Madeleine Willits pricked her finger.
"Ouch! Blast it." She dropped the offending rose into her
arm basket and sucked on her finger. Narrowing her eyes,
she glared at the Lord Penzance bush. Its remaining yellow-
red blossoms waved lazily in the light breeze, taunting her.
"You mean thing -- take that!" With a flourish of her
clippers, she snipped three more blooms, disentangled them
gingerly from their treacherous brethren, and placed them
with the others in her basket.
"Miss Maddie!" the housekeeper called frantically.
At the same time, a stentorian bellow rumbled out the
master bedchamber window like a clap of thunder, and Maddie
jumped. Dropping her clippers into the basket, she gathered
up her skirt and ran for the kitchen entry.
Mrs. Hudson pulled open the door as she reached it, and
Maddie shoved the basket into her plump arms. "What
happened?" she called over her shoulder, running through
the main hall toward the stairs to the second floor.
Curious servants hurried into the hallway, creating still
more obstacles for her to dodge.
"I donâ€™t know, Miss Maddie," came from behind her. "Garrett
was in with him!"
The butler appeared at the top of the stairs. Red-faced, he
wiped at the thick brown trails of gravy running down the
front of his black coat. "It was just the post!" he
Bill Tomkins, closely followed by a tea saucer, exited the
bedchamber at high speed behind Garrett. "He nearly killed
me that time," the footman panted, leaning against the
"You shouldnâ€™t have been in there," Maddie said
unsympathetically, trying to regain her breath before she
stepped into battle. She pulled the shawl from around her
"What was I supposed to do, keep polishing the lamps while
heâ€™s yowling like a Bedlamite? Scared the devil out of me,"
the footman exclaimed, shuddering dramatically.
The butler chuckled. "Then you should thank him."
"Hush you two, before you set him off again." Sending the
servants a warning glance, Maddie fluttered the end of her
shawl into the doorway. "We surrender, Mr. Bancroft. The
household has been vanquished."
More grumbling issued from inside the room, followed by the
thudding sound of a pillow hitting a wall. "Humph. Stop
that nonsense and get your pretty face in here, girl,"
Malcolm Bancroftâ€™s irritated voice ordered.
Maddie entered the bedchamber. The remains of luncheon
drippily decorated the near wall, while the pillows which
had been propping Mr. Bancroft up in bed lay strewn about
the floor, leaving her employer flat on his back amid a
tangle of bed sheets.
"My, my. Such carnage." She clucked her tongue
Awkwardly he lifted his head to pin her with a baleful,
dark-eyed gaze. "Bah," he said, and lay flat again.
Stifling a grin, Maddie began gathering pillows in her
arms. "Any interesting news in the post today?"
"I wouldnâ€™t be so blasted clever if I were you, Maddie.
Itâ€™s not news youâ€™ll relish, either. Damned stuffed shirts."
An edge of uneasiness ran through her, but she shrugged it
off and levered him into a sitting position with the help
of the pillows. "I see youâ€™ve appropriated my favorite term
for the nobility. The new king is coming to visit, I
suppose. Shall I have the silver polished -- or hidden? You
know King George so much better than I."
As she expected, the mention of George IV distracted her
employer from whatever it was that had upset him. "Mad King
George, Fat King George. Whoâ€™s next -- Blind King George?"
Maddie chuckled, relieved as reluctant humor returned to
his voice. "Royalty are blind to everything but their
Mr. Bancroft snorted. "So they are." With his weakened left
hand he gestured at a badly crumpled paper resting on a
slice of toasted bread. "And that particular ailment
infects most everyone in England who can lay claim to a
title. Hand me that letter, my dear."
She complied, shaking crumbs off and resisting the urge to
read it herself. He would tell her the news. He always did.
Awkwardly he flattened the paper against his chest. "Listen
to this, Maddie. And brace yourself." He cleared his throat
and lifted the wrinkled missive. "â€˜Brother.â€™" Mr. Bancroft
stopped and looked up at her, obviously waiting for the
significance of that single word to sink in.
Maddieâ€™s insides jolted unpleasantly, and the last pillow
slipped from her fingers and fell back to the floor. "The
Duke of Highbarrow has finally answered your letter," she
muttered balefully, sinking onto the comfortable chair
beside his bed and suppressing an outburst of very colorful
"Itâ€™s been more than a fortnight since we wrote him. He was
bound to answer eventually." He looked sideways at
her. "Iâ€™d actually begun to wonder whether youâ€™d burned the
Maddie straightened. "I told you I would send it," she said
indignantly, wondering if he knew just how close she had
come to â€˜accidentlyâ€™ misplacing the missive in her
"I know you did." Her employer smiled briefly, then
returned his attention to the letter. "â€˜Brother, â€˜" he
began again. "â€˜Unfortunately I was away in York on business
when news of your poorly-timed illness arrived. I have sat
to write you immediately upon my return to Highbarrow
"You were right," Maddie noted, as Mr. Bancroft paused to
catch his breath. He tired so easily these days. "He always
uses the word â€˜Castle,â€™ doesnâ€™t he?"
"At every opportunity. To continue, â€˜Victoria sends her
wishes for a complete recovery, though as you know I really
donâ€™t give a damn one way or the other.â€™"
"My word, heâ€™s awful."
"â€˜I am planting my crop at Highbarrow Castle at the moment.
Otherwise, despite your past errors of judgment, I would
make an effort to call upon you at Langley Hall.â€™"
"Of course," Maddie and Mr. Bancroft agreed in skeptical
All she knew of the duke were tales of his monumental
stuffiness and arrogance, and Maddie let out her breath in
a silent sigh of relief. In truth though, she hadnâ€™t
thought he would bother coming. Thank heavens sheâ€™d been
right. "So thatâ€™s that, then," she said, rising. "Hardly
enough to warrant frightening me half to death, though.
Shame on you."
"Thatâ€™s the good news, Iâ€™m afraid."
Slowly Maddie sat down again. "Oh."
"Now please remain calm."
She nodded. "Just as you did."
"Hush." For a moment Malcolm looked at her, then returned
his attention to the letter. "â€˜However, â€˜" he resumed, "â€˜as
getting the crop in at Langley is of paramount importance,
I have spoken with Quinlan. He has agreed to journey to
Somerset to oversee planting and to tend to the estate
during your recovery. He follows immediately upon this
letter, and should arrive at Langley on the fifteenth of
the month. Yours, Lewis.â€™"
Maddie gazed out the window. The lovely morning, the first
without spring rains in three days, had become a disaster.
Worse than a disaster. She took a deep breath. "I assume
His Grace is referring to Quinlan Ulysses Bancroft?" she
Her employer nodded, a sympathetic grimace touching his
gaunt face. "Afraid so. The Marquis of Warefield, himself."
Maddie cleared her throat. "I see."
He reached out and squeezed her fingers. "Iâ€™m dreadfully
sorry, my dear. You are acquainted with him, I suppose?"
She shook her head. "Thankfully not. I believe he was in
Spain during my . . . visit to London." Maddie frowned at
the memory. "If you could call it that."
"It wasnâ€™t your fault, my girl," Malcolm soothed, his
concerned expression easing a little.
She eyed him fondly, wondering who was supposed to be
comforting whom. "Youâ€™re the only one who thinks so. None
of them -- not one of them -- saw anything but that stupid
kiss, and that stupid man trying to shove his hand down my
dress. They didnâ€™t care that I wanted nothing to do with
it, or with that awful scoundrel Spenser. And I want
nothing to do with London, ever again."
"Well, Quinlan didnâ€™t see anything at all, so donâ€™t worry
yourself. He wouldnâ€™t say anything anyway. Wouldnâ€™t be
polite, you know."
"Iâ€™m not worried." Maddie sat up straighter, pulling her
fingers free from his comforting grip. "Nor am I the least
bit faint of heart, Mr. Bancroft."
He chuckled. "I never said you were."
"Itâ€™s merely that Iâ€™m . . . annoyed." Ready to throw a
screaming fit would be closer to the truth, but sheâ€™d had
the feeling lately that her peaceful days at Langley Hall
were numbered. Once the letter to Highbarrow Castle had
gone out, someone had been bound to reply. Sheâ€™d merely
managed to fool herself into believing that none of the
Bancrofts would actually bother coming.
And it didnâ€™t matter, anyway, whether or not she knew the
Marquis of Warefield. She knew of him. Quinlan Ulysses
Bancroft was the very pink of the ton, a favorite of the
new king, the bluest of blue-bloods, the epitome of
propriety and dignity. And she loathed him without ever
having seen his pampered, spoiled, self-important visage.
He was one of them.
â€˜Nobilityâ€™ might be what society called them, but from her
experience, the word had nothing at all to do with their
character. "I thought we informed His Grace that you had
someone tending to Langley during your illness."
"You didnâ€™t expect him to care about that, did you? He owns
Langley Hall, my dear; I only manage it for him. And he
will take whatever steps are necessary to preserve his
considerable monetary well-being, with or without my
consent. You know that."
She sighed. "Yes, I know that. Even so, he might have asked
whether you wanted assistance before he foisted his son off
Unexpectedly, Mr. Bancroft laughed again, rare color
touching his pale cheeks. "I donâ€™t believe Quinlan allows
himself to be â€˜foistedâ€™ on anyone."
"How noble he must be," Maddie noted unenthusiastically.
Her employer narrowed his eyes, suspicion momentarily
touching his expression. "Just remember, my dear, the less
trouble you make for him, the shorter and less painful his
visit is likely to be."
A flash of guilt ran through her. After all, this deuced
marquis was Mr. Bancroftâ€™s nephew, and she knew for a fact
that it had been at least four years since they had seen
one another. And even though she might detest him and the
rest of the damned aristocracy, she also knew quite well
how lonely Malcolm must feel being cut off from his family.
So, little as she liked Warefieldâ€™s coming, she had no
intention of stomping her feet and throwing a tantrum. Not
in front of her employer, anyway. "I shall behave," she
He smiled. "I have no doubt that you will."
"So long as he does," Maddie added.
"He will. I already told you, heâ€™s the epitome of good
"I am bereft of words at the very idea of setting eyes upon
his illustrious personage."
"Maddie," he warned with a slight grin. Malcolm pulled
himself into a more upright position, grunting with effort
as his still legs hampered the movement. "Best send Mrs.
Iddings down to the village and have her spread the word."
"So the local folk can flee into the hills, I suppose?"
"Our neighbors will never forgive me if I donâ€™t give them
advance notice that the Marquis of Warefield is coming to
Langley. An actual title appearing in this part of Somerset
is rarer than a camel passing through the eye of a needle."
She sighed and bit back a caustic retort. "They will be
beside themselves with excitement. I daresay I have no idea
how I will contain my feelings, myself."
"Do try, wonâ€™t you?"
Maddie smiled. "Yes. Of course. But only for you."
He looked at her fondly, with an understanding her own
father had never possessed. "Thank you."
"Youâ€™re welcome." She stood. "Iâ€™ll bring you up some more
"And peach tarts, if you donâ€™t mind. My luncheon seems to
have met with an accident."
She glanced over her shoulder and chuckled in genuine
amusement. "Lucky we kept some sweets in reserve, isnâ€™t it?"
Maddie apprised Mrs. Iddings of the Marquis of Warefieldâ€™s
imminent arrival, and then sent the cook down to Harthgrove
to purchase vegetables and gossip away the afternoon. After
bringing Mr. Bancroft his replacement luncheon, Maddie
escaped out to the garden potting shed, where she could
bang about and curse without being overheard. Stupid,
stupid noblemen, always showing up where they werenâ€™t
wanted! Or needed.
"Damnation," Maddie muttered, wiping her hands against her
pelisse. "In here, Mrs. Fowler," she called.
Sheâ€™d hoped to have until tomorrow before the neighbors
came prying for information. Apparently Mrs. Iddingsâ€™s
gossip was even more efficient than Mr. Bancroft had
anticipated. Smoothing the annoyed expression from her
face, she stepped out of the shed.
"Oh, there you are, Maddie." Jane Fowler was wearing her
favorite visiting dress; no doubt she intended to carry her
news to every home along the lane once sheâ€™d pried it out
"I should say so." Mrs. Fowler sighed happily, her rounded
cheeks dimpling. She plucked a stray leaf from Maddieâ€™s
hair. "I hear that weâ€™re to have an important guest in
Somerset. I am quite beside myself."
"Oh, well, you--"
"My goodness," Mrs. Fowler continued, clapping her hands
together, "a marquis." She leaned forward and lowered her
voice, even though there was no one about to hear them
except for the finches. "And I hear that heâ€™s very
handsome, and that he has twenty thousand a year. Can you
imagine? Twenty thousand pounds a year!"
Swallowing her annoyance at such awestruck pointlessness,
Maddie nodded and started back toward the house at a brisk
pace. Bad enough she had to host Warefield, without having
to talk about him, as well. "You seem to know a great deal
about him, Mrs. Fowler."
"Mrs. Beauchamp does. Her cousin is Baron Montasse, you
"Yes, I had heard that." Endlessly and repeatedly.
"How long will he be staying at Langley?"
"I really donâ€™t know. With the Season starting soon, Iâ€™m
certain it canâ€™t be too long."
Mrs. Fowler sighed reverently. "Ah, yes, the Season."
The worshipful look on her face made Maddie want to
laugh. "Have you told Lydia and Sally the news?"
"They were the ones who told me. Such good girls, they are.
And Lydia has become quite proficient at the pianoforte,
"Yes, I d--"
"Oh, I know Sally isnâ€™t quite out yet, but she is
seventeen. Here in the country, so very far from London,
Lord Warefield couldnâ€™t expect us to stand on such strict
ceremony, donâ€™t you think?"
From what sheâ€™d heard of the marquis, he stood upon
strictest ceremony at all times. "Oh, of course he
couldnâ€™t," she agreed, hiding her sly smile. If anything
could encourage Warefield to shorten his stay at Langley,
it would be the Fowler girls.
"Marvelous, marvelous." Mrs. Fowler continued on beside
her, then stopped and lifted her handkerchief to her mouth,
unsuccessfully stifling a rather giddy gale of
giggles. "Oh, I have just thought of the very thing!"
Maddie reluctantly halted her escape. "Whatever might that
"I will speak to Mr. Fowler, and we shall hold a country
ball in honor of Lord Warefield. Wonâ€™t that be spectacular?
And I shall invite everyone -- oh, everyone but the
Dardinales. That Miss Dardinale is completely unacceptable."
And by coincidence, Patricia Dardinale was also the
prettiest young lady in the countryside. "I shouldnâ€™t think
you would mind one more girl, Mrs. Fowler. I have heard
Lydiaâ€™s singing is much improved over last year. I believe
if there is one thing to sway a gentlemanâ€™s interest, it is
a song well sung."
Mrs. Fowler clutched Maddieâ€™s arm. "Thank you, my dear. And
you shall come as well, for I canâ€™t think that Mr. Bancroft
would venture from Langley these days without you. Unless
the marquis takes over his care, of course. How noble that
would be. Oh, my, yes."
Maddie frowned. She hadnâ€™t considered that. It made sense
that a meddling, busybody nobleman would think a woman
incapable of her duties, however proficient sheâ€™d been with
them over the past four years. "Yes, how noble, indeed."
For the forty-seventh time, Quinlan Ulysses Bancroft lost
his place in Ivanhoe. He dropped the book onto the black
leather seat beside him and, holding onto his hat with one
hand, leaned his head out the window. "Really, Claymore,
must we take a census of every wheel rut, rock, and puddle
The groomâ€™s face appeared over the high corner of the
coach. "Sorry, my lord," he said, and vanished again. "If
you donâ€™t mind my saying," the voice drifted back after a
moment, "itâ€™s my thinking that King George ainâ€™t traveled
upon these roads, lately."
Quin sat back and resumed reading, until another hard bump
jolted him against the cushions. "Lucky George," he
Reluctantly he set the book aside again and stretched his
long legs out to rest them on the opposite seat. With a
sigh he settled back to watch southern Somerset County pass
by outside. At least the weather had turned agreeable, and
the green, tree-covered countryside smelled more of meadow
grass than it did of cattle.
The marquis pulled his pocket watch out of his waistcoat
and glanced down at it. By his estimation, another twenty
minutes or so should finally put him at Langley Hall. Three
damned days in a coach, with a perfectly good mount
tethered behind. He might have left his luggage to follow
and ridden on to Langley in half the time -- except that
the duke, his father, had written to indicate that he would
arrive on the fifteenth.
Uncle Malcolm would undoubtedly take a hasty arrival as a
threat against his management of Langley. And if there was
one thing Quin did not wish to do, it was to further the
antagonism between Lewis and Malcolm Bancroft. So he would
not, under any circumstances, arrive before the fifteenth.
Little as he relished the idea of being his fatherâ€™s
sacrificial lamb, the seven years of silence between the
Bancroft brothers had long been a topic of jest and gossip
in Londonâ€™s highest circles. Uncle Malcolm had always been
his favorite relation, and even if it meant spending time
with the rustics, he intended to do his damndest to see
that the wags were finally silenced. It looked very shabby,
and set a poor precedent before the rest of the nobility.
With any luck, he should be able to organize Langleyâ€™s
books and get the crop in the ground with little bother --
which hopefully would make Uncle Malcolm feel more
favorable toward making amends with his brother, which
hopefully would leave His Grace feeling more amenable
toward everyone in general.
And if events transpired as smoothly and quickly as he
hoped, he would even have time to return to Warefield for a
few weeks before the Season began. Lord knew, the coming
summer would leave little time for him to be off on his
own. Once he arrived in London his first task would be to
make wedding arrangements, and the remainder of his social
engagements would stem from that.
Quin stretched, yawning. At least marriage looked to be
fairly painless. Eloise had been dropping more hints than
usual in her letters of late, and their understanding
needed to be formalized. The sooner, the better. The dukeâ€™s
grumbles about grandchildren had grown into bellows over
the winter -- as if he needed another excuse to bellow.
"My lord," Claymore called from his perch, "Langley, I
Quin shifted to look out the opposite window. Sprawling at
the top of a slight rise and overlooking a quaint
wildflower garden and a small forest glade, Langley Hall
rose red and white into the cloud-patched noon sky. Barely
more than a cottage by London standards, the estate did
offer some of the best fishing in Somerset -- small
recompense though that was, for the journey.
"Iâ€™ll have stew of you, ye blasted beast!"
A gargantuan cream-colored pig squealed and ran full tilt
across the road. A farmer, followed by another man and a
red-faced woman, all three brandishing pitchforks and
rakes, headed at full speed after it. The high-spirited
coach horses skittered sideways, nearly dumping the lot of
them into the spiny hedge bordering the road.
"Woah, lads!" Claymore bellowed, while Quin slammed into
the side of the coach and lost his hat to the
floor. "Apologies, my lord!" the groom called. "Damned
country folk. No manners at all!"
The marquis leaned down and retrieved his
chapeau. "Splendid," he sighed, dusting off his hat and
resettling it on his head. "Country folk. Bloody marvelous."