About the book
Dare to love me, Your Grace?
Charismatic baker by day and French spy by night, Miss Jaqueline Letty Strange is on an impossible mission: infiltrate the Duke’s household at all costs and find the enemy’s secrets.
Bertram Trafford Ansel, Duke of Thybaut, has just returned from the French frontlines. And he can’t really understand what is all that fuss about the new servant girl. Yet, her tempting image keeps him up at night.
Tangled in a web of passion and lies, Letty can no longer distinguish duty from desire. And catching her snooping in his office is only the beginning of Bertram’s heartbreak. For, falling for the enemy in the midst of war can only mean one thing: they are both knocking on death’s door.
Jacqueline crouched low behind the cart, peering over it at the hunter who was gesticulating wildly to his friends, trying to assure them that he’d seen a woman dressed as a man, who’d stolen his bow and quiver of arrows.
Of course, no one truly believed him.
Hitching up the quiver strap more securely on her shoulder, she crept away, crawling along the muddy path. She slipped behind a public house, stepping in a pile of horse manure with a grunt of disgust. She scraped her shoe against a convenient stone before slipping into the rookery where she’d sought accommodations.
She quickly changed out of her men’s clothes and into a simple white muslin gown before slipping off to meet with her contact at the public house.
The publican caught sight of her as soon as she entered through the kitchen and scowled. “Have ye emptied the chamber pots? They willent do it themselves.”
“Yes, sir. Right away,” she called, a trifle mockingly before heading up the back stairs. She counted three doors from the staircase on the right then knocked twice, waited a beat and then knocked three times.
Jacqueline opened the door, slipped into the room and closed it behind her.
“Well? What do you have for me?”
She held out a small paper. “It was just where you said it would be. In the hollowed-out arrow. The hunter was none the wiser. It took me some time to find the right arrow, though.”
The man took the paper. “You have done well. Now go, Miss Strange. I will communicate your next assignment in the usual way. Vive La France.”
Jacqueline nodded curtly, wisps of her hair escaping from her cap.
“Vive La France.”
She turned smartly and left the room. Once she was outside, her shoulders dropped and she let a little bit of the blue megrims she was feeling take over. It was always like this once an assignment was done. A disorientation of the spirit, a feeling of emptiness and hopelessness. She pushed it away, pulling away from the doorway and heading for the nearest alehouse where she could distract herself with whisky and rowdy talk.
Aside from its merits in diverting her thoughts, alehouses were very good sources of information—and that was her stock in trade. She sat down at a table, nodding at the serving girl to bring her a whisky. This might not have been the life she had envisaged growing up in Champagne, France, but it was the one that she had and she would make the most of it.
“Bertram Trafford Ansel, Duke of Thybaut, may I present to you, Lord Westerly. He has been sent over by parliament to see how our troops are faring.” The Duke of Wellington had seemingly appeared from nowhere, his companion in tow.
Bertram was only glad he hadn’t been caught napping. He straightened his spine.
“Your servant, Lord Westerly.” He nodded briefly to the man, who nodded back before looking around at Bertram’s quarters.
“I see you have made yourself quite at home.”
Bertram looked around as well. His tent consisted of a mahogany table, piled high with dispatches, a red velvet chair, and his camp bed. It didn’t seem like much to him but he didn’t like to disagree with the emissary and so made a non-committal sound.
“Lord Westerly will bide with us for a few days to see how we are conducting the war effort.” The Duke’s blue eyes twinkled at Bertram and he was hard put not to smile back.
Oh, so we are humoring the gentleman, are we?
He almost smirked but restrained himself, instead adopting a mien of somberness. “We shall be glad of your company, Lord Westerly.”
The emissary bowed graciously. “I thank you for your hospitality.”
Bertram turned away if only to conceal the smirk on his face. In the midst of war, there was precious little time for oneself, let alone indulging in the song and dance that politics required. Still, it was their duty to keep parliament apprised of the war effort and Bertram just thanked his lucky stars that he had very little to do with that. It was hard enough contending with being away from his young son for long periods of time, especially since the boy did not have a mother, without having to perform the monkey dance required to keep parliament happy. He did not envy the Duke of Wellington his job.
Still, he signaled to his batman to get Lord Westerly some refreshment and set out to be as hospitable as he could.
Jacqueline walked slowly down the lane, trying to time her ‘inadvertent’ meeting down to the second. The boy and his nanny usually took a stroll down this path from three o’clock to three-thirty in the afternoon before heading back to the huge manor house where he lived. This routine had not varied for the last five days and she was hoping it would not today.
Jacqueline had with her a basket of cakes, freshly baked, the aroma wafting tantalizingly into the air. By her reckoning, there was not much that was refused the boy and she was quite sure he would want her cakes. It was not only her looks that she employed to obtain information. Her baking was helpful in that regard as well.
She sighed with relief as she caught sight of the boy, skipping merrily, his hand held securely in that of his nanny. With a smile, she set out to meet them.
“What a lovely child you have there. What is your name, little boy?” she asked as she drew up next to them, bending down to the boy’s height so that he could smell her wares. True to her prediction, his nose rose in the air and he sniffed, craning his neck to see in the basket.
“What’s that?” he asked.
She looked down at her basket as if surprised to see it there. “What? This?”
“Yes. What do you have in there?”
Jacqueline smiled. “Nothing, just some cakes.”
“George! Leave the lady alone,” his nanny said sharply, trying to pull the boy away. But he was stubborn and refused to move.
“I want to see the basket!” he cried.
The nanny looked at Jacqueline, apology in her eyes. “I’m sorry, he’s usually more well-mannered than this.”
Jacqueline gave her a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry about it. Few can resist my cakes.” She reached into the basket and extracted one, handing it to George.
“Here you go, then.”
She reached in again and extracted another, extending it to the nanny.
“Oh no, I couldn’t.”
Jacqueline watched the nanny eye the cake.
“I absolutely insist.” She waved the cake beneath the nanny’s nose.
The nanny took it reluctantly but ate it in two bites.
“May I have another?” George asked.
Jacqueline’s lips turned down. “Oh, I would like to give you another but I am on the way to the baker to see if he might buy from me. I am in search of employment, you see. My father is gravely ill and—”
“But I want another!” George cried, interrupting her story.
Jacqueline shook her head slowly. “I’m sorry, but no.”
George’s pale face reddened with anger and he looked on the brink of throwing a tantrum.
“Why don’t you come home with us instead? I’m sure Cook can find a place for you in the kitchens,” the nanny said quickly.
Jacqueline frowned at her. “Are you sure? I wouldn’t like to—”
“Give me another!” George cried, his hand reaching for the basket and pulling it towards himself.
“Yes, yes! I’m sure.” The nanny looked frantic and Jacqueline affected to look uncertain.
“Please, Miss, the Duke pays us well. You will have a bed to sleep in, food to eat. It’s a much better job than the bakery.”
Jacqueline let her eyes gleam with interest. “Is that so?”
“Yes. Come with us.” The nanny tugged gently at her sleeve and Jacqueline allowed herself to be reluctantly led.
This is a lot easier than I thought it would be.
Jacqueline had known that the household indulged the child to an extreme degree but even she was surprised how fast the nanny jumped in to cater to the boy’s wishes.
“My name is Mrs. Haversham,” she said to Jacqueline, her watery gray eyes grateful. “And this is my charge, George Wilson Ansel, Marquess of Folkestone.”
Jacqueline feigned surprise. “A Marquess? Should I curtsy?”
The little boy giggled. “No. But you can give me another cake.”
Jacqueline smiled. “All right, once we arrive at your house, I shall give you another piece of cake, but only if you do one thing for me.”
George’s eyes narrowed, and he pouted. “What?”
George's face reddened and for a moment, Jacqueline thought he might throw a tantrum. But he just breathed like a grampus a few times before subsiding. “Nobody has asked me to say please before,” he argued.
The nanny’s brow was beginning to furrow with worry again.
“No? Well, nobody bakes like I do. So, if you want to continue to eat my food, you must do as I say.”
“But I’m a Marquess and you’re a servant. You do what I say.”
Jacqueline tapped a finger against her cheek as if thinking hard. “I’m not sure I like that. I just might go and see if the baker has a place for me. I know he’d say please once he tasted my cakes.”
She knew she was taking a risk teasing the child like this but she had a feeling that it was long past time someone took this child in hand. She made as if to turn away and the boy’s tiny fist closed on the hem of her apron.
“Please!” he shouted.
Jacqueline smiled. “Very good. You may have another cake.” She handed him one with a satisfied smile.
“Thank you,” the Marquess said with a small voice.
Jacqueline beamed. If she must use this little boy to get to his father, at least she would give something back to him. She looked up to find the nanny staring at her in wonder.
“How did you do that?” she whispered, her watery gray eyes wide with wonder.
Jacqueline laughed. “I don’t know. I have a very firm voice.”
Mrs. Haversham nodded slowly, her voice still breathless. “Aye, and you’re very beautiful. I suppose many men just do what you say without demur.”
Jacqueline laughed a little because it was too close to the truth for comfort. She was well aware that men were quite taken with her creamy skin and silky brown hair. They wanted to drown in her wintry gray eyes or nuzzle into her ample bosom. She tended to tantalize them enough that the mere promise of perhaps being allowed to touch was enough to have them eating out of her hand, but she had not meant to do the same with the boy.
“I thank you for the compliment,” she said briskly as she cleared her throat.
Mrs. Haversham paled, her hand reaching tentatively out to brush Jacqueline’s arm. “I’m sorry. I didn't mean to embarrass you.”
“You didn’t,” Jacqueline hastened to reassure her, although if she were being honest, she was the tiniest bit mortified. They arrived at the huge iron gates and the guards looked her up and down, half with suspicion, half with interest.
A large man with beetle brows and a thick head of auburn hair stepped forward, blocking their way. “Who’s this?”
“Our new baker,” Mrs. Haversham said primly. “Now, are you going to let us in or not?”
The guard grudgingly opened the gate and let them through, though he kept a dark, suspicious eye on Jacqueline.
“Where’d you find her anyway? His Grace didn’t say he was getting a baker.”
“Oh, and he tells you all of his decisions, does he, Mycroft?” The nanny sneered. Mycroft seemed to take offence at that and looked away, clearly sulking.
Jacqueline was hard-pressed not to laugh. She followed meekly behind as Mrs. Haversham and the boy led her to the manor house. They used the front door in deference to the boy, she supposed, but they soon turned down a darkened corridor which eventually led to a door at the back of the manor.
“The kitchen is this way,” the nanny said, and they walked down a gravel path towards a separate building whose chimney was billowing smoke. It was about the size of a small cottage and was bustling with life. Jacqueline wondered how many people the kitchen served in order to need all this staff.
As if she’d heard the unspoken question, Mrs. Haversham turned to her. “His Grace is the head of a garrison and while his men are billeted there, their families are hosted here.”
Jacqueline quirked an eyebrow, storing the information for later.
Well, well, I’ve hardly passed the threshold of the house and I have already acquired some intelligence.
“Is that normal, then? For your English nobles to accommodate the families of their men like that?”
The nanny turned to her, shaking her head vigorously. “Oh no, the Duke is a very generous man, caring for his men and their welfare. His servants, too, you’ll see. He treats us very well.”
“Well, what if he does not require a baker?”
Mrs. Haversham gestured to the kitchens and their hurrying, bustling population. “Can you bake bread or is it just cakes? Because every morning we have to take a delivery from the bakery. If you can save Cook from that, she’d be more than happy to have you.”
“I can bake all sorts of things,” Jacqueline said quietly, studying the layout of the kitchen and the organized chaos of preparing meals. She was quite sure she could sidle away and disappear into the house without being noticed. Especially if she used the boy.
“May I have another cake now?” He piped up right on cue. She laughed out loud before digging into her basket to get one. She stretched her hand towards George then snatched it back as he reached for the cake. “What do you say?” she asked.
His eyes widened adorably, large, blue, and full of innocent appeal. “Please?”
She handed him the cake with a smile.
This is going to be easy.
It turned out that getting Mrs. Gendry, the housekeeper, to take her on was quite simple. However, getting any useful intelligence was proving much harder than anticipated. For one thing, the servants did not know much about what their master was up to. For another, he kept his study locked while he was away.
The only thing that gave her any hope was that everyone said he came home quite often to visit his son, poor orphaned boy that he was. In the meantime, Jacqueline focused on building her relationship with George, playing with him every chance she got and feeding him lots of delicious cakes.
Soon he was following her around like a friendly puppy and they were all but inseparable. Jacqueline saw the down side of that because it left her with even less time to search for the papers she had been sent to obtain.
Hmm, might have to do something about that. A dose of sleeping potion, perhaps?
“You must infiltrate his house, Jacqueline, and find the letters from the Duke of Wellington. Commit them to memory and then report to your contact.”
The words of Chevalier Pelletier, her commanding officer, rang through her head as she tried to get the study door open. She’d searched every other room in the house, even once offering to clean the master’s bedchambers in order to have a thorough look…and nothing. Not so much as a torn off section of a note had she found. It was immensely frustrating to her.
“Surely he does not carry everything around with him? There must be a secret compartment somewhere or else everything is in here.” She tried yet another key from the bunch she’d pilfered from the butler, but not one of them fit.
“Does nobody go in there to clean?” she murmured in frustration.
“Who are you talking to?”
She jumped, hand to racing heart, as she turned to see George looking curiously up at her.
“Do not scare me like that,” she breathed.
George grinned impishly. “Did you think I was a ghost?”
Jacqueline took a deep breath and turned to face him. “What do you know about ghosts?”
“I know they haunt castles and get you if you’re bad.”
Her brow furrowed. “Who told you that?”
George inclined his head to the side curiously as he ignored her question. “Were you being bad?”
“What? No! Why would you even ask me that?”
George looked around her at his father’s study door. “Well, because Papa doesn’t like anyone to go in there but him and you were trying to.”
“No, I wasn’t. I was cleaning the, er, knob.” She winced internally at the stupid lie. Straightening up, she began to move away from the study door. “In any case, I’m quite sure it’s time for your tea so come along unless you don’t want any cakes.”
That had George running to catch up with her, and he put his tiny hand in hers quite naturally. They walked, arms swinging between them, towards the kitchen where the boy had taken to having his tea ever since Jacqueline began baking. It reduced his waiting time between cakes since one plate was just never enough.
Mrs. Gendry had remarked on his expanding waistline and even Mrs. Haversham had ventured to say that he could perhaps eat a few less cakes. It suited Jacqueline’s purposes to indulge him and so she made no effort to regulate his intake. Although knowing how quickly boys got bored, she made a note to make other dishes that might tempt him.
George was by no means the only fan of her fare, but he was the most important because it was his father she meant to spy on.
“When do you think your father will come to see you again?” she asked as they approached the kitchen.
George shrugged rather indifferently. “He didn’t say.”
“Do you not miss him?”
George shook his head. “He doesn’t stay long even when he’s here and he always has visitors and guests and he doesn’t talk to me much.”
Her brow quirked. “Really? I thought he came home to see you.”
George just shrugged but said nothing else. Jacqueline was surprised to find she felt an irrational anger towards the Duke. Clearly he did not pay enough attention to his offspring although he was the child’s only parent. She resolved that before she left, she was going to change that.
Bertram was exhausted from the campaigns as well as traveling. He had not been home in three weeks and was feeling quite eager to see his son again. He regretted that his lifestyle did not allow him to see much of the boy, but according to his nanny’s letters, he was doing quite well. There was reportedly a new employee whose cakes were a delight and George was apparently enjoying her presence very much. Bertram was glad to hear it, although he felt a bit of reserve at having a new person that he had not met so close to his son.
As he rode into the gates of his home at Rose Manor, he heaved a sigh of relief, finally able to relax for a while. The Manor had been in his family for generations, ever since his ancestor escaped the Huguenot massacre of 1572 in France. It had been passed from father to son like a sacred legacy and when he passed from this world, he would leave it to his son.
Speaking of George, he smiled as the boy appeared in the doorway, watching the carriage excitedly. Bertram was happy to see that he was glowing with health, perhaps even a little too much. He banged against the roof of the carriage so that his driver would stop and he could climb out. Unlike most Dukes, he did not believe in withholding affection from his children. He held out his hands and George came running into them.
George hardly allowed himself to be held for a minute, however, before he was asking to ride in the carriage. “Please, Papa! I haven’t been in one for so long.”
Bertram could well imagine not, for there was nowhere his son had to be except within the safe confines of Rose Manor.
“Very well, we shall take a short ride. But Papa is tired, all right? So we shall be back soon.”
George nodded vigorously, his blond curls, so like his mother’s, flying every which way. “Yes, Papa.”
Bertram smiled at the boy, smoothing back his hair affectionately, eyes lighting on his apple-cheeked plumpness. “Mrs. Haversham tells me you made a new friend.”
George’s brow furrowed in puzzlement. “Friend?”
“Yes, I hear she bakes you cakes and biscuits, and so many other desserts.”
His son’s eyes lit up. “Oh, you mean Miss Strange? Yes, she bakes the most delicious food. You’ll see.” He jumped up and down with enthusiasm. “Today she’s baking me something new. It is a surprise.” He wiggled excitedly on his seat. “I can’t wait.”
Bertram smiled indulgently. “It sounds like you have her firmly wrapped around your finger.”
George gave him a strange look, as if he was speaking gibberish. He stuck his head out of the window, letting the wind caress his face as he enjoyed the passing scenery. Bertram watched him, a tender smile on his face, marveling at how much bigger he’d grown in just three weeks.
My little boy is becoming a young man.
He felt a stab of pain in his chest, as he reflected on how much of his son’s life he was missing.
This war needs to end.
He sighed, looking outside his own window and relishing the few minutes of respite where he had nothing to do but accompany his son on this joyride. They drew back up to the house and he helped George out while the butler got the rest of his bags. A woman hurried out of the house, coming to the carriage and taking his bag of documents. All his servants should know better than to touch that bag.
“Excuse me, leave that,” Bertram said sharply.
The woman stopped, jumping as if startled, and turned to stare at him with the most intense gray eyes he’d ever seen. Her chestnut hair was uncovered and cascaded down her back in silky tresses. She was really too beautiful for a servant. A woman like her would have made a fortune at the theatre.
“Who are you?” he demanded, knowing for sure he had never seen her before.
She curtsied clumsily. “Jacqueline Letty Strange at your service, sir. People just call me Letty.”
His eyes narrowed. “Strange, you say? Isn’t that a French name?”
“Perhaps, sir, I do not know. I was brought up by my mother and she made no mention of where we got the name.”
Her dark, silky, long lashes dropped demurely to shield her eyes from his view and he felt a moment’s regret at that. Taking a deep breath, he looked around, having forgotten for a moment that they were not alone.
“Miss Jacqueline! May I have my surprise now?” George tugged at her apron, exposing just a little more of the silky-smooth, creamy skin of her ample cleavage. Bertram blinked, looking away. It would not do for him to be lusting after his own staff.
“Not yet, my sweet boy. You have to wait a bit longer.” Her voice was smoother, sweeter, when she spoke to George. Bertram wondered if he scared her. Perhaps the woman thought she might lose her position now that he was back. After all, she had managed to inveigle herself into his household during his absence. Perhaps that was the source of her eagerness in reaching for his personal belongings and not something more nefarious.
I mustn’t be so suspicious.
He pinned a smile on his face. “George tells me you’re quite the baker.”
She looked up at him and smiled, and for a moment, it was as if the sun came out from behind the clouds. “Yes, I believe I am a good baker. How precipitous it is that you have come today when I am making something utterly delicious.”
“What is it?”
“Chocolate gateau.” She beamed at him again, the hint of dimples showing in her cheeks.
Bertram’s eyes narrowed again. “Really? Is that not a French dish?”
Her smile disappeared. “Well…perhaps. My mother taught me how to make it.”
“I thought you said your mother did not know where you came from.”
“That is absolutely not what I said, Your Grace.”
“Is that so? What was it you said?” He took a step towards her, his demeanor slightly threatening.
“Papa! Stop it! You’re being mean to Miss Jacqueline.” George’s high piping voice, clearly laced with anger, stopped him in his tracks.
He turned to look at his son. “I thought she said everyone calls her Letty.”
George looked extremely confused at this non-sequitur which was aimed more at the woman than his son.
“I am called Letty by most people,” she spoke up, “but not here.”
“Why not? Are we not good enough to call you Letty?”
“You may call me whichever name you please.”
“Very good, Letty. Now, perhaps you can take George in to have his tea since he seems to have taken quite a shine to you.”
Bertram found that he was quite annoyed that his son had come to the woman’s defense. For some reason, it felt like a betrayal.
He’s never spoken on my behalf in such a way…
Bertram tried to laugh it off, knowing how petulant he sounded, even just in his head, but he could not quite banish the feeling of rejection. He went to his room to wash off the dirt of the road and change his clothes before going in search of his son.
George was not in his nursery and neither was his nanny. Bertram stopped a passing footman. “Where is the Marquess?”
“In the kitchens, Your Grace,” the man said with a bow. “Shall I fetch him for you?”
Bertram quirked an eyebrow in surprise.
Since when does George eat in the kitchens?
“No, thank you, I shall go and find him myself.” He nodded to the footman and went on his way more determined than ever to get to the bottom of George’s new strange behavior. If this Letty girl was to blame, then she would have to leave forthwith.
He stepped into the kitchens and was assaulted by the sweet scents of baking goods. The air itself seemed to shimmer with happiness as cinnamon, ginger, and rose water permeated it. Unconsciously, Bertram quickened his step and then froze as he heard a sound that was completely unfamiliar to him—George was laughing. The boy’s high piping voice seemed to tinkle like jewels clinking against each other and tears pricked Bertram’s eyes to hear it.
He realized that since his late wife, Victoria, had died of consumption two years ago, he and George had barely smiled at anything for an extended period of time—let alone laughed. He had immersed himself in the war, barely taking time to make sure that George was well cared for before taking off again.
And now this woman, whomever she might be, had brought some light into George’s life. He had been contemplating sending her away, simply for his own comfort.
I am the one that is prickly with her presence.
She was too immediate, too vibrant, her eyes shone too bright, she could not be ignored and he hated that.
Speak of the devil…
Letty looked up as he stepped into the kitchen, a ready smile on her face, dimples winking in and out like a pair of wood nymphs. Everyone else in the kitchen froze as if stuck in place and gaped at him. It occurred to him that he did not normally make a habit of coming to the kitchen.
He nodded. “Good evening, all.” He clasped his hands behind his back and tried to look at home as his eyes fell on George, who was the only one still moving. He was stuffing cake into his mouth as if afraid that someone might take it away before he’d have a chance to eat it all.
“Your Grace, welcome.” Her voice was low and silky-smooth as she curtsied and Bertram cursed his entire body’s reaction to her.
“Thank you. I just came to see if George would like to have his tea with me.”
George stopped eating for a moment, turning wide blue eyes to his father in some surprise. His mouth was smeared with some sort of brown cream which was also slathered on the cake.
“You want to eat with me?” he asked, his mouth full.
Bertram frowned. “Do not speak with your mouth full,” he snapped.
Letty stepped between them and pulled out a chair. “Would you like to sit, Your Grace? I can serve you tea.”
From the corner of his eye, Bertram saw Mrs. Gendry gasp, looking half afraid, half scandalized by the suggestion that he should eat at the kitchen table like a servant.
“Come on, Papa! Sit. The cake is delicious.” George put a cream-stained finger in his mouth and licked it clean. Bertram shook his head in bemusement but he did take the seat, if only so he could watch this side of his son that he had never seen.
“I see you’re really enjoying that.” He smiled in amusement.
“Yes, Papa, it’s so delicious. Try.” He stuck his brown-smeared finger in Bertram’s face, who instinctively jerked away.
“Ooh, well no, I shall wait for my own piece. Wouldn’t want to deprive you.” He smiled a little sheepishly at George. To his surprise, there was a loud, joyful, tinkling sound emanating from his left and he turned slowly to face it. What he found had his eyes widening, his lips twitching in an effort not to join in.
Letty was laughing at him. His eyes narrowed as he watched her, not knowing if he wanted to plunder her lips or slap her face.
Mrs. Gendry jumped forward, clutching Letty’s arm in hers and dragging her away, apologizing all the while.
“Your Grace, our baker is not very well versed in matters of deportment. You will forgive her, please.” She pushed the girl into the pantry before grabbing a tray on which stood his tea things, including a neatly sliced piece of the gateau Letty had mentioned earlier.
“Why don’t I take your tea for you to your study? You can eat there in peace.”
Bertram found a great reluctance in himself to leave the warm hospitality of the kitchen. Yes, he was used to dining mostly alone unless he had guests but perhaps George had the right of it. Sitting here eating surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the kitchen and the tantalizing smells emanating from the pots and pans was rather attractive.
It’s my house. I can eat wherever I wish.
“No, no. Here is fine,” he said, not moving from his chair. He could see the housekeeper pale even with her hardy sun-kissed skin. Out of the corner of his eye, Bertram saw Letty emerge from the pantry, still grinning. Mrs. Gendry shot her a warning glance before bringing the tray to him.
“Very well, Your Grace. Enjoy your tea.”
George grinned at him delightedly and Bertram knew he’d made the right decision.
“Er, Your Grace, if you like, I can go to air out your study while you have your tea?” the little minx said, ratcheting up the suspicion in Bertram’s mind again. “It must be quite dank and dusty after being locked up for so long.”
Bertram turned to her, blue eyes narrowing. “What is it to you?”
She stepped back, almost stumbling. “N-nothing. I just thought I would offer to do it.”
“I wasn’t aware it was the duty of the baker to clean my offices.”
She took a deep breath, lashes momentarily sweeping downward to hide her eyes before she fixed him with the full force of her wintry stare. “You’re right, Your Grace. I do not know what I could have been thinking.”
Bertram breathed out huffily, turning away from her to focus on his tea. George paid them no mind, too busy stuffing himself with cake.
“George! Slow down or you will cast up your accounts!” Letty exclaimed.
“That is ‘My Lord’ to you. Mrs. Gendry is truly right, eh? You have no comportment at all,” Bertram snapped. He expected that she would blush and be embarrassed. Perhaps apologize. But all she did was purse her lips and glare.
“George and I are fast friends. He does not mind if I call him by his first name.”
“Nevertheless, it is not done. You are a servant; he is a nobleman.” Bertram knew how pompous he sounded but he could not seem to help himself. There was just something about her that rubbed him the wrong way, made him bristle and burn with annoyance. Everything from her luxuriant chestnut hair to her glowing skin had him wanting to take her down a peg or two—make her submit to him.
It was strange because he was not one to feel that a woman should be subservient to a man in any way. Nor had he ever sought to tame a woman. He did not understand why Letty had him so twisted.
She was stomping around the table, wiping it vigorously, her face red but with annoyance rather than embarrassment. She put so much energy into her cleaning that her entire body shook with it, her breasts jiggling enticingly, almost falling out of her bodice. Bertram took a deep breath, trying to look away but found that he was unable.
Abruptly he got to his feet. “I have changed my mind. I shall have my tea in my study, if you please.” With that he strode out, trusting that someone would bring his tea to him. He felt a little silly, a little exposed by that display.
Resolving to act in a manner befitting his station the next time he came upon the baker, he did his best to put her out of his mind.
The Duke had arrived so abruptly that Letty had not had time to make a plan. One minute she was chasing after George in the corridors, trying to get back the keys he’d stolen from her. The next minute, he’d stopped abruptly, peered out of a window and then ran outside, screaming for his father.
Letty had frozen for a moment, not knowing how to act. Then she remembered that she was a servant and this was a perfect opportunity to get hold of the Duke’s communications. Hurrying out, she searched for a likely bag and reached for it. It was a shock when he stopped her from taking it. She did not have much first-hand knowledge of noblemen but she was quite sure they did not like to carry their own bags.
That was the moment she knew she was in over her head. The Duke’s perfect cornflower blue eyes, too full of intelligence, saw her too clearly. The servant guise did not hide her from his suspicious gaze. Yet, instead of falling back and coming up with a new plan, she continually found herself confronting him. She could not seem to help herself. It was as if she needed him to notice that she was there.
That is not my mission and if I continue in this way I shall cock it all up.
Her self-chastisement did nothing but to make her more annoyed with both the Duke and herself.
He’s just so unexpected.
Her understanding of the nobility was that they had dissolute, wastrel lifestyles that resulted in puffy eyes, sagging jowls, and receding hair by the time they were thirty. Even the fact that he was a military officer could not have prepared her for the tall, broad-shouldered man, his back stiff as an iron post, his jaw severe and well defined, his hands large, calloused and capable, his eyes clear and sharp. He made her heart race just by looking at her, for it felt as if he could see right down to her soul.
Who is this man?
She had not expected the man who clearly neglected his son to touch her so deeply and so fast. It made her even more determined to find the letters she’d been sent to find, commit them to memory, and leave. Rose Manor was like quicksand, the more she moved around in it, the deeper it sucked her down.
“I will not be sidetracked,” she murmured to herself. People were depending on her.
“What did you say?”
She jumped, having forgotten she was not alone in the kitchen. “N-nothing. Just…” she straightened up to face the housekeeper, “do you not find him extremely infuriating?”
Mrs. Gendry pinched her nose and shut her eyes with a sigh. “Don’t tell me you’ve developed a tendresse for the Duke as well. I thought you smarter than that.”
The blood drained from Letty’s face. “What? Why would you say that? I am not attracted to that man. Just because he makes me angry does not mean I have a tendresse for him. You have been watching too many of those puppet shows that come to the park.”
Mrs. Gendry laughed. “Whatever you say, dear. But just remember, His Grace is out of your reach.” With that she took hold of his tray and lifted it, clearly going to bring him his tea. George had long followed his father, his own plate of cakes in hand. Letty remembered her work and marched to her station where she’d left some bread to rise. She took out her frustration by beating the dough into submission before retiring to her room for the evening. She would have to be up with the birds in order to bake the bread and so she really should go to sleep right away.
But if he is having tea in his study, surely that means that it is open. Perhaps after he has left, I can go in.
Deciding to have a small nap, she resolved to wake up later, and go to try her luck. Suddenly she froze, the housekeeper’s words coming back to her. “Wait, what did she mean, as well?”
Letty startled awake, to a darkened room, and sat up feeling disoriented. It took her a moment to remember where she was and what she was doing there. It was a downside to her life that sometimes she moved around so much that it was difficult to remember her location or what piece of intelligence she was meant to be looking for.
She crept out of bed, peeking out the window, trying to tell the time by the location of the moon. From its position, she guessed that it was about midnight, a good time for spying. Not dressing, she covered her shift with a cloak and wore a pair of sturdy shoes which did not make a sound on the stone floors in the corridors or on the wooden floors of the chambers.
Slowly, Letty made her way down the darkened staircase, dodging footmen, until she reached the ground floor. The Duke’s study was located at the end of a long corridor which tended not to be well-lit even when the household was awake. Now it was just a wall of blackness in front of her. She could not see a thing, the door not letting even a sliver of light through, should the Duke still be in there. She hoped that there was no footman standing around in the dark otherwise it was going to be quite awkward for them both.
Stepping quietly, she placed her head against the door, listening hard for any signs of life. She held her breath, and closed her eyes, trying to pick out every sound she could hear. Something skittered along the floor but by the sound of it, she concluded it was either a rat or a spider. Somewhere along a corridor, a clock chimed the half hour. She heard shuffling footsteps on a floor somewhere above her but in front of her there was nothing.
Very cautiously, she turned the knob, praying with everything she had that it would open.
Nothing happened for a moment and then the lock clicked and the door was open. She uttered a soundless whoop of delight and then crept into the office. Aside from the light of the moon, the room was in utter darkness. Thankfully, there was no heavy curtain keeping the rays of light out and so she could see the desk clearly. A few papers sat upon it, along with a cheroot in an ashtray and a bottle of brandy with an empty glass beside it.
Slowly, she crept around the desk and leaned down to try to read the paper. After blinking a few times, she realized it was a requisition form for goods including meat and dairy, hides and skins and furs.
Hmm, stocking up for the winter? Does that mean they intend to keep fighting through the cold months?
Letty snatched up the paper, going to the window to read off each item. There was no heading to the page or anything to indicate what the items were for but by the quantities, Letty ventured to guess that they were for the Duke’s own regiment.
She put the paper back down and bent over, examining the desk drawers.
“They seem par for the course. No hidden compartments?” she murmured to herself as she felt around beneath the desk. Finding nothing, she reached for the drawer and tried to pull it open.
“Locked! Zooterkins!” She groaned, wishing that she’d remembered to carry her hat pin, with which she could pry the lock open. She might not get a chance like this again.
She looked around for something that she might use but the desk was oddly bare of knickknacks. With a sigh, she went to the next drawer, and the next—all three were locked tight.
“Well, at least I know where to look now.” She got to her feet and made her way out of the room, closing the door behind her. Walking back to her chambers, she was lost in thought, wondering how long she might have before the Duke made off again and what her chances were of succeeding. He seemed particularly careful of his correspondence, no doubt because he knew that it might be of immense interest to the French. She groaned in frustration. “Why couldn’t you just have been an ordinary fool?” she asked the absent Duke.
“I beg your pardon?”
She bit back a scream even as she jumped back, the voice seeming to come out of nowhere. She wondered if she might slip away without being seen but a hand came out of the dark and closed itself around her arm, holding her in place.
“Of course,” a rather familiar, biting voice said. “It had to be you.”
She debated whether it might be better to keep quiet or speak. Before she could, he was talking again. “May I ask what you are doing skulking about in the middle of the night?”
“Am I supposed to remain locked in my room, then?” she retorted before she could think about it. Honestly, the man brought out the worst impulses in her.
“Not at all, but shouldn’t you be resting up for your work day tomorrow? Where have you come from?”
“That is none of your business, Your Grace.”
“Is it not?” He took a step closer and the scent of sandalwood assaulted her senses. He leaned down and whispered in her ear. “In case it escaped your notice, this is my house, and everything in it, is therefore my business.”
She could barely suppress the shiver as his warm breath ghosted against her skin, a development that had her seriously alarmed.
What is wrong with me?
Plenty of men had sought to intimidate her in many ways and she had not reacted like this to any of them. It was disconcerting, indeed, to realize how affected she was by this man’s nearness. She tried frantically to think of something she might say to get him to release her but her mind was blank.
“Well? Have you no snappy comeback for me this time, Miss Strange?”
“N-no, you’re quite right. This is your house and you’re perfectly free to bully anyone you choose within it.”
“Bully?” he growled, as he painfully tightened his hold on her arm. “How dare you speak to me in such a way?”
“In what way, Your Grace? Telling you the truth?”
Suddenly he pulled her flush against him. With every breath she took, her bosom brushed against his hard chest. She was looking into his eyes before she knew it, as he growled beneath his breath, “You’re asking for it, my girl.”
She raised her chin, matching him glare for glare. “What am I asking for?”
She could feel her nipples hardening with every breath that she took, waiting for him to make his move. He simply stood frozen, her arm in his iron grip, his eyes raking her flesh as his breathing quickened.
Suddenly he thrust her away. “You should go to bed,” he growled, before disappearing into the dark. She stood there, bosom heaving, wondering what had just happened.
What am I asking for, indeed?
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