Release Date: Jun 30, 2020
Series: The Footmen’s Club
Let the games begin . . .
Every fortune-hunting female in London is after the newly titled Earl of Kendall, but he’s intent on finding a wife whose heart is true. So, while drunkenly jesting with his friends in a pub one night, he has an idea—what if the ladies of the ton didn’t know he was a wealthy earl? All he has to do is pose as a servant at his friend’s summer country house party and make sure the guest list is full of beautiful, eligible debutantes. What could possibly go wrong?
May the best footman win.
Miss Frances Wharton is far more interested in fighting for the rights of the poor than in marriage, but her mother insists she attend a summer house party—and find herself a husband. Frances would rather wed a goat than the pompous man her mother has in mind, so in order to dissuade the would-be suitor, she vows to behave like a shrew. The only person she can be herself with is the kind, handsome footman she runs into at every turn. Their connection is undeniable, and the divide between them is no match for the passion they feel. But what will happen when Frances learns that the footman she adores is actually the earl she despises? In a game where everything is false, can they convince each other that their love is true?
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London, July 1814
Lucas Drake, the fifth Earl of Kendall, was foxed. But only foxed, not an entire three sheets to the wind. And he should know. He spent more than a decade in His Majesty’s Royal Navy. Lucas knew precisely how dangerous a situation it was to have three sheets to the wind. The sheet controls the sail, after all, and if the line is not secured, the sheet flops in the wind. If all three sails were loose, the ship would be out of control. Lucas was not out of control. Four mugs of watered-down ale at the Curious Goat Inn would not do that to a former sailor. He was foxed enough, however, to say, “I think it’s time I find a wife,” aloud, in the presence of all three of his closest friends.
As expected, he silenced his three companions. Worth, Bell, and Clayton immediately snapped to face him with varying expressions of alarm.
Rhys Sheffield, the Duke of Worthington, was the first to find his voice. Worth was an excellent man at heart, but his horse’s arse of a father—God rest the former duke’s soul—had all but ruined him. Rhys took himself and his title too seriously. Competitive to a fault, especially when it came to gaming or women—both of which he usually won—the duke enjoyed the finer things in life and projected a devil-may-care attitude that only his close friends understood was a façade.
Worth’s reply to Lucas’s statement was to wince, suck in his breath, shake his head vigorously, and say, “A wife? Good God, man! There’s no need to rush into anything so . . . permanent.”
“We’re not getting any younger,” Lucas pointed out.
“On the contrary,” Worth replied, “at nine and twenty, we’re pups. My father was over fifty when I was born.”
The second head to turn and stare at Lucas was that of Beaumont Bellham, the Marquess of Bellingham. There was no finer patriot than Bell. The man had tried to renounce his title for a spot as a soldier in the wars against France. He’d been turned down in his request, however. Apparently, the Crown did not fancy its marquesses gallivanting across Europe being shot at. Instead, he’d settled for a position with the Home Office and did what he could by way of reconnaissance to help with the war effort on solid English soil. Bell was shrewd, detailed, and focused and was often accused by Worth of working too much. A charge Bell fully admitted to. He liked to tell Worth that he might try an honest day’s work instead of spending his time gaming and chasing women. Worth had yet to take such friendly advice.
Bell narrowed his eyes and said, “Are you certain you’re ready? It’s only been two years since . . ..” Thank God the man ended his sentence there. Lucas wasn’t in any mood to discuss Emily. He never would be.
The third head to swivel toward Lucas was that of Ewan Fairchild, Viscount Clayton. Clayton had recently got himself leg-shackled, and was just back from his honeymoon. Clayton had a mind for science and there were few things he liked better than experimenting and creating things. He was the kind of man you’d entrust your deepest secrets to. Rich as Croesus and loyal to a fault, Clayton loved his wife Theodora deeply and completely. He’d been the last one they’d all have thought would be the first to marry.
Clayton exclaimed, “Thank heavens. I cannot wait until I’m no longer the only one of us with the parson’s noose around his neck.”
Lucas took another long draught from his mug and wiped the back of his hand across his lips. His role in their quartet was that of the peacekeeper and confidant. The four of them had met at Eton as lads and stuck together through all manner of hurdles.
Lucas’s main concern was, and had always been, duty. He’d spent his life trying to fulfill his duty to his father, his family, and the Crown. In that order. His years in the Navy had taught him responsibility, respect, and the importance of hard work. The death of his older brother Charles fourteen months ago had taught him the importance of living life to the fullest and fulfilling his promise. Before his death, Charles had been championing a bill before Parliament. On his deathbed, as consumption slowly pulled his life away, Charles had asked Lucas to ensure the bill was passed. “For the good of our estate,” Charles had said. “For the good of the country.” Lucas had promised his brother. If it was the last thing he did, he would ensure the Employment Bill passed.
Lucas would take a bullet for any one of his friends. He’d give his life for his country. He would walk across broken glass for his mother or sister. But finding a wife who would be true to him, who didn’t want him merely for his money or his title, that was something he couldn’t control. And he detested that fact.
Lucas glanced around at his three friends, who watched him as if he’d recently escaped from Bedlam. The rules of etiquette were different here at the Curious Goat Inn. The pub sat like a fat little duck on the corner of two streets in an area of London that was a goodly length from Mayfair, but not quite as far, status-wise, as the Rookeries. Here one could do things like get foxed, wipe the back of one’s hand across one’s lips, and say things like one was looking for a wife, without having to worry about mamas and maidens popping out of every nook and cranny in search of a husband with a title. Ever since he’d inherited the title, he’d been beset by such ladies at every turn.
“I’m entirely serious,” Lucas continued. “I must look to secure the earldom. I fear I’ve been too preoccupied with the Employment Bill. I’ve been remiss waiting this long to find a bride.”
“I certainly won’t disagree with you that you’ve been too preoccupied with the Employment Bill,” Worth drawled. “Obsessed is more like it.”
Lucas shrugged. “Well, now that the Lords have tabled the vote until the autumn session, I have more time to rally the votes I need. I might as well get about the business of looking for a wife in earnest.”
“I never bother to vote in Parliament,” Worth drawled. “Don’t happen to care for the hours. And all the arguing is downright exhausting.”
Bell gave Worth a beleaguered look and shook his head. “God forbid you take an interest in your seat or any of the issues the country is dealing with.”
Worth gave them his most charming grin, flashing his perfect smile that had been the downfall of many unsuspecting women. “I’m entirely confident you chaps can handle it,” Worth replied, clapping Bell on the back.
“When the time comes for the vote for my brother’s law,” Lucas continued, addressing his remarks to Worth, “I’ll drive to your town house and drag you out of bed myself.”
Bell’s and Clayton’s laughter filled the alcove in which they were sitting.
“Let’s not talk of such unpleasantness,” Worth replied with a sigh. “You mentioned finding a bride, Lucas. That’s much more interesting. Now, how old are you again?” The duke shoved back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest, narrowing his eyes at Lucas.
Lucas arched a skeptical brow at Worth. “The same age you are, old man.” After Eton, they’d all gone on to Oxford. They’d all taken their firsts together. They all were the same age save for a matter of months.
“Well, then,” Worth declared. “You’ve plenty of time to find a wife as far as I’m concerned.”
“That’s easy to say, coming from a man who’s never given a toss about securing his own title,” Lucas shot back, giving his friend a good-natured grin.
Worth returned the smile. “I cannot argue with you there.” He turned and gave the barmaid his even more charming smile, the one that brought out the dimple in his cheek, as he ordered another round of ale for the table.
“Yes, well, if you’re seriously looking for a wife, Lucas, the Season has just ended,” Clayton interjected. “It seems you’ve missed your chance. The entire ton is about to retire to the country as soon as Parliament closes next week.”
“I’m well aware,” Lucas replied with a curt nod. “The Season makes my skin crawl. Full of simpering maids and purse-eyeing mamas eager to show off their best behavior in the hopes of snaring a rich husband. I don’t want to find a wife that way.”
“How else do you intend to find one?” The marquess’s intelligent eyes turned shrewd.
“I don’t know how exactly.” He took another drink, growing more confident with each sip. “But this time I intend to find a lady who loves me for myself.”
He was talking about Lady Emily Foswell, of course. He never mentioned her name, but his friends knew what he’d been through. No amount of swaggering or denial on his part would convince them that he hadn’t had his damn heart destroyed by her. Though until tonight, he hadn’t even thought about Emily since Parliament had resumed session a few months ago. He’d been far too preoccupied with the Employment Bill.
“Yes!” Worth pounded his fist against the table. The duke’s normally jovial voice filled with anger. “I think we can all agree that Lady Emily is the lowest of the low. There’s no excuse for what she did, tossing over one man for another with a better title. As far as I’m concerned, she no longer exists.”
Leave it to Worth to bring up a sore subject. The duke had been the most outraged of all of them by Lady Emily’s behavior. And the most interested in ensuring Lady Emily knew that she’d inadvertently tossed over a future earl for a baron.
“Can we not discuss Lady Emily, please?” Lucas said with a groan, covering his face with one hand.
Worth’s good humor returned with the arrival of the barmaid who’d appeared with their drinks. “Keep ‘em coming, love,” he said to her, before turning back to Lucas and adding, “I’m merely pointing out that if you want a lady who loves you for yourself, the Season and its ridiculousness are the last place you should go.”
“Yes,” Lucas replied with a sigh, lifting his mug into the air to salute the duke. “Didn’t I already say that? The Season and its fetes are the last place I should go, which is why I’ve avoided it like the pox for the last two Seasons.”
“Oh, is that why you haven’t attended the boring balls at Almack’s?” Worth replied with a smirk. “I thought it was the tepid tea and small talk. That’s why I steer clear of them.”
“You avoid them because they don’t serve brandy and we all know it,” Bell pointed out, staring fixedly at Worth, his arms crossed tightly over his chest.
Worth winked at his friend. “That and they won’t give me the bank that Hollister’s will.”
Hollister’s was Worth’s favorite gambling hell. The man spent nearly all his free time there. Hollister’s had given the duke carte blanche and he won and lost small fortunes there regularly.
Lucas scratched his chin and stared blindly at his mug. “If only the ladies of the ton didn’t know I am an earl, I’d have a much better chance of finding a match,” he grumbled. Hmm. The drink was obviously making him looser with words. Perhaps looser with thoughts as well.
Worth’s laughter cracked off the wooden beams on the tavern’s ceiling. “I’d pay to see that. An earl dressed up like a common man to find true love. Has a certain poetic ring to it, don’t it?”
Clayton laughed too and shook his head, while Bell’s shrewd, narrowed-eyed stare intensified. “It’s not a completely outlandish idea.” He tilted his head to the side.
“What’s not?” Lucas had nearly forgotten what he’d said.
“The idea of pretending you’re a commoner to find a wife,” Bell replied.
Worth slapped Bell on the back. “Are you mad, man? You’re not even drinking.”
Bell never drank. His mug probably contained rice milk or something equally unexciting. He preferred to remain in control of his faculties, and they all knew it. He’d always been the one to ensure they all made it home safely and without unnecessary run-ins with the foot patrol or the chancellors at Oxford. The marquess leaned forward to stare directly at Lucas. “Given the right circumstances, it could work, you know?”
“Pretending I’m common?” Lucas replied, blinking. “I don’t see how.”
“Everyone in the ton knows him,” Clayton pointed out. “How would he ever manage it?”
“Are you suggesting he wear a mask or alter his appearance?” Worth asked, stroking his chin, his own eyes narrowing as if he, too, were taking the idea seriously.
Lucas glanced back and forth between Worth and Bell. “You cannot be serious, either of you. Clayton’s right. How would it ever work?”
“No, not a costume.” Bell addressed his remarks to Worth. “I was thinking something more like the right . . . situation.”
“Such as?” Worth replied, drawing out both words. He also leaned forward.
“You two are frightening me, you know?” Lucas replied. “You seem as if you’re actually trying to plot out a way this ludicrous idea might work.”
“Like a . . . house party,” Bell replied to Worth, stroking his chin and completely ignoring Lucas’s concern.
Worth inclined his head, his eyes still narrowed. “A house party, yes. I see what you mean.”
“But it couldn’t be just any house party, of course,” Bell continued. “It would have to be one given by someone who was in on the experiment.”
“Experiment?” Clayton perked up. “There are few things I enjoy more than an experiment, and I just so happen to be about to send the invitations to my annual country house party.” Clayton’s words were stated casually as if he hadn’t just added a large helping of kindling to the fire that was already burning brightly with insanity.
“Experiment?” Lucas repeated numbly, blinking.
Bell snapped his fingers. “Your house party would be perfect, Clayton.”
“Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.” Lucas, who sat between Bell and Worth, pushed against each of his friends’ shoulders with both hands. He needed to sober up quickly. His friends had clearly lost their minds, even Bell, who was normally the level-headed one when things went too far afield. “A house party isn’t going to change my identity. Ladies of the ton will still know who I am at a house party.”
“He makes a good point,” Clayton replied, sloshing more ale down his throat. Thank heavens, Clayton wasn’t taking this discussion seriously, after all.
“Not if you invite only the debutantes from this Season,” Bell replied, a smug smile tugging at the corner of his lips. “And not if you create the right circumstances.”
Lucas sucked in a deep breath and pushed his mug out of reach. “The ladies may not know me, but some of their mothers do. More than one of them has already been to court with an older daughter making her debut.” There. That was common sense, which this discussion was sorely lacking.
“That’s where the right circumstances come in,” Bell replied, crossing his arms over his chest, the half-smile still riding his lips.
Worth scratched at the dark, day-old stubble on his chin and smiled an even wider, much more charming smile than Bell’s. “By God, I think you’re onto something.”
“I refuse to wear a mask if that’s what you’re thinking. That’s positively medieval,” Lucas declared, shaking his head.
“Not a mask,” Bell replied. He settled back in his chair and plucked at his lower lip, a gesture he often made when he was plotting something.
“Or a costume, either,” Lucas continued. He pushed his mug farther away for good measure. More drinking would only make this particular situation more insane.
“Not a costume . . . precisely.” Bell exchanged a positively roguish grin with Worth.
“By God, I’m going to have the best time watching this,” Worth added, nodding.
“Watching what?” Clayton’s nose was scrunched in confusion. “I don’t know what in the devil either of you is talking about any longer.”
“I’m talking about Lucas here pretending to be a servant,” Bell replied, still grinning like an arse.
Lucas blinked. “A servant?” Of all the things he’d expected his friend to say, those two words had been at the bottom of the list.
“Yes. It’s perfect,” Worth added, nodding.
Lucas turned to him and stared at the duke as if he’d lost his mind. “Perfect? Me? Being a servant? How is that perfect?”
“That still doesn’t fix the problem of the ladies’ mothers recognizing him. Even if he’s dressed as a servant,” Clayton pointed out.
“Ah, but it does,” Bell replied. “That’s the beauty of it. Most people don’t look at servants. They don’t pay attention to the majority of things beyond what they need and want. My training as a spy has taught me much about the human failure to notice details. I’d be willing to bet that not one of those ladies of the ton will look twice at Kendall if he’s dressed as a servant and performing servants’ duties. He’ll be wearing livery, knee breeches, and a powdered wig, after all.”
“And it has the added advantage that a servant will be in a particularly excellent position to discover how a lady truly behaves,” Worth added, shoving his long dark hair off his forehead with his fingers. “I’d wager she’s at her best when addressing a potential bridegroom and at her worst when addressing a servant. God knows, I’ve seen it time and again from my mother.”
“You’re both truly mad, you know that?” Lucas replied. He was becoming genuinely alarmed. Did his friends actually believe this madness would work? They couldn’t possibly.
“I dunno,” Clayton replied, tugging at his cravat. “But it sounds like quite a lark to me. I’m perfectly willing to offer my upcoming house party as a venue for such an experiment.”
“You’ve gone mad too, then,” Lucas declared. Bloody hell. He’d lost his final ally to madness.
“Think about it,” Bell said, turning his attention to Lucas. “It has the potential to give you precisely what you want. An unencumbered look at the latest crop of debutantes behaving precisely how they would when they don’t know you are watching.”
Lucas narrowed his eyes on the marquess. “It’s positively alarming that you don’t see the problem with this plan.”
Bell shrugged. “What problem? The risk is not too great. If anyone recognizes you, we’ll simply ask that person to play along. No doubt they’ll enjoy the game too.”
“What if I find a lady I fancy?” Lucas replied. “Am I supposed to simply rip off my livery and declare myself an earl and expect she’ll fall madly in love with me?”
“Not at all,” Bell said. “I’m merely suggesting that you get to know these young ladies on the basis of how they treat servants. I’ve no doubt the best-natured ones will be kind and pleasant. Once you have a few candidates, you will know who to court next Season.”
Lucas shook his head slowly. He pulled his mug back toward his chest. Perhaps more ale would cause this entire line of reasoning to make more sense. “You’re suggesting that I choose a future bride on the basis of how she treats a footman?”
Bell arched a brow. “How did Lady Emily treat servants?” His words were slow and deliberate.
Lucas clenched his jaw. Damn Bell. The man always knew precisely what to say. Unwanted memories flashed through Lucas’s brain. Memories of the beautiful, accomplished Lady Emily snapping at her maid for bringing her lukewarm tea and dismissing a footman for catching the train of her gown in the coach door when he shut it.
“I see by the look on your face that you recognize my point,” Bell drawled.
Lucas considered it for a moment. Perhaps it was the four mugs of ale he’d consumed, but suddenly the entire plan was starting to sound . . . good to him. Not just good, but reasonable and helpful. He’d been trying to think of a way to enter the marriage mart without having to endure the ladies who were only after his money and his title. One encounter with such a woman was enough to last a lifetime. By God, his friend may well have just stumbled upon the perfect plan!
“I’m willing to do it with you,” Bell tossed out casually with another shrug.
“What?” Worth’s black eyebrows snapped together over his dark-blue eyes. “Why would you do it?”
Bell straightened his shoulders and settled back into his chair. “Because I’ve narrowed down my hunt for the Bidassoa traitor to one of three possibilities.”
“The man you’ve been hunting for the Home Office?” Worth clarified, lowering his voice.
“Precisely the one,” Bell replied. “And if Clayton here will invite those three men to the house party, I will also pretend to be a servant to watch them.”
Worth tossed back his head and laughed. “I should have known you had another motive all along, Bell. His Majesty’s work is never far from your mind. Even when we’re drinking.”
Bell’s grin widened. “Why shouldn’t we use the opportunity for two useful pursuits instead of one? I’ll admit, I was already thinking about this plan before Lucas informed us of his search for a wife, but if it helps both of us, all the better, I say. We will truly have to behave as servants, however. We’ll have to wait on the guests and do all the tasks servants must do.”
“Hmm. I do quite like the idea of spying going on under my roof.” Clayton took another long draught of ale. “Gives the whole affair a bit of intrigue. And since I haven’t been a soldier or served His Majesty otherwise, I feel it’s my duty to say yes to this ruse. Not to mention my love of an experiment. Will you do it, Lucas?”
Lucas hefted his mug to his mouth and drained it. Then he wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “Now that Bell’s doing it with me, how can I refuse?”
Worth accepted yet another new mug of ale from the barmaid and flipped a coin into the air for her tip. He gave her an outrageously flirtatious grin before turning his attention back to the conversation. “I, for one, am so interested in seeing such a situation play out, not only will I attend to watch the spectacle, I will also settle a large sum on the outcome as to whether you two can pull this off. Care to bet me?” He gave them both his most competitive stare.
Bell rolled his eyes. “Everything’s a bet with you, Worth.”
“Perhaps, but you must admit, this is a particularly tempting bet.” Worth lifted his chin toward the marquess. “Five hundred pounds say you are both outed by a keen-eyed mama within a sennight.”
“I’ll take that bet!” Clayton declared, pointing a finger in the air. “You’ll be attending as a guest, I presume, Worthington.”
Lucas’s snort of laughter interrupted Worth’s reply. “Of course he’s attending as a guest. Our mate Worth here could never pass for a footman.” He shook his head sympathetically toward the duke. “You couldn’t last one night serving others, I’m afraid.”
Worth’s nostrils flared. He gathered himself up and straightened his shoulders. “I take offense to that. If you two sops can do it, surely I can.”
Clayton blew air into his cheeks and shook his head, not quite meeting Worth’s gaze. “Hmm. I’m not exactly certain I agree with that, old chap.”
Worth crossed his arms over his chest and glared at his friend. “You truly don’t think I could do it?”
“No,” Clayton admitted, looking slightly sheepish. “Not if you actually have to fill the role of a servant and do real chores. No.”
Worth’s gaze swung to Bell. “You don’t think I can do it either?” He almost looked hurt.
Bell shook his head. “Not a chance. Apologies, Your Grace, but you’re far too used to being waited upon to wait on anyone else.”
“But that’s how I know how to do it properly,” Worth shot back, a disgruntled expression on his face.
Lucas snorted. “I’m afraid seeing one serve and actually serving are two entirely different things.”
Worth’s eyes widened. “You’re a bloody earl for Christ’s sake. Why do you think you can serve?”
“I may be an earl but I’m no stranger to hard work. I spent years in the Navy doing chores like picking oakum and deworming hardtack. And those two tasks were pleasant compared to some of my other tasks,” Lucas replied.
Worth slapped a palm on the tabletop. The mugs bounced. “Fine. One thousand pounds says I can make it through the entire fortnight as a servant too. Or at least I can last longer than either of you.”
“Now who is being mad?” Clayton asked, waggling his eyebrows at Worth.
“I’m quite serious.” Worth’s jaw was locked. “One thousand pounds, gentlemen. Who will take the bet?”
“I will,” all three called in unison.
About the Author
Author bio: Valerie Bowman’s books have received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus. She’s been an RT Reviewers’ Choice nominee for Best First Historical Romance and Best Historical Romance Love and Laughter. Two of her books have been nominated for the Kirkus Prize for fiction.
Valerie grew up in Illinois with six sisters (she’s number seven). After earning a degree in English with a minor in history at Smith College, she moved to Florida. Valerie now lives in Jacksonville with her family. When she’s not writing, she keeps busy reading, traveling, and watching crazy reality TV.
Find her on the web at www.ValerieBowmanBooks.com.