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As a captain in the army, Colin MacHugh led men, fixed what was broken, and fought hard. Now that he’s a titled gentleman, he’s still fighting — this time to keep his bachelorhood safe from all the marriage-minded debutantes. Then he meets the intriguing Miss Anwen Windham, whose demure nature masks a bonfire waiting to roar to life. When she asks for his help to raise money for the local orphanage, he’s happy to oblige.
Anwen is amazed at how quickly Lord Colin takes in hand a pack of rambunctious orphan boys. Amazed at how he actually listens to her ideas. Amazed at the thrill she gets from the rumble of his Scottish burr and the heat of his touch. But not everyone enjoys the success of an upstart. And Colin has enemies who will stop at nothing to ruin him and anybody he holds dear.
“Sexy heroes, strong heroines, intelligent plots, enchanting love stories…Grace Burrowes’s romances have them all.” — Mary Balogh, New York Times bestselling author
“Grace Burrowes is a romance treasure.” –Tessa Dare, New York Times bestselling author
I am having a wonderful time frolicking with my Windham friends again, but this joy wouldn’t be possible without a lot of hard work and support from the good folks at Grand Central/Forever. My editor, Leah Hultenschmidt, has been particularly kind and patient as I navigate waters both new and exciting. To Michelle Cashman, Lexi Smail, and the rest of the crew, many thanks, and now I wish Uncle Anthony and Aunt Gladys had had more children!
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single gentleman in possession of a great fortune— Damn it, woman,” Winthrop Montague bellowed, “where’s my ale?”
“And in possession of a title!” somebody called from across the tavern’s longest table.
“And damned fine looks!” his mate added.
“And a strapping bay gelding I’m keen to win over a hand of cards!”
Much rapping on the tabletop ensued, along with by-joves and hear-hears, until Lord Colin MacHugh’s head throbbed to the beat of all this gentlemanly bonhomie.
“As I was saying,” Montague went on, gesturing grandly with his tankard and sloshing ale on the floor. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single gentleman in possession of a great fortune, must be in want of a passionate, beautiful, inventive, affectionate…”
“Mistress!” the company yelled.
“Two mistresses, so he don’t wear ’em out too quick!”
“When you have as much good fortune as Lord Colin does, you should hire entire brothels and invite all your friends along as a gesture of charity toward the less fortunate!”
When you had as much good fortune as Lord Colin, you apparently were expected to hire the equivalent of entire public houses.
The harried young woman serving the dozen men who’d accompanied Colin and Montague from the club emerged from the kitchen for the hundredth time in two hours. She ferried a set of full tankards over from the bar and swiped aside a lock of dark hair with the back of her wrist.
One of Montague’s friends pulled her into his lap. “I can’t afford a mistress, my lovely, but I can show you a very fine time for tuppence.”
“D’you suppose that’s why they call it tupping?” Baron Twillinger asked. He’d reached the philosophical stage of inebriation while his companion, Lord Hector Pierpont, was still in the amorous phase.
Colin was not inebriated, though he was profoundly bored.
“If your lordship don’t mind,” the tavern maid said, wiggling against Pierpont’s hold, “I’m not that sort of girl.”
“You’re all that sort of girl if the price is right,” Pierpont replied, chasing her chin with the puckered lips of a hungry mackerel. “Am I right?”
“You’re right,” Twilly replied. “I’m foxed.”
“My lord, please let me go,” the girl said, struggling in earnest.
“I’ll let you go, as soon as you let me come,” her gin-Romeo retorted, groping her breast.
“Pierpont.” Colin tried for that blend of condescension, good humor, and command that came so easily to the true aristocrat. “If she’s busy accommodating your prodigious appetites, she can’t very well tend to the rest of us, can she? And we will provide her much more than tuppence to keep the ale and port flowing.”
“He’s got you there, Pointy,” the baron said, raising his tankard. “A round to Lord Colin’s superior intellect!”
Pierpont let go of the girl, and from across the table, Montague acknowledged a competent display of authority—or wealth—with a slight smile.
Colin signaled the serving maid with a tilt of his head, and that gesture—perfected in cantinas and public houses all across Portugal, Spain, France, and the Low Countries—earned him her cautious approach.
Smart woman—smart, exhausted woman. This impromptu drinking party had started a good two hours ago, and so far, Colin had found it a waste of time, coin, and decent ale. One didn’t say that, of course, not when one was a newly titled Scottish lord learning to keep company with English aristocrats.
“Have the stable boy bring my horse around,” Colin said, keeping his voice low. “I ride a blood bay, about seventeen hands with two white socks. Tell your master that Lord Colin MacHugh would rather the proprietor served us himself from this point onward.”
“I’ll get a cuff on me ’ead for telling me master—”
“Pierpont will get you a babe in your belly,” Colin said, slipping the girl a few coins. “My brother is the Duke of Murdoch, and the publican will want to remain in my good graces.”
“The Duke of Murder?”
How Hamish hated that sobriquet, but Colin would use it to keep this serving maid from ruin.
“The very one, and if anything happens to him, that title becomes mine. Away with you now, love.”
She curtsied and moved off, and because Colin was a newly titled Scottish lord in the company of his English peers, he pretended to watch her backside as she sashayed away.
Then he yawned—the first expression of genuine sentiment on his part since he’d sat down with Montague and his friends.
* * *
Mr. Wilbur Hitchings heaved a sigh of such theatrical proportions, Anwen Windham suspected he’d rehearsed it.
“A lady of your breeding and refinement shouldn’t be bothered with financial matters,” he said, shuffling papers on the lectern before him, “though the general conclusion is simple enough: Charities need benefactors. Your good intentions are helpful and commendable, et cetera and so forth. Nevertheless, good intentions do not pay the coal man or keep growing boys in boots and breeches.”
Anwen refused to sit quietly and be condescended to as if she were a recalcitrant scholar. She set about straightening the rows of desks and chairs before Hitchings’s podium because the headmaster of the Home for Wayward Urchins couldn’t be bothered to restore order in the empty classroom.
“You were hired by the board of directors for your expertise in managing charitable establishments for children,” Anwen said. “How do you propose we address the shortage of funds?”
Hitchings peered at her over gold-rimmed half-spectacles. “Madam, I was hired because I have a firm grasp of the curriculum necessary to shape useful young men from brats and pickpockets. Financial matters are the province of the directors.”
Hitchings had a firm grasp of the birch rod and the Old Testament. At meal times, he had a firm grasp of his bottle of claret.
“Your efforts with the boys could not be more appreciated,” Anwen replied. “I had hoped, based on your years of experience, you might have fundraising suggestions for a lady who’d like to see the House of Urchins thriving well into the future—under your guiding hand, of course.”
She let that sink in—if the House of Urchins failed, Hitchings’s livelihood failed with it. A simple enough conclusion.
“Charity balls come to mind,” Hitchings said, flourishing a handkerchief with which to polish his spectacles. “Subscriptions, donations, that sort of thing. To be blunt, Miss Anwen, funding endeavors are the only reason the directors bother having a ladies’ committee. Your feminine endowments allow you to charm coin from those who enjoy an excess of means. If you’ll excuse me, I have lessons to prepare.”
Anwen’s uncle was a duke, and her sister had recently married a duke. This preening dolt would not leave her to wrestle desks and chairs while implying that she should flaunt her breasts and hips to keep a roof over his head.
“I’m sure the lesson preparation can wait a few more moments, Mr. Hitchings. How much longer will our present funds last?”
He tucked the handkerchief away and rolled up the papers from the lectern, as if a nearby puppy might require swatting. “Weeks, two months at best.”
In other words, as the social season neared its conclusion, the orphanage would approach its end as well.
“Have you applied for other positions?” Anwen gave him her best, most saccharine blink. “I’d be happy to write you a character.”
Hitchings stopped halfway to the door. “A character for me, Miss Anwen?”
“Your salary is one of our greatest expenses.” Hitchings’s remuneration, in addition to his allowance for ale, candles, and a new suit, exceeded the budget for coal by a handy fourteen pounds eight per year. “In the interests of economy, the directors could seek to replace you with a lesser talent.”
Hitchings might have been handsome in his youth. He had thick brown hair going gray at the temples, some height, dark eyes, and the rhetorical instincts of a classroom thespian. Middle age had added a paunch to his figure, though, and Anwen had never seen him smile at a lady or a child.
He smiled at the directors. Every time he saw them, he was smiling, jovial, and briskly uncomplaining about the social alchemy he claimed to work, turning society’s tattered castoffs into useful articles.
“Replace me with a lesser talent?” Hitchings smacked the rolled papers against his open palm. “That would hardly result in economy, Miss Anwen. Instead of budding felons learning the straight and narrow under the hand of an experienced master, you’d be feeding and clothing little criminals for no purpose whatsoever.”
Other than to save their lives? “I take your meaning, Mr. Hitchings, but the directors are men of the world, and they deal in facts and figures more effectively than I ever hope to. While you could easily find a post that more appropriately rewards your many talents, the boys will starve without this place to call home. I expect the directors will see that logic easily enough.”
Especially if Anwen reminded them of it at every meeting.
Hitchings’s mouth worked like a beached fish’s, but no sound came out. He doubtless wasn’t offended that his salary might be called into question, he was offended that Anwen—diminutive, red-haired, well-born, young, and female—would do the questioning.
“I cannot be held responsible for the poorly reasoned decisions of my betters,” he said. “This organization is in want of funds, Miss Anwen, and what is the purpose of the ladies’ committee, if not to address the facility’s greatest needs? You can embroider all the handkerchiefs you like, but that won’t keep the doors open.”
French lace edged Hitchings’s cravat, his coat had been tailored on Bond Street, his gleaming boots were fashioned by Hoby. Anwen wished she had the strength to pitch him and his finery down the jakes.
“Thank you for putting the situation in terms I can grasp, Mr. Hitchings,” she said, adding a smile, lest he detect sarcasm flung in his very face. “Please don’t let me detain you further. You have lessons to prepare, and we must not waste a day of whatever time you have left to exert your good influence over the children.”
Anwen marched for the door, pausing to surreptitiously snatch up Hitchings’s birch rod and tuck it into the folds of her cloak.
“You should probably finish tidying up the chairs and desks,” she added. “I have always admired your insistence on order in the boys’ dormitories. What better place to set that example than in your own classroom?”
She made a grand exit, ignoring the birch rod tangling with her skirts. Not three yards down the corridor, she ran smack into Lord Colin MacHugh and nearly landed on her bum.
* * *
Colin MacHugh liked variety, and not only regarding the ladies. Army life had offered a version of variety—march today, make camp tomorrow, ride into battle the day after—and just enough predictability.
The rations had been bad, the weather foul at the worst times, and the battles tragic. Other than that, camaraderie had been a daily blessing, as had a sense of purpose. Besiege that town, get these orders forward to Wellington, repair the axle on the baggage wain, report the location of that French patrol.
Life as a courtesy lord, by contrast, was tedious as hell.
Except where Anwen Windham was concerned. Her sister Megan had recently married Colin’s brother Hamish, and of all Colin’s newly acquired English in-laws, Anwen was the most intriguing.
She crashed into him with the force of a small Channel storm making landfall.
“Good day,” Colin said, steadying her with a hand on each arm. “Are you fleeing bandits, or perhaps late for an appointment with the modiste?”
She stepped back, skewering him with a glower. “I am deloping, Lord Colin. Leaving the field of honor without firing a lethal shot, despite all temptation to the contrary.”
The pistol of her indignation was still loaded, and Colin did not want it aimed at him. “Is that a birch rod you’re carrying?”
“Yes. Mr. Hitchings will doubtless notice it’s missing in the next fifteen minutes, for he can’t go longer than that without striking some hapless boy.”
They proceeded down the corridor, which though spotless, had only a threadbare runner on the floor. No art on the walls, not even a child’s drawing or a stitched Bible verse. The windows lacked curtains, and the sheer dreariness of the House of Urchins conjured memories of Colin’s years at public school.
“Sometimes a beating assuages a guilty conscience.” Colin had dabbled in the English vice, and had quickly grown bored with it. He was easily bored, and the idea that the boys in this orphanage had only beatings to enliven their existence made him want to exit the premises posthaste. “I don’t suppose you’ve come across Lady Rosalyn Montague? I was to meet her here for an outing in the park.”
Miss Anwen opened a window and pitched the birch rod to the cobbles below. The building had once been a grand residence, the back overlooking a mews across the alley. A side garden had gone mostly to bracken, but the address was in a decent neighborhood.
The birch rod clattered to the ground, startling a tabby feasting on a dead mouse outside the stables. The cat bolted, then came back for its unfinished meal and scampered off again.
“Lady Rosalyn has a megrim,” Miss Anwen said, “and could not attend the meeting. Her brother was not among the directors in attendance either.”
“It’s a pretty day,” Colin said, rather than admit that being stood up without notice irked the hell out of him. “Would you care to join me for a drive ’round the park?”
Colin knew better than to tour the park by himself. Far too many debutantes and matchmakers ran tame at the fashionable hour.
Anwen remained by the open window, making a wistful picture as the spring sunshine caught highlights in her red hair.
“I wish we could take the boys to the park. They get out so seldom and they’re boys.”
Long ago, Colin had been a boy, and not a very happy one. “Instead of punishing the miscreants with beatings, you should reward the good fellows with outings. For the space of a day at least, you’d see sainthood where deviltry reigned before.”
“Do you think so?”
“I know so. Will you drive out with me?” Winthrop Montague had all but begged Colin to take Lady Rosalyn for a turn. Alas, a gentleman obliged his friends whenever possible, even when the requested favor was infernally boring. Lady Rosalyn Montague had a genius for prosing on about bonnets, parasols, and reticules until only the promise of strong drink preserved a man’s wits. No wonder Win wanted to get her off his hands.
An hour with Anwen would be a delight by comparison.
“I shall enjoy the air with you,” Miss Anwen said, taking Colin by the arm. “If I go back to Moreland House in my present mood, one of my sisters will ask if I’m well, and another will suggest I need a posset, and dear Aunt Esther will insist that I have a lie down, and then—I’m whining. My apologies.”
Miss Anwen was very pretty when she whined. “So you will join me because you need time to maneuver your deceptions into place?”
She shook free of his arm and stalked off toward the end of the corridor. “I am not deceptive, and insulting a lady is no way to inspire her to share your company.”
Colin caught up with her easily and bowed her through the door. “I beg your pardon for my blunt words—I’m new to this business of being a lord. Perhaps you maneuver your polite fictions into place.”
“I do not indulge in polite fictions.”
The hell she didn’t. “Anwen, when I see you among your family, you are the most quiet, demure, retiring, unassuming facsimile of a spinster I’ve ever met. Now I chance upon you without their company, and you are far livelier. You steal birch rods, for example.”
She looked intrigued rather than insulted. “You accuse me of thievery?”
“Successful thievery. I’ve wanted to filch the occasional birch rod, but I lacked the daring. I’m offering you a compliment.”
If he complimented her gorgeous red hair—more fiery than Colin’s own auburn locks—or her lovely complexion, or her luminous blue eyes—she’d likely deliver a scathing set down.
Once upon a time, before Colin’s family had acquired a ducal title, Colin had collected both set downs and kisses like some men collected cravat pins. Now he aspired to be taken for a facsimile of a proper lordling, at least until he could return to Perthshire.
“You admire my thievery?” Miss Anwen asked, pausing at the top of the front stairs.
“The boys will thank you for it, provided the blame for the missing birch rod doesn’t land on them.”
Miss Anwen had an impressive scowl. “Hitchings is that stupid. He’d blame the innocent for my impetuosity and enjoy doing so. Drat and dash it all.”
She honestly cared about these scapegrace children. How…unexpected. “We’ll have the birch rod returned to wherever you found it before we leave,” Colin said. “Hitchings merely overlooked it when he left the schoolroom.”
“Marvelous! You have a capacity for deception too, Lord Colin. Perhaps I’ve underestimated you.”
“Many do,” Colin said, escorting her down the steps.
He suspected many underestimated Miss Anwen too, because for the first time in days, he looked forward to doing the lordly pretty before all of polite society.
And before Miss Anwen.
* * *
“What news, Tattling Tom?” Dickie asked, pushing his hair out of his eyes.
As far back as they’d been mates, Rum Dickie had been asking for the news, and as best as Thomas could recollect, the news had always been bad.
“Hitchings will leg it in June,” Thomas said, which came close to being good news.
“So we’re for the streets by summer?” Dickie used a length of wire to twiddle the lock on the door, then hid the wire among the books gathering dust on the shelves.
Wee Joe kept his characteristic silence. He was a good lad, always willing to stand lookout. Because of his greater size, he was also willing to take on the physical jobs such as boosting a fellow over the garden wall or putting up with Hitchings’s birchings.
“Miss Anwen is worried,” Tom replied, trying to condense what he’d overheard outside the classroom. “Not enough funds to keep us fed, and Hitchings hasn’t got any useful ideas about where to get more blunt.”
Wee Joe remained by the window—the detention room had the best view of the alley, proof that Hitchings was an idiot. If you wanted to shut a boy in so he’d sit on his arse and contemplate his supposed sins, you didn’t provide him a nice view from a window with a handy drainpipe two feet to the right.
“Joe, come away from there,” Dickie said. “We’re supposed to be memorizing our amo, amas, amats.”
Joe pointed out the window, so Tom joined him.
“Cor, Joey. That’s a prime rig.” Not only did the phaeton have spanking yellow wheels, the couple on the bench looked like they came straight off some painting of Nobs Taking the Air.
“Miss Anwen got herself a flash man,” Dickie marveled.
Joe scowled ferociously.
“That’s Bond Street tailoring, Joe,” Dickie said, “and the best pair in the traces Tattersalls has seen this year. Spanish, I’d say, not Dutch nags.”
The gent got the phaeton turned about in the alley—no mean feat—and the team went tooling on their way.
“Haven’t seen him before.” Tom was the designated intelligence officer in the group—Miss Anwen’s description of him—and he prided himself on keeping track of names and faces.
“He’s Lady Rosalyn’s beau,” Dickie said. “Saw them at Gunter’s last week with Mr. Montague.”
That earned another scowl from Joe, who took a seat on the floor beneath the window. Joe was blond, blue-eyed, and not a bad-looking boy, but he got cuffed a lot because he spoke so little. One of those blue eyes sported a fading bruise as a consequence.
“I know I shouldn’t have been out on me own,” Dickie said, “but I go barmy staring at these walls, sitting on me feak, listening to old Hitchings wheezing hour after hour. If Miss Anwen would come read to us more often, I might not get so roam-y.”
Restlessness affected all the boys, the longing to be back out on the streets, managing as best they could, free of Virgil and Proverbs—and Hitchings.
“What do you suppose Hitchings will do when this place runs out of money?” Dickie asked.
Hitchings wouldn’t last two days on the streets, but he certainly did well enough as the headmaster of the orphanage. Very well.
“He’ll go for a tutor to some lord’s sons,” Tom said, “pound them with Latin and his damned birch rod, or kick them with his new bloody boots.” What would it feel like to put on a boot made for your own very foot?
Joe swung his open hand through the air, mimicking a slap delivered to a boy’s face.
“That too,” Dickie agreed. “Thank the devil we’re too big to be climbing boys.”
Joe motioned jabbing the earth with a shovel.
“The mines are honorable work,” Tom said, an incantation he’d overheard down at Blooming Betty’s pub.
“The mines will kill us.” John climbed in the window as he spoke, making one of his signature dramatic appearances. “I had uncles who went down the mines. They were coughing their lungs out within a year.”
He leapt to the floor as nimbly as an alley cat. The skills of a born housebreaker went absolutely to waste in this orphanage, as did Dickie’s ability with locks, and Joe’s pickpocketing.
“Who wants a rum bun?” John asked, withdrawing a parcel from his shirt.
Joe shook his head.
“C’mon, Wee Joe,” John said, holding out a sweet and folding cross-legged to the floor. “It’s a cryin’ damned shame when a man can’t work his God-given trade. Me own da often said as much.”
“Before the watch nabbed him,” Dickie muttered, snatching the bun. “You’ll get us all flogged to bits, John.”
“I’ll get us all a fine snack,” John said around a mouthful of bun. “What was that gent doing here?”
“Same thing we all do,” Dickie said. “He was falling in love with Miss Anwen.”
“Lady Rosalyn won’t like that,” Tom said, tearing off a small bite of his bun.
“Lady Rosalyn won’t care,” John countered. “She’s so pretty, all the gents want her. I should have stolen more buns.” He eyed the window longingly but remained where he was.
- On Sale
- Jul 25, 2017
- Page Count
- 400 pages