Lord of Secrets: A Historical Regency Romance Novel (Rogues to Riches Book 5)

Chapter 1

London, 1817

Lemonade. The mission was to fetch the baroness a glass of fresh lemonade.

Miss Eleanora Winfield squared her shoulders and prepared to enter the fashionable milieu before her. She could not help but feel like a plain brown minnow diving into a pool of brightly colored fish.

Despite the bright red of her hair, and despite the beautiful gown the baroness had commissioned of pale pink gauze over a rosier silk underdress, Nora did not stand out. Not here in London. At a Society ball. In the home of an earl. In the midst of the Season.

She clutched Lady Roundtree’s empty glass and inched her way through the crowd toward the refreshment table.

It was hard to focus on something so mundane as lemonade whilst surrounded by a world she had never dreamed of one day entering.

The music from the orchestra danced in her ears and vibrated through the soles of her brand new slippers. The constant swirl of aristocratic faces and rich fabrics dazzled her eyes. The onslaught of expensive perfumes, the barrage of strange faces, the dizziness of not knowing the right words to say or the right way to act…

It was all too new, too foreign, too much.

The lords and ladies had been born into this elegant madness. They’d had a lifetime to learn its rules and taboos and nuances.

Nora had had six days.

It was a temporary post, she reminded herself as she glimpsed the end of the refreshment line. Eight weeks at most. She could do this. She had to. Her family was counting on her.

Besides, it wasn’t as if she was expected to know how to waltz. Or even supposed to speak to anyone besides Lady Roundtree.

Nora moved to join the queue. All she had to do was keep the baroness happy and entertained until the splints came off her injured leg. The resulting salary could be enough to support her family for the rest of the year. With luck, she might save their farm.

She took a few steps forward with the rest of the queue. This was nothing like back home; she already boasted far more advantages than when she’d started. The pale pink silk swishing elegantly about her body had cost more than Nora had believed possible to spend on a single gown.

Yet Lady Roundtree had referred to the expense as a mere trifle. A half-dozen “serviceable units” of just-sufficient-enough quality for the baroness not to be embarrassed to be seen in public with her distant country cousin.

Fortunately for them both, the camouflage was working. For all the attention she garnered, Nora might as well blend into the wallpaper. Even in a crowd of this size, no one had so much as made eye contact with her.

Why would they? The beau monde preferred to associate with one another. Not only did their names fill the pages of Debrett’s Peerage, the aristocracy had a secret language all its own.

Since entering the ballroom, she had spent most of the past hour watching the debutantes flirt coyly with painted fans at dapper gentleman who responded thrillingly to silent messages Nora could not comprehend.

Everything was different here. Rousing instruments the likes of which she’d never heard, spiced biscuits and French tortes she’d never known existed, the strangely cloying sweetness of ratafia coating her tongue for the first time. And the candles! Aristocrats like the baroness and the earl lit more candles in a single chandelier than Nora’s family used in an entire month.

“Miss?”

Nora’s cheeks heated. It was her turn. She’d been too busy gawking at all the brilliant jewels and fancy fixtures to notice she had reached the front of the line.

“I’m sorry.” With a shaking hand, she reached for the ladle in the crystal lemonade bowl.

With an almost comical expression of horror, a footman relinquished her grasp on the baroness’s soiled glass and gestured to a waiting pyramid of clean goblets. “Allow me.”

Nora’s cheeks flamed even hotter. Of course one would not be expected to serve one’s own beverage in a place as elegant as this. There were servants to do absolutely everything, including ladle scoops of lemonade into fresh goblets.

With trembling hands, she accepted the brimming glass. “Thank you.”

She was not at all certain if one was meant to thank the servants, but as Nora was now essentially a fellow servant herself, she would err on the side of politeness.

Her head pounded as she stepped away from the refreshment table to a much safer location near the wainscoting. She needed to calm her pounding heart.

“Freeze,” she whispered.

In her mind’s eye, the ballroom froze in place. Lemonade paused mid-stream, embroidered flounces arrested mid-swish, a droplet of wax from the chandelier above floated high above the dance floor, suspended in time.

This was how she’d draw the scene tonight to send home.

To give her family a sense of the opulence, she’d make the pyramid of crystal goblets and the tower of little cakes rise taller than the footmen serving them. She would draw the lords and ladies right where they were, but add herself among them as though she were having the time of her life.

She wished such a treat were possible.

It was difficult to convey how the music from the orchestra seeped in through her toes and seemed to fill her completely, but she would sketch as many musicians and instruments in the background as she could fit onto the paper. In fact, she’d caption this one—

“Oh!” Wet liquid splashed onto her brand new gloves as the overfull goblet of lemonade collided with a passing gentleman’s elbow.

Drat her daydreaming. Would her cheeks ever cease heating in embarrassment? Lost in another artistic reverie, she must have leaned away from the wainscoting and right into the path of the most handsome man she’d ever seen.

Bright hazel eyes. Dark brown hair. Starched cravat. Silver waistcoat. Elbow dripping with the finest lemonade in London.

“I’m so sorry,” Nora gasped, mortified.

“Nonsense. ’Tis nothing.” As casually as if lords like him regularly spent their days dodging goblets of all sorts, the gentleman drew a perfectly creased, blindingly white handkerchief from the breast pocket of his tailored dark gray jacket. Rather than apply the square of linen to his own elbow, he handed the handkerchief to Nora with a charming smile. “For your glove.”

Her heart skipped. She accepted the pristine cloth not because her soiled glove was in any way more important than the gentleman’s wet elbow, but because she was tempted to hide her face behind it until she disappeared into the floor.

“Thank you.” She dabbed at her glove with a light hand, careful not to actually touch the damp parts, lest she stain the gentleman’s handkerchief. She handed it back as fast as she could. “Here. For your arm.”

He smiled as he pressed the linen square to his elbow. “I rather like it. Perhaps I will start a new fashion, and make it all the crack for gentlemen to gad about with wet spots on one’s arm.”

Nora couldn’t return his smile; she was trying too hard to keep her shaking fingers from splashing even more lemonade over them both.

What was she meant to do? He was the first Society gentleman who had ever spoken to her. Now what was she meant to say? Her head filled instantly with all the wrong things.

You are so handsome I cannot think properly did not seem the most prudent tack. Nor did babbling that he might truly be able to start such a trend, given the shocking number of young ladies of his class who dampened their bodices in the retiring room to display their assets more clearly.

She hunched her shoulders self-consciously. Was that the sort of woman men like him preferred?

Heaven help her. She’d crashed into him with a glass of lemonade and all she could think about was whether she should have dampened her bodice before doing so.

“I’m sorry,” she stammered, wishing the ground would swallow her whole. “It won’t happen again.”

“I hope it does,” he said cheerfully. “One meets new faces much more efficiently this way, rather than mucking through all the proper channels to wrangle formal introductions. It can be our secret handshake. The next time you wish to speak with me, just dribble a few drops on the other side, and you’ll have my undivided attention.”

Proper channels.

Formal introduction.

Oh no. She sucked in a breath. He thought she was of his class! “My lord, I am afraid I’m not—”

A sudden swell of music swept through the ballroom.

“Oh, dear.” The gentleman glanced over his shoulder and waved at someone through the crowd assembling on the dance floor. “I cannot dally. Indeed, my attentions are promised for the next few sets. I hope your card isn’t full by the time we’re properly presented.”

Her what? She stared at him blankly.

“Alas, there’s no more time. I cannot leave my partner waiting.” He sent her one last apologetic look as he edged away. “I’ll find you as soon as I can beg a true introduction. With luck, you’ll still have a spot free.”

With that, he disappeared into the throngs flocking toward the orchestra to dance the next musical set.

Nora gazed after him speechlessly.

Her card.

A spot free.

Lady Roundtree had done such a splendid job outfitting Nora like one of her peers that the handsome gentleman had mistaken her for someone who might possess a dance card. With names on it. Perhaps even room for his.

A sudden rush of yearning washed over her. If only it were true. If only it were possible. She would have loved nothing more than to dance in a place like this. To dance with someone like… him.

But girls like her didn’t have fairy stories.

She was not a secret princess who would win the heart of a prince before the clock struck midnight. Her living conditions had already improved dramatically just by becoming Lady Roundtree’s temporary paid companion.

A servant girl, she reminded herself. Who should definitely not be off dousing aristocrats in lemonade or engaging in flirtatious banter about dance cards.

In fact, Nora had better hurry back to Lady Roundtree’s side before the baroness was forced to sack her for taking so long to fetch a simple glass of lemonade.

As out of her element as Nora felt, she could not afford to lose this opportunity. The future of her family farm depended on her bringing home the whole salary, which would only happen if she remained gainfully employed.

The refreshment queue had dispersed now that the next dancing set was underway, so she exchanged the sticky goblet for a fresh one and made her way back to the rear of the ballroom where duennas and matrons filled two rows of Queen Anne chairs.

Nora took her place in the back and handed the lemonade up to Lady Roundtree, who was seated in the front row amongst her friends.

“Oh!” the baroness gasped as she accepted the glass. “I was ever so parched. These salons are positively stifling when one cannot promenade near the open doors. These splints are a dreadful bore, Winfield. I wouldn’t wish a broken leg on my worst enemy.”

Nora nodded quickly.

The day she’d arrived, the surgeon had been present to check on Lady Roundtree, and Nora had overheard the prognosis.

Due to the size of the swelling, one of the bones almost certainly had a crack, but fortunately nothing had snapped in two. Had there been fractured ends to contend with, Lady Roundtree would be prostrate in her bedchamber with her limb elevated inside a fracture box for the foreseeable future.

The surgeon had advised her to stay off her leg as much as possible. The baroness was to keep the splints firmly in place until the swelling was completely gone and the surgeon pronounced her good as new.

“From this distance, I can scarcely discern what’s happening,” Lady Roundtree groused to a few of the friends seated near her. “Dorothea, can you see who Wainwright is dancing with? Remind me to tell Carlisle he should move the seats closer to the dance floor.”

“If he does, someone might trip over your broken leg,” came the stern-faced matron’s swift rebuke. That was Lady Pettibone. Nora had heard quite an earful about her.

She leaned back in her chair to stay out of the line of sight. Listening was adventure enough.

Lady Roundtree’s favorite pastime was gossiping about her peers. Lady Pettibone was infamous for putting people in their place. Cowering debutantes referred to her as the “old dragon” in hushed whispers, but never to her face.

Nora didn’t call her anything but Lady Pettibone. She was the reason Nora had this post.

The truth was, she’d been surprised either of the ladies had remembered she existed. They had not seen each other in years. Lady Roundtree was not only a baroness, but the niece of a duke. Nora had no aristocratic blood at all.

Her mother had been Lady Roundtree’s first cousin on the other, non-duke side of the family. Nora’s lips curved into a wistful smile. Mama had even had a Season once, thirty years earlier, before unfashionably marrying for love and leaving London forever.

Nora had not had a Season. Now she was too old for one.

Instead, she lived with her brother and paternal grandparents on a very uncomplicated farm in the very pretty countryside where no one referred to anyone else as “old dragon” or “common bit of baggage” or worried about impressing matriarchal patronesses for the privilege of purchasing a voucher that would allow admittance into Almack’s hallowed dance floors.

Sometimes there were country dances in the assembly rooms of nearby towns. Nora had even danced. Once in a while, there were picnics in the meadow. Or bathing in the river. Or a lazy afternoon sketching fancy gowns she would never be able to afford. She was content with her lot.

Back home, she knew exactly what to expect and what to do. Here, she couldn’t help but feel trapped inside a perfect, floating bubble that could pop at any moment.

If she made the wrong move, said the wrong thing… And it would be so easy to do, wouldn’t it? The subtle conventions of the haut ton were as baffling to her as ablative Latin declensions. Books were her brother’s domain. Nora had never even had a governess.

Not that it would have done much good. Carter had tried his hardest to help, but still the letters rarely stayed put on the page for Nora to manage reading them.

Until meeting the baroness, books had been Nora’s greatest fear. The entire paid companion position would disappear in a puff of smoke the moment Lady Roundtree demanded Nora read aloud to her, and discovered she could not.

Fortunately, the baroness’s primary literary interests lay in the scandal columns of her daily newspapers and lady’s magazines, which she read to herself first thing every morning before breaking her fast.

Now, however, Nora worried she’d been glimpsed making calf’s eyes at a handsome lord.

Reaching above one’s station was just as unpardonable a sin as being unable to read. Had Lady Roundtree glimpsed Nora’s interaction with the elegant gentleman, the baroness would have been just as likely to sack Nora for daring to converse with him as for dumping lemonade on his suit jacket. Her fingers trembled.

Distant cousins or not, Lady Roundtree would have no truck whatsoever with a companion who did not know her place.

Nora lifted her chin. She didn’t expect a baroness to be friends with her. Nora just needed to keep her post for the next six to eight weeks. She didn’t mind at all if her cousin never thought of her as anything more than the help.

If the baroness even thought of her at all.

To Lady Roundtree, Nora was no more noticeable than the molding around the ceiling. Which meant she was privy to all sorts of scandalous information about personages she’d never meet firsthand.

Some duke had compromised some debutante in a closet. Someone else had been spotted attending a salacious masquerade. Someone else had run off to the Scottish Highlands. Each tale was more riveting than the last. During their afternoon carriage rides in Hyde Park, Lady Roundtree gossiped about every single soul they passed with gleeful attention to detail.

As a break from her habit of designing richly drawn fashion plates, Nora had begun to sketch little cartoons of all the overheard stories for fun. She sent the best ones home to her brother with little, painstakingly drawn captions. The last one she’d dubbed The Lord of Pleasure, after an earl who apparently made matrons and debutantes alike swoon with palpitations at the mere glimpse of his golden curls. She grinned at the fanciful notion.

Sketching, whether in her head or on paper, was not only the best way to keep sane as she traversed the upside-down world of the beau monde, but also a way to document the humor she spotted in each situation. The foibles, the hypocrisy, the boundless riches, the decadent feasts, the thousand-and-one ways that High Society differed from life back home.

She reminded herself to direct her focus to her patroness.

“Bryony Grenville?” the baroness was saying to the lady on her left. “I vow, were that chit less skilled with a violin, she would not receive invitations to soirées like this one.”

Nora straightened with interest. The Grenville siblings were a frequent subject of gossip among the baroness and her friends, but they had not put on one of their famous musicales in the week since Nora had arrived in London, so she had yet to put faces to the names.

She leaned forward to whisper to Lady Roundtree. “Which one is Bryony?”

The matron on the baroness’s other side sent Nora a look sour enough to curdle milk. “I daresay you are in no position to speak ill of your betters.”

Nora’s face heated with embarrassment. She faced forward again without meeting anyone else’s eyes. Curse her tongue. She hadn’t spoken ill of Bryony Grenville or anyone else. She’d simply asked who the others were gossiping about.

And yet the point held true.

The Grenville siblings and everyone else who had received an invitation to the ball were indeed Nora’s betters. She knew it as well as they did. Farm girls like Nora did not belong among them as anything other than a servant.

Nor was she complaining.

It wasn’t even difficult work. She’d been granted every comfort and more: delicious meals, new gowns, an entire stack of sketchbooks. In return, all she had to do was keep Lady Roundtree happy… and keep herself quiet. Being as bland as the woodwork was literally the job.

A companion was like a bell pull—silent and unnoticed, except when given a sharp tug.

Help the baroness in and out of her wheeled chair? Yes. Fetch lemonades and pour tea and ring for extra laudanum? Yes. Indulge in gossip or anything even peripherally related to scandalous topics?

Absolutely not.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered to Lady Roundtree when the other pinch-faced matron wasn’t looking.

“Oh!” the baroness gasped with a glance over her shoulder. “And quite well you should be, Winfield! Humiliating me like that. You are not paid to gossip.”

Nora nodded tightly. She would do better. This post was too important.

“But since you asked…” Unable to help herself, the baroness pointed her fan toward the doors leading to the garden. “That’s Bryony Grenville walking past the terrace with her brother. She’s the chit with the bone-straight hair. Her mother never could get it to hold a curl. Mr. Grenville is the gentleman with the unsightly stain on his elbow.”

No.

It couldn’t be.

Nora followed the line of the baroness’s painted fan straight to the handsome gentleman she’d been speaking with earlier.

It was.

A week’s worth of overheard gossip came flooding back as Nora picked through her memory for scraps of information about the handsome lord.

He played the pianoforte at his family’s musicales. He was well-acquainted with—and well-liked by—all his peers. He had not yet taken a wife. His first name was Heath. Not that someone like Nora would be first-naming anyone in the ton.

Especially not a man like him.

Mr. Grenville was known as a problem-solver. The sort of gentleman fabulously wealthy folks summoned when there was a scandal that needed hiding. He was also heir to a barony. When he inherited the title, he would become Lord Grenville rather than a plain mister. He was important.

Definitely not the sort of gentleman one’s paid companion should be baptizing in lemonade.

“Over there are the Blackpool brothers and the Duke of Wellington,” the baroness continued, directing the tip of her fan toward various personages in the crowd. “You recognize the earl who just walked in, don’t you? That’s Lord Wainwright. Or, as some choose to call him, the Lord of Pleasure.”

Nora blinked at the uncanny coincidence.

Well, bother. It seemed the caption she’d sent home to her brother wasn’t nearly as original as she’d thought. Thank heavens she’d sent that sketch away. She’d hate for anyone to stumble across one of her silly drawings and think she was attempting to spread gossip. Especially since it could cost her post.

“The lord of what, again?” she asked, in case she had heard incorrectly.

“Pleasure,” the baroness repeated and tittered behind her fan. “Don’t ask me to show you the caricature everyone is talking about. It’s not fit for common eyes. My friends must have sent me at least ten copies before noon. So droll, with Wainwright looking positively baffled as swooning henwits drop like flies at the very sight of him.”

No.

No, no, no, no, no.

This could not be happening. Goosebumps raced across her flesh, a cold sweat chasing in their wake.

“Lord of Pleasure” was Nora’s drawing.

A popular earl had a horrid new nickname thanks to a few strokes of her pen.