Nothing Like a Duke is number four in my Duke’s Sons series. Highjinks at a houseparty end in literal and metaphorical fireworks as Lord Robert Gresham finds out how not to rescue a lady. Here’s an excerpt.
There, concealed behind a ruffle of coverlet, sat a small wooden chest, about the length of her forearm and half as wide. Flora might have thought it belonged to the house, but Durand’s initials were inlaid into the top. She knelt, slid it out, and tried the lid. It was securely locked. Here, then, were any secrets he wished to keep. She pulled at the lid again, but the chest was sturdily constructed, and the mechanism didn’t appear simple.
Flora gazed at the small box. If this were a boys’ adventure story, she thought, she would pluck a pin from her hair and pick the lock with a few deft movements. Shrugging, she tried it. Her hairpin rattled ineffectually in the keyhole. It didn’t catch on anything. Papa had neglected to include any such skills in her education. Flora looked around. She’d seen no keys in the room. Undoubtedly Durand kept this one with him. For now, his hidden possessions were out of her reach.
The door handle rattled and started to turn.
Heart suddenly pounding, Flora shoved the chest back into place, sprang up, and ran to the glass doors. She stepped behind the long drapery at the side, making certain the fall of cloth concealed her skirts. The curtain stopped a half inch above the floor. Her feet would be visible in the shadows if anyone looked closely.
The door opened. Someone came in. The door shut. The hunting party couldn’t have returned so soon. Perhaps it was Durand’s valet, Flora thought with a sinking heart. Who knew how long he might linger at his duties?
And then she heard the distinctive sound of the wooden chest sliding along the floor.
Pulse racing, Flora risked a peek through a chink in the draperies. Lydia Fotheringay knelt as she herself had a moment ago, with the chest before her. Lydia was trying a key in the lock. When it didn’t turn, she muttered a curse and set the key aside. From a small cloth bag at her side, she took another. Clearly, she’d come prepared. She tried the second key, without success, laid it by the first, and repeated the action. By the fifth attempt, she was obviously frustrated. She threw that key down. Metal rang against the wood of the floor.
Mrs. Fotheringay went very still. She waited. When nothing happened, she sighed. She started to reach into the bag, then hesitated and looked around the room. “Is someone there?”
Flora shifted very slightly behind the curtain. Often, people could tell they were being watched. If she stopped looking, would Mrs. Fotheringay’s suspicions subside? It was agony not to be able to see what was happening. The older woman might be walking softly toward her right now.
The sound of another key rattling in the lock reassured Flora. But she still fervently wished herself elsewhere. How many keys had the woman brought?
Flora’s gaze lit on the bolt that secured the glass doors.
Beyond the drapery, Lydia Fotheringay cursed colorfully.
Flora dared a quick look. Her fellow intruder was glaring at the chest, muttering. She snatched another key from her bag.
Under cover of the metallic sound as she rattled it in the lock, Flora pushed at the bolt. It slid back easily. Before she could change her mind, she opened the outer door, slid through, and closed it silently behind her. She blessed the efficient caretakers of Salbridge Great Hall, who saw to it that hinges did not creak. With nowhere to hide, she waited with pulse pounding and fingers crossed. The door remained closed. Lydia Fotheringay did not rush out and discover her.
Flora breathed again. She stood in a narrow space behind the ornate stone balustrade. It was purely decorative, not a proper balcony, but a narrow ledge extending along the side of the house past several rooms. There was barely room to stand between the coping and the wall of the house.
A cold wind tugged at Flora’s skirts. Her gown was no protection at all. The weather had worsened since early morning and would probably cut the hunting short. Flora debated whether to wait where she was—surely Mrs. Fotheringay would be on her way soon—or to risk entry through one of the other bedchambers. Neither option was very appealing.
Three rooms down from where she stood, another set of glass doors clicked and opened a crack. A familiar small dog emerged. Plato turned and looked directly at her, as if he’d fully expected to find a young lady huddled against the house. He trotted toward her.
“Plato,” came a familiar voice from inside. “Where do you think you’re going?” Robert leaned out of the open door. “Come in at once, sir,” he commanded. He saw Flora.
One problem solved by another, Flora thought as she moved quickly along the narrow passage. At least she didn’t have to pass Durand’s window. She didn’t look to see if any of the other rooms were occupied. Best to move by very fast; an observer might think he’d imagined her. Flora reached Robert and slipped past him into his room, Plato at her heels.
Robert followed. He closed the glass door and shot the bolt. “What on Earth are you doing?”
“Getting in out of the cold.” Flora rubbed the goose bumps on her arms and went to stand near the fire. “I should have brought a shawl, but I didn’t think I’d...”
“Yes?” he said when she broke off. “Didn’t think you’d what?”
Robert wore only a shirt, half unbuttoned, and breeches. His feet were bare. Flora couldn’t take her eyes off him. He looked so unlike his customary polished self. Disheveled, she thought, or tousled or disarrayed. Delectable.