The Last True Gentleman (True Gentlemen #12) - Grace Burrowes

Chapter One

“Mr. Dorning, I come to offer you a proposition.”

Sycamore Dorning was frequently propositioned.

By ladies who’d played too deeply at The Coventry Club.

By gentlemen in the same unfortunate circumstances.

By gentlemen who’d gambled to excess, and thought to offer Sycamore a wife or mistress’s favors in exchange for forgiveness of a debt.

Jeanette Vincent, Marchioness of Tavistock owed the club not one penny, alas. “My lady, do come in.” Then too, she wasn’t calling on Sycamore at his gambling hell, but rather, at his private quarters.

She had no escort. Her coach was plain to the point of shabbiness. Neither coachy nor groom wore livery, and her cattle were stolid bays, not a hair of white between them.

“Walk ’em,” Sycamore called out to the coachy.

John Coachman merely looked askance at the marchioness.

“Will you see me home, Mr. Dorning?” her ladyship asked.

“Of course.” Given the chance, Sycamore would have seen his guest safely returned from the underworld.

Lady Tavistock wasn’t conventionally pretty. She had auburn hair, forest green eyes, a nose shading toward well defined, and swooping brows that added an air of imperiousness. He had never heard her laugh, never seen her touch another in anything but strictest propriety. A man would not want to merely escort such a woman, he’d want to matter to her, and Sycamore Dorning was very much a man.

“Mr. Dorning will see me home, Angus,” her ladyship called.

Angus spared Sycamore a glower, then moved the horses on at the walk. “Scottish?” Sycamore asked, closing the door.

“Scottish and former military, the confluence of all that is stubborn and loyal.”

“May I take your cloak?” A conspicuously drab article, given how fashionably attired the marchioness usually was.

She removed her plain straw bonnet, stashed her gloves in the crown, and passed it to Sycamore. He set the bonnet on a hook and drew the cloak from her ladyship’s shoulders. She watched him from the corner of her eye when he stepped behind her, as if expecting him to commence a seduction in the very foyer.

“You arrive on my doorstep alone,” he said, “late at night, in a disgracefully ancient conveyance, and you speak to me of propositions. Are you hoping I will make amorous advances, or fearing I won’t?”

Her cloak bore a faint scent of jasmine, a light scent for woman of such… such…presence? Such consequence?

Sycamore did not know exactly how to describe her ladyship, which was characteristic of her appeal. Her smiles were rare and startlingly warm. She was ferociously protective of her step-son; at the card table, she was a shrewd and disciplined gambler, of one few in Sycamore’s experience who knew enough to walk away from both winning streaks and losing streaks.

“I assumed you would flirt,” she said, “and you are welcome to make whatever advances will flatter your male vanity, but I came to talk rather than dally.”

“As it happens, I am equally talented at conversation and dallying.” Sycamore offered the lady his arm. His longsuffering butler had gone to bed an hour ago, and Sycamore did not employ a night porter.

“You would rather dally,” her ladyship said, wrapping her fingers lightly around his sleeve. “You are an unattached, increasingly wealthy young man from a titled family. Dallying for such a one is almost a civic duty.”

Unattached, like a boot discarded by the side of the road, a wagon wheel left leaning against the wall of the garden shed.

“What I prefer might surprise you,” Sycamore said, ushering her into his personal parlor. The fire was lit in here, as were the candles, but he’d chosen to entertain her in this room because this was his private place to idle about when at home. He wanted her to see his bound collections of satirical prints, the French novels any school girl could translate at sight, the botanical sketches every self-respecting Dorning considered necessary to any decoration scheme.

“Deadly nightshade?” her ladyship murmured, studying the frame to left of the dart board. She moved to the frame on the right. “Night blooming jasmine?”

“My father was a passionate amateur botanist. We all take an interest in plants, my own talent being the growing of potted ferns.”

Her ladyship eyed the massive specimen situated in the bow window. “We all?”

“We Dornings, of the Dorsetshire Dornings. I am one of nine.” She likely knew that, and knew as well which siblings were married into which respectable and titled families, because all of them—every blessed one of them—had married quite well.

“While I have only the one brother,” her ladyship said, applying a finger to the fern’s soil.

“You borrowed