Wealthy American industrialist Aubrey Nelson has invited the Duke and Duchess of Westbrook to visit his family’s Newport seaside “cottage” for the summer. With his parents’ departure from New York delayed, Aubrey’s mother sends him ahead to oversee preparations for their guests. But when he arrives, he’s surprised to find the house and staff in disarray . . .
With much to do and little time, Aubrey comes to rely on the housekeeper, a lovely young Irish woman named Maeve Brown. And when he also finds himself confiding in Maeve about more personal matters, he tells himself it’s merely their close proximity that draws him to the compassionate, hard-working beauty. Yet when he suspects Maeve is in danger, Aubrey realizes his feelings for her have grown much deeper than they should have. For what will his mother, who dreams of a society match for her son, have to say when she arrives to discover he’s lost his heart to a girl of the working class?
Newport, Rhode Island
He first noticed the alluring curve of her neck. The delicate stretch of pale skin suggested elegance, a sweetness that begged to be explored and an aura of strength that intrigued him. Aubrey stood in the doorway to the drawing room for the longest time, riveted by a woman’s neck for the first time in his life, before clearing his throat to let her know he was there.
Startled, she whirled around, letting out a gasp of surprise as the oversized feather duster she’d been using fell to the dirty marble floor with a loud clatter. She would need a hundred feather dusters, perhaps a thousand of them, to wipe the layers of grime from every room in the house. How had it gotten so filthy over the winter?
That was one of many mysteries confronting him since his arrival thirty minutes prior at Paradis Trouvé, his family’s summer home on Newport’s Bellevue Avenue. The name meant “paradise found” in French. It had been bestowed upon the home by a previous owner, and unfortunately, his parents had embraced the pretentious name when they acquired the property.
Aubrey cursed himself for scaring the young woman as he entered yet another room in complete disarray. What the hell had happened to their “cottage” since the family left last September? “Pardon me.”
The woman took a step back, immediately on guard. Her reddish-brown hair had been gathered into a neat bun, and her drab olive-colored shirtwaist dress—muslin if he wasn’t mistaken—was serviceable at best but showcased interesting curves. However, her face was the showstopper. Her alabaster complexion reminded him of the cameo his grandmother had worn—ivory perfection with a dusting of freckles across her nose and brown eyes that were at once shrewd and suspicious.
“Wh-who are you?” The lilt of an Irish brogue danced through the dusty air like music.
Captivated, Aubrey had to remind himself that she expected a reply. “I apologize for frightening you.”
“Are you the new butler? It’s about time you showed up.” All business now that the fright had passed, she bustled across the room toward him, removing work gloves as she went.
He ought to set her straight but decided in a prescient flash to let her think he was the butler. At least until he had a chance to find out more about her. His dusty, wrinkled travel clothing and hair damp with sweat from the unusually warm weather wouldn’t give him away as a member of the family that owned the forty-room seaside monstrosity. His father had bought it six years ago from a member of the Astor family. Under normal circumstances, the Italian Renaissance–style palazzo was all gold and glitter and ostentatious excess, but Aubrey had been shocked by the filth and disrepair. He’d been sent by his mother to oversee the preparations for his illustrious guests, the Duke and Duchess of Westwood, who would arrive in three weeks, along with the other friends Aubrey had invited.
“I’m Maeve Brown, the housekeeper. I have no earthly idea what’s become of the rest of the staff, but Mrs. Nelson will be arriving in two short weeks, and as you can see, the house is in complete disarray. Did the agency inform you that the Duke and Duchess of Westwood will be visiting this summer? Apparently, they’re friends of the Nelsons’ son, Mr. Aubrey. Mrs. Nelson is the daughter of a British earl, so needless to say, she has exacting expectations, especially when entertaining a duke and duchess.” Maeve bit her deliciously full bottom lip as she seemed to debate whether she should say more.
Aubrey wanted to beg her to continue, just so he could listen to her melodic voice that spoke of culture and breeding far above a housekeeper’s station.
“From what I was told, the previous staff quit in protest of Mrs. Nelson’s treatment of them. In this day and age, there are plenty of other homes that treat their employees with respect and dignity. I was told a new staff had been hired, but no one has come.”
“If Mrs. Nelson is such an ogre, why are you here?”
Maeve’s cheeks flushed with a rosy glow that enchanted him. “By the time I arrived in New York, this was the only housekeeper position remaining for the Season. However, Mrs. Nelson’s reputation is well known, which is probably why the rest of the staff never arrived. Unless we both want to find ourselves out of work and without references, we’ll need every minute until she arrives to prepare for her guests.”
“I’m not afraid of hard work. Are you?”
He’d known her for two minutes and already wished he could sit and talk to her for hours, until he knew everything there was to know about Miss Maeve Brown, formerly of Ireland. His mother would have an apoplexy over the thoughts he was having about the housekeeper, which was all the more reason to have them. After both of his older brothers had sworn off marriage, it had fallen to Aubrey to continue the Nelson name, a predicament his mother took far more seriously now that the family had become ridiculously wealthy. Prior to that, she hadn’t given a fig about the family name. Defying his mother had been one of his favorite activities as a child and younger man. With her pressuring him relentlessly to make an “appropriate marriage,” admiring the curve of the Irish housekeeper’s neck would be the last thing she’d want him doing.
But it was a splendid neck, perhaps the most delightful neck he’d ever beheld, and he’d seen some truly excellent female necks in his day, most recently last year in London where he’d endured a second Season to placate his mother. She’d positively salivated at the thought of him marrying into the British aristocracy. Alas, it was not to be, and he was through with that charade. The only thing that had kept it from being completely unbearable had been his friendship with Derek Eagan, the Duke of Westwood, as well as Derek’s cousin Simon and their mutual friend Justin Enderly, who was the second son of an earl. With Derek and Simon now married, and Justin avoiding the social scene, Aubrey had flat-out refused to return to London this spring. His mother had been furious, but he’d stood his ground.
Now with a summer in residence with his mother about to transpire, Aubrey fully expected another charade to unfold that would have to be endured rather than enjoyed. However, the Newport house was his favorite place in the world, and there was nowhere he’d rather be, even with his mother and her many charades to endure.
Aubrey realized Miss Brown was talking to him.
“I asked if you’d like me to show you to your quarters before you get to work.”
“Yes, please.” Aubrey knew he ought to end this misunderstanding immediately, but something stopped him. He couldn’t say what, but rather than confess to not being the new butler, he followed her through familiar hallways thick with dust and spiderwebs to one of the back corridors and the stairs that led to the servants’ quarters on the third floor. As they went up the stairs, Aubrey tried not to notice the gentle sway of her backside. He failed utterly as her backside was almost as intriguing as the curve of her neck.
“I cleaned this room yesterday after we received word of your impending arrival. There’re fresh towels in the wardrobe and a bathroom down the hall. Mr. Nelson had plumbing put in the house two years ago, and it’s quite delightful.”
Aubrey agreed. Indoor plumbing was delightful, and so was she. “How did the house get so filthy?”
“I was told by one of the other housekeepers in town that after Mrs. Nelson left at the end of last summer, the remaining staff opened the windows and left them that way. When I arrived a week ago, the house was filled with rodents and seagulls. I almost didn’t stay.”
Horrified, Aubrey didn’t know what to say. She’d had to contend with that alone? He was also ashamed that he’d stopped paying attention to his mother’s high-handed behavior years ago. That she mistreated her staff to the point they’d leave the windows open for the harsh New England winter came as a shock to him and was something that would have to be addressed as soon as she arrived. At least he had a couple of weeks to dread that conversation.
“Didn’t the pipes freeze?”
“Apparently they were spared because the water had been shut off. For that we can be thankful.”
“Indeed. Why did you stay?”
She hooked her fingers together and looked down. “I need the position.”
Her quiet dignity touched him deeply. He wanted to know her story, where she came from, what had brought her to America. “We’ll see about getting you some more help.”
“It’s going to take a miracle to have this house ready for the arrival of the duke and duchess.”
“You needn’t worry about them. They don’t stand on formality.”
Her brows knitted adorably. “And you know this how?”
Damn. Aubrey realized he’d spoken as their friend and not as the new butler. “People speak of them in New York. The duke is well regarded in social circles in London, and his duchess is said to be very down to earth.”
“Who were your employers in New York?”
He had to think quickly to come up with a name she’d recognize. “The Smiths.” Thankfully, he’d gone to Choate with Adam Smith and knew the family.
Her eyes widened with amazement. “They’re one of the wealthiest families in America.”
“Yes, they are.”
“So why are you now employed by the Nelsons?”
“I wanted to come to Newport, and the Smiths don’t summer here. Mrs. Smith has an aversion to the sea. Her father drowned while rescuing her from a rogue wave when she was a child.”
“She’s never forgotten it.”
“How could anyone forget such a thing?”
“It’s very tragic indeed.”
She gave him a look that had him wishing his hair was clean and his face shaved. “You’re very . . .”
Aubrey held his breath, waiting to hear what she would say.
“. . . young for a butler.”
He was young for a butler—by decades, in fact. “While I was with the Smiths, their butler and under-butler succumbed to typhoid, and I was the head footman. The family promoted me to butler.” Where was this nonsense coming from? He told himself to stop it, to tell her the truth, to end this ridiculous farce.
“I see. Would you like something to eat before you begin work?”
“Yes, please. I’d appreciate that after the long journey.” He left his bag in the room she’d assigned him and followed her down the backstairs, where his sisters’ children hid from their governesses.
They went down three flights to the kitchen and the servants’ dining room in the basement.
“This is the new cook, Mrs. Allston. Mrs. Allston, this is the new butler . . .” Maeve turned to him, her face flushing with a pleasing shade of pink. “I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name.”
“It’s Jack. Jack Bancroft.” The name of the duke’s estate manager popped into Aubrey’s head.
“A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Bancroft.” A stout, sturdy woman with ruddy cheeks and neat gray hair, Mrs. Allston stood watch over a pot of something that smelled delicious.
Aubrey’s stomach growled loudly.
Maeve laughed, and the delicate sound traveled through him the way a bolt of lightning might. He wanted to hear that laugh again and again. He wanted to hear it in his dreams and in his every waking hour. As a man who’d relished his freedom and independence, the feelings she evoked in him were frightening and unprecedented, to say the least.
Aubrey glanced at her. “I beg your pardon. I’m apparently hungrier than I thought.” He’d taken the overnight steamship from New York and had been served an elaborate breakfast several hours before the boat docked at Newport’s Long Wharf. Mrs. Allston ladled soup into two bowls and set them on the rough-hewn wooden table along with a basket of freshly baked bread. “There you are then.”
He waited for Maeve to be seated before he slid onto the bench across from her. The huge table would easily accommodate thirty people. When the house was fully staffed, there would easily be that many in service, if not more.
They ate the delicious split-pea soup and bread in silence, but he was aware of her every move, her every breath. In all his thirty-two years, through hundreds of hours spent in London ballrooms and New York social clubs, in music halls, opera houses and at countless society dinners, picnics and house parties, he had never once responded to a woman the way he had to her.
His reaction to her defied explanation.
It defied belief.
It would infuriate his mother.
Aubrey smiled to himself, imagining her reaction to hearing that he’d finally found the woman he wanted, and she was the new Irish housekeeper at their Newport estate.
Once the epicenter of the cotton, rum and slave trades, Newport had become the place to see and be seen in the months of July and August when most of New York society relocated to their cottages by the coast. The social climbers came to make their annual impression on the hostesses who determined whether one was in or out—and if you were out, there was little chance of ever getting in.
His mother, the ultimate social climber, had made a blood sport out of climbing the rungs in Newport. Imagining her reaction to learning he’d developed a sweet spot for the Irish housekeeper had Aubrey picturing her exploding into a rage the likes of which would be talked about for years to come. He’d seen her rages before, most of them directed at others, including his siblings, but had never been the reason for one.
Compared to his far more rebellious siblings, Aubrey had been her good boy, her golden child as his siblings liked to say chidingly. Perhaps it was time for him to take his turn in stirring her ire. He had a feeling that Miss Maeve Brown, formerly of Ireland, would be worth the hell his mother would rain down upon him.
As he surreptitiously watched Maeve eat her soup, he noted the way her lips closed around the spoon and how her throat moved when she swallowed.
How was it possible that the pedestrian act of eating soup could be so impossibly erotic? A surge of heat to his groin had him holding back a groan.
“Are you quite all right, Mr. Bancroft?”
That voice. Dear God, the sound of her words was the sweetest music he’d ever heard. He could listen to her speak all day without ever tiring of the sound. It wouldn’t even matter so much what she said, as long as she never stopped talking to him. Aubrey summoned his composure, which had deserted him the second he first laid eyes on the appealing curve of her neck. He nodded in response to her question. “I’m quite well, thank you.”
“And the soup is to your liking?”
“I agree. Mrs. Allston is a wonderful cook. We’re lucky to have her, especially in light of the reputation this house has with those in service.”
Aubrey wiped his mouth on the cloth napkin, made of much coarser cotton than the linen he was accustomed to upstairs. “So there’re exactly three of us then?”
“I’m afraid so, at least until the others turn up. If they turn up.”
“And the task before us is . . .”
“Monumental. Wait until you see the wreckage that is Mrs. Nelson’s room.” She shuddered. “It’s a travesty.”
“If we were to take it a room at a time, focusing on the public spaces and the bedrooms required by the Nelson family and their guests, we might be able to get it done in time.”
“We have two weeks until Mrs. Nelson, her daughters and grandchildren are due to arrive and three until the duke and duchess are expected.”
“I’ll see what I can do about getting some more help. Surely there have to be more people seeking positions for the summer.”
“I certainly hope so, because without more help, I can’t envision how we’ll ever be ready for the duke and duchess. I quite fear Mrs. Nelson’s infamous rages.”
“Don’t you worry about her. We’ll have everything in place for her and her guests.”
“Thank goodness you’re here.” She took a sip of the hot tea she had steeped for them both. “I have felt quite like I was climbing a mountain all by myself with no possible way to reach the summit in time.”
“We will get there together.” As he said the words, he considered the double meaning of the two of them reaching the summit together. A shiver rippled through him, making him shudder from the desire that gripped him. He thanked goodness for the table that hid his obvious reaction from her.
“Are you sure you’re well? You seem rather . . . flummoxed.”
That was a good word for how he’d felt since first laying eyes on her. Flummoxed indeed.
He was about to respond to her when another man came into the kitchen, looking as road weary and dusty as Aubrey imagined he did, too. This man was older, with silver strands mixed in to his dark hair, his face craggy with age and wisdom, his eyes red with fatigue but friendly.
“May I help you?” Maeve asked.
“I’m Joseph Plumber, the new butler. The agency indicated I should report today.”
Maeve’s shocked gaze shifted to Aubrey. “If Mr. Plumber is the new butler, then who, pray tell, are you?”
About the author:
Marie Force is the New York Times bestselling author of contemporary romance, including the indie-published Gansett Island Series and the Fatal Series from Harlequin Books. In addition, she is the author of the Butler, Vermont Series, the Green Mountain Series and the erotic romance Quantum Series. Duchess By Deception is the first in her new historical romance Gilded Series, that will continue with Deceived By Desire in September 2019.
Her books have sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, have been translated into more than a dozen languages and have appeared on the New York Times bestseller list 30 times. She is also a USA Today and Wall Street Journal bestseller, a Speigel bestseller in Germany, a frequent speaker and publishing workshop presenter as well as a publisher through her Jack’s House Publishing romance imprint. She is a three-time nominee for the Romance Writers of America’s RITA® award for romance fiction.
Her goals in life are simple—to finish raising two happy, healthy, productive young adults, to keep writing books for as long as she possibly can and to never be on a flight that makes the news.
Reader Groups: https://marieforce.com/contact/