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Excerpt for Never Kneel to a Knight by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


~~~Never Kneel to a Knight~~~


By Regina Scott


Fortune’s Brides Series, Book 5


Smashwords Edition



© 2019 Regina Lundgren

License Note

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. It may not be re-sold or given away to other people unless it is part of a lending program. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for lending, please delete it from your device and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the author’s work and livelihood.



To the one and only Billy B. Bateman, a true romantic, for his encouragement and masterful storytelling, and to the Lord, who sends us unexpected companions to warm our hearts

Contents


Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Dear Reader

Sneak Peek: Never Marry a Marquess, book 6 in the Fortune’s Brides series

About the Author





Chapter One

London, England, June 1812

Charlotte Worthington peered out of the hired coach as it came to a stop on a narrow lane beyond Covent Garden. The houses were respectable—two rooms front and back on three levels, with an attic above for one or two servants. But the red brick façades with their white-framed windows were grimed with soot, and the stone stoop wanted sweeping.

“A knight of the realm lives here?” she asked.

Miss Thorn, seated across from her, gathered her cat Fortune close as she prepared to alight. Very likely she wasn’t as nervous as Charlotte. She owned the employment agency, after all, and had arranged positions for other ladies of quality. Not a strand of her raven hair was out of place where it showed under a hat the exact shade of lavender as her eyes, and her lavender-sprigged day dress had nary a crease where it peeked out beneath her velvet spencer.

“His elevation is scheduled for the next fortnight,” she explained, voice as cool and competent as her look. “This is his family home. He recently returned to it.”

Perhaps he had been stationed in India or the Caribbean and was only now taking up the honor he had earned in service to the kingdom. She pictured a white-haired fellow, still fit and trim, but perhaps weary of the world. Helping him navigate the intricacies of Society would be a worthwhile pursuit.

She certainly needed one. When she was a child, her pastimes had been dictated by her father. Ever since he had died ten years ago when she was fourteen, her life had revolved around her older brother, Frederick, Viscount Worthington. She had lived in his home, gone through the requirement of a few London Seasons, then retired to run his house and help him with his scientific endeavors. Worth had needed her help. His brilliant mind rarely stayed focused on mundane matters like food and housing. Now he was married, and Charlotte was feeling extremely de trop. Besides, she admired her brother’s bride Lydia Villers too much to wish to confuse the servants with two mistresses in the same house. And then there was Beast.

No, she was determined not to think of Beast. As much as she admired him, he could have no place in her life. Society had rules about who the daughter and sister of a viscount could marry. As often as she’d pressed against the boundaries, she knew the folly of breaking them. She was only glad Miss Thorn and dear Fortune had been willing to find her a respectable occupation to fill her time and augment her small inheritance so that she could soon live dependent on no one.

She was to be an etiquette teacher to the newly elevated.

The title rang of purpose. Her head was high as they swept up to the door.

A blond girl of about ten answered Miss Thorn’s knock, her pinafore wrinkled over her gingham dress. Wide brown eyes gazed at them, unblinking.

“We already gave,” she announced, pointed chin in the air.

“How commendable,” Miss Thorn said, catching the door before the girl could close it on them. “But we’re here to see your brother.”

“Petunia?” A woman about Charlotte’s age came out of the doorway on the right. She had warm blond hair pulled back from a round-cheeked face and the same wide brown eyes. Her day dress of saffron madras cotton betrayed a buxom figure. Petunia’s older sister, most likely. Did that mean she was the daughter of Charlotte’s intended pupil?

Seeing Miss Thorn and Charlotte, she hurried forward.

“Please forgive us,” she said with a look to her sister. “Petunia knows she isn’t to open the door to strangers.” She pointed to the curving stairs behind her, and Petunia traipsed up them obediently enough. As her sister turned her back on the girl, however, Petunia stopped on the landing to watch, hands clasping the polished wood balusters.

“May I help you?” the older sister asked with a pleasant smile.

“I am Miss Thorn of the Fortune Employment Agency,” Charlotte’s companion said, “come to see the master of the house about a position.” Fortune’s tail swept back and forth as if to confirm the matter.

The young lady glanced between Miss Thorn and Charlotte, frown gathering. “I manage this household. We have no positions open, and certainly nothing for a lady.”

“But you do have three young ladies and their brother who require tutoring in deportment,” Miss Thorn said.

Three young ladies? All her pupil’s sisters, by the sound of it. He must be unmarried, or she and Miss Thorn would have been presented to his wife.

The sister in the doorway drew herself up. “I have done my best to school my sisters in deportment. Who told you we needed assistance?”

“Why your brother himself,” Miss Thorn said. “By the very act of his sudden elevation.”

Fortune stood in her arms and leveled her gaze on the lady in the doorway. She blinked, Fortune blinked. She smiled.

“Your pet is lovely,” she murmured, raising a hand, then hesitating. “May I?”

“Of course,” Miss Thorn said.

Slowly, gently, she stroked a hand down the silky grey fur. Fortune stretched against the touch, mouth turning up for all the world as if she was smiling. While the young lady would never be a great beauty, her answering smile spoke of great beauty within.

“If you could point me in your brother’s direction,” Miss Thorn said, “we can move forward.”

As if mesmerized by the cat, their hostess stepped out of the doorway and let them in.

“Please wait in the sitting room, miss,” she said to Charlotte with a nod to the room she’d exited. She turned for the stairs, where Petunia had disappeared now, and led Miss Thorn and Fortune upward.

Charlotte wandered into the sitting room. It was neat and clean, but well lived in. The tapestry-covered sofa had hills in places and valleys in others. The wooden arms of the two chairs opposite it were chipped, the wounds pale against the walnut. The rose-patterned wallpaper was fading to pink and mint. On the oak mantel over the hearth stood several miniatures in simple wood frames. She had just picked up one of a blond lady with a weary smile and the family’s brown eyes when she heard a noise behind her.

“Oh!”

Turning, she found another young lady framed in the doorway. She looked about the age to make her debut. Unlike her sisters and the woman in the miniature, she had thick brown hair. Though she was shorter than her older sister, her figure was as curvaceous in her muslin day dress.

“Tuny said someone was here to help Matty become a knight,” she said, sashaying into the room with far more confidence than Charlotte had had at that age. “But I never expected a lady.”

Matty? Matthew, perhaps? A strong, proper name that touched her heart. And Tuny was clearly short for Petunia.

“I would be delighted to be of service to you and your brother,” Charlotte told her. “After he’s knighted, you may find yourself in higher circles.”

Her eyes narrowed as if she doubted that, and Charlotte had an odd feeling they’d met before. But that was impossible. She’d never been to this part of London, and she hadn’t associated with the ladies making their debuts in years.

“Higher circles?” the girl queried, the breathlessness of the question belying the skepticism in her gaze.

“She’s bamming you, Daisy.” Petunia squeezed past her sister into the room. “They want something from Matty, just like everyone else since his name was in the paper. Ask them why they really came to see us.”

Daisy cocked her head. “Do you even know my brother?”

It was on the tip of her tongue to deny it, but something stopped her. She did know one man—one powerful, wonderful man Fate had decreed was forever beyond her reach. He had been highly featured in the papers lately. When one saved the life of the Prince Regent, one became something of a celebrity. And he tended to narrow his eyes on occasion, eyes the same shade of brown as Daisy’s.

Her stomach collided with her lungs, pushing the breath from her body. Somehow, she managed to speak anyway.

“There’s been a mistake,” she said, hurrying past the girls. “A dreadful mistake. Miss Thorn!”

“See?” Petunia said as she and her sister followed Charlotte out into the entry hall. “I told you they were up to something.”

Neither the oldest sister nor Miss Thorn answered Charlotte’s call. She couldn’t go through with this. She’d started down this path not only to give her brother and his bride space, but to distance herself from Matthew Bateman, otherwise known as the Beast of Birmingham. She had to stop Miss Thorn from agreeing to an alliance. Charlotte lifted her skirts and began climbing.


~~~


The soon-to-be Sir Matthew Bateman eyed the woman who’d been brought up to see him. Ivy had been highly apologetic.

“I’m terribly sorry, Matty,” she’d said, shifting from foot to foot and setting the floorboards to creaking. “I know you asked us for some peace and quiet this morning. I’ll just leave you to it and get back to helping Anna with the washing.”

He’d thanked his sister and watched as another woman entered the room. It wasn’t as if Ivy had interrupted anything important. He’d been standing in the dining room, back to the long wood table, looking out at the rear garden, which seemed to consist mostly of scraggly weeds. Well, why was he surprised? The space was barely a dozen feet square. He had never thought to hire a gardener. His sisters knew nothing about raising plants, for all their mother had named them after the things.

Besides, why did he care that it didn’t look like a proper garden? Until recently, he’d been proud to earn his living, providing a home, clothing, and food for his sisters. All this lazing about was eating at his brain, what hadn’t been pounded out during his boxing days.

But that wasn’t why he was curt to his visitor. He’d met Miss Thorn before and knew exactly what she could do to cut up a man’s peace.

“No interest,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest. The coat pulled at his shoulders. Most of the second-hand coats he’d been able to purchase did. They weren’t cut for a fellow of his size and activities. Very likely now that he was being awarded an hereditary knighthood he’d be expected to bespeak a proper coat from a proper tailor.

All because Prinny wanted to be generous.

“You haven’t heard my proposal,” Miss Thorn pointed out.

The cat in her arms regarded him with eyes like copper pennies. He’d far rather converse with the cat than her mistress. Cats were sensible things, useful. His sisters had wanted a cat for years. Did knights own pets?

“Don’t need to hear your proposal,” Matthew told the woman. “We don’t want any of your help.”

“Ah, then you are prepared for your knighting ceremony.”

His gut tightened as if prepared to deflect a blow. “It’s one day. I’ll survive.”

“And your sisters?” she inquired politely. “How well will they survive the change?”

Matthew lowered his arms. “What do my sisters have to do with this?”

“They will find themselves on the edge of proper Society,” she said primly. “With the right teacher, they could make advantageous marriages.”

He’d seen enough of the upper classes to know that not all marriages were as advantageous as they seemed, but then, the aristocracy weren’t the only ones to marry poorly. If he had any say in the matter, Ivy, Daisy, and Petunia would marry fine men who would love and respect them, not like the father only Ivy had mourned when he’d died as drunk as he’d lived. His sisters were smart and pretty and capable. Why shouldn’t they marry a wealthy banker or even a lord like Viscount Worthington?

“So, you’ve brought me such a teacher, have you?” he asked the raven-haired woman in lavender before him. “Ivy seems a bit old for a governess.”

“I prefer to think of my client as an etiquette teacher,” she said. “A lady of breeding and taste who has herself been presented at court and survived more than one London Season.”

Matthew narrowed his eyes. “If she’s that much of a lady, why does she need a position?”

She ran a hand back along her pet’s fur, and the cat closed her eyes contentedly. “Her brother recently married, and she feels uncomfortable staying any longer in his home.”

He could understand that. Their mother had died shortly after Tuny had been born, when Matthew was already out of the house and working as a carter for the mill, fighting boxing matches on the side to earn extra money. Their father had married again, claiming the need for someone to watch over his daughters, but their stepmother had turned Matthew’s sisters, particularly Ivy, into her personal servants. It had been worse after his father had died, with the woman threatening the girls with the poorhouse if they failed to do her least bidding.

As soon as he’d won his first sizeable purse, he’d moved to London and brought them with him. Ivy had raised her sisters, taking over the running of the household when he’d begun working as a bodyguard for Lord Worthington a year ago.

“We don’t have a spare bed,” he warned Miss Thorn. “She’d have to stay elsewhere.”

“She’ll be staying with me for a time,” Miss Thorn said. “I would expect a fair wage and transportation back to my establishment each day she’s helping you, say Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, for several hours.”

That wouldn’t be so bad. His sisters might gain the advantage, and he might learn a few things to keep from embarrassing himself when the prince awarded his knighthood. And if he did this service for a lady, he might forget the one lady he could never have.

“All right,” he agreed. “She can start tomorrow.”

“No!”

Matthew blinked, turning to stare at the beauty in the doorway. That thick auburn hair with its fiery highlights, the flashing grey eyes, the lithe figure, supple as a sapling. Once more his gut clenched.

“Miss…Miss Worthington?” he stammered.

She rushed into the room, so unlike her usually poised and graceful self that he knew something terrible must have happened. He strode to meet her.

“What is it?” he demanded, taking her hands. “Is it your brother? Has there been another threatening letter?”

“No, no.” She pulled away, gathering her dignity like a queenly robe. Drawing an audible breath through her nose, she raised her head and met his gaze, hers now cool, emotionless.

“There’s been a mistake,” she said firmly. “I’m sorry we troubled you.”

Matthew glanced between her and Miss Thorn, realization dawning and bringing horror with it. “You’re the impoverished lady I’ll be helping?”

Her delicate chin hardened until he would have hesitated to face her across the boxing square. “Scarcely impoverished, sir. Nor are you the white-haired gentleman I was promised.”

Miss Thorn gathered her cat closer, smile still pleasant. “I never claimed Miss Worthington was impoverished, and I certainly never commented on the color of Mr. Bateman’s hair. I see no purpose in protesting, unless you can give me good reason, Miss Worthington.”

She opened her mouth, closed it again, then bit her lip. Such a pretty lip too, pink and warm looking. Matthew snapped his gaze to her face. Were those tears in her eyes? What had he done that was so terrible? How could he make it up to her?

“I have worked with Mr. Bateman in the past,” she said. “I do not believe continued connection to be appropriate.”

Now, there was a facer. Still, what did he expect? The prince might want to honor him, but most people looking at him would see the Beast of Birmingham, a boxer so brutal he had permanently maimed a man in a fight. Though more than a year had passed, few had forgotten. He would never forget or forgive himself. He wasn’t sure whether Miss Worthington knew the story. Best that she never heard it.

“I concur,” he said, voice and body heavy. “It would be better if we went our separate ways.”

Miss Thorn sailed for the door. “A pity. The negotiations are concluded. I have accepted your offer of employment for Miss Worthington’s time. She will start tomorrow at eleven. No need to thank me. The results will speak for themselves.”




Chapter Two

Of course, Charlotte argued with her. All the way down the stairs and out to the waiting carriage.

“I am unaccustomed to such cowardice,” Miss Thorn said as the carriage started forward. She raised her chin, spine straight. Even Fortune stared at Charlotte with reproachful eyes.

Charlotte drew in a breath. Her ability to find peace in the midst of turmoil had stood her in good stead since her parents had died and her brother had taken charge. Worth could be capricious. The best way to deal with him was with calm, reason. The approach worked well with most people. Some had accused her of being aloof, unfeeling. But cowardice? That she had never faced.

Until now.

“Forgive me,” she said to the employment agency owner as the carriage moved away from Covent Garden and back toward the more fashionable Mayfair. “You must not have realized the connection when you considered this position for me. Mr. Bateman once served my brother as bodyguard. It would be inappropriate for me to serve him now.”

“So you, like much of London, consider yourself above him,” Miss Thorn said.

That tone was as cold as a pineapple ice at Gunter’s confectionary.

“No,” Charlotte protested. “Not at all. I’ve always considered him a gentleman. And he’s being elevated.”

“Indeed.” Miss Thorn cocked her head, raven curl brushing her ear. “So why the antipathy to the fellow? Was he belligerent to you when he worked for your brother?”

“Never,” Charlotte assured her. In fact, there had been moments—the brush of gazes, the touch of hands—when she’d thought she’d sensed a commonality, a mutual admiration. She refused to call it anything more.

“I assume you have some loyalty to the fellow,” Miss Thorn continued.

Loyalty. What a proper word. Noble, even. That’s what she must feel toward Matthew Bateman, the Beast of Birmingham—loyalty.

“Certainly,” Charlotte agreed, hoping the word hadn’t come out too fervently.

“Then why would you entrust this task to anyone else?” Miss Thorn demanded. “Not all etiquette teachers are kind. The ton certainly won’t be. Can you imagine the slurs and censure Sir Matthew and his sisters will face if they enter those hallowed halls unprepared?”

She could. She had been raised to her position in Society—a lady, the daughter of a viscount, from a family known for its contributions to the world. Worth was excessively proud of their heritage. So was she. But even her impressive background hadn’t stopped the gossip.

Such a shame about Charlotte Worthington—three Seasons and no husband.

Small wonder she hides away with her brother’s studies.

And acts as if no heart ever beat in her breast. So sad.

Charlotte shook herself. “Society can be cruel. I can see why Sir Matthew and his sisters must be prepared for their new roles in it. But I’m still not convinced I’m the right person for this position.”

“Did you or did you not master the rules of the ton?” Miss Thorn challenged her.

“I did,” Charlotte allowed. “Though at times they felt too confining.”

“You have pursued natural philosophy, conducted your own experiments though some looked down on you for it,” the employment agency owner continued. “Do you know another lady more versed in bridging the gap between purpose and polite Society?”

“No,” Charlotte admitted, still conflicted. “But I would be the first to point out how wide the gap and now narrow the bridge to cross it.”

As if to demonstrate that it could be done, Fortune leaped nimbly between the seats to perch beside Charlotte, then bent her head to rub it against her arm. Charlotte ran her hand along the soft fur. Funny how just looking at the cat made her shoulders come down, her breath come easier.

“Fortune thinks you are exactly the right person for this position,” the cat’s mistress said with a nod. “And that is good enough for me. Those girls and their brother deserve a teacher who has their best interests at heart, someone who will not take advantage of them. But if you tell me you cannot put their needs before your own, I will look for another position for you.”

All her life, she’d deferred to the needs of others—her father, Worth, their studies to improve industrial practices. Was this truly any different? She’d begged Miss Thorn to find her something useful, something purposeful, some place she might make a difference. If she helped Beast and his sisters, she not only gave them better lives, she paid him back for all the times he’d helped her and her brother. And as the teacher, she would be the one in control.

“Very well,” she told Miss Thorn. “I’ll start tomorrow, as we agreed.”

Fortune began to purr.


~~~


Charlotte had regained her composure by the time she knocked on the door of the Bateman home the next day at eleven. Her outfit helped. She generally favored green or grey for her clothes—elegant, but practical, and the color complimented her auburn hair—so it hadn’t been difficult to find a grey gown with simple lines and a white tucker and cuffs. The warm June weather allowed merely a grey and blue patterned shawl and a straw bonnet as accoutrements. But Petunia still ogled a moment before letting Charlotte in.

“Matty says you’re to work with us first,” she said over the shoulder strap of her pinafore as she headed for the sitting room. “He already knows everything about being a knight.”

That his sisters thought they knew everything about being ladies was evident the moment Charlotte walked into the room. Daisy and Ivy were dressed in satin gowns strewn with lace at every hem and across the bodices. The younger sister’s bright smile was nearly eclipsed by the shockingly yellow color of her gown, while Ivy all but disappeared inside her fiery orange version. They both sat ramrod straight, hands folded in their laps, brittle smiles on their pretty faces.

“Miss Worthington,” Ivy said, elongating each vowel. “How nice of you to call.”

“Won’t you take a seat?” Daisy added with an expansive wave, voice as laden with exaggerated refinement.

“She means sit down,” Petunia whispered to Charlotte. “We don’t have enough chairs that you could take one away.”

Charlotte gave her a smile, then went to sit on one of the remaining chairs. Petunia took the other.

They all stared at her.

Might as well practice what she intended to preach. “How kind of you to receive me,” Charlotte said. “Lovely weather we’re having.”

Daisy swiveled to glance out the window. “Looks to be coming on rain to me.”

Petunia nodded. “Best we bring in the wash.”

Ivy cleared her throat, and they both sat up straight again.

“Perhaps,” Charlotte ventured, leaning forward, “if you told me what you’ve learned so far, I can determine where I might lend a hand. That is, where I might help,” she quickly clarified, before Petunia could ask which hand she meant for them to borrow.

“I have done my best to teach my sisters how to be ladies,” Ivy said, nose up and gaze pointed over Charlotte’s left shoulder.

Daisy leaned forward in her seat, rumpling the bow on her bosom. “Ivy showed us how we should act so no one thinks we’re trollops.”

“To say please when you want something and thank you when you get it,” Petunia added, saving Charlotte from responding for a moment. “Wipe your mouth with a napkin, not your sleeve, and don’t sneeze into your hand. The last one’s the hardest. How’s a body to know when she’s going to sneeze?”

Oh, my. Charlotte kept her smile encouraging. “Commendable. What about dancing?”

Ivy drew herself up. “We don’t hold with it.”

“Especially in church,” Petunia put in.

“Needlework?” Charlotte tried.

Daisy preened. “I can hem a dress faster than anyone I know.”

“If you’re willing to stick your toe through the stitches every time you put on the dress,” Petunia jibed.

Daisy gave it up and scowled at her.

“We can all mend seams, darn socks, and attach lace,” Ivy reported with a look to her sisters.

“And Ivy bakes,” Petunia bragged. “Popovers and pies and cinnamon buns.” She sighed happily.

Charlotte refused to let her dismay show on her face. The Bateman sisters might be highly accomplished in their circle, but they knew very little of what was required to navigate the waters of Society. She had been hired to prepare them, perhaps even to help Ivy and Daisy make advantageous matches. She had much work to do. She’d need tenacity, patience. But she’d also need resources.

And she would have to be the one to explain the situation to their no-doubt doting brother.


~~~


In the little room he’d taken as his study, Matthew paced from the door to the hearth and back again for the third time in as many minutes. He’d heard the knock at the front door. He knew who was downstairs with his sisters. Ivy and Daisy had been determined to make a good impression, wearing the one set of pretty dresses their stepmother had purchased for them. For church, she’d said, as if she meant to honor the Lord instead of herself for once. She hadn’t fooled Matthew. She’d wanted the girls to outshine everyone else at the little chapel to prove how prosperous they were and to hide the fact that any money she had went to her own pleasures first.

Still, Ivy and Daisy had looked as bright as canaries as they’d waited for their teacher to arrive. With any luck, Miss Worthington would see they needed no help and leave him in peace. He noticed a book sticking out of the tall walnut bookcase on one side of the wood-wrapped hearth and hastily shoved it back into place.

He still didn’t understand why she was here. Lord Worthington, her brother, had married recently and was off on his honeymoon. He’d given Matthew a holiday with the understanding that they would speak about Matthew’s future when the couple returned. Matthew had originally been hired as bodyguard after Lord Worthington had begun receiving anonymous threatening notes. But that danger had been unmasked and neutralized. Was he even needed?

And was it proper for him to go on serving? Gentlemen elevated to a hereditary knighthood generally didn’t work for their supper.

Then again, neither did Miss Worthington. Her brother would provide any money she needed. Why seek a position through an employment agency?

The stairs creaked. Someone was coming up. He ran his boot over the rug to tug it into place on the hardwood floor, aimed a kick at the other armchair near the fire to settle it in place. Then he hurried to take his seat in front of the hearth, head high and proud. His voice didn’t waiver as he answered the knock. “Come on, then.”

Miss Worthington slipped into the room. Truly, was there a more elegant lady in London? He’d seen the princesses royal at a distance when he and a squad of pugilists had been asked to accompany the prince. Those haughty ladies didn’t hold a candle to the beauty in front of him.

“Done so soon?” he asked.

She regarded him, and belatedly he remembered that a gentleman stood in the presence of a lady. He climbed to his feet. She smiled, and he felt very clever.

“For the moment,” she answered him. “I wanted to ask you a few questions, so I know best how to assist your sisters.”

Easy enough. He might not understand the niceties of Society, but he was the only available expert on his sisters. “Ask away.”

She must have considered that an invitation, for she came to sit across from him. Matthew returned to his seat. The coal settled in the grate. If he listened closely enough, he could hear her take in a breath.

She gazed at him, grey eyes as cool as a misty morning and as mysterious. “Ivy talked about teaching her sisters,” she said. “Did you lose your mother early?”

Too early, though at the time he’d wondered whether his mother had had the better of it. “She died shortly after Petunia was born. Ivy was twelve at the time.”

She pressed her fingers to her lips a moment. He made himself look at the fire instead.

“How awful,” she murmured. “And what a burden to put on your sister.”

She didn’t know the half of it. “Da remarried,” he told the hearth. “Our stepmother took a fancy to Tuny, at least until she was old enough to talk back.”

“Did she pass away as well?”

“Not yet, more’s the pity.”

She gasped, and Matthew hurried on, gaze returning to hers. “She keeps house in Birmingham. I wanted my sisters closer. What else do you need to know about them?”

“Your hopes, for one,” she said as if she hadn’t noticed his comment. “I’m assuming you’d like Ivy to make her debut this year, even though it’s late in the Season and she’s older than most. We could wait and have Daisy come out next year.”

Matthew cocked his head. “Come out, like with a fancy ball?”

“Or a family party,” she explained.

He straightened. “Best do it all at once. Ivy will only push Daisy forward. And Daisy won’t take kindly to waiting.”

She nodded. “Very well then. Once they are out, I can introduce them around. Vouchers to Almack’s are probably out of the question, but I’m certain I could arrange invitations to soirees and musicales.”

She was outpacing him. He’d accompanied her and her brother to a ball or two, but he’d always stayed with the coach. And he wasn’t entirely sure what Almack’s was or why anyone would want a voucher to it. Still, he wasn’t about to let her know that.

“Very well. But I intend to approve any gentleman who wants to take my sisters driving or walking or such.”

She inclined her head. “Of course. That’s settled, then. What about you?”

He frowned. “Me? I’m fine.”

She was watching him. “You’ve been told what will be expected of you at the levee, then?”

By no less than three lords, all of whom had seemed certain he’d embarrass himself even with their wise counsel. He shrugged. “More or less.”

She puffed out a sigh. “Come now, Beast. You must know there are expectations for your behavior.”

He could feel his frown deepening. “Like what?”

“Like introductions, for one. How do you bow to the prince?”

He rose and inclined his head.

She stood and put her hand on his shoulder. “Deeper. He is the sovereign.”

“And I’m a knight,” Matthew reminded her. “Or I will be soon. Don’t I deserve some dignity? If you’re supposed to keel over for a kingly sort, do you at least kneel to a knight?”

“Never,” she said. “Your obeisance is tempered by the elevation of the person you are greeting. Knights, even the hereditary ones, are at the very bottom.”

“No, that’s reserved for us common folk,” he said.

Either the tone or the look on his face must have said more than he’d intended, for her eyes dipped down at the corners, and she removed her hand from his shoulder. “Now, then, you and your sisters may need to brush up on Society’s expectations, but you know many things I’ve never been taught.”

“Like what?” he asked, struggling to see her as anything less than perfect.

“Like boxing,” she said with certainty.

Matthew snorted. “Fat lot Society needs to know about that.”

“Some know far more than they should,” she informed him primly. “But my point was that you are an expert in that area. For example, how would you go about besting me?”

His brows shot up. “What? You think I fight women?”

She laughed, a warm sound that made him want to move closer, as if he’d stepped through the door of his own home for the first time in a long time. “No, of course not. But you must have a strategy. Appearing before the prince is no different. You have to know what you hope to achieve.”

Matthew stuck out his lower lip. “All right. But when I fight, I mostly think about staying alive, avoiding injury.”

She frowned. “All defense? No offense?”

“Well,” he allowed, “I did have one particular move that served me well. I can take a punch better than most, but if a fellow was especially trying, I’d wrap him up.”

“Wrap him up?”

“Yeah, like this.” He reached out and wrapped his arms about her, pinning her against his chest. Her eyes were wide in surprise, but he didn’t see any fear in the grey. She fit against him as if she’d been tailored just for him.

He knew he should let go. Yet everything in him demanded that he hang on, hold her close, all the days of his life, no matter the cost.




Chapter Three

His eyes had green flecks in them. Charlotte felt as if she were peering into the depths of a forest. His arms held her effortlessly, protecting her, cradling her. Surely this wasn’t the Beast of Birmingham.

He dropped his arms and stepped back, red climbing in his cheeks. “A lady like you has no need for such tactics. And I can’t very well use them on the prince.”

The prince. Of course. That’s why she was standing entirely too close to Beast. Charlotte stepped back as well, surprised to find her hands trembling. “Certainly not. You are being elevated for saving His Highness’ life. Wrapping him up, as you call it, would jeopardize that elevation.”

He regarded her a moment as if wondering whether jeopardizing his knighthood might not be a bad idea. Then he turned away to study the fire. “Won’t matter. You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. He may knight me, but I’ll never be accepted among the nobs.”

Indignance raised her head. “Then you are associating with the wrong nobs. You are a fine man, Beast. There’s no reason you and your sisters can’t find a circle of friends.”

He glanced back at her, eyes now shadowed. “If I’m such a fine fellow, why do you call me Beast?”

Her cheeks heated. “I thought that was your boxing name, a badge of honor.”

He returned to his chair. “I was called that, but it was never an honor.”

“Then I beg your pardon,” Charlotte said, resuming her own seat and arranging her skirts. “I suppose I should accustom myself to calling you Sir Matthew.”

He grimaced. “Why? I can’t accustom myself to it.”

Charlotte knit her fingers over one knee. “I wonder sometimes how the sons of the higher titles manage it. The oldest son will have his father’s courtesy title for years, then suddenly be called by the main title when his father passes. Worth’s friend the Duke of Wey was Lord Thalston when he was younger. And highly regarded generals collect titles like pretty girls collect suitors.”

“I won’t,” he said. “One’s too much as it is.”

“You’ll be marvelous,” Charlotte predicted. “I will make sure of it. We can start on Thursday.” She stood. When he didn’t, she regarded him.

He pushed to his feet. “Am I always supposed to stand around?”

“If a lady stands, you stand,” Charlotte instructed him.

He scowled. My, but the look ran in the family. “How am I supposed to know which are ladies and which are plain misses?” he demanded.

She certainly had her work cut out for her. “Allow me to be clear,” Charlotte said. “If a female older than ten who is not of the serving class stands in your presence, you stand until she either leaves the room or sits.”

He nodded, scowl easing. “Very well. But can I ask them to sit if they hover about too long?”

“I refuse to believe those legs tire quickly, sir,” Charlotte said. Then, suddenly aware of how long and strong those legs appeared in his brown trousers, she retreated a step.

“That should be sufficient for now,” she told him. “I’ll be back Thursday at eleven, as agreed.”

She wasn’t sure whether to be glad or disappointed when he didn’t argue.

Her friend Lilith, however, argued quite enough for all concerned.

Charlotte had known Lady Lilith, now Mrs. Villers, since Lilith’s brother, the Earl of Carrolton, had become friends with Worth, having attended Eton together. Lilith had been vibrant once, the most sought-after lady at any event. But something had happened, her personality leaking away until she had been reduced to a bitter shell. Charlotte blamed the disappointments on the marriage mart.

Lilith had favored Beau Villers, a man of dubious character and repute, but her late father had refused to allow her to marry him. They had been reunited earlier this year, and Lilith’s brother had been willing to allow the two to wed. Now that Lilith had married her dearest love, Charlotte had every hope her friend would blossom again. Soon.

“You were not at home,” Lilith complained when Mr. Cowls, Miss Thorn’s elderly butler, showed her into the elegant yellow and white withdrawing room. Miss Thorn had stepped out for the moment, but Fortune glanced up from her place at the window to eye their visitor with a certain calculation.

“I no longer live with my brother,” Charlotte explained. “Miss Thorn was kind enough to allow me to stay for a while.”

Lilith glanced around at the curved-back sofa and brace of satin-striped chairs, the tasteful display of Wedgewood and Sevres inside the glass-fronted cabinets. Fortune hopped down from the sill to pad up to her. Lilith ignored her.

“You should have your own home,” she proclaimed. “A husband. I’ll see to it.”

Charlotte felt as if her friend had plucked the wrong string on the harp. Lilith didn’t just resemble an Amazon with her impressive height, commanding figure swathed today in sapphire and white, black hair, and strong jaw. She tended to state her opinions loudly and forcefully as well, and it was a foregone conclusion that everyone in the vicinity would agree and obey.

“I’m not seeking a husband, Lilith,” Charlotte told her. As if she quite concurred, Fortune abandoned Lilith and came to wind herself around Charlotte’s grey skirts.

Lilith frowned. It was not as intimidating as Matthew’s scowls, but it wasn’t far off. “Why not?” she demanded. “I can assure you being a wife is a tremendous blessing.”

“For some,” Charlotte allowed. When Lilith’s frown didn’t ease, Charlotte took her hand and led her to sit on the sofa beside her, mindful of Fortune close by.

“Make no mistake, dearest,” Charlotte said. “I’m so glad you are happy with your choice. But I’m not convinced I’d be as happy married.”

“Few are,” Lilith said with a contented sigh.

Fortune hopped up between them and glanced back and forth, as if considering which lap to possess first. Lilith hitched away from her. Fortune promptly pounced into her lap. Lilith recoiled.

Charlotte leaned across, picked up Fortune, and deposited her in her own lap. The grey cat pouted.

Lilith composed herself. “But even if you cannot dream of reaching my level of happiness in marriage, I can think of any number of gentlemen who might be good partners for you. Didn’t I hear you were fond of Mr. Curtis last Season?”

Charlotte flinched at the fellow’s name, and Fortune’s ears twitched as if she didn’t much like it either. “A momentary aberration,” Charlotte assured her friend, running a hand down Fortune’s back. “We will not suit.”

“Pity.” Lilith eyed them a moment as if still considering the matter, and Charlotte willed her to offer another name rather than that of the man she’d once thought might be her perfect match before he’d proven himself a liar and cheat.

Lilith merely shook her dark head. “I’ll have to give the matter more thought. Perhaps Beau might know someone.”

Beauford Villers had supposedly reformed, but Charlotte had never been entirely convinced of the matter.

“No need to trouble your dear husband,” she said, continuing to pet Fortune, who cuddled closer. “I’m firmly on the shelf and never happier about the fact. In fact, I’ve found a new calling.”

Lilith’s smile was resigned. “Please tell me you aren’t going to continue with natural philosophy. It simply isn’t done.”

“I did quite well the last few years,” Charlotte said, hand stilling. “But no, I don’t intend to continue. Thanks to Miss Thorn, I’m assisting those new to the peerage to acclimate themselves.”

Lilith stared at her. “You’re a chaperone?”

“Chaperone, advisor, something along those lines,” Charlotte said with a wave of her hand. Fortune watched her fingers with interest. “My first assignment is Mr. Bateman, who saved the prince’s life.”

Lilith’s brows reared up like startled horses. “Mr. Bateman, the fellow who worked for you? The Beast of Birmingham? Charlotte, you must know he’s a joke.”

Charlotte’s spine stiffened. So did Fortune’s. “If he is, it is only among people of low intelligence and lower character.”

The pink in her friend’s high cheeks suggested to which camp she and her husband belonged.

“Beau and I don’t hold with people advancing themselves,” she said, proving Charlotte’s suspicions. “There is an order to the world, and all are more content when we strive to maintain it.”

“Intriguing point of view,” Charlotte said, fire building inside. “Did Beau think of it before or after he married into the aristocracy?”

Fortune rose and stalked up to Lilith. This time, her friend put out a hand, but more to stop the cat then to welcome her, Charlotte thought.

“That is hardly the same thing,” Lilith protested. “The Villers’s family is well known on the ton, welcome in all the best houses.”

“And Mr. Bateman is admired by the Prince Regent,” Charlotte countered.

Lilith patted Fortune on the head. The cat jumped down and stalked off, tail in the air and a glance of disdain over her shoulder.

“Let us not quarrel,” Lilith said, watching Fortune. “I suspect you will grow weary of this pastime, just as you did those silly experiments of your brother’s. When you come to your senses, I will be delighted to find you the perfect husband.”

Charlotte merely offered her a polite smile. She had come to her senses sometime ago and realized she was too independent for marriage. Nothing Lilith said could change that.


~~~


Matthew was glad for a break on Wednesday from Charlotte’s distracting presence. He left off the tight coat and dressed in his more comfortable loose trousers, cambric shirt, and waistcoat. He didn’t even bother with a coat or cravat. He spent some time in the rear yard jogging and ferrying weighted sacks from one side of the space to the other. Might as well keep up his strength. All this sitting about could drive a man to Bedlam.

Tuny, however, had other ideas about how he should spend his time.

“Are you going to fight again?” she asked when she came out into the yard to tell him Ivy was ready for tea.

Matthew dropped the sack among the weeds. “No.”

Tuny crunched up her face. “Why? You were good at it, and you won a lot of money.”

He had, most of which was invested in the Exchange and bringing in a sizeable quarterly income, but he didn’t intend to share that with his littlest sister. “Gentlemen don’t fight, Sweet Pea.”

“Ladies either, I suppose,” she said with a sigh.

Matthew chuckled. “Definitely not ladies. What did Ivy bake today?”

Tuny brightened. “Sugar biscuits. Come on in, then.”

He stopped by the kitchen to wash his hands and face, then followed her to the sitting room at the front of the house, where his sisters liked to gather.

Daisy and Ivy were back in comfortable clothing as well, muslin day dresses with little printed flowers speckled about the soft folds. He took his spot on the largest chair, a massive upholstered thing that sagged when he sat but nevertheless fit his frame. Daisy and Ivy were already on the sofa, the light from the windows streaming past them as Ivy took up the chipped rose-patterned teapot and poured for them all.

“I like her,” Tuny announced when they’d had a few sips and one of Ivy’s biscuits.

“Who?” Daisy asked from her spot beside Ivy on the sofa.

“Miss Worthington,” Tuny said.

She wasn’t the only one. Matthew grabbed the teapot and poured himself another cup of the thick brew, trying not to remember the feel of Charlotte in his arms yesterday.

“I don’t,” Daisy said, shifting on the rose-patterned upholstery and wrinkling her muslin gown in the process. “She’ll have all sorts of rules. You wait and see.”

Funny. Tuny was generally the skeptic in the house.

“Rules aren’t so bad,” Ivy mused, hands cradling her cup as if she relished the warmth. “They keep us safe. They help us build character.”

Daisy tossed her head. “Perhaps I don’t need more character.”

“Perhaps we could all do with a bit of polish,” Matthew told them.

“Not you,” Tuny bragged. “You’re top-of-the-trees. It was in the paper.”

“Don’t believe everything you read,” Matthew said. “I’m still the brother you know.”

“And love,” Ivy said with a smile. “Still, she is right, Matty. You’ve moved in higher circles far longer than we have. You know about all these rules.”

“I’ve worked with Lord Worthington for a year,” he countered. “That didn’t prepare me to enter Society. He’s a good sort, but not what you call conventional. Nobs have their own way of doing things.”

“Like what?” Tuny asked, clearly fascinated.

“Well,” Matthew allowed, “did you know a gentleman’s supposed to stand when a lady does?”

“How’d you know which are ladies?” Tuny demanded.

Matthew slapped his knee with his free hand. “That’s what I asked.” The tea sloshed, and Ivy send him a look of reproach.

“What did Miss Worthington say to that?” Daisy asked.

“That any woman over the age of ten who wasn’t a servant counted,” Matthew explained. He leaned back to mop the spots of tea from the arm of the chair with his napkin. It took him a moment to realize that the room had fallen silent, as if they were all waiting.

Glancing up, he found Tuny on her feet, triumph gleaming in her eyes.

“What?” Matthew asked.

Tuny raised her brows and gave him a look. Just like Charlotte. Matthew popped to his feet without thought.

Tuny tipped up her chin, then sat on the chair with a smile of satisfaction.

Matthew started to sit, and Daisy popped up. He straightened.

Daisy sat. Matthew sat. Tuny stood. Matthew stood. Tuny sat, Matthew sat, and Daisy rose. Matthew glared at them all.

Ivy started laughing, and they all joined in, even Matthew. It did his heart good to hear his sisters so happy. That’s what they deserved. Maybe all this business with Charlotte and the prince would bring more happiness to his family. Why go through with it otherwise?

“Oh, Matty,” Ivy said as they finally resumed tea. “I almost forgot. A letter came for you.” She set down her cup and went to fetch it from among the miniatures on the mantel.

“Maybe it’s from the prince,” Tuny ventured, watching her sister as she returned to hand the letter to Matthew.

“Not likely.” He broke the seal. The first few words sent his stomach plummeting to his knees.

“Matty?” Ivy asked, straightening beside him. “What’s wrong?”

“Is it Mrs. Bateman?” Daisy asked with fear in her voice.

“Has something happened to her?” Tuny asked, her own voice starting to shake.

Matthew folded the note and rose. “It’s not about your stepmother or the prince, but I need to take care of the matter. I’ll try to be home for supper, but if I’m not, don’t wait for me.”

Because it was highly likely when he returned, he wouldn’t have an appetite.




Chapter Four

The gentleman’s lodging house had seen better days. So had most of its occupants. The manager answered Matthew’s knock.

“Good thing you came,” the thin fellow intoned in a deep voice that sounded as if it echoed from the grave. “The physician says it won’t be long now.”

Matthew slipped a coin into his hand. “See that he has all he needs.”

“I will,” Mr. Oglethorp promised, stepping aside to let him into the narrow entryway. “And when he’s gone, I hope you’ll see fit to keep paying for the room until I find another tenant.”

Matthew’s gaze was on the shadowy stairs. “We can discuss that when the time comes.”

Muttering to himself, the manager trudged back down the corridor. Matthew climbed the stairs as he had once a fortnight for more than a year. The wallpaper seemed a little dingier each time, the tears and scuffs more noticeable. But Cassidy refused to allow any more help than Matthew was already giving.

Out of courtesy, he rapped on the first paneled door on the right at the top of the stairs. No one called for him to enter, but he eased open the door anyway.

It was as pleasant a room as he could make it. He’d asked Ivy’s advice, though his sister had thought he was considering redecorating his bedchamber. Now cheery gingham curtains hung on the single window, and a quilt with blocks of green and brown draped the iron bedstead. Paintings of horses were hung here and there, a sign that life continued outside these confining walls. The man in the bed raised his head just enough to eye his visitor.

“You came.” Cassidy’s head fell back onto the pillow as his breath left him in a wheeze.

Matthew moved closer to the bed. The man under the covers had once been tall and strong enough to be known as the Giant of Lancaster. Matthew had had to have the bed especially made to fit the length of him. Now Cassidy had shrunk in on himself, his skin sticking to his skull, his limbs wasting. The light of challenge in his clover green eyes was the only sign that the fighting spirit remained.

“I always come when you ask,” Matthew said, sinking onto the spindle-backed chair next to the bed.

“That you do,” Cassidy allowed. “You’ve done more than I would have done had our positions been reversed.” He paused to cough into a handkerchief, adding another patch of red to the stained linen.

“I’m not sure I believe that,” Matthew said.

“And that’s the difference between us,” Cassidy answered lowering his hand. “If I’d hurt you in that fight, I’d have gone on with my life. You haven’t. I must admit I haven’t minded watching you suffer.”

The cough shook him again, until he curled his body around his chest.

Matthew half rose, to do what, he wasn’t sure. Cassidy waved a hand at the small table near the window. A stone jug and glass stood waiting. Matthew went to pour some liquid into a glass. The color looked too dark to be water. One sniff, and he set the cup down.

Cassidy made a face as the fit passed. “So, you’ll deny me that small comfort.”

“You’re a mean drunk,” Matthew said. “Mr. Oglethorp doesn’t deserve your bile.”

“And neither do you,” Cassidy agreed as Matthew returned to the bedside. “That’s why I asked you here. A man starts to think when he’s about to meet his Maker. I may not be able to stand on my feet on this Earth, but I’d like to be able to stand before Him in Heaven. So I ask your forgiveness.”

Matthew reared back. “My forgiveness?”

Cassidy’s eyes narrowed. “You know why. I goaded you that day. I thought if I angered you, you’d make a mistake, give me an opening. Instead, I nearly died under your pounding.”

Matthew dropped back onto the chair. “It does me no honor to remember.”

“And I’ve enjoyed watching you try to make amends,” Cassidy assured him, hands smoothing the covers over his chest. “But if I’m to earn my spot with the angels, I need to set you free, the rector tells me. So I forgive you as well.”

“Do you?” Matthew couldn’t believe it.

He barked a laugh and started coughing again. When he finished, Matthew had pity and went for the glass. Cassidy downed the contents.

“Yes, I do,” the former fighter insisted, shoving the glass back at him. “It was my own fault, poking the Beast. I should have known better. Put a nice stone on my grave, and go on about your life.”

If only it was that easy. Cassidy might offer forgiveness, but Matthew couldn’t accept. He’d earned the name of Beast that day, and he had not yet found a way to claim another.


~~~


Charlotte arrived for her second day of teaching with a plan and a renewed determination. Her conversation with Lilith had spurred both. The ton had a strange attitude about newcomers. A small amount of originality was rarely tolerated, while wild eccentricity was often embraced. She had no interest in making Sir Matthew and his sisters into eccentrics, but she could do what she could to help them blend in.

“I must speak to your brother first,” she told Petunia when the girl answered her knock. “Is he receiving?”

“Is he receiving what?” Petunia asked, adjusting one strap on her pinafore as she stepped aside to let Charlotte in. “We didn’t know about any deliveries.”

“Do you think he would be willing to talk to me now?” Charlotte clarified.

Petunia nodded. “Matty’s always ready to talk, well, listen, mostly. A girl can tell him most anything. He’s good that way.”

Funny, but Charlotte had determined the same thing. In the last year, Beast, er Sir Matthew, had stopped his work to listen to her any number of times: when she was frustrated about something Worth wanted done to his exacting criteria, when she was trying to think through an impediment in her own studies. His quiet presence had been a steady spot in her life, particularly after all the turmoil with John Curtis. That was one of the reasons she wanted to help him now.

Petunia turned to point up the stairs. “He’s in the room on the right, like last time you were here. I’ll tell Ivy and Daisy you’ll be along soon.”

Charlotte thanked her, gathered her skirts, and started climbing.

The door was open. She left it that way for propriety’s sake. He was seated by the hearth as he had been last time she’d called, but his head was sunk in his hands, his shoulders slumped.

Her plan evaporated. “Beast, Matthew, what’s wrong?”

He raised his head slowly, as if the weight of it was too much, and for a moment she saw a sorrow that would have broken other men. Then he composed his face and stood.

“Miss Worthington, forgive me. I just heard an old…acquaintance passed.”

Charlotte hurried forward, had to stop herself from reaching out. “I’m so sorry. Had he been ill long?”

“Too long.” He grimaced. “But life is like that. No need for your concern.”

He wasn’t going to confide further. She should not be so disappointed. She was here to help him and his sisters acclimate themselves to their new positions, not share his woes. Yet something in her yearned to touch his cheek, murmur words of solace, hear him speak of the person whose passing had left him in such despair.

“Finished with my sisters already?” he asked.

Charlotte raised her head. “I hadn’t started, actually. I had a few questions for you.”

“More?” he asked with the beginnings of a frown.

“A few,” she admitted.

He waved her into the opposite chair. “Happy to oblige.”

He didn’t look happy, and she realized with a pang that she had rarely seen him smile, not since she’d been in this house and not in the last year while he’d worked for her brother. He deserved better.

She sat and arranged her green lustring skirts as he resumed his seat.

“To begin with,” she said, “I’d like to know my budget.”

Now that frown fell in earnest. “I agreed to pay Miss Thorn a certain amount a week. Didn’t she tell you?”

“Yes,” Charlotte allowed, “but that wasn’t my point. If your sisters are to enter Society, they will need new clothes, accessories. The entry hall and sitting room will need redecorating. The dining room may as well if you plan to host dinner parties. Then there’s the dance master, the hiring of carriages, tickets to the theatre and opera. You must have a staff member to answer the door, so Petunia doesn’t have to do it. And I haven’t even assessed your needs yet.”


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