THE SHARP retort of gunfire exploded around Orley Garrick, Duke of Whitcomb, and he ducked, trying to avoid the debris and the bodies of fallen soldiers around him as he surged forward. The smoke from the countless rifles burned his eyes as he desperately looked for the person who had caught his eye. He heard the cries of the dying calling out to him as he rode his horse farther into the thick of battle. Using his sword, he cut down an enemy soldier who raced toward him, mouth open as he let out a battle cry. Orley closed his eyes against the spray of blood across his face and blocked out the sound of the man’s death gurgle as he fell to the ground beneath his own horse.
Orley raced on toward the figure in white who didn’t belong on the battlefield. He called out a warning, telling the woman to be careful, because there was no way a man would be on a battlefield wearing a long, flowing white chemise, free of dust and bloodstain, appearing almost angelic among the crowd of soldiers. The woman didn’t stop. Instead she walked straight toward the commander of the enemy soldiers, and fear filled Orley. He wasn’t sure why; he didn’t know the woman, and yet he could not let anything happen to her.
At that moment, the woman turned to look at him, and Orley gasped when he realized the woman in front of him was not female as he’d suspected but male. Why in the world was a lady on the battlefield?
“You should not be here!” he yelled, trying to warn the male, but just as he got close enough to lift the woman onto the back of his horse, an enemy soldier plunged his sword through the woman’s back and out through his chest. Orley watched helplessly as the woman’s eyes widened moments before he collapsed to the ground, and a grief unlike aught he’d ever experienced ripped through him.
He was not sure how he knew, but the dying woman belonged to him, and someone had just taken him away.
Tossing his head back, Orley let out an anguished shout at the heavens.
ORLEY WOKE, panting and sweating, in the home of his friend, Heathcliff.
Holy. Shit. That one had been very different from his other nightmares. He rubbed his face with his hand and groaned as pain raced through his leg—the one that would never be the same. All because of war, a battle. All because of….
Orley shook his head. No, he wasn’t going to think about that.
Someone knocked lightly on the door, and Orley winced as he realized his plan to come to his room and take a quick nap after his taxing journey out of Tlondon had turned into a deep sleep and a brand-new nightmare.
God, he hated sleeping.
“Enter,” he called out as he sat up and swung his legs off the bed he was borrowing while visiting Heathcliff and Lucien for their country-house party. The door opened, and Orley turned to address the person standing there. He stopped short, almost swallowing his tongue as he took in the vision of the most beautiful creature to have ever been born.
Orley had been privileged to see many beautiful people in his life. Male and female, he was a lover of aesthetically pleasing images and didn’t discriminate. However, all of them paled in comparison to the lovely light-brown-skinned woman in front of him. Orley’s stomach clenched, his groin tightening as he inhaled sharply. The lovely scent of jasmine wafted up to his nostrils, and his eyes slid closed as he relished in the delightful fragrance emanating from the male who had just entered his room.
“Forgive me, Your Grace. I was sent to bring you a light repast and perhaps something to wash up with? His Grace the Duke of Pompinshire thought that perhaps you would like to freshen up before joining the rest of the guests downstairs.” The woman’s voice was soft and lyrical, with a slight lilt to it, and Orley wondered if perhaps he sang. He would have no problem lounging around on the settee listening to him sing or even just talk. Of course, as he took in the male’s appearance, he felt the desire to do much more than just listen to him.
“Your Grace? Are you ill?” the servant asked, and Orley swallowed, shaking his head.
“N-no. I’m fine. Just a bit out of sorts, I’m afraid. I appear to have overslept during my nap, and now I am feeling quite peckish,” he lied.
The woman nodded, his hazel eyes lighting with relief. Orley wondered at that. Was his well-being really of great concern, or was it just because the maid had been sent to look after Orley?
Orley allowed his gaze to rove over the young male’s form again, taking in every detail intently. He would like to have something to conjure up in his mind’s eye later on that evening when he put his hand to his already burgeoning erection.
Wearing the female black dress with a white apron, which was the maid’s uniform that was standard in most homes of the gentry, the young woman had honey blond hair that was currently pulled back in a very luscious chignon at the nape of his neck, and Orley could only imagine how long and thick it was. An image rose to his brain of that hair hanging down over his face as the young woman slid up and down his cock, and he pressed a hand to the sheets covering his waist. The young male’s skin was almond colored, and all Orley wanted to do was spend hours licking every inch of his body. He was not overly tall, only a few inches taller than Lucien, Heath’s husband, but still much shorter than Orley. And where Orley was all hard, thick muscles, the male maid before him was slender, though still with a lovely, toned body.
His slim-fingered hands held a covered silver tray, and Orley gestured him forward with a beckoning wave.
“Well, far be it from me to refuse such generosity from His Grace. You can just place it there on the nightstand,” he directed, watching the sway of the servant’s hips beneath the skirt of his maid’s gown as he walked toward the cherrywood nightstand. Orley shoved his fingers through his blond locks, messing up his hair and throwing his queue into disarray. He was unnerved as the vestiges of the nightmare faded from his mind, wreaking havoc with the lovely, distracting image of Heathcliff’s maid, whose form even now was causing a pleasurable ache in his balls.
“Is there anything else that I can do for you, Your Grace?” the maid asked, his voice hushed, eyes downcast, and a slight tinge of red to his light brown skin.
Orley prided himself on being a man of honor, integrity, and character. As a matter of fact, his grandfather, Charles Edrick Garrick I, the former Duke of Whitcomb, had more than once given him lessons and lectures on the way a gentleman was to behave. Anyone can strut around and use his physical strength to try and prove his brawn. But it takes honor, patience, gentleness, character, integrity, fortitude, knowing when to fight, knowing when to walk away, knowing when to love, how to love, and when to let go, and most importantly, knowing when to use your physical strength and when to be humble, that makes you a man.
Orley had always believed those words from his grandfather, had in fact lived by those words for his entire life. He’d only strayed from them when he’d served in His Majesty’s military and on those rare occasions when he’d allowed Blaine, Heathcliff, and Quincy to talk him into traveling down into the Lower East End to partake of the wares of the light-skirts. And while his grandfather’s words usually guided him, right now he was seriously considering doing something illicit.
He couldn’t believe the images that were passing through his mind. Flashes. Quick, as if they were memories like his time spent on the battlefield rather than the salacious, hopeful yearnings of a desirous, dry, fruitless attraction. However, the longer he spent in the company of the object of his mind’s current musings, the more it seemed his “dry, fruitless attraction” was soaked in hope and possibility. And perhaps it was for that reason that rationality and his grandfather’s words of character, honor, and integrity grew softer and softer until they were suddenly silent. All he could concentrate on was how lovely Heathcliff’s maid was. How round the male woman’s derriere was. How slim his shoulders were. How graceful his neck was.
How full his lips were, and how much Orley desperately wanted to kiss them.
“I think I would really like to know your name,” he heard himself saying.
The maid’s eyes widened, and he gasped softly. “Me, Your Grace?”
Orley chuckled. “Of course you. There is no one else in the room but you and I, and I assure you that I already know my own name. Unless it has changed in the time I have been asleep. It hasn’t, has it?”
The maid giggled and covered his mouth, shaking his head. Orley found himself even more enchanted. When was the last time he’d heard someone allow themselves to be so free that they just giggled? His life was constantly surrounded by danger, drama, gossip, backstabbers, and intrigue. He had a very small group of people he could trust, and they didn’t often have the time to smile, much less giggle. Being around someone who could giggle was a relief. It was like a bright ray of sunshine. Orley absolutely had to have the maid’s name.
“No, Your Grace. Your name hasn’t changed.” The maid glanced away for a moment, as if embarrassed, and then looked back. “My name is Chester.” He executed a flawless curtsy, and Orley rose from the bed and bowed low, smiling at Chester’s gasp. He knew Chester was surprised that a member of the gentry, and a duke no less, would bow to him, but he would soon learn that Orley was unlike every other duke out there.
“It is an honor to meet you, Chester. I am extremely happy to be in your presence and very happy that you will be serving me, and now….” Orley stepped close to Chester, looking down into the young woman’s hazel brown eyes. His heart was pounding, and his leg, for the first time in years, was not throbbing in pain—perhaps that was because only one thing on his body could be throbbing at a time, and his cock already had that covered. “I would very much like to kiss you.”
“Y-you would?” Chester stammered.
Orley nodded, lifting his hand to brush his fingers against the side of Chester’s cheek.
“Is that okay, Chester? I find you to be the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in my entire life, and I would really like to kiss you. May I?”
“You’re asking me?” Chester looked confused. “I was told that men of your standing didn’t ask, that you just take.”
Orley shook his head, saddened by what Chester thought of men of the ton, but he knew Chester’s assumptions came as a result of dealing with “men” of a certain ilk. He would be speaking with Heathcliff about those matters later that week, but at that moment, all of his energy and attention was focused on Chester.
“Of course I am asking you. You always have a choice. Not just with me, but with every single man in the world. You do not have to do anything you don’t want to do. At least, that is the way it should be in a perfect world. So if you don’t want to kiss me, we don’t have to.” Orley would be disappointed, he would be haunted for days, perhaps a fortnight, by the fullness of Chester’s mouth, but eventually he would get over it.
Chester nibbled on his bottom lip and then grinned. “I would love for you to kiss me, Your Grace.”
Orley wanted to let out a loud yell of triumph, but he held back and lowered his lips to Chester’s full, pillow-soft mouth. He was fully expecting the surge of lust that spread through his limbs. Maybe he was even expecting the tingle that spread through his fingers and toes. However, the lightheaded feeling that drowned him in peace and yet simultaneous excitement, and the way his heart sped up, were completely unexpected. He growled and pulled Chester to him, as close as he could possibly get the woman. He felt a bit like a ravenous beast, wanting to devour Chester whole.
He lifted his lips to take a breath, opened his eyes, and gazed down into Chester’s dazed ones. Chester smiled slowly up at him. Orley grinned back, rubbing his hand up and down Chester’s back and already preparing for the next round of kissing.
So he was surprised when he went to lower his head for another kiss and was met with nothing but air and the sound of his bedroom door closing.
CHESTER BOLAND quickly stepped into his room and pressed a hand against his chest, his heart pounding as he thought of the duke’s kiss. How quickly they could have been discovered, and yet Chester didn’t care. He rubbed a finger over his mouth and shivered as lust pooled heavily in his cock. He had never experienced such a thing in all of his nineteen years. Not even when he and little Dougan McConnall had sneaked behind the miller’s barn to steal a kiss had his heart pounded so fiercely.
Chester wanted to spin in a circle or lie on his bed and put his hand to his groin and find sweet relief. But he could do neither of those things. He had duties to see to. Like a bucket of ice-cold water being dumped upon his head, the reality of his station in comparison to the duke’s crashed upon him. What had he been thinking?
Chester’s eyes filled with tears. He really was a foolish chit. The duke was obviously looking for a bit of fluff to tupp while here for the week, and Chester just happened to be the first woman he came upon. Had it been one of his sisters, or any of the other maids, they would have no doubt received the same attention. Perhaps more.
They wouldn’t have run out of the room either. They would still be in the duke’s room, even now, rolling around among his sheets.
The thought of the duke naked with one of his sisters made Chester feel slightly ill; he shook his head. The twisting of the doorknob at his back had him quickly stepping away, and he smoothed his hand down over the skirts of his maid’s uniform. Chester turned and pasted a smile on his face for whomever was about to enter, not wanting them to be aware of his tumultuous thoughts. He sighed when he saw his sister, Bena. She stared at him, speculatively, but stayed silent about his standing in the room doing nothing. Bena was one of the few of his twelve siblings Chester could trust with his confession about the kiss with the duke, and she wouldn’t call him foolish.
He opened his mouth to tell her what had just transpired but snapped his jaw closed immediately. No, he couldn’t tell her. Why would he? He wasn’t going to let it happen again. While he knew there were many other servants out there who would love to be the favored bedmate of a member of the gentry, especially an esteemed high-ranking one such as the Duke of Whitcomb, Chester was not one of them. His mothers, Wilhelmina and Imogen, had raised all of their children to have respect for themselves, despite their station in life.
I may be a servant, but I am not a rug for anyone to walk all over.
“Are you ill, Chester?” Bena asked.
Chester looked up and found Bena’s gaze on his fingers. He looked down and realized he’d been pulling on them—a habit he was wont to do when he was either ill, anxious, or upset. He would make a horrid whist player. Which was probably one of the reasons no one ever asked him to play with them.
He smiled at his sister and nodded. “Yes, I mean, n-no, Bena. I’m well. I am just thinking of which of the rooms I should clean next as I wait for His Grace to finish his ablutions.”
Bena tilted her head to the side. “The Duke of Whitcomb?”
Chester acquiesced and bit his lower lip in an effort not to smile, shoving away the memory of their kiss.
“What’s he like? I hear he is just as kind as he is handsome, but that he can be quite fierce. Though they say that about His Grace the Duke of Pompinshire, as well, and we know what rot that is. How do you find him?”
This time Chester could not have stopped the sigh that escaped his lips if he had sat on it and put it in a stranglehold. He stared past Bena, seeing the duke in his mind’s eye—classically handsome with his broad shoulders, cheeks flushed from his nap, bright blue eyes, thick blond hair, chiseled jaw, and a dimpled chin. The duke exuded strength, power, arrogance, caring, humility, and yet a vulnerability that Chester seemed to think only few were privy to.
“I found him quite chuff and completely agreeable. A gentleman of the highest order. I don’t know why people think His Grace the Duke of Pompinshire would even befriend someone who was such a scoundrel in the first place. The man is not a pompous arse nor a rake.”
Though he certainly kisses like one. No! He said he wasn’t going to think about the kiss anymore. What was wrong with him? Chester had to return his focus to his duties. It absolutely would not do for him to be caught by his mother or his maldy daydreaming about the duke. No. He had to remember who he was. He was a maid. Just a maid. The Duke of Whitcomb was in a wholly different class.
“Why are you so fierce about the duke, Chessie?” Bena asked, using his nickname with a fond smile.
Chester hated it. He hated the name his siblings had given him as a kid. He hated that they used it to get him to talk, and he hated the smile Bena had just given him, because it made him feel guilty. Mostly due to the fact that he knew he was going to lie to her.
“It is only because he is a friend of His Grace the Duke of Pompinshire, for whom he risked his life. The man is a hero. Everyone says so. Besides, he has to use a cane, didn’t you see that?” Chester shook his head. “It is nothing more than that.”
It was so much more.
CHESTER WOULD never understand the need women of the gentry had for all the frills and baubles just to have tea or luncheon with each other. As he stood in the room of Lady Exeter, he stared agape at the mess that had been made of the dressing room. Shaking his head, he stepped forward and began straightening and cleaning up the room, humming softly to himself. He was glad no one was about, as he would hate to assault their ears with his less than appealing singing voice. While he loved to sing, he knew he did not have the skill for it. His mother, Wilhelmina, had explained to him that just because the Lord did not give him the gift for song, it did not mean that he should not sing. It just meant he shouldn’t do it as a performance in front of others. He was quite talented in playing the pianoforte, however, though no one knew anything of that particular skill. It was his own personal secret. His maldy, Imogen, had told him more than once that his voice was beautiful, but was that not the requirement of every maldy and father, to encourage their girls over their beauty and talent?
“I wondered where I might find you.” A deep voice startled him out of his humming, and Chester let out a gasp as he turned and faced the Duke of Whitcomb, who leaned against the doorjamb watching him with a smile on his face.
“Your Grace,” Chester curtsied, lowering his gaze to the floor.
His Grace frowned as he stepped closer, leaning heavily on his cane. “Come now, Chester. I believe we can dispense with the title when we are alone, don’t you? We have kissed, after all. Don’t you think you should call me Orley?”
Chester was stunned, and he took a small step back, shaking his head. “No, Your Grace. I do not. It is not proper for me to address you in such a manner. You are a nobleman, and while you speak truth about our actions earlier, I couldn’t speak to you in so casual a manner.”
The Duke of Whitcomb took another step forward, and Chester stepped around an armchair, placing his hands on the back of it. He watched the duke carefully. Chester wasn’t afraid of what the man would do to him. He was a fairly good judge of character, and he couldn’t sense malice in the duke’s body language, but he didn’t trust himself where the Duke of Whitcomb was concerned.
As it was, his own body betrayed him. His dick grew hard, and for the first time in his life, he wished he was more prone to dressing as a male. He had never felt that way growing up. For while he was definitely all male, he was a woman, able to give birth, and he felt an affinity to females. He dressed in female clothing, and when he could afford cosmetics, he applied them to his face. He wore baubles and jewelry when the situation called for it. But were he wearing trousers or breeches, the bulge in his groin would probably be displayed much more prominently than in his maid’s uniform—a black linen frock with a white apron over it.
“Are you afraid of me, Chester?” the duke asked, his mouth—his gorgeous pink lips—turning down into a frown.
“N-no. Of course not, Your Grace. I just think one of us should think rationally. While I am sure you are used to having scores of ladies and maids throwing themselves at your feet for the chance to have a quick romp or dalliance, that’s all they are entitled to. And I may be just a maid to you, but I shall not be the light-skirts of any nobleman.” Chester lifted his chin at those words and stared at the Duke of Whitcomb in what he hoped was a look similar to the one his mother, Wilhelmina, had given to the Earl of New Brunswick when he had propositioned her similarly.
He was wholly unprepared for the hearty chuckle that left the duke’s mouth or the way the man clapped before bowing before him. “Bravo, Lady Chester. I am glad you are not given to believe you are somehow less deserving of respect than I, just because I sleep in a certain room of the estate and you happen to clean it. I have said for decades that it was all a crock. Only to those who would find my words amenable, of course, and wouldn’t bluster at my upsetting what they think is their God-given birthright.”
Chester had a lot to process and ask about, or even to point out what was right and wrong about His Grace’s statement, but his brain had gotten stuck on one word in the duke’s entire diatribe. Lady. He called me a lady. Why, he is mad!
Chester shook his head. “Your Grace. I am no lady. I am just a maid. One whose mother is Tafrican.”
He dropped his gaze to the armchair he stood behind, taking in the dark green fabric and gold stitching. His erection was long gone. The skirt of his maid’s uniform now fell effortlessly over his groin, and Chester should have been relieved, but as he looked at his light brown, almond-colored skin, all he felt was an extreme disappointment. This was just another blight against his chance at happiness.
Had he actually been born a lady, perhaps he might have caught the duke’s eye at a ball, and they could have danced in each other’s arms. Maybe the duke would have courted Chester for a few months before asking his maldy for his hand in marriage? But, if his station wasn’t enough, he was also born half Tafrican. While many members of the gentry found him and his siblings quite exotic looking, often wanting them to come and work in their homes for aesthetic appeal, sneers and looks of disgust were tossed his way as well.
No. Whatever foolish notions his kiss with the duke had sprung from earlier that morning, they had to be dealt with and cast aside quickly. Those dreams led only to heartbreak, and Chester was quite sure he wasn’t strong enough to handle it.
He was startled by the soft touch of large fingers tilting his head up, and he found himself staring into the Duke’s pale blue gaze. The Duke of Whitcomb stood over a foot taller than Chester, and his broad-shouldered frame looked as if it could completely engulf Chester’s own slender one. He resisted the urge to press against the hard body in front of him as he stared into the duke’s eyes.
“You are more of a lady than most of the debutantes and women of the ton, Lady Chester. While you may not have been born into a genteel family, that does not mean that you do not deserve the title, nor the respect, because you should have both.” The duke’s voice was low. Sincere. It sent a flush of desire straight through Chester’s body, pooling in his groin and setting his heart into a pounding rhythm.
Without thought, he lifted onto his toes and pressed a kiss to the side of the duke’s lips, then stepped back. “Thank you… Orley.”
The duke bowed. “It was my greatest pleasure, Lady Chester.”