“Jackie Barbosa…skillfully blends tender emotions, seriously
steamy naughtiness, and history to tell a fantastically
readable story.” — Jennifer Porter, Romance Novel News
Sometimes, love is the hardest lesson of all…
Despite her imminent debut, Miss Winifred Langston has no interest in trying on expensive ball gowns, learning intricate dance steps, or perfecting the one piece she can play on the pianoforte. Freddie would rather don a pair of breeches and go target shooting, fishing, or horseback riding—astride—than be anywhere near a ballroom or high tea. Rather than waste the last few days of her freedom on such pursuits, she invites her two closest friends to join her in one final caper.
When Conrad Pearce learns of Freddie’s plans, he decides it’s past time to teach his younger brother’s partner-in-crime a well-deserved lesson. But when he intercepts her, disguised as a highwayman, to demonstrate how dangerous and ill-advised her stunts are, he can’t resist the sensual beauty hidden beneath the maddening tomboy’s exterior. What began as one sort of lesson becomes quite another, as Conrad embarks on a comprehensive erotic tutorial of his surprisingly enthusiastic and adept student.
Now, he only has to convince the irrepressible Freddie to trade her breeches and madcap ways for the gowns and domesticity she despises.
Lancashire, September 1794
The Honorable Miss Winifred Langston had achieved, through a combination of blind luck and careful contrivance, the prodigious age of twenty-one without ever having suffered the indignity of a London Season. Her luck came in the form of a doting, distractible father who seemed not to notice that his only daughter had long since reached an age past which gallivanting about the countryside dressed as a boy could be considered an excusable, childish prank. The contrivance came in convincing her brothers that, should she have her debut, it would be their duty to chaperon her to endless Society events at which they would be every bit as much “on the market” as she. As every one of them still possessed a good many wild oats yet to be sown, they were more than happy to help persuade her father that Freddie’s debut could surely wait until next Season.
And the next. And the next.
But now, neither providence nor machination could forestall the inevitable. In a mere two weeks’ time, the Langstons would complete their prescribed year of mourning for that doting, distractible father, and the new viscount, Freddie’s brother Nash, had come to the stark realization that if he did not marry off his little sister, he would be stuck with her for the rest of his born days.
There was nothing to be done for it, of course. Nash had always been the most imperious of her three brothers, no doubt the result of being the heir, and Freddie knew he would not yield now that his decision was made. That did not mean, however, that she had any intention of being happy about it.
Dressed as usual in her twin brother’s outgrown breeches, shirt, and waistcoat, Freddie sat cross-legged beside the river that separated the Langston estate from the neighboring, much larger property belonging to the Earl of Ormondy, dangling her fishing line in the icy water as she bemoaned her predicament.
“I shall have to wear gowns all the time and dance and take tea. And be ladylike.” The last word came out on a groan.
Thomas Pearce, who happened to be not only Ormondy’s spare but Freddie’s friend since both were in leading strings, sat on her left. He cleared his throat uncomfortably. “If it would help, I’d marry you, Fred old girl. We could just carry on like always, then.”
Freddie’s twin and perpetual partner-in-crime, Walter, emitted a peal of laughter from her right. “Are you mad, Tommy? You’re not even three-and-twenty. You can’t get married yet. Puts too much pressure on the rest of us chaps. Besides, you and Freddie as man and wife…?” He shuddered indelicately. “I’d rather contemplate the vicar and Miss Stanley engaging in intimacies than that.”
Thomas’s cheeks turned a hot shade of red, though whether at the thought of the elderly vicar and the stern headmistress of the girls’ school in a torrid embrace or of himself and Freddie as a married couple, she couldn’t be sure. Either one was rather alarming to contemplate.
“Well,” he said staunchly, “if that’s what it takes to keep your brother from forcing Freddie to marry some withered-up husk, I’m willing to make the sacrifice. Least you could do is support me.”
So, marrying her would be a sacrifice for him, would it? That was certainly flattering. Although strictly speaking, she felt much the same. If she were to imagine marrying a Pearce, it would most certainly not be Thomas.
No, it was Conrad Pearce, seven years Thomas’s senior and heir to their father’s earldom, who moved Freddie’s otherwise romantically disinclined heart, not to mention other considerably more unmentionable parts of her anatomy. Other young ladies might have waxed eloquent upon any number of his attributes. handsomeness—exceptional; his height—prodigious; the breadth of his shoulders—impressive; or the remarkable color of his thick-lashed eyes—silver and just as opaque as the real thing. But, though Freddie appreciated these qualities as much as any other female, these attributes were not the primary source of his appeal.
Quite simply, Conrad fascinated her by virtue of being everything she wasn’t—levelheaded, self-contained, urbane, reserved—and that air of perfect, impenetrable composure seemed both a careful façade and a deliberate challenge. Unsettle me, it dared her. Muss my never-out-of-place hair, put my impeccably knotted cravat askew, overset me with passion and recklessness. She found it impossible to believe he was as imperturbable, as detached, as he appeared. Beneath that cool, polished exterior, she believed there lurked a kindred soul, and she ached to set him free from his prison of decorous self-restraint.
Unfortunately, despite years of trying, she had absolutely no hard evidence to support her suspicion. Conrad was about as likely to part with his good sense and marry her as he was to fly to the moon and back. He knew her far too well for that.
In point of fact, everyone in Winmarleigh knew Winifred Langston was not marriage material, which was undoubtedly the reason Nash wanted to remove her to London. There he could foist her off upon unsuspecting gentlemen who might be kept from knowing, until too late, that the object of their affections could shoot the cherry off a cheroot at thirty paces whilst merrily puffing on one herself.
But certainly not if Freddie could prevent it.
She returned her attention to Thomas. “That’s quite all right,” she assured him, giving his arm a sympathetic pat. “No-one needs to make any sacrifices on my behalf. Nash can make me go to London, but he can’t make me marry anyone, and he certainly can’t make anyone want to marry me.”
Far from appearing relieved, however, Thomas looked even more morose. “If the men in London have eyes, you’ll have suitors by the dozen. Once you go, you won’t be back. You’ll see.”
Freddie stared at him. Was he suggesting she was…pretty? Because, truly, nothing could be more ludicrous. Not that she was ugly, of course; she didn’t think that. But she was boyish, sturdy, solid. Certainly nothing so frilly or feminine as pretty.
But now she couldn’t help seeing Thomas through slightly different eyes. Did he see something about her that she herself did not? Did he perhaps actually want to marry her? That was a considerably more unthinkable possibility than that he would consider doing so a sacrifice.
“Oh, don’t be maudlin,” Walter interjected. “She’ll be back come the end of the Season, right as rain, and we’ll all just pick up where we left off.”
Ah, that was more like it. Leave it to her sunny, never-malcontent brother to keep things in perspective. Of course, he would think that nothing would change, because as far as Walter was concerned, the world and everyone in it existed entirely to suit him, because, quite simply, most of the time, they did. He’d gone away to Eton and then Oxford and returned to find everyone and everything at Barrowcreek Park utterly unchanged, including himself. No doubt, he expected the same outcome from Freddie’s impending excursion to London.
But what if, against all odds, London did change her? What if, inconceivable as it sounded, she discovered she actually liked wearing gowns and dancing and taking tea? What if she wanted to marry and behave like a lady?
Most of all, what if this was her last chance to be the outrageous and irrepressible Freddie Langston? What if, a tiny, traitorous voice whispered, this was her last opportunity to get Conrad to notice her—really notice her—before she lost him for good?
She pulled her line abruptly from the water and got to her feet. “Well, if we’re going to pick up where we left off when I return, we ought to be doing something more interesting with these last few weeks than fishing.”
Walter gave her a sly glance. “What did you have in mind?”
Freddie grinned back at him. “A plan only a brother could love…”
Thomas was twitchy all throughout dinner. Oblivious as always, neither the earl nor countess seemed to notice their younger son’s disturbance, but Conrad found it impossible not to notice.
Thomas had dropped his fork. Twice. He spilt wine on his cravat and choked on a bite of pheasant. Most of all, he looked miserable, his eyes sunken, his color ashen. And as always, it fell to Conrad to sort out whatever scrape his brother had got—or was about to get—himself into. No one else would do it, least of all Thomas himself.
So, after the earl excused himself from the men’s after-dinner port to sneak off to visit the mistress he kept in a tidy cottage in the village he thought no one knew of, least of all his wife and sons, Conrad seized the opportunity to ferret out the cause of his brother’s distress. “So, what are Walter and Winifred up to now?”
“Freddie,” Thomas correct reflexively, but not before a guilty expression crossed his face. “You know she hates to be called Winifred.”
“So they are up to something, then.”
But really, when were they not? The residents of Winmarleigh referred to the Langston twins not as Walter and Winifred, but as Salt and Pepper, for they seemed to have taken it upon themselves to provide all the spice to village life. Thomas, alas, was usually relegated to the role of butter, there to smooth things over after they’d gone badly wrong.
“I didn’t say that,” Thomas ground out irritably.
“You didn’t have to. So, what is it this time? Dressing up in sheets to haunt the girls’ school? Putting frogs in the baptismal font? Releasing a plague of locusts?” He was only half-kidding about the latter two.
Although if he were honest, Conrad would be forced to admit that Winifred Langston didn’t have to release either frogs or locusts to plague him. All she had to do was saunter by in a close-fitting pair of breeches, her heavy raven tresses escaping from beneath the cap she jammed on her head in a completely useless effort to camouflage her gender. As if any male with operational vision could mistake the owner of that slender waist and gloriously rounded arse for a boy. He certainly hadn’t been able to since the summer he’d returned from Cambridge to discover that the tomboyish urchin who’d played with his younger brother was no longer a leggy, boisterous child, but a leggy, boisterous young woman with a figure that would have been right at home in Miss May’s Pleasure Parlor.
Conrad shifted uncomfortably. If he was going to gather wool, he would prefer not to have it binding him in anatomically delicate locations.
His brother only proceeded to look more vexed. “This isn’t funny at all, Con.” He let out a slow, anguished sigh. “He’s taking her away. To London.”
Conrad raised an eyebrow. “Not much of a prank, that. I’d have thought Walter more cunning.”
“Not Walter, Nash—er, the viscount. He insists it’s time for Freddie to have her debut and…you know, get married.”
“About time,” Conrad muttered, ignoring the corkscrew of pain burrowing into his chest. It was only a surprise that Nash was finally taking the girl in hand. “The sooner she’s married off, the sooner Winmarleigh will be safe from her antics.” Albeit considerably less entertaining.
Thomas’s mouth hardened into a frown. “I knew you wouldn’t understand.”
Conrad stared at his brother with a growing sense of disorientation. “Wait. You’re not saying you are…sweet on her?” Thomas looked away, but not before Conrad read the truth. “Bloody hell…you are.”
“Damn it, Con, you wouldn’t understand. She’s just…she’s Freddie, blast it all, and I don’t want to lose her.”
So Thomas wasn’t in love with her? Well, that made the gnawing discomfort of his own inexplicable attraction to the chit seem less lecherous, if only barely. What would his brother—not to mention her brothers—think if he knew how many times Conrad had stripped her bare in his mind and proceeded to have his lascivious way with her?
“What makes you think you will lose her? It’s only a Season. Plenty of ladies don’t find husbands in their first Seasons.” Or second or third. Especially not those who preferred to wear breeches, ride astride, bait their own hooks, and shoot targets from horseback. Likely, it was only Conrad who had a carnal fascination with that sort of female.
Thomas rolled his eyes. “You must be blind if you can’t see she’ll be the toast of London. I may not be sweet on her, as you put it, but I know a beautiful woman when I see one. Just because we grew up together does not mean I can’t see her clearly. Apparently, I’m the only one around here who can.”
This was hardly the time for Conrad to admit that his eyesight was perfectly functional when it came to Miss Langston.
“We all have to grow up some day, you know. Even you and Miss Langston. Although, I suppose, hoping that Walter Langston will join the two of you in achieving adulthood would be too much to hope for.”
“You’re making light. The three of us have been friends for our entire lives, but now that we’re grown up, one of us will be forced to move away, simply because she happens to be female. I hardly call that just or fair.”
Fair or not, it was the way of the world. What did Thomas think Conrad could do about it?
“Marry her yourself, then.”
No sooner had the words passed Conrad’s lips than he wished them back. God, the only thing that would be worse than living in the same town with Freddie Langston while not being able to touch her would be living in the same household with her. Just the thought of his brother in bed with her sent an icy shard of rage through his gut.
“I suggested that. She turned me down flat. Doesn’t think any of the London gents will want her, but I know better.”
“Maybe she’ll turn them all down flat, too.”
“I’m sure that’s what she thinks she’ll do. But you know Freddie. She’s too passionate by half, and she doesn’t do anything by mere doubles, or even triples. When she gets to London, she’ll throw herself into the balls and routs the way she throws herself into everything, and then she’ll fall headlong in love.” Thomas sighed. “And then she won’t be back.”
The icy shard that had penetrated Conrad’s gut when he thought of his brother with Freddie twisted sharply as he envisioned the scene Thomas painted so vividly for him. Because Thomas was undoubtedly right. That was exactly how it would be when Freddie Langston arrived in London. She would take it by storm, and it would never be the same again.
“So, she is going to let Nash take her to London without a fuss, then?”
Thomas chuckled. “Oh, hardly. In fact, I think she rather hopes to do something so outrageous, the news will make it all the way to London and Nash won’t be able to take her at all.”
And that was how, a few seconds later, Conrad discovered that the Honorable Miss Winifred Langston intended to visit Miss May’s Pleasure Palace just two nights hence. The reason in order to learn “what all the fuss is about.”
Conrad had a mind to show her. In the interest of not being called out for pistols at dawn by Nash Langston, however, he went upstairs and showed his hand instead.