One Winter with a Baron

Book 12 in the >Heart of a Duke Series

A clever spinster: 
Content with her spinster lifestyle, Miss Sybil Cunning wants to prove that a future as an unmarried woman is the only life for her. As a bluestocking who values hard, empirical data, Sybil needs help with her research. Nolan Pratt, Baron Webb, one of society’s most scandalous rakes, is the perfect gentleman to help her. After all, he inspires fear in proper mothers and desire within their daughters.

A notorious rake:
Society may be aware of Nolan Pratt, Baron’s Webb’s wicked ways, but what he has carefully hidden is his miserable handling of his family’s finances. When Sybil presents him the opportunity to earn much-needed funds, he can’t refuse.

A winter to remember: 
However, what begins as a business arrangement becomes something more and with every meeting, Sybil slips inside his heart. Can this clever woman look beneath the veneer of a coldhearted rake to see the man Nolan truly is?

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Chapter 1

London, England
Winter 1819

Baron Webb was a rake, in dun territory and, at best, a mediocre sibling. As such, no respectable, unmarried lady in all of Polite Society desired him.

Except Miss Sybil Cunning. To her, he was perfect for those very reasons.

He also happened to be one of the sole remaining gentlemen who’d not departed for the countryside this London Season. As such, it had drastically reduced her pool of gentlemen of which to select from.

Nonetheless, he would do. He would have to.

The winter wind snapped the fabric of Sybil’s skirts about her ankles. She swept her gaze purposefully over the barren grounds of Hyde Park. Land that just two months earlier had been overflowing with riders, couples, and beleaguered nursemaids, sat empty with nothing more than the snow-covered trees as silent company.

The baron was rumored to ride at this hour. Of course, gossips had been wrong on any number of scores and she, herself, was prime evidence of that very fact. She, the nine and twenty-year-old goddaughter to the Dowager Marchioness of Guilford, had been expected to wed the Marquess of Guilford. The gossip rags couldn’t have been more wrong on that score.

She grimaced. Not that she had wished to marry the gentleman. Oh, Miles, a childhood friend, was and always had been nice enough. Polite. Proper. Courteous. And hopelessly boring as every last nobleman who’d seen nothing more than a plump, bespectacled, bluestocking. No doubt, the very reason her mother had hoped they’d make a match together. Because that was, after all, the way the world saw her.

Sybil was the logical, practical bluestocking. A lady who’d never done a remotely frolicy thing in her life and wouldn’t know the meaning of pleasure, joy, or excitement outside the words she read in her books.

Or that is how her well-meaning sister had phrased it. Exactly how she phrased it. And as it would have been very Sybil-like to point out that frolicy was, in fact, not a word, she’d let go of that particular detail and, instead, fixed on the accusation there. Two sentences. A handful of words. And just like, that she had questioned her contented-until-then existence.

That was why she was here, seeking Baron Webb out. For if anyone knew anything of an immersive, feeling existence, it would certainly be one of Society’s wickedest rakes.

“Where is he?” she muttered under her breath, the soft utterance carrying in the winter still. Surely she’d not been mistaken. She was nothing if not meticulous in her details and planning on all matters, the least of which being helping her father with the upkeep of his botany records and Mother with the running of the household.

Pushing her spectacles back on her nose, she fished her cold fingers inside her cloak pocket. Her hand knocked against the heavy sack of coins resting there. Ignoring them, she reached instead for the small scrap. She fumbled to make her gloved digits move enough to snag the page and then pulled it free. Teeth chattering, she skimmed the already well-memorized clipping from The Times.

It is rumored that Baron Webb will be forced to sell his prized chestnut mount. It is well-known by all of Society that Webb cares for the creature more than even members of his own family. As is evidenced by his daily rides through Hyde Park every morning at nine o’clock, regardless of the weather.

Yes. No mistake there. Refolding the page, Sybil stuffed the sheet back inside her green velvet cloak. Every morning. Regardless of weather. A gust of wind whipped snow into her face and she brushed the flakes from her lashes, blinking them from her eyes.

Well, mayhap not a raging snowstorm. Mayhap that was entirely too much for a nobleman devoted to his horse and morning rides. Rides that, given the papers were, at best, short-lived. Sybil chewed her lip. Or worse, mayhap the gentleman had finally abandoned London for his country estate as the peers were wont to do. All the peers except her own family who lingered in London until the day before Christmas. Mother’s distaste for the English countryside was so at odds with her husband and two daughters’ love of Leeds. Alas, in their family of four, not even the Viscount Lovell had a say or control. Despite the unfair fate women suffered through in a patriarchal society, the Viscountess Lovell controlled every and any aspect of the family’s decisions with Father quite content to sit in his office and pore over his botany books, ignoring his wife.

As such, Sybil had concluded she had at least a fortnight to: one, bring Baron Webb around to her plan. And two, put a test to her very existence and, at last, have empirical evidence that, with her books and without a husband, her life could never be fuller.

Another sharp gust whipped at her skirts, battering the velvet. Sybil shivered and huddled inside the garment. It wasn’t that she was one of those self-pitying ladies who bemoaned her spinster’s state. She didn’t. She was, after all, the more practical of the three Cunning sisters. If a lady could not marry a good, respectable, honorable gentleman who hopelessly loved her…well, there really was no point in marrying.

What she did search for, however, was some sliver of proof that there was nothing more out there that she was, in fact, missing—a full, immersive existence, compared to the full life with her books and lectures she lived.

Which is why she required Baron Webb’s help. Desperately. In her scheming and planning, she’d not anticipated the possibility that he’d not be here. Nor could she simply go about crafting a new plan, involving an entirely new gentleman when so few remained in London. Time was of the essence. Sybil didn’t wish to return for a new Season and, yet, she needed a notorious rake or rogue to conduct her research. “B-blast and double blast,” she mumbled. Of course she didn’t expect a rake would be one of the punctual sorts. She had, however, believed he’d, at least, adhere to that regard for time for the sake of his own pleasures. And by the papers’ accounts, riding was among his greatest.

Gathering her hem, she stomped through the dusting of white that covered the riding path. Where could he be? Surely something was sacred to the gentleman? For her father, that something was his daughters and his flowers. For other men, it was their mistresses or their club memberships. She’d wrongly assumed the papers had proven correct in Baron Webb’s love for his damned horse.

She stood shivering, while the moments passed by and not a single visitor strolled the park. Granted, a rapidly worsening storm hardly made it stroll-worthy weather. “Or ride worthy,” she said at last, resisting defeat.

Don’t be a foolish twit. He is not coming. He was, no doubt, one of those lords who didn’t do anything that would make himself slightly uncomfortable. She rubbed the numbed tip of her nose and then quickly dusted her gloved knuckles over the dripping appendage. Whereas her? Well, she’d always been of a strong constitution and a practical nature. Her father’s pride. Her mother’s woe. Her youngest sister’s admiration.

Squinting into the whorl of snowflakes drifting down to the earth and blanketing the already covered path, Sybil accepted the unfortunate truth—he was not coming.

Logic suggested she return home. Fair exchange and no robbery. No one, Baron Webb included, the wiser to the spinster bluestocking who’d attempted to track him down in Hyde Park. His not being here was surely Fate’s way of intervening on her behalf.

She chewed the tip of her gloved finger, worrying the damp fabric. And yet, if she abandoned her plans and returned home to her family’s comfortable townhouse and carried on her predictable life, then it was sure to be the only life she’d ever know. Yes, this was her last opportunity. Or rather, he represented her final chance to experience anything and everything she might have otherwise missed in her time in London—any of the excitement, adventure, or pleasures. All of it. And in the end, she was confident Baron Webb would help her prove that, despite her younger sister Aria’s lamentations, Sybil had, in fact, missed nothing. She could then go on living her life free of regrets and wonderings.

Sybil glanced around. Of course, he couldn’t have made it easier in simply being here when the papers said he was given to his regular morning rides.

Blasted, unpredictable rakes.

Then, that is precisely who I am seeking—an exciting rake or rogue.

With a sigh, Sybil marched through the park, determination fueling her long strides. She had a date with a rake. Even if he did not yet know it.

Now it was just a matter of finding him.

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