Sexy Sophisticated Historical Romance
Denford and Windermere on The Road Together
Hanover Square, London, December 31st, 1801
The Duke of Denford breakfasted in his bedchamber wearing a red embroidered silk dressing gown lined with sable. Acquired from a Russian prince in exchange for a small but exquisite Watteau drawing, it was the most colorful garment Julian possessed. Also the warmest. London had enjoyed its usual cold, damp December and the tons of coal consumed by Fortescue House imperfectly warded off the chill.
Reluctant to remove furs designed to withstand the winds of the Steppes, Julian stood looking out at the frosted foliage of his neglected garden, and the equally subdued but better tended patch of land next door. When he moved into the London house of the Dukes of Denford, the best thing about it had been the next door neighbor, Lady Windermere. But the return of the Earl of Windermere had put an end to cozy trysts through the garden wall before they’d even started. Cynthia had reconciled with her husband and it was Damian, damn him, who walked with the lovely countess in the evening light and disappeared with her into their house, not Julian’s.
A figure emerged from Windermere House, clad in a cloak of Prussian blue with a white fur collar. Walking as briskly as her ungainly bulk would allow, Cynthia, Lady Windermere took her morning constitutional alone. Damian must be out attending to his government duties. The man had grown up to be a paragon of virtue.
Julian was tempted, very tempted.
Not that he desired her now, but he did miss her. They had been friends as well as potential lovers and there was nothing he’d like better than to run next door for coffee and good-natured sarcasm. Good-natured on the lady’s part. But a year ago he’d sworn that for once in his life he’d be good. He kept his word and only called on Lady Windermere when her husband was present. If proof were needed that he was no longer in love with Cynthia, it was the contrast between his own demeanor and Windermere’s. Damian continued to gaze at his wife as though he would like to eat her, despite the fact that she appeared to have swallowed a carthorse.
“Pack a bag for a couple of nights,” he told his servant. “I’ve decided to accept Lady Morris’s invitation for the remainder of Christmas.”
As he took a last glance outside Cynthia put a hand to her back and looked up, startled, but not at him. Damian must have come home. Julian turned his attention to the sky and dressed quickly for winter travel. He hoped he could make the twenty-mile journey before the clouds acted on their threat.
Sudden decisions were apparently unwise on New Year’s Eve. It was almost noon before a post chaise was available. As he descended the front steps of Fortescue House, servants spread straw on the street in front of the house next door.
“Has Her Ladyship been brought to bed?” he asked the Windermere footman.
“Yes, Your Grace. The doctor is here.”
More than ever Julian was glad to get out of town, despite a darkening sky and a postboy surly at being called away from the fire. Cynthia was Damian’s wife and giving birth to Damian’s child. It was no business of his. He would leave the Windermeres to their timely nativity and console himself in the welcoming arms of Lady Morris, who had been casting her line in his direction since the day he became Duke of Denford. She wouldn’t expect more than a jolly rogering and neither would he. The reason he’d never succumbed to her advances before was her indifference as a conversationalist.
To hell with conversation. All Julian wanted for Christmas was sweaty relief leading to oblivion.
The chaise bounced its way through Surrey to Croydon where they changed horses and postboys. Julian huddled into his topcoat, shaken by every rut or hole in the road. Little more than an hour now, he calculated, as long as the desultory snowflakes didn’t turn serious. In Julian’s experience Yuletide jollity was a delusion of the feeble-minded—or the doggedly optimistic like Cynthia Windermere—so he’d spent the last week attending to business. But he could put up with half of the twelve days of Christmas. His spirit, if not his body, warmed a little at the thought of a fire, good food and wine, and the grateful surprise of Marjorie Morris.
A jolt interrupted his pleasant rumination and threw him forward as the chaise drew to an unexpected halt. An angry shout assaulted his ears. The road to Brighton was not generally beset by highwayman, but who knew what horrors lurked during the Christmas season. Traveling with no weapon but his walking stick, he his ducal derriere wouldn’t end up in a snowdrift.
“I must get to the nearest posting inn.” The voice came close enough to decipher and possibly to identify. Could it possibly be?
It was. The carriage door swung open letting in the cold air and the Earl of Windermere’s handsome head.
“Denford? Thank God.”
“I never thought to hear you offer prayers of gratitude for my presence,” Julian drawled. The company of his former best friend, without the leavening influence of his beautiful wife, cast a damper over his mood. “Wait, a minute. Why aren’t you in London?”
“I’m trying to get back there. The Foreign Secretary, for reasons of his own, summoned me urgently for a conference where he’s spending the Christmas holiday near Penhurst.”
“So much more civilized to remain in town,” Julian murmured.
Windermere wasn’t in the mood for badinage. “I thought I could be back in a few hours, but my carriage broke a wheel. I’m glad to see you.” The last sentence came thorough gritted teeth.
The comforts of Lady Morris receded and Julian bowed to his fate. “You’d better get in. I’ll take you back to Croydon. I’m only doing this because you’re about to be a father, else I’d leave you in the snow. The doctor had arrived when I left town.”
“Oh Goodness! Cynthia! Is she all right?”
Pushing past the barely coherent earl, Julian addressed the postboy. “Lord Windermere needs to hire a chaise back to London. We’ll return to the inn.”
“Won’t find one,” the boy said, brushing the snow off his grizzled beard. Boy was obviously a courtesy title. “Reckon mine were the last pair of horses in Croydon,” he went on with gloomy satisfaction, enumerating the high demand for New Year’s travel and the shortage of suitable animals.
“Then you’ll have to take me back to London.” Windermere had joined them.
“I have other plans.” He’d do it if necessary but Julian wasn’t pleased. Turning on his heel to face his adversary and tease him a little before acquiescing, he faced tightly determined features and the butt of a pistol. Windermere had traveled prepared for trouble.
“Going to shoot me, Damian, and leave me in the ditch?”
“I should have done it years ago.”
“Probably. Get in the chaise.” The postboy was staring fascinated. “We’re going to London. If you make it in good time I’ll double your charges.”
When they were young, ten years ago and more, Julian had spent hours in carriages with Damian, either alone or with Robert and Marcus, as they traipsed around Europe raising hell. Those had been the good days. There’d been no discomfort or tedium in travel with friends who never ran out of things to say to each other. They were ever eager for the next city, the next adventure.
Now the confines of the hired chaise imprisoned two grown men who were nominally on speaking terms but had never forgotten their quarrels and settled their differences.
“Do you realize,” Julian said, breaking a silence of some minutes, “that you have dragged me away from an agreeable tryst?”
Damian had been staring ahead in palpable anxiety. His mind was on his wife and the future, not their tangled history. “A married woman, I suppose,” he said with an edge in his voice.
“One with a complacent husband. The best kind.”
“As long as you stay away from my wife, I don’t care what you do.”
“Your wife isn’t interested in me.”
Damian smiled faintly, the image of a different kind of complacent husband. “Finally I won a woman from you.”
“Hardly the first time. You were the handsome one.” The girls had always been mad for a rich, good-looking heir to an earldom.
“No,” Damian said, shaking his head. “At first they were attracted by my appearance and title. But in the end it was you they wanted.”
That was a startling thought. Julian had never lacked for female company when he wanted it, but he had no illusions about his over-sized nose, his lack of fortune, and, until recently, his obscure birth. “The ladies like to flirt, that’s all. Especially those with delightfully loose morals.”
“Even they prefer a challenge. You were unattainable.”
Julian gave a crack of laughter. “I assure you I was not.”
“You bedded them but you never gave a damn. They found it irresistible to try and make you care. I doubt you’ve ever been in love.”
“At the risk of starting a fight in these close quarters, I may have been in love with Cynthia. She is very loveable.”
“Indeed she is,” Damian said evenly, declining the provocation. “I do believe there was more than mere spite in your pursuit of her. Are you heartbroken?”
“I have no heart. You know that.”
“It wasn’t always so. What changed?”
They approached dangerous territory where Julian refused to tread. Damian was right; once he’d felt as deeply as any normal man. But he’d had his fortune to make and ambitions that meant more to him even than friendship. Certainly more than any woman. When a self-seeking decision had fatal consequences he’d gone a little mad. Then he’d walled off his heart to preserve his sanity.
True to form, he’d made the selfish choice. He’d blamed Damian for their estrangement yet if he were honest with himself he had to accept his own share of culpability. He pondered a response to Damian’s question. Without explaining what had changed or—perish the thought—indulging in a lot of sentiment soul-searching, could he repair the friendship that had once meant so much?
For the second time in an hour he was thrown forward by a sudden halt. Alighting, he discovered the cause of the delay: a body in the road.
While the postboy remained stolidly on the leader’s back, the two passengers hurried to investigate. Had it been a corpse, Julian suspected Windermere would have left it in the ditch rather than brook the delay of summoning the authorities. But the obstacle was very much alive, judging by the moans emitted from beneath a shabby brown cloak. Also female. The cause of her distress was patent once Julian knelt and grasped her shoulder.
“What is it, Madam, can you stand?”
She shrieked and clutched a very large belly. If he wasn’t mistaken the woman was with child, but not for much longer.
Damian stood among the snowflakes looking so comically nonplussed Julian would have laughed if he hadn’t been cold and irritable and faced with the kind of situation that would nonplus any man. The best he could do was to draw the woman off the snowy ground and hold her against him for warmth until she was able to speak. Not that her gasped story in a soft country accent helped much. She had no husband or lover to care for her. She’d lost her position as a maid when her belly swelled and her father had refused to take her in. She had neither home nor money and expected to die in the ditch.
“It’s better that way,” she whispered.
“We can’t leave you here. Damian, help me get her into the carriage.”
Windermere had stood by in frustration while Julian talked to the girl. Another woman in labor was too much for him to cope with. “What are we going to do with her?” he asked hopelessly.
“What would Cynthia do?”
With obvious effort, Damian examined the problem. “She’d take her to Flowers Street.” Cynthia maintained a home for unmarried women and their children in the rough Spitalfields area of London. “But we don’t have time. I must get to Hanover Square. Can’t we leave her at an inn?”
“Pull yourself together. Do you want to confess to your wife that you left an abandoned woman to the dubious care of strangers?”
Of course he did not. Without another word, Damian helped Julian settle the girl in the chaise. There was scarcely room for three seated on the bench seat. Since their passenger, who had given her name as Jenny, couldn’t be comfortable upright, they propped her in one corner with the folded carriage rug as a pillow. The two men squeezed onto the rest of the seat with her legs resting across their laps.
If Julian had thought their situation awkward before, he’d underestimated his plight. When he’d contemplated physical intimacy that day he hadn’t been thinking of a pregnant maid and Damian Windermere as candidates for his attentions. With a nod of regret to the arts of Lady Morris, he turned his mind to the present and another cry from Jenny who clutched his arm as the pain hit her.
“You’re about to be a parent so you know something about childbirth, don’t you?” he asked.
“Not much,” Damian said. “We engaged a midwife, two experienced nurses, and the best doctor in London. The latter told me I would be in the way and should retire to the library, or better yet my club, while my wife labored.”
“Shall I drop you at White’s, then?”
“Very funny. I have no intention of being absent while my child is born. This must be the slowest pair of horses in the South of England.” Damian’s nerves were showing the strain, not helped by the counterpoint of Jenny’s moans. “She says her pains just started but suppose she gives birth before we reach London? What would we do?”
“I have no idea. We’d have to manage,” Julian said.
He started to laugh and after a few seconds Damian joined him. “What a farce,” the latter said. “If we saw this in a play we’d call it absurd.”
“Let’s hope it continues amusing. If the baby comes soon, this poor girl will be left to our tender care.”
“Do you remember the time in Rome that Robert fell into the Trevi Fountain, was knocked unconscious, and nearly drowned? We had no idea how to revive him.”
“Dragging him through the streets was hard enough, without the complication of avoiding the papal police. Why exactly were they chasing us?”
“I believe Marcus had seduced a cardinal’s mistress.”
“Been seduced more like it.”
As they sighed in unison another layer of constraint between them melted. Still, Julian couldn’t expect Damian to have much on his mind besides the personal drama unfolding at his home. As Jenny’s pains came more frequently, Damian winced at every gasp.
“I had no idea,” he said.
“Definitely better to retreat to your club,” Julian riposted, not unsympathetically. Childbirth seemed like a nasty business. He didn’t even want to think about how the baby got out.
Happily, they weren’t required to turn midwife before the chaise reached Hanover Square. Damian tore into his house and ascended the stairs, two at a time, leaving Julian to help Jenny inside at a more sedate pace and turn her over to the care of Cynthia’s housekeeper.
“How is Her Ladyship,” he enquired of the butler. Like good butlers the man knew what was going on in his house, even in the thoroughly female sphere.
“I believe the time is near,” he said.
Julian wavered. There was no need for him to stay. Indeed he had no business at Windermere House. Yet waiting in his own chilly mansion for news that Cynthia had come through her ordeal held no appeal. Maybe Damian could use the company.
“I’ll wait in Lord Windermere’s library,” he said.
“Very good, Your Grace. I will bring a bottle of the best brandy.” It was just as good as White’s.
Before long Damian appeared, the last trace of his usual sleek perfection disintegrated. As must be proper for a man expecting imminent fatherhood, his hair was disheveled, his neckcloth undone.
“They won’t let me see her,” he said. “But I could hear her through the door. My God, Julian. What have I done?”
The obvious answer was neither seemly nor helpful. “Have a glass of brandy,” Julian said.
Damian had more than one while he paced around the room, confiding his love and fears for his wife. Julian sipped and listened and let him talk. The last time the pair of them had been alone in this room together, they’d emerged with black eyes and bloody noses. The anger that had come to a head that day, almost exactly a year ago, had faded and now any lingering heat dispersed, to be replaced by a different kind of warmth. Perhaps because of this New Year’s Eve comedy, Julian had lost a mistress but regained a friend.
After not too long—the father-to-be was still capable of walking—the doctor came in. “Congratulations, my lord. You have a son.”
“Cynthia?” Damian growled.
“Tired but well. An easy birth. You may see her for a short time, then she will wish to rest.”
Before he left, Damian came over and shook his hand. “I’m glad you were here, Julian,” he said and hurried after the doctor.
Julian remained seated by the fire, not ready to depart though his role in the day’s events had been played out. He spared a passing thought for Jenny and hoped she’d come through as well as her hostess. Had he been a praying man, he’d have offered thanks for Cynthia’s safe delivery. He didn’t love her but her friendship mattered. A lot. And so, he realized, did Damian’s. It wouldn’t be the same as the heady years when they’d been as close as only youth can be, joined in the excitement of boys discovering the world and becoming men. Damian had another kind of love now, a deeper and more important one. Julian’s attachment to the Windermeres embraced both of them, as a couple.
That pang of dissatisfaction could surely not be envy. He’d never had the least desire to procreate and he wasn’t looking forward to the inevitable moment when he would be expected to admire the son and heir, who would no doubt be as noisy and unattractive as every infant Julian had ever encountered. Neither did he intend to marry.
Finally he could see an end in sight to his legal entanglements. Perhaps the year 1802 would see him rich and happy at last. Not that he deserved it, but it had been nine years. Could he not steal a measure of content?
Find out what happens to Julian in the coming year in THE DUKE OF DARK DESIRES.