Could it truly be considered theft, if the object Miss Carole Quincy intended to filch from the Duke of Azureford’s summer cottage had belonged to her all along?
Carole sat on the edge of her fourposter bed to tug off her worn leather slippers. It was a brisk, late spring day with no clouds in sight, but in a mountaintop village nicknamed Christmas, ’twas best not to venture out-of-doors without sturdy boots.
Not that she was going far. Last summer, the Duke of Azureford had purchased the adjoining property. He’d be her next-door neighbor… if he were here. She was glad he wasn’t. Dark tousled hair and deep brown eyes were all well and good on most occasions, but she needed to be in and out without anybody paying too much attention. She reached for a boot and yanked on the laces.
She would have retrieved her sketchbook by now, but until recently, the duke’s normally vacant cottage had been housing a recovering soldier. The soldier was gone, the house was empty, the neighbors were all indoors enjoying afternoon tea… There wouldn’t be a better time, but she had to act quickly.
No one knew about the sketchbook. It was the most private thing she owned. It wasn’t a collection of bad poetry or “Carole + His Grace” curlicue doodles, but something even closer to her heart:
Painstakingly precise recreations of her house, her street, the castle upon the hill… reimagined to reflect the world she really wished she lived in. Happy families gathered about a supper table. The assembly rooms decorated not for lackluster “marriage mart” dances, but as a place where Carole and her friends could drink brandy and play billiards and wager their future trousseau on the turn of a card.
How she wished she could draw herself into a place where she could be herself without judgment! As talented as Carole was with architectural sketches, she was positively dreadful at capturing realistic likenesses. Instead, she copied figures from fashion plates as best she could, and outfitted each elegant lady with additional props, like flying rapiers or frothy tankards of ale.
Men enjoyed their gentlemen’s clubs. Why shouldn’t women enjoy equally hedonistic ladies’ clubs?
“Yes, yes, because of the scandal,” Carole muttered as she finished tying her second boot.
Drawing such forbidden activities was not the same as actually performing them, but try telling that to the gleefully shocked gossips if a single page of that sketchbook ever came to light. The moment Carole had it back in her possession, that sketchbook was never leaving her bedchamber again.
Boots on, she hopped off the edge of her bed and strode to her dressing table.
Now where were those earrings? She shoved aside a tin of pencils and a stack of tomes on geometry and mathematics until she found the little pouch she’d been saving for just this occasion.
Two delicate gold-and-citrine earrings. She hadn’t worn them in months—not since the day of the party. How could she, when she planned to say she’d lost one of the pair in the Duke of Azureford’s cottage? When his butler let her in to search, she would slip her missing sketchbook back into her reticule, secure the blasted thing with a dozen sturdy knots, “find” her lost earring, and be on her way.
All she had to do was get inside.
After dropping one earring into her empty reticule, Carole flung open her bedchamber door and stepped into the corridor.
She almost made it to the front door before her elderly lady’s maid inserted herself between Carole and the door.
“Where are you going? Would you like me to plait your hair?”
Judith had been Carole’s companion since birth. For as long as Carole could remember, the grandmotherly woman’s favorite activity had always been braiding hair. Her own silver curls were fashioned into a crown of looping plaits.
“No need,” Carole assured her. “It’s not a social call. I’m just going to pop over to the Duke of Azureford’s cottage for a quick moment in order to—”
“Azureford,” Judith breathed, with the sort of giddy sigh some women used to say Beau Brummel. “I’m coming with you.”
“He’s not there. I don’t need a chaperone.”
More importantly, why was her sixty-year-old maid suddenly breathless over a duke half her age? Judith hadn’t shown any interest in Azureford when he had first purchased the cottage. She hadn’t even asked to come along as companion when His Grace had hosted his first and only soirée.
“Please?” Judith batted her bright blue eyes.
Something was clearly afoot, but Carole did not have time to waste ferreting out answers to mysteries. She had a sketchbook to recover.
“Fine.” She shooed Judith out of the way in order to open the door. “We won’t be gone five minutes. It’s just a quick errand.”
Carole let out a breath when she finally stepped out of her doorway and into the afternoon sun. The welcome warmth on her face perfectly complemented the scent of springtime as a cool breeze rustled the trees. It was a gorgeous day. No wonder the neighborhood children were out in the streets kicking balls and trundling hoops.
She waved at the children, but hurried down her walk without stopping to chat or play. Once her sketchbook was safely under lock and key, then she could take advantage of the fine weather. As soon as she reached the street, she quickly turned toward the duke’s cottage.
Before he had come to town, she’d heard the same rumors as everyone else: His Grace was cold, aloof, judgmental—and handsome as sin.
She hadn’t paid much attention to the gossips, but when she happened to spy the duke alighting from his stately coach… good heavens, had she paid attention! Dark hair, dark eyes, dark lashes, strong jaw, broad shoulders, impeccable everything. The entire village had skipped a collective heartbeat.
Not that Carole would indulge such twaddle. Whatever her lady’s maid might dream, Carole was no future duchess. In large part because she did not plan to marry… and in equally large part because the Duke of Azureford was patently uninterested. He had thrown precisely one party and didn’t speak to Carole the entire time.
His obliviousness to her presence hadn’t stopped her from surreptitiously gazing at him. From her window, from their adjoining gardens, from across his mahogany supper table. Carole sighed. Dreaming about how different her life might have been was the whole reason she’d snuck off to sketch in her book in the first place. She hated feeling invisible.
As she was returning from the retiring room, someone bumped into her and she dropped her reticule. Carole had been the only one who saw her sketchbook fly out to skid across the ridiculously polished floor and into Azureford’s library.
Before she could recover it, Swinton the helpful butler “returned” the fallen volume to the appropriately color-coded section of the duke’s library shelves. Carole clenched her teeth as she turned up the duke’s front path. Why had his butler even been away from his post? She should’ve known right then that retrieving her book wouldn’t be easy.
At first it had seemed like a little luck was on her side. Azureford was leaving the next morning, thereby making it unlikely for him to stumble across her sketches. Particularly the brand new one of his front drawing room.
She couldn’t dart into the library and retrieve her book in front of so many witnesses without making it look like she was nicking one of the duke’s books in the middle of a party. Nor could she explain page after page of town landmarks populated by ale-swilling, cheroot-smoking ladies with snuffboxes and fashionable bonnets.
The only choice was to come back for it later. Thanks to the library’s helpful color-coding, she knew exactly which shelf housed her sketchbook. She could have it tucked in her reticule in sixty seconds.
If only she could get inside.
Carole motioned for Judith to stand behind her, then gave a sharp rap with the pristine brass knocker.
The door immediately opened to reveal an older gentleman with crafty blue eyes and a tuft of white hair. Azureford’s butler, Swinton.
“Good afternoon,” she began brightly. “I’ve come to—”
Judith elbowed her way up onto the front step with almost enough force to send Carole flying into the hedges.
Swinton didn’t blink.
Carole sent her lady’s maid a stern glare.
Judith made no response. Her attention was completely focused on the butler.
Carole rolled back her shoulders and tried again. “I may have lost an earring in the duke’s library during his soiree. Might I take a quick peek to see if I can find it?”
Swinton’s blue gaze slid from Judith to Carole. “His Grace’s party did not take place in the library.”
True. Carole swallowed hard. Blast it.
“Perhaps it wasn’t the library,” she said quickly. “Perhaps it was near the library. Perhaps—”
“Perhaps you believe His Grace’s household staff to be so incompetent in their posts that a lost earring would remain untouched upon the floor month after month?” Swinton inquired politely.
Carole swallowed. “I…”
…could not retrieve my sketchbook while the duke or his friend were occupying the cottage because I cannot risk witnesses.
“Miss Quincy abhors jewelry,” Judith giggled. Actually giggled. “Such a bear when it comes to dressing up at all. I cannot let her gad about town with one earring, can I? Surely a man like you wouldn’t wish such mortification on a girl like me.”
What in the completely-frozen-over hell was that about? Carole turned to her lady’s maid in disbelief. Judith could not possibly expect a breathy little voice and schoolgirl giggles would make the duke’s intractable butler—
“Very well,” Swinton said briskly. “Miss Quincy has five minutes.”