On a snowy Christmas Eve, as the most elite ranks of the haut ton gathered at Darlington House in London’s Mayfair district to usher in the twelve days of Christmas, an annoyed Duke of Darlington was across town, striding purposefully down King Street through a light dusting of snow, studying the light fans above townhouse doors in search of the intertwined letters G and K.
He found the G and K on the last townhouse, a large red brick building. Quite nice, actually; the duke could not help but wonder what salacious little act the resident had performed to earn a house of this quality.
The door swung open and a swarthy looking gentleman with coal black hair and dark brown eyes wearing a rumpled suit of clothing stood before him. He looked the duke directly in the eye and offered no greeting.
“The Duke of Darlington,” the duke announced gruffly as he reached into his coat pocket and withdrew a calling card. “I have come to call on Miss Bergeron. She is expecting me.”
The man held out a silver tray. Darlington tossed his card onto it. “I’ll tell her,” the man said, and moved to shut the door.
But Darlington had been vexed beyond all civility; he quickly threw up his hand and blocked the door to prevent it from shutting. “I’ll wait inside, if you please.”
The man’s impassive expression didn’t change. He shoved the door shut, leaving Darlington standing on the stoop.
“Bloody outrageous,” Darlington muttered, and glanced up the street. In spite of the snow, people had set out to various holiday gatherings. He himself was expected a half hour ago on the other side of Green Park to preside over the annual soiree held for one hundred and fifty of his family’s closest friends.
The door abruptly opened, startling Darlington. The man said, “Come.”
Darlington swept inside and removed his beaver hat, which he thrust at the man. “What is your name?” he demanded.
“I do not mean your occupation,” he said shortly, “but your name.”
“Butler,” the man responded just as shortly. “This way,” he added, and carelessly tossed the duke’s hat onto a console. The hat slid off the edge of the table and landed on its crown on the floor, but Butler walked on, lifting a candelabrum high to light the way.
He led Darlington up a flight of stairs, then down a corridor that was lined with paintings and expensive china vases stuffed full with hothouse flowers. The floor covering, Darlington noted, was a fine Belgian carpet.
Miss Bergeron had done very well for herself.
Butler paused before a pair of red pocket doors and knocked. A muffled woman’s voice bid him enter. He looked at Darlington. “Wait,” he said, and walked in through the doors, leaving them slightly open.
Darlington sighed impatiently and glanced at his pocket watch again.
“Here now, darling,” he heard a feminine voice say. “Tell me, how do you like this?”
“Mmm,” a male answered.
Darlington jerked his gaze to the pair of doors and stared in disbelief.
“And this?” she asked with a bit of a chuckle. “Do you like it?”
Her response, from what the duke could gather, was a sigh of pleasure.
“Ah, but wait, for you’ve not lived until you’ve—”
“Caller,” Butler said.
“Not now, Kate,” the man objected painfully. “Please! You leave me with such a hunger for more!”
“Digby! Keep your hands away!” There was a slight pause, and then the woman said, “Oh. It’s him. Please show him in, Aldous.”
Darlington started when Butler pushed the doors wide open. He quickly glanced down, almost afraid to look into the room, afraid of what lewd act he was interrupting.
Darlington looked up. Whatever he might have expected, it was not what greeted him. Yes, the room looked a bit like a French boudoir with peach colored walls, silken draperies, and overstuffed furnishings upholstered in floral chintz. There were magazines, hats, and a cloak carelessly draped over a chair. But the woman inside was not lying on a day bed with a man on top of her as he’d suspected.
He was surprised to see her standing at a table piled high with pastries and sweetmeats. Moreover, there were Christmas boughs and hollies adorning the walls and the mantel, a dozen candles lit the room, and a fire was blazing in the hearth.
Her male companion, a portly fellow who weighed thirteen or fourteen stone with thinning hair, held nothing more lurid than a teacup. The sugary remnants of a pastry dusted his upper lip.
Darlington was stunned, first and foremost because he had supposed something entirely different was occurring in this room. But perhaps even more so because the woman, Miss Katharine Bergeron, was breathtaking.
Darlington had known this woman was unusually beautiful. He’d heard it from more than one quarter and he’d seen it with his own eyes not two nights past at the King’s Opera House, when he’d attended the first London performance of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito at the behest of his friend George, the Prince of Wales. He’d sat with George in the royal box, and it was George who had pointed out Katharine Bergeron. Seated two boxes away, she was in the company of Mr. Cousineau, a Frenchman who had made a respectable fortune selling luxurious fabrics to wealthy London society. Miss Bergeron was infamously his model and his mistress.
As Darlington observed her that evening, she’d leaned slightly forward in her seat, enraptured by the music. She’d worn a white silk gown trimmed in pink velvet that seemed to shimmer in the low light of the opera house. Pearls had dripped from her ears, her wrist, and more notably, her throat. Her hair, pale blond, was bound up with yet another string of pearls. She did not wear a plume, as so many ladies seemed to prefer, but instead allowed wisps of curls to drape the nape of her long, slender neck.
She’d turned her head slightly and discovered him observing her. She did not glance shyly away, but calmly returned his gaze a long moment before turning her attention to the stage once more.
Darlington had found her boldness mildly interesting. Nevertheless, he had not anticipated seeing her again…until George had summoned him. Now, he was standing in her private salon.
But she looked nothing like she had the night at the opera. She was beautiful, astonishingly so, but now, free of cosmetic, her beauty was simpler and natural. She wore a rather plain blue gown, an apron, and a shawl wrapped demurely around her shoulders. Her hair was not dressed, but hung long and full down her back.
“Your Grace,” she said again, smiling warmly. She picked up a plate of muffins. “May I entice you with a Christmas treat? I just made them,” she added proudly.
“They are divine, Your Grace,” the portly man said, coming to his feet and bowing his head.
“No,” Darlington said incredulously. Did they think he’d come for tea? “A word, madam?”
“Of course,” she said, and handed the plate of muffins to her companion. “Please do go with Aldous, Digby, and mind you don’t eat them all.”
“I shall endeavor to be good,” he said jovially, “but you know how wretched I can be.” He patted his large belly, gave the duke another curt bow, and followed Butler out.
When they had left the room, Darlington frowned. “I regret that we’ve not had the courtesy of a proper introduction, but it would seem the situation does not lend itself to that.”
“Yes,” she said, eying the rest of the food on the table, “I had not expected you so soon.”
“Your patron was rather insistent.”
She gave him a wry look and gestured to a chair near the table. “Please do be seated. Are you certain I cannot tempt you to taste a muffin? I confess, I am learning the art of baking and I am not certain of the quality.”
“No. You cannot.”
“Please,” she said again, gesturing to the chair. “I hope you will be at ease here.”
“Miss Bergeron, I do not find the circumstances the least bit easy.”
“Oh, I see,” she said, lifting a fine brow.
He rather doubted she did. She was a courtesan, hardly accustomed to the pressures of propriety that he faced every day. “I have come as the prince has demanded to make your acquaintance and to mutually agree on a public appearance or two that will serve his…purpose,” he said with distaste.
She smiled then, and Darlington knew in that moment how she had captivated the prince. “Very well.” She folded her arms across her chest, that lovely, captivating smile still on her face.
If she thought that he could be so easily seduced, she was very much mistaken. And pray tell, what was that just above the dimple on her cheek? A bit of flour? “There is the Carlton House Twelfth Night ball,” he said, a bit distracted by the flour.
“That would do. Shall I meet you there?”
“I will come for you.”
Her smile seemed to grow even more enticing.
“There is an opera scheduled shortly thereafter. Will that suit?”
“I adore opera,” she said smoothly.
“Very well,” Darlington said. “That should suffice for the time being. Furthermore, may I remind you that in the course of this ruse,” he said with an angry flick of his wrist, “I expect you to defer to me as one would defer to a peer. We are merely to be seen in public together and rely on the usual wagging tongues to do the rest. Therefore, I see no reason to touch or otherwise engage in any behavior that might be remarked upon by my esteemed family or close acquaintances. When these public events have concluded, I will ensure that you are escorted safely home, but I see no point in prolonging our contact any more than is required. Are we are agreed?”
She smiled curiously. “Are you always so officis?”
“Yes! Officious,” she said, apparently pleased with the word.
Officious! If only she knew what sacrifice he was making at the prince’s behest. “Do not mistake me, Miss Bergeron. I have been coerced into this…charade,” he bit out. “I take no pleasure in it. I would not give you the slightest cause for false hope of any sort. Now then—if we are agreed, I shall take my leave,” he said again, and turned toward the door.
“If by false hope you mean that you will not taste my muffin and pronounce it delicious, you must not fret, Your Grace,” she said, drawing his attention back to her. “I had no hope of it, I was merely being civil.” She picked up a delicacy and walked toward him, her gaze unabashedly taking him in. “There is just one small matter,” she said, pausing to bite into the delicacy. Her brows rose, and she smiled. “Mmm. Very good, if I do say so myself,” she said, tilting her head back to look up at him, her pale green eyes softened by the length of her dark lashes.
Darlington had an insane urge to wipe the flour from her cheek. She was delicate, her height slightly below average. She had a softly regal bearing, an elegance that set her apart from most women. And her hair…her hair looked like spun silk.
“I should not like to give you cause for false hope, either. Therefore, I must make it perfectly clear that this arrangement is not my preference any more than, apparently, it is yours. I am not yours to use—you may not touch me or otherwise take liberty with my person.”
Darlington cocked one dark brow above the other and focused on her mouth, her lush lips. He knew what pleasure a man would find in kissing that mouth. “You may rest assured, Miss Bergeron, that is neither my desire nor my intent. I find the suggestion quite distasteful.”
Something flickered in her eyes, and she smiled with relish. “Really? No man has ever said that to me.” She popped the last little bit of the delicacy into her mouth.
Did this chit not know who he was? What power he wielded in the House of Lords? In London? He shifted slightly so that he was towering over her. She did not seem the least bit cowed.
“I am saying it, Miss Bergeron. I am not the prince. I am not bowled over by your beauty or your apparent bedroom charms.”
“Splendid! We should get on quite nicely, then, for I am not a debutante yearning for your attention or a match.”
For once, Darlington was speechless. “Is there anything else?” he asked curtly as she calmly…and provocatively…used the tip of her finger to wipe the corner of her mouth.
“Yes. You may call me Kate,” she said pertly. “What may I call you?”
“Your Grace,” he snapped, and strode out of the room.