Book 3 in the >Heart of a Scandal Series
She lived by a strict set of rules…
Meredith Durant believes those who won’t marry, matchmake, and she’s made a notable career for herself helping young women find the perfect mate. Having suffered a broken heart years before, she’s quite content in her work and determined to never fall prey to love again. Her most recent job finds her working for the unlikeliest of households, never expecting her assignment would be Little Barry—except he’s not little anymore. He’s a grown man who leaves her breathless and wishing just maybe this time she could have a happy ending. But how can that happen when, once her job is done, she must watch him wed another?
He’s decided to break her rules: Barry Aberdeen, the future Duke of Gayle, knew his days of freedom were numbered. With his sister recently married, his mother turned her marital aspirations to him. She’s even gone as far as to hire a matchmaker. Worse, the matchmaker is a childhood friend–Meredith Durant. Only the rigid, serious creature was not the carefree girl he remembered. If he’s going to be saddled with a matchmaker, he’s going to have fun loosening Meredith’s too-tight chignon. What he doesn’t expect is how entranced he’ll be when those strands come falling down around her shoulders.
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There was nothing more alluring than a man with a book.
That allure, of course, was even greater when a tall, broadly powerful gentleman held a book of poems by Byron in the middle of a botanical garden.
No woman could resist this.
It would appear that universal truth held true even for matchmaker Miss Meredith Durant. Notoriously straitlaced, strict, and generally unaffected, she found herself hard-pressed not to peek at the stranger with tousled golden curls.
Though, to be accurate, she wasn’t really peeking.
She was blatantly staring. One of those bold looks that would cost her the hard-earned reputation she’d secured for herself and, along with it, any future work and security.
If the gardens were busy.
If there were passersby in the same area as she and the specimen before her.
If he weren’t engrossed in his book.
But he was engrossed, and his back was to her, and it was because of his fixation on Byron’s sonnets that Meredith was able to stare unabashedly.
Which was preposterous.
She, at nearly thirty-one years of age, didn’t stare—at anyone. Most certainly not a gentleman in tight-fitting black trousers and a tailcoat that, in just a shade deeper than red, gave an illusion of sin.
And yet, nothing about the stranger being here made sense. Sin didn’t belong at a horticultural society. It was also a universally known truth that places of science and study were entirely safe from scoundrels and scamps and rogues. Therefore, they were the only safe places to escort one’s charges, such as ladies who were still innocent, having hope in their hearts and entirely too impressionable minds.
The gentleman licked the tip of his finger and turned the page.
And then he began to read aloud.
“But mighty Nature bounds as from her birth;
The sun is in the heavens, and life on earth…”
Meredith’s eyes slid closed. My goodness. Her fingers reflexively went to the necklace she always wore at her throat, and she gripped it tight. The stranger’s voice was a deep, melodic baritone with the quality of warmed satin on a summer’s day. It brushed over her skin as real as a touch.
It was a heady moment when she’d believed herself long past heady moments.
Of course, that had been before him… Lord Captivating. Because there could be no other name for one such as him, a gentleman reading poetry at the Royal Horticultural Society. He proved that age-old warning she provided to each of her charges and their mothers at first meeting: A charming gentleman was a dangerous thing, and all women—all of them—could fall prey to one.
She, even with a heart long ago broken and then healed by a good hardening, proved no exception to those rules of weakness.
That reminder brought her eyes flying open.
Logic, which she’d always had in spades, urged her to flee.
“Flowers in the valley, splendor in the beam,
Health on the gale, and freshness in the stream.”
Alas, if the spell had been shattered and reality had intruded, why did her serviceable boots remain rooted to the ground? Why couldn’t she rush off in search of her charge, loose somewhere in the gardens?
His quiet reading stopped, and all that was left was the hum of his hushed words. Words that had, in the moment, felt as if he’d intended them for her. Which was further foolishness. Men, as a rule, didn’t intend any of those seductive words for her, the pinch-mouthed Lady Matchmaker, as she’d come to be known. The only one who had proven false, and that had been before she’d refashioned herself in life.
“Shall I read another?”
So quiet were those words spoken, she might have imagined them, a gust of the soft early summer wind, a compellation born of her own secret yearnings. His husky invitation tempted her with the promise of more Byron falling from his lips.
“If I do, love, will you remain standing there, staring?”
The truth slammed into her. He knew she was there. That was why he’d read those words. And selected that book.
Rogues. Rakes. Scoundrels. She knew all the tricks they employed to seduce, and yet, had allowed herself to be entranced.
“No need to be shy.”
Bringing her shoulders back, Meredith opened her mouth to deliver a stern dressing-down to the conceited bounder… when he turned to face her.
Shock and horror filled her, those keen sentiments battling for supremacy.
In the end, humiliation won out. A rush of heat painted her from the tips of her toes to the roots of her hair.
The gentleman widened his eyes. “Well, now I see why you are staring! Meredith Durant, as I live.”
Oh, saints be preserved on Saturday.
“Barrrry?” she said dumbly.
As in little Barry Aberdeen, with his voice prone to breaking, four inches shorter than she. Only… this man was a taller, wider, more masculine, more enticing, more… everything version of his younger self.
Her former best friend’s younger brother bore no hint of the bothersome sibling who’d long been underfoot.
With a fluid gesture, he whipped off his hat by its brim and sketched a bow over it. “A pleasure as always,” he said, flashing a flawless, gleaming, white smile. “And an unexpected one at that.”
Barry flipped his Oxonian with a flourish that would have impressed the jugglers at his family’s summer picnics and set the article atop his luxuriant strands. Luxuriant? Egad, this was Barry?
“Goodness, it’s been ages, Mare.”
Oh, God… that child’s moniker he’d had for her as a boy of three insisting she, a girl of seven, ride him atop her back ’round the nursery. Or the grounds. Or the parlor. Or the halls. In short, wherever he’d felt like, because even as a babe, he’d had an inherent sense that all wishes would be granted him as a future duke.
Alas, garrulous as he’d always been, he had no problem carrying on a conversation. “Missing all these years, and you’re here, right under my nose. How long has it been now?” he asked, so conversationally that she could almost believe they were the young pair bickering across the dessert table over the last cherry tart.
“Ten years,” she said softly. And much had come to pass since she’d been a young woman in the Duke of Gayle’s stables, crying in Barry’s arms. Her heart had been broken not by just one man, the man who’d proven faithless, but by two, the second being the father who’d died, leaving Meredith on her own and needing to begin again.
“Ten years,” he murmured almost wistfully. Then he looked at her as if seeing her for the first time in this garden. He lingered his gaze on her chignon. Her wire-rimmed spectacles. And then, ultimately, her puce dress. He grimaced. “You’ve… changed.”
She narrowed her eyes on him. Grimaced? He’d grimaced. Furthermore, she’d have to be deafer than Old Lucy, the mount who’d lived to near fifty in his family’s stables, to fail to hear the cringe-worthy edge to his judgment.
“Yes, well… time does that,” she said with all the aplomb one could muster when presented with one’s childhood nemesis all grown up and a splendid specimen of a man, while one found oneself… not at all splendid. Whatever she’d become was the product of what his family hadn’t done or been for her and her father.
“Would it be impolite, love, to ask how long you intended to stare without saying anything? Or…” He drifted closer, snapping his book closed as he walked. “Were you waiting for me to finally notice you?”
She choked. Good God, did she imagine the double-meaning there? Because she’d not—then or now—ever wanted Barry’s notice. “What are you doing here?”
He pressed a hand to his chest in mock affront. “Am I prohibited from visiting public gardens? Is there a scandal in it?”
“Of course not,” she said quickly. It was just that gentlemen didn’t normally visit botanical societies. That was one of the reasons she’d begun taking her charges to them.
“There you are!”
She froze as her charge came sprinting down the graveled path, her loose curls bouncing about her shoulders, her cheeks flushed, her eyes bright. In short, all the things that Meredith hadn’t been in ages and would never be again.
Also, in short, now the object of Barry’s keen notice.
Frowning, Meredith slid herself between them.
“Well, hullo,” Barry greeted with a rogue’s smile.
Her frown deepened. Over the years, Meredith hadn’t given much thought to Barry Aberdeen, the Marquess of Tenwhestle because, well… he’d simply always been Barry. Her former best friend’s little brother. A man who belonged to the family who’d turned out her father and seen them on their way. Nor did they move in the same social circles.
And now she knew why. Her charges did not company with a rogue keep.
Miss Saltonstall dipped her gaze and giggled. “I’m sorry. I was looking for my companion.”
Companion was the word used by Meredith’s employers so as to spare them the ignominy of hiring a matchmaker.
“Your… companion, did you say?” Barry slid his gaze back toward Meredith, so much interest and humor there that she gritted her teeth and nearly forgot every lesson on propriety and politeness she’d beaten into her brain.
“Oh, yes,” Miss Saltonstall whispered. “She is one of the best and most in demand.”
Just like that, her charge reduced Meredith to the status of object, which was no surprise. That was how those in Polite Society who wished to hire her services saw and treated her. It was, however, an altogether different matter for Barry to bear witness to her status. It was always your status. Even when you lived alongside him at the Duke of Gayle’s country seat.
“We should be going, Miss Saltonstall,” she said, her voice sharper than she’d intended, earning a sad little frown from her charge.
Barry, however, dropped an elbow on the side of the urn of roses, blocking the path forward so Meredith would be forced to turn her charge entirely around and march them off. “Far be it from me to tell you how to do your job, Miss Durant.”
“Good, then do not,” she gritted out.
“But this is where introductions are generally forthcoming,” he said in an overly loud, teasing whisper.
It was on the tip of her tongue to point out that she saved such introductions for respectable gentlemen in the market for a wife. And there could be no doubting, with his cocksure half grin and twinkling eyes, Barry was in the market for only one manner of woman. And it was decidedly not a debutante new to the market. Nonetheless, he was a marquess and a familial friend. Or he had been before his family had cut her family loose.
In the end, the bright-eyed debutante broke the tense impasse. “Miss Duranseau.”
They both stared at the girl.
“It is just that you called her Miss Durant,” the girl said, “and her name is, in fact, Duranseau.”
“You’re married?” Barry blurted.
Would this exchange never end?
“Miss. It is Miss Duranseau.”—Just as it had been since Meredith had begun a new life for herself and sought to sever all connections to the girl she’d been.—“Not Mrs.,” Miss Saltonstall whispered loudly, as if there could be no greater crime committed than a young woman being unwed. But then, that was generally Society’s opinion. It was also the reason Meredith, the most successful matchmaker, had been able to survive since her father’s passing.
“Fascinating,” Barry murmured, and in the gaze he turned once more on Meredith, there could be no doubting the veracity of that statement. He opened his mouth to speak, and before he said anything further that might raise questions about Meredith, she hurried to introduce him to Miss Saltonstall.
“Miss Saltonstall, may I present the Marquess of Tenwhestle. Lord Tenwhestle, my charge, Miss Saltonstall. Now, if I may—?”
Barry dropped another practiced bow, and despite the properness she’d drilled into herself, she couldn’t stop herself from rolling her eyes.
Not that he or Miss Saltonstall noticed. Both were entirely focused on each other.
“Is Miss Duranseau always this dour?”
“Oh, not at all,” the younger woman returned in a like whisper and without inflection, simply stating a fact. “She’s usually less dour than this.”
Barry laughed, and Miss Saltonstall joined in with her atrociously high-pitched giggle.
Meredith gritted her teeth. What did it matter if her charge was correct? Having cared for her sick father until he’d died and then having devoted every moment since to amassing funds with which to survive, she’d long ago accepted that those experiences had changed her. And yet, neither did she take to being teased by Barry in the middle of a public garden.
He looked in her direction and winked.
Barry, who for all the ways in which he had changed, proved remarkably the same—he knew just how to needle her.
“But she is quite good at her job,” her garrulous and painfully innocent charge confided.
That brought one of Barry’s golden brows winging up. “Indeed?”
Meredith cursed her pale cheeks and the telltale blush burning them up even now.
“This is where you’ve been?” he asked. “In London?” For the first time since they’d collided at the Royal Horticultural Society, he displayed real curiosity and not the practiced teasing he’d perfected in their time apart.
A memory traipsed in of Barry her last night in Berkshire.
Will I ever see you again?
Given her work, she’d expected their paths would one day cross. Just… not in this way.
Miss Saltonstall glanced between them. “You… know one another, then?”
“Yes.” Barry spoke over Meredith’s denial.
At the conflicting responses, the girl’s furrowed brow creased all the more. “I… see?” Her tone indicated anything but.
“We rode together as children,” he said smoothly, and as Miss Saltonstall looked to Meredith, Barry winked.
Oh, the bounder. Rode together, indeed. If her cheeks grew any hotter, she was going to catch fire.
“Isn’t that right, Ma—” Meredith leveled him with a look, and he wisely supplanted the familiar moniker with, “Miss Duranseau?”
“Quite, my lord.” It was curiously the first time she’d ever referred to Barry in that formal way. He’d simply always been… Barry. Emilia’s younger, underfoot brother. Life invariably changed everyone and everything, though.
Silence fell, and Meredith took that as the cue to end her—their—meeting with the young marquess. She sank into a curtsy. “It was so very good meeting you again, my lord,” she murmured, and her charge dropped a flawless curtsy to match.
Berry jammed his hat atop his head. “The same, Miss Duranseau,” he murmured in the silken tones he’d adopted moments ago while reading Byron, when he hadn’t known who she was. Only now he knew…
He winked again, and tamping down a groan of disgust with herself, she turned on her heel, took Miss Saltonstall by the hand, and marched off.
As Meredith and her charge took their leave of the garden, Meredith felt one certainty: No good could come from being around the grown-up version of Barry Aberdeen, the Marquess of Tenwhestle’s once-troublesome self. None at all.
And given the gentleman’s roguish existence, there was little likelihood she’d have to worry about seeing him again.