They tell me I’m the new Baron Bladewell, with land and estates and buckets of money. Only problem is, I’m a cowboy. My cousin Colt Whitehorse and I drift from town to town, taking any odd jobs we find. I ain’t prepared to go to England and be some fancy dude in a suit. But Colt tells me I have to, that folks are depending on me, so I’ll go. London won’t know what hit it.
Jack’s always been reckless, and that temper of his is bound to get him into trouble one day. So, I’ll go to England with him and help him sort things out. It’ll be nice for Jack to belong somewhere. As for me, I’ll keep looking. Maybe one day, I’ll find the woman I’ve been dreaming of, the one I can trust with my heart and soul.
I’m completely fed up, living with a cousin who treats me like a servant – or worse. If I can’t get out of this house, Lord Merden will take me to his bed, no matter how unwilling I am. I don’t want to live in the shadows anymore, depending on people who hurt and betray me. I want a new life, and I’ll do whatever it takes to get it.
Publisher’s Note: This hot romance contains elements of betrayal, danger, suspense, and explicit scenes including ménage themes.
Lazy T Ranch, near Fort Worth, Texas, 1860
Jack Dunton swung down from the saddle and tied his borrowed horse to the hitching post. The Texas heat wrapped around him like a blanket as he squinted up at the dazzling blue sky. Mending the corral fence had taken most of the afternoon and he was sore and tired. He was also sick of dirt and cow shit and having someone else boss him around. Time for him and Colt to move on.
Texas wasn’t home. But, then, what was? He’d been born in a Kentucky holler he barely remembered. With Granddad gone, back east wasn’t home either. Maybe that was the trouble. He was looking for something he’d never find.
The door to the main house banged shut and Jack, jerked out of his ruminations, glanced up to see a tall, slim man walking towards him. The feller was dressed like a dude, with a long cloth coat and shiny boots, but he held himself like a man who knew his own worth.
When Jack nodded, the stranger held out his hand. Jack shook it reluctantly. He didn’t like people he didn’t know to come looking for him—especially when they knew his name.
“My name is Kit Sinclair. You’re a hard man to find.”
Jack shrugged. He didn’t care what some dude thought of him. The stranger’s voice held a clipped tone that reminded Jack of his granddad. “What do you want, Mr. Sinclair?”
“Is there some place we may speak privately?”
Jack jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “We can head over to the bunkhouse.”
This was a bare wood structure, sparsely furnished with bunk beds, a pot-bellied stove, table and several rickety chairs. Jack kicked a chair towards his guest and Sinclair perched on it awkwardly.
Jack leaned against the bunk and folded his arms over his chest. “So, you’re English.”
“Indeed. I’ve been looking for you for some time, Mr. Dunton.”
“I received a commission from the estate of the late Lord Bladewell.”
“The name don’t ring a bell.”
“I see.” Sinclair pulled out a handkerchief to mop his brow, clearly not used to the brutal Texas heat. “Allow me to explain. Lord Bladewell, whom, I am sorry to say, passed away last year, was your great-uncle, your grandfather’s oldest brother.”
Jack felt a spark of interest. He knew Granddad had come over from England, but he’d always been sparse with the details. “If that don’t beat all. He never said nothing.”
Sinclair smiled. “Apparently your grandfather, Charles Dunton, was the black sheep of the family. I understand that he has passed away as well.”
Jack winced. He still missed Granddad, even after all this time. “Ten years ago.”
“My condolences. My sources have also informed me that his only son, your father, predeceased him.”
“That’s right. Mama and Daddy were killed in a Comanche raid.” Too bad he could barely remember them.
“You were their only child.”
“Yup.” Jack shoved an impatient hand through his hair. “Look, Mr. Sinclair, what in hell is all this about?”
“Lord Bladewell never married. There was another brother, two years older than Charles, Frederick. But he died several years ago, also without issue. In short, you are the only heir to the title. You, Mr. Dunton, are the new Baron Bladewell.”
Jack stared at Sinclair without speaking for several moments. Finally, he shook his head. “Well, I’ll be damned. I had no idea. And you came all this way just to tell me that?”
“I’m afraid you haven’t grasped all the intricacies of the situation. Lord Bladewell was a wealthy man with several estates. It all comes to you now.”
“So, you’re saying I’m rich.”
“Extremely. The title is one of the oldest in England.”
“When can I get it?”
Sinclair looked puzzled.
“The money. If I’m rich, when can I get it?”
“It’s not that simple. You must accompany me to London and have your claim to the estate proved. Only then will you receive your title and estates.”
The door swung open and his cousin walked in, clapping the dust from his wide-brimmed hat.
“What about it, Colt?”
Colt eyed him warily. “What are you talking about, Jack?”
“You feel like a trip to London?”
“Why in tarnation would you want to go there?”
“Because I’m the goddamned new Baron Bladewell.” Jack grinned. “Don’t worry, Colt. You can just call me ‘my lord’.”
Colt’s brow rose. “I can call you a horse’s ass and I often do. Now, quit your funning and tell me what’s going on.”
Kit Sinclair rose from his seat. “Mr. Dunton is telling you the truth. He is now Lord Bladewell.”
“Well, I’ll be jiggered.”
Jack jabbed a finger in his cousin’s direction. “If I have to go to London, you’re coming with me.”
Colt swung his hat, his lips pressed together. “All right, Jack. If you need me to go to London, I’ll go.”
“I have no objection to your friend accompanying us,” Sinclair said, “but I will need a day or two to make arrangements.”
“Colt Whitehorse is my cousin.” Jack paused, his brow furrowed in thought. “Say, why ain’t Colt the new baron? He’s older than me.”
“I’m afraid I have no record of your cousin’s existence.” Sinclair fumbled in his coat, bringing forth a folded sheet of paper. “I did locate a copy of your grandfather’s marriage certificate to a Miss Martha Sayers in Kentucky.”
Jack glanced at the paper.
“I assume Miss Sayers was your grandmother.”
“She was. I never knew her. She died before I was born. Colt and I shared the same grandfather, but we each had a different grandmother.”
“Granddad didn’t marry my grandmother,” Colt said, “she was pure Cherokee and didn’t much hold with that stuff. After she died, Granddad married Jack’s grandmother.”
“Then, Mr. Whitehorse cannot inherit, even if he is also descended from Charles Dunton. An heir to an English title must be legitimate.” Sinclair spread his hands. “The laws regarding inheritance cannot be superseded.”
Jack scowled. “That don’t seem fair.”
“Perhaps, but that is the law. You, Mr. Dunton, are the only legitimate heir. Are you still willing to travel to London and assert your claim to the title?”
Jack looked over at his cousin. “There’s a bunch of estates and such. I have to go there in person.”
Colt nodded. “Why not? We were planning to move on in a few weeks anyways. We’ll have to let the boss know.”
Jack turned to Mr. Sinclair. “Well, there you have it—London bound. I guess we’ll find it pretty different over there.”
“Yes, I imagine so. I don’t believe London society has seen anything like an American cowboy becoming a baron. I predict you’ll find it a very educational experience.”
“Educational? Hell, I just want a good time.” Jack rubbed a finger over his upper lip, considering. “Lots of pretty ladies over there?”
“Very,” Sinclair assured him with a polished smile. “Our ladies are very accomplished.”
“Uh huh. Does that mean they’re good in bed?”
Mr. Sinclair froze. “I don’t know, which is to say, you’ll find out, won’t you?”
Jack grinned. “I purely intend to.”
Colt gripped the bridge of his nose with two fingers and shook his head. “That’s exactly what I’m afraid of.”
The new Baron Bladewell started laughing, fit to bust a gut, as Colt would say. Kit Sinclair watched him for a moment and then shrugged, walking away from the bunkhouse. “Heaven help the ladies of London,” he murmured to himself.
Excerpt from the Times of London society column:
Lord Bladewell’s long-lost heir, whom society has christened the Buckskin Baron, has finally arrived in London. The new Baron Bladewell was born in America and is said to be making quite a stir in society—ladies, beware!
Grace Atwell smothered a sigh and bent over her embroidery again. Lady Merden, her cousin and employer, was holding forth—again. Another dreary tea party with the society ladies her cousin enjoyed hosting.
“Darlings, have you heard the latest on-dit? It’s too delicious.” Lady Merden’s light, malicious voice lowered. It had the effect of making her audience lean closer. All except for Grace, who stifled a sigh and took another stitch on her embroidery frame. She was heartily bored, though it would never do to show it.
“Lord Bladewell’s heir has been located at last and,” Lady Merden bent forward to whisper, “he’s an American.”
A moment of shocked silence followed her words. Grace looked up. This was news, indeed.
“An American peer?” Lady Perrin blinked. “Good heavens, where is he from? New York, Boston, or perhaps Virginia. They have many fine old families there, I am told.”
“Indeed not. He was born in some place called Kentucky.”
“Outlandish name,” drawled Lady Sedcombe. “Someone is having you on.”
Grace’s gaze dropped to her embroidery as she set another stitch. “Kentucky is one of the United States of America, the first west of the Appalachian Mountains, I believe.”
“My word, Miss Atwell, you are very well-informed.”
“Girls escaping from the school-room always are,” said Mrs. Hadley-Price, not unkindly. “Their heads are too stuffed with facts and figures.”
“She wants a little town polish,” another woman agreed.
The ladies appraised Grace in an unnerving manner. She was quite unused to such attention.
“Grace is my companion, my dears,” Lady Merden said coldly, “she has acquired all she needs for her position. Now, shall we have some more tea?”
There was a moment of awkward silence, followed by a surge of conversation as her guests realized that their hostess was displeased with the turn of the conversation. Evidently, her pretty, young cousin was considered little better than a servant now. The ladies passed on to new topics of gossip and the latest fashion for flounced robes.
Grace sat silently plying her needle, while she wondered how much longer she could stand her life in her cousin’s house. As a little girl, Grace would run away on the days when the suffocating confines of her narrow, dark house and her narrow, dull life became unbearable. She would sneak away to the bridge and lean over the edge, screaming as loud as she could. Her sister, Charity, would always come looking for Grace, insufferably smug and righteous as she dragged her younger sister back home. Grace would spend hours on her knees in the damp chapel to pay for her sins, but even living with her family’s constant disapproval couldn’t quench her rebellious spirit. She wondered where her spirit had disappeared to these days.
After another excruciating hour, the guests finally departed. Grace put down her embroidery to begin collecting the dirty tea cups, plate and serviettes the ladies had left in their wake. Howell, the butler, entered with a footman to clear away the debris.
“Grace, you will attend me in the morning room.” Lady Merden eyed her frostily. “Immediately.”
“Yes, my lady.” At one time, Grace had been bidden to call her “Cousin Olive”, but they were long past such niceties now.
Lady Merden seated herself behind the small desk she used for her correspondence. She was a plump woman of middle age, with a fair complexion she was extremely proud of. Her small blue eyes examined Grace, who was not invited to sit down. “You are here in this household under sufferance, Grace. Beyond the family connection, you have no fortune nor other connections to support you.”
“Yes, my lady,” Grace murmured, schooling her expression to docility.
“I will not stand for such impertinence as you displayed today.”
Grace wondered how a knowledge of geography could be considered impertinence, but she knew better than to speak out. “I apologize, my lady. I only meant to inform your guests.”
“My guests are the cream of society,” was the icy reply. “They do not require that you inflict your smattering of knowledge on them. In fact, you are not to speak to any guest in this house unless you are spoken to. Do I make myself clear?”
Grace clenched her teeth to prevent herself from protesting. It would make no difference anyway, except to land her in even more trouble. “Yes, my lady.”
Lady Merden nodded. “Very well.” She handed Grace a piece of paper. “I have some errands for you to run on Oxford Street. When you return, you will have dinner in your room. I am quite out of charity with you. Well, what are you waiting for? You are dismissed.”
A surge of outrage coursed through every inch of Grace’s body. Dismissed, as if she were a servant indeed. Something of her feelings must have shown on her face, because Lady Merden’s mouth tightened. “Are you deaf, as well as stupid? Get out.”
Grace’s hand clenched into a fist. It took everything she had to keep from flinging the inkwell at Lady Merden’s fat face. She turned on her heel and left the room, wondering bitterly how her life had come to this.
The new Baron Bladewell frowned down at the toes of his scuffed boots. “What if I simply refuse the inheritance?”
Mr. Howe, the family solicitor, was a small elderly man, almost the same vintage as the legal tomes that lined the bookshelves of his London office. He pressed his fingertips together and stared at Jack over the top. “You may, of course. That is your right. However, as there is no other heir, the estate will then revert to the crown. Your properties will be sold. Your tenants will, in most cases, be forced to leave the lands they have farmed for generations. Any servants not retained by the new owners will lose their employment.” The solicitor spread his hands. “As you can see, a man in your position is not only wealthy, but responsible for the many people whose livelihoods devolve on the estate.”
“You can’t just walk away,” his cousin, Colt, told him bluntly. “There’s too many people depending on you.”
Jack swore under his breath. “I don’t want the responsibility.”
Colt regarded him steadily. “Seems to me this ain’t about what you want, Jack. It’s about what’s right.”
Jack glared at him. “Easy for you to say. If Granddad had married your grandmother, I wouldn’t be in this fix. It would all be your problem.”
“Well, he didn’t and it ain’t. It’s squarely on your shoulders.”
Jack sighed. Colt never said much, but it was always the truth, no matter how unwelcome. He met Mr. Howe’s gaze. “What do I have to do?”
“Once all the appropriate papers have been signed, you will assume the income as well as the management of the estate. Your town affairs, I believe, are in good hands with this firm. Bladewell Abbey is another matter. The estate agent is both incompetent and lazy. Little has been done for years, despite my advice. Your grand-uncle disliked the country and could not countenance spending any of his coin, beyond the barest minimum to maintain the house and lands. You will have your work cut out for you, my lord.”
“I ain’t afraid of hard work.”
“That is excellent news. I have completed the preliminary work regarding your naturalization, which must be passed by parliament. Your great-uncle had many friends in high places and the outcome is assured. Your priority, beyond managing the estate, is to ensure the succession. Had your great-uncle married and produced children, we would not be having this discussion.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“It means, my lord, that you must marry an appropriate girl of gentle birth, who will bear you an heir and, hopefully, a spare. This way, the estate will continue beyond your lifetime, ensuring the well-being of all concerned.”
“What about my well-being?” Jack protested. “I’ll have to get hitched to some society miss with her nose in the air.”
“A marriage of convenience need not be unhappy. Most society marriages begin in just such a way. Marriage within class lines ensures the orderly advancement of society.”
Jack snorted. “I’m not going to saddle myself with some empty-headed chit just to have a son.”
“Seems like a recipe for pure disaster to me,” said Colt. “You can’t marry a woman you don’t want to fuck. What’s the point?”
Mr. Howe dropped his spectacles. “You Americans have a reputation for plain-speaking and I see it is not misplaced. You need not marry a woman you find unattractive. With your income and title, I am sure you could marry any woman you… um… fancied.”
Jack’s eyes brightened. “The pick of the crop? Well, that sounds a mite more pleasant, don’t it, Colt?”
Colt dropped a comforting hand on his shoulder. “It does. But you gotta choose a woman you can stand to see at the breakfast table for the rest of your life.”
“Just so, Mr. Whitehorse. In fact, I have received an invitation for you already.”
Jack groaned. Colt leaned over him to pluck the invitation from the solicitor’s hand. “The Viscountess Merden invites you to a ball… who the hell is this?”
“Lady Merden’s husband was an old school chum. A most respectable family, well-connected. This ball would be an excellent introduction to the highest ranks of London society. You will, of course, need to purchase appropriate attire.” Mr. Howe glanced at Jack’s buckskin jacket and closed his eyes briefly. “If I might recommend Mr. Henry Poole’s establishment on Savile Row? I will write out their direction.” He scribbled on a piece of paper and passed it to Jack, who grunted and shoved the slip in his pocket.
Jack heaved himself out of his chair. “If that’s all?”
Mr. Howe pushed several papers across his desk. “If you would sign these, my lord, I can begin the transfer of the estate. You will have an account with Hoare’s Bank on Fleet Street, and I have transferred sufficient funds for you to establish yourself. The staff at Bladewell House in Grosvenor Square is expecting you.”
Jack had never seen anything like London. It was bigger than St. Louis or New Orleans, the largest American cities Jack had visited. Miles of streets and buildings stretched into the horizon, all built so close together it made his skin itch. As their cab traveled the fancy streets of Mayfair, the houses increased in size and grandeur, with several huge parks, without any farms built on them at all.
“This is a peculiar place,” he told, Colt, who practically had his head out the window as he took in the sights. “Smells strange, too. I can’t say I care for it too much. A man likes some space around him.”
Bladewell House was four stories of white brick, with a front door shiny with black paint.
“Did you ever see so many windows on one house?” Colt craned his neck to look up.
The front door was flung open by an older man, dressed up all fancy. “Greetings, my lord. I am Chivers, your butler.”
“Huh,” said Jack, walking up the steps. “What do you do around here?”
“I am in charge of keeping this establishment running smoothly, my lord.”
They walked into a big hall, with polished stone floors and a soaring ceiling. A carved staircase stood against one wall.
“May I offer you a tour, my lord?”
The ground floor held a large dining room, with a long table and twenty-odd chairs, a morning room, library, and study. The next floor up had the drawing room, papered in red and gold, Jack’s bedroom—bigger than a house—adjoining a dressing room and another bedroom. The second floor held more bedrooms and the third, still more, along with a nursery and schoolroom, all the furniture draped with cloth and an air of disuse. The fourth floor had bedrooms for the servants and storage. Even more astonishing than the sheer size of the building was the amount of stuff in it. Sofas, armchairs, fancy little tables and cabinets stuffed with china ornaments. The large windows dripped with curtains in rich fabrics.
“I could use a beer,” Colt muttered behind him.
Jack called a halt at the top of the stairs and declared he had had enough. “And I want some vittles,” Jack said, “if it’s no trouble.”
After a moment of puzzled silence, Colt spoke up, loudly, in case the old fellow was deaf, “He means he’s hungry.”
Understanding dawned on Chivers’ face. “Of course, my lord. At once, my lord.” He led them back downstairs and left them in the study, promising to return with “a light meal and, perhaps, some wine.”
“Make it beer,” Colt advised him and flung himself onto a sofa. “This is the damnedest place I ever saw. And you own it.”
Jack pulled out a chair and sat down, propping his ankles on the desk. “It’s as fine as cream gravy,” he said, his gaze wandering over the moldings and wallpaper, the old paintings in heavy gold frames. “Never thought I’d end up as a dude.” He rubbed his mouth. “Don’t know if I’m up to the challenge.”
Colt threw him a look. “Pull in your horns, boy. It’s early in the day. You never been a baron before. It’ll take some time to get used to.”
“It will at that,” Jack said, “It surely will.
Grace smothered a sigh as the vicar in the pulpit droned on. He was not a gifted speaker and the wooden seat of the pew at the front of the church was very hard. Even her own father had been able to inspire his congregation, spurred on by his absolute conviction of rightness. Papa had not been an easy man to live with. Her gaze dropped to her much-mended gloves. Ever since Lord Merden, her cousin’s husband, had died, Grace’s allowance had been revoked. She had not had a new dress in two years. Lady Merden enjoyed humiliating her. No doubt, that was Grace’s fault as well. A familiar surge of guilt swept over her.
The vicar adjusted his spectacles and glared down at the congregation. “Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols.”
Lady Merden turned her head, slanting Grace a look of such loathing that Grace’s heart skipped a beat.
The vicar passed on to a new verse. “But thou didst trust in thine own beauty, and playedst the harlot because of thy renown, and pouredst out thy fornications on every one that passed by; his it was. “
Lady Merden nodded, her thin lips pressed together. Grace dropped her prayer book in agitation. Her cousin also thought her a jezebel and a harlot. Grace scrabbled for the book. She placed it on her lap and fixed her eyes on the stained glass behind the altar. What she feared most was true. Not only did Lady Merden hate her, but now she knew her cousin would not protect Grace from her son. It was up to Grace to find a way out, then. Her heart quailed. How to do it? The service finally ended and the Merden party headed to their carriage. Grace fell behind, her mind working furiously as she considered a means of escape.
“Grace!” Lady Merden’s voice was sharp. “Must I wait?”
Grace obediently hurried ahead. Thankfully, Edgar, the new Lord Merden, left them at the curb to walk to his club. She offered a silent prayer of thanks and climbed into the back-facing seat in the carriage—as always. A companion like herself must know her place, she had been told often enough. Even if that place was unpaid. Grace stared out the window as the carriage maneuvered through the London streets. Once she had dreamed of living in the country, away from the soot and the noise of the metropolis. But dreams were dangerous things, prompting dissatisfaction with one’s natural lot, as her mother had so often reproved her.
The remainder of the day passed quietly. Grace mended the household linen while Lady Merden napped, rousing only for a lengthy dinner. Grace would have preferred a tray in her room, but it wasn’t up to her. It never was.
“Cousin Grace is looking particularly well this evening, isn’t she, Mama?”
Edgar, Viscount Merden, was a large man, his bulkiness ill-concealed by a too-tight frock coat. His face was red and perspiring from all the wine he had consumed, a lecherous gleam in his eye as he stared at Grace’s bosom.
“I didn’t notice,” Lady Merden said, her voice indifferent.
“Well, I think she looks lovely. Ripe, like a peach.”
Grace refused to meet his eyes and looked down at her plate. If Edgar thought these clumsy attentions would earn him a place in her bed, he was sadly mistaken.
“Your lordship is too kind,” she murmured, cutting a piece of over-cooked roast beef into very small pieces and imagining it was Edgar’s heart. The thought almost made her smile, but that would only encourage the lout.
“Edgar, you will remember I am holding my ball on Friday, won’t you?”
Lord Merden licked his mouth, his eyes never leaving Grace. “Of course, Mama, I will be in attendance.”
“Excellent. Just imagine, I have secured an acceptance from the new Lord Bladewell.”
“Well done, Mama. How did you manage that?”
“I wrote to Mr. Howe, his solicitor. He went to school with your father.” Lady Merden beamed in satisfaction. “Lord Bladewell is the talk of London. No doubt the affair will be the hit of the season.”
Edgar pursed his thick lips. “What is he like then? An American, I hear. No doubt, he is quite uncouth and barely literate.”
“Don’t let him hear you say that!” Lady Merden said, alarmed. “Rumor has it that he is always armed. With a pistol, I believe.”
Edgar took another sip of wine. “As I thought, quite the primitive,” he said, sounding very satisfied with his reasoning.
Grace remained silent, unwilling to correct their obvious ignorance. It would only feed Lady Merden’s spite.
“Regardless, having Lord Bladewell grace my party is quite a social coup.”
Lord Merden raised his fourth glass of wine. “Indeed. I salute you, Mama. “
His mother smirked as Grace mentally rolled her eyes. She could only hope that Lord Bladewell wouldn’t show up. It would serve Lady Merden right. She ignored her companions for the rest of the meal and began to plan the garden of her imaginary house. Hollyhocks and delphiniums, perhaps, their tall stalks swaying in a warm, summer wind, somewhere far away from here.
Grace didn’t have long to wait to meet the new Lord Bladewell. Within days of his arrival, he was cutting a swathe through London society. Men decried his lack of manners, while secretly longing to be him. Women swooned and wanted to bed him. Watching Lord Bladewell swagger into the Marchioness of Sedcombe’s evening party a week later, Grace could certainly see why. Bladewell was tall and broad-shouldered, wearing a buckskin jacket, the shoulder and sleeves fringed above dark wool trousers tucked into worn black boots. His cravat was tied in a knot above his shirt. Thick golden hair nearly touched his shoulders, framing a tanned countenance with severe lines and a smiling mouth. His eyes were an unusual shade of blue-green, just like her mother’s aquamarine ring. White teeth gleamed in a wicked grin that promised pleasure, and made even Grace’s untouched heart beat a little faster.
The guests gathered in the drawing room to hear several songs from Signora Cossetti, hired to perform for the occasion. She sang quite beautifully in Italian and, although Grace couldn’t understand the words, she could feel the emotion, of love and loss and heartbreak. She turned her head to wipe away her tears and her glance collided with a tall gentleman at the back of the room. She looked away quickly, though she was left with an impression of broad shoulders and dark eyes. After Signora Cossetti’s performance, the guests broke up into different groups, and Lord Bladewell ended up nearby, speaking to their hostess.
“Lord Bladewell, how kind of you to partake in my little soiree,” Lady Sedcombe’s smile was pure feline. “You must be inundated with invitations. How do you find London?”
“To tell you the truth, ma’am, it’s big and loud. Not what I’m used to at all.”
Lord Sedcombe raised an elegant brow. “No doubt you find many differences between the elegant ladies of the ton and your own backwoods damsels.”
Bladewell rubbed a finger along his upper lip. “Well, your women sure talk a lot more.”
“Ah, you are not accustomed to our discussions of music and theater.”
“No,” Jack said, shaking his head. “That’s not it.”
The light caught on his golden hair and Grace blinked. She had never seen a man so vibrant or so… beautiful.
“It’s more like when you have a pack of small dogs, all yipping and yapping at you at the same time,” Jack continued.
There was a moment of shocked silence. Grace stifled a laugh.
Lord Bladewell favored the guests with a dazzling smile. “No offense, ladies. I find you all delightful.” He thought for a moment and added. “Useful, too.”
“Lord Bladewell, you are shocking!” trilled Lady Sedcombe, tapping him on the arm with her fan. A ripple of relieved laughter flowed over the guests. “You Americans and your plain-speaking.”
“My apologies, ma’am. I neglected to mention how fond I am of dogs.”
This brought another laugh and the crowd surged forward, charmed by the forthright speech and good looks of the new baron.
“You must share some tales of your American adventures. It was the late Lord Bladewell’s youngest brother who went to America, I believe.”
“That’s right. Granddad traveled all over. He settled in Kentucky for a spell, but then he headed west, and we went with him.”
“You traveled with your parents?”
“For a time. They passed away when I was young. I meant me and my cousin, Colt Whitehorse. He’s around here somewhere. But you wanted to hear a story. Well, there’s one yarn I can spin that I heard from the man himself. One-Eyed Tom was a trapper and prospector. We met up with him once in Colorado, and he had a tale to tell. Seems old Tom was trapped in the mountains by a snowstorm one time and found an abandoned shack where he holed up for the night. It was plenty cold, all right, but sometime during the night, he felt another body lie down beside him on his bedroll. Tom figgered it was another trapper and he didn’t mind so much, seeing it was cold and all. He woke up around dawn, his arm around his sleeping companion for warmth, and that was when the smell hit him. Old Tom’s eye flew open and he looked down. It was a bear, twice as big around as Tom himself. Well, old Tom leaped up, screaming all get out, and the bear climbed to his feet and stood blinking at him. Tom stopped yelling, so as not to further rouse the bear, which was between him and the door. Well, he looked at the bear and the bear looked back at him, and then it simply turned around and lumbered out the door.”
“Incredible,” murmured Mr. Sinclair.
“The funniest thing was that Tom was a changed man after that, vowing never to get hitched. He said sharing a bed with a bear had put him off marriage altogether.”
There was a moment of silence and then laughter swept through the company. Society had decided to be charmed by the rough-hewn baron.
Grace looked down at her ugly dress of magenta tarlatan. It had been cut down from one of Lady Merden’s discarded frocks. No, the handsome baron would never look at her. That was a dream that could never come true. Lord Bladewell started another story and Grace leaned forward to listen.
Jack looked around at his audience who had drawn closer, spellbound by his tales of what to them was a strange and foreign land. He stole a glance at a girl with yellow hair seated on the side of the room, wearing an ugly purple dress. Her hands were clenched in her lap as she listened, and her big brown eyes shone. She looked at Jack as if he were a man and not a meal ticket on legs for some ambitious society gal. Her soft gaze, hot and shimmering, slid over his face, down his chest, and lingered on his breeches. He could almost feel it, like a weight on his body.
Perhaps this evening wasn’t a waste of time after all. Who was she? Her dress was modest, compared to the other ladies, but it couldn’t entirely conceal the curves which rounded out her slender figure. He’d wager that skirt concealed a nicely rounded bottom. Maybe she enjoyed a little play before the main event. A nice spanking to get her in the mood. Jack imagined his fingers smacking her bottom, his cock jumping in his trousers. She had the air of a thing apart. Maybe she was a widow, missing her marriage bed and looking for some brief and mutually pleasurable encounter. Her gaze met his and slid away. Please, Lord, let her be a widow.
He finally located Colt, lounging by the bank of windows, looking bored. His cousin preferred a good game of cards and a cigar to a society party. He didn’t bed ladies like the ones here tonight, who regarded them with such hunger. No, Colt preferred a cozy armful, a gal who wanted a man to warm her bed without complications, like a husband. Or, heaven forbid, like a virgin. No, those two things would send Colt running in the opposite direction.
Colt straightened suddenly, his dark gaze sharpening. Jack turned to see what his cousin was looking at. It was the girl in the purple dress, who was speaking quietly with another woman, elderly and expensively dressed. Jack grinned. Trust Colt to have his eye on the same gal who attracted him. Well, it wouldn’t be the first time they shared a woman. But how was Jack to approach the girl, without making the kind of fuss he hated? He turned to his companion, Kit Sinclair, and nudged his arm, nodding toward the girl. “Who is that?”
Kit glanced over. “Ah, The Hidden Treasure. You’re not the first to be interested, my lad, but you’ll find no joy there. Lady Merden keeps her on a tight rein.”
“What did you call her?”
“The Hidden Treasure. Miss Atwell came to live in the Merden household three years ago. At first, she was treated like a member of the family: pretty clothes, jewels. No dowry, but there were a few interested parties. Lord Merden turned them all down flat. A nasty rumor started floating around that Merden was keeping his wife’s lovely cousin for his own use.”
Jack rubbed a finger along his upper lip. “Vile gossip?”
Kit shrugged. “No one knows. But when Lord Merden the elder passed away a year later, Miss Atwell was relegated to the position of companion. You see how she dresses. Lady Merden is barely civil to the poor girl. She has nowhere else to go, I believe.”
“That’s a real shame, for such a pretty thing. Seems she is little better than a slave.” Jack felt sorry for the girl, but her situation could mean Miss Atwell might be amenable to furthering their acquaintance.
When he told Colt later what Kit had said, Colt only shook his head. “Even if it’s true, Miss Atwell is still the soul of innocence, though she is in pain. You can see it in her eyes, Jack. Something happened to that girl and it’s a goddamned shame. A gal like that needs to be taken care of and cherished. It’s a wicked world we live in.”
Jack rolled his eyes. “And I reckon you’re just the man to take care of her. Out of the goodness of your heart.”
Colt flushed darkly, drawing his lips into a thin line.
“Just don’t go fallin’ in love with her, that’s all I ask,” Jack said.
Colt threw him a look of outrage.
“You’re gettin’ that moony look again. Like that time the Widow Thornton’s horse lost a shoe and you drove her home in the wagon. I didn’t see you for near on a week.”
Colt pressed his lips together. “That was different.”
“You bet it was. Miss Grace Atwell lives with one of those society families. You go messin’ with her and she’ll be ruined.”
“I got it, Jack. I won’t lay a hand on her.”
Jack snorted. “It’s not your hands I’m worried about, it’s your pecker.”
“Now, Jack, your mama wouldn’t like to hear to talk so coarse about a young lady.”
“She would tan my hide, God rest her soul. I’ll keep my mouth shut and you keep your fly buttoned. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” Colt muttered as he slouched out the door.
Now, if Jack could only believe him.