Book 4 in the >Lords of Honor Series
Richard Jonas has loved but one woman–a woman who belongs to his brother. Refusing to suffer any longer, he evades his family in order to barricade his heart from unrequited love. While attending a friend’s summer picnic, Richard’s approach to love is changed after he shares a passionate and life-altering kiss with a vibrant and mysterious woman. Believing he was incapable of loving again, Richard finds himself tempted by a young lady determined to marry his best friend.
Gemma Reed has not been treated kindly by the ton. Often disregarded for her appearance and interests unlike those of a proper lady, Gemma heads to a house party to win the heart of Lord Westfield, the man she’s loved for years. But her plan is set off course by the tempting and intriguing, Richard Jonas.
A chance meeting creates a new path for Richard and Gemma to forge– but can two people, scorned and shunned by those they’ve loved from afar, let down their guards to find true happiness?
Miss Gemma Reed was neither pretty nor talented.
As a young girl she’d attributed her nursemaid’s lamentations to, well, meanness. At eight and ten years of age when Gemma had made her Come Out, however, the finding had been unequivocally handed down by the ton.
She was ugly.
Or, that is what had been decided and written with regular frequency by Polite Society during her first Season. Now, three Seasons later, the verdict had proven the same. It was all the more bothersome when a young lady was saddled with a name like Gemma, when she was the farthest thing from a Diamond. As the papers had so cleverly, or rather, un-cleverly, pointed out.
Gemma wrinkled her nose. In her estimation, ugly was quite harsh.
The carriage hit a large bump on the old Roman road leading to Somerset and her copy of Georges Cuvier’s Le Règne Animal tumbled to the floor. Gemma winced and bent to retrieve it.
She sat up just as her brother’s black barouche bounced once more. With a sigh Gemma abandoned her reading and put aside the small tome. Blasted carriage ride. She discreetly rubbed the spot just above her derrière.
Mother glanced over and frowned. “Do stop touching yourself. It is impolite.” Before Gemma could formulate a reply to that admonishment, her mother tipped her chin at the leather volume on the bench. “And be certain to have that hidden before we arrive. It won’t do to be seen carrying around a medical story.”
“It is a science journal,” she muttered, earning another reproachful look from her mama. As her disapproving mama launched into a lecture about appropriate reading material for a young lady, Gemma peeled back the gold curtain and stared at the passing countryside.
No, she’d never be considered conventional or pretty.
And though she didn’t quite see herself as a raving beauty nor even remotely beautiful, neither did she think she was the horribly unattractive figure painted by the ton. The talented part, well, that particular insult she would have to agree with them, on, however. That is, talents as they pertained to ladylike ventures—needlepoint, singing, fluttering a fan, watercolors. All endeavors she was rubbish at. And that was being generous. Yes, by Society’s standards she was neither pretty nor graceful and certainly not talented. With the exception of archery, the talents she did possess would never be seen as appropriate, proper, and as such, would never be remarked on by the ton. She could ride, shoot, and hold an archer’s bow better than the most skilled gentleman. Such a feat would never earn a lady any attention that was good and it would, most assuredly, not land her a husband.
The carriage hit another jarring bump and Gemma slammed against the side of the conveyance. “Bloody hell!” The curse slipped out and then she promptly bit the inside of her cheek.
“Gemma,” Mama scolded, giving her head a disapproving shake. “Do be sure to not speak so in front of His Grace, or the duke’s son, or…”
As her mother proceeded through the list of the distinguished guests who would be attending the Duke of Somerset’s summer party, Gemma redirected her attention out the window. Being the only friend to Lady Beatrice Dennington, the daughter of their host, Gemma well knew who would be in attendance and the very specific reason for this grand summer party. She and the young lady had struck up an unlikely friendship; both on their fourth Seasons and both unwed, except Beatrice was a glorious beauty while Gemma was…well, Gemma. Propping her chin on her hand, she stared longingly out at the rolling green hills and the passing countryside.
Just then, her brother, Emery, Viscount Smithfield, brought his horse alongside the carriage. She eyed his mount with a vicious hungering and her legs twitched with the need for being astride her own horse. She closed her eyes a long moment and imagined racing through the sprawling land with the wind in her face, free of Society’s snide comments, free of her mother’s chastisement, free of all of it. Gemma opened her eyes. Alas, ladies did not ride astride. They sat dutifully in carriages with tedium threatening to be the death of them and dreamed of a grand romance with their best friend’s brother. Her gaze collided with Emery. He gave her a knowing half-grin and a wink. A grin and a wink that said he well knew her love for riding and knew she belonged out there with him…if the world was an altogether different place for polite ladies.
Gemma let the curtain go and it fluttered back into place, swallowing the view of crisp, blue, summer skies and fluffy, white clouds and she, in this moment, felt not unlike a gilded bird trapped in a cage.
“…There are rumors that the marquess will wed Lady Diana,” her mother’s lamentations pulled her back to the moment. Her discourse brought every conversation, as it invariably did, back ’round to the talk of husbands.
The muscles of her stomach clenched. There was no doubt just which marquess her mother referred to. All the ton spoke of or cared about was the gentleman’s rank and wealth. And it was well known about town that the Duke of Somerset was suffering a wasting illness and this summer event had been designed and carefully arranged with the specific purpose of seeing his unwed daughter, Lady Beatrice, also approaching her fourth Season, as well as his son, Robert, the Marquess of Westfield, married.
“But I say if the son’s match was already determined, then the duke would not be hosting this summer party.”
Gemma resisted the urge to jam her fingertips against her temples and rub the growing ache caused by her mother’s prattling. As her grasping parent continued on about the marquess’ marital prospects, Gemma again yanked back the curtain and stared intently out the lead window.
The ladies invited to attend the duke’s summer party would all do so with the intent purpose of making a match—ideally with the Marquess of Westfield. Tall, broad-shouldered, and ruggedly handsome, he was a glorious specimen of masculine perfection…and a smidge below royalty, given his future title, every lady’s not so secret wish in her bridegroom.
And Gemma didn’t give a jot about any of it—his wealth, his male beauty, his title of marquess and eventual duke. She’d been in love with the man for three years now. Since her partnerless first Season, when he’d offered her a quadrille on the disastrous day of her Come Out. Oh, she wasn’t so naïve that she’d give a man her heart for one small, though heroic, act. He’d been the only gentleman to partner her in a set at whatever event he was in attendance. Never two dances together to signify anything more, but those single dances mattered to her.
“…Tell me you will have a care at the duke’s party.”
Silence registered and, blinking several times, Gemma shifted her attention from the passing countryside to her mother. With her perfect golden curls and sapphire blue eyes, could not a single speck of that beauty have passed to Gemma? Not that she minded being…well, plain, it was just that…
“Well?” Mama prodded, favoring Gemma with an entreating look.
Her mind raced. What were they speaking on? Ah, right. In a roundabout way, Mama was pleading with her to watch her tongue and avoid embarrassment. “I promise to be nothing but myself,” she pledged.
That, thankfully, led to an endless speech on the perils in Gemma attending the most coveted summer event. She’d long been an oddity in her own family. Emery, with his blond locks and captivating demeanor, charmed young ladies and dowagers alike. Her flawlessly beautiful mother was a leading hostess and matron. And then there was Gemma; who was everything…well, ordinary. Limp, brown hair that could not curl with a prayer and a magical brush. Plain brown eyes. Not even the type of brown with flecks of gold or green in them. Just brown. At five feet four inches, she was not too tall, not too short.
She startled as a hand touched her knee and she lifted her gaze.
Her mother gave her a gentle look. “There is no reason you cannot make a match with the marquess.” The softly spoken words were said with a mother’s pride and love.
She mustered a smile. “I know,” she replied automatically. There was no one reason. Rather, there were all number of reasons she couldn’t.
Mama leaned closer. “Even if it is not the marquess, you will find the gentleman who will appreciate you and love you for who you are.”
What her mother could not know was that Gemma had already found the gentleman she would spend her days with. For now, she loved him and appreciated him, and it was merely a matter of bringing the gentleman around to the truth that all of those quadrilles, waltzes, and reels were more than mere polite dances.
The carriage rumbled down a drive, on through the park-like grounds of an opulent estate. Fountains lined the graveled drive; the stone adornments at odds with the tucked away corner of Somerset owned by the duke.
They had arrived.
Gemma’s heart pounded hard and fast, and where her mother’s ramblings had previously aggravated, now she welcomed the distracted prattling about proper summer party etiquette. Welcomed the diversion away from the very sudden realness of her planned meeting with Lord Westfield where she would, at last, confess all that was in her heart to him.
And what had seemed so very simple, now seemed the manner of failed tasks assigned laughingly by the gods to watch a mere mortal fail.
As soon as the cowardly thought slid in, Gemma firmed her jaw. Failure was not an option. For if she didn’t, at the very least, confess her feelings to Lord Westfield then she would forever harbor regret of what might have been and what should have been, if she’d not been a coward. Yes, she’d been labeled unattractive, ungainly, and untalented, in her two and twenty years, but not once had she been called a coward.
The carriage dipped as their driver climbed from the box. A moment later, the door was pulled open and the liveried servant held a hand out to assist the viscountess from the carriage.
Relishing the momentary quiet, Gemma collected her book and then reluctantly placed her fingers in the young man’s hand. She offered him a smile. “Thank you, Connor.”
He inclined his head. “Miss Reed.”
Gemma’s feet settled on the ground and she moved her legs experimentally, willing movement back into them after countless hours of uninterrupted sitting. She placed one hand on the small of her back and arched—
“Never let Mother see you doing something as scandalous as stretching.”
At the unexpected drawl, Gemma spun and promptly lost her balance. Her small, leather tome fell indignantly to the earth.
Emery shot his hands out and steadied her at the shoulders.
“Gemma,” Mother called.
Their mother missed nothing. Why, she could be used to ferret out secrets for the Home Office with the eyes she possessed.
Emery retrieved Gemma’s book and handed it over. “I told you,” he whispered.
She laughed, tucking Cuvier’s work under her arm. “Yes, well, she does value propriety.” As such, she’d long despaired of Gemma’s penchant for garnering all the wrong kinds of notice.
“And good matches,” Emery put in with a wink. He offered his elbow and Gemma slid her fingers onto his sleeve.
“I daresay you are the real reason for her hopes with this event,” she said out the side of her mouth.
Alas, poor Emery had been dodging their mother’s clear attempts to make a match for him since he’d left university nearly eight years ago. She’d been less than veiled in her aspirations for him to make a match with the still unwed Lady Beatrice.
As they climbed the stairs of the palatial estate, the butler threw the doors wide. With Emery at her side, Gemma hesitated. Do not be a coward… Drawing in a steadying breath, she forced her feet into a forward movement.
“You look as pained as I about being here,” Emery whispered as they were ushered through the long, carpeted corridors to their respective guest rooms.
“What would I have to be pained about?” she shot back, waggling her eyebrows. “My mother’s pathetic attempt at matchmaking? Or her desperate wish to see me wed any suitable gentleman before the London Season begins?”
Their melded laughter earned a frown from their mother and Gemma tamped down her smile. They made their way through the labyrinth that was the Duke of Somerset’s country estate and Gemma peeked about. It was hard not to gape at the evidence of such opulent wealth. Elaborate gilt frames hung upon the satin-wallpapered walls with stern, disapproving ducal ancestors looking on at Gemma.
She drew her book close to her chest. Or mayhap it was her reading material they disapproved of.
Regardless, even those long-dead ancestors no doubt recognized a flawed lady amidst their ghostly midst.
How many of the guests now occupying these hallowed walls coveted the lavish adornments? And yet, the ornate, gold sconces lining the halls and the mahogany furniture artfully placed throughout the abode made Gemma’s hands moist. And not in the greedy, grasping way of the ladies who now darted their gazes about did, but with the panicky, nausea-inducing dread that came from being an out-of-place oddity amidst this elaborate household.
She wrinkled her nose. Why did Lord Westfield have to be a future duke? Why couldn’t he be a baron, or knight, or even a successful merchant? All of those would do a good deal more preferable than falling in love with the gentleman whose future title commanded awe, power, and respect just by being uttered.
“You are not usually this quiet,” Emery observed.
“I gathered Mama had enough to say for the whole of the family.”
A sharp laugh escaped Emery and she welcomed that calming, familiar chuckle as it echoed off the hallway walls. The sound of it made the Duke of Somerset’s estate more of a home and less of a… tomb. Yes, it would have been far preferable if Lord Westfield had proven a lesser lord and not a gentleman on the cusp of inheriting a near kingdom.
A short while later, Gemma was shown to her room, while her family continued on to their respective chambers. With blessed silence her only company, she tossed her copy of Le Règne Animal onto a nearby table, and then layered her back against the paneled door. She closed her eyes.
She’d thought overly long about finding the gumption to confess her feelings to Lord Westfield and, yet, now that she was here, she’d really not considered how one went about finding a gentleman amidst a crowded house party—or rather, finding a gentleman alone.
Knock Knock Knock
A gasp burst from Gemma’s lips and she jumped. Pressing a hand to her chest, she pulled the door open, and her only friend in the world, Lady Beatrice Dennington spilled inside.
“Oh, thank goodness, you’ve arrived.” The perfectly golden-haired young lady flung her arms about Gemma. She staggered back a step, before returning the embrace.
In an instant, she took in the tight drawn lines at the corner of Beatrice’s mouth and the glimmer of sadness in her cerulean blue eyes. A pang struck Gemma over her own selfishness. She captured Beatrice’s hands and gave a slight squeeze. “How are you?” she asked softly. The same way the ton saw in Gemma an unattractive bluestocking, undeserving of notice, was not unlike the way in which they viewed the flawlessly perfect, blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty. They failed to see the young woman Beatrice truly was, hoping for love, and even now suffering a broken heart over her father’s slow death.
Beatrice’s lips formed a brittle, forced smile. “Fine,” she said. “I am fine. Truly,” she added. The muscles of her throat moved and then she returned Gemma’s squeeze. “Enough with that. Let us focus on this horrid event my father has organized.” Yes, it was far safer to speak on those proper affairs, than in death, dying, and inevitable loss. “It’s been dreadfully dull without you. Countless guests simpering over Robert and gentlemen feigning an interest in me.” She mumbled that last part, high color filling her cheeks. “As though they seek anything more than a ducal connection and the wealth attached to my name.”
Gemma snorted. “It could be a good deal worse. You could have no gentlemen showing any interest whatsoever in you.”
“I would prefer that,” Beatrice said matter-of-factly. Taking Gemma by the hand, she guided her purposefully toward the bed. “Better than to be courted and then passed over again and again and again and again.” Which Society well knew to be the case for Beatrice, who’d been courted by no fewer than three gentlemen who’d all gone on to wed another. Gemma would never figure out just what it was a gentleman wanted in a lady when he’d pass over one such as Beatrice. “I’ve no intention of making a match with someone desiring my dowry.” Beatrice shoved her into a sit.
Gemma bounced on the soft mattress wrinkling the smooth, satin coverlet.
“Enough of me.” A determined glint lit Beatrice’s eyes that would have terrified a battle-hardened soldier. “We are discussing you.”
Gemma blinked. “We are?”
“We are,” Beatrice confirmed with an emphatic nod. “That is, your marital prospects.”
“I don’t have any prospects.” She merely had a hope and a prayer for the most sought-after, lord in the realm. A hope and a prayer, indeed.
Beatrice cast a look over at the closed door and then quickly claimed the spot beside Gemma. “And I’ve no doubt, Robert sees how truly special you are,” her loyal friend went on.
“Yes, but he must see me…amidst all the other ladies in attendance.” In short, a wilted weed among vibrant, fragrant, summer blooms. With a drawn out sigh, Gemma flopped backward on the bed. She stared at the broad, floral canopy overhead. What sorry days, indeed, when one relied on the aid of one’s friend to bring a gentleman up to scratch.
The mattress dipped as Beatrice lay beside her, shoulder to shoulder. “The man you’ve set your sights on is unlike the others. He sees past the preening and the fawning.”
Yes, Beatrice should know. After all, the gentleman in question was, in fact, her brother.
Her friend turned her head and gave a conspiratorial smile. “Furthermore, you have something the other ladies in attendance do not.”
“Oh, and what is that?” Gemma looked expectantly back at her.
“Why, you have me to help.” Beatrice popped up. “Robert is now fishing at the lake and should return near dusk, prior to the dinner party.” Beatrice stared pointedly at her. “Ahem.”
Gemma pushed herself into a sitting position alongside her friend. Why was Beatrice looking at her in that way? She shook her head once.
“I said ahem,” Beatrice made another clearing sound with her throat. “Robert.” She nudged her in the side. “He will be fishing at the lake at the edge of Papa’s property.”
Fishing at dusk. A soft sigh slipped past her lips. Of course the marquess would be clever enough to see the benefit in casting his line at that hour. Though in truth…Gemma chewed at her lower lip. “It is a nearly perfect idea,” she conceded.
Her friend’s smile dipped. “Nearly perfect?”
Oh, indeed. “Yes, well, during the day is an atrocious time because a fish has unlimited visibility. Ideally, dusk and just after dusk would be preferable given the angle of the ultraviolet light through the angles of—”
“Gemma.” Taking her by the shoulders, Beatrice looked her in the eye. “I am not discussing Robert’s cleverness in the sport of fishing.”
She tipped her head. “You aren’t?” Then what had been the whole point of mentioning his early evening excursion?
“No. I wasn’t.” Beatrice closed her eyes and her lips moved as though in prayer. She opened her eyes. “I am telling you he’ll be at the lake.” The other lady gave her a pointed look. “Fishing.” When Gemma still said nothing, her friend tossed her hands up. “Alone. He will be alone.”
As her friend’s meaning became at last clear, Gemma widened her eyes. A strangled laugh escaped her. “Surely you do not expect—?”
The mischievous glimmer that lit the flawless Lady Beatrice’s eyes would have shocked the ton. “I do expect it. Why, you know Robert is a rogue, so he needs a bit of a push and you are the one to give him that push.” She waggled her blonde eyebrows. “With a bit of assistance from your dearest friend.”
Her dearest and only friend. Regardless, she’d come to appreciate there was more good in having a loving, loyal friend like Beatrice than a ballroom full of false figures who didn’t know or care about her interests.
Gemma returned her attention to the canopy overhead. If her mother could hear her scheming, she would scuttle her off to London. After all, with her penchant for finding trouble, such plans could only end one way…
Now she must hope that one way involved marriage to Robert, the Marquess of Westfield.