His Grace Alexander Borland, seventh Duke of Nottingvale, stalked from room to room, ensuring everything was in order. The month-long Christmastide party was an annual tradition, and this year it had to be perfect.
It was already a disaster.
A sudden snowstorm had halted all travel for the past fortnight, reducing Alexander’s party from four weeks to two. He himself had only arrived that morning, just in time to have a hurried meeting with business partners for a project they’d intended to complete last week, only for—
“Guests are arriving,” announced Oswald, the butler.
There was no need to adjust postures. Oswald was perpetually stoic and ramrod-straight. Respectable and proper at all times, just as Alexander liked.
The butler opened the door and the first team of liveried footmen rushed out into the cold, ready to bring in heavy trunks and hand guests down from carriages with all of the elegance and efficiency they deserved.
But they weren’t the first to arrive.
Alexander’s new business partners, Calvin and Jonathan, were staying through the grand Twelfth Night gala. Alexander had no idea where they were at this moment, which was just as well, because he did not have time to make dozens of introductions on top of ensuring the perfection of every detail of his party.
The almost perfection.
As a consequence of the inconvenient snowstorm, the arrival of Alexander’s mother, the Duchess of Nottingvale, was also delayed.
No gentleman could host a house party on his own. A hostess must always play the lead role. As an impeccably dignified matriarch, his mother was perfect for the part.
In the meantime, Alexander’s younger sister Lady Isabelle would have to do.
Belle was… no longer completely respectable.
While Alexander had spent the past fortnight burrowing north from London to distant Cressmouth, his sister Belle had apparently spent the past weeks in the arms of Alexander’s business partner Calvin, resulting in their betrothal.
Alexander’s surprise at his sister’s impending marriage to a tailor would be nothing compared to the duchess’s reaction once Mother arrived.
Belle had fallen in love, not that romance would sway the matriarch’s opinion.
Alexander was dependable. He had never been in love, nor would he allow emotion to overtake him. A duke was logical, unemotional, and above all things: proper.
There were rules.
Alexander followed them.
Strict adherence to expectations and station was the only way to ensure one’s life unfolded with clockwork precision.
“Any further instructions, Your Grace?” asked a footman.
“Be ready,” Alexander replied.
The kitchen had been instructed to avoid strawberries, due to one of the guests’ adverse reactions to the fruit. The maids had replaced another guest’s feather pillows with soft wool stuffing, once Alexander learned downy feathers made her sneeze. He kept detailed notes so that returning guests’ experiences would be even better than the previous year.
He didn’t want his party to be good.
He needed it to be flawless.
This was the day before Christmas Eve. His friends were entrusting Alexander with their Yuletide. He wanted them all to have the best holiday possible.
“Here they come, Your Grace,” said the butler.
Alexander’s sister Belle joined him in greeting the guests.
He positioned himself a respectable distance from the open door and greeted each guest as they entered the cottage, before handing them off to a footman or maid to show them to their guest chambers.
Alexander had assigned rooms with the same care he devoted to every aspect of his life. Windows with morning light for the early risers. Snorers grouped as far as possible from light sleepers. Extra blankets and fully stocked fireplaces for everyone.
Locals began to fill the parlor as well, partaking of the strawberry-less refreshments and chatting with old friends they hadn’t seen since Alexander’s previous Christmastide party.
At a break in the tide, he turned to his sister. “As soon as Mother arrives, you can relax.”
“Can I?” she said doubtfully, but her eyes twinkled with merriment.
“As soon as Mother arrives, you can hide,” he corrected. “I’ve given you and Calvin adjoining rooms on the opposite side of the house as hers. This is your Yuletide, too. I want you to enjoy it.”
She gave him an arch look. “Will you enjoy it?”
“It’s not my duty to make merry,” he reminded her firmly. “It’s my duty to ensure everyone else does.”
She didn’t look convinced. “When was the last time you enjoyed anything, even when other people’s happiness wasn’t riding on the outcome?”
“It’s not my purpose to—”
“You’re a duke, not a gear in a pocket watch. You can change the pace once in a while. Not everything has to be controlled down to the second.”
It was Alexander’s turn to look appalled.
Belle burst out laughing. “I suppose that snowstorm had you in a tizzy.”
“Dukes don’t tizzy,” he informed her.
“Mm-hm. You probably stalked out-of-doors and commanded the snow to stop falling in that imperious all-things-must-go-according-to-plan way you have.”
He lifted a shoulder. “It stopped snowing, did it not?”
“I’m surprised you didn’t pull your hair out in panic.” She tilted her head. “Never mind. You would never allow a hair on your head to be out of place, no matter the wind’s wishes. You’d command the clouds if you could.”
“You’re hilarious,” he told her. “No one has ever had a wittier sister. Your jests warm my heart.”
“You don’t let anything near your heart,” she said. “You’re too busy being perfect to enjoy your own parties. You could be replaced with an automaton and I’d be the only one to notice.”
That was hardly fair.
“You used to be straitlaced too,” he reminded her.
“And look how much better my life is now,” Belle shot back. “Particularly compared to yours.” She crooked her elbows at ninety-degree angles and made stiff, choppy motions whilst speaking in monotone. “‘I am a clockwork duke. Tick tock, I love rules.’”
Alexander lifted his nose.
Life would be easier if everyone followed rules.
He was grateful to have them. Rules let him know what to do and what to expect. Rules were what guided him when he’d inherited the title as an adolescent. He’d felt lost without his father, but the rules had given him a path to follow to succeed.
What Alexander wanted to do didn’t signify in the least. A duke did what must be done, and refrained from all activities not befitting his station.
Especially a respectable duke on the hunt for an equally proper bride.
He was glad that his sister had found love, but there would be scandal when the gossips heard the news. Any latitude Alexander might have had before was now gone. It was up to him to salvage the family’s reputation.
With luck, it would all be over soon.
He and Belle turned back to the doorway as a new wave of guests splashed inside.
This would be the biggest crush yet. With Alexander’s permission, his mother had let it be known that her son was finally seeking a duchess.
Hopeful young misses flooded his cottage. They might be in competition with each other, but Alexander knew his own behavior was now under a microscope as well.
Not only did mothers and chaperones want their charges to make a splendid match… Those spurned would be happy to spread gossip of any of the duke’s faults.
His duty was not to have any.
He and his party must be perfect.
“Of course,” his sister assured a highly respected society matron, all traces of her earlier irreverence gone. “I would be honored to show you and your daughter to your chambers. Follow me, please.”
Alexander was glad for Belle’s presence.
She was a meddlesome sister, but a wonderful hostess. For all her teasing, she would help ensure no unwelcome surprises happened to—
Miss Cynthia Louise Finch stood on his front step, holding a mongrel puppy aloft to his impressively stoic butler.
His heart stopped, then raced faster.
Miss Finch was the opposite of proper.
She was a firework in a box of candles.
Everything about her was significantly more than necessary. She had two names when one would suffice. She brought a dog to a house party. She was tall, with abundant curves. She had apple cheeks and plump rosy lips and big blue eyes.
Her excessiveness ought to be overwhelming, but instead made him feel as though he stood dizzyingly close to a statue of a Grecian goddess come to life.
“Is that a dog?” called out one of the locals.
“It is. Meet Max!” She swept into the room brandishing the wiggling puppy in front of her chest, passing the mongrel off to the first taker.
It was not at all how a proper young lady would enter the home of a duke—or anywhere.
It was not done.
Which made it classic Cynthia Louise Finch.
“Who wants to go ice racing later?” she asked her friends at the refreshment table.
“Do you mean ice skating?” asked one.
“She means ice racing,” said another. “I lost ten quid to her last December.”
Miss Finch laughed in delight. “Want to lose another ten?”
Had the audacious hoyden failed to notice his receiving party of one?
He hoped she hadn’t glimpsed the Duke of Nottingvale ducking ignominiously into the closest shadow rather than greet Miss Cynthia Louise without the protective buffer of his sister at his side.
Belle was the reason Miss Finch was here.
Belle had been bashful during her come-out. Her first season had not gone as planned. At the time, Miss Finch was on her sixth unsuccessful season. She’d been extraordinarily kind to Belle, and earned a lifelong friend in the process.
And by extension, an open invitation to Alexander’s famous Christmastide house parties. How he had railed against the suggestion!
Alexander had been certain Miss Finch would not get on with any of his guests.
He had been wrong.
She lived an hour away in Houville. Miss Finch visited Cressmouth so often, she’d been on a first-name basis with every soul in the village long before Alexander ever built his cottage.
She might have fizzled out of Polite Society after six years, but here in Cressmouth, she was celebrated like family.
He watched in horror.
Whilst her puppy was humping the leg to Alexander’s refreshment table, Miss Finch linked arms with her cousin, a terrified-looking waif of eighteen years, and began introducing the chit to everyone in sight.
No amount of shadow could save him now.
It was only a matter of time before Miss Finch started toward Alexander.
His muscles tightened. The last thing he needed at a party as important as this was a dare-devil spinster causing trouble.
Alexander was in search of an aristocratic young lady who would bring honor and continued decorum to the esteemed Nottingvale dukedom.
Miss Finch’s only connection to the aristocracy was an aunt who had married a second son, who decades later inherited an earldom. The waif at her side was the earl’s youngest daughter, Lady Gertrude, whose come-out had occurred scant months earlier.
Miss Finch’s come-out had been twelve long years ago. She’d had no dowry, no connections, and no luck. By society’s standards, now she was simply old.
Yet it was difficult to think of Miss Finch as “on the shelf” when she never stood still.
Her brand of beauty was like a summer storm rising over the horizon. Fascinating to watch from a safe distance, but dangerous to go anywhere near.
And she was coming toward him.
“There you are,” Miss Finch said as though Alexander had been hiding from her, which he absolutely had been. “Lady Gertrude, this is His Grace, the Duke of Nottingvale.”
Despite the obvious terror on her face, Lady Gertrude dipped in an exquisite curtsey.
Alexander made an extravagant leg in response. “How do you do?”
Lady Gertrude swung panicked eyes toward Miss Finch.
“She’s fine, thank you,” Miss Finch said with good cheer, as though her mongrel were not currently climbing up the silk stocking of Alexander’s footman. “We’re both fine. Gertie made the journey up from London before the snow fell, and we’ve spent the past fortnight in Houville having a brilliant time of it. Haven’t we, Gertie?”
Lady Gertrude’s eyes grew even wider, her face worryingly pale.
“The carriage ride was quick enough,” Miss Finch continued, “and your refreshment table as outstanding as I remembered. Why should drinking chocolate only be served at breakfast, I always say. Gertie loves chocolate, don’t you, Gertie?”
Lady Gertrude blanched further.
“She is also an accomplished pianist, capable of the finest embroidery I have ever seen, and is well-versed in the minute details of managing the staff of a large estate. Now that her elder sisters have married, Gertie frequently steers the household of the country pile whilst her parents are in London. Don’t let her young age fool you. If I had a dukedom, I would feel absolutely confident with Lady Gertrude at the helm.”
“If you had a…” What the devil was Miss Finch talking about?
Dukedoms. His dukedom.
Miss Finch was matchmaking. Or at least, attempting to, her charge’s frozen demeanor notwithstanding.
Alexander cleared his throat. “She certainly sounds…”
What was he doing, talking about Lady Gertrude in third person as though she weren’t standing right in front of him?
He turned to Lady Gertrude and smiled.
She looked like a puff of air could knock her over.
“You certainly sound like a capable young lady.” Capable of disappearing through the floorboards before allowing her eyes to meet his. “I look forward to speaking more with you—” Or hearing her speak at all, rather. “—over the course of the party.”
That was polite and true, and more than welcoming. Surely he could now extricate himself from Miss Finch’s radiating energy, and slip off to—
A tiny bark sounded from beneath the biscuit table. A blur of brown fur shot out from under the tablecloth, only to launch itself up through the air in the direction of Alexander’s freshly pressed and starched cravat.
Lady Gertrude’s arms flashed out, snatching the puppy from thin air with lightning reflexes, only to toss the mongrel up over her shoulder in the direction of Miss Finch.
Miss Finch not only intercepted the puppy smoothly, as though this were a maneuver they’d practiced for months, she rubbed between his ears and continued talking as if nothing at all had occurred.
“Gertie is very organized,” she was saying. “You have never seen a more orderly kitchen or library than the ones on the earl’s estate. The household is gallingly neat. If you leave her alone too long near your refreshment table, you’ll return to find every item in alphabetical order.”
“It’s already in alphabetical order,” Alexander said.
He wasn’t thinking about the refreshment table or Lady Gertrude.
The puppy had flopped belly-up against Miss Finch’s bodice, all four paws with their tiny little pads pointing in four different directions. Alexander could swear the mongrel smiled as Miss Finch rubbed its belly, his little pink tongue hanging from his mouth in obvious ecstasy. His fur looked ridiculously soft.
Miss Finch lifted her arms in Alexander’s direction. “Want to touch?”
He was now looking at her bare arms instead of the puppy.
Of course he was.
Alexander’s footmen relieved guests of their winter hats and coats as they entered the cottage. It should not surprise him at all to discover Miss Finch clothed in a highly impractical lightweight frock with short puffed sleeves rather than the more sensible long-sleeved velvet-and-sarcenet of her young charge’s gown.
Miss Finch’s bare arms were completely exposed to the air… and to Alexander’s gaze.
Her skin looked just as soft as the puppy snuggling into her arms. Soft and warm, for there was no sign of gooseflesh upon her skin.
Until she noticed him looking. Goosebumps rippled down her arm as a flush raced up her cheeks.
Alexander’s own neck was uncomfortably warm as he broke his gaze and began mumbling incoherently.
“A basket,” he said. “It’ll be sent to your room at once. And a small blanket to put in the basket. And a bowl of water. And a bone—”
At the word bone, the puppy leapt from Miss Finch’s arms and darted off through the well-dressed crowd.
Lady Gertrude vanished after him, with Miss Finch right on her heels, leaving Alexander babbling about his supply of bones to the empty air.
He closed his mouth with a click just as Oswald swung the front door back open.
Her Grace, the Duchess of Nottingvale swept into the cottage.
“Thank God,” Alexander said.
His mother exuded proper decorum from every pores. Her presence would ensure respectable comportment by all parties.
“Oh, Vale,” she said as they exchanged cheek kisses. “How I apologize for the horrid delay.”
“Perfectly understandable,” he assured her. “I arrived this morning, and we’re still missing half of the guests.”
Three-eighths of the guests, to be exact. He’d been checking them off in his head as they crossed the threshold.
“And your sister?” his mother asked. “I presume she’s been an exemplary hostess in my stead.”
“Yes,” he replied without elaborating.
There would be plenty of time later for and she had a torrid affair with my tailor, to whom she’s now betrothed.
Much, much later.
At least, he hoped there was time to find a bride and prove himself utterly above reproach before the scandal sheets tore his family apart.
Mother would appalled when she learned Belle had prioritized love over her reputation. Mother was the one who had taught Alexander the trick of following society’s rules, no matter what. It was how she had learned to be a duchess, and how he had learned to be a duke.
Entire books had been written on proper comportment, and Alexander had memorized every one. He expected no less from his future duchess.
Mother surveyed the growing crowd. “I suppose you think a fortnight won’t be long enough.”
Yes. That was exactly what he thought.
It was like having to select the right goldfish from a fishbowl of identical goldfish. There was nothing wrong with any of the goldfish, which wasn’t the point at all. A duke was meant to select the best.
By observing two dozen polite, pretty debutantes in an unnatural environment over the course of fourteen days.
“It’ll be easy,” Mother assured him. “You’ll know by Epiphany.”
He certainly prayed for an epiphany.
“They know I intend to announce the betrothal at the Twelfth Night gala?”
“Yes. Choosing your young lady for the first dance will make a lovely statement,” Mother agreed. “She can spend the rest of the ball by your side, as your hostess. Have you anyone in mind?”
“The first carriage just arrived an hour ago.”
“Plenty of time to whittle down the choices.” Mother narrowed her eyes at the milling crowd. “The Twittington girl is slouching. You don’t want a slouchy duchess. The Whittleburr chit won’t stop twirling her hair. I absolutely cannot abide a hair-twirler at the dinner table. And that one over there…” Mother frowned. “Who is she?”
He turned to look. “That’s Lady Gertrude.”
“Excellent posture,” Mother said, impressed. “She’s neither twirling her hair, nor running on at the mouth like some of these vapid chatterboxes.”
No, Lady Gertrude did not seem the sort to talk a man’s ear off.
“We’ll see,” said the duchess. “Whomever you choose—”
“—must be a credit to the title,” he finished. “I know my duty.”
Alexander had many privileges, but a love match was not one of them. He had a dukedom to consider. A family, whose reputations would be impacted by his choice. Heirs of his own one day, who should be afforded every advantage Alexander could provide.
If having a sister had taught him anything, it was that women could be as strong and as stubborn as any man… and just as scandalous. Alexander had to take great care.
He needed a nice, safe, sweet, predictable bride. A wife he need never worry about, because she would always do the right thing.
“Who is Lady Gertrude with?” asked his mother. “Good heavens! Please tell me the poor dear’s ‘chaperone’ isn’t Miss Cynthia Louise Finch.”
“For the next fortnight,” he answered bleakly.
He was looking at Miss Finch’s bare arms again and trying not to wonder what her skin would feel like beneath his fingertips.
All he had to do was avoid her.
It shouldn’t be a difficult task. Miss Finch had a long history of sneaking off from his party after Christmas Day to take part in the village’s many festive activities. She appeared to believe no one ever noticed her sly absences.
Mayhap no one did.
No one except Alexander.
He was glad she was such a rude guest. Her disinterest in his company was a boon to them both.
While she was ice-racing or setting off fireworks from the castle turrets, he would be right here selecting the perfect future duchess.