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The man who had just tramped in from the street swept off his dusty hat and gave the child an elegant bow. The Marquess of Blackthorne, dear little duchess. Then he turned to Anne and repeated the bow. I am at your service, madam. Though heavily bearded and scruffy, he possessed a pair of gray eyes that sparkled with fun. What could she do but curtsy in return?

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Queen Anne, of course. Your Majesty, the pleasure is all mine.

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Before she could react, he took her hand and lifted her bare fingers to his lips. Warm in spite of the chill outside air, his mouth brushed across her knuckles, lighting a tingle that skittered up her arm. His mustache surprised her in its softness, and she jerked her hand away. Lavender, he pronounced, straightening.

A clean scent, slightly astringent, with all the promise of spring. Very appropriate. I was putting up. She shoved her hand beneath her apron. Tucking lavender among the sheets.

Disconcerted more by her reaction than by the stranger himself, Anne filled a bowl with leavings and handed it to him. Never mind. She must put him aside.

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There was still hope. She started down the row again, this time collecting spoons and bowls. If yer going to play at peerage, ye will not want to be Blackthorne, the toothless man said to the tall newcomer. They say the poor man be dead. Better him than Sir Alexander, a woman uttered in a low voice. The marquess was nothing but a rogue, he was. Roved about the country, spent money like water through a sieve, sired babes everywhere he stopped, but could not be bothered to marry here at home and give the duke an heir.

I should never wish the forces of darkness upon anyone. She set a handful of spoons on her tray.

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But an heir apparent has his duties. He was said to wager large sums at cards, and he engaged in more than one duel. He was even known to attend glove matches. And bare-knuckle boxing, too, the toothless man confirmed.

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If yer bound to play at royalty, man, be the duke. He is well loved by everyone. Ah, the Duke of Marston. The tall man turned to the housemaid. Your Majesty, Queen Anne, be so good as to acquaint me with the health of the master of Slocombe House. Stacking the used bowls on her tray, Anne tried to suppress her growing irritation with the dusty intruder.

She had no time for games. His Grace is well. He is taking tea in the library. With friends in the drawing room. As she approached the man, she realized he was still lounging by the door, his bowl untouched. You must eat, please. I am to serve Sir Alexander his tea at any moment.

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In his brown tweed coat with its tarnished brass buttons, though clearly no better off than his companions, he had a demeanor that spoke of some wit. His features were all of angles and planes, and his nose slashed down the middle of his face like an arrow, straight and determined, nostrils flared slightly. Beneath that uncompromising nose, his mouth tilted upward at one corner. Perhaps he was entertained. My dear queen, I have not finished my inquiry. I could lose my position at the house, she shot back, her voice low. Will you eat or not? Even Lady Rebecca?

He raked a hand through his hair. Coal black, it was a rumple of uncombed curls. She is young to be wed.


Is he now? And who is the lucky lady? Not Miss Mary Clark, I hope.

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She may be a beauty, but she is only the daughter of a baronet. He can do much better. Anne stared. How did such a beggar know the names and ranks of Society? With his heavy beard, unruly hair, and dark eyebrows, there was an air of wildness about the man. His large hands in their tattered knit gloves appeared so strong as to make him dangerous.

He dipped his spoon into the leavings. This supper actually grows on one.

Not bad at all, in fact. Alexander is not still dallying with Mrs.