Darkness fell as Fancy Sheridan walked, lost in her thoughts. The daughter of a travelling tinker, she made her home on the open road. At present, the forest silver-plated by the moon was her room, the canopy of stars her ceiling, and the gravel-strewn path her carpet. She breathed in the crisp night air and tried to let go of her churning tension.
As part of a tinkering family, she was used to doing odd jobs to make ends meet. She’d inherited a plethora of skills from her da and dear departed ma. Tonight, she had found work in the kitchens of the village inn, and while scrubbing pots wasn’t her favorite pastime, she would have done the task with her usual verve…if the cook hadn’t accosted her.
Fancy, my arse. I know your kind. Tinkers ain’t no be’er than gypsies. The cook had cornered her in the larder, his greasy spittle scalding her cheek. Meet me behind the inn after you’re done wif the pots, and if you give me a nice ride up Cupid’s alley, then I’ll give you the lefto’er mutton to feed your beggarly kin.
She swiped a hand over her burning cheek, kicking up dust with her worn half-boots. How she wished she could have thought of some scathing retort to put him in his place. Instead, she’d been paralyzed by his menacing nearness and insulting offer.
Ma’s voice had rung in her head. Keep your ’ead down around settled folk, me girl. If there’s trouble, wait for an opportunity—and run.
Fancy had fled the instant she’d collected her meager pay from the innkeep. Her brother Godfrey, who’d also found work at the inn, was supposed to walk back with her to the cottage, but he got caught up dallying with one of the barmaids. Fancy had decided to journey back alone rather than wait for him and risk another encounter with the cook.
Humiliation and anger flared even though she was no stranger to this sort of treatment. At two-and-twenty, she had dealt with her share of blackguards who assumed she was easy pickings because she belonged to a travelling clan. Like Romany nomads, tinkers were oft treated with suspicion and hostility by settled folk. She’d developed a thick skin when it came to society’s prejudices, yet this latest degradation pierced her to the quick.
You know why it ’urts. Her throat swelled. Because it’s a reminder o’ your station in life. And why you’ll ne’er be good enough for the Duke o’ Knighton.
Reaching into the pocket of her patched skirts, Fancy closed her fingers around the button she kept as close as a secret. She knew it by touch: the carved ridges of the crest, the smooth circumference, the heft of precious metal. Like its owner, the button was the genuine article…and far too fine for the likes of her.
As she trudged along the wooded path, she couldn’t get Severin Knight, the Duke of Knighton, out of her head. She saw his rough-hewn handsomeness, his cool grey gaze. His eyes reminded her of the sky during a storm, hazy and opaque, with flashes of emotion that jolted her with tingly awareness. He was tall, muscular, and breathtakingly elegant, a study in refinement from the top of his dark head to the champagne shine of his boots.
More importantly, Knighton was a true nobleman, in action as well as in name. One could tell a lot about a man by how he treated others and, despite their differences in rank, His Grace treated her with courtesy and respect. His attention caused her pulse to race and her knees to wobble like a custard tart fresh out of the oven.
Unfortunately, Fancy didn’t have the same effect on him. While he was polite, he was here on a single-minded quest. He’d arrived five days ago to court her bosom chum, Bea.
Bea was Lady Beatrice Wodehouse. Although she was a duke’s sister, she lived as a reclusive spinster due to an accident that had scarred her cheek. When Fancy’s father had sought work on Bea’s estate five years ago, she and Bea had become instant friends, and the Sheridans had made Camden Manor, Bea’s Staffordshire estate, a stop on their yearly migration.
Knighton needed a duchess, and Fancy understood why he saw her friend as a sterling candidate. Scar or no scar, Bea was beautiful, with innate poise and aristocratic manners. Unfortunately for Knighton, Bea was currently being pursued by another gentleman, railway industrialist Wickham Murray, and Fancy could tell her friend was falling for the dashing Scot.
Which left Knighton out in the cold…and as far beyond Fancy’s reach as the glittering stars.
For how could a tinker’s daughter hope to win the heart of a duke?
Although Fancy had the soul of a dreamer, she also had both feet planted on the ground. She had seen enough of the world to know the way it worked. Only in the safety of her imagination could she weave her faerie tale ending. There, she could dream of a prince with stormy eyes falling madly in love with her. He would give her a kiss that would make the earth tremble and the oceans roar. Then he would sweep her off to a castle in the clouds, where they would live happily ever after.
In reality, she would be lucky to find some halfway decent fellow who respected her. Who saw her as more than a broodmare for his offspring and helpmate for the chores. Who might look at poor, ordinary Fancy Sheridan and see something…special.
A snapping twig punctured her reverie, her fantasy prince disappearing in a puff. She spun around, had an instant to glimpse a looming, hooded form. She felt a stab of terror, then something slammed into the side of her head. Pain exploded at her temple as she tumbled to the ground.
An instant later, she felt nothing at all.
Five days earlier
Riding up the manicured drive toward Camden Manor, Severin Knight reflected upon the irony that he was fulfilling an old dream. As a boy growing up in a London rookery, he had fantasized about becoming a gentleman. Those dreams had helped him to endure the cold, hunger, and other assorted miseries of poverty. At age fifteen, he’d been hired on as a stable boy by the noble Viscount Hammond, giving him a glimpse into what a life of money and privilege entailed.
The Hammonds were never cold or hungry. A fire burned in every hearth of their spacious residence, and they ate their meals in courses, never finishing the abundant dishes. They spoke in cultured tones and didn’t fight or worry about anything. While they each had their own private chambers, they never had to be alone if they didn’t wish to be. They had servants, guests, and each other. They existed in a realm of calm and harmony.
Watching through a window, Severin had seen a portrait of perfection. The Hammonds’ joy was painted in lavish strokes, the gilded frame of wealth separating them from the outside world. Everything about the family was beautiful…most of all Imogen.
The thirteen-year-old girl with the strawberry blonde curls had captured Severin’s adolescent heart from the moment he’d pushed her out of the path of an oncoming carriage. Her grateful papa had rewarded Severin with employment, but it had been Imogen who’d given him the resolve to better himself.
Because of her, he’d worked to pull himself out of the gutter. To amass the necessary wealth to live in her world. To become a gentleman worthy of her hand in marriage.
He supposed accomplishing two out of the three goals wasn’t bad.
He had lifted himself out of poverty, initially by working as a guard-for-hire, then investing his profits into manufacturing. He now owned factories in Spitalfields and beyond, employing hundreds of workers in the silk-weaving trade. His influence in Spitalfields was such that men and women of the neighborhood came to him when they needed help. Having been in their positions (and, frankly, worse ones), he did what he could. He loaned money, settled disputes, and saw that justice was served in his territory.
He had become a leader in his community, earning a seat at the table with other men of influence in London’s underworld. These men were called “dukes” for they were indeed considered nobility amongst the lower classes. Severin, in particular, was known as the Duke of Silk, a nod to his business interests and his smooth, collected manner.
Then a year ago, he’d made a startling discovery: not only was he a duke of the underworld, he was a bona fide duke. A team of solicitors had tracked Severin down and brought him to see Arthur Huntingdon, the dying Duke of Knighton…and the father Severin had never met.
Severin’s maman had kept his true origins a secret, all the way to her bitter end in Bedlam. On his deathbed, Arthur Huntingdon had explained that she’d done so in order to protect Severin. Knowing the sacrifices she’d made, how much she’d suffered because of his sire’s perfidy, had made Severin want to refuse the damned title.
A wiser part of him resisted the urge to cut off his nose to spite his face. It was too late to save his maman, but it wasn’t too late to claim what was rightfully his. There was a delicious irony, after all, in bringing about what his mother’s in-laws had done everything in their power to prevent. His Huntingdon grandparents would be turning in their graves to know that the son of a seamstress was now the holder of their illustrious titles and estates. That his blood would run in the veins of any future Knightons he chose to beget.
The inheritance hadn’t come off without a hitch, of course. He’d had to fight some distant cousin in the courts to prove that he was, indeed, the legitimate heir to the duchy. It had taken close to a year, but thanks to the help of an unexpected ally—his father’s older sister, Lady Esther, Countess of Brambley—he’d secured the title last month. According to his sire’s will, he’d inherited something else as well: the guardianship of four half-siblings in their teens, his father’s bastards by two different mistresses, both deceased.
Severin did not wish to be responsible for four young humans. He was a busy man; he had factories, territorial skirmishes, and diversified investments to manage. Furthermore, he had no clue what he was supposed to do with his father’s unruly by-blows. What did he know about having a family?
For some infernal reason, however, he couldn’t bring himself to abandon them. His father had kept his siblings on a property in France, and when Severin had arrived, their situation had been disgraceful. He’d turned to his Aunt Esther, but on this matter she was less helpful.
Your half-siblings are animals, she’d said succinctly. I am far too old to manage a menagerie. You need someone with the energy and connections to launch them into Society. Moreover, you are thirty years old and ought to be thinking about your future issue—an heir and a spare, at minimum. In short, Knighton, what you require is a wife.
She had advised him to start shopping for a duchess. Given that the Season was over, pickings would be slim, but there were still suitable candidates to be found in London. Severin, however, had neither the time nor the inclination to browse for a wife he wanted because that ship had sailed. Five years ago, Imogen had wed the Earl of Cardiff.
Which circled Severin back to the irony of the situation: now that he was rich, titled, and a catch for any lady, the only one he wanted was out of his reach.
Hence, he’d made this foray into Staffordshire. If he couldn’t have the woman he wanted, he would make do with one who met the basic requirements. As it happened, the Duke of Hadleigh, a gentleman for whom Severin had done favors in the past, had mentioned that he had a sister who would make an ideal Duchess of Knighton.
According to Hadleigh, his sister Lady Beatrice Wodehouse was beautiful, sensible, and the ripe age of four-and-twenty. Because of an accident that had left her scarred, Lady Beatrice led a cloistered life at Camden Manor, an estate she ran on her own. Severin did not give a farthing about the scar. What he cared about was that Lady Beatrice sounded level-headed and mature, the sort of woman who would welcome the marriage of convenience he had to offer.
Arriving at the manor, Severin saw that it was well-maintained, surrounded by graceful oaks tinged copper by autumn’s approach. The property spoke well of its mistress’s management abilities, and Lord knew he needed someone who would keep a firm rein on his siblings. The ivy-covered house had an elegant design, wings flanking the main building, sparkling pedimented windows adorning the structure.
Nothing was out of place…except perhaps for the girl arguing with the donkey.
The petite female and beast were blocking the front steps. The former stood with her back to Severin, her thick, glossy plaits of chestnut hair reaching her waist. She was scolding a grey donkey, which was sprawled on the gravel at the base of the stone steps, obstructing the entryway to the manor.
“You can’t just plant yourself there pell-mell, Bertrand,” she lectured the beast. “’Ow are folk supposed to enter the ’ouse? Get up.”
The donkey gave her a bored look, its black-tipped tail swishing idly.
“You ’eard me.” The girl planted her small hands on her hips. “Move along now.”
The beast stretched out and laid its head on the bottom step.
“You ain’t the only one who’s tired, Bertrand. But we’ve supplies that need to be delivered to the fields,” she went on. “Seeing as ’ow you’re the beast o’ burden, you’re supposed to be ’auling that cart yonder instead o’ me trying to ’aul you off the blooming steps.”
The donkey lifted its head, looked at her, and yawned.
“Sweet Jaysus,” she exclaimed. “Stop being such an ass.”
A muffled sound escaped Severin, startling him. He could not recall the last time he’d laughed. The female whirled to face him, delivering another dose of surprise. Because of her braids and short stature, he had underestimated her age. She was no girl but a woman.
A rather pretty one.
Her heart-shaped face was dominated by large, doe-brown eyes, her thick lashes fanning rapidly as she stared back at him. Her skin was sun-kissed, her cheeks tinted a charming rose. She had delicate features…except for her lips which were lush and plump, the color of crushed berries. Just above the left side of her mouth was a tiny beauty mark, nature’s way of punctuating temptation.
Beneath her serviceable brown frock, her bosom was full and high, her waist narrow enough for him to span with his hands. The fullness of her patched skirts hid her lower shape, but he would wager his factories that she was nicely rounded, with hips that would cradle a man as he plowed her. He became aware of a tightening in his own lower regions, the faint hum of lust in his veins.
Devil take it, he thought with a frown. What is the matter with me?
He did not make a habit of ogling women. He found it particularly distasteful when men took advantage of servants like this young female, who had a right to go about her duties without harassment. The fact that he’d entertained debauched thoughts about her was unacceptable and, frankly, baffling. He prided himself on self-discipline, his ability to keep his baser emotions and urges in check. This quality had allowed him to transform himself from a guttersnipe to a gentleman in the truest sense of the word.
Yet this female stirred his most primal depths. He’d never seen a mouth as carnal as hers…as kissable. He chalked up his reaction to the fact that it had been years since he’d experienced the sweetness of lips against his own. That was no excuse, however.
He dismounted, using the time to get himself in check.
“Beg pardon, miss,” he said with a nod. “I have come to pay my addresses to your mistress.”
The woman blinked at him. “I don’t ’ave a mistress, sir.”
“You are not in employ here?”
“I ’elp Bea when she needs me…” She furrowed her brow as if she were having trouble finding words. “But I ain’t ’er servant.”
“Whatever the case, I wish to go inside.” He eyed the donkey, now lightly snoring upon the steps. “Would you kindly get your beast to move?”
“I tried,” she said, sighing. “Bertrand doesn’t listen to anyone but my da.”
“If you don’t mind, I will have a go.”
“Are you certain?” She ran a dubious gaze over his clothes. Today his valet had dressed him in a charcoal frock coat, silver cravat, and Prussian blue waistcoat, his buff trousers tucking neatly into his polished boots. “When Bertrand gets angry, things can turn messy.”
“I can manage a donkey.” Having spent years mucking stables, he knew how to handle obstinate four-legged creatures. “The key is letting them know who is the master. Let me fetch something first.”
As he went to retrieve his secret weapon from his saddle bag, she said haltingly, “You’re not going to…’urt Bertrand, are you? ’E’s got a sensitive nature—”
“Ease your mind. I’ll not hurt the beast.”
He returned, finding her obvious relief oddly endearing. She was a tender-hearted thing if she cared about the troublesome ass. He couldn’t resist teasing her a little.
“I won’t need to use a whip, you see. Beasts sense and obey my natural authority.”
Her relief turned to skepticism. “Really.”
“Stand back and see for yourself.” Once she moved aside, he crouched next to the donkey. In his most ducal voice, he said, “I am your master, Bertrand, and you will do as I command. Arise, donkey.”
Bertrand sniffed, his ears flickering. His expression went from bored to slightly less bored. As Severin rose, the donkey followed suit. Hearing the servant girl’s astonished gasp, he hid a smile and lured the donkey away from the manor steps to the shade of a nearby tree.
“You did it.” The female followed them, her brown eyes shining with admiration.
“Did you doubt my abilities?” he asked in mock affront.
She bit her lip then nodded.
Her honesty was so enchanting that he asked, “What is your name?”
“Fancy Sheridan,” she said shyly.
The name suited her. Simple yet lovely, with a light-hearted ring to it.
“And you, sir?”
“Severin Knight,” he replied.
It was the name his maman had given him, true enough. He could have used his title. Yet being a duke was still new to him…and he wanted to prolong this unexpected moment of fun and freedom.
“It’s not that I didn’t trust in your abilities,” Miss Sheridan said earnestly. “But other than my da, I ’aven’t met any master o’ beasts—”
“The gent’s going to be a master o’ an angry beast if ’e doesn’t give Bertrand whate’er ’e ’as in ’is coat pocket,” a new voice announced.
Severin turned to see the arrival of a wiry, grey-bearded man. The fellow looked like an elf from a children’s story, his twinkling blue eyes peering out from behind a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles which sat crookedly on his nose. He wore a turquoise velvet smoking jacket and a plaid waistcoat lined with mismatched buttons. His cap sported colorful and clashing patches.
“Take me word for it,” he said to Severin. “A donkey be an excellent judge o’ character and, if you pass muster, you’ll ne’er ’ave a truer friend. To stay in Bertrand’s good graces, I suggest you live up to your end o’ the bargain.”
Knowing the jig was up, Severin removed the fruit glacés he’d hidden in his pocket, holding them out to Bertrand. The donkey swiped up the treats with its tongue, munching contentedly—as well it should. Those candied cherries came from a renowned confectionary in Paris, and they’d cost Severin an arm and a leg.
“Why, you’re no master o’ beasts,” the female said indignantly. “You’re a master o’ bribes.”
Severin tried to look penitent. At the very least, he managed not to laugh.
“I beg your pardon, Miss Sheridan.” He bowed. “I could not resist.”
“Be you wanting something ’ere at Camden Manor, sir?” the bearded fellow asked.
“This is Mr. Knight, Da,” Miss Sheridan said. “’E’s looking for Bea.”
“Milton Sheridan, of the tinkering Sheridans, at your service.” Her father kept his bespectacled gaze on Severin. “Be you wanting Miss Bea for a particular reason?”
Sheridan’s trade explained the odd attire, but Knight found the tinker’s suspicious manner odd.
“I have an introduction from her brother,” he said shortly.
“Ah. You be a friend o’ ’er family then.” Seeming reassured, Sheridan went on, “She’s in the fields, sir. ’Er barn caught fire last night, and she be there supervising the clean-up.”
A product of London’s slums, Severin had learned to trust his instincts for they’d saved him more than once. Something about the tinker’s guarded manner and the way he spoke of the barn fire stirred Severin’s nape. The last thing Severin needed was more complications. He should turn around, head back to London. He could take his aunt’s advice: do the pretty with eligible ladies until he found a wife to provide him with an heir and a spare before they both went their merry ways.
Severin was aware of Fancy Sheridan staring at him. For some reason, the look in her velvety eyes stirred the ashes of an old dream…one that he knew couldn’t be resurrected. He had given his heart to Imogen, and although she loved him back, she’d been forced to marry another.
Our love is rare, Knight. Like a flower I once saw at an exhibition. Imogen’s melodious voice floated through his head. The Queen of the Night blooms but once in a lifetime.
He felt a familiar, bittersweet pang. He’d had his chance at love and come to Staffordshire for a different purpose entirely. While happiness would not be his, he could still have the satisfaction of doing his duty. Of fulfilling the destiny that was the result of his maman’s sacrifice and that others had tried to steal from him.
He squared his shoulders. “Please direct me to Lady Beatrice.”