NOT JUST A WALLFLOWER
NOT JUST A WALLFLOWER
Mills & Boon Historical
Innocent lady's companion?
Enigmatic beauty Ellie Rosewood is the talk of the ton. Her appointed guardian, Justin, Duke of Royston, has one job—to find Miss Rosewood a husband. But confirmed rake Justin wants Ellie all for himself!
Or lady of mystery?
With her coming out a huge success, Ellie is overwhelmed by the attention of London's most eligible bachelors. She finds an unexpected haven in the company of the arrogant Justin, and he begins to discover there is more to this unworldly wallflower than first appears….
A Season of Secrets
A lady never tells…
June, 1817—Lady Cicely Hawthorne's London home
You must be absolutely thrilled at the news of Hawthorne's forthcoming marriage to Miss Matthews!' Lady Jocelyn Ambrose, Dowager Countess of Cham-bourne, beamed across the tea table at her hostess.
Lady Cicely nodded. 'The match was not without its…complications, but I have no doubts that Adam and Magdelena will deal very well together.'
The dowager countess sobered. 'How is she now that all the unpleasantness has been settled?'
'Very well.' Lady Cicely smiled warmly. 'She is, I am happy to report, a young lady of great inner strength.'
'She had need of it when that rogue Sheffield was doing all that he could to ruin her, socially as well as financially.' Edith St Just, Dowager Duchess of Royston, and the third in the trio of friends, said, sniffing disdainfully.
Lady Jocelyn turned to her. 'How are your own plans regarding Royston's nuptials progressing, my dear?'
The three ladies, firm friends since their coming out together fifty years ago, had made a pact at the beginning of this Season, to see their three bachelor grandsons safely married, thereby ensuring that each of their family lines was secure. Lady Jocelyn was the first to achieve that success, when her grandson had announced his intention of marrying Lady Sylvianna Moreland some weeks ago, the wedding due to take place at the end of June. Lady Cicely had only recently succeeded in seeing her own grandson's future settled, his bride to be Miss Magdelena Matthews, granddaughter of George Matthews, the recently deceased Duke of Sheffield. It only remained for Edith St Just, the Dowager Duchess of Royston, to secure a future duchess for her own grandson, Justin St Just, the Duke of Royston.
Not an easy task, when that wickedly handsome and haughtily arrogant gentleman had avowed, more than once, that he had no intention of marrying until he was good and ready—and aged only eight and twenty, he had assured his grandmother that he did not consider himself either 'good' or 'ready' as yet!
'The Season will be over in just a few weeks…' Lady Cicely gave her friend a doubtful glance.
The dowager duchess nodded regally. 'And Royston will have made his choice before the night of the Hep-worth ball.'
Lady Cicely gave a gasp. 'But that is only two weeks away!'
Edith gave a satisfied smile. 'By which time St Just will, I assure you, find himself well and truly leg-shackled!'
'You are still convinced it will be to the lady whom you have named in the note held by my own butler?' Lady Jocelyn also looked less than confident about the outcome of this enterprise.
At the same time as the three ladies had laid their plans to ensure their grandsons found their brides that Season, the dowager duchess had also announced she had already made her choice of bride for her own grandson, and that Royston would find himself betrothed to that lady by the end of the Season. So confident had she been of her choice that she had accepted the other ladies' dare to write down the name of that young lady and leave it in the safe keeping of Edwards, Lady Jocelyn's butler, to be opened and verified on the day Royston announced his intention of marrying.
'I am utterly convinced,' Edith now stated confidently.
'But, to my knowledge, Royston has not expressed a preference for any of the young ladies of the current Season.' Lady Cicely, the most tender-hearted of the three, could not bear the thought of her dear friend being proved wrong.
'Nor will he,' the dowager duchess revealed mysteriously.
'We must not press dear Edith any further.' Lady Jocelyn reached across to gently squeeze Lady Cicely's hand in reassurance. 'Have we ever known her to be wrong in the past?' 'No…'
'And I shall not be proved wrong on this occasion, either,' the dowager duchess announced haughtily, belied by the gleeful twinkle in faded blue eyes. 'Royston shall shortly find himself not only well and truly leg-shackled, but totally besotted with his future bride!'
An announcement, regarding this about the arrogantly cynical Duke of Royston which so stunned the other two ladies that neither of them felt able to speak further on the subject.
Two days later—White's Club, St James's Street, London
Is it not time you threw in your cards and called it a night, Litchfield?'
'You'd like it if I did so, wouldn't you, Royston!' The florid, sneering face of the man seated on the opposite side of the card table was slightly damp with perspiration in the dimmed candlelight of the smoky card room.
'I have no opinion one way or the other if you should decide to lose the very shirt upon your back,' Justin St Just, the Duke of Royston, drawled as he reclined back in his armchair, only the glittering intensity of his narrowed blue eyes revealing the utter contempt he felt for the other man. 'I merely wish to bring this interminable game of cards to an end!' He deeply regretted having accepted Litchfield's challenge now, and knew he would not have done so if he had not been utterly bored and seeking any diversion to relieve him from it.
Ennui. It was an emotion all too familiar to him since the fighting against Napoleon had come to an end and the little Corsican had finally been incarcerated on St Helena once and for all, at which time Justin had considered it was safe to return to London, resign his commission, and take up his duties as Duke of Royston. A scant few weeks later he had realised his terrible mistake. Oh, he still had all of his friends here, the women willing to share his bed were as abundant, and his rooms in May-fair were still as comfortable—he had long ago decided against taking up residence at Royston House, instead leaving his grandmother to continue living there alone after the death of Justin's father, and the removal of Justin's mother to the country—but all the time feeling as if there should be something…more to life.
Quite what that was, and how he was to find it, he had no idea. Which was the very reason he had spent the latter part of his evening engaged in a game of cards with a man he did not even like!
Lord Dryden Litchfield shot him a resentful glance. 'They say you have the devil's own luck, with both the cards and the ladies.'
'Do they?' Justin murmured mildly, well aware of the comments the ton made about him behind his back.
'And I am starting to wonder if it is not luck at all, but—'
'Have a care, Litchfield,' Justin warned softly, none of his inner tension in evidence at the as-yet-unspoken insult, as he reached out an elegant hand to pick up his glass and take a leisurely sip of his brandy. With his fashionably overlong golden hair, and arrogantly handsome features, he resembled a fallen angel far more than he did the devil. But regardless of how angelic he looked, most, if not all, of the gentlemen of the ton also knew him to be an expert with both the usual choices of weapon for the duel Litchfield was spoiling for. 'As I have said, the sooner we bring this card game to an end, the better.'
'You arrogant bastard!' Litchfield glared across at him fiercely; he was a man perhaps a dozen or so years older than Justin's own eight and twenty, but his excessive weight, thinning auburn hair liberally streaked with silver, brown-stained teeth from an over-indulgence in cheap cigars, as well as his blustering anger at his consistent bad luck with the cards, all resulted in him looking much older.
'I do not believe insulting me will succeed in improving your appalling skill at the cards,' Justin stated as he replaced his brandy glass on the table.
'Excuse me, your Grace, but this was just delivered for your immediate attention.'
A silver tray appeared out of the surrounding smoke-hazed gloom, bearing a note with Justin's name scrawled across the front of it, written in a hand that a single glance had shown was not familiar to him. 'If you will excuse me, Litchfield?' He did not so much as glance in the other man's direction as he retrieved the note from the tray to break the seal and quickly read the contents before refolding it and placing it in the pocket of his waistcoat, throwing his cards face down on the table. 'The hand is yours, sir.' He nodded in abrupt dismissal, straightening his snowy white cuffs as he stood up to leave.
'Ha, knew you was bluffing!' the other man cried out triumphantly, puffing happily on his foul-smelling cigar as he scooped up Justin's discarded cards. 'What the—?' he muttered disbelievingly at a handful of aces as the mottled flush of anger deepened on his bloated face.
Dangerously so, in Justin's opinion; he had no doubt that Litchfield's heart would give up its fight to continue beating long before the man reached his fiftieth birthday.
'The note was from a woman, then.' An even more pronounced sneer appeared on the other man's face as he looked up at Justin through the haze of his own cigar smoke. 'I never thought to see the day when the devilishly lucky Duke of Royston would throw in a winning hand of cards in order to jump to a woman's bidding.'
At this point in time 'the devilishly lucky Duke of Royston' was having extreme difficulty in resisting the urge he felt to reach across the card table, grab the other man by his rumpled shirtfront and shake him like the insufferable dog that he was! 'Perhaps it is her bedchamber into which I am jumping.?' He raised a mocking brow.
Litchfield gave an inelegant snort. 'No woman is worth conceding a win...