The Truth About Cads and Dukes(3)

By: Elisa Braden



Her breath caught as she stared into his blue eyes. All around, the others seemed to be crowding closer, their laughing chatter louder, their wild gestures intruding into her small bubble of space. I must leave. Now. Before this gets any worse. By force of will, she took a scraping, stumbling step back toward the door. Once again, hands stopped her. A lisping voice mocked, “Where are you off to, little thief? Stay a while. The entertainment has only just begun.”

The blue-eyed man she had once considered a friend shoved violently at the man next to him and charged forward. “Release her,” he barked. “The wager is won. You have what you came to see. It is done.”

“Wager?” she murmured hoarsely, but it was lost among the loud guffaws and protests of the gentlemen.

“Ballocks! Can’t let her go ’til she’s unmasked,” Sir Christopher declared sloppily. Clearly, his evening’s “entertainment” had begun early.

“Just so! How else are we to know for certain the conditions of the wager have been met?” shouted another man.

A third—Lord Gattingford’s son—replied, “Who else would wear spectacles on the outside of her mask?” That generated a new round of guffaws from the crowd. Jane reached up to touch the edge of the rims.

“Lost ten quid on this one,” another man remarked, resentment flinting his voice. “Should have known he could charm the chit. The fat ones are always so eager to please.”

The room began to rock and tilt. Heat and shame squeezed like a coiling snake around a fresh kill. She shook her head automatically, unable to stop the motion. She spun to face Lord Milton, a whey-faced, wiry man who over-plucked his eyebrows into thin, straight lines. He still had hold of her arm, but was preoccupied with amusement. Almost without thought, she lowered her shoulder and rammed it into his solar plexus. “Ooof!” She was rewarded by the shock bulging his eyes and loosening his grip.

Tearing herself free, she ran for the door, still partially open. Two steps away from freedom, it slammed shut, a lean, elegant hand braced on the panel in front of her. Slowly, she allowed her gaze to travel up the gray-clad arm to meet a hooded set of turquoise eyes. Chatham.

Without a word, he stepped in close, seemingly wrapping her in his arms. “Wh-what are you …?” she began. Clean linen and citrus and the faint odor of whisky surrounded her. He was surprisingly warm for such a cold man, she thought absently. She felt a sharp tug at the back of her head. “No!” she shouted hoarsely, suddenly realizing what he was doing. She tore at the fine wool of his sleeves, shoved at the hard bones of his chest. But it was useless.

The mask fell away, along with her spectacles and several hair pins. Her hair came down, a fall as straight and dark as her ruined pride. The chatter ceased. She pushed away from Chatham, turned to the man who had engineered her humiliation. He was a blur. A blond, deceitful blur who had made her into a laughingstock. In the silence, she could not stop what happened—the dollop of cream on the strawberry of her day. There, in the middle of Lord Milton’s London town house, surrounded by cads of every sort, wearing her brother’s breeches and a stable boy’s coat, Plain Jane Huxley did what she had sworn she would never do in public: She let the tears come.



*~*~*





CHAPTER TWO

“Any book portraying ‘true love’ as a reason for marriage should be given the same credence as the rantings of a bedlamite. It is termed ‘fiction’ for a reason.” —The Dowager Marchioness of Wallingham to Lady Jane Huxley upon spying said lady’s fourth copy of Pride and Prejudice hidden inside an urn.



Six weeks earlier

Piccadilly, London



For Lady Jane Huxley, the little bell on the door of Norton’s Bookshop on Piccadilly sang a song of welcome unlike any other. She breathed deeply the beloved scent of paper, ink, and leather bindings, pulling it into her lungs as if she could make it part of herself. Ah, yes. Blissful.

“You are not planning to spend a lot of time here, are you?” The sullen question came from Eugenia Huxley, Jane’s second youngest sister.

Jane glanced over at the dark-haired girl. Genie had grown over the past year. Come autumn, she would be fourteen, and while she was more than six years younger than Jane, they were currently the same height: barely five feet. It was strange to think of her bratty little sister becoming a proper young lady who, in only a few short years, would be making her debut.

Sherry-brown eyes met her own. “Leave it to you to find the most boring place in London and trap me here for hours on end.” Genie’s face scrunched with disgust as she swept her gaze over the shelves crowding the small, dusty store’s main floor. “You promised me shopping. Books are not shopping.”

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