London, Late June 1815
Lady Lucy Upton blew a leaf away from her lips. A twig in her eye and a mouthful of foliage were the unfortunate by-products of having her head lodged in a hedgerow. Not to mention, it was a bit chilly outside tonight. But this had been her idea, after all, and she intended to see it through.
Lucy was secure in her position behind the bushes in the Chamberses’ garden just steps away from her dearest friend, Cassandra Monroe. There might be a ball going on inside the stylish town house, but out here they were quite alone … for the moment. Lucy pushed her head through the branches as far as she could and craned her neck to see Cass.
Cass stood on the other side of the hedgerow, rubbing her shaking hands up and down her pale, trembling arms. “What if I cannot hear you, Lucy?” she whispered.
“Don’t be nervous, Cass. I’ll be right here.”
Cass gulped and nodded.
“See, you heard that, didn’t you?” Lucy asked.
Another shaky nod from Cass.
“Excellent,” Lucy called out.
The light from the candles that had been sprinkled throughout the gardens cast a warm glow on the pebble-strewn path where Cass stood. “What if he doesn’t come?” Cass asked, tugging on her gloves, a sure sign she was nervous.
“He’ll come. He said he would, didn’t he? And Jane agreed to remain inside and keep an eye on things. Your mother, specifically.”
“Yes, he said he would come. Though heaven knows I want to die of embarrassment. And if Mother discovers I’m out here meeting a man in the gardens, she’ll disown me.”
Lucy grunted. “Not if the man in question is the Duke of Claringdon.”
“Mama will be so angry if she learns that I’m discouraging him.” Cass bit her lip.
Lucy readjusted her position behind the hedge. “That’s just it. We must ensure she doesn’t find out.”
More tugging on the gloves. “What if the duke guesses you’re back there and becomes angry?”
“Must you always worry, Cass? He won’t know. And even if he does, he has no business becoming angry. While I give the man credit for his bravery in war, it hardly ensures he’d make a good husband.”
“I’m certain he’ll make someone a perfectly fine husband, it’s just…” Cass glanced away.
Lucy knew. Her heart wrenched for her friend. Unrequited love was an awful thing. “He’s not Julian.”
Cass bowed her head. “Cousin Penelope says Julian should be home any day now but … I just can’t…”
“You don’t have to explain it, Cass. I understand. Well, I don’t understand love, having never been in it myself, but don’t worry. First we’ll see to dispatching the duke, and then I intend to ensure you are given your chance with Julian.”
Cass rubbed her arms with renewed vigor. “I’m being ridiculous, I know. Julian is supposed to marry Penelope.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Lucy replied. “The fact is you do not want to marry the Duke of Claringdon and you shall not. Regardless of what your mother might want. Not if I have anything to say about it. I cannot countenance anyone being bullied and I certainly shall not allow you to be. By either your mother or the duke. Besides, you can never go wrong if you’re honest and follow your heart.”
“Oh, Lucy, that’s what you always say. And I love you for it, I truly do. I’ve no idea how you think you’ll be able to give me a chance with Julian, but I do adore your optimism.”
“First things first. And at present our problem is the duke.”
Both young women were silenced when a shadow blocked the lights from the French doors leading to the house. The sound of gravel crunching beneath boots met their ears.
“It’s him,” Cass whispered, her voice wavering.
“Do not be intimidated, Cass. Courage, my friend. Be bold!”
In the next instant, the little clearing in which Cass stood was overpowered by the presence of the Duke of Claringdon. The moment he saw Cass, he stopped. From her vantage point, Lucy could only see him from the chest down. The impossibly broad chest down. She swallowed.
“Lady Cassandra,” the duke intoned, bowing.
Cass gave a little squeak and curtsied. “Thank you for meeting me, Your Grace.” Her voice was high and frightened. Lucy wished she could reach through the branches and give Cass’s hand a warm, encouraging squeeze. Courage, Cass. Courage.
“I must admit, I was a bit surprised that you asked to meet me here,” the duke said.
“I did not mean to surprise you, Your Grace, I merely wanted to … I merely wanted to…”
Lucy snapped from her thoughts. This was it. Time to begin. Cass was already floundering for words. Lucy cleared her throat. “I hoped we could speak privately, my lord,” she whispered loudly.
Cass repeated the words in a shaking voice.
“I see” came the duke’s response. He took a step forward, and Lucy sucked in her breath.
“Please, Your Grace, come no closer. I wouldn’t want anyone happening upon us to consider our meeting here an impropriety,” Lucy offered, in a voice low enough she was certain the duke couldn’t hear.
Cass repeated the words.
The duke laughed. “You do not find it an impropriety, Lady Cassandra, to be alone with me in the garden?”
Lucy frowned. Well, if he was going to quibble over details. “I only ask for a moment of your time, to make my wishes clear.”
Cass said the words quickly.
“Very well. Go ahead,” said the duke.
Lucy took a deep breath. “While I am certain there are many young ladies who would be flattered by your attention, Your Grace, I must admit I am not one.”
Lucy could almost feel Cass cringe as she repeated the words. She frantically tugged on her gloves as she spoke.
Lucy moved her head to catch the duke’s reaction. She swallowed. Oh, she shouldn’t have looked. Just as she’d discovered earlier in the ballroom, the man was handsome. Too handsome.
“I see, Lady Cassandra. And may I ask exactly why you feel this way?”
Lucy pulled up her shoulders. Uh-oh. He was demanding a reason. What? He couldn’t conceive of a lady who would not welcome his advances? A moment ago she’d felt a bit sorry for the duke, but her protective instinct for Cass overpowered her thoughts. Now she wanted to cut him to the quick with her words. Which just happened to be her specialty.
“You may have yet to discover a woman who was not enamored of you, my lord. But I assure you, they do exist,” Lucy whispered to Cass, narrowing her eyes on the tall man.
Another small squeak escaped from Cass’s mouth. She turned her head sharply to the side. “Lucy, I cannot say that.” The words rushed out in a tiny whisper.
Lucy nearly fell through the bush. This entire charade was dependent on Cass maintaining their façade. Just repeat the words, she mentally begged her friend, repeating her sentence in a rush.
Cass’s eyes darted to the side and Lucy held her breath, waiting for her friend to say the withering sentence.
“I cannot say, my lord,” Cass replied instead. “It’s just that I…”
Lucy groaned. Cass wasn’t going to say it. Ooh, if only Lucy could say it herself. A silly vision flashed before her eyes. One of her snatching Cass off her feet, pulling her behind the hedgerow, and rushing out to stand in her stead. Yes, silly. And unlikely to work. A pity. Very well. Lucy would be forced to tone down her words if she was going to help Cass. And she could tone down her words … if she … thought about it for a moment. She took a deep breath.
“Very well. Let me be clear. I am singularly uninterested in becoming the future Duchess of Claringdon,” Lucy provided. “Especially when the duke is so obviously arrogant and overbearing.”
Cass gasped. “Lucy!”
The duke’s eyes narrowed on the hedgerow then. Lucy instinctively drew back her head just before he marched forward, reached around the bush, and pulled her sharply into the clearing. She came flying out, twigs lodged in her dismantled coiffure and several leaves trailing into her décolletage. A twig had scratched her cheek. She rubbed it, glaring at him.
The duke eyed her with an arrogant inclination of his head. “I thought you had an echo, Lady Cassandra. Now I see your serpent’s tongue has a name. Good evening, Miss Upton.”
Copyright © 2014 by Valerie Bowman