Somewhere between Gretna Green and Carlisle, Fitz concluded he had left lovely Earth and descended straight to Hell.
How else could one explain being trapped in a carriage – not even his own – with two newlyweds who wouldn’t stop pawing each other?
Of course, he’d always imagined Hell a bit warmer than the frigid January air of Northern England. This must be a special torment reserved for dukes like him: to freeze eternally while watching his once-rational best friend offer endless hand rubs to his new wife.
“Only you could look so adorable with a red nose,” Annabelle, the new Lady Gresham, cooed.
“The worst winter in Cumberland couldn’t make you any less a goddess,” Talbot responded, in a tone Fitz had never heard from his friend before embarking on this damned adventure with the couple.
There had been six Dukes of Harrodshire before Fitz, and surely, none of them had been stupid enough to help their best friend elope.
He’d been happily enjoying the house party to ring in the New Year and celebrate Talbot’s upcoming marriage to a Miss Dawes when Talbot’s long-lost love Annabelle, the Duchess of Surrey, had arrived from the Continent with the news that she was now a widow. Stunning everyone, Talbot had thrown Miss Dawes aside to elope with the duchess in Gretna Green at the Scottish border.
Fool that he was, Fitz had agreed to accompany them. Not that Talbot needed anyone to stand up with him in the elopement town. Fitz was only there to facilitate the next part of the happy couple’s journey: to announce the marriage to the new Duke of Surrey. Annabelle’s stepson, fifteen years older than she, had never favored his stepmother, and she feared he would refuse her the settlement his father had promised her. Since Fitz was unluckily the fellow’s cousin – perhaps, too, because Fitz was known around town as the Diplomatic Duke – they hoped his presence would lessen the shock of the scandal to Annabelle’s former family.
When he agreed, Fitz had pictured himself making the journey on his trusty mare, Roona, rather than ensconced in the marital coach. But he wasn’t accustomed to the whistling wind on the Cumbrian mountain passes. He’d decided a few hours ago that being stuck with lovebirds was preferable to freezing to death atop his steed.
He was beginning to think he’d chosen wrong.
It wasn’t that Fitz objected to Talbot’s newfound happiness; nor did he consider marriage a foolish occupation. It was that the carriage reeked of emotion. On their side it was an overbearing perfume of joy, love, desire, humor, and hope. As for Fitz, soon he was going to have to admit to one or two emotions of his own. Which was precisely what he objected to.
“Do you think there’s going to be a storm?” Lady Gresham asked, peeling her eyes from Talbot for the first time in ages to peek behind the window curtain “It’s so very gray.”
Talbot rubbed her palms more vigorously. “You’ve been gone too long, my dear. England is always gray.”
Fitz’s knee had ached all day from an old injury, as it usually did when buckets of precipitation approached. And he’d been watching the clouds as they swelled dark along the edges, as if smudged with angry charcoal.
“The maid at the inn this morning told me it would snow today,” Lady Gresham protested. “Perhaps we should find a place to stay, rather than get stuck on the road in a flurry.”
Talbot opened his mouth, then closed it again. He turned to Fitz. “Where are we anyway?”
“Lake District. Passed Carlisle an hour ago or so.”
“Say we can stop in the nearest town,” Lady Gresham pressed. “I do hate to feel exposed in a carriage in bad weather. Anything can happen.”
Talbot, predictably, melted. “Of course, my darling.”
Fitz grimaced. Staying in town meant another night squeezing into whatever accommodations the local inn could provide. In Gretna Green – overcrowded that first week of January with elopers – the newlyweds had gotten a suite while he’d been relegated to a hatbox above the stables on a mattress stuffed with moldy straw. He could only imagine what a small town on the little-used northern roads would offer up.
“We are nearing the seat of the Baron of Eastley. Perhaps this is a good time to pay a visit…” As he suggested this, Fitz raised his eyebrow in what he knew to be an intimidating gesture. Most of the time, the ducal eyebrow incited immediate action, a scurrying out of his way, even a gasp every now and then.
Lady Gresham – who, to be fair, had herself been a duchess until the day before – merely summoned a smile of delight in response. “Perfect. We can wait out the storm among friends.”
It was the lesser of two evils. Fitz hated imposing unexpectedly on others of the ton only slightly less than he hated being stuck with his present traveling companions. He knew next to nothing about the Baron of Eastley, other than that he was getting along in years, had two married daughters instead of a direct heir, and lived at a seat somewhere up in these forsaken northern counties. Rapping on the ceiling of the coach, he braved the cutting wind to arrange with the driver – nearly a human icicle – to go directly to the baron’s Bleneccle Manor, as soon as they could figure out where it was.
“I don’t know what we’d do without you, Your Grace,” Lady Gresham cooed as they pressed onward.
He knew what he’d do without them. For one thing, he’d already be warm and snug at his favored Pembroke Abbey on the southern coast. He’d likely be reviewing the accounts with his steward, or riding the grounds, or perhaps holed up in his study with a snifter of brandy to work on his three proposed reforms for the Parliamentary season.
He wouldn’t be counting the bumps in the road that stood between him and a nice hot fire.
“I suppose you could do without us, eh?” Talbot picked up the response, ears reddening as if he were only now realizing their behavior. “Perhaps we’d better engage in civilized conversation for a bit, light of my life.”
Lady Gresham obligingly slid into her own seat. “Yes, let us turn the conversation to our honorable companion. You’ve never been married, Your Grace?”
This not being the first time he’d been quizzed by a female on his marital plans, Fitz knew he had two options: change the subject or entertain the topic long enough to satisfy her curiosity.
He attempted the first. “Call me Fitz. After this trip, we surely must be close enough to use Christian names.”
“Then I am Annabelle.” She smiled, running her eyes appraisingly across his face. “You are not yet married, but you must be close to thirty if not over it now. It is getting to be the prime age to begin the business of heirs.”
The first option having proved ineffective, Fitz supposed he could stand to indulge the lady’s interest. “You are astute. I suppose this Season or next, I’ll walk away with a bride. However, I have exacting tastes, particularly when it comes to my future duchess. Not just any debutante will do.”
“Let me guess,” Talbot drawled. “You have a list of requirements drawn up in the care of your undersecretary. She must be beautiful, intelligent, equal parts haughty and approachable, appropriately interested in politics, and not too invested in receiving your attention.”
Fitz offered a laugh at his own expense, though Talbot’s comment was a little too close to the mark for his comfort. He had never written down a list, never discussed it with a member of his staff, yet certainly he had decided on the features that would make his duchess successful. And Talbot had listed most of them.
“You expect to find all those qualities in an innocent debutante?” Annabelle raised her golden eyebrows in doubt. “Sometimes I wonder how we expect our young ladies to be ready for marriage at the tender age of twenty when we fully anticipate the young gentlemen needing another decade to ripen.”
An astute comment, one Fitz hadn’t expected from a woman renowned primarily for her likeness to Venus.
“And what of affection?” she continued. “If not love, don’t you wish for some sort of mutual affection between yourself and your wife?”
“I imagine that should I meet a young lady whose qualities are those I seek, affection will arise naturally, given that she is everything I desire.”
Annabelle narrowed her eyes at him. Fitz felt for a moment that she could see straight through his words to the smooth surface of his heart; that she could measure every dalliance he’d had with actresses, his muddy affairs with bored wives, even the boyhood crushes he’d bestowed upon debutantes and neighborhood ladies, and in all of them found him lacking.
The bewitchment ended as quickly as it had begun. Annabelle turned to her husband, the pink of excitement on her cheeks. “My intuition tells me his fate will be different from these well-laid plans. I think we should challenge His Grace to a wager.”
Talbot, rather than looking shocked, smiled wickedly. “And what would that wager be?”
“Fifty pounds that he will meet a new sweetheart in the next three months and she will be the woman he marries.”
Now Talbot frowned. “In the next three months? That’s rather specific, don’t you think?”
Annabelle waved it off. “If my intuition is correct, it won’t even be that long before his heart belongs to another.”
In the next three months, Fitz planned to be fully ensconced in Parliamentary agenda – after all, the Prince Regent needed installation, in addition to the reforms Fitz hoped to pass – not meeting young ladies. The wager was a woman’s folly.
Talbot turned to him. “What do you say?”
Fitz spread his palms in the air. “The whole purpose of my accompanying you on this trip is to help you secure a fortune, not to take it away from you.”
“Oh fie, this is more fun,” Annabelle cried. “Besides, we’ll win.”
She was so certain, though logic decreed she would fail. Fitz wondered for a moment if she perhaps had a more powerful intuition than most. But he shook himself free of the thought; he didn’t lend credence to superstition. He alone controlled his fate, and he had no plans to fall in love, much less marry whatever poor creature could capture his heart. “Make it a hundred pounds, and you have a deal.”
Though he blanched at the sum, Talbot shook his hand to make the wager official.
Fitz grinned. “I look forward to collecting from you at my wedding, which will be to some young lady whom I won’t meet in the next three months.”
“And I look forward to watching you tumble desperately into love,” Annabelle rejoined.
By now, the carriage had jostled off the turnpike down a forested road. Flurries swirled amidst a darkened sky, so Fitz could make out Bleneccle Manor only in bits and pieces as they drew closer. The gray stone fence. Wrought iron gate. A turreted tower looming above the drive. And then the orange glow of candles in the windows.
At least someone was home.
“What an adventure,” Annabelle crooned as the carriage came to a stop.
Her enthusiasm was infectious. Fitz was too tall to sit compressed in a carriage on the best of days; the cold only made him feel worse, as if he’d been bound by ropes all day. His rear end pulsed in pain as blood started rushing there again. Every bone ached. His fingers and toes were positively numb.
And yet his heart thrummed with the same excitement as Annabelle’s. What an adventure.