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Never a Duke
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Ned Wentworth will be forever grateful to the family that plucked him from the streets and gave him a home, even though polite society still whispers years later about his questionable past. Precisely because of Ned’s connections in low places, Lady Rosalind Kinwood approaches him to help her find a lady’s maid who has disappeared.
Rosalind is too opinionated—and too intelligent—and has frequently suffered judgment at the hands of polite society. Despite her family’s disdain for Ned, Rosalind finds he listens to her and respects her. Then too, his kisses are exquisite. As the investigation of the missing maids becomes more dangerous, both Ned and Rosalind will have to risk everything—including their hearts—if they are to share the happily ever after that Mayfair’s matchmakers have begrudged them both.
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“She smelled like Hyde Park,” Artie said. “And she were pretty.”
Artie was the newest and youngest of the Wentworth bank messengers, a dark-eyed imp of indeterminate years with a curious affinity for soap and water. In Ned Wentworth’s experience, cleanliness was an acquired habit for children consigned to London’s streets.
Artie, unlike Ned himself, had taken to regular bathing with the enthusiasm of a schoolgirl shopping for hair ribbons.
“This woman smelled like horse droppings?” Lord Stephen Wentworth asked.
“Nah, milord. Not like the streets, like the park.” Artie raised his little paw as if to wipe his nose on the back of his wrist.
Ned passed him a monogrammed handkerchief. “Do you mean she bore the fragrance of fresh air and greenery?”
“She smelled like spring,” Artie said, snatching the linen and honking into it. “All sweet and sunny.” He folded the handkerchief and held it out to Ned. “Thanks, guv.”
Stephen was milord, while Ned was guv, and thus it would ever be. “Keep it, lad,” Ned said. “So the lady wore a lovely fragrance, was pretty, and passed you a note that you were to give directly to me?”
“Was she pretty like a fine lady,” Lord Stephen asked, “or pretty like the women outside the theaters of an evening?”
Artie looked affronted. “She weren’t no whore. She got into a fancy coach with crests on the doors and boot. Whores don’t have crested carriages. She thanked me and give me tuppence for my trouble.”
To a child like Artie, the thanks would mean almost as much as the coin. “You’ve done well, Arthur,” Ned said, “and my thanks for your discretion. Keep an eye out for that fancy coach, and if you see it again let me know.”
Artie had the most cherubic smile, all bashful and innocent, which was doubtless why the schools for pickpockets had been haggling over which one would recruit him. And Artie, already wise to the ways of the streets, would have considered that training vastly preferable to many other ways of earning his bread.
“On your way,” Lord Stephen said, gesturing with his cane toward the door. “And keep mum, my boy. This is bank business.”
The lads took pride in protecting the bank’s privacy, as had Ned when he’d been a boy with a bottomless belly and little ability to safeguard himself.
Lord Stephen waited until Artie had withdrawn before taking a seat on the tufted sofa near the fireplace. Ned’s office was comfortable, not quite luxurious. The bank’s owner, Quinton, Duke of Walden, didn’t go in for ostentation in commercial establishments, or much of anywhere.
“So what does she say?” Lord Stephen, His Grace’s brother and heir, didn’t go in for allowing anybody privacy. He would not snatch the note from Ned, but only because his lordship relied on canes for balance, and Ned wasn’t above shoving Stephen onto his handsome arse if the situation called for it.
The situation, alas, hadn’t called for it for years.
Ned sniffed the note. “The wax is scented with roses.” And the seal wasn’t the usual reddish blob, but rather, lavender and sporting an impression of a rose. Ned slit the seal with a thumbnail.
Mr. Wentworth, if you will attend me at 2 of the clock today on the third bench along the Serpentine, I will make it worth your while.
Ned passed Stephen the note.
“A summons from a woman, Neddy? You aren’t going, are you? We will never see you again, and Hercules will be bereft.”
Hercules was a mastiff belonging to Stephen’s wife. The canine would pine for a joint of beef longer than he would for Ned.
“You certainly heed any summons your darling Abigail issues,” Ned said. That Stephen—brilliant, contrary, lame, and opinionated—had found wedded bliss two years past rankled. True, he was a handsome devil, charming when it suited him, titled, and wealthy, but still.
Stephen wasn’t easy company, while Ned had worked tirelessly on his manners and deportment, and could make small talk with dowagers by the hour.
“Abigail is my dearest lady wife,” Stephen retorted. “You have no idea who this woman is, or what her purpose is, if indeed, a woman sent that note. You don’t need coin, so what could she offer you that makes such a risk worth taking?”
“That doesn’t matter.” Ned inventoried his appearance in the cheval mirror and smoothed down his cravat. “I can do with a walk, and it’s a pretty day.” Then too, walking meant his Meddling Nuisance-ship would remain at the bank.
“Stubborn,” Stephen muttered. “Stubborn, opinionated, difficult, and too smart for your own good.”
“You forgot handsome.” Ned selected a mahogany walking stick with a lead weight secreted in the carved lion’s-head handle. “Her Grace says I have slumberous eyes and a noble nose.”
“You have shifty eyes and a great, arrogant beak. Be careful, Neddy. I don’t like cryptic notes or assignations with women who drive about in fancy coaches.”
Ned tapped his top hat onto his head. “You’re jealous because I have a mystery to solve.” He tilted the hat an inch to the left, a nod to his bachelor status.
“I fear for your life and you insult me. Take the dog. The lads are walking him for me.”
“The lads are doubtless spoiling the beast rotten and neglecting their duties.” Bickering with Stephen was an old habit though no longer the pleasure it had once been.
Stephen held his forearm to his brow. “Not neglecting their duties! Heaven forefend small boys should get some fresh air on a fine day. Clap me in irons for corrupting the morals of a lot of budding thieves and pickpockets! Summon the beadle!”
Ned extracted another monogrammed handkerchief from a desk drawer and folded it into his pocket. “They aren’t budding thieves or pickpockets anymore. Will I see you at supper tomorrow?”
Once a month, Ned endured supper with Stephen and his ducal brother at their club. The agenda was a combination of bank business and family tattle, though Ned had only a small ownership interest in the bank, and wasn’t family in any biological sense.
“Her Grace will fret if her menfolk neglect their monthly supper,” Stephen said, pushing to his feet. “I could go to the park in your place, Neddy.”
“The note was sent specifically to me.” Why? By whom? A lady fallen on hard times could have had Ned quietly call upon her at home, a service conscientious bankers routinely performed for valued customers.
Stephen took up his second walking stick. “Abigail says you need a wife.”
“As it happens, she’s right.”
Dark brows rose. “You admit that holy matrimony would enhance your happiness?”
Stephen apparently intended to see personally that Ned took the dratted dog to the park.
“I admit that I am of age and of independent means. The next move up the ladder of respectability is to make an advantageous match.”
They quit the office, though Stephen’s limitations meant their progress down the carpeted corridor was decorous.
“You make marriage sound like a step in the quadrille of social advancement,” Stephen said. “That’s not how it’s supposed to be. And stop dawdling. My latest knee brace is the best of the lot so far, but I think ball bearings will improve it further still.”
Stephen strode ahead, and Ned wanted to swat him with his walking stick. For as long as they’d known each other—well over a decade—Stephen had been troubled by a bad knee. He still used two canes, but his recent creation of braces for the knee meant he also moved more freely and suffered much less pain.
These developments were cause for general rejoicing, though Ned was honest enough with himself to admit to some resentment as well. One advantage he’d always had over Stephen was nimbleness. Petty, to look for ways to put himself above another man, but Ned had been a boy when he’d met the Wentworths, a convicted felon awaiting transportation.
Advantages and disadvantages could be the difference between life and death, and that was not a lesson Ned would ever forget.
“I’ll have the lads deliver Hercules to you before dark,” Ned said, for it was bank policy that the boys were in their dormitory by sunset. Their presence on bank premises protected the property, and denying the boys access to the streets after dark protected them too.
The better to entertain them, they were also subjected to two hours of lessons after supper. Since Ned had instituted that routine, he’d had much less trouble with boys sneaking out at night. That the lessons always ended with the tutor reading a rousing story or myth was merest coincidence.
“Will Arthur do, Neddy?” Stephen asked, as they emerged from the bank’s side entrance.
Edward. My name is Edward Wentworth. Ned had had another name before being taken up for thievery as a child. A name he never spoke aloud.
“Time will tell,” he said, pulling on his gloves. “Artie is canny, has a memory that won’t quit, and has the knack of making the other lads laugh. I hope he stays.”
Ned hoped they all stayed, though too often, they didn’t. Achieving respectability was a long, hard, lonely climb, with many perils and endless temptations to lead a fellow astray.
One of the older messengers brought Hercules over from a patch of shade on the street corner.
“Watch out for our Neddy,” Lord Stephen instructed the dog. “He goes to rescue a damsel in distress.”
Or to put a silly woman in her place. Ned had little patience with spoiled society women, though he would always be polite to them. The terse note, though, had piqued his curiosity. He did not need money, he did not need another riding horse, or even a commodious home. His material wants were met to a degree that would have staggered his younger self.
So what could a wellborn lady have that would make troubling on her behalf worth Ned’s while? He gathered up the dog’s leash, bowed a farewell to Lord Stephen, and strode off for the park.
When he arrived, he was reminded of Burns’s admonition about the best-laid plans, for on the third bench along the bank of the Serpentine sat none other than Lady Rosalind Kinwood in all her prim, tidy glory.
She was a stranger to distress unless she was instigating it, and she was the furthest thing from a damsel. Her devotion to various causes was both articulate and unwavering. Her ladyship of course occupied the one bench in all of London she should not occupy at the one hour when Ned needed her to be elsewhere.
He bowed and touched a finger to his hat brim. “My lady, good day. Might I join you for a moment? The water makes a lovely prospect and the dog could use the respite.”
She twitched her skirts aside. “We haven’t much time. I sent my companion off to purchase corn for the waterfowl, and she’ll be back any minute.”
Doom yawned before Ned, the same sensation that had enveloped him when as a boy, he’d been grabbed by the collar after a bungled attempt at snatching a purse. One blunder, and he’d been tossed into Newgate, his life over, his prospects forever ruined.
Lady Rosalind wasn’t nearly so dire a fate, but not for lack of trying. She was the scourge of the fortune hunters, the worst nightmare of climbing cits, the subject of witty pub songs, and the despair of the matchmakers.
Ned unfastened Hercules’s leash, and let the dog go nosing off along the bank. “You sent me that note?”
“Don’t you dare sit,” she snapped. “Your presumption will be noted by every busybody in the Home Counties, and the gossips will have us engaged before Monday.”
Clearly, an awful fate as far as her ladyship was concerned, and Ned agreed with her. “I heeded your plea for help out of an abundance of gentlemanly concern. Say your piece and nobody need fear Monday’s arrival.”
She huffed out a sigh, and because Ned was studying the curve of her resolute jaw, he noticed what he assumed half the bachelors in London had noticed late at night after a few honesty-inducing brandies: Lady Rosalind, for all her tart tongue and waspish opinions, was well formed, and her features would not have been out of place on a Renaissance tapestry. Beauty like that could entice otherwise wary unicorns to have a closer look.
The Almighty was nothing, if not perverse in His generosity.
She watched the dog, who snuffled about the reeds near the water’s edge. “My lady’s maid has gone missing.”
“So you summoned a banker? Did she go missing in a Wentworth establishment?”
“Don’t be odious. Bad things happen to young women who go missing.”
“Elopements?” Ned replied. “New posts? A return to village life and the adoring swain who pined endlessly when his beloved left him for the blandishments of the capital?”
Lady Rosalind rose. “You trivialize a tragedy, Mr. Wentworth. I thought you would understand. Arbuckle is a village girl, but she’s been in London long enough to know its dangers. She needed her wages, and believe me, the post paid well.”
And she had the effrontery to leave your employ without notice? But no, Ned could not say that. He might never be a gentleman in the eyes of Mayfair society, but he could be civil to an obviously upset woman.
“What exactly is it that you expect me to do?”
Lady Rosalind gave him a brooding perusal. She was neither tall nor short, but she carried her ire before her like regimental colors. Her temper directed itself to bumbling younger sons, drunken baronets, the monarch’s extravagances, and countless other targets. In the main, Ned agreed with her exasperation, as some of her peers doubtless did.
But a young lady did not remark on such matters until she was safely married and presiding over her nursery, and then she mentioned them only by delicate allusions in the hearing of her closest friends.
“I had hoped you could find her,” Lady Rosalind said. “I cannot. I have tried, but the grooms and crossing sweepers won’t talk to me. My brothers won’t listen to me, and my father is threatening to send me to take the waters with Aunt Ida. Arbuckle has nobody else to worry for her, and she could be in very great danger.”
Ned whistled for the dog, who trotted to his side like the well-trained beast he was. “And you believe the crossing sweepers and such will talk to me?” He’d been managing the Wentworth banks since finishing that purgatory known as university studies. He had some wealth of his own; he spoke French, German, and Mayfair passably well, and he was accounted a competent dancer.
But Lady Rosalind had sought him out because his native language was Cockney and his home shire was the stews. Still. Society never flung his origins in his face, but they never flung their marriageable daughters at him either.
“Arbuckle is pretty,” Lady Rosalind said, gaze fixed on the mirror-calm surface of the Serpentine. “She has lovely features and a quick mind. She’s sweet and quiet, not like me, and that means she’s at greater risk of harm.”
Ned sensed in Lady Rosalind’s words an admission of sorts, an insight into the woman whom most of society invited to their gatherings out of unwillingness to offend her titled father.
“You fear for her.”
“I do, terribly.”
The calm façade wavered, as Hercules panted gently at Ned’s side. For an instant Lady Rosalind looked not affronted, not impatient, not any of her usual repertoire of prickly expressions, but desperate.
Ned knew desperation well and hated it in all its guises. That Lady Rosalind, termagant at large and spinster without compare, was in the grip of desperation affronted him.
“I’ll see what I can find out.”
“Thank you.” Two words, though like all of Lady Rosalind’s other pronouncements, Ned believed she meant them. “There is more to the situation than I can convey at the moment, and I am beyond worried.”
“I apprehend that your companion approaches.” At a good clip, just shy of a trot. “I will shop tomorrow at Hatchards among the biographies at ten of the clock. Prepare to recount for me all you know of the situation.”
He snapped the leash back onto Hercules’s collar.
“Thank you, Mr. Wentworth. Thank you so very much.”
Ned tipped his hat and sauntered on his way, though some dim back corner of his heart put those words of thanks in a special hiding place, where they would be well guarded and much treasured.
* * *
The problem with Ned Wentworth was his eyes.
Rosalind came to that conclusion as she pretended to browse a biography of a long-dead monarch. She had come to the bookstore early, the better to ensure that her companion, Mrs. Amelia Barnstable, was thoroughly engrossed in the travelogues two floors above the biographies.
Ned Wentworth dressed with a gentleman’s exquisite sense of fashion, and he spoke and comported himself with a gentleman’s faultless manners.
But his eyes did not gaze out upon the world with a gentleman’s condescending detachment. Rosalind’s brothers, by contrast, had learned by the age of eight how to glance, peruse, peer, and otherwise take only a casual visual inventory of life, and then to pretend that nothing very interesting or important graced the scene.
Certainly nothing as interesting or important as her brothers themselves.
Ned Wentworth looked and he saw. His visual appraisals were frank and thorough, as if everything before him, from Rosalind’s reticule, to a great panting behemoth of a dog, to a swan gliding across the Serpentine’s placid surface, were so many entries in a ledger that wanted tallying.
His eyes were a soft, mink brown, his hair the same color as Rosalind’s. On him the hue was sable, of a piece with his watchful eyes and sober gentleman’s attire. On her the color was a lamentable brown, according to Aunt Ida. He was on the tall side, but not a towering specimen like the Duke of Walden, and not a fashionable dandy like the duke’s younger brother.
Ned Wentworth’s eyes said he’d somehow held out against domestication, unlike his adopted family, who had famously come from lowly origins to occupy a very high station. He prowled through life with a wild creature’s confidence and vigilance, even as he partnered wellborn ladies through quadrilles and met their papas for meals in the clubs.
“She was quite the schemer, wasn’t she?”
Rosalind turned to behold those serious brown eyes gazing at her. Up close, Ned Wentworth was a sartorial tribute to understated elegance. His attire had no flourishes—no flashy cravat pin, no excessive lace, no jewels in the handle of his walking stick.
His scent was similarly subtle, a hint of green meadows, a whisper of honeysuckle. Rosalind hadn’t heard his approach, but she’d be able to identify him by scent in pitch darkness.
“Queen Elizabeth was devious,” Rosalind replied, “but she died a peaceful death after nearly achieving her three-score and ten. We must account her a successful schemer.”
“Are you a successful schemer, my lady?”
Rosalind closed the book and replaced it on the shelf. “Do you attempt to flirt with me, Mr. Wentworth?”
The biographies were unpopular, hence the conversation was not overheard. Had Ned Wentworth known that would be the case?
“If I were attempting to flirt with you, you’d likely cosh me over the head with yonder tome. Tell me about Arbuckle.”
Rosalind withdrew a folded sketch from her reticule. “A likeness. I am no portraitist, but Francine Arbuckle was willing to serve as my model on many occasions. She has no family in London, and the last I saw of her, my companion had sent her to retrieve a pair of dancing slippers from a shop near Piccadilly.”
“Specifics, please. What shop?”
Rosalind endured an interrogation, and Mr. Wentworth’s methodical inquiries helped her sort recollection from conjecture.
“I told you I tried to talk to the crossing sweepers,” she said, when she’d recounted all she could remember regarding Arbuckle’s disappearance. “They acted as if conversing with me would turn them to stone.”
“They might have had trouble comprehending your words, my lady. They know their Cockney and cant, and can recite you bawdy poems without number, but drawing room elocution eludes them.”
“It eluded me for years as well. I developed a stammer after my mother’s death. My governess was horrified.” Rosalind was horrified. She never alluded to her stammer, while her brothers never let her forget it.
Mr. Wentworth frowned. “You stuttered?”
“For years. My brothers used to tease me unmercifully. Then my father hired a Welshwoman as my drawing master, and she taught me to think of speaking as recitativo. I do not stammer when I sing, and if I can hear a melody…” Rosalind fell silent, for she was prattling.
That her usual self-possession had deserted her was Ned Wentworth’s fault, because after he posed a question, he listened to the lady’s answer, and the whole time, he gazed at her as if her words mattered.
Very bad of him. “This isn’t helping us to find Arbuckle,” Rosalind said.
“Your secret is safe with me.” He chose a book at random from the shelves. “Bankers learn more secrets than I ever aspired to know. We keep them close or soon go out of business.”
He made a handsome picture, leafing through the book. Rosalind would like to sketch him thus, not that his appearance mattered one whit. “What sort of secrets?”
He turned a page. “Who has set up a discreet trust fund for a mere godchild. Who is one Season away from ruin. Who has abruptly changed solicitors, such as might happen when the first firm is unwilling to suborn a bit of perjury or sharp practice.”
Polite society kept Ned Wentworth at a slight distance, and Rosalind had always attributed that lack of welcome to his past. He was rumored to have met His Grace of Walden during the duke’s little misunderstanding with the authorities, the little misunderstanding that had landed His Grace on a Newgate scaffold with a noose about his neck. The duke had been plain Mr. Quinton Wentworth at the time, and appallingly wealthy.
His Grace was even wealthier now, but still Ned Wentworth’s past did not recommend him to the matchmakers. Neither, apparently, did his present.
“No wonder they are all afraid of you,” Rosalind said. “You could ruin the lot of them.”
He turned another page. “You are not afraid of me.”
They were wandering far afield from the topic of Arbuckle’s disappearance, and Rosalind had more information to convey. And yet, to converse with Mr. Wentworth was interesting. Rosalind was usually reduced to argument, lecture, small talk, or exhortation with men. That she gave as good as she got in each category only seemed to make the situation worse.
“Why would I be afraid of you?” Rosalind asked. “You are a gentleman and you have agreed to help me.”
He closed the book. “Your oldest brother is habitually in dun territory, Lady Rosalind, and your younger brother is barely managing on a generous allowance, very likely because he’s trying to keep the firstborn son and heir out of the sponging house. I thought you should know this before I undertake a search for Miss Arbuckle.”
The words made sense, but they were rendered in such polite, unassuming tones that Rosalind needed a moment to find the meaning in them.
“Do you expect me to pay you?” Rosalind had money, because wasting coin on fripperies was beyond her, and Papa had little clue what it cost to clothe a lady, much less to run his own household.
“Of course not.” Mr. Wentworth shoved the book back onto the shelf. “If your family is short of coin, then the sooner I put your mind at ease regarding remuneration for my efforts, the less likely you are to fret.”
Fret? Whatever was he getting at? “You are being too delicate for my feeble female brain, Mr. Wentworth. Plain speech would be appreciated.”
He selected another book, as casually as if he truly were browsing the biographies. “You promised in your note that if I heeded your summons, you would make it worth my while. A simple request for aid would have sufficed, my lady. You need not coerce me with coin.”
- "Grace Burrowes is terrific!"—Julia Quinn, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Bridgerton series
- “A soft, sweet love between kind, thoughtful, and intelligent characters.”—Kirkus
“A slow-burn romance full of understated yet heart-aching yearning. Burrowes’s writing style evokes classic Regency romance with its witty repartee … Tortured-yet-tender Ned is an unforgettable hero.”
—BookPage, Starred Review
- “Burrowes expertly peels back her characters’ layers to reveal their inner depths while highlighting the facades they present to maintain their positions in London society. Regency fans will delight in this fast-paced mix of love, social commentary, and suspense.”—Publishers Weekly
“The mystery is intriguing, and it is a special delight to watch two social outsiders, both possessed of an independent spirit, determination, and a social conscience, triumph over adversity and find love… Highly recommended.”—Historical Novel Society
- "The flawed, realistic characters and their witty, flirtatious banter make for an immersive romance. Series fans will be delighted."—Publishers Weekly on How to Catch a Duke
- "Readers will root for the fierce, resolute Constance and passionate Robert as they bond over their shared pasts and mutual determination to overcome adversity and stigma. Burrowes takes her series to new heights with this tender, turbulent romance."—Publishers Weekly, starred review on The Truth About Dukes
- "The latest in Burrowes's stunning Rogues to Riches Regency-era series shines as a standout in the historical romance subgenre but is also a powerful story all on its own...Highly recommended."—Library Journal, starred review, on A Duke by Any Other Name
- On Sale
- Apr 26, 2022
- Page Count
- 400 pages