The Lieutenant and the Lady
The Culpepper Misses, Book 5
They’re about to find out if happily ever after is possible
when obligation and passion collide…
~Spinster & Wallflowers
~Enemies to Lovers
~Marriage of Convenience
~Hero Rescues Heroine
~Strong Female Lead
Blaire Culpepper had every intention of returning to England and finally declaring her love to the man who stole her heart. Until she found out that in her absence, he not only inherited his brother’s estate, but has also been courting another woman. Not exactly the warm reception she’d imagined…
Lieutenant Julian Drake didn’t believe in love at first sight—until he met Blaire. Back then, he was just a soldier with no hope of winning her hand. And now that his social circumstances have changed, duty has forced him to consider marrying another…even though letting Blaire go is the last thing he’d ever want to do…
When all is said and done, can Julian find a way to preserve his honor that doesn’t break Blaire’s heart—or his own?
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InD’Tale Magazine Crown of Excellence Recipient.
2020 RONE AWARD Runner-Up
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“This story will pull the reader in from the very first page and tantalize…to the very last chapter!” ~Amanda Hupe InD’Tale Magazine
“…my favorite story in the series…The ending was wonderful…” ★★★★★~Flippin’ Pages Book Reviews
“What an amazing and oh so charming story!!” ★★★★★ ~Kat Wiley
“…favorite story in the series…The ending was wonderful.” ★★★★★ ~Tracy
“I truly loved this story. I laughed out loud. And I love it when authors are able to weave actual history into their stories and Ms. Cameron does this masterfully. ” ★★★★★ ~SKC
“As the final Culpepper Misses book it is a charming addition to the rest.” ★★★★★ ~Beverly
“Honestly, this book kept me captivated from start to finish, and the ending was absolutely perfect.” ★★★★★ ~AnnMarie
Temple of the Muses Book Store, London, England
Late April, 1823
Blast and damn. The ugly rumors were true, then.
Something fragile splintered in Blaire Culpepper’s heart. Lurking behind the dusty bookcase, she plopped her frilly parasol on the closest shelf. She grasped the edge, arms extended and head bowed, and braced herself. Sucking in a ragged breath, she fought the scorching pain radiating behind her breastbone.
She bit her lower lip hard to still its quivering.
Stiff upper lip, she admonished herself severely. No tears. Absolutely none.
Until this very moment, she’d not believed the unsavory tattle. Refused to consider Julian had become a fickle roué in her absence.
When they’d returned from Geneva and her twin Blaike had taken her aside and revealed Lieutenant Julian Drake’s change in status, Blaire kept hoping—praying—the on dit wasn’t true. He wasn’t like that…Wasn’t a scapegrace or a rapscallion. Even when she’d seen him strolling in Hyde Park with the beauty now at his side, she’d believed there must be another explanation.
She’d been wrong. So bloody wrong.
Only a few feet away, as dashing and handsome as ever, he stood—all gorgeous six feet two inches of him—with Daphne Trudeau clinging to his arm.
Why, Julian? Why?
A heartbroken, inarticulate sound escaped Blaire.
The matron perusing the nearby books slanted her a worried glance.
“Are you quite all right?” The distinguished woman took a step nearer, peering upward at Blaire in marked concern. “You’re as pale as chalk. It’s Miss Blaire Culpepper, isn’t it? I’m Lady Pipperly. We met at Almack’s some months ago. Do you need to sit down? You’re not going to swoon, are you?”
Was Lady Pipperly afraid she’d be crushed given Blaire’s unusually tall stature?
Eyes misty, despite her admonishment of no tears, Blaire shook her head and seized the book closest to her curled fingers’ stranglehold on the shelf.
“No, nothing of the sort. I’m fine, my lady. I’m simply excited to finally find a copy of…”
She blinked to clear the hot moisture from her eyes then skimmed the book’s title.
The Crimes of Love by the Marquis de Sade.
Her ladyship slapped a gloved hand to her ample chest, her papery cheeks flaming bright red. Condemnation turned her tightly pursed mouth downward.
“Not at all the sort of book a young woman of good breeding should consider.” Nose elevated and face pinched, she made a disapproving sound in her throat. “I must say, I’m appalled your guardian would permit you to read such immoral drivel.”
She could scarce bring herself to glance at the tome Blaire clutched to her chest.
Blaire’s guardian, Heath, the Earl of Ravensdale—Raven to his friends—would not approve. Nor would her sisters or her cousins. Only fast or unconventional ladies dared read the notoriously wicked book, no matter how curious they might be about the contents. Prudent misses observed propriety, else they found themselves banished to the countryside.
Honestly, at the moment, Blaire wouldn’t mind the chastisement. Banishment would be a blessing. At Culpepper Park, she wouldn’t run the risk of encountering Julian at every turn. At every miserable assembly, musicale, theater excursion, rout, or ball. Always, with the utterly charming Miss Trudeau in tow.
Her heart still thumping an irregular rhythm, Blaire slid a sideways glimpse over the top of the neat row of books beside her. Only his broad back was visible between the narrow shelves. A back and shoulders she knew to be deliciously solid and well-muscled from having danced with him on several occasions.
“I wonder…” Shrewdness replaced Lady Pipperly’s censure. “Lord Ravensdale isn’t aware of your preference in reading material, is he?”
Blaire had no doubt Heath would after today, even if the accusation wasn’t the truth.
She eyed the black volume with its ornate spine.
“Should we…?” After a swift, furtive glance about, she edged nearer to the matron. “Should we take a peek inside and see if there are any illustrations?”
A phony smile plastered on her lips, Blaire schooled her features into deceptive innocence. Amazing how she could have an inane conversation with this busybody whilst each beat of her mangled heart reminded her of Julian’s treachery. And her own naive gullibility.
Eyes enormous and unblinking, her ladyship opened and closed her mouth before spluttering, “P…p…ardon?”
Blaire gave her a conspiratorial wink, shifting her eyes back and forth in a guilty manner. If the chinwag wanted something to gossip about… Well, in Blaire’s current disgruntled mood, she was happy to oblige.
“Drawings,” she whispered naughtily. “I’ll be bound, they’re quite something.” She flipped the top cover open just to hear Lady Pipperly’s outraged gasp again. “Do you suppose there are any nudes?”
“Utterly scandalous!” With a shake of her white head that sent the silk flowers adorning her bonnet to convulsing, Lady Pipperly hastened away, muttering, “What impudence. How does the chit ever hope to snare a husband? I shall inform Lord Pipperly and Ravensdale at once.”
I don’t intend to snare anyone, Lady Pipperly. Nor do I give a ragman’s scorn what your ignoble spouse thinks.
If memory served, his lordship had been making merry and groping unsuspecting misses’ buttocks that evening at Almack’s. He’d received a stinging pinch from Blaire’s cousin Brooke, the Countess of Ravensdale, before she’d herded her charges from the assembly room.
A wayward impulse ticked Blaire’s mouth upward an inch, and she ran her gloved fingers over the book’s gold engraved cover. In a perverse sort of way, it seemed appropriate that she’d inadvertently picked this wicked book from amongst the hundreds she might’ve selected.
Crimes of love, indeed.
Not the sort of misconducts she might’ve imagined, she’d be bound. Such as pistols at dawn, romantic tête-à-têtes in curtained alcoves, or forbidden dalliances beneath the stars. Or… Her attention gravitated to the narrow opening above the books and the man just beyond. Leading a woman along and then tossing her aside without an explanation.
Amid a swell of justified anger, with a flip of her fingers, she snapped the cover closed.
She removed another leather-bound volume from the chest-high shelf. She set it aside as she surreptitiously observed Julian from her hiding place.
Since when had she become a skulking coward?
Even without his scarlet uniform, his striking, virile looks commanded attention, particularly of the feminine nature. Though a scar marred his left cheek, more than one lady in the bookstore regarded him appreciatively; some from beneath half-lowered lashes, others with bold gazes and inviting smiles.
Heaven forbid she wore the same calf-eyed expression as those ninnies.
At once, she arranged her features into composed indifference, but her crushing grip on the edge of the shelf revealed her strain to anyone looking closely.
And then there was Miss Trudeau. Attired in black from the jaunty, lace-edged bonnet atop her burnished curls to her dainty feet peeking from beneath the first-stare-of-fashion redingote, his companion radiated elegance and refinement.
What Blaire suspected might be jealousy gave her a couple of sharp pokes in the vicinity near her heart.
The prudent thing to do—what Blaire ought to have done immediately upon spying him and the exquisite brunette hanging from his arm—was to collect her maid and exit the busy store as discretely as possible. Before Lieutenant Drake noticed her and politeness forced them to acknowledge each other. He was a particular friend of her guardian after all, and she couldn’t very well give him the cut.
She’d prefer to be spared the awkwardness of a politesse conversation with him.
And with the inarguably lovely Miss Daphne Trudeau.
But just this once, Blaire rebelled at doing the sensible thing, even if it meant saving herself further distress and possible humiliation. Her dashed curiosity about the woman who’d so easily replaced her glued her bold, new, ebony-and-scarlet floral half-boots to the floor.
That and her inability to haul her attention from Julian’s beloved face.
She still loved the scoundrel. She’d believed he’d felt the same for her.
You’re being unfair, Blaire Grace Eleanor Culpepper.
She was. She wouldn’t lie, even to herself.
Lieutenant Drake had never declared himself. Not lieutenant anymore. He resigned his commission and is a gentleman of considerable standing now. To her knowledge, he’d never approached Heath to ask if he might call upon her or pay his addresses. At no time had he ever said anything directly about returning her regard or expressing an interest in courting her.
Had Blaire imagined everything?
Were her feelings truly completely unrequited?
A blistering wave of chagrin washed over her, and she squeezed her eyes shut. No. She had not imagined it. She hadn’t.
Whenever in her company, his treacle brown eyes beneath slanting brows had tipped upward at the corners, something warm and inviting in their depths. His almost shy smile grew ever wider, and when bowing over her hand, he’d held it a trifle longer than proper. When they’d danced, he’d not taken his compelling gaze from her, and a time or two or three, his strong hand had caressed her spine the tiniest bit. Those involuntary hints she hadn’t manufactured, and she treasured the memory of each.
Why, even her sisters Blaike and Blythe had commented on his obvious interest.
Blaire wouldn’t have thought Julian the sort to place importance on titles or position, and disappointment flattened her lips into a firm line. Quite apparently, she didn’t know him nearly as well as she’d supposed.
Miss Trudeau laughed, a light musical tinkling—why couldn’t she bray like a belligerent donkey?—at something the older woman accompanying her had remarked. Resembling the beauty a great deal, the petite lady, also attired entirely in black, addressed Julian, and he gave a short—almost terse—nod.
It seemed he’d inherited more than the estate and holdings when his brother died. From what Blaire observed, he did indeed court his deceased brother’s betrothed. That had to set a record for gaucheness. Alfred Drake had been buried scarcely two months ago.
With such a recent death in the family, galivanting around London wasn’t done. She couldn’t help but suspect Miss Trudeau or her mother the instigator, although Blaire didn’t know them well enough to form such a mean opinion.
Momentary remorse pricked her conscience, and she stiffened. Was she becoming a jealous shrew? It was bad enough to be discarded with the same ease as coffee grounds, but to become a harpy over the insult?
By George, that she refused to do.
Spying upon the happy couple however, wasn’t beneath her?
Stooping lower, she tilted her head at an awkward angle to better watch Julian and Miss Trudeau. Hopefully no one observed her antics. Likely, that uncouthness would be reported to Heath as well.
Blaire’s dashed height proved a nuisance even in this, and no doubt her curiosity would result in a cricked neck. She pulled her mouth to one side, considering the handsome pair.
Daphne Trudeau didn’t resemble a woman in mourning or a heartbroken betrothed either. From the sunny, devoted smiles she bestowed upon Julian, one would think she hadn’t a care in the world. And that they were an affectionate couple.
Perhaps she hadn’t loved her betrothed and their joining had been a union of convenience or a business arrangement. Such agreements weren’t uncommon.
Wasn’t she related to a duke?
Blaire recalled hearing that tidbit somewhere since she and Blaike had returned from Geneva. The gossip rags fairly brimmed with speculation about Julian and Miss Trudeau and suggested a formal announcement could be expected very soon.
Another maelstrom of emotion welled in Blaire’s chest, and she had to swallow twice to dislodge the lump constricting her throat. Learning another had engaged Julian’s affections during her six-month absence had come as a shock.
She’d thought—hoped—he harbored more than mere fondness for her, and during those horrid months away at school, she’d indulged in silly school-girl notions that once she was back on English soil…
Never mind, she ordered her capering thoughts. What’s done is done.
His chiseled chin on full display, his wavy toast-brown hair slightly mussed beneath his hat, Julian’s bored gaze roved the bookstore. He periodically tapped his fingertips against his long, black-clad thigh.
She’d never known him to be either, but she obviously hadn’t known him as well as she’d presumed, had she?
Blaire squinted. Did fine lines of strain bracket his mouth? Was that a muscle flexing in his jaw? If he was a man besotted, she was the Queen of Egypt.
She well knew smitten men. Hadn’t she witnessed her sisters’ and cousins’ courtships? Hadn’t she watched their beaux’ transformations into doting swains?
Odd disappointment swept her that Julian should care about titles and position. It also stung that she should be the only one of the five Culpeppers to miss the mark on love. Her arrow had gone wide, to be certain.
Enough lurking behind bookshelves as if she’d something to be ashamed of. She had entertained warm feelings for a good-looking man who didn’t return them.
Loving someone who didn’t love you wasn’t a crime.
A derisive chuckle escaped her as her focus fell on the outrageous novel. She was tempted to buy it, if only for a distraction from her doldrums.
She wasn’t so bold. More’s the pity.
Shaking her head in self-reproach, Blaire shoved the books back into their slots, determined to find her maid Flora and depart at once. She still had gloves to collect for Brooke and yarn to purchase for the blanket she was knitting for the babe Blythe expected soon.
Truth to tell, a distraction of some sort might be just the thing.
A noble cause, perchance?
Blaire tapped her chin with her forefinger, considering her options. She didn’t enjoy the typical charities ladies of refinement participated in. Surely, there was something to pique her interest, to keep her mind off Julian’s betrayal.
Ah, well. She released a soundless sigh.
Something would come to her.
Another cleansing breath steadied Blaire’s unruly pulse and calmed her uneasy musings. Brow crumpled in reflection, and adjusting her bonnet to make sure it sat straight upon her head after her contortions to spy upon him, she pivoted toward the end of the aisle and pulled up short.
God help her. There stood the very objects of her musings.
Julian. And Miss Trudeau.
Dash it all to ribbons. Blaire had delayed too long to make her escape.
She snatched the wicked book from the shelf once more, lest he think she fled because of him. Her pride refused to let her bolt.
His eyes—a shade somewhere between pecan and coffee with milk—brightened, the way they always had when encountering her. They softened, the edges crinkling endearingly. As if on cue, his well-formed mouth swept into that familiar jovial, slightly seductive, upward arc that made her tingly and melty to her suddenly freezing toes.
He’d removed his hat, and a shock of almond-brown hair had tumbled onto his high forehead.
“Hello, Miss Culpepper.”
She honed in on his deep voice, unusually melodious for a man.
Why couldn’t he have greeted her impersonally? As if they were mere casual acquaintances? Or ignored her altogether?
He gave a ghost of a bow, his attention straying to the books behind her before dropping to the volume she crushed in her grip. “I’m surprised to see you here, considering the vast library at Highfield Place House.”
“Lieutenant.” She bobbled a shallow curtsy then quickly hooked her parasol over her wrist. She held the unsavory book to her chest, making certain the title faced her. “I’m shopping for a birthday gift.”
Heath’s birthday was next month. But she’d been desperate to escape her family’s pitying sad-eyed looks and had practically dragged Flora from the house, promising to run errands for the others while she was out and about.
It was trying enough grappling with her own heart ache and disappointment without her family unknowingly feeding the fire of disenchantment with each sympathetic glance, grave sigh, or encouraging word.
“Julian, Mama beckons us.” Miss Trudeau pressed her other hand to his upper arm possessively. “You know how demanding she is. We’d best not dawdle and test her patience.”
She flashed him a coquette’s smile, but every ounce of warmth left her big, pansy-brown eyes when her attention swung to Blaire.
A light crease pulling her brows together, Blaire glanced back and forth between them.
If Miss Trudeau and her mother were this problematic before the vows were exchanged, Julian could expect a difficult time. The army officer she knew and adored wouldn’t have acquiesced to being ordered about so easily.
Why the drastic change?
He spared Miss Trudeau a rather taciturn look. “In a moment.”
“We haven’t time to chat with your…ah… acquaintance,” Miss Trudeau insisted, just shy of impoliteness while tugging quite forcefully on his forearm.
Blaire’s temper heated at the way Miss Trudeau uttered acquaintance, as if Blaire were an undesirable, a courtesan or demimonde.
“Forgive me my manners, ladies. I forgot you haven’t been introduced.” Julian quirked his mouth into a boyish half-smile, apparently prepared to endure his future mother-in-law’s wrath by delaying his departure further. “Miss Daphne Trudeau, may I introduce Blaire Culpepper, ward of the Earl of Ravensdale and sister-in-law to the Marquis of Leventhorpe? Miss Culpepper, Miss Trudeau.”
Blaire’s stomach sank in a queer manner. Had he deliberately hinted at her connections while failing to mention Miss Trudeau’s? Why? Did he try to protect Blaire or was he boasting about his connections?
“Miss Trudeau.” Blaire tilted her head a fraction and forced her stiff lips upward. She refused to claim meeting the woman was a pleasure, no matter how delightful Miss Trudeau was. Or given the past several long moments, wasn’t.
Miss Trudeau tittered, putting a fine-boned hand to her mouth.
“Goodness me, you are a long meg, aren’t you? I’d heard of the towering Culpeppers but thought the descriptions were exaggerations. I see now I was wrong.” She leaned a trifle closer. “Do you use lemon to lighten your hair to that shade?” She patted the shiny, russet curls framing her face. The annoying perfect things bounced right back into place. “I could never be so daring as you. I’d be terrified my hair would fall out and I’d be bald as an egg. Besides, so many women of loose virtue are blonde…”
Baring her claws already? Hmm, and they’d just met. Very interesting and not a little peculiar. Was Miss Trudeau uncertain of Julian’s interest or commitment?
She peered at Blaire’s hairline intently. Did Miss Trudeau think to spy a receding hairline? Perhaps she tried to determine if Blaire wore a wig.
“Daphne, all of the Culpeppers have been blessed with such unusual light hair.” Though gentle and tolerant, firmness tinged Julian’s words. His hungry gaze slowly roamed Blaire’s face, almost as if he couldn’t help himself.
She recognized something of herself in his ravenous look.
Unfair she screamed inwardly. Don’t look at me like that. Like you still care.
Miss Trudeau noticed his rapt attention too, and had her flashing eyes been a blade, Blaire would lie disemboweled.
What game did Julian play?
One she wanted no part of.
He’d made his choice, and it wasn’t her. Why would she pine for a man who so easily replaced her once she was out of his sight, anyway?
She gave herself a mental shake. Enough.
“Excuse me, please. I’m already late.” My, she sounded perfectly composed. A tribute to acting skills she didn’t know she possessed until this very minute.
Blaire dipped her chin and, summoning her tattered dignity, swept toward Flora, hovering at the end of the bookcase. She wasn’t really late, but she’d grasped the first excuse that sprang to mind.
Poor dear. She was probably uncertain if she should interrupt.
“Come, Flora. I’ll make my purchase, and we can be on our way. We’ve two more errands, and I promised we’d be home in time for tea. Brooke is expecting callers.” The latter was for the benefit of Miss Trudeau, lest she think she succeeded in scaring Blaire away.
She took Flora’s elbow and steered the servant toward the counter, whilst also steadying the maid’s uneven gait. She didn’t need to look behind her to know two pairs of eyes tunneled into her back—one remorseful and the other lethal.
Nothing quite as disquieting as being despised on sight.
“Yes, miss.” Flora fell into step beside Blaire. A short while later, blessedly without encountering Julian again, they’d gained the street.
Blaire welcomed the bracing coolness against her burning cheeks.
“I helped ice the dainties for today’s tea,” Flora abruptly announced, pride warming her plain features as she limped along.
Blaire patted the maid’s shoulder. “That was very well done of you. I shall look forward to sampling them that much more.”
A bit of the tension knotting the muscles in Blaire’s neck eased, and she tipped her head to study the sky, contemplating whether to walk or take the carriage. A few pewter-tinged clouds obscured the blue, but the earlier threat of rain had blown by.
They’d walk, then. Slowly, so Flora could keep up. The fresh air might help clear Blaire’s tumbling thoughts and would delay their arrival home. She couldn’t prevent one last glance toward the Temple of the Muses. As she did, Julian, his hat once more upon his wavy hair, stepped over the threshold.
Alone. How had he managed to escape Miss Trudeau’s clutches?
His compassionate gaze swept Flora before coming to rest on Blaire. “Miss Culpepper, might I have a moment?”
Blaire’s heart gave a floppy, eager judder.
Silly, stupid, gullible thing.
Hadn’t she experienced enough pain?
Flora’s intense interest didn’t go unnoticed either. The maid might be a bit of a slow stop, but she’d discerned the undercurrent radiating between Blaire and Julian.
“I don’t think that would be wise.” Blaire shook her head, denying his request. “And a public street mightn’t be the best place for such a conversation, in any event.” Not to explain why he’d thrown her over. She couldn’t be positive there wouldn’t be temper or tears on her part.
She hated admitting that weakness, even to herself.
“If you truly wish to speak with me,” she pointed out, “you’re welcome to call at Highfield Place House.”
Of course, he knew that already.
Was he uncertain of his welcome, and had he been waiting for an invitation, given he courted another?
Would Heath allow the visit?
He’d become awfully protective of his wards since marrying Brooke. More than likely Heath would permit it, since Julian was a good friend and he’d already called once since Blaire’s return. Not to see her but rather, Captain Oliver Whitehouse, now Blaike’s betrothed.
Vexation crept along Blaire’s shoulders as she recalled the uncomfortable reunion that day.
Why had she told Julian to call?
It could only lead to more heartache. But didn’t he deserve the opportunity to explain himself? To what purpose? Blister it. Her emotions and thoughts swung back and forth like a clock’s pendulum. She couldn’t make up her bloody, dratted mind about anything these days, especially about what her future held.
That must become her primary focus. Not mooning over a man practically betrothed to another. Steely resolve straightened her spine. Yes, that was precisely what she’d do. Set her own course, and devil take anyone attempting to dissuade her.
“I shall call at the earliest opportunity.” His keen gaze warm and apologetic, Julian inclined his head just as the shop door swung open, and Miss Trudeau and her mother sailed forth.
“My, my, Miss Culpepper.” Frost in January was several degrees warmer than Miss Trudeau’s wintery countenance. “You do seem intent on commandeering my intended’s attention. Do I truly have to warn you away from him?”