Heiress Without a Cause

Heiress Without a Cause (Muses of Mayfair #1)

Starring: Lady Madeleine Vaillant and William ‘Ferguson’ Avenel, Duke of Rothwell

Why you should read it: She’s a spinster with a secret passion for the stage. He’s a titled ginger with a dark past. They both look pretty hot in breeches. Their friends and families are insane. And the heroine develops a champagne hangover that I did absolutely no first-hand research for, I swear.

Love spinsters and gingers (and champagne) as much as I do? Buy it here:

London – 6 April 1812

She stood outside her aunt’s ballroom and breathed as deeply as her stays allowed. She had walked into innumerable ballrooms in the past decade, but she still felt that old excitement — that moment of speculation, wondering if tonight would miraculously distinguish itself from all the other nights that stretched behind and before her in a dull grey line. Her life had all the color of a debutante’s closet. Since she would never wear the rich colors of a matron (or, better, a widow), that grey line was unlikely to change.

Chilton, her aunt’s butler, ushered her through the great double doors to the ballroom. “Lady Madeleine Vaillant,” he announced to the horde mingling below.

None of them turned.

They wouldn’t, after all. She lived with her aunt and had been a fixture at Salford House since her parents died eighteen years earlier. Still, the contrast between tonight, at this proper ball, and the previous night, in a very different milieu, was sharp enough to hurt.

Here, in a white muslin ball gown, with her brown hair tucked into a spinster’s cap, no one spared her a first glance, let alone a second.

Last night, wearing breeches and a wild, unkempt wig, everyone cheered at her feet.

She kept a vague half-smile on her face as she descended the steps into the ballroom. Aunt Augusta had trained her well, and she never displayed her disappointment when each night became just like every other. There were a few guests ahead of her on the landing, waiting to greet her aunt and her cousin Alexander Staunton, the earl of Salford. The delay ensured that her mask was firmly in place before Aunt Augusta saw her.

“Are you feeling well, dear?” her aunt asked when she finally reached them.

“Well enough, Aunt Augusta,” Madeleine said, making her voice sound the tiniest bit tired. She had feigned illness for the past two weeks and planned a final relapse the following night, but she couldn’t miss her aunt’s opening ball of the season. She should have come down almost an hour earlier, but she used her illness as an excuse to cut the night short.

Augusta frowned. “You should retire early. No one will miss you, I’m sure.”

She knew her aunt didn’t mean for the words to cut like a blade, but she still winced.

Then she sternly told herself to stop being dramatic. It was just one night, like any other night. Her aunt and cousins loved her, even if the ton didn’t. And her inconspicuous nature gave her the freedom to behave as she had the past two weeks — she should be grateful that she could take such a risk.

So she smiled and said in her sunniest voice, “I’m sure a ball is just what I need to recover. I feel better than I have in an age.”

“Don’t dress it up too much, cousin,” Alex said. “When have these affairs ever improved our health?”

He grinned, a fellow prisoner to Aunt Augusta’s expectations. He escaped more frequently than Madeleine, since he often chose his club over the events of the marriage mart. But if he hadn’t inherited the earldom when his father died, he probably would have left London entirely.

She grinned back. “There is always a first time. Perhaps Aunt Augusta’s ball will magically cure us all.”

Her aunt sighed. “Do try to behave, both of you. Not that I usually have to request good behavior from you, Madeleine, but your illness seems to have addled your senses.”

“Why do you say that?” Madeleine asked.

“You can’t fool me forever, dear. According to the doctors, there is nothing physically wrong with you. You just seem preoccupied — like my sister before she married her French marquis.”

Augusta pressed her lips shut after she spoke, the severe gesture marring a face that was still beautiful even in her early fifties. With her fading blonde hair and sharp blue eyes, she was an older version of her daughter Amelia, but her age had made her more circumspect. It was an unusual slip — she rarely mentioned Madeleine’s mother.

Madeleine didn’t respond. More guests arrived and she seized the opportunity to flee, with a stricken look from Augusta and another sympathetic smile from Alex. As much as she loved the adventure she had created for herself, and as much as she would cherish the precious memory of these past two weeks, she still hated lying to Alex and Augusta. At least Sebastian, Alex’s younger brother, was on his Bermuda plantation this year. She couldn’t have kept her secret from the cousin who understood her desire for rebellion.

But even he wouldn’t support her decision to risk everything and act on a public stage. And since she was too careful to be caught, no one beyond Amelia needed to know.

She took a seat at the edge of the ballroom. The chairs were new, upholstered in green velvet to match the lush new drapes. Aunt Augusta’s redecoration made the ballroom feel like a fairy forest, filled with the bright sounds of the hidden orchestra and illuminated by hundreds of candles in the chandeliers. Madeleine was just grateful that Augusta had replaced the chairs along the walls; the last batch had hit her just wrong, making her feet fall asleep at every ball.

As she settled in, her friend Prudence emerged from the crush. The woman sank into the chair beside Madeleine as though the effort of escaping the crowd had left her mortally wounded.

“Do you think Aunt Augusta bought these chairs because she knows we shall always sit in them?” Madeleine asked, too familiar with her friend to waste breath on greetings.

Prudence ignored her question. “Madeleine, you will never guess who is standing in your aunt’s foyer.”

Madeleine laughed. Prudence Etchingham was the academic bluestocking in their little circle, but she had a sense of adventure that she kept well hidden from her formidable mother. “Napoleon?”

“Even better.”

Madeleine would have liked for it to be Napoleon, if only so she could join the queue of people who wished to skewer him. Aunt Augusta would like it too — Napoleon’s death in her receiving line could only enhance her position as one of the top hostesses in the ton.

But killing Napoleon wouldn’t revive her parents or buy back her life in France. Before she could press Prudence about who was in the foyer, a disturbance at the top of ballroom steps caught her attention. It wasn’t a disturbance, precisely — more like an unexpected silence, which spread in a slow wave across the ballroom as people turned to the entrance.

Chilton cleared his throat with unusual vigor. “Her grace the duchess of Harwich. His grace the duke of Rothwell.”

The butler’s announcement, designed to carry out over the room, dropped like a cannonball into the crowd below. Heads snapped up from their conversations, dancers missed their steps, and Madeleine heard the shattering of at least one champagne glass. They hadn’t noticed Madeleine, but they couldn’t ignore the latest arrival.

Rothwell had finally returned to London to claim his title. He had last been seen nearly a decade earlier, when everyone knew him as Ferguson — a third son with no prospects and a scandalous reputation. Now, inheriting a dukedom in circumstances that the ton had speculated about for over a month, he was a sensation.

“I thought he went mad,” Madeleine whispered.

Prudence shook her head. “I heard it was the French pox that kept him out of London, but he looked healthy enough when I saw him in the foyer.”

“He could look quite healthy and still be mad, Prue. His brothers were always pleasant enough. But why did he choose to make his first appearance at Aunt Augusta’s ball?” Madeleine asked, watching him bow over her aunt’s hand. “I heard he arrived in town days ago. And Aunt Augusta is powerful, but not powerful enough to wait for.”

“Perhaps he had to wait for the moon to turn so that he could appear sane,” Prudence said with a giggle.

Madeleine stifled a snort. Even at this distance, Rothwell’s dark auburn hair gleamed in the light of the massive chandeliers. Sophronia, the duchess of Harwich and his father’s sister, stood beside him, more ramrod straight than usual. She looked ready to battle anyone who might have an opinion about her nephew — not that anyone would dare to cross one of the highest-ranking women in Britain.

“Rothwell hardly seems cut up over his father’s death, does he?” Prudence observed.

She was right. The new duke wore a tightly fitted dark blue jacket and buff breeches, without even a black armband to indicate mourning. Madeleine had heard that he skipped the funeral, and his attire suggested that he intended to forget his father entirely.

Lady Amelia Staunton, Aunt Augusta’s only daughter, joined them then, taking the chair on Madeleine’s left. “Isn’t this a shock! I would dearly love to ask him for the real story of the old duke’s demise, if only I thought he would share it.”

Prudence laughed. “You would care more about the story than anything.”

“Better a story than some dry treatise on ancient Babylon,” Amelia said. It was their usual argument. Prudence wrote academic papers — under a male name — that were well received by other scholars, but Amelia secretly wrote novels. If Madeleine could pursue her artistic passions as easily as they did, perhaps she wouldn’t feel so restless.

She tried to redirect them to the topic — or rather, the man — at hand. “You can’t ask him what happened to his father, Amelia. The Times said it was a carriage accident, and we must leave it at that.”

“Of course the Times would say that if they were paid enough. I like the rumors better.”

“Your Gothic sensibility has addled you, dear,” Prudence said primly. Then she grinned. “Of course, patricide in powerful families is a common historical theme.”

Amelia smiled victoriously. Madeleine rolled her eyes before turning back to watch the new duke. He finished with Aunt Augusta and strode down the steps like he owned them, already so in command of his title that he took others’ deference for granted. A half-smile played on his lips, as though he expected such toad-eating and was amused by it.

If that were all Madeleine saw, she would have hated him on sight. Arrogance was not a trait she found attractive. He had gone into exile in Scotland a year before her debut, but she had heard enough to know that even as a third son, he was never humble. Still, the amusement lurking on his face intrigued her. It was almost like he was playing a role — and laughing at those who could not see through his deception.

She knew how that felt.

The old urge to dance flared up again. This time, it was the partner she desired more than the movement. She bit down on her desire before it fully formed. The most notorious rake, now duke, in London would never notice the spinster she appeared to be.

Near the base of the steps, where he could still survey the room, he turned to his aunt. She made a gesture toward the back of the room — more precisely, toward Madeleine’s circle. Rothwell raised his quizzing glass to examine them, the amused look never leaving his face. Then he set off again, lost in the crowd.

Unless Sophronia warned him away from their corner, there was little doubt that he would soon appear in front of them.

“Prepare yourself, Amelia. You may get to ask your question when he dances with you,” Prudence said.

Neither Amelia nor Madeleine disagreed with Prudence’s assessment of the duke’s intentions. Of the three of them, only Amelia still attracted suitors. Madeleine could have landed a husband if she wasn’t so shy in her first years and bored in the later ones — while her dark hair and green eyes were unfashionable, her uncle Edward had given her a dowry equal to Amelia’s, and it was large enough to cover any number of flaws. Prudence had light brown hair and serious brown eyes, but worse, she had no dowry and no hope of attaining one.

But Amelia, with her blonde hair, blue eyes, silver tongue, willowy figure, and substantial fortune, was always in demand. She had also developed a reputation as “the Unconquered,” which led each year’s crop of bachelors to worship at her altar in hopes of being the one to win her.

Amelia didn’t like the attention. She would rather be at the family estate in Lancashire, writing novels. But she didn’t deny her popularity either. It was easier for all of them to evade suspicion if they appeared in the ton as they should, and so Amelia attended these parties as though she lived for them. There were times — like when she wanted to dance — that Madeleine almost hated her for her popularity, even though she would never admit it.

Unfortunately, this was one of those times. Madeleine steeled herself for the moment when she would watch Rothwell lead Amelia away. She tried to relax, to remember that she was in the midst of a different adventure — to tell herself he was just an arrogant rake and forget that she had spied something else lurking beneath his façade. She might never dance with Rothwell, but withering away from boredom did not have to be her fate.

The crowd thinned in front of them. Rothwell emerged like a predator stalking out of the forest. His clothing civilized him, and he still looked amused, but there was a primal intensity in his eyes that Madeleine had not seen when he entered the ballroom. He seemed to be on a mission, determined to make quick work of whatever he had come to accomplish.

Sophronia stepped forward and conducted the necessary introductions. Rothwell bowed to all of them — a spare, elegant move that had not suffered from his rustication.

Then Sophronia made a heart-stopping gesture toward Madeleine. “She’s the one you need, Rothwell. Do get on with it.”

His deep blue eyes hadn’t left her since they were introduced, but until Sophronia’s comment, Madeleine had pretended otherwise. She finally stopped staring at his cravat and dragged her gaze up to his face.

That insufferable smile was back. “Will you do me the honor of this dance, Lady Madeleine?”

He was already reaching for her, not waiting to hear her acceptance. The waltz reached for her too, and she longed to twirl around the dance floor…

…but not with someone who took her obedience for granted. She was tired of being a dull, well-behaved spinster. She had vowed that this season would be different — and so far, it was, even if Amelia and Prudence were the only ones who knew of her rebellion.

So despite her desire to dance, and the deeper desire to know the secrets hiding behind his smile, she looked coolly at his hand before meeting his gaze with a direct one of her own. “I do not dance with rakes, your grace.”

He stared at her, stunned, and dropped his hand to his side. Some part of her screamed, demanded her to take back the insult and beg for a dance. It was a lie anyway — or rather, she would happily dance with rakes if they ever thought to ask her.

She waited for him to become a glowering version of a man scorned — but a genuine smile replaced his affected grin.

“You are correct, Aunt Sophronia. Lady Madeleine will do well enough.”

Sophronia humphed. “I did not bring my nephew over here so he could ruin you, young lady. But he has a proposition for you that I strongly desire you to accept.”

The dowager duchess was one of Madeleine’s favorite older matrons, even though she was a known battle-axe. Madeleine unbent just enough to look at Rothwell again. “What proposition would you like me to consider, your grace?”

“Please, call me Ferguson,” he said. “Are you sure you would not like to discuss this while dancing? I shan’t bite, I assure you.”

Prudence nudged her. The duchess fixed her with a glare. Only Amelia left her alone, too shocked to know what to recommend.

Madeleine sighed and took his hand, letting him lead her to the floor. The guests they passed examined them with undisguised curiosity. With her hand firmly in Rothwell’s grasp, she was attracting more notice in these five minutes than she had in the last five years.

She wanted to curse, but she held her tongue. Her secret activities over the past two weeks depended on maintaining her usual anonymity. The duke’s unexpected notice of her would not help her cause.

He pulled her into the waltz and they settled into the rhythm of the dance. The caricatures of him that were so popular a decade earlier often mentioned his “hellfire” hair, but it was darker than she had expected, almost brown, with just enough warmth in it to look like a dying ember. With her hand resting lightly on his shoulder, she could feel the firm muscle beneath his jacket — as though he was used to manual labor, not endless games of whist. And her right hand, clasped by his left, was sensitive enough that she could feel his calluses even through her glove. She knew a few men whose pursuit of the hunt left them well muscled, but she had never met a duke who had the body of a… laborer? Warrior?

Whatever he was, he was too elemental for a ballroom, despite his perfectly tailored clothes.

He turned his attention to her with a brilliant smile that was equal parts alluring and dangerous. It was a smile designed to melt, to seduce, to turn a woman’s legs to jelly.

Even though she knew his flattery for what it was, it still worked.

“So will you call me Ferguson, or shall I languish in despair without your favor?”

“I’ve no doubt you will find any number of women who will call you Ferguson.”

He expertly navigated her around a slower couple. She began to feel that intoxicating, breathless wonder that only happened when dancing with a perfect match. “And is that a comment on the morals of your fellow debutantes, or an aspersion on my character?”

She laughed despite herself. “Both, your grace.”

He smiled again, but this time it looked natural — almost like he was enjoying himself with her. “I confess that I’ve little use for propriety, Lady Madeleine. Perhaps I can call you Lady Mad? You could drive me mad if I gave you the chance.”

It was the same harmless flirtation that couples participated in all over the ballrooms of the ton. But it rarely happened to her. So it was with just the slightest hint of suspicion that she said, “I trust you will think otherwise when you have been out in society for a few weeks.”

The duke rolled his eyes. “I could have been in London for years, but I chose to remain in Scotland. Do you think I am unaware of London’s dubious charms?”

From the path he cut the last time he was in town, she suspected he knew all of London’s charms quite well. The reminder of the rake he was — and the duke he had become — pulled her out of their banter. “What is it you want from me, your grace?”

“Sophronia said you wouldn’t suffer fools. It is why she recommended that I approach you with my delicate request.”

He couldn’t want to marry her, but she couldn’t think of anything else a man might ask a proper young woman, particularly not in public. She nodded at him to continue, holding her breath…

“Would you be willing to chaperone my sisters?”

She missed a step. A marriage proposal might have actually been preferable, even from a man she had never met.

He steadied her without losing the tempo of the waltz. “My twin sisters are already one and twenty, and they should have come out years ago. Unfortunately, our family tends to lose someone every season, and they’ve been in mourning for ages. Sophronia said they could benefit from someone younger than her to shepherd them, and Ellie…”

He broke off abruptly. Ellie was his sister, the widowed marchioness of Folkestone — and her reputation was not what one would desire in a chaperone.

“Why me, though? Surely you have other connections.”

“Yes, but none I can stand above an hour. Too much moralizing. And you’ve surely heard the rumors — according to Sophronia, half the ton thinks we’re mad.”

She colored slightly, but he didn’t notice her guilty look. “You, on the other hand — my aunt says you’ve a perfect reputation and impeccable intuition, which would do much to help the twins debut successfully despite the family’s current reputation. But she also said you have felt poorly for the past few weeks, so if you prefer not to chaperone my sisters, I understand.”

The duchess’s concern was misplaced. If she knew why Madeleine was “sick,” she would cut her without a second thought.

Then Madeleine realized the full implication of what she was being asked to do. She suddenly, quite unexpectedly, felt like crying. If the dowager duchess of Harwich, one of the foremost etiquette experts in the ton, thought Madeleine could chaperone two unmarried girls, it meant Madeleine was so firmly on the shelf that no one expected her to ever come off it.

Even though it was true, it still hurt.

She wanted to say no, if only to deny the implication that she was unmarriageable. But if her less than perfect behavior ever came to light, she would need powerful allies to see her through the storm. There was no stronger ally than Sophronia — and if Madeleine chaperoned the duke’s sisters, he would have a vested interest in making sure her reputation stayed secure.

“Very well,” she said. “I would be honored to chaperone your sisters.”

Their waltz ended shortly thereafter. She was desperate to leave the man who thought her only value was as a chaperone, but she still felt a pang of regret. Rothwell was an excellent partner, even if he was a rake. She tried to remind herself that he had learned those steps and that heart-melting smile with a whole regiment of other ladies before her, but that didn’t make him any less entertaining.

When he left her with the other spinsters, she sank into her chair. She looked around, half unseeing, resisting the desire to bury her face in her hands. Everything in the room, from the wallpaper to the door handles, had been added in the last few months. She wiped her hands on her skirt, even though she couldn’t do anything about the clammy feeling under her gloves. Her dress, her cap, her slippers, even her undergarments were all new. But she felt like something old and broken accidentally left in the remade room, waiting for a chambermaid to notice and sweep her away.

Twenty-eight shouldn’t have felt old, but now she knew for certain that it was.

How perfectly depressing. At least she had one final night of adventure ahead of her, even though no one could ever know about her daring. One last night to enjoy who she might have been — before she resumed the life she had neither chosen nor found a way to escape.