Signs of the Season
London September 1878
"Will you do me a favor, Jeffrey?" asked Lucien Sinclair, the Marquis of Stancliff.
"That depends entirely on what it is." Lord Jeffrey Eddington smiled lazily at his oldest and closest friend. He settled into the large leather armchair, stretching out his tall form and placing his feet upon an upholstered footstool, quite at home in Lucien's grand study. "It's good to be back!"
"It's good to see you here again," Lucien said. "Everyone has missed you."
"Of course they have." Jeffrey had spent the better part of the last year in France on business and had just returned to London. "So," he prompted Lucien, "this favor of yours ... what is it?"
"It's rather important...." Lucien hesitated, looking slightly uncomfortable. "Something only you can do for me. And I need your utmost discretion."
"Sounds serious." Jeffrey's blue eyes narrowed and his lazy smile disappeared.
Lucien began reluctantly, "It is.... And I'm not quite sure how you'll feel about it."
"Go on then." Jeffrey inclined his head.
"I need you to keep an eye on Yvette while we're in America," Lucien asked.
Jeffrey blinked. "You're jesting."
"I wish I were." Lucien's mouth formed a grim line.
"I don't understand." Jeffrey sat up, suddenly not as comfortable as he had been. "Isn't she going to New York with you and Colette?"
Frowning, Lucien shook his head. "I would much rather she come with Colette and me, but Yvette is quite determined to stay in London without us."
"That's ridiculous!" Jeffrey wondered at the wisdom of allowing Yvette Hamilton, the youngest of the five sisters, to remain at Devon House without her family. It was unthinkable. "You should insist that she go with you."
"Believe me, I have tried, but you know Yvette as well as I do." Lucien sighed in heavy resignation. "She can be headstrong, like all the Hamilton women. Being the youngest, she's used to getting her own way. And she has made up her mind to stay in London and my wife has given her permission to stay. Naturally, I can't fight them both. Yvette's not foolish, but I don't like leaving her behind."
"But who will be here with her? Who will look after her?" Jeffrey asked, incredulous at this turn of events. They couldn't simply leave the girl alone!
"Well, Paulette and Declan are in Ireland until Christmas as usual, so Mrs. Hamilton has agreed to come up from Brighton to stay with her daughter here at Devon House. That way Yvette will not be unchaperoned at home. As much as I don't care a great deal for them personally, the girls' aunt Cecilia and uncle Randall Hamilton have agreed to escort her to any social events. They are actually looking forward to it, with the hope of arranging a successful match for her. And of course, Lisette and Quinton are in town as well, but with Lisette just having had the baby, they won't be much help on that score." Lucien paused, giving his friend a pointed look. "You understand what I'm saying, Jeffrey. I need someone here who will know what is truly going on." He flashed a knowing glance in Jeffrey's direction. "Keep an eye on her."
Yes, Jeffrey knew exactly what his friend meant. It had been the same with all the Hamilton girls, this quintet of lovely women who had become like his very own sisters. In one way or another Jeffrey had been there to protect each of them over the years and they had grown to trust him. Oh, the stories he could tell Lucien! But since he was a gentleman, and he loved each one of the girls dearly, Jeffrey would never betray their trust by telling anyone what he knew about them.
Now Yvette was the last unmarried Hamilton sister and she would more than likely need the most looking after. With her soft blond hair and sparkling blue eyes, pretty little Yvette had always been a charming, flirtatious, and social creature seeking out grand, romanticized ideals and splendid dreams. She wanted to live her life as a princess. Yet after a Season or two she still remained inexplicably unattached. Jeffrey wondered at the reasons for that. Why hadn't his little Yvette married already? Why hadn't some eligible nobleman snatched her up and made her his wife? She would be an asset to any man, for Yvette was very beautiful, well educated, and utterly charming.
Although he hadn't seen her for the last few months, he had known Yvette since she was a young girl and had always thought her the most striking of all the Hamilton sisters.
Having just returned to London that morning, after spending the better part of the last year working in France, the very thought of reuniting with everyone at Devon House tonight had kept his spirits up while he was away. This wonderful family, his family, meant more to him than any of them realized. And Yvette ... well, little Yvette Hamilton had a special place in his heart.
"Do you know why she's so insistent on staying in London?" Jeffrey asked.
"No." Lucien gave him another knowing look. "But I'm sure you'll find out what her reason is before long. Or who."
"So you do think there is someone in the picture then?"
"That would be my guess." Lucien shrugged helplessly. "But she hasn't mentioned a word to me about him. Or Colette for that matter."
Now that was surprising news. Yvette had always been quite keen on romance and most vocal about her romantic pursuits. Why was she keeping it such a secret now? What had happened? And who could have captured her attention enough for her to pass up a transatlantic trip to visit her sister in New York? It was quite unlike Yvette. Was there a valid reason for her secrecy? Could she have fallen under the spell of a gentleman unworthy of her? Perhaps someone with an unsavory background or a man with questionable honor?
Someone had definitely caught Yvette's interest and in his mind the need for concealment did not bode well. A twinge of worry coursed through Jeffrey, though he was reluctant to mention it to Lucien. There was no need to make the man more anxious than he already was about leaving his youngest sister-in-law behind.
"You'll do it, then?" Lucien asked.
"Yes, of course, I'll look after Yvette," Jeffrey promised. He could not refuse his childhood friend. He and Lucien had looked out for each other since they were young boys at Eton, bonding over the unhappiness that was rife in both of their families. They were as close as any brothers could be. He would do anything for Lucien.
Besides, Jeffrey could never ignore one of the Hamilton sisters, least of all sweet, little Yvette. He would readily and gladly give his life for any of them. In all honesty he would have watched over her even without Lucien asking him.
"Thank you," Lucien said with relief in his voice as he handed Jeffrey a glass of bourbon. "Here," he added with a rueful laugh. "You'll probably need this."
"You're the one going to visit Juliette. You'll need it more than I," Jeffrey retorted with a wicked grin. "Hell, take the whole bottle."
Jeffrey and Lucien laughed together, for Juliette Hamilton had given them both cause to lose sleep at one point or another. However, the second Hamilton sister had calmed considerably since marrying Captain Harrison Fleming and happily settling down in America.
"No, my friend." Lucien's face turned serious. "I'll leave this for you. I'm not sure what she's up to, but if anyone can drive a man to drink, it might just be Yvette."
Jeffrey was inclined to agree in spite of himself. "You're more than likely right about that." The girl was too pretty and too romantic to be trusted to act rationally.
"Whatever you do," Lucien added with a note of solemnity, "don't let Yvette know I asked you to do this. Be subtle in your watching over her. Anything heavy-handed and she's likely to rebel out of sheer stubbornness."
"I'm not an idiot, Lucien. She is the fifth Hamilton sister, and not my first go-around. Didn't I manage to help get the others safely married? I know how to handle this situation." At least Jeffrey thought he did. He was like Yvette's older brother, for Christ's sake. He could handle a little girl like her. "You and Colette should enjoy yourselves in America. Don't give another thought to what's going on here. I'll make sure Yvette stays out of harm's way and doesn't do anything too foolish." Jeffrey raised his brows in mock alarm. "Although if she takes after her older sisters, I can only hope whatever she does isn't as drastic as any of their adventures were."
Lucien smiled at Jeffrey. "Just try to keep her from doing anything reckless. Quinton will do the best he can also, but he's preoccupied with Lisette and the baby. Colette and I will be home in time for Christmas. Just keep her safe until then."
"That's three months," Jeffrey said.
"I have complete faith you can handle things until then."
Jeffrey paused in thought. "So do you have any idea who he is?"
Lucien sighed in weariness. "Look at her. It could be any one of a dozen young men. I've had offers of marriage for her from some of the best families and she has turned down each one, most graciously. Flowers and cards arrive for her on a daily basis. She is flooded with social invitations. I can't keep them all straight. Colette and I have escorted her to more parties, balls, and soirees than I can count, where she is sought after by all the young gentlemen, and yet she favors no one in particular that we can see. Here I thought all along she would be the easiest of the sisters to marry off, with her always dreaming about romance and princes and such things. Now her second Season has come and gone. She's almost twenty-one. What is she waiting for? Someone has caught her fancy, I'll warrant, but I can't figure out who he is. Honest to God, I won't rest easy until this girl is safely married."
"How we've managed with the other three sisters is a miracle in itself."
Lucien raised his glass. "You said it."
Jeffrey asked, "Is Colette worried?"
"Not in the least. But then she's not a man and doesn't see the world the way we do." Lucien shrugged in disbelief. "Please don't mention to her that I've asked you to do this, by the way. This is just between us. And Quinton."
Jeffrey nodded. It was good to know he'd have a ready ally in Lisette's husband if he needed one.
"Thank God I have only sons," Lucien groaned. "I don't know how I'd go through this again if I had daughters of my own."
Laughing, Jeffrey agreed with him. "Daughters would no doubt kill you, my friend."
"Don't I know it?" Lucien took a swig of his bourbon. "Send word of any important developments, would you?"
The door to Lucien's study opened and Colette Sinclair, Lucien's wife, entered the room. The oldest of the Hamilton sisters, and the reason why Jeffrey was considered a part of this family, Colette was a strikingly beautiful woman. With her coffee-colored hair and deep blue eyes, she carried herself with a regal bearing. She was the epitome of the wife of a marquis. One would never know that she had grown up working in a bookshop.
"Hello, darling—oh, Jeffrey! You're here!" she declared with delight as Jeffrey hugged her tightly. "You're home! When did you get back?"
"Yes, I'm home!" Jeffrey echoed happily. "I just arrived."
"And we're leaving," Colette said with a sudden frown. "It's too disappointing! We haven't seen you in months and months and now we're going away. I don't like that at all. But look at you! You grow more handsome as you age, Jeffrey Eddington. It's entirely unfair!"
"You look more beautiful every time I see you, Colette!" He flashed her a smile.
"And you still know how to turn a girl's head." Colette laughed and placed a kiss on his cheek. "You're joining us for supper, aren't you? We need to catch up on all the news. And you must see Phillip and Simon. You won't believe how much our boys have grown since you've been gone! Oh, and my mother's here and will be thrilled to see that you're here too! You know how much she loves to see you!"
"I'm very happy to be here with you all again." Jeffrey found he couldn't stop grinning. He had been away far too long and he had missed this family. His family. The family that had embraced him as one of its own.
And, yes, now he was home again.
Yvette Hamilton glanced around the glittering ballroom in annoyance. Where had that man gone now? She'd lost track of him when she had been cornered into discussing the merits of gardening with the overbearing Mrs. Ashby, who also talked endlessly about her only son. Yvette had no interest in Mrs. Ashby's prominent-toothed boy. No, she had set her sights on someone much higher than that. But somehow she had managed to lose him!
And the last thing she intended to do was to lose him.
With hurried steps, she moved through the crowded and festively decorated ballroom, carefully making her way toward the exit, while she nodded and smiled in greeting to everyone she knew.
"Kate, did you happen to see where Lord Shelley went to?" she whispered to her dearest friend and the only other person who knew of her secret dream.
Lady Katherine Spencer glanced around with her big brown eyes. "I'm not entirely positive, but I think he went that way a few moments ago." She gestured to the arched doorway leading to the hall. "But you mustn't chase after him, Yvette!"
"I'm not chasing after him," she protested heatedly. Yvette never chased after any man. Or at least it never looked that way. Lord Shelley must have gone to the card room. Perhaps she should linger in the hallway for a little while and just happen to be there when he returned. "I simply wondered where he had gone is all."
Kate gave her a skeptical glance, her freckled face looking a bit amused. "Don't worry though. Your competition, Jane Fairmont, is over there dancing with Lord Calvert."
Yvette spied her rival and then relaxed knowing that the girl was not with Lord Shelley either. Yvette had worked too hard to gain favor with the most eligible bachelor in all of London to lose him to the likes of Jane Fairmont.
"I wasn't worried really," Yvette murmured to her friend. "Simply curious."
"I don't know why you're throwing yourself at Lord Shelley when there are dozens of handsome men who would die to marry you." Kate gave her an exasperated look.
"I am not throwing myself at him. Honestly, Kate! You know me better than that. And I have explained all of this to you before. It's quite simple. Lord Shelley will be the Duke of Lansdowne when his father passes away."
In Yvette's eyes, there was no need to say more. She had longed for an opportunity like this her whole life. Nothing could be more romantic than marrying a duke and becoming a duchess! To be considered important and grand. To be a stylish and elegant lady, admired by all. Lord Shelley was able to give her the title that would allow everyone to call her Your Grace. No one could deny her significance then.
At almost twenty-one years of age, Yvette would be entering her third Season next spring. She should be married by now for heaven's sake!
It wasn't from a lack of offers. That was most definitely not the case. Yvette had been the toast of her first Season and again in her second. She had been practically drowning in proposals from fine young gentlemen from good families with excellent prospects, and even a few from those of questionable standing in society. She could have been satisfied with any of them as her husband.
But she was not.
She wanted something more. Something romantic and dramatic. Something quite special and exceptionally wonderful. Something her older sisters didn't already have. As the youngest of five sisters, Yvette had watched each of her siblings marry in thrilling and dramatic ways, being swept off their feet by romance, head-over-heels in love with dashing husbands who adored them.
Excerpted from His By Christmas by Kaitlin O'Riley. Copyright © 2013 Kathleen M. Milmore. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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