ONE GOOD FRIEND DESERVES A LOVER…
Lady Eleanor Palmer, a practical young widow, wants a family of her own. Her first marriage was an adventurous disaster, so this time, nothing but the most proper sort of man will do. Absolutely not who she’s looking for? The impulsive, roguish Duke of Hampshire…even though she has secretly loved him as long as she can remember.
Nicholas Langford, the Duke of Hampshire, has always relied on Eleanor’s humor and good sense. Who else would guide him through a scandal with laughter and grace? He would do anything to ensure his old friend’s happiness—even help Eleanor find a suitable new husband.
As Eleanor makes plans for a new life without him at its center, Nicholas realizes the depth of his own feelings. But he can offer Eleanor nothing she thinks she wants. How can he convince her he is everything she truly desires?
“An enjoyable novella for the ages…a remarkably dear, sweet, and convincing love story.”
—Buried Under Romance, 5 stars
“I highly recommend this delightfully romantic and satisfying novella. The ending will leave you with a smile and a happy sigh.”
—Roses Are Blue, 4 roses
“A sweet friends-to-lovers book featuring honest-to-goodness adults, witty banter, and some really good groveling. …This book is a warm hug and a hot mug of cocoa.”
—Binge on Books
“Clever and humorous…grabs the reader from the first to the last page.”
“An organic story of beauty and sacrifice. …Theresa Romain delivers a meat and potatoes (THE REAL DEAL) performance here.”
—I Love Romance, 5 stars
About the Book
From Chapter 1
The hardest part about telling her brother—again—that she was leaving his household was how much Eleanor wanted to stay. It wasn’t every month a woman became an aunt for the first time.
But she couldn’t keep borrowing her brother’s family. Her brother’s house. Not when she’d once had her own—almost. Not when she was determined to have them again.
“Don’t be silly, Sidney,” she said lightly, peering into the back corner of her just-emptied wardrobe. “You and Mariah don’t need me around now that you’ve your firstborn to coo over. You’ll have this whole wing full of nursemaids and tutors within the week.”
Had she got all her gowns? Her shoes, her shawls? Surely she had, for they covered the bed and chairs in great spills of color. The scents of camphor and dried flowers filled the room, faint but unmistakable.
She pushed her unruly brown curls back, wedging her hairpins in more tightly. Packing was so much easier when her elder brother didn’t send her lady’s maid on some trumped-up errand, like the high-handed marquess he was. But never mind. She hadn’t been Palmer’s wife for five years and his widow for three without learning to do a few things herself.
“I doubt we’ll fill the whole wing.” Sidney, Marquess of Athelney, looked strained, though he managed a smile. “At least not until the baby gets old enough for a tutor.”
Crossing the room to Eleanor’s favorite wing chair before the fireplace, he tossed a shawl from its seat to the floor and flung himself into the chair. The day was fine and the grate remained unlit, but he stretched his feet toward the hearth from habit. “Ellie, I wish you’d stay. With Parliament in session for so many late nights, Mariah could use your company. She won’t rise from childbed for at least a week.”
Eleanor eyed the shawl, twining across the patterned carpet like a sleepy snake. “I know what you’re doing. You’re trying to make it even more difficult for me to pack.”
Sidney gave her a smile that somehow blended innocence and diabolical cunning. He was far more fair than Eleanor, with well-behaved light hair and skin that tended to freckle, but when he wore this expression, the siblings’ resemblance was unmistakable.
“You schemer. Well, it’s not going to work.” Eleanor sorted through the shoes on the bed, pairing slippers heel to heel. “I intend to remarry. I’ve wanted to for two years now, ever since I laid off mourning for Palmer.”
“And you can remarry. Of course you can. Only, wait to go out in society until—”
“Wait until, wait until. Wait until what? There’s always something to wait for.” At her flare of impatience, the strained look tightened Sidney’s features again, and she relented. “You must understand. How am I to find a new husband if I stay here with Mariah and the baby throughout the Season?”
Sidney had to allow the soundness of her question. “Even so. It’s not right for a respectable widow to take lodging when you could be living with family.”
Ah. About that. “I’m not exactly taking lodging, Sidney. I will be living at—”
“Ready to leave yet, Ellie?” A familiar handsome face appeared at the door to the room. “For God’s sake, you have more clothing than a courtesan.”
Nicholas Langford, the Duke of Hampshire, made free of Athelney Place, and no sooner had he spoken than he strode into the chamber.
The sight of her old friend always made Eleanor smile. “Hullo, Nicholas. I’m not even going to ask how you know how much clothing a courtesan has.”
“I should think the answer would be obvious.”
To cover a laugh, Eleanor blew an errant lock of hair away from her face. “Yes, well. Sarah has already packed away most of my things, but Sidney sent her to the fishmonger before she could finish my gowns and shoes.” Most of them were old and out of fashion, but she’d got in the habit of not discarding anything that might be of use.
“The fishmonger?” Nicholas hooted. “Really, Sid, you could have thought of something more plausible than that. No one goes to the fishmonger at eleven o’clock on a Saturday.”
Sidney ignored this, turning his lanky form in the wing chair to face the duke. “Wait. What’s this ‘ready to leave yet’ question you fired at Ellie? Are you two going somewhere together?”
Brothers. So suspicious. Eleanor pasted on a smile. “As I was about to tell you, I will be staying at Nicholas’s mother’s house. Isn’t that wonderful?”
Sidney declined to agree that it was wonderful. Instead, he frowned with the sort of force one could direct only at a sibling or a lifelong friend—and just now, one of each was on the receiving end of his annoyance. “Nick. This whole business of Ellie leaving Athelney Place was your idea, wasn’t it?”
The duke raised his hands, dark brows lifting with mischief. “Ellie’s idea. Completely. I swear, I’m innocent. I merely agreed that she might use my mother’s house while that good lady is otherwise situated.”
Since the death of her husband eight years before, Nicholas’s mother had taken a string of lovers. The current one, an Italian count, had swept her away for the spring to flit about the Kingdom of Naples during a rare moment of peace.
The timing was excellent for Eleanor’s purposes, for it meant that a fashionable house in Hanover Square was both unused and fully staffed for the London Season. Likely Nicholas could have rented it out for far more than the pittance Eleanor was able to pay him, but he insisted one couldn’t put a price on helping a friend. Or, better yet, on confounding that friend’s elder brother.
“Come on, Ellie, chuck all your things into trunks.” Nicholas yawned. “I’ll accompany you over there and see you settled, then I’m going to Hampshire House to sleep for a week.”
He did look tired, even more so than Sidney. Though her brother’s light hair was tidy and his clothing fresh, Nicholas’s black locks were tousled and his neckcloth creased. A shadow of stubble darkened his jaw.
“You’re still wearing yesterday’s clothing,” Eleanor observed. “Just getting in from a long night of carousing?”
“I wish I were.” Nicholas tugged at his cravat, looking rueful. “Yesterday’s session of Parliament went ungodly late. Forty-four provisions in the newest enclosure act, and each bill has to be read over three times. And the speeches…I cannot speak of them, because surely they expended all the words in Christendom.”
Sidney laughed. “I dozed off. Couldn’t help it. My little namesake has spent every night of his new life squalling.”
“I would have rather listened to a squalling baby than some of our illustrious peers.” Nicholas crossed the room to swoop up the shawl Sidney had tossed to the floor. He stretched the cotton length out end to end, then began folding it into a small, tidy triangle. “Then, My Lady Skeptical, I went to White’s to try to talk some sense into Addington and some of his Tory cronies. Oh, woe. They wouldn’t listen to a thing I said until I sat down to cards with them, or so they said. So I tried a different strategy.”
He turned his attention to the marquess. “Sid, did you know you can sneak a woman into White’s if she wears a greatcoat and tricorn and a great deal of hair powder?”
“Everyone knows that,” Eleanor scoffed. “So it wasn’t cards you wanted to play after all. I suppose the Tories appreciated your efforts bringing in that costumed woman?”
“They ought to have. They listened to her far better than they did me. Though her conversation was probably less rigorous. I couldn’t tell for certain. She conducted speech with each man, one at a time, in the private stairwell next to the card room.”
Sidney looked surprised. “Not with Addington, surely? The Prime Minister is a measured man.”
“Every man likes to show off his measure.” Nicholas placed the neatly folded shawl into the bottom of a trunk that really ought to have been packed an hour before. “But no, Sid. You’re correct. He’s watching his step, since he has the double misfortune of succeeding Pitt and presiding over the first unified parliament of Great Britain and Ireland.”
He really was quite good at folding clothing. Eleanor liked watching the play of his capable hands; unexpected, for a duke to perform a task so menial with such care. She tossed him another shawl, wanting to watch him fold it too. This was her favorite one, a heavy gold silk embroidered in intricate patterns of red and rust. It was new, a birthday gift from Sidney. She hadn’t been able to afford anything so lovely for herself since the first year of her marriage.
“And how is that going? The unified Parliament?” Eleanor asked as Nicholas snapped the long shawl into a straight line. “Do you lords all sit shoulder to shoulder, borrowing each other’s snuffboxes? Are there enough seats now that Irish peers have joined your ranks?”
Nicholas wagged a silk tassel at her. “Are you being flippant, or do you really want to know?”
“Of course I want to know. It’s my government too.” She eyed the trunk. To the devil with it; she’d tip all her shoes into there and let Sarah sort them out later. It wasn’t as though they couldn’t survive being packed away higgledy-piggledy. Most of them were worn beyond repair anyway.
“If only it were your government.” Nicholas gave up on folding the slippery silk and draped it over Sidney’s head. “The unified Parliament is like a marriage, I suppose. Constant negotiation, and more than a few battles over trifles. But invite a few women such as yourself into the House of Lords, and you’d have all the others quaking and rushing to obey your will.”
She frowned, firing shoe after shoe from her bed into the trunk a few feet away. “Am I so terrifying?”
“Rather. It’s that look you give sometimes. It makes one think what he’s saying is utterly stupid. See? You’re doing it right now.”
“Save me,” Sidney said. “I’ve been fixed with that look time and again ever since Ellie was born.” He shook free of the gold shawl and tossed it away. It unfurled slowly, settling half inside the trunk and lolling over the side.
Nicholas stepped toward the trunk and shoved in the rest of the shawl. “You’re not the only one with a sister, Sid. I have three, all older, and they are past mistresses of the scornful gaze.” He looked up at Eleanor. “I do think Ellie’s got them beat, though.”
This conversation had gone in several unflattering directions already, and Eleanor still had gowns to pack. “Never mind all that.” She tried to look saintly and calm as she tossed one last shoe toward the trunk. Not accidentally, she nicked the duke’s knuckles with it. “So. Cards and a woman of pleasure, and the next thing you knew it was almost eleven in the morning. You are practically nocturnal.”
“I am, but that’s not all I did last night. Or ought I to say this morning? It was perhaps seven when I left White’s; then I made one more call.”
“Don’t tell me about it,” she sighed. He had been with a woman, no doubt. A woman of scandal and beauty and fashion.
In the three years since Eleanor had been widowed, she hadn’t had much experience of any of these. Before her marriage, she had made a claim to the latter two. Palmer—the younger son of an earl, and a charming wastrel—had ensured their association with the first, until a heart seizure had carried him off with the same impulsiveness with which he’d lived.
The duke stood, looking ruefully at his wounded knuckles. “I won’t tell you, because it was to do with a birthday present for you.”
Her heart gave a little skip at these words: for you. It was good to be kept in mind.
Still, she groaned. “I thought you had given me the gift of pretending I didn’t have a birthday last week.”
“Nonsense. If I don’t give you a present, then you won’t give one to me. And I love presents. I regret that yours is late, but after this morning’s meeting, I can assure you it will be ready soon.” Nicholas was a year older than Eleanor, the same age as Sidney, and birthdays delighted him. When they were all children, they had always celebrated together.
But this year? Ugh. Eleanor would just as soon have ignored the whole matter of a birthday, for thirty sounded so much older than twenty-nine. A twenty-nine-year-old widow could flirt to catch a husband. Now that she was thirty, though? Thank the Lord, Sidney had agreed to dower her a second time. It wouldn’t be nearly the fortune she had brought to her first marriage, but then, she wouldn’t be nearly so reckless with her choice.
This time she would follow all the rules. She would marry the most proper, the stolidest, the most staid man possible. She would build a safe and respectable life. And her husband—and children, if she were granted some—would love her for it.
“I’ll give you a gift for your birthday,” she promised Nicholas. “In fact, I will give it to you early. When you squire me about, I’ll help you find a wife.”
This was a long-running joke between them, inevitably followed by his demurral. “Next year,” he would say. He’d been saying it for a decade, since he was twenty-one.
But. This time, he said, “All right.”
* * *
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