Grosvenor Square, London, May 1822
Lady Bella Grey jumped guiltily, closing the wardrobe door, as her personal maid and companion Sarah walked into her chamber carrying a freshly laundered gown in her arms. Bella’s heart started beating erratically, backing towards the wardrobe, leaning heavily against the wardrobe door.
Sarah stared at her, looking puzzled. “What are you doing, milady? I need to hang this gown.”
Bella smiled weakly. “Oh, just toss it onto the chair in the corner, Sarah,” she said, trying to keep her voice steady and light. “I can hang it myself.”
Sarah frowned slightly, cocking her head to one side. “And why would I do that when I can simply hang it now, where it is meant to go?”
Bella didn’t have a ready answer for that. She knew the request she was making was odd. But it was imperative that Sarah not see what she had just hastily stuffed in the wardrobe. For if Sarah discovered the items, she would instantly smell a rat and demand to know just what Bella was intending.
Bella sighed irritably. There was a downside to being as close as she was to Sarah Coombs. The maid was like a sister to her. They had even been educated together, side by side, by Bella’s governess as she was growing up, a fact so unusual that her father, Lord Grey, didn’t advertise it to anyone in high society. The ton would consider it very strange indeed that he had let a lady’s maid be educated alongside his own daughter.
Bella knew it was strange, too. But then, she had had a slightly unusual upbringing. After her dear mama had died from consumption when she was only eight, her father had been wild with grief and had thrown himself into his work running a shipping company in London. He had all but abandoned Bella to live in the country at their rural estate under the supervision of her nanny and governess, only visiting her every few months.
Bella had felt abandoned and lonely, a virtual orphan. In her grief and despair, she had befriended the cook’s daughter, Sarah, who was only a year older than herself. Whenever she could, she sought out Sarah, and they would go on adventures together through the estate’s rambling grounds. They climbed trees, made up wild, convoluted imaginary games, and became the very best of friends, indeed. So close that when her father visited her one day, Bella pleaded with him to let Sarah attend lessons with her so that they could be alongside each other all the time.
Her father, likely racked with guilt over leaving her for such long periods, had agreed. And that was how Sarah had come to be educated like a lady. But she was still a servant’s daughter and was expected to go into service herself, of course. So Bella had wrangled that to her satisfaction, as well, insisting that she become her personal maid and companion.
And now, Bella was a young lady of twenty, living in London with her father. She had asked that Sarah come with her, of course, when she had left the country to make her debut before the queen and start living the life of a noble lady, going to social events. She simply couldn’t bear the thought of being separated from her dear childhood companion. Papa hadn’t put up a fight. He’d just wanted to appease her, giving her everything she wanted, and what harm was there in bringing Sarah to London, after all? His daughter needed a lady’s maid, and Sarah knew his daughter.
It was a most satisfactory arrangement, all round. At least, it usually was. But not when Bella wanted to hide something from Sarah. Like now.
“What are you up to?” asked Sarah in a curious voice. “Why do you not want me to open that wardrobe?”
“Oh, alright, I will tell you!” burst out Bella. “I know you will try to talk me out of it, but I will tell you, I am quite determined.”
Sarah looked mystified. With a heavy sigh, Bella turned, opening the wardrobe. She riffled for a moment before taking what she wanted in her arms. Then, she slowly turned to her maid.
Sarah frowned, staring incredulously at the bundle of clothes in her lady’s arms. “What have you got there? It looks like a pile of boy’s clothing. A servant boy’s clothing, no less.”
Bella flushed. “Well, yes, it is, actually. That is exactly what it is.”
“I do not understand,” said Sarah, her frown deepening. “Why do you have a pile of boy’s clothing? And where did you even get it from?”
Bella sighed again, taking her maid’s hand. “Let us sit down, and I shall explain everything.”
Sarah nodded. They sat down together, side by side, on Bella’s bed. Her heart was still racing erratically, and she felt slightly sick and giddy, a combination of nerves and a burgeoning excitement. How was Sarah going to react?
Her maid waited, hands folded. Sarah was patient. She always had been. But Bella could sense the carefully controlled curiosity burning within her.
“I have a yen for an adventure,” she said eventually. “An adventure like we used to have when we were young, Sarah.”
“An adventure?” Sarah blinked rapidly. “I am afraid I do not understand, Bella.”
Bella sighed, taking her hand again. “I am planning to go out by myself on the town, Sarah,” she said in an excited whisper. “And these clothes are going to be my ticket to it.”
Sarah’s eyes boggled. “What? That is pure madness!” She stared at the pile of clothing that Bella had laid next to them on the bed as if they might explode like fireworks. “You are telling me you plan to dress up like a serving boy and traipse through the streets of London by yourself?”
Bella couldn’t suppress her grin. “That is exactly what I am telling you! Think what fun it will be, Sarah!” Her eyes were glowing. “I can experience a side of life that I never could as a proper young lady. I can roam, completely anonymous, and go into places that will always be denied me …”
Sarah stared at her as if she had finally lost what little sense she had ever possessed. Bella felt a flash of mortification, but she firmly pushed it to one side. She had tried to do this without her beloved friend knowing, but it was too late now. And she was determined not to be talked out of it, even if her maid thought she had gone stark raving mad.
“Bella, it is far too dangerous,” said Sarah, biting her lip. “In so many ways. What if someone sees you and tells your father? What if you get into trouble? You do not know that side of the city. It is full of cutthroats and pickpockets. You are a young lady with no idea of the trouble you could get into!”
Bella stood up, pacing the room. “Papa will never be the wiser about my little escapade. That is why I procured the disguise. I shall be a servant boy, not Lady Isabella Grey, from Grosvenor Square. No one will even look twice at me.” She stopped pacing, staring at Sarah beseechingly. “And I promise I shall be careful. I am not a fool. I know how to protect myself.”
Sarah looked pained. “I am afraid you do not. You are a lady. You have been cosseted and protected your whole life. It is a whole other world in those areas of the city that you are so determined to experience.” She took a deep breath. “For heaven’s sake, you could be abducted and sold into the white slave trade! And I would be left with the dreadful guilt that I knew what you were planning to do and did not stop you. Please reconsider this madness, Bella.”
Bella walked slowly towards her, kneeling in front of her, taking her hand.
“You could come with me,” she whispered. “As protection. There is greater safety in numbers, after all. I wanted to ask you to accompany me, anyway, but I wasn’t sure if you would agree.” She exhaled slowly. “Think, Sarah. It would be just like when we were girls, going on adventures at the old estate. Remember the fun we used to have?”
Sarah looked doubtful. “We were children, Bella, safely roaming the grounds. We had boundaries. Heading off into the seamy areas of London is not the same thing at all. The risks are so high. Why are you so determined to do this?”
Bella hesitated, not knowing quite how to answer her maid and friend. How could she adequately explain to Sarah the constant restlessness and boredom she felt, living her life as a proper young lady, always supervised? Such a constrained, shallow life, full of balls, tea parties, and embroidery? How could she adequately explain how she longed for something more, to see the world, to at least experience life beyond the tight shackles that felt like the bars of a prison cell?
She wanted more. She always had. Those days of girlhood freedom, when she and Sarah had been like wild gypsies traipsing the grounds for hours on end, making up ever more convoluted and intricate games of imagination, had been the best days of her life.
But they had ended forever as soon as she had come to London to make her debut and live with Papa in their Grosvenor Square townhouse. That freedom was gone. She was a young lady, not a girl. She always had a tight schedule of stupefyingly boring events to attend. Her life was never her own. And it never would be again. She was looking down a long tunnel towards eventual marriage, the only outcome for her life. Her freedom curtailed forever.
She wanted to have at least one adventure before that happened. One chance to explore the world, to experience a side of life that would always be denied her.
How could she explain it? How could she put all her restless yearnings into a few succinct words to convince her dear friend?
The truth was, she couldn’t. And so she didn’t even try.
“Please,” she whispered, her eyes shining with tears now. “I will go regardless. But I would like you to be with me. Just the one time and I promise I shall never do it again. Please, Sarah?”
Sarah bit her lip. “Where did you get those clothes from?”
Bella laughed. “I bought them from the stable boy. Five shillings. He swore he would never tell.”
Sarah smiled slowly. “I must hand it to you. You think of everything, Bella.”
“Does that mean you will come with me?” Bella tried to smile winningly.
Sarah laughed ruefully. “Are you forgetting? I have no such clothes. I cannot be a servant boy alongside you. Unless you want me to accompany you in my uniform, which might look out of place. People would be wondering why a lady’s maid that is clearly from a posh house is scouring the streets with a stable boy.”
Bella smiled slowly. She stood up, walking back to the wardrobe, and opening it. She riffled around for a moment before emerging with another pile of clothing in her arms.
“Just as well I do think of everything, then,” she said slowly. “Two pairs of everything. I thought it best to have spares. Just in case I might have the opportunity to convince you to accompany me.”
Sarah sighed, rolling her eyes. “I suppose I am becoming a stable boy as well, then.”
Bella laughed with delight. “Oh, Sarah! You shall not regret it! We are about to have the time of our lives!” She took a deep breath. “And now, without further ado … shall we get ready?”
Sebastien Pembroke, the brand-new Earl of Ashfield, strode into the elegant parlour of the fashionable house in Mayfair. His mother, Lady Pembroke, was sitting in the window alcove with her embroidery patch. She smiled, putting it down when she saw her oldest son.
“Sebastien,” she said, walking towards him, kissing him on the cheek. “There you are. I thought you might have slipped out of the house when I was not looking.” Her tone was mildly reproachful.
“I would never do that to you, Mama,” he said as they sat down. “I trust I have enough manners left to inform you if I was leaving the house. I did not turn into such a philistine on my travels.”
Lady Pembroke sighed deeply. “You have been gone an awfully long time, Sebastien. I think we are both still settling into you being home again, even if it has been a month.” She paused. “How is the new Earl of Ashfield feeling today?”
Sebastien folded his legs, contemplating the question, which was innocuous enough, but still felt like a reproach to him. His mother reminded him every single day since his return from Europe of his new, grand title. And often, she reminded him of the duties for him to pick up, as well, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
The Earl of Ashfield. The title sounded far too impressive actually to belong to him.
He still couldn’t quite believe it. He had merely been Lord Sebastien Pembroke, the nephew of the last earl, until a month ago. A member of the ton, to be sure, but a minor noble, far down the hierarchical scale. But his uncle’s sudden death had changed all that. It had changed his life entirely, and he still wasn’t sure if he liked it or this new life thrust unceremoniously upon him.
Up until a month ago, he had been drifting around the continent for over three years, a bit aimless but not unhappy. A year in France and six months in Italy, followed by a year in Greece. Lately, he had been in Switzerland. Lake Lucerne, to be precise. He had been ensconced in a mansion with a temperamental ballerina, whom he had plucked from her touring company and who was keeping him entertained on the long, lonely nights.
Then, the letter had arrived from England, halting his nomadic days forever.
He had to return home – his mother had insisted, and he knew when he had to answer duty’s call. The Earl had left his entire estate to him, along with the revered title. He had always known this day would arrive, but he just hadn’t realised how soon it would come. He had thought perhaps he had years left just to live his own life. But it was not to be.
“I am tolerably well,” he said slowly. “And you?”
His mother sighed again. “My rheumatism is playing up again. But otherwise, I have no complaints.” She fixed him with a sharp look. “What are your plans for the day?”
He tried to hide his grimace. He knew exactly what she was getting at. Meetings with solicitors, managerial staff, and the endless round of mind-numbing events that were now his lot, from cutting ribbons at horse races to sipping tea at boring garden parties.
His plans for today didn’t involve any of that. In fact, his plans for today involved visiting a certain flame-haired opera singer in her Soho home and spending a quite leisurely afternoon in bed with her before Miss Katherina Vermont had to leave for her evening performance at Covent Garden.
But he couldn’t tell his lady mother any of that, quite obviously.
He coughed into his hand. “I am going to see Anthony,” he said, making up a visit to his old friend, Lord Anthony Jeffery, on the spot. “We may go for a ride through Hyde Park. At any rate, he is expecting me.”
His mother looked pained. “How unfortunate. I was hoping you could go over the accounts for Sandhurst Park that have just arrived. They need addressing if the servants are going to get paid their monthly stipends, you know.”
Sebastien’s face tightened. Sandhurst Park was the Earl of Ashfield’s ancestral seat, located deep in the heart of rural Gloucestershire. The old place was his now, as well as this townhouse in Mayfair. Apparently, he was also in possession of a manor house in the lowlands of Scotland. A quite impressive property portfolio, indeed.
Except that it all came with a myriad of responsibilities. Household budgets, stables, upkeep of grounds … the list was endless. Every day since his return, it seemed that one or other of the properties needed some attention.
He took a deep breath. “I promise to attend to it tomorrow, Mama.”
She frowned. “I will hold you to that, Sebastien. It shall grow urgent if you keep ignoring it.” Her frown deepened. “If I can be frank with you, my dear, you do not seem to be relishing your new role. In fact, if I were to be brutally honest, you seem to be avoiding it like the plague.”
Sebastien grimaced. “Hold steady, Mama. It has barely been a month, after all. I am just dipping my toe into the waters, figuring it all out.” He paused. “I have been away from England for a long time. I want to catch up with people as well, ease back into the life here, and you know Anthony from the Eton days.”
“Of course I remember Anthony,” said his mother, pursing her lips. “You were rabble-rousers together in your schooldays. He has not married yet, has he?”
Sebastien shook his head. “Not that I am aware of. Still a swinging bachelor, just like me.”
His mother shook her head reproachfully. “He is heading towards thirty, the same as you are, Sebastien. It is high time you both settled down, found respectable ladies to marry, started families. It is the natural progression of life, you know.” She paused, staring him straight in the eye. “And now that you are the Earl of Ashfield, the need grows. You must secure your future. You need an heir.”
Sebastien smiled tightly. One of the reasons he had escaped England was all this dreary matrimonial talk, one of his mother’s favourite topics of conversation. A conversation that had been arrested when he had fled abroad, but hadn’t been put to bed forever, apparently.
He didn’t want to marry. It was like assuming the title of Earl of Ashfield – he had always known it must happen one day, but it was easy to push it out of his mind. Now, it seemed to be all clamouring at him, once again.
“It is your duty,” continued his mother, frowning. “And the sooner, the better. You are still coming to the Holman ball this week, are you not? There shall be many eligible young ladies there. London is full of them this time of year, but you must make haste before the season ends and they all scurry back to their country homes.”
Sebastien gritted his teeth. He wanted to refuse outright, saying he had no intention of going to this ball nor of courting any of the dull young ladies who would be in attendance, but he knew he must toe the line somehow. He must appease his mother, or at least look like he was doing so.
He stood up. “Yes, indeed, Mama. I shall be going to the ball. Is that all?”
His mother sighed. “Yes, Sebastien. Give my regards to Anthony.”
He was out the door before she could start again, heading to Soho and the delectable Miss Vermont. At least she was a nice distraction from it all. Something he sorely needed.
But Miss Vermont wasn’t home. Apparently, she was buying bonnets. At a loose end, he ended up asking the carriage to take him to Anthony’s after all. He couldn’t return to the townhouse yet. He still wasn’t in the mood for household accounts … if he ever would be.
Mercifully, his friend was at home and seemed very glad to see him. But after half an hour of small talk, Sebastien grew restless again.
“Where is a man to have any fun in this city?” he asked mournfully.
Anthony laughed. “Missing the exciting life abroad, old chap? Is it a bit dull for you now that you are back on England’s fair shores?”
Sebastien rolled his eyes. “Dull as dishwater, old chap. My mother just harps on about duty and responsibility and siring heirs. The society events are just as stuffy as they always were.” He paused. “Miss Vermont has been a fine distraction, but she has a career and is not always available. What to do?”
Anthony pondered this. “How about we head to my new club? A round or two of cards and a few fine brandies?”
Sebastien stood up. “Sold, my friend. Lead the way.”
In the carriage into town, he stared out the window as Mayfair’s fashionable, tree-lined streets rolled by, then turned back to his friend.
“Have you any interest in marrying yet, old chap?” He raised his eyebrows. “Is there any particular lady you are courting?”
Anthony shook his head. “There are one or two whom I admire, but I must admit, I find more sport in the looking than buying what is on offer yet.” He shrugged. “But then, I am the second son of a baron and not a newly minted earl like you. Is your mother stepping up the pressure a lot?”
Sebastien nodded grimly. “She is indeed. She is dragging me to one of the season’s interminable balls this week, hoping I can find a lady to become my countess and settle down.” He frowned. “I will say it to you and no one else, Jeffrey. I do not have hope that I shall ever find a lady I wish to marry.”
Anthony raised his eyebrows. “That is rather a dim view to take on the matter, Ashfield. There are plenty out there, just ripe for the plucking. A lot are beautiful, accomplished, and decorous. All you could wish for in a wife and countess, after all.”
Sebastien smiled sardonically. “But that is just it, old chap. They are all the same, as if they have been churned out of one of those mills, by the dozen. Proper, respectable, conventionally attractive … and so incredibly dull.”
Anthony burst out laughing. “When did you become so cynical and jaded, my friend?”
Sebastien shrugged helplessly. “Perhaps somewhere in the space between when Lord Sebastien Pembroke, son of a second son, became Earl Ashfield, and the pressure to take a wife increased exponentially.” He shuddered. “A wife is for life. Whereas a mistress – or two – is there for the taking and as long as the fun lasts. Damnation! Why did the old earl have to up and die, leaving this all to me, before I am ready?”
Anthony sighed. “I do not know if you would ever be ready for it, Ashfield. But unfortunately, life has a way of changing all our careful plans. You may have to marry, old chap. Just choose one who seems at the top of the crop and be done with it. Duty over.” He paused. “You can still have your fun on the side, you know. Everyone does.”
Sebastien nodded, staring back out the window. Perhaps Anthony was right – he should just choose one of the current batch of eligible young ladies and be done with it. He didn’t have to be in love with her – he didn’t have to even like her. They could do their duty and lead separate lives, after all. And then he would be shot of it, once and for all.
“A Duchess’ Sinful Secret” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Isabella Grey has had enough of being a proper lady, waiting to find a gentleman to marry. Searching for an enthralling adventure, she will end up in parts of London where no honourable lady should ever frequent. When Bella enters the fray of a street fight dressed as a boy, a seductive and very commanding gentleman will come to her assistance. Little did she know that running away and changing her identity could be so much fun…
Yet, what will happen when her secret identity is revealed?
Lord Sebastien Pembroke, the captivating Earl of Ashfield, is back in London to assume the earldom from his father. When his friend suggests they go to a gentleman’s club in a seedy part of the town, he finds himself interceding in a street fight to save a boy from being beaten. The boy mysteriously vanishes right after, but not before he catches a glimpse of a very arresting face. When he sees this face again, he realises the seductive Lady Grey is not the prim, proper lady she appears to be…
How can he ever get her to admit that she and the boy on the street are the same person?
Sebastien is tempted to play a wicked game, but Bella will not give up so easily… When her father forces her into a betrothal with an arrogant Marquess to save his floundering business, Sebastien discovers a secret that can ruin this marriage once and for all. Will Sebastian and Bella surrender to their flaming passion after all or will lies tear them apart?
“A Duchess’ Sinful Secret” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.