A scandal finds the Honorable Gemma Burke betrothed to a man she would have considered unsuitable just a day before. He is a commoner, a merchant, and of questionable background. Her older sister is a marchioness. Her younger is being courted by a viscount, the heir of an earl. Can she settle for less? Jeffrey Graham, the fabulously wealthy owner of Graham Shipping finds her intriguing. He offered to save her embarrassment, but made it clear they could end the engagement once the gossip dies and her sister fixes the attention of her viscount. This is their first outing. It is from An Unlikely Duke.
The butler admitted him with a proper bow, the slight inclination deemed his due as a rank commoner and directed him to wait on the lady in the drawing room.
Gemma appeared promptly, earning his approval, relieved she didn’t force him to endure a long wait and grand entrance. He could simply admire her as she was, utterly charming in a simple blue morning gown of fine muslin, high in the neck, long sleeved and trimmed along the cuff and him with darker blue bands embroidered with daisies. It flattered her coloring. Modest though it was in design, it folded around her revealing rather more of a lush figure than she probably realized.
“You look particularly lovely today, Miss Burke,” he said, bowing over her hand.
He handed her the nosegay and her face lit with an impish smile. “Snap and dragon for certain Mr. Graham. I think you,” she said. She remembered his interpretation of the flower.
Lady Eaton had sailed in behind her daughter, and was much less impressed with his simple floral offering. She probably expected a massive spray of red roses. The nosegay was handed to the butler who took it with a sniff.
“It is a fine day for a ride, Miss Burke. Shall we?” he asked offering his arm.
A maid waited at the front entrance with Gemma’s bonnet and a soft woolen shawl. She assisted Gemma with the bonnet, but the mother bustled over and tugged it further to the front, hissing some message to her daughter while shooting a frown at Jeff.
After the door closed behind them, he asked Gemma what had been said.
Gemma sighed deeply. “She reminded me to keep the sun from my face lest I…”
Curtains twitched. The old witch was watching him. He offered his hand and assisted his fiancé to climb up onto his vehicle. He rather enjoyed the view of her derriere as she made the final step up. He bit back a grin, went around and leapt up next to her. He gave the horses their head before speaking.
“Lest you what, Gemma?” he asked.
She kept her gaze forward. “Lest I risk darkening my skin,” she murmured.
He burst out laughing. He’d known, of course. Lady Eaton disapproved of his appearance as much as she disapproved of his dirtying his hands in trade.
At his laugh, she turned to look at him. “But you aren’t…”
“You really ought to learn to finish your sentences, even when you fear giving offence. You mean to say my skin is merely somewhat dark not black.”
She nodded. “As is your sister, and the countess is perfectly charming.”
He considered the topic for a few moments. “I hope that private time together will help us discover if we will suit. Permanently.”
She tipped her head, as if waiting for more.
“To that end perfect honesty is needed. Your comment about my sister, for example, was very well taken.”
He kept his eyes on the road and his team, but he could feel her studying him. “We are, as you are aware, from the Caribbean. My mother was born there as were Delia and I. My mother’s father was a Scotsman and landowner.” He glanced at her before going on. “My grandmother was his housekeeper. His enslaved African housekeeper.”
Silence greeted that, but no outburst of horror. Jeff concentrated on controlling down Oxford Street.
“Where was your father born,” she asked softly.
Whatever response he expected, it wasn’t that. “He was born in Glasgow. His father was a tailor.” Plain speaking for certain.
She nodded. “I think I had heard that before. You’ve done remarkably well in life.”
Good answer. The Honorable Gemma Burke was no fool. “My father did before me. I stand on his shoulders,” he said.
“You are proud of him.”
“Very much so.”
They reached the Cumberland Gate to Hyde Park, and she surprised him by taking a small sketch pad from her reticule. She’d said she had no ambition to be a great artist, and yet— “Do you wish to sketch today?”
“You said plain speaking would help us discern whether or not we will suit,” she said.
“Indeed. We’ve begun as I hope we can go on,” he replied.
“I don’t sketch. I map.”
“Map, you mean like cartography?” he asked, astounded.
“Exactly cartography. It fascinates me,” she said. “I have wanted to explore the paths and borders of Hyde Park for some time.
He grinned at her. “Then explore we shall.”
She sighed. “It will be the fashionable hour soon enough and much nodding and smiling will be required.”
“Would you like to come again in the early morning?”
Her eyes lit up at that. “I would like it ever so much. You don’t find me eccentric?”
“I find you fascinating,” he replied.
We may very well suit, Gemma Burke. Very well indeed.
Note: excerpts from works in progress may have not yet been edited, will likely undergo change, and may not even make it into the final work!