Thirty miles southeast of Florence
She had always maintained high standards. While other young ladies dreamed of finding Mr. Right, Alexandra set her sights on the Duke of Right.
In the end, she had accepted a marquis, but as Lord Morley had been both extremely rich and extremely old, she still considered her marriage a success. Ask and ye shall receive, went her motto. (It was in the Bible, after all; she was almost certain.) And never, ever settle for second-rate.
Not even when fleeing from one's creditors.
This room was decidedly second-rate. No, not even that. It was little more than a cupboard, hardly larger than the wardrobe in which she stored her summer nightgowns during the off-season. A narrow cot, wedged against the wall, left no space for even a hatbox; the single coarse wool blanket looked a perfect paradise for fleas. It was fourth-rate, even fifth. It simply wouldn't do.
Alexandra turned to the landlord. "It simply won't do, I'm afraid. Non possiblo. Understand? Comprendo? It is too small. Troppo, er, petito. There are three of us. Trio. And the boy."
The innkeeper frowned. Perhaps he had not quite understood her Italian phraseology. "The inn, she is full, milady. I make beds in the commons, very warm, very comfort."
"Sleep in the commons! Three English ladies! You can't possibly be serious." Alexandra produced a chuckle to emphasize the idea's absurdity.
"But milady, it rains, the bridge is . . . is flood. The rooms, they are all take!"
"By whom?" she demanded, straightening her spine to an impressive length.
"Is a duke, milady," said the innkeeper, hushed and reverent. "An English duke. His brother, his friend."
"The devil you say! Show me their rooms, if you please. Er, chamberos. You see, my good man," she explained kindly, as she herded him down the narrow creaking corridor, "we have, in my country, a darling little custom by which gentlemen are obliged, absolutely obliged, to relinquish any present comforts for the benefit of ladies in need. It imposes such a perfect civilized order upon the world, wouldn't you agree, without which we should descend into mere barbarism, like those poor chaps the Romans. This duke of yours, I'm sure, will quite understand. Oh yes!"
She stopped in the doorway and cast her eyes about the room. This was much more the thing. Large, commodious. A plump double bed in the exact center of the opposite wall, with a wardrobe to one side; a fireplace on the other wall, being tended at that moment by an apple-cheeked young miss with that rippling dark Italian hair one couldn't help envying, in one's wilder moments.
It was plain, of course. The inn formed a remote outpost along an obscure Tuscan road, far from the civilized refinement of Milan or even Florence, but Alexandra was willing to make allowances for the rustic furniture and lack of proper trim work and so on. And after all, the rain lashed harrowingly against the small many-paned window, and the wind howled down the chimney flue. Really, one couldn't afford to be too particular.
"It's ideal," she said, turning to the landlord. "We'll take it. And the connecting room as well." She gestured to the door standing ajar next to the wardrobe.
The landlord's face had clearly suffered through a long and rainy winter. It hardly seemed possible those hollow cheeks could lose any further color, and yet, before her eyes, every last remaining atom of pigment drained from the face of her host. "But milady," he said feebly, "the room, she is already take! The duke have her! A very big duke! Very strong duke! And his brother, his friend! All very big!"
"Yes, isn't it extraordinary? I often find that large-framed men tend to befriend other large-framed men, and vice versa. One imagines it must arise from one of those clever little laws of nature one reads about from time to time. Indeed, I should very much like to discover why. A large duke, you say?" She cocked her head and turned to walk back to the staircase. "It can't be Wallingford, do you think? Wallingford in Italy? I never heard anything about it."
"Wallingford! Yes!" the landlord exclaimed, trotting behind her. "Is Wallingford! He will not like!"
"Oh, rubbish. Wallingford has a sharp bark, I grant you, but really he's as gentle as a lamb. Or perhaps . . . perhaps a sort of youngish ram." She poised at the top of the staircase, nearly flattened by the mingled scents of woodsmoke and wet wool and roasting meat, rising up in a fug from the bustle of the common room below, and went on with renewed determination. "In any case, quite manageable. Just leave everything to me, my good fellow. I shall have it all sorted out in short order."
"Milady, please, is not so bad, the commons . . ."
"It isn't at all acceptable, non possiblo, do you hear me?" she said, more loudly, just to be sure he understood. "We are English, anglese. We can't possibly . . ." She paused about halfway down the stairs and turned to scan the noisy wood-beamed room, with its long tables and bowed hungry heads. She had little trouble finding the one she sought. "Oh! Your Grace!" she called, infusing her voice with just the proper balance of surprise and gratification.
The Duke of Wallingford seemed to have been expecting her. His lean face wore an expression of deep resignation, and he muttered something to his companions before he tossed his napkin on the table and stretched his limbs to their full forbidding height. "Lady Morley. Good evening. I trust you're well." He seemed, to Alexandra's ears, to growl rather than speak.
She drew in a fortifying breath and continued down the stairs. "Darling Wallingford, you're just the man I was hoping for. I can't seem to make these Italian fellows understand that English ladies, however sturdy and liberal minded, simply cannot be expected to sleep in a room with strangers. Male strangers. Foreign male strangers." She stood before him now, smiling her winning smile, the one that had laid waste to haughty noblemen beyond number. "Don't you agree, Your Grace?" she finished softly, looking up at him beneath her eyelashes, delivering the coup de grâce.
His face remained hard. "Are there no rooms available upstairs, madam?"
She made a helpless shrug. "A small room, a very small room. Hardly large enough for Lady Somerton's boy to sleep in, let alone the three of us." She glanced aside to his companion. His brother, she remembered the landlord telling her, and everyone knew Wallingford's brother was . . .
"Lord Roland!" The enormity of it exploded in her brain. Her thoughts fled outside, to the sodden innyard where she'd left her sister and her cousin to see to the disposition of the baggage, not a quarter hour before. "I'd no idea! Have you . . . my cousin . . . Lady Somerton . . . good God!"
Lord Roland bowed. Thank goodness, Alexandra thought, thank goodness he was a charming, well-bred rascal, nothing like his arctic brother. Society had decreed the younger man the handsomer of the two, though in fact their features were clearly cast from the same symmetrical mold. Perhaps it was his coloring, which was lighter than Wallingford's, his eyes a friendly hazel next to the blackened orbs of his brother, and his golden brown hair giving him the air of a particularly enthusiastic retriever. He spoke, however, with subdued formality. "I had the great honor of meeting her ladyship outside on the . . . the portico, a moment ago. And her charming son, of course."
Something caught in Alexandra's throat; she wasn't quite sure if it was a laugh or a groan. Lord Roland and Lilibet stumbling into each other on the portico, after all these years! Good God!
"Charming! Yes, quite," she got out at last. She felt hideously wrong-footed, with several pairs of fascinated male eyes witnessing her confusion. It was intolerable. She rallied and cleared her throat, hoping the motion would cause something more rational to tumble out into the thickening silence.
Nothing did, however, and she was forced to turn back to the duke. "Look here, Wallingford, I really must throw myself on your mercy. Surely you can see our little dilemma. Your rooms are ever so much larger, palatial, really, and two of them! You can't possibly, in all conscience . . ." A thought occurred to her. She turned back to Lord Roland and fixed him with a beseeching smile. "My dear Penhallow. Think of poor Lilibet, sleeping in . . . in a chair, quite possibly. With all these strangers."
Lord Roland's expression turned stricken. She opened her mouth to pursue her advantage, but before she could speak, a voice intruded to thwart her.
"Did it not, perhaps, occur to you, Lady Morley, to reserve rooms in advance?"
For an instant, she was confused. That resonant timbre could only come from a singularly spacious chest, and the clipped tones and rumbling impatience could only come from an Englishman. But it was not Wallingford, nor was it Lord Roland.
Oh, of course. The third man.
She knew better than to acknowledge him at once. She was not the Dowager Marchioness of Morley for nothing. She counted off one second . . . two . . . three . . . and then turned in the direction of the voice.
He was not at all what she expected.
Wallingford's friend. Who the devil was he? He was tall, of course—extraordinarily tall, topping even the duke by a good three or four inches—and broad shouldered. She'd known that already, Wallingford and his pack of goons. But a voice that dark, that silky, that weighty ought to belong to one of your saturnine characters, your brooders: all black hair and eyes, like Wallingford himself. This fellow was ginger haired, with lawn-green eyes and freckles, actual freckles, an unmistakable dusting of them around the bridge of his nose, descending across the strong, wide wedge of his cheekbones. A damned leprechaun, if leprechauns had blunt bones and stern eyes and ran to nearly six and a half deuced feet in their curly toed stockings.
Surely she was equal to an overgrown leprechaun.
"As a matter of fact, it did, Mr. . . ." She dropped a devastating pause, a pause that might have brought lesser souls to their knees. "I'm so terribly sorry, sir. I don't quite believe I caught your name."
His expression didn't change, not by so much as an ironically elevated eyebrow.
"I beg your pardon, Lady Morley," said the Duke of Wallingford. "How remiss of me. I have the great honor to present to you—perhaps you many have come across his name, in your philosophical studies—Mr. Phineas Fitzwilliam Burke, of the Royal Society."
"Your servant, madam," Mr. Burke said, with a slight inclination of his head.
Alexandra's brain took a moment or two to absorb this information. "Burke," she said numbly, and then, with effort: "Phineas Burke. Of course. The Royal Society. Yes, of course. Everyone knows of Mr. Burke. I found . . . the Times, last month . . . your remarks on electrical . . . that new sort of . . ." She found herself stammering again. Bloody Wallingford. Bloody Wallingford, to be traveling in the Italian countryside with a man of exalted genius and near-divine eminence. How on earth had he come to know Phineas Burke?
She recovered herself and attempted a smile, a friendly smile, to make amends for her earlier haughtiness. "That is to say, of course we reserved rooms. I sent the wire days ago, if memory serves. But we were delayed in Milan. The boy's nursemaid took ill, you see, and I expect our message did not reach our host in time." She flashed the bemused landlord, who stood a few deferential feet away, a shaming expression.
"Look here," said Lord Roland, unexpectedly, "enough of this rubbish. We shouldn't dream of causing any inconvenience to you and your friends, Lady Morley. Not for an instant. Should we, Wallingford?"
The duke folded his arms. "No, damn it."
The scientist made a noise of agreement.
Lord Roland grinned his dazzling grin. "You see, Lady Morley? All quite willing and happy and so on. I daresay Burke can take the little room upstairs, as he's such a tiresome, misanthropic old chap, and my brother and I shall be quite happy to make ourselves comfortable downstairs. Will that suit?"
Relief flooded through her. Good old Penhallow. She could have kissed him, except for propriety and Lilibet, which were almost the same thing. As it was, she pressed her hands together in an elegant kidskin knot. "Darling Penhallow. I knew you'd oblige us. Thanks so awfully, my dear; you can't imagine how thankful I am for your generosity." She said it with gushing gratitude, really quite sincere, and yet she became uncomfortably aware of Mr. Burke's assessing gaze along the periphery of her vision.
Why had Wallingford brought along a scientific gentleman? Really, it was intolerable, having the man look at one with such thorough eyes, as if one were a subject of some sort. As if he understood all one's secrets.
She returned to the landlord, steeling her voice back into its usual tone of brusque efficiency: "Do you understand? Comprendo? You may remove His Grace's luggage from the rooms upstairs and bring up our trunks at once."
The landlord made a sullen bow and hurried off, just as the thick wooden door swung open and two bundled figures hunkered through, sodden and dripping.
Alexandra turned to the entrance and felt a warm glow of mischief evaporate her discomfort. "Ah! Cousin Lilibet! There you are at last. Have you sorted out the trunks?"
Lord Roland reacted with near-instantaneous haste. He wheeled about to the doorway and stepped in Lilibet's direction, before he remembered himself and froze on the spot.
Even more satisfactory, Lilibet gave no sign of noticing him. All her cousin's attention focused on the little boy before her: She had already knelt down and was helping young Philip with the buttons on his wet woolen coat, the picture of concerned motherhood. "Yes, they've all been unloaded," she said. "The fellow's coming in the back." She glanced past the three men to Alexandra, as though they didn't exist at all; not an easy thing to do, when the gentlemen in question might have made up a side of rugby without bothering to recruit another player.
Almost too unconscious, Alexandra thought, but then who needed wiles with a face like Lilibet's? Her cousin straightened and began to unbutton her own coat, and Lord Roland seemed even more transfixed than before.
"Oh, for God's sake," someone muttered behind her. Wallingford, from the tone.
"I take it they know each other?" the other—Burke—asked dryly.
It was better than a play.
Alas, just as Lilibet reached the bottom of her coat, and Alexandra held her breath to see what would happen next, Miss Abigail Harewood swept through the door and ruined the scene.
She shook the droplets from her hat like a careless young spaniel and rushed up to her sister. "Alex, darling," she said, shattering the silence, "you won't believe what I've found in the stables!"
Alexandra heaved a disappointed sigh and wrinkled her nose. "What on earth were you doing in the stables, darling? Oh, do leave off that gesticulating and remove your coat. You're showering me, for goodness' sake. Here. Your buttons." She unfastened Abigail's wet coat with efficient fingers. "Now come along with me to the fire and warm yourself. We've a lovely hot dinner waiting for us at the table next to the fireplace. You can tell me all about what you've discovered in the stables."
She slung the coat over her right arm, grasped Abigail's hand with her left, and steered a course directly to the massive hearth, where Lilibet hovered, hands outstretched: a sight to enrapture the heart of any English gentleman, and particularly one that had belonged to her for years.
Alexandra would have to keep a close eye indeed on Lord Roland Penhallow tonight.
As she passed the gentlemen, however, those eyes did a vexing and unexpected thing. They observed not Lord Roland's lovestruck gaze, nor even Wallingford's thundering scowl.
They lingered, instead, on the way the warm ginger hair of Mr. Phineas Burke kindled into red gold flame in the light from the fire.
From A Lady Never Lies by Juliana Gray. Copyright 2012 by Juliana Gray. Excerpted by permission of Berkley.