A Lady’s Virtue – A. S. Fenichel

Late again, Sylvia Dowder ran down the stairs at the Everton Domestic Society as if her skirts were on fire. It was impossible to read her handwritten pages while moving at such a pace, but she needed to send her article to the Weekly Whisper’s editor before the day was out. She’d been late last month and nearly lost her post at the newspaper. At the bottom of the stairs, she noted her failure to sign the article. Quill in hand, she dripped ink on her brown skirt, leaned on the banister and scribbled Mable Tattler at the bottom. She would ask Gray to have a footman carry it to Free Market Square. Jumping down the last step brought her up against a wall that toppled her to the floor. Stunned, she lay still with her papers strewn around her and the light from the transom windows blocked by whatever had felled her. A masculine, ungloved hand reached toward her. “I’m terribly sorry, miss. Entirely my fault. Are you hurt?” His accent was strange, American perhaps. Having no gloves on, she was hesitant to touch him, but there was no help for it. She couldn’t remain on her back like a turtle. The warmth of his skin traveled up her arm, and her cheeks heated. His fingers were strong and rough. This was no gentleman’s hand. She stood as he eased her to her feet. “Not at all,” she said. “I was distracted.” He towered over her. At her full height of barely over five feet, she craned her neck and was frozen by the most stunning pair of golden eyes, olive skin and full lips. She blinked to focus on the whole rather than the parts. “Anthony Braighton?” He bowed over her hand, which he still held firmly in his. “Lady Serena or Sylvia? I’m afraid I don’t know.

” The mention of her twin’s name brought reality crashing back on Sylvia. She pulled her hand back and made a curtsy. “A common mistake, sir. I am Sylvia Dowder. My sister is still living at home.” Cocking his head, he gawked at her. “And you are now living here at Everton House, Miss Dowder?” “I have joined the Society.” While he seemed only curious, it still rubbed her wrong, and she forced herself not to defend her decisions. Anthony Braighton was just a rich gentleman from America. His opinion didn’t mean anything. “Because of Lord March?” The problem with Americans was they said exactly what they thought rather than keeping a conversation polite. Sylvia bit down on the inside of her cheek. The last thing she wanted was to recount the demise of her engagement to Hunter Gautier, the current Viscount of March. She had been so close to the altar before disaster struck. No. She wouldn’t think about that anymore. “My reasons are not your concern, Mr. Braighton. If you’ll excuse me, I have to see the butler.” His eyes were wide. “Have I been rude, Miss Dowder? I assure you, it was not my intention. I only meant to convey that March’s treatment of you was abominable and no one blames you.” Despite his effort to make things better, his mention of what everyone in London knew of her life and failure only exacerbated her mortification. Still, she could see he was sincere, if mistaken. “There is no harm, Mr.

Braighton. I am uninjured.” “I am pleased to hear that. It seems I have a bad habit of offending the English with regularity.” His smile created the most charming dimple in his left cheek, and his eyes sparkled with mischief. If she were honest, she did not mind looking at Anthony Braighton. Best not to be too honest. “I am made of tougher stuff than most.” “Indeed.” That dimple deepened, and he raised an eyebrow. Looking at the pages in her hand, he said, “I’m keeping you from something. Forgive me. I was on my way to see Lady Jane Everton.” Curiosity over what troubles might bring a rich young man to the Everton Domestic Society warred with her need to have her article delivered to her editor before her deadline passed. Her training as a lady won the battle. She gestured toward the hallway, which led behind the stairs. “Lady Jane’s office is the first door on the right.” “Thank you, Miss Dowder. Very nice to see you again.” “And you, Mr. Braighton. If you will excuse me.” He bowed, and she rushed from the foyer to find Gray, the Evertons’ aging butler. Gray shuffled through the servants’ door into the dining room when Sylvia found him. “Hello, Miss Dowder.

How may I help?” How the man managed to stay upright was a mystery, as was his age. No one seemed to know, and Sylvia didn’t have the courage to ask him. She admired his fortitude and tried not to giggle at his wild tufts of white hair when they protruded in every direction. She folded her parchment into a small packet. “Can you have a footman deliver this to Mr. Cane at the Weekly Whisper’s office? It must get there before three o’clock.” Taking the packet, he nodded. “I’ll see to it, miss.” “Oh, Miss Dowder, there you are.” Jane Everton stood in the entrance, her dark hair pulled into a severe bun and her hands clasped in front of her gray skirt. “Did we have an appointment, my lady?” Sylvia prayed she hadn’t forgotten. “No. However, if you have a few minutes, I would like to speak to you.” The notion that her crashing into Mr. Braighton had become known spiraled her stomach into a knot. Surely, he wasn’t upset because she’d been preoccupied and bumped him. After all, it was she who had tumbled to the floor, not him. “Of course, my lady.” Following Jane out of the dining room, through the foyer and past the stairs to her office, Sylvia practiced her apology for the incident. Not that she was very sorry, but it was easier to make amends than fight a tyrant most of the time. Perhaps she was fussing over nothing and Anthony had left the house already. Besides the masculinity of the room, there was always the warm smell of cherry tobacco, which Lord Everton favored, and the fresh-cut flowers he had delivered nearly every morning for his wife. Today a large vase full of tulips decorated the table to the right of Lady Jane’s desk. Seated next to the table, Anthony Braighton waited. When they entered, he stood.

Jane rounded the desk. “Miss Dowder, this is Lord Anthony Braighton.” Heart pounding, Sylvia made a curtsy. Anthony Braighton’s sister was a countess, but he held no title. At least she didn’t think he did. “I am acquainted with Mr. Braighton, my lady.” Both of Jane’s eyebrows rose. “Oh, well, I suppose that is not surprising as your backgrounds likely afforded you the same friends. Please be seated, Miss Dowder. Lord Braighton has recently become the Earl of Grafton.” “I apologize, my lord.” Anthony waved off the apology. “My cousin passed away without an heir, and now it seems I am an earl.” He turned to Lady Jane. “Indeed. Miss Dowder and her sister were at several house parties and balls, and we do indeed share many friends.” “Will that be a problem?” Jane asked. “Not for me.” His gaze fell on Sylvia while he waited for her reaction. Golden eyes surrounded by dark lashes, it was hard not to be mesmerized by his stare. Clearing her throat, Sylvia realized this was one of those times when keeping quiet could be very detrimental. “If I might ask, my lady, what exactly are we talking about?” “I apologize, my dear. Lord Grafton has just signed a contract for a hostess to assist him with some necessary events required by his new status and title. I thought you might be the perfect Everton lady for the assignment.

” “What type of events?” Her chest tightened. Why it should worry her to spend extended amounts of time with Anthony Braighton, she didn’t know, but trepidation shook her from the inside out. Sitting forward, Anthony rested his chin on his hands, elbows propped on his knees. It had been several years since she’d last seen him, and he was no longer lanky, but tall and filled out. “My mother insists I host at least one dinner party then a ball this season. She would prefer I find a wife, but I intend to prove to her that marrying is not necessary. A respectable lady of the Everton Domestic Society can handle all the details of a hostess.” Jane said, “If you would like to find a wife, I can suggest another lady who can help with matchmaking.” His expression soured. “I’d really rather not.” Sylvia was sure he had more to say on the subject of his not marrying, but he simply gave Jane a warm smile. “It seems a simple enough task. I’m sure I can manage to plan a dinner party and a ball if his lordship has a guest list in mind.” Sylvia had helped plan many events with her mother and sister. This would not be an issue. “I do. There are a few other things I require.” He pulled his lips into a line, and Sylvia wondered where their fullness disappeared to. Jane raised a brow. “I’m sure we won’t be shocked, my lord. What do you require?” Standing, he paced to the window and ran his hand along the table to the left. “I inherited the Collington townhouse. It’s on Grosvenor Street. My great-aunt Daphne has lived there a long time and I offered to purchase a new home for myself, but she insists she’d rather move to the dowager’s cottage. The townhouse is nice, but very formal.

I’ve never been comfortable there. I need some assistance with the decor. Are you able to help in that area as well, Miss Dowder?” Once Jane nodded her approval, Sylvia said, “I’m sure I can be of assistance, my lord.” He turned, and the strain had eased, leaving his lips full again. “Do you think we can schedule the dinner party for one month from now? If I don’t do something soon, Momma will drive me to madness.” It wasn’t easy to keep from laughing. Sylvia had met Mrs. Braighton once and found her petite and charming. The fact that her strapping young son was afraid of her was much funnier than was polite. “It’s all right, Miss Dowder. You may laugh. I know I’m a coward where my mother is concerned. Still, I’ll not let her bully me into marriage. Not yet.” His smile was sweet, and he ran his fingers through his shock of dark hair. Swallowing her laugh, Sylvia stood. “I will be happy to help you, my lord. Lady Jane, do we have a dowager available? I fear this short schedule will require a lot of my time to be spent at his lordship’s townhouse. I’ll need a chaperon.” Jane went through the ledger on her desk. “Lady Chervil arrived home yesterday. I’ll go and see if she will consent to the assignment.” Jane stood and walked out of the office, leaving the door open. At a loss for what to say, Sylvia tugged on the lace along the bottom of her bodice. A shadow passed in front of her, and she glanced up to find Anthony staring at her.

“I know you said you didn’t want to speak on why you joined the Everton Domestic Society, Miss Dowder, but may I ask if you are still speaking to your family?” Normally she would have said it was none of his business, but there was genuine concern etched in the lines around his mouth. That mouth was a distraction that Sylvia could hardly afford. “My sister and I are still in regular contact. As twins it would be difficult if not impossible to sever the ties. Mother is less understanding about my choices, but I go for tea with her every week whether she likes it or not.” “That must be very difficult for you?” Refusing to show any weakness, she lifted her chin. “I manage. My mother and sister are only concerned with finding Serena a husband this season. They feel it is the last hope. As their attentions are focused there, they leave me in peace.” “Why are they not focused on finding you a husband as well?” While impertinent, the question was softly asked and sincere. Yet there was no pity in his expression. None of the censure a failed engagement and a life of spinsterhood usually garnered. Swallowing her disappointment had become a regular meal. “Mother feels I already wasted enough of their time and money. I don’t disagree, and I’m happy here. At least here I can do as I please and wri—do some good.” She closed her mouth before she said too much. She’d nearly told him more than was safe. What was it about Anthony Braighton, Earl of Grafton, that loosened her tongue? Whatever it was, it had to be controlled. He leaned down until his distracting lips were inches from her ear. “You are not to blame for March’s abominable behavior.” Sylvia’s heart raced, and she drew in a quick breath. He was too close and the scent of fresh-cut wood and something delectable swamped her senses. She ducked under his chest and around to the back of the chair.

Her cheeks were on fire and she was sure she was blushing like an idiot. It would not do. He rose to his full height and watched her. “Mr.—I mean, my lord, I am under no delusions.” There. She had sounded quite sure of herself. He bowed. “I’m glad to hear it. I would hate to think you had lost your confidence, Miss Dowder. I remember you and your sister to be young ladies full of life and quite funny at times. Yet I have seen none of that wicked sense of humor since my arrival at Everton House.” Missing the times that she and Serena would poke fun at customs and people would not change her situation. She found her humor was best kept anonymous in her new column. People of society rarely liked a girl with a quick wit. “My sense of humor is intact, my lord. This is a place of business, and jocularity is not always appropriate.” He stared at the chair she used as a wall between them. “The Sylvia Dowder I met at some ball years ago, or Wharton house party two years ago, would never have said such a ridiculous thing. In fact, she loved to poke fun at exactly those kinds of attitudes.” Pulling her shoulders back, she pushed down the hurt of the last six months. “Lives change and people grow up, my lord. You should know that. Look at you. Four years ago, at the Millar ball, you scoffed at our English titles and customs, and now you’ve gotten yourself a title, a country estate, a townhouse, and a plan to have your very own coming out of a sort.

Have you not changed just as much, if not more?” Stepping back, he raked through that thick mane of hair again. He slumped into a chair and closed his eyes. “It is the last thing I wanted or expected.” She sat across from him and watched the worry return to his sharp features. His cheeks were high and his jaw strong and square. He was by far the most handsome man she’d ever seen. Hunter had been fine to look at, but Anthony was beautiful and exotic with his tiger eyes and olive skin. Opening his eyes, he said, “My cousin was a bit of a stuffed shirt, but I never wanted his title or responsibilities. I certainly did not wish for my aunt Daphne to suffer the loss of her son. But the title fell to me, and if I refused, my family would lose the title entirely.” He sighed long and low. “I had hoped to spend time in Italy. My momma’s family has a beautiful estate and vineyard there. I had other plans too.” He made Italy sound like a fairy tale place and made being a noble sound miserable. It was unfair to compare him to Hunter, but she couldn’t help it. Hunter had been so keen on having become a viscount, he’d barely spared a thought for the loss of his brother. “You could still go. Your title will not take that much of your time. I’m sure you already enjoy many of the benefits of being an earl.” His shrug was youthful like the Anthony she’d known before. “I suppose that’s true, but Momma and my aunt are determined I marry and produce an heir. I have no desire to marry a woman I barely know and have nothing in common with. For Momma’s sake I plan to stay here in England for a while. Perhaps by next winter, I can go to Italy.

When you come to my house, I will give you a sample of my cousin’s wine. It’s really special.” “I would like that. I have never had Italian wine.” They spoke like old friends, yet she hardly knew him. A few balls and a house party were not the stuff of confidants. Yet, here they were chatting about their lives with the ease of school chums. She almost laughed at the notion she might have attended school with a man. Besides, Anthony hadn’t studied in England. “I shall make it a point then.” He smiled, and it made her breath catch. “Did you attend university, my lord?” Still in her fantasy of being his school mate, she longed to feed the image.


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