Lady Maggie's Secret Scandal

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  • Copyright: 2012-05-01
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Second in a new trilogy of Regency romances by New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Grace Burrowes, featuring the daughters of an intrepid duke who conspires to see them married off. Maggie Windham is the Duke of Moreland's eldest, but illegitimate, daughter. She leads a retiring, dignified life... until stolen letters bring Maggie to investigator Benjamin Hazlit's door. When it becomes clear Maggie is being blackmailed, Benjamin becomes determined to find not just the letters, but the way to Maggie's heart.


<p><b>One</b></p><p>"The blighted, benighted, blasted, perishing thing has to be here somewhere." Maggie Windham flopped the bed skirt back down and glared at her wardrobe. "You look in there, Evie, and I'll take the dressing room."</p><p>"We've looked in the dressing room," Eve Windham said. "If we don't leave soon, we'll be late for Mama's weekly tea, and Her Grace cannot abide tardiness."</p><p>"Except in His Grace," Maggie replied, sitting on her bed. "She'll want to know why we're late and give me one of those oh-Maggie looks."</p><p>"They're no worse than her oh-Evie, oh-Jenny, or oh-Louisa looks."</p><p>"They're worse, believe me," Maggie said, blowing out a breath. "I am the eldest. I should know better; I should think before I act; I am to set a good example. It's endless."</p><p>Eve gave her a smile. "I like the example you set. You do as you please; you come and go as you please; you have your own household and your own funds. You're in charge of your own life."</p><p>Maggie did not quite return the smile. "I am a disgrace, but a happy one for the most part. Let's be on our way, and I can turn my rooms upside down when I get home."</p><p>Evie took her arm, and as they passed from Maggie's bedroom, they crossed before the full-length mirror.</p><p>A study in contrasts, Maggie thought. They were the bookends of the Windham daughters, the eldest and the youngest. No one in his right mind would conclude they had a father in common. Maggie was tall, with flaming red hair and the sturdy proportions of her mother's agrarian Celtic antecedents, while Evie was petite, blonde, and delicate. By happenstance, they both had the green eyes common to every Windham sibling and to Esther, Duchess of Moreland.</p><p>"Is this to be a full parade muster?" Maggie asked as she and Evie settled into her town coach.</p><p>"A hen party. Our sisters ran out of megrims, sprained ankles, bellyaches, and monthlies, and Mama will be dragging the lot of us off to Almack's directly. Sophie is lucky to be rusticating with her baron."</p><p>"I don't envy you Almack's." Maggie did, however, envy Sophie her recently acquired marital bliss. Envied it intensely and silently.</p><p>"You had your turn in the ballrooms, Maggie, though how you dodged holy matrimony with both Her Grace and His Grace lining up the Eligibles is beyond me."</p><p>"Sheer determination. You refuse the proposals one by one, and honestly, Evie, Papa isn't as anxious to see us wed as Her Grace is. Nobody is good enough for his girls."</p><p>"Then Sophie had to go and ruin things by marrying her baron."</p><p>Their eyes met, and they broke into giggles. Still, Maggie saw the faint anxiety in Evie's pretty green eyes and knew a moment's gratitude that she herself was so firmly on the shelf. There had been long, fraught years when she'd had to dodge every spotty boy and widowed knight in the realm, and then finally she'd reached the halcyon age of thirty.</p><p>By then, even Papa had been willing to concede not defeat-he still occasionally got in his digs-but truce. Maggie had been allowed to set up her own establishment, and the time since had seen significant improvement in her peace of mind.</p><p>There were tariffs and tolls, of course. She was expected to show up at Her Grace's weekly teas from time to time. Not every week, not even every other, but often enough. She stood up with her brothers when they deigned to grace the ballrooms, which was thankfully rare of late. She occasionally joined her sisters for a respite at Morelands, the seat of the duchy in Kent.</p><p>But mostly, she hid.</p><p>They reached the ducal mansion, an imposing edifice set well back from its landscaped square. The place was both family home and the logistical seat of the Duke of Moreland's various parliamentary stratagems. He loved his politics, did His Grace.</p><p>And his duchess.</p><p>One of his meetings must have been letting out when the hour for Her Grace's tea grew near, because the soaring foyer of the mansion was a beehive of servants, departing gentlemen, and arriving ladies. Footmen were handing out gloves, hats, and walking sticks to the gentlemen, while taking gloves, bonnets, and wraps from the ladies.</p><p>Maggie sidled around to the wall, found a mirror, and unpinned her lace mantilla from her hair. She flipped the lace up and off her shoulders, but it snagged on something.</p><p>A tug did nothing to dislodge the lace, though someone behind her let out a muttered curse.</p><p>Damn it? Being a lady in company, Maggie decided she'd heard "drat it" and used the mirror to study the situation.</p><p>Oh, no.</p><p>Of all the men in all the mansions in all of Mayfair, why him?</p><p>"If you'll hold still," he said, "I'll have us disentangled."</p><p>Her beautiful, lacy green shawl had caught on the flower attached to his lapel, a hot pink little damask rose, full of thorns and likely to ruin her mantilla. Maggie half turned, horrified to feel a tug on her hair as she did.</p><p>A stray pin came sliding down into her vision, dangling on a fat red curl.</p><p>"Gracious." She reached up to extract the pin, but her hand caught in the shawl, now stretched between her and the gentleman's lapel. Another tug, another curl came down.</p><p>"Allow me." It wasn't a request. The gentleman's hands were bare and his fingers nimble as he reached up and removed several more pins from Maggie's hair. The entire flaming mass of it listed to the left then slid down over her shoulders in complete disarray.</p><p>His dark eyebrows rose, and for one instant, Maggie had the satisfaction of seeing Mr. Benjamin Hazlit at a loss. Then he was handing her several hairpins amid the billows of her mantilla, which were still entangled with the longer skeins of her hair. While Maggie held her mantilla before her, Hazlit got the blasted flower extracted from the lace and held it out to her, as if he'd just plucked it from a bush for her delectation.</p><p>"My apologies, my lady. The fault is entirely mine."</p><p>And he was laughing at her. The great, dark brute found it amusing that Maggie Windham, illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Moreland, was completely undone before the servants, her sisters, and half her father's cronies from the Lords.</p><p>She wanted to smack him.</p><p>Maggie instead stepped in closer to Hazlit, took the fragrant little flower, and withdrew the jeweled pin from its stem.</p><p>"If you'll just hold still a moment, Mr. Hazlit, I'll have you put to rights in no time." He was tall enough that she had to look up at him-another unforgivable fault, for Maggie liked to look down on men-so she beamed a toothy smile at him when she jabbed the little pin through layers of fabric to prick his arrogant, manly skin.</p><p>"Beg pardon," she said, giving his cravat a pat. "The fault is entirely mine."</p><p>The humor in his eyes shifted to something not the least funny, though Maggie's spirits were significantly restored.</p><p>"Your gloves, sir?" A footman hovered, looking uncertain and very pointedly not noticing Maggie's hair rioting down to her hips. Maggie took the gloves and held them out to Hazlit.</p><p>"Can you manage, Mr. Hazlit, or shall I assist you further?" She turned one glove and held it open, as if he were three years old and unable to sort the thing out for himself.</p><p>"My thanks." He took the glove and tugged it on, then followed suit with the second.</p><p>Except his hand brushed Maggie's while she held out his glove. She didn't think it was intentional, because his expression abruptly shuttered further. He tapped his hat onto his head and was perhaps contemplating a parting bow when Maggie beat him to the exit.</p><p>She rose from her curtsy, her hair tumbling forward, and murmured a quiet "Good day," before turning her back on him deliberately. To the casual observer, it wouldn't have been rude.</p><p>She hoped Hazlit took it for the slight it was intended to be.</p><p>"Oh, Mags." Evie bustled up to her side. "Let's get you upstairs before Mama sees this." She lifted a long, curling hank of hair. "Turn loose of that mantilla before you permanently wrinkle it-and whatever happened to put you in such a state?"</p><p>***</p><p>"Not the done thing to stare at a man's daughters under his own roof."</p><p>Lucas Denning, Marquis of Deene, kept his voice down, but Benjamin Hazlit heard him nonetheless.</p><p>"You're happy enough to be staring," Hazlit said, taking his walking stick from the footman.</p><p>Deene glanced around. "Discreetly. Not like I want to leap upon the girl naked. What on earth did you do to that woman? Her hair is quite the most glorious thing I've seen outside a certain brothel in Cairo."</p><p>Hazlit felt an abrupt need to plant his fist in Deene's handsome face. "Now who's being rude?"</p><p>"We both are." Deene grinned momentarily, turning his severe Nordic features almost boyish. "But Lady Maggie never affords me more than the passing notice due to a family friend, so it matters little. Are you off to your club for a beefsteak?"</p><p>"I am for home, and it's a pretty day, so I'll be on foot."</p><p>"I could take you up. My tiger is walking my horses as we speak."</p><p>"Thanks, but after sitting for two hours and listening to my betters parse the state of the realm, I can use some fresh air."</p><p>They parted, Hazlit trailing after the guests who hadn't been detained by a red-haired Amazon bent on mischief.</p><p>Except, to be fair, the whole little business had started without anybody intending anything, and it should have ended that way. Lady Maggie hadn't appreciated his nonsense with the flower, so she'd stabbed him with his own pin.</p><p>She'd done him a favor, in truth, because his wits had gone begging at the sight of all that silky, warm hair tumbling around her shoulders. He'd caught a whiff of her fragrance, a clean, bracing scent laced with cinnamon, and he'd tangled his fingers in a few long, silky strands of her hair. The feel of it sliding over his skin had momentarily shut down his reasoning powers, something the lady must have sensed.</p><p>He didn't often give offense to a lady, but there was something about Moreland's by-blow that threw him off stride and brought out the ungallant side of his nature. They'd met only a handful of times, for Hazlit generally avoided the ballrooms and soirees and Venetian breakfasts. His half brother had recently become the first man to marry into the present generation of Windham daughters, making it even more imperative that Hazlit keep his distance.</p><p>Socially, he had to keep a hand in, mostly for business purposes, but nobody was glad to see him arrive at their polite functions, and everybody was relieved to see him leave. The parliamentary matters were little better. On behalf of the Earl of Hazelton, for whom he ostensibly worked, he attended meetings such as Moreland's earlier strategy session. Moreland and a few of the senior titles knew better, but they kept their mouths shut.</p><p>Miss Windham's mouth had been open. For just an instant, her jaw had dropped, presumably at the heat in Hazlit's gaze. That was not well done of him. She was a lady, for all her unfortunate origins, and he was a gentleman.</p><p>Most of the time.</p><p>He made his way to his town house in less than a half hour, which really wasn't long enough to get the mental stench of the duke's meeting out of his mind. Moreland was a staunch Tory, though he had sympathy for the yeoman and could be surprisingly effective garnering votes from the moderates on even the most divisive issues.</p><p>Still, Moreland's meetings went on forever and all too often degenerated into grumbling and finger-pointing.</p><p>Hazlit handed his hat, walking stick, and gloves to his butler, glanced at the longcase clock in his foyer, and headed for his library. There was still time to plough through several hours' worth of correspondence and reports prior to the evening's obligations.</p><p>Before he sat at his desk, though, Hazlit scanned his shelves until he came across a volume of Wordsworth. He unfastened the little rose from his lapel and tucked it carefully between the pages of the book, then forced himself to get down to work.</p><p>***</p><p>"Valentine!" Maggie flew across her bedroom, throwing her arms around the tall, dark-haired man who'd appeared unannounced in her chambers. "Oh, I have missed you so, you scamp. You scoundrel! When did you get back to Town, and is Ellen with you?"</p><p>He hugged her tightly, a good solid hug as only a brother who'd been rusticating with his new wife since Christmas could deliver to his sister, and kept an arm around Maggie's shoulders as he walked her to a window seat.</p><p>"Ellen accepted my plea for her to eschew travel," Valentine said. "She gave me a letter for you." Val passed her a single folded piece of paper.</p><p>"Ellen is well?" Maggie asked, some of her joy dimming as she glanced at the pretty hand on Ellen's note. Ellen and Val had been married only a short time, and already, they were in anticipation of a joyful event. She was happy for them, truly she was. Also envious.</p><p>"Ellen is quite well, though my own nerves are sorely tried to think of her increasing. But, Mags"-he glanced around at the upheaval in her sitting room-"have I come to Town only to find my sister taking fits?"</p><p>If Maggie Windham loved any men, it was the men of her family-her father and brothers, Uncle Tony, and her cousins. They were the best of fellows, but they fretted endlessly and called it doting on her, her sisters, and the duchess.</p><p>"I've lost track of a favorite frippery. I got a little carried away searching for it."</p><p>"I'll buy you another. I'm back in Town to do rehearsals with the Philharmonic Society but expect I've already been spotted by Her Grace's spies. I might as well take you shopping before I face the maternal interrogation."</p><p>"You don't have to stay at the mansion. You could stay at Gayle's place, since he and Anna have the room."</p><p>"He said as much." Val rose and began to wander the room, putting things to rights. He was sinfully handsome, with emerald green eyes, sable hair just a tad too long, and hands that could conjure from any kind of keyboard the sweetest music ever played.</p><p>But he had the Windham gift for fretting over family, probably amplified by impending fatherhood.</p><p>"You are not my lady's maid, Val." Maggie rose to straighten the pillows her searching had thrown into disorder.</p><p>"I'm your darling baby brother," he replied, holding up a dancing slipper with little roses embroidered on it. "Lovely, but not very well used. Are you still impersonating a recluse, Mags?"</p><p>"I go out," she said, folding an afghan over her fainting couch. "Her Grace will not permit me the privacy I'd choose, were I allowed."</p><p>"Neither will I." Val held up another slipper. "I'm attending the Winterthurs' ball tonight. Say you'll come with me to be my protection. If I'd known how sincerely the merry widows considered married men fair game, I'd likely have declined tonight's invitation."</p><p>"You'd best call on your mother before you show your face in public," Maggie warned. "She could hardly sip her tea today, so anxious was she to interrogate you in person about your wife's well-being."</p><p>"She's your mother, too." Val began draping silk stockings over the open lid of a cedar chest.</p><p>"She is not my mother. Valentine, those are my unmentionables."</p><p>He shrugged. "I like unmentionables. I like pretty things and pretty ladies. Come dancing with me tonight, Mags. I won't go without you."</p><p>"Very well, but you come by for me after you've made your bow at the mansion."</p><p>"Fair enough." He smiled at her, wrapping a stocking around his neck and holding it up like a noose. "If I tell Her Grace you're to come out socializing with me, she'll hardly let me finish my tea."</p><p>"Stop disrespecting your sister's personal effects." She snatched the stocking from around his silly neck. "And how are you, really? You look tired."</p><p>"I'm working on a new composition, and it rather takes over my schedule. Ellen is very understanding, perhaps too much so." As he spoke, he picked up a little music box from Maggie's vanity.</p><p>"You gave me that," she said, watching those graceful hands of his lift the lid. "You're going to leave here without playing for me, aren't you?"</p><p>"You've heard me play probably more than any other single person on the face of the earth. Just hum a few bars of Beethoven; you'll hardly know it isn't me."</p><p>"One doesn't hum Beethoven, for pity's sake." She cocked her head to study him, realizing that in some way, her baby brother had grown up, grown more mature for taking a wife. "Ellen is truly well?"</p><p>"She assures you of as much in her letter." Val put the music box down, his signature smile in place. "I got a letter from Dev before I left Bel Canto." He passed Maggie a slim epistle that bore their oldest brother's slashing hand. "He seems to be thriving with his womenfolk."</p><p>"Then lucky Devlin."</p><p>"But you miss him, don't you?"</p><p>"Of course I miss him." Maggie plopped down on the bed, both appreciating and resenting Val's perceptivity. "We're close in age, and we share..."</p><p>"Bastardy." Val crossed the room to sit beside her, taking her left hand in his right. "You've both been legitimated, you're adopted, you're accepted everywhere, and yet this haunts you."</p><p>"It's different for a woman, Val. I can't buy my colors and guarantee my standing in the world by riding off to whack at Frenchmen. Devlin is a perishing earl."</p><p>"He's still our brother." Val tucked a lock of hair behind Maggie's ear. "And he specifically challenged me to look in on you and get your nose out of your infernal books. Spring is coming, Mags, and it's time to dance."</p><p>It sounded not like a lighthearted invitation but rather like a lecture.</p><p>Gracious.</p><p>She got to her feet. "Shoo. You have a call to pay on your mama, and she won't want to let you out of her sight."</p><p>"I'll come by at eight, but let's take your coach," he said, rising as well. "Read Dev's letter. I'm sure he'll expect a prompt reply."</p><p>"I'll read it, and I will see you at eight, but I don't intend to stay out all night, Val."</p><p>"Nor do I."</p><p>He was gone, leaving behind the peculiar sinking of spirit Maggie felt each time a member of her ducal family left her here, alone in her own quarters, just as she'd spent years begging and pleading for them to do.</p><p>***</p><p>"Good evening, Mr. Hazlit."</p><p>The Winterthurs' butler greeted him, though not in quite the stentorian tones the man might have used for the titled guests. It was the same in the receiving line. Grudging, hesitant, but polite tolerance from those who knew not what to make of the Hon. Benjamin Hazlit.</p><p>He preferred it that way, and it was better for business. He didn't pause at the top of the grand staircase when a herald all but muttered his name, but made his way quietly into the crowd milling under the enormous chandeliers.</p><p>"Hazlit." Lucas Denning gave him a nod and a grim smile. "I'd hoped the dancing would have started by now."</p><p>"I hear the orchestra tuning up, but the first sets always take a while to form. What social cataclysm has wrested you from your club?"</p><p>Deene ran a finger around his starched collar and glanced about at the ladies in their finery. "Another lecture from my mother about duty to the succession. One might ask what social cataclysm has provoked your attendance. The hostesses never know whether it's a coup when you show up or a reason to fret."</p><p>Hazlit took a half step into the shadows under the minstrel's gallery and visually assessed his companion. "We aren't all golden gods such as yourself. Given the title, it truly is a wonder you aren't married."</p><p>Deene shuddered, and Hazlit had the impression it wasn't entirely feigned. "Don't say that word. I'm too young to be leg-shackled."</p><p>"It's the debutantes who are too young. We marry them off before they've put away their dolls."</p><p>"Think that way, and you'll soon be the one married off."</p><p>They fell silent as a footman approached, offering champagne from a carefully balanced tray. Deene tossed back his wine then slunk off to the card room, no doubt intent on avoiding the matchmakers.</p><p>It was tempting to do likewise, but the evening was young, which meant nobody would be sufficiently inebriated to let slip the kind of information Hazlit came seeking. He made for the refreshment table and helped himself to a second flute of champagne, from which he drank nothing.</p><p>Wallflowers and companions were a source of intelligence that often went unnoticed, so Hazlit scanned the ladies seated among the potted ferns and mentally started filling out dance cards.</p><p>Abigail Norcross's companion for starters.</p><p>Then the companion of Lord Norcross's current discreet interest.</p><p>Perhaps Norcross's widowed sister.</p><p>That would likely bring him up to the supper waltz, and since there was no telling who might make a late appearance, he left his evening open thereafter.</p><p>***</p><p>"Helene, how nice to see you." Maggie gave her friend's hand a squeeze. "Budge over so I can malinger among the ferns with you."</p><p>Helene obligingly scooted over. "I saw you dancing with Lord Val. Brave of him to show his face without his new wife."</p><p>"He is brave." Braver than Maggie, in any event. She settled her skirts around her as she took the half of the padded bench Helene Norcross Anders made available to her. "Growing up the youngest of five brothers, Val is both cannier and more determined than some of his elders. Now, who has made a cake of themselves, and which gentlemen are on the prowl?"</p><p>"You aren't a widow yourself, Maggie, to be taking such an approach to an evening of dancing."</p><p>"I'm not dancing." Maggie held up a slippered foot and wiggled her toes. "And you're not spilling. Come, Helene, I'm stuck here until after supper. You might as well entertain me."</p><p>"The debutantes are all atwitter because Deene's here, and word is he's looking for a wife."</p><p>"I like Deene," Maggie said. "He doesn't dissemble with a lot of flummery and false smiles."</p><p>"One hears he's particularly friendly with the fashionable impure," Helene said. "Were I them, I'd be snuggling up to Deene before many of his peers. There he goes now, and God help the twit on his arm. She looks like she went poaching for hares and got a boar in her gun sights."</p><p>"Naughty, Helene." Maggie hid her smile by pretending to search in her reticule.</p><p>"The truth often is."</p><p>They chatted away for the balance of the first set. Helene was a pretty, well-to-do widow, and a few of the more determined fortune hunters tried to get her to stand up. Maggie watched her deftly turn them aside with polite excuses, but Helene adopted a different tactic when Benjamin Hazlit approached.</p><p>And oh, didn't he look superb in his evening finery? Against his dark complexion and dark hair, his linen gleamed in the candlelight, and the gold of his stickpin and cuff links winked in coy contrast to his black evening coat. He was as well tricked out as any of the titles in the room, and he had the height and bearing to make evening attire truly magnificent.</p><p>No rose, though. On his lapel was a bright red carnation. Maggie caught a whiff of the scent when he bowed over her hand.</p><p>The hand he held just a moment too long, the idiot.</p><p>"I was hoping Lady Anders might do me the honor of the supper waltz," Hazlit said. The smile he aimed at Helene dazzled, for all it didn't reach his eyes.</p><p>"I promised this set to my brother," Lady Helene replied, her show of regret equally superficial. "Perhaps you'd lead Miss Windham out in my stead? She's been sitting here this age, good enough to keep a widow company amid all this gaiety."</p><p>Maggie glanced at her friend but saw only devilment in Helene's eyes.</p><p>"Lady Magdalene?" Hazlit held out a gloved hand. "May I have this dance?"</p><p>The smile dimmed on his handsome face, and his gaze held hers. As much to get away from his inspection as anything, Maggie put her hand in his and rose. "I would be honored."</p><p>"Lady Helene, my thanks," he said, holding up his left hand for Maggie to place her fingers over his knuckles.</p><p>And it would be a blasted waltz.</p><p>"You do not look honored," he said, leading her to a position on the floor. "You look like you're plotting the end of an association with Lady Anders."</p><p>"Helene has a peculiar sense of humor, but she knows I will retaliate at some point. I'll make her dance with His Grace or perhaps with Deene."</p><p>"That would set tongues wagging." He held out his left hand for Maggie to place her right in it. When she hesitated, he put her left hand on his shoulder, and took her right in his.</p><p>"Really, Lady Magdalene, am I so offensive as all that? Your parents allow me under their roof, and your sister was happy enough to marry my half brother." His hand at her waist was warm, even through her gown and stays.</p><p>"You enjoy being difficult," Maggie said as the orchestra began the introduction. "It isn't becoming in a grown man. I'd take offense but I suspect you're like this with most everybody."</p><p>"I can be charming."</p><p>"When it suits your purpose," she said as the music began. "That isn't charm, Mr. Hazlit. That is guile."</p><p>His rejoinder was to dance her around the room, holding her a little more closely than convention allowed, a little more firmly.</p><p>She liked it.</p><p>She was a good-sized female, and there were few enough partners with the height and presence to lead her on the dance floor. Maggie didn't lead, though it was tempting with the more timid men, but she had to be careful she didn't turn too exuberantly, lean too much, step too far. Partners lacking in assurance could lose their grip on her, stumble, or tangle their feet with hers.</p><p>Not Hazlit. He danced well, maybe even better than her brother Val, whom she would have said was her favorite partner.</p><p>Before. Before this obnoxious man floated her around the ballroom in his strong arms, his legs moving with hers so smoothly Maggie never once had to look down. It was... disconcerting, to be handled with such confidence and to like it so well.</p><p>"Now I know how to still your sharp tongue." He spoke right into her ear, his cheek almost against her temple. If he moved any closer, they'd become objects of talk. "All I have to do is stand up with you, and your temper falls silent."</p><p>"I don't generally dance."</p><p>"I know, though I can't fathom why. You move like a sylph."</p><p>"Are you teasing me?"</p><p>"I am not." He pulled back to study her by the candlelight. "I've partnered many women, and you are an accomplished dancer."</p><p>She relaxed a little at his words, because Hazlit might be a wretch, but he was an honest wretch. He'd tell her to her face when he was making fun of her.</p><p>"I want you to promise me something," Maggie said. He spun her under his arm and brought her back to waltz position. Perhaps it was her imagination, but he seemed to be holding her just a bit closer.</p><p>"I don't make promises lightly, my lady," he said, his expression becoming severe. "Just because I like to dance with you doesn't mean you can trespass on my good nature."</p><p>"I wasn't aware you had a good nature. I want you to promise me you won't be spying on any of my family members ever again."</p><p>Silence stretched between them while the music played on, and her partner never missed a step.</p><p>***</p><p>Benjamin Hazlit was a gentleman when anybody was looking. He did not labor for his living, did not get his hands dirty, did not toil in the creation of something-pots, barrels, corn, ale-such that he'd be denied the status of a gentleman. But because of what he did when others weren't looking, weren't watching closely, he was suspect in the eyes of Polite Society.</p><p>It would soon be impossible to pursue his livelihood, so interested had his neighbors become in his doings.</p><p>"You're bold," he said to his dancing partner, emphasizing his words by holding her a little too closely on a tight turn. "I'll grant you that."</p><p>"Not as bold as you," she said, twirling gracefully. "You sneak and snoop and lurk in gardens until nobody has any privacy."</p><p>"If I lurk in gardens, I do so to flirt and steal kisses, the same as any other callow swain."</p><p>She snorted her disbelief, and Hazlit decided his point was better made in private. As they neared the French doors, he danced her off the floor and out onto the flagstone terrace.</p><p>"Mr. Hazlit." She drew back, or tried to. "Whatever are you about?"</p><p>"You brought up a subject best aired privately. No doubt you assumed the dance floor was a place where you could upbraid me with impunity. Think again, Lady Magdalene."</p><p>"I don't use the title."</p><p>The words were shot out of a cannon armed with dignity, but Hazlit heard a little of the hurt also propelling them along.</p><p>"Their Graces adopted you. I know that much, since your father thinks my confidence can be trusted."</p><p>She glanced up at him sharply in the near darkness. "Adopted perhaps, but I do not use the title."</p><p>Her motivations were a little mystery, and Hazlit enjoyed mysteries far more than he should, though unraveling Maggie Windham's motivations wasn't what brought them out into the chilly night air.</p><p>"Miss Windham, then." He frowned down at her as she rubbed her hands over her arms. "About my investigations."</p><p>"Your snooping."</p><p>He draped his evening coat around her shoulders and had the satisfaction of seeing he'd rattled her composure. A notice to the Times was in order for that coup. "May I remind you, your family retained me to research the origins of your brother's housekeeper-the very lady now married to him."</p><p>"Gayle and Anna's situation was made more perilous by your prying. I will not have it, do you understand me?" She paced away from the house, probably not even realizing she was heading for deeper shadows.</p><p>Hazlit fell in step beside her, more than comfortable with poorly lit spaces. "So you will deprive me of my living and deprive your titled peers of the useful services I perform?"</p><p>"You brought Lucille Ramboullet back to her papa after she tried to elope. She's now married to Alfred Huxtable, a man twice her age."</p><p>Hazlit tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow, as if they were merely chatting, not... bickering. "Which puts the doddering Lord Huxtable at about five-and-thirty years old. The girl ran off with a scoundrel who has pockets to let and was after her money. She's seventeen, Miss Windham, without a brain in her pretty head. Do you claim her judgment on the matter should have carried the day?"</p><p>"She ran for reasons. Her circumstances are instructive of the mischief your so-called investigating creates."</p><p>"We are not going to agree on this," he said, pausing and frowning. Magdalene Windham was notably retiring, firmly on the shelf-which was a waste of glorious hair, if nothing else-but in her castigation of him, Hazlit detected a genuine note of outrage.</p><p>Alarm.</p><p>She had secrets. He realized this between one heartbeat and the next, and knew not a little temptation to ferret out those secrets. He did sometimes go secret-hunting without a client's money to show for it. It kept his senses sharp.</p><p>"I do not lurk in gardens."</p><p>She turned to look over the grounds. "You're lurking in one now."</p><p>The moon was coming up, not quite full but spreading illumination as it rose from the horizon.</p><p>"I am being chastised for earning my coin providing a needed skill. Come. If we linger near a torch, we'll be seen having our disagreement, and neither one of us wants that."</p><p>She took his suggestion, as he knew she would. Magdalene Windham presented at least the appearance of propriety, though he could guess all too easily what kinds of secrets she was hiding. With hair like that...</p><p>"Shall we sit?" he asked when they'd gone far enough from the terrace to have privacy. "You're less likely to raise your voice if we're not on our feet."</p><p>"I'm less likely to slap you," she rejoined, though there was little heat in her voice. "You think I'll start begging, but I've done some watching and listening of my own, Mr. Hazlit."</p><p>"You're entitled to listen at keyholes, while I am not?" He purposely sat right beside her, body to body, wanting to disconcert her.</p><p>Or perhaps keep her warm, or do both.</p><p>"I do not listen at keyholes. I listen to my family's table conversation. Just the other night, Her Grace asked how it is that of all the titled lords in Parliament, only the Earl of Hazelton sends a factor to attend confidential meetings. Of all the earls in the land, only Hazelton manages to vote his seat occasionally, but nobody can describe the man's appearance in any detail. His Grace gave her a look and asked for more potatoes. Papa abhors potatoes. He says they're peasant fare but permits them on the table because Evie loves them."</p><p>Damnation.</p><p>"Hazelton is reclusive," Hazlit said, but a distraction was in order. He tucked a lock of her hair, her warm, glorious, silky hair, over her ear.</p><p>"Hands to yourself, Mr. Hazlit. I have brothers, and I can protect myself if need be."</p><p>"How would you protect yourself? I'm at least half a foot taller and probably six stone heavier."</p><p>"You're a man." She hugged his coat closer. "You have at least one other set of vulnerabilities besides your arrogance and your pride."</p><p>"Nasty, Miss Windham." Wonderfully nasty.</p><p>She gave him a disparaging glance. "Do you think it's easy being Moreland's bastard?" She turned her face to the rising moon. "There were two schools of thought among the so-called gentlemen. The first believed my unfortunate origins meant my morals would be as corrupt as my mother's-His Grace being completely without blame-and I was fair game."</p><p>They would, Hazlit silently conceded. Most men would, that is. They would hope she was fair game.</p><p>"The second group thought I ought to be grateful for the hand of any cit or baronet's son who offered for me. Thank God for Papa's stickling, or I would have had eight offers my first season."</p><p>And now they were on tricky ground indeed.</p><p>"Do you still have to fend off these offers, my lady? One hesitates to point out that persistent suitors might be offering from genuine regard."</p><p>"Don't think to turn up decent on me now, Mr. Hazlit. I am past thirty, on the shelf, and that is where I shall remain. But we wander from the stated reason for our discussion. You will not spy on my family."</p><p>He had a choice. He could offer some vaguely unpleasant rejoinder, because it sat ill with him to ever let anybody have the upper hand, and he enjoyed sparring with her a little too much. He could keep her out here until propriety demanded her return to the ballroom, leaving their discussion unresolved.</p><p>Or he could be honest.</p><p>"Miss Windham, when I am hired by a party, I do not turn around and gather information on that party without their permission. If I came across something unflattering to the Windham family, I would be honor bound to keep it to myself, lest it reflect poorly on a client."</p><p>"But would you tell Her Grace? His Grace?"</p><p>This mattered to her, confirming Hazlit's suspicion some lucky and discreet fellow had the regular pleasure of seeing all that hair tumbling down Magdalene Windham's naked back.</p><p>"I would not tell them unless I thought the information posed a threat to their physical health or well-being."</p><p>She wasn't going to push for more. He saw that in the way she worried her full lower lip, in the frown that had little creases forming between her brows.</p><p>"Papa had a heart seizure little more than a year ago."</p><p>"Right. Percy Windham, though he reportedly spent two weeks at Melton during hunting season, is on the brink of death."</p><p>"Don't be callous. He's Moreland to the world, but to us, he's our papa."</p><p>"He's also a tough old boot, Miss Windham. He has years left in him."</p><p>She raised her gaze to his, searching his expression.</p><p>He did not peer too closely into those troubled eyes. "We need to take this interesting discussion back inside, though I'll teach you a trick if you like."</p><p>"I most assuredly do not like."</p><p>"That's my girl." He lifted his jacket from around her shoulders and slipped into it. "When we go through the doors, don't sidle along the wall, looking like you've just been stealing kisses in the garden."</p><p>"You are fixated on kisses and gardens."</p><p>"Walk in the door like a royal princess," he said, buttoning his coat. "And don't go but a few steps into the room before you stop and engage me in conversation."</p><p>"Why would I want to do that?"</p><p>"So you are not seen coming or going. You are seen standing idly about, the same as a hundred other guests, perhaps nearer the door to get some air, but certainly not skulking around with something to hide."</p><p>She didn't look happy, but she nodded.</p><p>And shivered.</p><p>"Come." He took her hand, wishing they weren't wearing gloves so he might at least offer her fingers a little warmth. She followed his instructions to the letter, stopping just six steps inside the French doors and turning a winsome smile at him.</p><p>"The waltz was delightful. You really must allow more ladies the pleasure, Mr. Hazlit."</p><p>"Would that more ladies had your grace on the dance floor."</p><p>They batted the conversational shuttlecock back and forth a little more before tacitly agreeing neither wanted to endure the other's company at supper. The lady swanned off ostensibly to find her brother, and Hazlit was left to pursue the matter of Abigail Norcross's suspected infidelity.</p><p>And as he danced and flirted and chatted up the wallflowers, he wondered what sort of mother would name her by-blow Magdalene. The biblical connotations were not kind. Not kind at all.</p><p>***</p><p>"What has you in a swivet?" Evie flounced back against the squabs of her sister's town coach and organized her skirts.</p><p>"Nothing." Maggie glanced out the window at the chilly darkness and to the bright façade of the Winterthur mansion beyond. With every lamp and torch lit, the white marble looked like a ghoulish, openmouthed face, staring at her.</p><p>She dropped the curtain and tried to focus her thoughts. "I'm not in a swivet. I still haven't found my reticule."</p><p>"It will turn up. I saw you dancing tonight, Maggie dearest, and with the delectable Mr. Hazlit."</p><p>"Sometimes, baby sister, your powers of observation border on rudeness."</p><p>"It goes with never getting any attention. Val and I have discussed this, each being a youngest. Tagging along is our lot in life, or it was. Don't you think Hazlit is handsome?"</p><p>"I suppose."</p><p>She should have said yes, for that would have put Evie off the scent. Hazlit was handsome, just not in a typically blond, blue-eyed English way. His looks were wilder than that. More compelling.</p><p>"I took my turn dancing with Deene." Evie sighed and sat back. "I rather pity him having to face all the debutantes, and he's not a bad dancing partner."</p><p>"Don't be bruiting that about, or Papa will be talking terms. He's a marquis, Evie, and a friend of the family. He'd do."</p><p>"He would not do in the least, but he's a marvelous dancer. Jenny says his conversation is amusing."</p><p>"His flirting, you mean."</p><p>Evie's dreamy smile dimmed. "Mags, when did you become so ungracious toward all save your family? Or are you going to chastise Valentine for tarrying with his friends tonight?"</p><p>"I'm just tired." She did not say she was increasingly worried about her reticule.</p><p>"Dancing will do that." Evie sat up, and Maggie knew her inquisition wasn't quite over. "You and Mr. Hazlit make a gorgeous couple."</p><p>"Nothing I do constitutes a gorgeous anything, Eve Windham. You will cease that talk immediately."</p><p>"You sound just like Mama in a taking with one of the boys," Evie said, smiling widely. "You should have seen yourself, Mags. Your eyes sparkled when he held you in his arms."</p><p>"Evie!" Though Maggie had to smile. In some ways, Evie was still their baby girl, allowed to hold on to the innocence of childhood well past her come out.</p><p>"They did. Mama had already gone on to Almack's with the others, but Val and I saw you."</p><p>"I wanted to assure myself the man wasn't up to his spying. Not on us, anyway."</p><p>"Mags, he wouldn't be spying at a ball."</p><p>"Yes, Evie, he would."</p><p>And that was something else she'd be talking to Helene Anders about in the morning.</p><p>***</p><p>Hazlit slowed his pace as he made his way home, forcing himself to calm down. He'd made a few more passes among the Winterthurs' guests, had gleaned what information he could, then taken himself off before the dancing had resumed after supper.</p><p>Spying, indeed. Spying was for sneaks and voyeurs, not for belted earls.</p><p>The hypocrisy of that-his holding a title but hiding it-slowed his steps even further. He didn't hide his title, exactly, he just didn't trade on it.</p><p>He was still trying to sort out his temper when he took a snifter of brandy up to his chambers. He managed without his valet, undressing himself down to his skin, hanging his evening attire on the wardrobe door, then finding his favorite silk dressing gown. The evening was chilly, but his chambers were warm in anticipation of his arrival.</p><p>Out of habit, he took his drink to the desk near the blazing hearth in his private sitting room.</p><p>What had he seen?</p><p>He began to record the evening's harvest of information and concluded he could narrow down the possible paramours for Lady Abigail Norcross to two. Lord Norcross had assured Hazlit he wasn't going to use the information to bring adultery grounds against his wife in a divorcement proceeding.</p><p>But he was going to threaten, Hazlit knew. He was going to stomp about, bellow, and strut, when the man himself was no scion of fidelity.</p><p>But women could not sue for adultery, as a man's seed was his to spend where he pleased. A wife's womb belonged to her spouse, though, just like the rest of her. Norcross had his heir and two spares; all he wanted was the freedom to live apart from his wife on some sort of terms. The lady was loathe to give up her place at his side but equally given to finding her consolation outside the marriage bed.</p><p>It shouldn't matter, of course, since her by-blows were unlikely to inherit, but to Lord Norcross, it did.</p><p>The dismal topic brought him back to the matter of Miss Magdalene Windham, a ducal by-blow raised with Moreland's legitimate brood.</p><p>Without conscious volition, Hazlit began to sketch her. She had magnificent eyes to go with that hair, and a rather strong nose. The nose suited her, as did the defined jaw and chin. As his pen moved over the paper, he watched the image taking form on the page.</p><p>Magdalene Windham was beautiful.</p><p>Not in the pale, mousey English mold, but in an earthier, more dramatic way. Her brows and lashes were darker than her hair, and having held her in his arms he could attest to a few freckles across her nose and on her shoulders. Just a few.</p><p>They made a man want to kiss...</p><p>He tossed the pen down, for he'd drawn the woman not in her ballroom attire but as he'd seen her previously, with her hair tumbling down, her eyes alit with mischief as she prepared to stab him with his lapel pin.</p><p>A soft tap on the door interrupted his musings.</p><p>"Come in."</p><p>"Make way," his visitor said. "It's bloody bleeding cold out for being almost spring, and a man could use a medicinal tot."</p><p>"Here." Hazlit passed his untouched drink to his guest. "Shall I ring for food?"</p><p>"Please." Archer Portmaine lowered his long bones to the settee facing the fire. "Busy night."</p><p>"A fruitful night?" Hazlit gave three tugs on the bellpull in short succession, the signal for a late tray.</p><p>"Don't know." Portmaine ran a hand through blond curls, no doubt knowing he was as attractive disheveled as he was dressed to the nines. It was one of the reasons Hazlit was in business with his handsome cousin.</p><p>"Lady Abby's coach departed at the close of the dinner hour," Portmaine said. "With her in it. She traveled precisely four blocks before her conveyance stopped and she climbed into Hamway's vehicle. Scurried into it, more like."</p><p>"Did you positively identify her?"</p><p>"Yes, as she got in at the Winterthurs'. The footmen carried torches so the ladies could watch their step getting into the carriages."</p><p>"And Hamway was stupid enough to leave his crest exposed?" Hazlit frowned, because answers this easy were suspect on general principle.</p><p>"Later in the evening there was cloud cover over the moon, Benjamin." Portmaine leaned his head back and closed his eyes.</p><p>"Then how did you determine it was his?"</p><p>"I was riding back with the footman on the boot," he said, "pretending I'd gotten off Lady Norcross's vehicle. I saw the crest for myself by the occasional street lamp."</p><p>"Did anybody see your face?"</p><p>Portmaine lifted his head and opened his eyes to glare at Hazlit. "I know my job, and you haven't doubted me like this for at least the past two years. I was in disguise, per procedure."</p><p>Hazlit frowned, because Archer Portmaine was as good at his job as he was good-looking. The man's instincts were infallible and tonight's job completely routine.</p><p>"Last week, she got into Lord Doolish's conveyance in the same manner," Hazlit said.</p><p>Portmaine blew out a breath. "You want me to swive her? She apparently likes variety, and she's a pretty little thing. Not her fault if her husband is smitten elsewhere."</p><p>Hazlit turned a stern eye on his associate. "There are lines we do not cross, Archer."</p><p>"You have lost all sense of fun." Portmaine took a sip of his drink. "It's fortunate you still serve decent brandy, or I'd despair of you entirely."</p><p>"You will not get under the lady's skirts now, and you will not offer her consolation when her husband banishes her to their country house."</p><p>"Speaking of skirts." Portmaine's eyes began to dance. "I saw you turning down the room with Maggie Windham. Excellent choice, old man. How'd you get her to stand up with you?"</p><p>"She was inveigled onto the dance floor by a friend. How is it you know her?" Much less know her as Maggie?</p><p>"I knew her younger brother in Rome, and we've kept in touch," Portmaine said. "Man can do anything with the keyboard. He's introduced me to his siblings as we've bumped into them. There's an entire gaggle of pretty sisters in addition to the one your half brother married."</p><p>"Is this like the old king's problem with his princesses; no one is good enough for his womenfolk?"</p><p>"Wouldn't know"-Portmaine got up to answer the tap on the door-"not having made His Majesty's acquaintance." He brought a tray to the desk and pulled up a chair before settling in with his meal. "Lord Val says Maggie's the most retiring of his sisters. She's had to be, given her antecedents. His Grace had her and the other one, the soldier, brought up under his own roof, though. By God, we aren't paying the kitchen enough. This is delicious soup and piping hot."</p><p>He slurped delicately, as if to underscore the point.</p><p>It was tempting, very, very tempting, to gently pry details from Portmaine. Here in their home, brandy warming his gut, Portmaine would prattle on the same as any other man on familiar turf.</p><p>But there were lines Benjamin Hazlit wouldn't cross.</p><p>Though it would just be gossip, after all. They gossiped with each other, because really, there wasn't anybody else with whom they could share all the society effluvia they came across in their work.</p><p>"So what else had Lord Val to say about his steadiest sister?"</p><p>***</p><p>Maggie's head footman rapped on the open door of the breakfast parlor.</p><p>"Lord Valentine to see you, madam."</p><p>"Thank you, Hobbs," Val said, sauntering in still sporting his evening attire. "But since when do we announce family?"</p><p>"Since you've gone for a husband," Maggie said, rising to kiss his cheek. "And your arrival twice in twenty-four hours has to be worth noting. Have some breakfast."</p><p>"Don't mind if I do."</p><p>"Were you up all night playing?"</p><p>He filled a plate at the sideboard, while Maggie noted the signs of fatigue about his eyes. Val had been a gorgeous youth, sensuous, dreamy, and probably more sexually attractive than he knew. Having been parted from her for months though, Maggie saw him with new eyes, realizing he was making the transition from handsome young man to breathtaking maturity. She'd missed him and missed his music, too.</p><p>"I played some," he said, taking a seat at her right hand. "I'm bunking in with Viscount Fairly, and I wanted you to have my direction. When was the last time your Broadwood was tuned?" He passed her a calling card with an address on the back. One of the better addresses, actually.</p><p>"You sent your fellows over at the first of the year. You always do if you aren't here to see to it yourself."</p><p>"Mags, are you happy?" He tucked into his eggs as if he hadn't just asked a very personal, unusual question.</p><p>"What makes you ask?"</p><p>He looked up from his eggs, green eyes troubled. "That isn't a yes."</p><p>"You've been up all night, Valentine. Were you perhaps imbibing for much of the evening?"</p><p>"Right." He smiled at her. "I'm knee-crawling drunk and in need of a good old-fashioned scolding. If you're not happy, what would it take to make you happy?"</p><p>There was something behind his smile, something Maggie suspected a woman would call concern and a man wouldn't deign to put a label on even under threat of torture.</p><p>"It's just that until I married Ellen, there was something missing-a large something. Still, I wasn't unhappy. You're not unhappy, either, unless I miss my guess."</p><p>Not unhappy. He was insightful, her baby brother. Inconveniently so.</p><p>"I have my charities," she said, rising with the need to put some distance between them. A few beats of silence went by while Maggie stared out the window at her back gardens and Val said nothing.</p><p>Then, "You danced with Hazlit."</p><p>"Gracious God." Maggie turned and braced her hips on the windowsill. "I danced with Lord Fanshaw and Dudley Parrington, too. What of it?"</p><p>"The last two are His Grace's cronies of long standing, and you danced a waltz with Hazlit. I can't recall when you've waltzed with anybody but me or Dev or Gayle."</p><p>Or Bart or Victor, their two deceased brothers.</p><p>"I waltz with His Grace."</p><p>"At your come out, maybe, fifteen years ago."</p><p>"It wasn't fifteen years ago." Though it soon would be.</p><p>"Mags, bickering won't answer my question. Why Hazlit?"</p><p>"I wanted to speak to him, and the dance floor has a kind of privacy."</p><p>"About?"</p><p>"Valentine." She put as much of the Duchess of Moreland's hauteur in her tone as she could, which was considerable.</p><p>"Gayle likes him," Val said, clearly not the least cowed. "And not only because Sophie just married his half brother. I thought you should know."</p><p>Which meant Gayle would be coming around to dispense his questions and advice as well. "You may go back to Oxfordshire if all you're going to do is interrogate me about my dancing partners, Valentine."</p><p>He studied her for a long moment, green eyes seeing far more than Maggie was comfortable with. "Dev and Emmie? Their Graces?" he said. "Their lives have meaning, Maggie, and they have somebody to love them. God willing, that's what I'm building with Ellen, and Gayle with Anna."</p><p>"I love you," she said, her concern now for him. "I love all my siblings."</p><p>"And we love you," he replied, his smile sad, "but I'm not sure that's enough, Mags. Not for you-it wasn't for me, though I couldn't have said as much to save myself. You'll give Gayle my direction?"</p><p>"Of course. You left it with Their Graces?"</p><p>"I'm off to the mansion once I change, and yes, I'll pass it along to them."</p><p>Val stayed long enough to finish his breakfast, but for the second time, he left without even sitting down at Maggie's piano. When he was gone, Maggie went upstairs, promising herself she would not panic. Methodically, she searched her rooms again-bedroom, sitting room, dressing room.</p><p>No reticule.</p><p>She searched her back hallway and the closet off the foyer. She traced her usual path from the kitchen to the mews and then wandered every inch of every walkway in her gardens.</p><p>No reticule.</p><p>She took a break and read the financial pages of the paper, something she'd been doing since the age of twelve, and then repeated her entire search.</p><p>Still no reticule.</p><p>Her brother Gayle, Earl of Westhaven and the Moreland heir, chose to stop by and share luncheon with her. All the while she was smiling and nodding at his conversation, Maggie was also trying not to panic.</p><p>Where in all of perishing creation could that reticule be?</p>

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