Authors: Manda Collins
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For Heath and Joannaâall my love.
May your journey together be filled with happiness.
As always, I'd like to thank the Hollys: my wonderful, supportive, ninja agent Holly Root and my kind, insightful, magician editor Holly Ingraham. Thanks also to my SMP publicist, Amy Goppert, marketing guru, Erin Cox, and the art department who once again has given me a magnificent cover. My friends at Kiss & Thrill: Rachel, Lena, Amy, Sharon, Krista, Gwen, Diana, and Sharon. My support network: Julianne, Terri, Santa, Janga, Lindsey, and PJ. My sister and the menagerie for keeping the home fires burning. And last but not least, the wonderful readers who make this the best, most rewarding job in the world.
The club members were acquitting themselves rather well among polite society, thought Piers Hamilton, Duke of Trent, the latest president of the Lords of Anarchy, as he surveyed them mingling with the highest sticklers of the
Especially considering that the last party the Lords of Anarchy had hosted was an actual orgy.
The duke, known to his intimates as Trent, was the latest in a quick succession of leaders of the aforementioned driving club, which, on top of being known for its fast races and drunken debauchery, had also been helmed in the past couple of years by men who turned out to be somewhat less than scrupulous about some laws.
The one against murder, for instance.
So when the few remaining members with a conscience had approached him about becoming president, Trent had been hesitant. But he liked a challenge. And his years as an officer in His Majesty's army had shown him that even the most undisciplined of men could be molded into good soldiers. Thus he'd accepted the position with an eye toward reining in the wildest elements of the membership and giving the rest of them a club they could be proud of.
Now, watching the newest members of the club dancing with perfectly respectable ladies in the ballroom of his London residence, Trent was hopeful that there would be no more bad behavior from the Lords of Anarchy. At least not under his watch.
“Trent,” said Lord Frederick Lisle, clapping his old friend on the shoulder, “you've done yourself proud with your first entertainment as the duke. I wouldn't have guessed a man with so little patience for socializing would manage it, but you proved me wrong.”
Before he could retort, they were joined by the recently wed Earl of Mainwaring, who was the third in their circle since their schooldays. “You know you're supposed to dance with them,” he said dryly, with a nod in the direction of a pair of young ladies who whispered furiously behind their fans while casting longing looks in Trent's direction.
As the three men watched, a young gentleman with laughably high shirt points and hair that had been pomaded and teased until it added three inches of height to his willowy frame approached the bevy and bowed deeply. Words were exchanged, eyelashes fluttered, and soon the young man was leading out the prettier of the two onto the dance floor. The other, her courage waning with the departure of her friend, turned her attention to the partygoers on her other side.
“Who was that strange creature?” Mainwaring asked, raising his quizzing glass to get a closer look at the bold young gentleman. “I don't think I've seen shirt points that high sinceâ”
“You were that age?” Freddy finished with a laugh. “I seem to recall you were rather fond of the pomade as well.”
“No more than you,” Mainwaring retorted with a frown, turning his glass upon his friend. “And if we are paying calls in Memory Lane, then by all means let us discuss the time you so knotted your neck cloth your valet had to cut you out of it?”
“It's a very complicated knot,” Freddy said with injured dignity. “Which you would know if you ever tried it yourself.”
“Before you come to blows over your youthful fashion choices,” Trent said mildly, “to answer your original question, Mainwaring, that âcreature' as you call him is my cousin Waldo Hamilton, who also happens to be my heir.”
He watched with amusement as his friends blinked and glanced once more at Waldo, who was mincing through the steps of a country dance, careful not to hold the lady so close that she mussed his cravat.
“My condolences,” Freddy said with a wince.
“Perhaps he'll get better with age?” Mainwaring asked, his voice rising with the question in a manner that indicated he didn't quite think so.
“He is seven-and-twenty years old,” Trent said dryly. “If he hasn't grown out of the taste for that fashion by now I fear it's too late.”
“I now see how truly lucky I am to be the youngest son,” Freddy said sincerely. “No need to worry about the line of succession so no mixing with family members like that.”
“One of the benefits certainly,” Mainwaring said with a nod. “My heir isn't the sharpest stickpin in the jewel box but he's at leastâ¦”
“Sensible? Able to dress himself without ending up looking like a caricature of a Parisian hairdresser?” Trent shook his head. “As you can see, gentlemen, I cannot allow the dukedom to go into Waldo's hands. He'd likely invest all the income from the home farms in pomade and the tenants would starve to death.”
“He's not that bad, surely,” Freddy said encouragingly. “Perhaps he has hidden depths.”
“Wait until you've had a conversation with the fellow before you make that judgment,” Trent said grimly. “And even if he were to become sensible overnight, I still have to think about the succession. Just because it is my duty.”
“You and your duty,” Mainwaring said with a roll of his eyes. “One of these days you'll realize that sometimes life is about doing what you want. Not just what you're required to do by duty.”
“And sometimes duty and wanting blend together,” Trent said with a speaking look. “Or do you deny that you wed Hermione because of both and not one or the other?”
“It's true,” his friend said without rancor. “In my case the two overlapped. But I can tell you that even if I weren't duty-bound to marry her, I'd have found a way to make it happen regardless. Because I wanted her.”
Trent knew that his friend's situation had been more complicated than he currently made it out to be. And he was happy that both Freddy and Mainwaring had found ladies to whom they could pledge their hearts as well as all their worldly goods. But he wasn't sure such a match was something that he could find for himself. For one thing he knew that with a dukedom at stake he was likely to be besieged with all manner of young ladies who were eager to become his duchess, whether she cared for him as a person or not. And for another, he hadn't the sort of charm Freddy wielded, or the effortless manners that Mainwaring possessed. He was, beneath all the polish of his title, a soldier at heart. And though he'd wooed his share of women with his red coat and a smile, without the uniform he was just another gentleman. At least that's how he felt. No matter how many times he was called your grace.
“Of course you would have,” Freddy said with a nod. “And I have no doubt that Trent will be able to find someone just as we have. It's just a matter of, you know, talking to ladies. Dancing with them.”
“What kind of host doesn't dance at his own ball?” Mainwaring asked with a speaking look at his friend. “You know that the more ladies you interact with, the sooner you'll find someone to prevent that awful twit fromâ”
“Ah, Waldo,” interrupted Trent, as his cousin, now that the dance was finished, approached them with the young lady he'd so lately squired still on his arm. “I hope you are enjoying yourself.”
“May I present Miss Clementina Sutpin, cousin?” Waldo asked with a bow. “She could speak of nothing but you throughout our dance. Miss Sutpin, this is my cousin, the Duke of Trent. And as we discussed, I am his heir.”
The chit's eyes widened at her escort's words. “I'm sure I didn'tÂ â¦ that is to say, I neverâ¦”
Trent dared not look at Freddy or Mainwaring lest he see their undoubtedly droll expressions.
“Miss Sutpin,” he said, bowing over the young lady's hand, which trembled a little. “A pleasure to meet you. I hope you're having a pleasant time.”
Before she could reply, Waldo spoke up. “Of course she is, Duke. And she's quite happy to meet you and your friends as well. These two fine fellows, my dear, are Lord Frederick Lisle, the fifth son of the Duke of Pemberton, and the Earl of Mainwaring.”
The girl's cheeks colored at Waldo's words. “It is a pleasure to meet you, your grace,” she said. Then turning to Freddy and Mainwaring, she added, “And you too, my lords.” Removing her hand from Waldo's arm, though he looked as if he'd like to snatch it back, she continued, “If you gentlemen will excuse me, I need to find my next dance partner.”
And before Waldo could ensnare her once more, she hurried off.
“A well enough looking chit if you discount the nose,” Waldo said to the three men in an undertone. “I'd best be off to find my next partner as well. My thanks for the invitation, cousin. A fine gathering of suitable young ladies here.”
As he too took his leave, the three men exchanged speaking looks.
“I can see why you are determined to marry soon,” Freddy said baldly. “He's an appalling fellow.”
“And I had thought the cravat and pomade were the worst of it,” Mainwaring said, sounding a bit stunned. “But his manner is the worst by far.”
“A definite incentive to find some suitable young lady and get her with child,” Trend agreed, wishing he had a glass of claret to wash away the bad taste. “Can you imagine what sort of progeny he'd foist upon the world?”
Both Freddy and Mainwaring shuddered.
“I thought I'd find the three of you together,” came a lady's voice from behind them. Turning, Trent saw Freddy's wife, Leonora, slipping up beside her husband. “Though you should all be doing your duty by dancing with the wallflowers.”