Sabrina rarely set a foot wrong when it came to dealing with gentlemen, but she’d made a capital blunder with the blasted marquess. Now she had to hope that Mr. Kendrick could shield her from the consequences of her error.
“Serves you right,” she muttered to herself. She’d ignored her instincts when it came to this morning’s assignation.
She couldn’t be blamed for falling afoul of a cutpurse, though. And who in his right mind would shove a person into the Serpentine?
Kendrick peered down at her. “What was that?”
Even when sitting he loomed over her, and also quite squished her into the panels of the hackney coach. Scottish people did seem to run on the brawny side, perhaps an effect of the clean Highland air.
“Nothing of any note, sir.”
She shifted, but there wasn’t an inch between them from their shoulders to their knees. And given how damp they both were, and how Kendrick’s wet buckskins clung to his muscled thighs and to . . . well, the rest of him, Sabrina couldn’t help feeling unnerved.
Drat the blasted marquess. It was most disappointing that his lordship had proved so unreliable.
Then again, men generally disappointed her.
“We’re both dripping wet, which is no fun,” Kendrick said. “I had to pay the coachman half a guinea before he let us into this confounded thing.”
“I’m happy to pay for the coach, sir.”
He flashed her a ridiculously charming grin, one that no doubt had susceptible ladies swooning on a regular basis. Thank goodness she was impervious to such masculine charms.
“Och, don’t fash yourself, my lady. I’m good for it.”
He had an interesting voice, a rough sort of purr laced with a brogue. His eyes were an arresting shade of forest green, and his forceful jaw paired with a firm mouth that seemed more inclined to scowl than smile.
When he did manage to smile, it made one’s heart skip a beat, which Sabrina found quite annoying.
As for the rest of him, his wet hair appeared to be a dark red, and his lean cheeks sported bristle. He seemed an odd combination of rough and refined, and it was the rough part that had initially panicked her.
That he was both kind and a gentleman was not in doubt. What sort of gentleman was he, though? Sabrina had a finely honed sense of social distinctions. Not that she judged one’s character by such a standard, but it did help in deciding how to respond to people in various situations.
That this was a social setting she’d never before encountered went without saying.
“Are you cold?” he asked.
The husky note to his voice sent a little thrill coursing through her body. She firmly quashed it, as she did the memory of him gazing at her chest while they were in the water. He’d seemed quite appreciative, and she’d been forced to communicate her disapproval.
“Indeed, no. Your coat is very warm and comfortable.”
Especially once she’d divested a hidden inner pocket of yet another knife, one she’d discovered when she sat down on it in the carriage. Fortunately, it was encased in a sturdy sheath.
Although quite certain Mr. Kendrick was not a member of the criminal classes, Sabrina wondered what he did for a living.
It’s none of your business.
“You must be chilled, though,” she added.
“Och, no. Anyway, we’re almost there.”
“It might have been faster if we’d walked to Captain St. George’s house.”
Their destination was a townhouse off Cadogan Square, normally a short drive from the park. But the rain had made for slow going.
Kendrick chuckled. “Yes, I’m sure Lord Musgrave would have been thrilled to hear of us strolling about town, looking like a pair of mud larks. Let’s hope that maid of yours is trustworthy, by the way.”
She winced. If Father ever found out about this little expedition, she was sunk. “If Hannah does bungle the story, I’ll simply say I needed some fresh air and stepped out for a stroll.”
“Yes, nothing sets one up like a toddle in the pouring rain, I always say.”
“One problem at a time, Mr. Kendrick,” Sabrina firmly replied. “Right now, I am simply desperate to get out of these wet clothes.”
He looked blankly down at her for a moment before shifting uncomfortably on the seat. Clearly, he wasn’t the only one feeling rather squished.
“I told the driver to take us around to the mews.” His voice sounded oddly strained. “We’ll use the kitchen entrance to avoid being seen.”
“I imagine it’ll be quite the surprise when we appear like this.”
“No worries, lass. Tommy ran ahead to warn St. George.” Kendrick pulled a slight grimace. “Sorry. I should be calling you Lady Sabrina. I’m much too informal.”
Sabrina rather liked it when he called her lass, which was absurd. “You must admit that our introduction has been decidedly less than formal.”
“That’s one way of putting it.”
He’d gone back to sounding grim. Once again, she got the feeling he was immensely frustrated about something—not her, per se, or her idiotic accident. It was obvious that he hadn’t simply been taking a morning constitutional. He’d been in the park for a reason, and her topple into the Serpentine had knocked him off course.
Still, there was nothing she could do but apologize, which she’d already done. Right now, her primary objective was avoiding the incineration of her life from a horrendous scandal of her own making. Even though the marquess was a handsome and charming man, he certainly wasn’t worth this much trouble. At the end of the day, what man truly was?
The hackney took a sharp turn, all but tumbling her into Kendrick’s lap. She once more became sharply aware of his muscled thighs and imposing body—aware in a way she found shocking. Especially since the front of his wet breeches perfectly outlined—
Sabrina righted herself. “I beg your pardon.”
“We’re here,” he brusquely replied.
He was already opening the door and swinging out before the carriage came to a complete halt.
Trying to ignore the heat rushing to her face, she took his hand and stepped down with as much dignity as she could muster.
“You’re very flushed,” Kendrick said with a frown. “I hope you’re not catching a fever.”
She mentally winced. “I’m sure I’m not. I rarely fall ill.”
There was an awkward pause.
“Oh, well, that’s splendid,” he replied.
This had to count as the most embarrassing day of her life, and the clock had yet to strike nine.
He steered her to a sturdy iron gate in the garden wall. Extracting a key from his waistcoat, he unlocked the gate and ushered her through, pausing to lock it behind him. His caution seemed excessive, but more to the point—why did he have a key to St. George’s garden?
Kendrick led her along a gravel path through a small but pretty enclosure. A tidy kitchen garden was tucked into one corner, while a wrought-iron gazebo, surrounded by beds of roses, took up the rest of the space. Even in the rain it was a charming retreat, and a great deal more welcoming than the formal Italianate gardens behind Musgrave House.
At the end of the walk stood a modern-looking brick townhouse. The St. Georges had moved to Cadogan Square shortly after their marriage, and now led a life of quiet domesticity. Since Lady Vivien, a vivacious and charming social butterfly, had once been one of the most popular beauties of the ton, Sabrina still found the change in her friend rather mind-boggling.
“There you are,” cried the lady herself as Sabrina stepped down into a low-ceiled and blessedly warm kitchen.
Vivien, in a frivolous dressing gown and an even more frivolous nightcap, dodged around the cook, the kitchen maid, and a footman, all of whom seemed unsurprised by either their mistress’s unconventional appearance or by a pair of bedraggled guests muddying up the clean stone floor.
Ignoring Sabrina’s bedraggled state, Vivien gave her a hug before turning to a neatly dressed, middle-aged man who appeared from the pantry with a stack of clean towels. “Ah, Simpson, thank you.”
She removed the damp coat from Sabrina’s shoulders and replaced it with a wonderfully thick towel. Then she turned to Kendrick.
“Graeme, I do hope you’re not responsible for Lady Sabrina’s condition. I’ll be most annoyed if you are.”
Kendrick, who’d taken a towel to dry his head, regarded her with disbelief. “I’m the one who pulled her pretty arse out of the Serpentine. She’d have been in quite the fix if I hadn’t come along.”
After recovering from the shock of his outré language, Sabrina bristled. “I would have been perfectly fine. The water wasn’t even over my head.”
“Yes, and I’m sure you could have then strolled right home through Mayfair. And let’s not even mention your idiotic maid.”
“What happened to your maid?” Vivien asked.
“She fainted when the cutpurse pushed me into the water,” Sabrina replied.
“How dreadfully unhelpful of her. Perhaps you might think about hiring a new maid, my dear.”
Sabrina blinked, nonplussed by her friend’s casual attitude toward the morning’s events. “Er . . . ”
“And what,” Vivien interrupted, leveling a glare at Kendrick, “were you doing while all this pushing and fainting was going on? Aden will be most displeased to hear that you allowed this to happen, Graeme.”
“That’ll be a change of pace,” Graeme sarcastically replied. “That fact is, I wasn’t close enough to stop the blighter from attacking the silly girl, or I obviously would have.”
Silly? Sabrina was never silly.
You were this morning.
“I was simply minding my own business when that dreadful man decided to rob me,” she said, adopting a tone of offended dignity.
“Minding your own business?” he said. “What young lady in her right mind goes larking around the park at that hour of the morning?”
Vivien scrunched up her nose. “Graeme does make rather a good point, my dear. Fashionable persons rarely stroll in the park before noon, and certainly not in a downpour.”
Sabrina’s cheeks heated again. This was not a conversation she wanted to have in front of the servants, although, to be fair, none of them seemed the slightest bit interested. Simpson stood with a patiently resigned attitude, as if these sorts of events happened on a regular basis.
“Vivien, I’m absolutely desperate to get out of these wet things,” she said. “Do you think we could hold off further explanations until I do so?”
Her friend was instantly diverted. “Goodness, we’re all brutes to keep you standing here. And I’m sure Cook is beside herself at the mess Graeme is making of her kitchen.”
“I’m not doing anything,” Kendrick protested.
“You’re dripping,” Vivien replied. “Drips make Cook positively demented.”
The cook, a tall, lanky woman with an impressively competent manner, rolled her eyes as she assembled a lavish tea service that Sabrina devoutly hoped was for her, since she was positively famished.
“Not to worry, my lady,” Cook said in brisk Yorkshire accent. “I’ve sent up hot water and a maid to assist her ladyship, and the tea tray will be up in a twinkle.”
Vivien beamed. “You’re a gem, Evans. What we would do without you?”
“Starve to death, most likely,” the woman responded.
Sabrina blinked at their familiar exchange. Clearly, the household was more than slightly unconventional. That wasn’t surprising, since Vivien had always been somewhat eccentric herself. There’d been quite the scandal over her marriage—something about a Russian prince, whom she’d thrown over in a very exciting fashion for the mysterious Aden St. George. Sabrina was some years younger than her friend and had barely emerged from the schoolroom at the time, so she’d never known the full details.
Vivien took her arm. “Let’s get you dry and into something warm.” She shot Kendrick a warning look. “Once you change, you’re to report to Aden.”
“And whatever happened to the maid?” Vivien asked. “Surely you didn’t leave her lying under a bush in the park?”
Kendrick looked up at the low ceiling, as if searching for patience. “We sent her home with instructions to say that Lady Sabrina was still in bed, nursing a headache.”
“Quick thinking on your part,” Vivien said.
“It was Lady Sabrina’s idea,” he replied.
Vivien let out a delicate snort before leading Sabrina to the stairs.
Glancing over her shoulder, Sabrina threw Kendrick an apologetic smile. He simply shrugged and went back to drying his hair. It was now a beautiful russet shade, as vibrant as an autumn leaf.
“I do owe poor Mr. Kendrick a debt of gratitude,” she said as she followed Vivien up the back staircase. “He was quite helpful in such unpleasant circumstances.”
“Graeme knows I’m teasing. Mostly. He can be reckless, so the occasional reprimand does him good.”
“I never thought of you as the managing sort, Vivien, but you seem quite good at it.”
“Not as good as you, dear. Your ability to manage gentlemen of all sorts is legendary.”
Sabrina sighed. “I seem to have slipped a jot this morning.”
“Ah, so you were meeting someone in the park.”
“Why else would I do something so stupid?”
Vivien steered her down the second floor hall. “You can tell me all about it once you’re warm and dry.”
“And I’d better be quick. If I don’t get home . . . ”
“Graeme and Aden will come up with a plausible story. They’re quite good at that sort of thing.”
From the end of the hall, a long-case clock bonged out the hour.
“Drat,” Sabrina muttered. “Already eight o’clock.”
Vivien cocked her head. “Yes, the children are certainly awake,” she said with a smile.
“I’m so sorry to drag you out of bed for something this ridiculous.”
“Nonsense. Aden and I are both early risers. That man is up at the crack of dawn most mornings.” She cut Sabrina a sly smile. “Which means I am, too.”
Sabrina huffed out a laugh as Vivien ushered her into a cozy bedroom. Decorated in shades of cream and primrose, it had comfortably modern furnishings piled high with cushions covered in lovely floral fabric.
Even more appealing were the roaring fire in the grate and the bowl of hot water on the Sheraton-style dressing table. A maid bustled about, laying out a flannel wrapper and a fresh set of underclothes. Sabrina slipped behind a wooden screen to strip off her clammy garments. A minute or so later, she heard the tea tray arrive. After it was set up, Vivien dismissed the servants.
Attired in the wrapper, Sabrina came out to find a steaming cup of tea and a plate of pastries on a small table by the fire.
“Wash your hands and face, and then let me comb your hair,” Vivien said. “You look like someone dragged you through a thorn bush.”
Sabrina meekly washed up before gratefully sinking into a low chair. “You shouldn’t be waiting on me, Vivien. I’m sure you have other things to do.”
“Nonsense. Besides, I’m simply dying of curiosity. Tell all, darling.”
Sabrina took a sip of tea. “That’s what I’m afraid to do.”
“I won’t breathe a word, I promise.”
“I believe you, but it’s too late. Your servants have seen me.”
Vivien carefully began to detangle Sabrina’s locks with a silver comb. “Our staff never gossip. Aden wouldn’t allow it.”
“My husband’s duties at Court require the utmost discretion from this household. There will be no gossip as a result of your visit this morning.”
“Not even from Mr. Kendrick? Or Tommy?”
“Tommy is completely reliable, as is Graeme.”
“I thought you said he was reckless.”
“Certainly not with a lady’s reputation.”
They were silent for a few moments as Sabrina ate a pastry and Vivien worked the comb through a particularly bad snarl.
“Who were you meeting in the park?” Vivien finally prompted.
“Tell me about Mr. Kendrick first,” Sabrina stalled. “He seems like a gentleman, although he’s rather gruff. He works for your husband, I take it.”
Vivien laughed. “That was a commendable dodge, pet.”
Sabrina sighed. “I’d like to know more, since I got the sense that my stupid accident was more than a simple inconvenience to him.”
Vivien’s hand paused. “What do you mean?”
“He seemed . . . well, frustrated. As if I’d interrupted some important task.”
“Like a mysterious assignation in the park, for instance?”
Sabrina twisted around to look at her. “You think he was meeting a lady? He gave no indication of such a thing.”
Vivien’s mouth twitched. “You don’t know Graeme Kendrick.”
Sabrina repressed a scowl as she turned back around. “He certainly didn’t seem the sort to engage in . . . ”
Drat. Secret assignations. Like she’d been doing.
“As I said, Graeme can be reckless, but he is a gentleman,” Vivien replied.
“So was the man I was meeting. In fact, he’s a wealthy aristocrat.”
Vivien came round to settle in the chair on the other side of the hearth. “Why doesn’t this aristocrat simply take you for a proper stroll at a proper hour?”
“You know how hard it is to have a decent conversation with a man. Everyone is always watching.”
“There’s a reason for that, dearest.”
“I’m not a chit just out of the schoolroom, Vivien. I’ve been running my father’s household for years.”
Vivien wriggled her feet, encased in frivolous feathered mules, closer to the fire. “Why not invite him to Musgrave House and take a quiet stroll in the gardens? I’m sure you could easily find a private corner to chat.”
Sabrina waved an impatient hand. “Father would hate that. He fusses when it comes to potential suitors.”
“Your dearest papa is afraid you’ll marry and leave him.”
“Honestly, I haven’t been that keen on the idea either. I’ve yet to meet one blasted man who could tempt me to . . . ” She twirled a hand. “Rather the opposite, actually.”
“That’s because you haven’t met the right one.”
“Well, they can’t all be like Captain St. George. He’s the very definition of dashing.”
Vivien breathed out a happy sigh. “He is at that. But how about Graeme? He’s certainly not your average gentleman of the ton. He’s a Highlander, for one thing.” She flapped a hand in front of her face. “My dear, that brogue. So delicious.”
“Vivien St. George, and you a married woman with children!”
“Very happily married, which means I have an excellent eye—and ear—for the right sort of man.”
“Surely you cannot be serious. Mr. Kendrick was exceedingly . . . ”
“ . . . Bossy,” she concluded.
“He’s a man, Sabrina. And a wise woman bosses right back. I suspect you could manage Graeme Kendrick quite well.”
“I literally just met the man,” Sabrina replied, exasperation setting in. “While I was waiting to meet another man, I might add.”
“And he didn’t bother to make an appearance.”
Sabrina grabbed the comb from Vivien’s hand and began to unsnarl the last of her tangles. “This is a ridiculous conversation. Besides, if my father wouldn’t approve of a lord with a large estate, he certainly wouldn’t countenance a mister. Especially not a Scottish mister.”
“But your mother was Scottish, and you were born a stone’s throw from the border. How can Lord Musgrave not approve of Scotland?”
“We were residing at our Northumberland estate at the time of Mamma’s illness. Father is convinced she’d still be alive if we’d been in London, where we could have accessed the best physicians.”
Her mother had died of an infectious fever before Sabrina was even three years old, carried off in less than a week. Since the poor lady had always been in delicate health according to Father, it seemed unlikely that any doctor could have saved her.
Vivien’s blue gaze softened with sympathy. “I’m so sorry, dearest.”
Sabrina shrugged. It always felt awkward speaking of her mother, since she had so few memories of her.
“Thank you. It affected Father dreadfully, of course. He loathes the country now, especially the north. He’d fall into hysterics if I so much as gave a single thought to marrying a plain old mister from Scotland.”
“There’s nothing plain about Graeme Kendrick. He’s the brother of the Earl of Arnprior, which means he’s the brother-in-law of—”
Sabrina almost dropped the comb. “No!”
“Yes. Brother-in-law of Victoria, Lady Arnprior, the illegitimate daughter of the king himself.”
“Lady Arnprior is your husband’s half sister.”
It was one of the worst kept secrets of the ton that Aden St. George was the natural son of King George IV. Sabrina had forgotten about Lady Arnprior—not surprising, since the king and his royal brothers had quite a shocking number of children born on the wrong side of the sheets.
“And that means Graeme is part of our family, too.” Vivien ruefully smiled. “Although it does get rather complicated when one isn’t supposed to publicly acknowledge such relationships.”
When the bracket clock on the mantle chimed out the hour, Sabrina grimaced.
“I wish Mr. Kendrick the best, and I’m grateful to him,” she said. “But I simply must be on my way. If you would let me borrow your carriage, I would be desperately grateful.”
Vivien rose. “Of course. But won’t you tell me who you were meeting in the park?” She pointed a finger. “I do think you owe me.”
“Blackmail, in other words,” Sabrina wryly replied as she crossed to the bed to begin dressing.
Her friend’s gaze sparkled with mischief. “I’m quite good at that sort of thing.”
“I suppose it doesn’t matter, since the wretch never showed up. It was the Marquess of Cringlewood.”