London, July 15, 1818

 

The sky was leaden and the air heavy and humid as his coach pulled into Eaton Square. It had been threatening to rain all day, but the blessed relief from the summer heat hadn’t come. The moment his carriage had reached the crowded streets of London, their pace had slowed to a crawl, robbing him of even the slight breeze flowing in through the windows and leaving him sweltering inside the compartment.

James, Lord James Alfred Warren, Viscount Sudbury, released a heavy sigh and adjusted his cravat as another bead of sweat slid down his neck, though whether the sigh was one of relief that his journey was almost at an end or in dread of what lay before him, he couldn’t have said.

And so it begins,he thought morosely as his carriage rumbled to a stop in front of his sister and brother-in-law’s brick townhouse.

Today was the start of his annual sojourn in London; four interminable weeks of suffering through the same old round of balls and assemblies, calls and return calls with people he had little to no liking for and even less interest in, weeks of fending off widows and simpering debutantes on the hunt for husbands and weeks of being on his best behavior, lest he slip up with his country manners and

embarrass his sister and her family.

Truth be told, he hated London, during the season or no. The press of humanity, the noise, and the smells all combined to foul his usual good humor within moments of entering its streets, and today was no exception.

As a man full-grown, at almost five-and-thirty, London held little of the allure it had for him in his youth. Oh, the plays and lectures could always keep him entertained for an evening or two, and he rather enjoyed a bit of boxing or cards at the clubs, of course. But he couldn’t quite say that he wouldn’t find just as much pleasure from a ride through his own park or a day of shooting in his reserve, and there at least he could rest and relax in his library and find a moment’s peace when he wanted one.

He was a man of simple country pleasures and not in the least ashamed to admit it. He was neither fashionable nor elegant. In fact, his sister would often tease him that he had more in common with his farmers than his peers, and she was usually disappointed that he didn’t take it as the reproof it was. His farmers were good, hard-working men more worthy of respect, in his opinion, than many of the dandies and fops he was forced to associate with in town.

Yet here I am again trundling down the cobbled streets to waste another few weeks of my life in idle chatter and silly parties.

Using his handkerchief, he wiped his brow and neck before donning his hat and gloves in preparation for stepping out into the street. He took a moment to brush any dust off his coat, then grimaced as he realized he would soon need to make a trip to his tailor to make sure his clothes weren’t going to make him an object of ridicule.

Heaven forbid the cut of my coat be even a single season out of date. I’d never hear the end of it from Charlotte. He rolled his eyes.

If he thought his sister would allow it, he’d dress in sackcloth and leave his hair uncombed and his face unshaven for the entirety of his stay in town. Then at least the marriage market might leave him alone and allow him to visit with his family in peace.

He grinned for a moment at the thought of appearing in public looking like a madman and the ladies of the ton scurrying away from him in terror, then sobered when he realized it probably wouldn’t make any difference. For a chance at his title, family name, and fortune, he was fairly certain most of them would be willing to overlook anything he might do.

Well, perhaps not anything, he thought with a wry twist to his lips. It’s the rare woman indeed who would happily turn a blind eye to a husband who prefers to share his bed with men and one who would never be able to give her children.

And even if he could find such a woman, he’d never be able to live out that kind of farce. His honor would not allow it, nor would his patience. As a confirmed bachelor, he fully admitted he was set in his ways, and having another woman, in addition to his sister, meddling in his life and home would be intolerable.

No, the ladies of the ton pursued him in vain, and he would have to spend the next few weeks desperately trying to avoid them without seeming to avoid them. As subtlety was not his strongest suit, it was tantamount to torture, but there was no getting out of it.

Years ago, he and his sister had made a bargain, and Charlotte was not a woman to be crossed. If he did not show up at her house in town at least once a year, she’d descend on him at Kentwood Hall, and there would be no peace. She’d force a house party or some other nonsense on him, and there he wouldn’t be able to escape the people living in his house, eating his food, and demanding to be entertained.

God forbid.

And if she were feeling truly spiteful, she’d invite some marriage-minded young chits, and he’d find himself cornered in his own library or some other private place, desperate to get away before a scandal forced him into matrimony. It had happened once, when Charlotte was still trying to find him a suitable wife to help him run Kentwood, before he’d been old enough to tell her where to put her matchmaking skills. He’d only narrowly escaped, and it was not an experience he intended to repeat.

No, London could be tedious, but he’d take it in a heartbeat if it meant he wouldn’t have to suffer through another house party.

James sighed again and looked up at the house. His sister meant well. She worried about him all alone on his estate, attending only the rare party and never hosting unless there was no way to avoid it. Perhaps she was right to worry. He did get lonely and a little melancholy from time to time, but he wasn’t the kind of man to stay maudlin for long; he was too practical for that. He’d made his choices long ago, with good reason, and there was no point in mourning them now.

My, aren’t we sanguine today. James shook his head at himself.

Adjusting his cravat for the hundredth time that day, he took a deep breath and let it out again in resignation. There was no help for it. He’d have to get out of the carriage sometime, and delaying wouldn’t help matters any. At least on the street he could stretch the cramps out of his legs and perhaps the linen of his shirt would come unglued from his back.

When his footman opened the door, James stood up and descended the step to the street. As he turned to give final instructions to his driver, a flash of pale gold caught his attention momentarily, distracting him from his servants. Out of the corner of his eye he spied a young, towheaded carter passing in the street, the defined muscles of his forearms flexing beneath rolled shirtsleeves. The boy looked up, and a pair of sweet brown eyes briefly met his before the young man quickly ducked his head and mumbled “m’lord” as he trundled past.

Raising a single brow but otherwise giving no sign he’d seen the boy, James lowered his head a little and pretended to swipe a bit of dirt from his coat. Watching the boy a few moments longer, he was rewarded with the sight of a firm, high backside flexing beneath coarse linen trousers, and he felt a different kind of heat infuse his body. Brief as it was, the sight reminded him of at least one of London’s saving graces: pleasures he could find in town that he could not in the country.

Well, not without running the risk of blackmail or possibly a mob of outraged villagers. He grinned to himself.

After the carter disappeared around the corner and he was able to rein in his wandering thoughts, James exchanged a few words with his servants and headed toward the house with a smile on his lips.

Yes, there were definite advantages to spending a little time in town, pleasures to be indulged in, and it had been far too long since he had done so. His pulse sped and his boots lightened a little in anticipation.

He’d have to pay a visit to Madam Renard’s, and soon. If his reaction to the sight of a simple carter going about his work was any indication, his year of celibacy was obviously having an effect on his mind.

He knew of other men, of course, who did not share his scruples, who made little to no effort at discretion, trusting title and wealth to keep them safe from any real scandal, men who were whispered about far and wide, though no one would dare speak against them openly. Long ago, he’d promised himself that he would never be one of them. He had worked too hard for the honor of his family to throw it all away with such foolishness. His sister and her children were the only close family he had left, and their good opinion and reputation meant too much to him to throw it away for lack of a little discretion and restraint.

He mounted the steps to his sister’s door and reached for the bell. The first chime had barely sounded before he caught a splash of color out of the corner of his eye and grinned. His niece, Anna, wearing a lovely blue calico, was grinning and waving at him from the front parlor window. He barely had time to wave back before she turned and disappeared from view.

Smiling, he turned back to the door in anticipation. If his niece and nephew couldn’t lift his spirits, then nothing would. The twins should be all the proof he needed that any sacrifices he might have made had been worthwhile. Whatever he might have given up had been repaid a hundred times over with the joy of sharing their lives and watching them grow into a fine young lady and worthy young gentleman.

The door opened and Wilton, his sister’s butler, bowed, saying, “Good afternoon, my lord. Welcome back.”

“Thank you, Wilton, it’s a pleasure to be back,” he replied, handing over his hat and gloves.

The moment he was free of his belongings, Anna flew into his arms to kiss him hello. He indulged himself in her sweet embrace for a few precious moments before setting her back on her feet and taking a good look at her. She’d grown a little since the last time he’d seen her, but she still looked tiny next to his bulk. At a few inches over six feet, he resembled his farmers in body as well as temperament, and he still needed to bend nearly in half to give his niece a proper embrace.

Of course, he shouldn’t have allowed her to embrace him at all. She was nineteen now and a full-grown young lady, but he couldn’t help being secretly delighted by her greeting and decided only a gentle rebuke was in order.

“I see your governess still hasn’t managed to tame you, my wild little beast,” he said, though the corners of his mouth couldn’t help but quirk when she snorted in response.

“Oh Uncle, you know it’s been ages since I needed Mrs. Holt to watch over me. I’ve learned my lessons as well as anyone, I assure you. I will comport myself with utmost decorum when we are in company, but when we’re alone, I had hoped that my favorite uncle might continue to indulge me for a few more years, at the very least,” Anna said, smiling at him coyly through her thick brown lashes.

“Imp,” he responded, stopping just short of ruffling her carefully dressed hair. His hand might get caught in all the ribbons needed to tame that same unruly mop of brown curls that he was cursed with, and he might never get free again without the aid of scissors. Looking at the elaborate creation, he didn’t envy her maid the task of taming that tangle every morning and was quite thankful he could keep his own cut short and wouldn’t have to be bothered with such nonsense.

“And where is your partner in crime?” he asked, looking about for his nephew.

“Oh, he’s off with his school chums again, I suppose. That’s all he seems to have time for these days,” she said, and James could hear the thinly veiled hurt under her feigned disinterest.

Since her brother Andrew had gone away to school, and now to university, James knew they hadn’t been able to spend much time together. As young children, they had been nearly inseparable. But time and duty took their toll on everyone, and it appeared Anna was feeling the distance between them more and more.

He took her hand and patted it kindly. “We’ll see if we can keep him home at least a little during my visit, yes?”

Her smile brightened a little, and the twinkle came back to her eyes. “He may be home more than any of us cares for, if he isn’t more careful,” she leaned in and whispered. “He’s been getting himself in a bit of trouble at the club, losing money hand over fist, and you know how Father feels about gambling. Another night like he had last week and he’ll spend the rest of the season confined to his rooms.”

“Oh dear,” James said, chuckling. “Let us hope we can save him from that fate, at the very least. But for now, imp, I am all over dirt from my journey and wish to go to my rooms to bathe and dress before your mother sets eyes on me. By your leave of course, Miss Ashton?”

“By all means, my lord.” She curtsied in response to his formal bow and stepped out of the way for him to climb the stairs.

“I will inform Lady Ashton of your arrival,” she called after him archly before turning with a swish of her skirts to scurry in a most unladylike manner toward the back of the house.

James shook his head and smiled as he continued to his rooms. No, his world was just as it should be, and there was no reason to wish for anything else.