A Rose for a Rogue
The Honorable Rogues®, Book Six
What’s a future duke to do when the most unsuitable woman possible captures his heart?
Eden tried to avoid even a hint of scandal her whole life.
Plowing headlong into the Marquis of Sterling and dropping eggs on his boots wasn’t the most foolish thing Eden Haverden had ever done. Imprudently agreeing to take the charming rogue home when his horse went lame wasn’t either. But reluctantly accepting Chester’s invitation to stay the night at his familial estate after she nearly drowned? Yes, that assuredly was a rash decision and invited utter ruin. So why doesn’t she listen to her common sense?
The DeCourcy sins have haunted Chester his entire life.
Determined to create a new legacy for the tainted duchy, Manchester’s every action and decision are governed by diligence and discipline. A man of reason and purpose, he shouldn’t be distracted by the wholly unsuitable Eden Haverden. Not only is she the illegitimate offspring of his father’s arch enemy, she’s also the sister of the man who’d killed his brother. Why then, can’t he resist the powerful connection between them?
Can Chester convince Eden to put aside their families’ feud and trust him with her heart and love?
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“…an utterly charming story…that will put a smile on your face.” ★★★★★~Gabrielle Sally-The Romance Reviews
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Newbury, Berkshire England
27 May 1820
Dilly dallying and dawdling weren’t going to change anything.
Manchester, Marquis of Sterling, tossed back the last of the fairly decent whisky. With a resigned sigh, he placed his empty glass on the Fox and Falcon’s time-worn countertop. A full bottle wouldn’t have succeeded in easing a jot of his tension. Nothing could be done for the darkling thoughts tumbling round inside his skull either.
What few feeble rays of late afternoon sunlight managed to escape the sodden clouds outside filtered through the lace curtains bordering the pristine windowpanes. He permitted a small, wry smile to tip his mouth. From what he’d observed since leading Magnus into Newbury almost two hours ago, except for the shutters’ new coat of bright cobalt paint, the pub—along with the picturesque township—had changed little in his ten-year absence.
Had it truly been a decade since he’d strolled Newbury’s streets, attended the century-old, two-story stone church Sunday mornings, sneaked his first and last cheroot behind the stables, shared a dram with friends in this very establishment, or returned the friendly villagers’ many greetings?
A third of his life.
Now that the old duke’s health was failing, he’d been summoned—ordered—home.
No. Not home.
Perygrim Park had ceased being home the day his sire blamed Chester for Byron’s death, whilst also beckoning every curse from hell upon the Andrews of Gablecrest Hall.
His father’s venomous words, shrieked hysterically as he cradled his favorite son in his arms, still echoed in Chester’s memory—still lanced his heart even after all these years.
He cut a longing glance toward the whisky bottle.
Did he dare?
Even to silence the silent monologue ever ready to torment him?
Russell Stewart, the pub’s owner, angled his jowly chin toward the deep green half-full bottle whilst drying a glass.
“Would you care for another tot, my lord? Or perhaps some of my missus’s shepherd’s pie?”
If only he might. The fading light confirmed the sun’s slow descent, and he’d promised to arrive at Perygrim in time for dinner.
To celebrate his thirtieth birthday.
Many were the ways he’d have preferred to acknowledge the date, none of which included being scowled at and mocked by a spiteful curmudgeon. A cantankerous sod whose infrequent letters oozed with criticism, condemnation, complaints about Chester’s failure to marry and produce an heir, and fiendish gloating when Walter Andrews had drowned several years ago in the lake betwixt Perygrim Park’s and Gablecrest Hall’s lands.
Curse Chester’s sense of duty. His endless guilt.
A pox on the miniscule tender spot for his father remaining inside the buttress he’d erected around his battered heart.
He drew in a steadying breath, then released it in a long, controlled exhale.
The old man was dying.
Despite his sire’s rancor, Chester couldn’t be so cruel as to deny his critically ill father’s one last request. Honestly, this visit was more about putting to rest the phantoms haunting Chester once and for all than about reconciling with the duke.
He filled his lungs with another fortifying breath and closed his eyes for an instant when his stomach released a discontented growl.
“You were always particularly fond of Jane’s roast beef and potatoes too, sir. Are you sure you won’t have a plate?”
Stewart wiped the already immaculate counter, his hint as obvious as the single bushy eyebrow spanning his broad forehead.
Whisky on an empty stomach never boded well. Particularly since Chester generally eschewed spirits stronger than wine.
Unlike the sixth Duke of DeCourcy.
Diligence and discipline.
That mantra, Chester’s life’s motto, set him apart from his embittered sire.
“No, thank you, though I well remember Mrs. Stewart’s pie.” Shaking his head, Chester fished in his pocket for a few coins. “Another time, I give you my word. I quite look forward to it.”
After laying the money on the smooth walnut—battling the urge to slap them down and vent some of his pent-up frustration—he collected his beaver hat.
He’d have made Perygrim some time ago if Magnus hadn’t picked up a stone a quarter mile back and required tending. The horse’s misfortune provided him a much-needed respite before facing the dragon who’d begat him.
Holding his tongue might prove Chester’s greatest trial.
Diligence and discipline, man. You were not cast from the same malformed mold.
He barely contained a derisive snort.
But I am a product of his loins.
Stewart collected the coins, smiling broadly and revealing the rabbit-like front teeth Chester remembered so well.
“I know I speak for others as well as myself when I say we’re pleased you’ve returned, m’lord. I’ll make sure to stock that Bordeaux you’re fond of in the future, and I’ll bet my missus will keep a fresh supply of Sally Lund buns on hand now too.”
“Thank you. All the more reason to return very soon.”
Chester scanned the cozy taproom again. How many times had he and Byron enjoyed a dark ale whilst bantering with and razzing each other, as brothers are wont to do?
One elbow resting on the bar, he inclined his head.
“I’ve missed this, Stewart. Missed Newbury and her citizens.”
Truly, he had.
He far preferred the country’s serene pace than teeming Town life, which was why he attended nearly every country house party he’d been invited to these past years.
“I hope you’ll honor us with your presence often, m’lord.” Touching his fingers to his brow, Stewart angled his stout form toward the kitchen. “I’ll have your mount brought ’round now.”
With another nod, Chester pulled on a black leather glove as he marched to the entrance, acknowledging the curious, slightly leery patrons observing his progress with a smile or a nod. They’d find him much more approachable, friendlier, and fairer than the current duke. He’d make sure of that.
No more whispers about DeCourcy the Demon Duke. Devilish and dastardly duke too.
Maybe he’d strive for a new moniker, something a trifle more flattering to the duchy.
The Dancing Duke?
No, too frivolous.
Perchance the Dashing Duke?
Pompous and full of self-importance.
The Dignified Duke?
A memory sparked—swimming nude in the lake, something he intended to do again now that he had returned home. Nothing remotely dignified about that.
He reached to press the latch when the door sprang open, practically smacking him in the face. The sturdy panel came to an abrupt halt when the wood hit his boots. His injured toes curled in protest despite their stout leather protection.
Arms laden, a petite, dull brown-clad flurry barreled into him, whacked her forehead on his chest and, giving a startled squeal, dropped one of her baskets.
Eggs and greens scattered everywhere, including atop his feet, and he instinctively clutched her elbows to keep her from crashing to the scuffed floor too.
A whiff of roses and lilies and some other essence wafted upward. Nostrils flared, he inhaled, trying to decipher the other scents. Perhaps a tinge of orange blossom or lemon? Fresh and light and wholly memorable.
“I beg your pardon.”
Breathless, the top of her head not quite at shoulder level, she arched away, peering upward.
Her hood slipped off to reveal unbound hair, a shade somewhere between walnut and pecan. Not brown exactly, but not blonde either, though golden ribbons threaded the strands here and there.
Her pale, ice blue eyes—hyacinth blue—rounded in surprise but not embarrassment. A deeper azure green rimmed her irises which, if he wasn’t mistaken, shimmered with uncontained joy and ill-concealed amusement.
Directed at him.
Battling an inexplicable reluctance to do so, he set her from him. Not, however, before mentally noting the delicacy of the arms his fingers encircled or the refined planes of her flushed face. Or her bowed mouth, pinkish-red from the brisker-than-usual May air.
Since when did he notice a woman’s hair color?
Or wind-tinted lips, for that matter?
Must be the whisky—had him numpty. Which was why he rarely imbibed more than a single tot.
Disgruntled at his intense, unsolicited, and distracting reaction, he firmed his mouth whilst leveling her a reproving glance.
“Perhaps you ought to watch where you’re going and use more caution when opening doors.”
“Indeed, I should, sir.”
Not the least chagrined, she offered a winsome smile, and the most irregular sensation flickered in his chest.
How could something so simple, the upward turn of her petal soft lips, transform her heretofore unremarkable features into breathtaking beauty?
And more on point, why ever had he noticed?
Because a man could fall in love with that radiant smile.
He shook his head.
By Jove, he hadn’t indulged enough to produce those kinds of fanciful musings.
Not he, the master of controlling his baser instincts and dark inclinations.
“Russell, might I have a towel or two?” the small tempest called to the innkeeper as she crouched and gave a rueful twist of her pretty rose bud mouth at the mess she’d made. After placing the other basket on the floor, she gathered the salvageable herbs.
The odors of crushed oregano, rosemary, sage, and other aromatic plants Chester couldn’t identify drifted upward.
Who was she?
Obviously, someone who’d moved here after Father disowned him. Though her simple cloak and the scuffed half-boots peeking from the practical woolen folds of her russet colored gown weren’t the first stare of fashion, neither were they the coarse garments of a commoner.
A young, lonely widow perhaps?
From beneath half-closed eyes, he scrutinized her, very much liking what he saw.
Not attractive in the classical sense, nonetheless, an unidentifiable allure surrounded her. Beckoned him. Caused unruly thoughts and inclinations to knock about ribs.
Most troubling were these rash musings. They bespoke a ruthlessness, an inherited characteristic always—always until now—meticulously controlled, lest he mirror the duke’s scurrilous behavior or tendencies.
Brushing his bare hand over his mouth and jaw, Chester narrowed his eyes.
He’d never entertained the notion of a mistress before, particularly upon just meeting a woman. But he’d need something—someone—to keep him sane the next few weeks or months.
She might prove just the tantalizing distraction he needed.
Stewart poked his oversized head around the doorframe leading to the kitchen. “Missus, Miss Eden’s had a mishap. She needs help cleaning it up.”
Not a widow then. Bother that. Chester didn’t dally with innocents, no matter how bewitching their smiles or innocently seductive their eyes might be.
Unwarranted disappointment constricted his ribs.
“What’s this?” Bearing damp cloths, Mrs. Stewart bustled from the kitchen, her round cheeks apple-red from toiling over the hot stove, no doubt. Upon spying the slimy mess, she tsked and tutted. “Miss Eden, I’d about given up on you coming today.”
A shadow dimmed Miss Eden’s bubbly countenance as she accepted the linens. But only for an instant before her cheery smile returned full on.
“Alas, Mama had a difficult morning, and I wasn’t able to leave as early as I’d planned. But I promised I’d deliver eggs and herbs today, so here I am.” A rueful smile teased the corners of her mouth. “Those plants are a little battered, I’m afraid.”
Pointing at the basket holding the crushed greens, she curved her full mouth upward again, and Chester forced his attention away from her glowing face.
And those tempting bowed lips.
Women smiled at him all the time.
Incredibly beautiful and perfumed women. Many who regularly offered him much more than a radiant upward tilting of their rouged mouths. Elegant, coiffed, and graceful ladies, keen and qualified to be the next Duchess of DeCourcy. All the more puzzling then, why this little nondescript country mouse had him gawking like a young, untried buck.
“I don’t know what I’d do without your conservatory, Miss Eden.”
Mrs. Stewart lifted a bay sprig and held it to her nose. “I’d like lavender next time too, if you have any. I’ve a mind to try a lavender shortbread recipe my sister sent me.”
“I do, and mint as well. I know you enjoy mint tea.”
The young woman fluttered her ungloved fingers at the other basket. Short oval nails graced her small, elegant hands, which weren’t as milky white or soft as the ladies of his acquaintance.
“I’ve brought jars of honey to sell, and a present for you, Jane. Give me a minute to clean up the mess I’ve made.”
Thank God she hadn’t also dropped the honey. Eggs were bad enough, but honey was a sticky horror.
Without hesitation, she proceeded to wipe egg yolk and parsley off Chester’s less than gleaming boots. Trekking the last quarter mile along the mucky lane had caked his Wellingtons with a thick layer of mud. Though he’d scraped his feet before entering the Fox and Falcon, considerable filth remained.
“Here now, miss. There’s no need for that.”
He backed up a pair of paces. It unsettled him to have this pretty little thing kneeling, mopping at his splattered boots like the meanest of servants.
“Are you certain? A distinguished gentleman such as yourself cannot very well toddle off with yolk and shell sticking to your boots.”
Marquises didn’t toddle.
Well, perhaps if they’d unwisely drunk more than they ought on an empty stomach and were a trifle foxed, they might.
“Can you imagine what the villagers might say?”
She lifted a large piece of dark speckled eggshell from his toe.
Was she mocking him?
Lowering his lashes halfway, he considered her.
She pushed her hair behind her ear, and a troubled frown furrowed her brow, drawing his attention to the pea-sized birthmark near her hairline on the right side.
“Oh, you’re probably worried about me ruining the boot leather.” She scratched her eyebrow, unease now crimping the edges of her expressive eyes. “I’m certain there must be someone in town who can care for them. Maybe not at this hour, though.”
Mouth pursed, she picked another bit of shell from the leather.
He pulled on his other glove and gave her a reassuring smile.
“You misunderstand me. There’s no need to fuss over them. I’ll clean and polish my boots this evening.”
A little furrow of surprise marred her forehead. “You will? Polish them yourself? But you’re a gentleman. I didn’t think . . .”
She sounded so incredulous, he wasn’t sure whether to be enchanted or insulted.
“I am, but I’m not above tending to my own boots.” He sketched a bow, more elaborate than the situation called for. “Manchester, Marquis of Sterling. And you are Miss Eden.”
She narrowed her eyes and raked her astute regard over him, from his beaver hat, down the length of his great coat to his soiled boots, and then made the reverse journey to meet his eyes once more.
His flesh reacted—the nerves and pores alert and expectant—with every slow inch of her perusal.
Did her thorough assessment mean she knew who he was?
It was hardly a secret.
She had him at a disadvantage then, for he hadn’t an inkling who Miss Eden might be.
“Not Miss Eden exactly,” she finally said, the amused sparkle returning to her eyes.
She shook her head and that cloud of downy hair billowed around her shoulders.
Unusual to leave her hair down. Not the fashion at all, but he quite admired the shiny mass.
She chuckled, a lyrical warble, causing a weird flitting about in his chest again.
He really must leave off strong spirits if this was how they’d begun to affect him.
Or perchance the expectation of seeing his sire after a decade was causing his heart palpitations.
As she straightened, she passed Jane the soiled toweling.
“Eden is my middle name.”
She bobbed a curtsy that would’ve earned even Almack’s stern peeresses’ approval.
“Eglantina Eden Aster Haverden.”
Chester couldn’t prevent his gaze from falling on the unbroken eggs.
Zounds, why would anyone name a child that? He could well imagine the teasing her name had inspired.
A delightful laugh escaped her as she caught his reaction.
“I know, it’s uncommon. Mama says it means wild rose. I prefer my first middle name, Eden.” She dipped into a shallow curtsy. “I beg your pardon again, my lord.”
After another brilliant smile that left him blinking like a codpated buffoon, she picked up her baskets and whisked into the kitchen behind Mrs. Stewart.
A grin playing around the edges of his mouth, Chester cut a wave toward Stewart and then made his way outside. Remarkable how that small bundle of feminine energy had lifted his spirits like nothing else had in a great while.
Reins in hand, a young ostler waited with Magnus beside a much-used dogcart pulled by a pretty bay mare—wearing a hideous straw hat, complete with purple and orange silk flowers.
Upon the wagon’s seat sat the most pathetic excuse for a canine Chester had ever seen. Of an undistinguishable breed, one raggedy black ear stood straight up and the other ear—this one grayish-beige—drooped onto its forehead. Its brandy-colored gaze remained fixed on the doorway Chester had just exited. And the whole while, its tongue peeking from the side of its mouth, the dog appeared to grin. A bright yellow ribbon tied in a large floppy bow graced the mutt’s mottled neck.
Still ugly as sin, and a waste of good ribbon.
Chester angled his head toward the creature, which spared him the briefest glance before training his avid attention on the pub once more.
An ear-to-ear grin split the groom’s face, and he nodded.
“Yes, m’lord. His name is Mr. Wiggles. Miss Eden found him dumped outside Newbury—oh, I guess it’d be about three years ago now.”
Her dog’s name was almost as charmingly awful as hers. And God help him, who put a hat—a hideously ugly hat—on their horse?
Eglantina Eden Aster Haverden, that’s who.
Who was she?
He knew her name of course, but what had brought her to Newbury? When had she come? What was her story, for everyone had a tale? Often more than one. Some they’d rather keep secret.
Why, devil take it, was he so interested?
He surveyed the street as he accepted Magnus’s ribbons.
“Your lordship?” With a jerk of his shaggy head, the ostler indicated the horse’s sore foot. “I removed the rock and packed mud, but he has a nasty hoof bruise. You can ride him if you must, but I’d advise stabling him in Newbury for a few days until he heals. Another mount can be had yonder.” He pointed down the street. “Or mayhap, Miss Eden can give you a ride. She lives close to Perygrim Park.”
He wouldn’t risk laming Magnus. The horse meant too much to him, and at thirteen, with proper care, had many good riding years left.
His mount’s injury provided Chester a legitimate excuse for delaying his arrival at Perygrim, but at this juncture, he just wanted to have done with the confrontation. Delaying another day or two was cowardly, and he’d never again give the duke an excuse to call him a poltroon.
“Very well. See that he has the best care.” He passed the groom a crown as he handed the reins back. “There’s double that for you when I return for him.”
“Thank you, m’lord. I’ll treat him like the prince he is.”
With another wide grin, the chap eagerly pocketed the coin.
Chester let Mr. Wiggles sniff the back of his hand, then scratched the dog’s scruffy neck.
Miss Haverden swept out the door, calling lively farewells to those inside.
“I’ll be back at the end of the week. The hens are laying better now that it’s lighter longer, and the hothouse asparagus is nearly ready.”
Pulling up her hood, she glanced at the sulky sky before approaching her wagon.
“I fear we’re in for more rain, Benjamin. Peony won’t like that at all, even with her hat.”
The horse wore a hat because she didn’t like the rain?
“For certain, Miss.”
Chester hadn’t missed the flush tinting Benjamin’s freckled face or the swiftly concealed look of adoration he gave her.
Unfamiliar chagrin jolted down Chester’s spine. Not only hadn’t it occurred to him to ask the groom his name, but something prickly and unpleasant and very much like jealousy needled him.
A first, and he didn’t like the sensation.
Her guileless attention swung to her dog.
“Ah, I see you’ve met Mr. Wiggles. He’s quite a love.”
Whining, the animal stood as she approached, shaking his scraggly tail furiously.
In that instant, Chester made a decision and dispensed with etiquette.
Discipline and vigilance, his conscience upbraided. Vigilance and discipline.
Bugger off, he silently retorted.
Nothing and no one had intrigued him or piqued his interest as much as this imp in a goodly while.
“If it wouldn’t be a terrible inconvenience, may I prevail upon you for a ride?” He flashed her a smile designed to liquefy steel. He didn’t normally bother with such calculated drivel, but something about the enigmatic Miss Eden was causing him to cast off his usual reticence.
Her soft, kissable mouth slackened in surprise at his brazen request.
“My horse has injured his foot, and I fear bearing my weight will lame him. Benjamin said you live near Perygrim Park.”
“For certain you wouldn’t want to injure him further.”
She approached the horse, and cooing softly, let him catch her scent.
Which, Chester recalled, smelled wonderfully of roses and lilies. Lucky beast.
She ran her petite palm down his neck.
“I’m going to take your master home, but he’ll be back to get you in a day or two. All right? I’ll send an apple with him for you. Would you like that?”
It mattered naught whether Magnus adored or despised the fruit, for now Chester had an excuse to see this enchanting creature again.
Peony tilted her ears back and whickered.
As she angled toward the cart, Miss Haverden chuckled, and an answering bubbling rose in his chest at the musical, mirth-filled sound.
“No need to be jealous, Peony. You can have an apple, too. As if I don’t give you one every day.”
Before he could offer his assistance, she dropped her baskets in the wagon bed and deftly climbed into the seat, revealing a trim calf in the process. At once, Mr. Wiggles clambered to her side, and she kissed his forehead whilst scratching his scruffy ears.
She cocked her head and indicated the remaining bench.
“My lord, if you please. The sun is setting, and with the mucky road, it will take at least five and forty minutes to reach Perygrim Park.”
“You know the way?”
He settled himself on the seat, feeling oddly chastised, and Mr. Wiggles thumped his tail once in a cautious greeting.
“I do, though I’ve never actually been as far as the manor house itself.”
Clucking her tongue, she shook the ribbons once.
“Walk on, Peony.”
The horse swished her ebony tail, then with a groan and creak, the cart lurched forward. For a few minutes, only the clattering of the wheels and the clopping of Peony’s hooves broke the companionable silence.
Staring straight ahead, Miss Haverden skillfully maneuvered the wagon along the busy street. Every now and again, a villager raised their hand, and she waved in return. Many more stopped and stared as the dogcart rattled past, their avid curiosity evident.
“I’m afraid I can only take you as far as the outer drive.” She cut him a swift sideways glance before returning her attention to the cobbled road. “I’m forbidden to go farther.”
That was an interesting turn of phrase.
He angled toward her to better see her expression. Running a hand down Mr. Wiggle’s spine—for which he was rewarded with a doggy grin—he regarded her.
A small smile quirked her lush mouth.
“His Grace has banned all Andrews from his property.”
“But you aren’t an Andrews.” Premonition had Chester tightening his buttocks on the inhospitable seat. “Are you?”
She turned that clear azure-eyed gaze upon him and peered straight into his soul.
“I’m Walter Andrews’s illegitimate daughter.”