Monsieur Sébastien le Duc, known to his family as Bastien and to the rest of the village as the most fashionable man north of London, strolled through the public park adjoining Marlowe Castle, deep in conversation with his elder brother Lucien.
Lucien refused to speak anything but French, which meant most of the passers-by wandering these same paths had little comprehension of the brothers’ conversation. This did not bother Bastien in the least. He had not come to a public park to be listened to. He was here to be looked at.
For too many long, unendurable years, he had been forced to stitch every item of his clothing by hand. Just because a gentleman could not afford a tailor was no excuse for slovenly appearance. Bastien had become an expert at little tricks, like only using expensive fabric in areas where it would be seen, and designing garments in such a way as to make them easily alterable to fool the casual eye into believing that one jacket or waistcoat was actually multiple items.
Today, he had not needed to resort to any such tricks. Today, he had money. Today, every single item clinging and sparkling upon his person had been sewn by someone else to Bastien’s exact specifications.
He felt just as magnificent as he looked.
“Are you even listening to me?” Lucien demanded.
“Oui,” Bastien answered automatically.
He was not listening. After nine-and-twenty years of brotherhood, Lucien likely knew this. But the only other person who lent half an ear to their brother’s stern sermons was their younger sister Désirée, who had just that morning wed a father of two, and now had other things to do with her time.
A flock of whispering, blushing young ladies flitted toward them with a flurry of painted fans and feathered bonnets.
“Good afternoon, Beau,” they called out as one, fluttering their eyelashes and flushing prettily.
“Oh, for the love of…” Lucien rolled his eyes. “Tell them you shall never be their ‘beau.’”
“Let me have this,” Bastien reproached him. “Six days a week, I toil in our smithy from dawn to dusk without complaint. Why do you begrudge every harmless flirtation?”
“They’re English.” Lucien shuddered as though the affliction might be contagious. “One cannot trust unmarried young ladies. They all have an ulterior motive.”
“Can marriage truly be considered an ‘ulterior’ motive?” Bastien inquired reasonably.
Besides, his brother was wrong. These ladies wanted a turn in his embrace, not a trip to the altar. He knew that from experience. Although Bastien had not been saving himself for France, the women who gave him the time of day were only interested in sharing a night. It was the sort of “ulterior” motive any self-respecting rake would be honored to indulge.
Lucien sent the ladies his customary all-smiting glower.
They wilted and scurried away.
“You are incorrigible,” Bastien informed his brother. “A cad amongst cads. I will find each one of those young women later, and personally make up for your mortifying rudeness.”
“At least I won’t have to see it.” Lucien shrugged. “And soon, you will not have to bother. Now that Uncle Jasper owns his property free and clear, we have nothing tying us to England.” His dark eyes shone. “We can finally retake the life we left behind. Finalement!”
Bastien could not help but grin. “Returning home to France has been our one overriding aim for so long, I’ve no idea what I’ll do when we get there.”
“You’ll meet French girls,” his brother said pointedly.
Bastien brightened. “And shop!”
“And never again step foot in a smithy,” Lucien said with a fervent sigh.
A trio of sisters waved as they strolled past. “Good afternoon, Beau!”
Lucien’s face turned red. “You are not Beau Brummell. Even Beau Brummell should not be ‘Beau’ Brummell. He is not French. We are.”
“They don’t think I’m Beau Brummell,” Bastien whispered back. “They think I’m Beau le Duc.”
“Even worse,” Lucien growled. “Now you will wish to be friends with Prinny.”
“What is he saying?” one of the girls asked with curiosity.
Bastien gave them a friendly wave. “That he wishes you ladies a very lovely afternoon.”
Lucien’s jaw clenched. Although no one but their sister had ever witnessed Lucien attempt to speak a single syllable of English, Bastien had no doubt that his brother understood almost every word.
Not an easy feat. Even after Bastien had become reasonably conversational in English, it had at first been very hard to switch between languages. Now that he was used to doing so all day every day, the right language usually came flying out of his mouth without thinking.
He nudged his brother off the walking path and onto the decorative iron pedestrian bridge that crossed the castle pond. Here, at least, there would be fewer pretty young ladies to vex his brother with their appalling English beauty.
In fact, only one other person stood atop the narrow bridge. Well, two if you counted her dog.
Miss Eve Shelling scowled at the sparkling pond from beneath a drooping straw bonnet. Glossy black tendrils tugged and tumbled with the autumn breeze. Although he could not see her eyes from here, he knew them to be a bright, arresting green, and full of intelligence. Her cloak listed to one side, giving the impression of being tossed over her shoulders more out of habit than respect for fashion, and managed to accentuate, rather than hide, the curves of her silhouette.
At her feet, a large bullmastiff that nearly outweighed her flashed its canines at the swans fluffing their soft white tailfeathers on the water below.
“That is one odd woman,” Lucien muttered. “Even for the English.”
Bastien liked odd. Why else would he have added blue and green spangles to his waistcoat? Odd made life more interesting. He could gaze at Miss Shelling’s carelessly beautiful oddness all day.
“This way.” Lucien turned away from the bridge.
Bastien glanced over his shoulder at Miss Shelling. “But—”
“That one definitely has ulterior motives,” Lucien assured him. “And if she has not, her pet certainly does. Do you know why those are called ‘gamekeepers’ night-dogs?’ Because they are strong enough and swift enough to knock armed poachers to the ground, pinning them immobile and helpless until the trespassers can be hanged as a public example.”
None of this was making Bastien any less intrigued by Miss Shelling.