The Duke’s Virgin Sister by Caroline Lee
Lady Carlotta Merritt,younger sister to the Duke of Cashingham, idly contemplated bashing in the skull of her fiancé. As a family member to a peer of the realm, could she be tried for murder?
Not by anyone who has ever heard the idiot speak, certainly.
“Suffrage? Absolutely ridiculous! It is hard enough to imagine allowing a common man the right to vote, but women? It was a preposterous presentation. I cannot tell you how pleased I am to know your brother would refuse you permission to involve yourself in something so outlandish. I’ll not have my future wife sullied with such ideas.”
Carlotta hummed non-committedly, craning her neck to see around the line of carriages and gigs and landaus crowding the elegant Mayfair neighborhood. Why had they chosen to ride this late in the morning?
Oh, right. Because someone had laughed when she’d suggested he join her for her usual dawn ride through the park.
At least The Idiot had agreed to a ride, rather than being stuffed into one of those claustrophobic carriages they—
“Carlotta, darling, the next time we venture on such an outing, I’m really going to insist we take my gig. The traffic is much too thick for my Brutus.”
Ah. There it was, the controlling nature she’d come to expect from her fiancé, the honorable Baron Dongel. The Idiot.
Still, Carlotta managed a tight smile as she kept her attention on the snarl of vehicles ahead. “Yes, Freddie. Perhaps your Brutus isn’t meant for London in the springtime.”
Brutus…The poor gelding should’ve been named Muffin or Bubbles, or perhaps even Stinky. The animal was clearly struggling under Lord Dongel’s stocky frame and was a far cry from his namesake.
“Darling,” The Idiot called, as Carlotta inched ahead on her own mare, “I’ve asked you repeatedly not to call me Freddie in public. ‘My Lord’ would be acceptable, but I’ll allow ‘Alfred’ when you are overcome with emotion.”
She could just guess what kind of emotion he supposed would overcome her.
He’d be wrong.
A fireplace poker. That ought to make a nice dent in his head. Too bad Cash had all those modern commodes installed—I’d rather have liked to drop a chamber pot on dear Freddie.
But she just tightened her gloved hands around the reins, and gritted her teeth. “I’m so sorry, my lord.”
“I forgive you, Carlotta,” he purred smugly as he trotted up beside her. “I understand some women need to be reminded of the important things in life, and I do not mind acting as your teacher in all things, my dear.”
Or perhaps I could use the chamber pot to be sick in.
“Oh look!” she exclaimed gratefully. “There’s the town house!” As if she hadn’t been straining her eyes hoping for a glimpse of her home and an end to this dreadful experience the whole time. “What a lovely ride, so sad it has come to an end, et cetera.” Without waiting for a response from him, she nudged her mare into a trot, tightened her calf around the pommel—while silently cursing the blasted propriety which meant she couldn’t ride astride—and exhaled in relief.
Alfred, Lord Dongel, The Idiot, kept up with her on Brutus. Of course.
“It is not seemly to canter, darling. Of course, riding through London on a horse when I own a perfectly good gig is unseemly as well. As is the hour. Everyone knows the fashionable hour for riding is the late afternoon— Where are you going?”
Deciding she couldn’t be expected to spend another moment with The Idiot, Carlotta had directed her animal toward the front walk of her brother’s town house, where she’d lived for so long, and where Cash—whom she adored, despite the decade between them—had only recently begun visiting again.
“Carstairs won’t mind,” she called back to Freddie, even knowing that wasn’t his objection.
“Carlotta, the mews are this way.”
Oh, how utterly kind of him to explain the layout of her own home to her!
A trip around to the mews would mean more time spent with Freddie. “Yes, my lord, but I’ll just have Carstairs ask one of the—”
Her explanation died on her lips as she trotted up to the front steps. There was a figure hunched there—a man—a man who looked up as she approached.
A man whose face looked to have already been on the receiving end of a chamber pot or two.
Sucking in a breath, Carlotta reined in her mare as the man looked up at her.
And then she sucked in another breath, because—Dear Lord in Heaven—despite the purple bruises and split lip he sported, he was beautiful. His auburn hair was a bit too long, and Carlotta had never considered freckles to be particularly beautiful, not when they framed a black eye and a nose which had been broken at least once.
Perhaps beautiful was the wrong word.
Dimly, Carlotta realized she must consider all those things beautiful. Otherwise, why would she be sitting here, atop her saddle, staring at him as if he were a painting come to life?
What kind of painter would paint a man like that? Too many muscles, too many freckles, too many bruises. But somehow, they coalesced into a beautiful brute of a man.
Slowly, the man pushed himself upright. He’d been sitting on the second step with his legs spread, his elbows on his knees, and his hands dangling. Now, he straightened as he held her gaze, and Carlotta tried to remember how to breathe.
“Here now,” called The Idiot, finally arriving. “What are you doing here? Go on. Begone with you. This is no place to take your rest!”
For the first time, Carlotta noted the man’s apparel; a suit, not too worn, but not as fine a quality as the one Freddie wore for a simple ride in the park. Was he a laborer, resting on her family’s doorstep in Mayfair? Why hadn’t Carstairs chased him away?
At Freddie’s words, the man stood, slowly unfolding himself from his position, then reached beside him to pick up the hat she hadn’t noticed on the step beside his thigh. The movement drew her eyes to his hand, large and intriguing, as he settled the hat atop his head.
And then he smiled.
It wasn’t a real smile, was over before it began, and it wasn’t even directed at Carlotta, but she had to swallow down a whimper all the same.
“Forgive me, milord.” The man didn’t sound at all sorry or obsequious. “I’m no’ resting. I’m waiting.”
He spoke with a Scottish accent. She supposed she shouldn’t be surprised, not with that red hair and freckles. Of course, her own sister-in-law, Cash’s wife Raina, hailed from the Highlands, and Carlotta vowed, in that moment, to search out as many Scottish men as possible and just make them talk at her.
“Waiting? Waiting for what?” Freddie demanded, turning Brutus in a tight circle irritably, a sign he was angry.
The stranger’s gaze was back on Carlotta, and she couldn’t decide if his eyes were brown or green. “Waiting for the butler of this fancy heap to decide I’m worth allowing in.”
He was attempting to gain entrance to her home, and Carstairs was preventing him?
Well, could she blame the butler? The man looked like some sort of ruffian. A well-dressed ruffian, and certainly a handsome one, but he was only two steps removed from being covered in blood, wielding a claymore and yodeling some fierce battle cry, while dressed in a kilt which showed off his—
You’re daydreaming again.
Carlotta forced herself to drop her gaze and swing down from her saddle, remembering too late that she was pretending to be a lady, and ladies required assistance to do something as simple as fall off a horse.
“Carlotta!” gasped The Idiot from behind her. “You should have waited for me. I’ll be there to help you shortly.”
Right. Alfred, Lord Dong-el, likely required help getting himself out of the saddle.
Ignoring her fiancé—and pleased for the excuse—Carlotta kept hold of the reins and ducked under the mare’s neck to stand before the stranger.
“And why are you demanding entrance to this ‘fancy heap,’ sir?” she asked as she approached the steps. And the man.
He didn’t hurry to snatch his hat from his head, or bow, or any of the indicators Carlotta was used to when she dealt with shopkeepers and businessmen. Instead, he brushed his coat out of the way and planted his hands on his hips.
“I’ve been invited.”
It took her a moment to understand he was answering her question. “By whom?”
Obviously not Carstairs, although someone who looked like this could’ve been invited by Mrs. McGee easily enough. But if he was applying for a position in the household, he was definitely going about it in the wrong way.
Perhaps her thoughts showed in her expression, because the man’s lips slowly curled into a small smile, a real one. “By the duke,” he offered mockingly.
And yes, her brows rose. If he was lying, he was very convincing.
“Preposterous!” blustered The Idiot, having finally removed his rear end from the horse, now bustled and over to stand beside her. “The Duke of Cashingham is not in the habit of receiving common laborers in his home, sir! Be on your way.”
There was nothing common about this man, and surprisingly incensed on the stranger’s behalf, Carlotta turned to her fiancé. “Do not presume you know my brother’s habits, my lord,” she snapped, which was not at all ladylike.
As Freddie’s face turned an alarming puce, she heard a small chuckle. The stranger was still smiling.
“Yer brother, eh? That’d make ye Carlotta?”
Was that smile, however compelling, a sign of mockery? Carlotta fell back on the haughtiness her mother had tried to drum into her since the cradle. “Lady Carlotta.”
It was entirely Not Done for her to be introducing herself, and she couldn’t very well demand the man’s name, not standing out on the doorstep of her family’s Mayfair mansion, her horse nudging her between the shoulder blades…but Freddie felt no such compunction.
“How dare you, sir. Give me your name so I might have you arrested and removed!”
The stranger ignored Freddie, his gaze still holding hers.
Hazel, she decided. His eyes were a lovely hazel color, somehow familiar.
One corner of his lips twitched again, and he inclined his head slightly. It wasn’t a bow, especially not with him standing so arrogantly—goodness, his shoulders were wide, weren’t they?—but it made Carlotta’s stomach flutter anyhow.
“Oliphant.” The word shot from his split lip abruptly, as if wrenched. “Keith Oliphant.”
Raina, her sister-in-law, was from the Oliphant clan, but Carlotta recognized the name for more than that reason alone.
Keith Oliphant, the Battling Bastard. Bare-knuckled champion and winner of the fight with Harris not two days ago…and he was on her doorstep!
Likely the wrong time to admit she followed the unladylike habit of filching the sporting broadsheets and periodicals from one of the footmen. Mother would be appalled to know she knew her way around below-stairs, much less the reason why.
Unbidden, her gaze dropped to his shoulders, then skimmed across the corded muscles she could see above his collar. His chest was wide, his waist and hips narrow; this was clearly a man who had trained for years to reach the level of physique—the level of success—he had achieved.
It wasn’t until her gaze reached his thighs that she realized what she was doing. But before she could snap her eyes elsewhere, he proved he was no gentleman.
“Like what ye see, lass?”
Oh dear Lord in Heaven.
Her cheeks exploded into color, but rather than dragging her gaze back up to where they belonged, she whirled about, presenting him with her back as she suddenly pretended her mare’s mane was utterly fascinating. There. Let him think she was haughtily rude.
Better that than he guess her secret fascination.
As she lifted her gloved hand to her horse’s neck, hoping it would look as if she were more interested in her animal than she was in him, she heard his small chuckle. Or perhaps it was a snort, or merely an exhale. Whatever the sound was, it proved he wasn’t fooled by her prevarication.
Of course, she could always count on Freddie to be pompous and ridiculous. “See here, Oliphant! I am not sure why you think His Grace would see you—”
In a moment of impeccable timing, Carlotta heard the door open and Carstairs’s voice boomed from the top step. “Mister Oliphant, His Grace will see you now.”
As The Idiot blustered, Carlotta snuck a peek over her shoulder. The stodgy butler was indeed holding the door open for England’s bare-knuckled champion, who was already bounding up the stairs, all that coiled energy finally free to be released.
He never even glanced back in her direction.
No, no, that is a good thing.
Unfortunately, she was a terrible liar, even to herself.
“Lady Carlotta,” the butler intoned from the top of the steps, “your brother has requested your presence in the pink drawing room after you refresh yourself. I will have the boy see to your horse.”
Well, at least something was going her way. After Cash finished his discussion with Keith Oliphant, he must expect to meet her to discuss—to discuss—
Well, actually, she didn’t care what it was they discussed, as long as she had an excuse to sit with him for a bit. He was always so busy on his London visits, and she so missed her years at Cashingham. Any time she was able to spend with him here was precious, and besides, it meant a ready excuse to get rid of Freddie.
“Oh dear,” she managed, trying to appear disappointed when she faced her unwanted fiancé. A lad gently slipped the reins from her hand and began to lead her mare around to the mews, but Freddie was struggling to contain his own gelding. “My brother’s summons is ever so important, you understand, Freddie?”
“Alfred, darling,” he corrected distractedly. “And yes, I suppose it is for the best.” He managed to capture her hand. “You will remember to mention my investment suggestion, Carlotta.”
It wasn’t a question, but a demand, and she managed a smile. “Of course, darling. My brother knows you have need of funds now, before your uncle, the earl, passes away.”
The barb was apparently too subtle because Freddie didn’t flinch. Instead, he leaned forward as if to kiss her.
In broad daylight.
On the street.
Having already experienced one of his kisses—the word “frog” always came to mind when she thought of it—Carlotta didn’t have to fake the maidenly hesitation which had her pulling away. “My lord!”
He chuckled drily, then yanked once more to get his horse under control. “You can play the tease all you want, darling, but soon we will be married and you’ll be my responsibility. Your mother and brother are very much in favor of joining our lauded bloodlines, and I know the duke will appreciate me taking you in hand.”
He didn’t say it this time but didn’t need to. He’d said it often enough before, and Carlotta knew the promise of one day becoming the Countess of Blasingcourt wasn’t reason enough to give up what few freedoms she currently enjoyed.
Her smile had frozen, but Freddie didn’t seem to notice. Instead, he bent over her hand and she was pleased for the kid leather which stood between her skin and his lips.
“Until next week, darling,” he murmured.
Sighing, she asked, “Next week?”
“The Worthington Ball.” He winked as he straightened. “You couldn’t possibly forget the social event of the month, could you? I shall assume being in my presence has chased it from your mind, and not that you are as scatter-brained as most of the females in my experience.” His grin was likely supposed to be charming. “I, for one, cannot wait to appear before all of Society with the Duke of Cashingham’s beautiful sister on my arm.”
The Duke of Cashingham’s beautiful sister. That’s who she was to Alfred, Lord Dongel, sole heir to the Earl of Blasingcourt, and her fiancé.
His position in Society, his friends, and his soon-to-be-earldom had all made him quite The Catch, according to her mother. Of course, Mother had never spent an hour listening to his disgusting views on a woman’s place or—God forbid—endured his kisses.
“Of course,” she managed; her throat tight with anger. “And it will do wonders for my reputation to be seen with you, my lord.”
That wasn’t exactly untrue; Lady Carlotta Merritt’s reputation could always use a bit of bolstering, and being seen on the arm of a Darling of Society—Mother’s phrase—likely couldn’t hurt.
She didn’t wait for his acknowledgment but turned and gathered her skirts, ready to flee to the Ghastly Pink Drawing Room, as she’d termed her mother’s favorite place to hold court. As she did, she heard Freddie’s appreciative chuckle at her weak words of praise.
Well, I suppose I’m not a terrible liar after all.