Follow My Lead
Being the most sought-after bachelor in London can be trying. Jason Cummings, Duke of Rayne, should know. But when he winds up an unwilling escort to the headstrong Winnifred Crane on a trip across Europe, he realizes he'll do anything to keep this independent beauty safe-even if it means marrying her.
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Miss Winnifred Crane did not intend to smack the young gentleman. Truly, she didn’t. He simply, sort of ran into her hand. And really she shouldn’t be blamed for her hand being as outstretched as it had been.
It had begun when she had rounded the corner from Aldwych onto Strand, some minutes before the stately carriage bearing the poor soul whom she accidentally smacked appeared. She had been so startled to come upon Somerset House so suddenly, the building that held all her hopes and aspirations, that for the barest of seconds, she lost her nerve.
She made it as far as the courtyard before she had to stop, had to take a moment to gather her strength.
“Do not become overwhelmed,” Winnifred whispered to herself, clutching her folio of papers to her chest. She wished briefly that she had worn her thick coat, as a chill ran down her spine. But the coat was unfashionable, and she at least had to try for what fashion she could afford in London. Besides, it was a warm day, and the chill could easily be ascribed to other sources than the weather. “You are not doing anything against their rules, nor against the law. You were invited. You even have a letter of introduction.”
As gentlemen in top hats and coats walked past her up and down the steps, more than a few giving a curious glance to the small woman paused at the central fountain, she hesitantly took the first few steps.
Somerset House was a large columned structure, one side lining the Thames, the other folding itself along a courtyard of some impressive acreage. It was home to numerous endowed learned societies and government agencies, and as such, it was almost impossible for Winn to know precisely where she needed to go.
The naval offices were straight ahead, she knew, marked easily by the building’s central dome. But after that it became a bit hazy. She thought back to her father’s descriptions of the building. The Royal Society was . . . to the left? No, the right. It had a lovely exhibition hall, for those men who wished to see the progress of the world. The London Society of Antiquaries was its younger cousin, relegated to a few rooms in the attic and basements. So that must mean the Historical Society’s rooms were to the left of the courtyard.
She turned and, with the conviction of purpose, moved toward her destination.
Until an oversized, strong hand grabbed her by the arm.
“Not so fast,” George Bambridge, her cousin, said in her ear, his breath coming in heavy gulps. He must have run very fast to catch up with her. Damn it all. If only she had not paused by the fountain! She would have been in the building, at her audience with Lord Forrester, and George would have had to vent his spleen in the street alone.
“You left me sitting in the park with bloody Mrs. Tottendale,” George said once he finally managed to catch his breath.
“And she was supposed to keep you from following me.” Winn rolled her eyes. “How did you know?”
“That you’d come here? Winnifred, it’s been the only thing you’ve spoken of since coming to London,” George replied, smirking superiorly. “Nor are you that difficult to spot. Would you like to know why?”
“Because I’m the only one here in a skirt?” she guessed drily.
“Because you’re the only one here in a skirt!” George cried. “And that’s because there are no women allowed into the Historical Society!”
“Yes they are,” she replied calmly. “For exhibitions and lectures, women often attend.”
“Those are public functions.” The wispy dark hair that fell over George’s brow shook precariously. If he was not careful with his temper, he would reveal to the world his carefully hidden receding hairline. “Women are not granted entrance to the Society’s main rooms as they are not granted membership. And I should know, because of the two of us, I’m the one being considered for such.”
“There is absolutely nothing in their charter that forbids women,” Winn countered rationally.
“And how do you know so much about the Historical Society’s charter?”
“Because my father helped write it. And he told me.”
That flummoxed George, causing him to gape like a fish for some moments.
“Winnifred,” he began calmly, though he did not loosen his grip on her arm. “I feel responsible for you, not just as your only living relative but, I would hope, as something more. So please believe me when I say this is not a good idea. If you so ardently desire to be introduced to Lord Forrester, I will endeavor to have him invited to dine, and I’m sure he will find you and your infatuation with art history extremely diverting. But not here.” His voice lowered to a desperate whisper. “And not now!”
As Winn’s reaction ratcheted from a weak queasiness to annoyance to utter lividity at George’s impassioned speech, she clutched her small folio of papers all the tighter to her chest. When he was finished, she spoke in a very low, very clear voice.
“George, if you want me to leave this establishment, you will have to physically drag me away, kicking and screaming.” Her gaze bore into his, so sharp it could cut diamonds. “In front of all these people you are dying to impress. Now, you may be a foot taller and five stone heavier than me, but do you really think imposing yourself on a tiny female in such a manner is something you should do?”
George paused. For the first time, he seemed to recognize the potential they had for making a scene. Right now, talking low to each other, they were just two ordinary people—although one suspiciously other-gendered—but all it would take was one scream and suddenly those men in top hats and coats who walked past with their noses in the air would know who they were.
And as Winn knew, for George, there was such a thing as bad press.
His hand slackened on her arm. Only slightly, but enough that Winn could wrench it away from him.
And smack said arm directly into the young man who was rushing past them.
“Amomph!” was the muffled, indistinguishable cry from said gentleman, who staggered back some paces.
“Oh my goodness!” was the sharp, anguished cry that came from Winnifred as her folio fell to the paving stones, spilling its contents into disarray. “Oh no!”
“I was thinking the same thing,” winced the flame-haired gentleman as he squeezed the bridge of his nose in pain.
“Your . . . Your Grace!” stammered George, apparently recognizing the victim of Winnifred’s hand as a Duke of some kind. Of course she would accidentally smack a Duke, she thought, flushing red. But could not stop to curtsy. She had to collect her papers before the all flew away! Her articles . . . her letter of introduction!
“I’m so terribly sorry!” George was saying, attempting to bow and neaten the poor man’s coat at the same time.
“It’s quite all right,” His Grace was saying. “I knew I wasn’t going to survive the day without being smacked.”
“I beg your pardon?” George asked.
“Nothing. And no harm done, I think.” He straightened to his full height, then apparently, having noticed Winn’s own distress, said, “Do you need any help, miss?”
“I . . .” She stooped to pick up another page, then another. “Oh dear, is that all of them?” She looked around wildly. And her heart stopped when she saw the lone piece of paper, floating in the fountain.
And by the folds in the paper, she knew which one it was.
“My letter!” she cried. She reached out her arm, but it was beyond her grasp. She was about to throw caution to the wind and climb over the edge into the fountain’s low pool when a hand on her shoulder stilled her.
“Allow me,” the flame-haired Duke said, and reached for the floating paper himself. He had her in height by a foot, but it was nearly out of his reach, as well. At last he managed that final inch and handed the dripping page to Winn.
“Thank you, Your Grace,” Winn breathed, but she only had eyes for the paper. Please don’t let it be ruined, please don’t let it be ruined . . .
“No trouble—although now I know the benefit of using a walking cane.” He smiled and then gave a short bow. “Miss . . .”
But Winn, her heart in her throat, could not answer. And so, George stumbled into the void.
“Crane, Your Grace,” he stammered, giving a short bow. “And I am George Bambridge, her cousin. I have often seen you in the Historical Society’s rooms, but you always seem so engrossed, I’ve not wanted to interrupt you to introduce myself.”
“Ah. Well, as you seem to be aware, I am Rayne. And Miss, er, Crane.” He turned to address her frozen form. “Are you quite well?”
But Winn was not well. Nowhere near it. Because . . .
“It’s ruined,” she managed in a small voice.
Her letter. Her letter of introduction written to Lord Forrester in her father’s own hand was nothing more than a bunch of squiggly, running black lines on wet parchment.
“I’m so sorry,” the Duke sympathized. “I take it the page was important.”
Important? It was everything. It was what allowed her to be here with legitimacy.
“It’s nothing, Your Grace,” George toadied, positioning himself by Winn’s side. “Just some notes, correct, Winnifred? I apologize, sir, we should be getting back home. My cousin has . . . a dinner to dress for. But, I was wondering, sir, if you would be attending the lecture series this coming week?”
“No,” Winn said distractedly.
“No?” the Duke replied when George did not.
“No, I don’t have a dinner party to dress for. Nor am I leaving.”
“Winnifred . . .” George warned, his voice kept just under angry.
“I have an invitation, George.”
“Not anymore, you don’t,” he replied, flicking his eyes to the wet paper in her hand.
“Actually, George, sadly that piece of paper is still dry.”
As a quizzical look crossed her cousin’s brow, the Duke’s eyebrow went up.
“An invitation?” the Duke said, his interest piqued. And in that moment, Winnifred recognized him. From a decade ago. Jason Cummings, Marquis of . . . something or other. Now the Duke of Rayne. And George was bending over backward to impress him. Winn almost laughed aloud.
“Yes,” she said, her back suddenly straight, her purpose refound. “I have an invitation to call on Lord Forrester at the Society of Historical Art and Architecture of the Known World at my earliest convenience.” She narrowed her eyes. “And I find now remarkably convenient.”
And with that, she took her folio, her wet page held securely but at arm’s length, and neatly sidestepped George and the Duke, moving with all haste to the east entrance of Somerset House.
Dear Reader –
Have you ever geared up for a road trip – gotten the car fueled up, programmed the GPS, everyone all packed up and ready to go… and the minute you hit the road everything went awry? The car broke down, the kids get antsy, and suddenly you’ve taken a wrong turn and find your self on a completely different path than the one you intended?
That is precisely what happens to Jason Cummings, the Duke of Rayne, (who was last seen annoying his sister Jane in The Summer of You) when he tries to help Miss Winnifred Crane in her quest to join the Historical Society.
Since inheriting his title, Jason has been intent on living up to his responsibilities – no matter how boring those responsibilities may be. The next one on his list? Getting married. However, being the most sought after bachelor in London can become trying, so who can blame Jason for seeking refuge at the all-male Historical Society? All-male, that is, until he runs smack into Winnifred Crane, as she tries to enter.
Miss Crane is the anonymous author of papers that set the academic world on fire. But in order to claim them as her own, she has to prove to the Historical Society that she has what it takes to have written those papers. So she offers an unusual bargain. If she can prove a certain painting is authentic, then she’s in. But her proof is all the way across Europe.
Jason is tasked by the society with dropping her off in Dover, but when he spies her getting on the wrong ship, he runs after her. And just like that, everything goes awry and Jason finds himself stuck on this journey with Winn.
But even when everything goes awry, and Jason ends up on that completely different path, with someone he never expected, he might just realize he’s exactly where he wants to be.
Because you never know what will happen when you Follow My Lead.
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