Along with his stepsiblings, Sheridan Wolfe, Duke of Armitage, is determined to finally solve the mysteries behind the suspicious deaths of their mother’s three husbands. Tasked with investigating a possible suspect, Sheridan finds himself in dangerous proximity to her captivating daughter, Vanessa Pryde. But still haunted by a tragically lost love, the duke is resolved to resist the attraction-and avoid any “scheming” husband-hunters. Besides, lovely Miss Pryde seems utterly smitten with a roguish London playwright…
Vanessa thinks a little scheming may be in order-for it’s Sheridan she truly has her sights, and her heart, set on. Her theatrical flirtation is intended only to break through his business-like demeanor and guarded emotions. And as Sheridan’s jealousy becomes aroused, the two soon find themselves propelled into a scheme of an altogether different kind, involving a pretend engagement, a secret inquiry—and a perhaps not-so-secret leap into true love…
Muttering a curse under his breath, Sheridan stalked over to Vanessa. “Where’s your mother?”
Vanessa arched one eyebrow. “It’s lovely to see you here, too.”
Her uncle started to laugh until Sheridan glared at him, and Sir Noah sobered at once.
“If you’re worried about my lack of a chaperone,” Vanessa went on, “I can assure you Uncle Noah is prepared to perform that service.” She smiled up at the man. “Aren’t you, Uncle?”
“Certainly.” He surreptitiously surveyed the grandeur of Thorn’s ballroom. “As long as you don’t get lost in this cavernous place.”
“She won’t,” Sheridan said smoothly. “I’ll make sure of it.”
Now her uncle fixed a baleful gaze on Sheridan. “Forgive me, Duke, but I’ll make sure of it.”
Wonderful. Just what Sheridan needed—a suspicious baronet on his arse, no Lady Eustace to question, and Vanessa up in arms. This was precisely why Sheridan had wanted someone else to do the questioning—because he could never be easy around Vanessa. It was either keep his distance or kiss her senseless.
“I don’t understand why a woman of my advanced years needs a chaperone, anyway,” Vanessa said.
“Advanced years?” Sheridan snorted. “You’re twenty-five, Vanessa, not fifty.”
She pointed her chin at him in that odd way she had of examining people. Like a raven. Or a magpie who enjoyed stealing away whatever glittered. “I’m surprised you noticed. You treat me as if I’m twelve.”
“If you wouldn’t act as if you’re twelve, I wouldn’t treat you that way.”
Sir Noah muttered something about needing punch and hurried off, but Sheridan was already regretting his too-swift response. He could swear the temperature around him had dropped ten degrees.
Her eyes certainly resembled ice. “If you wouldn’t act as if you’re fifty, I’d refrain from pointing out that even my aged uncle knows how to enjoy himself at a party, especially one with good music, excellent food, and plenty of punch.”
The lady did know how to wield her tongue, didn’t she? “Pax,” he said with a rueful smile. “I admit my remark was uncalled for.”
“And rude, too.” She gazed across the ballroom as if looking for any companion but him.
That goaded him into saying, “Now it’s your turn to apologize.”
“For what? I only spoke the truth.”
He groaned. His plan to cozy up to Vanessa in order to get to her mother wasn’t exactly going swimmingly. “So I take it your mother is not in attendance then?” he asked, just to be sure.
“No. She was feeling poorly after the play.” Vanessa searched his face. “But that’s all for the best, don’t you think? It makes matters easier with your family, since I dare say none of them like her.”
“Did you ask her not to come?”
“No, indeed. She decided that all by herself once she heard it was to be an ‘informal’ affair with ‘only a few close friends and family.’ How could she possibly know that your ‘close friends’ number in the hundreds?”
He chuckled. “I’m afraid I was a bit misinformed myself about the nature of the event.”
“Clearly.” She relaxed a bit. “But it’s of no matter. I always enjoy myself better when Mama is not around.”
Before he could comment on that, Thorn called out to the orchestra, “Play music, sirs! ‘Come, come… Let’s have a dance ere we are married, that we may lighten our own hearts and our wives’ heels.’”
The quote from Shakespeare startled a laugh out of Sheridan. All this time, he’d been attributing Thorn’s theatrical flourishes to their family’s general love of the theater. How strange Sheridan had never guessed before that Thorn was a playwright.
Sheridan scanned the room for his sister-in-law, to see her reaction to Thorn’s quote, but although some other newly minted duchess might be embarrassed at such lavish language, Olivia beamed at the man she obviously adored.
Vanessa leaned up to whisper, “You have to admit they’re perfect for each other.”
“Only time will tell.” Sheridan knew she was alluding to their earlier conversation about marriage. “They’re still in the honeymoon stage.”
“I swear, for a man who’s only ever been a bachelor, you certainly seem to think you know a great deal about marriage.”
Despite never having entered the wedded state, he knew enough about it to be cautious, though few realized it. He wasn’t the sort to blather his personal affairs to all and sundry.
The musicians had taken Thorn at his word and had already struck up a lively reel. The guests were moving aside to allow room for dancing couples to take the floor. So Sheridan laid his hand in the small of Vanessa’s back and murmured, “We’d best get out of the way.”
She tipped her head up at him. “You’re not going to ask me to dance? And here I thought you were my suitor.”
Damn, she was right. But before he could respond, Juncker approached them. “Miss Pryde, would you do me the honor of dancing this set with me?”
Sheridan answered for her. “She can’t. She has already promised it to me.”
Vanessa looked startled by his response but didn’t gainsay it. “As His Grace said, I am otherwise engaged.”
“Then I shall request the next,” Juncker said.
“In that case, thank you.” She flashed him a broad smile. “I’d be delighted.”
She didn’t have to be quite so delighted, blast it. As Juncker walked away, Sheridan scowled after him. What was the fellow up to now? Sheridan didn’t trust him one whit.
At least Sheridan had Vanessa for the present. And he meant to take advantage of it. His hand still lay in the curve of her back, and he marveled at how supple it felt, even through her gown.
“Well, our plan seems to be working,” Vanessa said, obviously oblivious to the intimate position of his hand. “And better than I hoped, too. Did you know Mr. Juncker has never before asked me to dance?”
“Then he’s more fool than I realized,” Sheridan said, and took her to the floor. When he caught Vanessa eyeing him as if he’d made a damning admission, he added, “You’re an excellent dancer. You make it easy for a partner to lead you, which is more than I can say for most of the ladies in society.”
“Why, Your Grace, I do believe you paid me a compliment. A rather surprising one, too, considering you’ve only danced with me thrice.”
“Once would be enough to recognize your ability, but thrice certainly is. I’d be a dim-witted fellow indeed if I hadn’t noticed it after that.”
She flipped her fan open and fluttered it over her bosom. “Your extravagant flatteries have left me all atwitter.”
Sheridan fought a smile even as her motion drew his gaze to the upper swells of her lovely breasts, which was undoubtedly her intention. “Do not tease me, you insolent chit,” he said, jerking his eyes back up, “or I will tread on your toes in the dance.”
“You would never.” With a minxish gleam in her eyes, she dropped her fan to dangle from her wrist. “I have yet to see you falter on the floor. You obviously had an excellent dancing instructor.”
“My parents made sure I was well prepared for my role in diplomacy. And now it’s all for naught.”
“Hardly. As duke you’ll be expected to impress everyone with your lightness of foot. After all, you don’t want to ruin your reputation as Saint Sheridan.”
Groaning, he took her gloved hands in his. “I don’t know how I got that damned nickname, but I hate it.”
“As I recall, it came from your family.” They circled as they were supposed to. “Because any time the rest of us are being merry and kicking up our heels, you’re the one going off to sequester yourself in some back study to heed your duke-ish responsibilities. Lord only knows what you’re doing in there.”
“Trust me,” he said dryly, “it’s nothing whatsoever that would interest you.” He faced the other lady with a dip of his head, did the requisite steps, and then once more found himself opposite Vanessa. “This is much more to your taste, I would imagine.”
Her sparkling smile faltered, and it was as if white, fluffy clouds suddenly showed their dark undersides. He wanted the fluffy clouds back. What had he said? How could he fix it?
Damn, why did he care if he fixed it? Vanessa had her eyes on another man, and he didn’t care. Best to remember that.
She remained silent for a while, doing the steps, sliding here, sliding there, and in short being the perfect dance partner he’d characterized her as. But her enjoyment of the dance had clearly dimmed.
When they halted opposite each other at the bottom of the set, waiting for the other couples to come down the center one by one, he had to say something. She was breaking his bloody heart with her clear disappointment. “I’m usually going over the books.”
She blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“In ‘some back study.’ While I’m sequestered. I’m going over the books for the estate.”
“Oh.” She fanned herself again, but this time undoubtedly because it was damned hot in the ballroom, especially for November. Unfortunately, the fanning wafted her floral scent to him—although he couldn’t place the flower it came from. Perhaps it wasn’t a flower at all, but some exotic perfume she’d bought at Floris on Jermyn Street.
He was still breathing it in when she added, “I would have thought you’d have…people to do that for you.”
To do what for me? he nearly asked. Right. Go over his ledgers. He didn’t dare say he couldn’t afford to have people do that for him, not entirely anyway, and certainly not if he wanted to save the dukedom for future generations. “Regardless, it’s important to gain a sense of how one’s money is being spent. If you know what I mean.”
God, what was he doing, blurting out this sort of information in the midst of a ballroom?
But the darkness had faded from her face. “I know exactly what you mean.”
He got the distinct impression that she actually did. Which was absurd. What could she possibly know about running an estate? According to Grey, her father’s holdings had been modest, and in any case, wouldn’t have been managed by her.
They found themselves at the top of the set again, forced to perform certain steps and then join hands to dance back down. She had a firm grip for a woman. He liked that about her. No limp hands for Vanessa, oh, no. And suddenly he wished they were alone together in a room somewhere….
Nonsense. What was he thinking? He and Vanessa would not suit. Even she must know it.
Then they reached the bottom of the set and she took her spot across from him and he noticed that her gloves were slipping down her arms as before. He found himself wondering if…waiting to see if she would let them fall below her elbows as before, too.
Her gloves were on the verge of doing so when she absently pulled both up, one after the other. He stifled a sigh. One day very soon, he was going to get her alone somewhere and draw down one of those curst gloves just to see her bare elbows. And then he would press his lips to the inside bend so he could find out once and for all if her pulse would beat for him during such an intimate moment.
Not because he truly meant to court her, and not because he wanted anything further. Just so he would know. Because if one intended to forego sweets for Lent, it was only a sacrifice if one had tasted those sweets often enough to know how much one would miss them.