusive use, to make certain of your every comfort and safety.”
He’s what? Helena thought, following him up the front walk.
“Come, come,” he pressed, “so I may introduce you to your private staff.” A clutch of yellow-liveried servants formed a half circle behind him. “This is only a start. As duchess, you may wish to expand their number. The duke has made your comfort his highest priority.”
“Please do not trouble yourself,” Helena called. “I’m so often in my orchard I hardly know what to do with my father’s maids and footmen. I cannot imagine taking on the duke’s.” I will not be hounded by Girdleston’s spies.
“’Tis no trouble at all, my lady,” Girdleston continued, his voice sharp. “Let me introduce Mrs. Danvers. A highly skilled lady’s maid. Previously in the employ of the Countess of Polk, you will find Danvers to be tireless and—”
“I’ve traveled with my own maid,” Helena interrupted while glancing at the hatchet-faced woman beside him. Absolutely not.
She looked to her family. Did no one find this odd?
Her fiancé could not be roused to say hello, but his puppeteer uncle was saddling her with strange staff?
“My maid has been in my service since girlhood, and I’ve no intention of retiring her.”
“Yes, well, perhaps you will reconside—”
“But what of this personal footman, Thomas?” he tried again.
An elderly footman limped forward, making a slight bow and wincing in pain.
Helena smiled at the old footman and turned on Girdleston. “I couldn’t possibly accept the responsibility of a personal footman. I am wholly self-sufficient, as you may remember. Any passing footman will do. I am unsettled by fussing servants.”
A flash of anger pinched Girdleston’s face, and he forged ahead, gesturing to a large man in an apron. “But surely you cannot object to a personal cook . . .”
“I am not particular about what I eat,” Helena said.
“Well, perhaps a brief trial with the cook,” Girdleston countered.
“That won’t be necessary.”
Girdleston’s wide, furious eyes reminded her that she was not in control, not really. The angrier he was, the harder he was to evade. If her ultimate goal was to defeat him, she must show some cooperation and choose her battles.
She added, “I have always enjoyed the meals at Lusk House. Your existing chef is so talented.”
She was just about to reiterate that she felt uncomfortable with private servants, but Girdleston continued. “But surely you will not reject this private groom . . .” He swept out his hand. “The duke will insist upon a personal groom to squire you around London, to look after your safety and comfort in and out of carriages, busy streets, and balls late at night.”
His voice had taken on a simmering urgency, a pot about to boil over. “Surely you cannot deny a personal groom, my lady?” he said.
Helena was formulating another way to convey the word no when a broad man, dressed from shoulder to ankle in straining yellow velvet, stepped forward and bowed his head.
Helena’s denial froze on her lips.
She blinked at the vast expanse of eye-popping yellow. Her first thought was that he did not wear the livery so much as stretch the lemony fabric over his muscled body. It did not fit, not even a little. His hands were huge, his boots were huge, and his very posture—still and substantial—seemed less like a servant and more like the castle guard.
He wasn’t a giant, but he looked stronger than anyone in the room; he looked stronger than anyone Helena could ever remember meeting. So much muscle straining against so much . . . yellow.
He did not appear chagrined or bashful. His eyes were soft brown, and he glanced at Helena with a passive detachment that she struggled to decipher. Not supplication, not hopefulness, not boredom—
He looked at her like he was gauging the height and weight of a chair that someone had asked him to move across the room.
When he met her eyes, he humbly lowered his head in a half bow.
He looks . . . useful.
There was something about the combination of his vagueness and brawn. He had muscled arms, significant shoulders, powerful thighs. She would not ordinarily consider the thighs of a servant (or any man), but the impossible tautness of his golden britches made every part of him impossible not to see.
His face remained averted, but she could see his profile: strong jaw, reasonable nose, dark eyelashes.
She scolded herself for noticing (first) thighs and (now) eyelashes, especially when her very future was at stake. His eyes made no difference, but taken as a whole, she could not deny that he might come in handy.
She glanced at Girdleston and speculated about the loyalties of this “private groom.” The man had certainly fallen into line when Uncle Titus beckoned, but he’d moved in a rote, just-following-orders sort of way. He’d seemed more compliant than complicit and he lacked the slow, knowing bearing or the shared looks of a collaborator. He seemed . . . biddable.
Perhaps he was just a groom. Perhaps he was a big, strong groom with more muscle than brain.
Perhaps he was exactly what she needed.
“This groom is meant to be for my private use alone?” Helena heard herself ask.
The look of ravenous hope on Girdleston’s face almost made her laugh. It would certainly appease him if she consented.
“Precisely, my lady,” said Girdleston. “Someone to ease your way around the city.”
Helena would require help navigating London. She was a country girl, loath since girlhood to spend more than an afternoon in the capital, and now her first order of business was to rove Mayfair, ferreting out potential duchesses. If this groom could be used for her own purposes rather than . . . whatever purpose Girdleston intended, then she was being inadvertently given a most useful ally.
Helena looked back at the rejected circle of private servants. The maid had been an obvious spy, and the old footman was likely loyal to the dukedom. Helena had no doubt the private cook would slowly poison her. But the groom—the large, biddable simpleton of a groom—might be harmless. And useful.
“Yes, Uncle Titus,” she said. “I do believe I can find use for a groom on the unfamiliar streets of London. How kind of you.”
“But you may thank His Grace, my lady,” gushed Girdleston, bowing slightly. Helena refused to acknowledge this and instead spoke to the groom. “Pray, what is your name, sir?”
The groom raised his head but he kept his brown eyes averted.
“Shaw, my lady.”
His voice was lower than she’d thought, although she couldn’t say what she’d expected. She’d struggled to hear him, and she suddenly wished very much to hear him again.
“Very good, Mr. Shaw,” she said. “I am Lady Helena. I grow apples in Somerset. Would you like one?” She reached into her pocket and extended a shiny, speckled apple. Behind her, she heard her parents groan.
Girdleston chortled. “Shaw is not accustomed to receiving, er, food from his charges, Lady Helena. Pray do not trouble yourself.”
The groom stared at the apple like it was a tiny cannon ball. He glanced up. For a split second, their eyes locked. Helena could have sworn his expression said, You’re joking.
She blinked. Surely not. Surely he was simply nervous and confused.
Helena waited for him to look up again, to reveal himself, but he merely made another approximated bow and kept his gaze fixed to the floor.
Well, she thought. She pocketed the apple. There would be plenty of time to establish some rapport. It didn’t matter. He need only to do what she said when she said it, lift heavy things, and unwittingly aid her plan to escape with her future.
“You mentioned the duke will join us for supper,” Helena said brightly to Girdleston. “I do believe I am hungrier than I thought.”
. . . . . .
Declan had not expected this.
Understatement of the century.
He had expected a rich gentleman’s daughter. A patchwork of deficiencies. Some combination of demanding and childish or flighty and selfish, with the potential for daftness or madness thrown in.
In no scenario had he envisioned a captivating beauty, determined to undermine the bloody dukedom. He knew insubordination when he saw it. And brains.
When she’d entered the great hall, she’d spared not a look at the stained glass or the carved staircase or the chandelier. She ignored the servants. Unless Declan was mistaken, she was looking for a way out. Girdleston had summoned her, and she didn’t obey him so much as charge him. Her posture was upright but not rigid; she was thin but not brittle.
Declan had blinked, telling himself it was his job to stare. Looking at her was his job.
I cannot not look at her.
Fine. Right. So look.
Her eyes were pale green, the color of a peridot, and her hair was the color of ink.
She had dark lashes and brows, but her skin was the color of the inside of a shell, pale and luminescent. The contrast of light to ebony was stark and beautiful. A raven’s feather in the ice.
In that moment, Declan comprehended the level of difficultly—nay, the level of impossibility—of this cursed job. It hit him like a bat to the chest. He was looking at Helena Lark as a woman, not a client.
And not just any woman, a stunningly beautiful, obviously clever woman. Only a fool or an amateur would fail to admit this.
This was a problem because—first, distraction. His regard for her, even as an appreciative observer, would interrupt his ability to “contain her.” Second, beautiful, clever things incited sympathy, and he could not sympathize with this woman; he worked for her enemy. And third, Declan had made a habit of running in the opposite direction of Problem Women.
Females in Declan Shaw’s life had fallen mostly into one of two categories: convenient and willing . . . and everyone else. Clients were always “everyone else” because he was a professional, and putting his hands on a client was bad for business. Nonclient females—if convenient and willing—were a respite between jobs, so long as they harbored no illusions about pinning him down. Declan had been a natural solider and an even more natural soldier-for-hire. He liked his job. He was good at his job. No woman had ever tempted him to interrupt his success and he preferred it that way.
But he’d never met a woman like Helena Lark, and this realization shook him to the core. He would walk away from this job if he did not require Girdleston’s money so desperately and if he was not afraid the man had the power to send him back to prison.
“Well done, Huntsman,” said Girdleston, suddenly beside him. Declan jerked around, unnerved by the man’s omnipresence. “God knows why she consented to you and not the others; her intentions are a maddening mystery to us all. But now you’ve had a glimpse of the impertinence we’ve faced.”
What Declan had glimpsed was cleverness and contempt, but Girdleston had not hired him for his opinion. He said, “It was ambitious to press five servants on her at once.”
“By the time she becomes duchess, I will have broken her of the notion that she will ever be alone.”
Declan paused. He hadn’t known of a larger plan to “break her”—not of solitude or anything else. He swore and glanced at the disappearing form of Lady Helena. She was last in line again, following her entourage.
He looked away. Something sharp and heavy broke off in his chest and lodged in the pit of his stomach. He forced himself to think of the money, and his sisters, and his father. The decision to go along was no decision at all. He had no choice.
“Now you will stand attendance in the dining room, listening and watching,” said Girdleston. “You must familiarize yourself with her machinations and insubordinations.”
“A groom in the dining room?” Declan asked. “That makes no sense. Let me—”
“I’ll decide what is sensical, Huntsman,” said Girdleston. “You’ve only just been assigned to her. There is much to learn if you’re to be effective.”
Declan wanted to tell him that he’d learned quite enough already, but he gritted his teeth and thought of prison. Slipping into the dining room, he took up space in a dark corner.