Nobody's LadyBy: Annabelle Anders
To my daughter Amanda Lei (Manny),
who helps me with edits
even though she hates romances…
An Inauspicious Beginning
An isolated road southwest of London, March 1824
Michael Redmond, the eighth Duke of Cortland (with several other titles to boot), tipped his flask upside down and scowled when nothing came out.
The day had begun with so much promise!
En route to London, he and his dedicated man of business, Mr. Martin, had been dozing peacefully. They’d just finalized the details amassed within the mountain of paperwork they carried with them—hundreds of pages the duke was to present to Parliament in support of his amendment. They’d spent the entire winter gathering the evidence.
And now it was gone.
As was his carriage. As were his horses, his jacket. And his boots! Hic. A man ought never to be without his favorite boots!
“Damn bloody highway bobbers.” Thick and slow, Michael’s tongue refused to cooperate. “Highway mobbers—rob—bers. Robbers.”
They’d stolen everything. And, Devil take it, Michael had failed to carry his pistols today!
The robbers had dangled from branches hanging over the road, dropped onto the carriage, and without a single shot fired, overpowered his outriders.
What good was an outrider who could be disabled so easily? Michael had been tempted to deliver a tongue-lashing and sack every last one of them on the spot, but in hindsight, foiling such an attack would have been nearly impossible.
In addition to that, Michael was a fair-minded employer.
Arty and…What was the other one called? Cam, that’s right. Decent fellows, really. If not for Arty, there would have been no whiskey! In fact, both outriders, as well as his driver, had just so happened to have flasks of spirits hidden in their clothing. Clever fellows…And Arty had withdrawn not one, but two, from his breeches. Lucky for him.
Catching up from behind, Arty fell into step beside him. He must have astutely realized his employer was out of drink for he took the empty flask from Michael’s hand and replaced it with another. Then, putting a heavy arm around him, he urged them forward. Hiking for hours now, Michael no longer noticed the mud and sludge oozing between his toes. He leaned into his servant as they proceeded along the highway. Stumbling and swaying, they would likely cover the width of the road as well as the length of it, but this was of no matter. Surely, the inn was around the next bend!
“A leg shackle at the end of the season, eh, Your Grace? How about some advice for the wedding night?” Arty slapped Michael on the back in a jovial manner. He was apparently beyond comprehensible thought at this point. As was Michael. For under normal circumstances, no servant would have broached such a subject with the duke—ever. Michael, by necessity and inclination, was a private man. He never discussed personal matters with anybody, including his fiancée. What was her name? Oh, yes, Lady Natalie.
All but Martin broke into uproarious laughter. Of course, as his personal servants, they were well aware he’d not led a celibate life. Many a night, they’d waited for him down the street from the home of a high-priced courtesan or a beautiful and lonely widow, while he’d found pleasure inside. They’d known not to gossip about his activities, however, as he demanded discretion from those he employed. Damned if he would provide fodder for the busybodies of the ton.
But ah, no, his bride need not worry.
Michael shook his head in a vain attempt to clear his thoughts. He’d kissed her, hadn’t he? Oh, yes, upon her acceptance of his proposal.
And he’d danced with her often, as would be expected throughout the upcoming season. At the end of May, they would marry. It would be the wedding of the year. The highlight and grand finale. None of it could be avoided. He’d signed the contracts. He would not disappoint her father.
Surely she wasn’t frigid! He hoped not anyhow. But, a niggling voice reminded him, whenever he was with her, he never felt any…sizzle.
Likely, she was coy, shy—too innocent to know the mechanics of it, even. He’d have to teach her. Hopefully she would be willing.
With Lilly, there had been plenty of sizzle.
Lightning struck nearby, and thunder boomed closely in its wake. A few sprinkles began to fall. Rain? But of course, it would rain! Why ever would it not?
That was what he got for thinking her name. He knew better than to allow his thoughts to drift in that direction. More thunder grumbled in the distance.
Must be the drink. He hadn’t allowed himself to think of her for years, nearly a decade in fact. Or so he tried to convince himself.
Michael refused to allow his thoughts to linger on…her.
He was a different man now, betrothed to…whatshername.
Lady Natalie! Yes—everything a duchess ought to be. Poised, elegant, of noble birth, and beautiful. She was the daughter of one of the most powerful men in all England. But he could not picture her face. Instead he remembered golden eyes. Oh, hell, now he was becoming maudlin. Tipping back his head, he took another long draw of the whiskey. Very good stuff, really, quite excellent.
In a deliberate attempt to steer his thoughts away from his upcoming nuptials, Michael broke into verse. Recognizing the old tune, Arty, Cam, and John joined in with ribald enthusiasm.