Never Court a Count
February 21, 2022 (print ISBN 979-8-9853409-1-4, Edwards and Williams)
Lady Calantha, middle daughter of the Duke of Wey, has the unique ability to turn invisible in company. Well, not entirely invisible, or the eligible Frederick, Count Montalban, wouldn't have noticed her at all. But Callie's shy nature and plain features tend to make people overlook her. And they say the most outrageous things around her as a result, which is why she accidentally overhears strangers plotting to harm the count and his royal brother and father. What can a lady do but warn him?
Fritz, Count Montalban, is determined to keep his family safe. But he can't drag Callie all over London to identify those plotting against them unless she has a reason to be alone with him. Pretending an engagement sounds like the perfect plan. After all, his dashing demeanor hides a wounded soul that demands he hold a true fiancée at a distance. But there's something about Callie that pulls him closer.
As the danger grows along with their attraction, Fritz and Callie must work together to protect both their families, and Fritz finds his heart cracking open. Can he prove to the sweet Callie that she will never be invisible, to him?
London, England, June 1825
Lady Calantha Dryden, daughter of the Duke of Wey, had a unique talent: she could turn invisible.
She'd noticed it as a child, when the servants would pass by her without so much as a smile. The governesses would laud her older sister, Larissa, and her younger sister, Belle, while never mentioning her own accomplishments. And if she was very, very careful, she could avoid her grandmother's censorious comments about her looks and intelligence by sitting very still and silent. The trait had only become more apparent as she'd reached the age to come out in Society three years ago.
She wasn't entirely sure how she did it. Perhaps her pale blond hair or light blue eyes, like a faint reflection in window glass, made it easy to disappear. Perhaps her slight frame and preference for colors like pink and white allowed her to blend into the background. Perhaps her nature was too quiet and self-effacing. Whatever the reason, people tended to overlook her, look past her, or look through her while in her company.
And they said the most outrageous things as a result.
This ball being given in Belle's honor was no exception. Callie had been retreating to the safety of the paneled wall when a group of young ladies on their first Season had stopped directly in her path. Huddled near a bank of potted palms that disguised the door to the terrace, fans plying in front of their satin ballgowns, they hadn't paid her the least mind.
"He's ever so handsome," one of the young ladies was saying, head bent toward the others and curls thick about her face. "And so charming."
Hadn't that been said of most of the young men on the ton this year? Callie sailed past, determined not to eavesdrop, until the next young lady spoke.
"And now he's a count in the Batavarian court, not to mention the brother of a prince and the son of a king."
Oh. That handsome, charming gentleman. Her cheeks heated at the very thought of Frederick Archambault, Count Montalban-Fritz as he preferred-recently arrived in London with the Batavarian court. He had been a frequent caller at her family's London address, mostly because he was accompanying his twin brother, Crown Prince Otto Leopold, who had fallen in love with Larissa. He wasn't the sort of man Callie should admire as much as she did. Her hope for the future was a quiet life, book in hand, cat in her lap, pup at her side. He preferred action and intrigue.
"I hear he decided to pursue Lady Calantha," another of the young women said, voice disdainful. "He'll learn soon enough he ought to stay away."
"She's so odd," the fourth agreed.
Callie couldn't breathe. She turned from her goal and slipped behind the palms. The cool shadows couldn't stop the heat spreading through her.
She shuddered. Why had she bothered coming?
Well, she had had a reason. Belle had wrung a vow from her, Larissa, and their best friend, Petunia Bateman, that they would all work to see each other happily wed by harvest. This was Belle's first Season, and she was determined to make it the best. This was the third long, painful Season for Callie, but she'd thought her sister might just be able to accomplish the impossible. Belle was like that. Few were proof against her charms.
Now, two months later, the brief hope she'd felt from her sister's optimistic encouragement had faded. Larissa was engaged, and Belle was admired. Even Tuny seemed to be making progress in finding a love, for she hinted of a man she found fascinating. Callie alone had no prospects. And when she thought about Fritz, any hope she had of changing that positively plummeted.
It was difficult seeking a plain, quiet gentleman when perfection came calling on a regular basis.
Beyond her sanctuary, the four young ladies moved on. Others secured partners, and the next set began. Her sisters and Tuny were all dancing. Her father was with their mother. Ivy, the Marchioness of Kendall-Tuny's sister and their hostess for the evening-was on her husband's arm. Callie could have named every couple in line, in fact. Many had known her since she was a girl. A few of the others probably didn't know she existed.
The Duke of Wey has three daughters? Who else besides the elegant Lady Larissa and the adorable Lady Abelona?
She puffed out a sigh.
Two men stopped just beyond the palms, their backs to her. Dressed in the requisite black of evening, they both had slim physiques and straight blond hair just touching their collars. Callie pressed herself against the glass-paned doors behind her and tried not to intrude on their conversation. But it proved impossible not to overhear them.
"Your plan came to naught," one said, voice low and deep. "Still they pursue their aims."
"For a time only," the other said. His voice hinted of an accent. Not the lyrical lift that rang in Fritz's often sarcastic drawl. She could not place it.
"Then you have decided your next steps?" The first man sounded decidedly eager about the matter.
"I have. Direct action failed us, but I am confident we can ruin them legally and socially." The cool calculation in his voice chilled her.
"Only tell me my part," the other begged. "With my power in the Commons, I could be of use to you. You know I long to be of service to Württemberg."
Württemberg? Nothing could have stopped her from listening now. Württemberg was a kingdom on the Continent. Ten years ago, after a decision at the Congress of Vienna, it had subsumed the tiny mountain country of Batavaria, leaving King Frederick and his two sons without a home. Since the Batavarian court had arrived in England, men representing Württemberg had been determined to stop them from approaching King George to request aid in returning their kingdom to them. Crown Prince Otto Leopold, Count Montalban, and Callie's Uncle Julian, legal representation to the court, had an audience with the king the week after next.
Were these men trying to prevent it?
"My superior is most appreciative of all you have done for us thus far," the fellow with the accent assured the other. "I will pass along instructions once the plan is in place. Quickly now. We should not be seen talking overly long together."
They parted and moved off. Callie squeezed closer to the last palm in the row in hopes of catching sight of at least one face. Instead, she spotted someone else bearing down on her. She shoved herself back into the very corner of the space and held her breath, heart stuttering.
If ever there was a moment to be invisible, it was now.
The palm branches rustled as another body pushed its way through. The man hunkered low as if trying to prevent anyone from noticing.
Callie found her voice. "This spot is taken, sir. Move along."
He stiffened, and the light filtering through the leaves caught on the curly blond hair of Fritz, Count Montalban.
"Callie?" he asked, voice colored with confusion.
She wanted to dive into one of the pots and burrow her way into the dirt. "It doesn't matter. Leave. Now."
His body deflated, and she heard a sigh that sounded positively relieved. "It is you. Be a friend and help me. I need to be invisible for a while."
His first luck of the evening. Despite her sharp tone at the moment, Lady Calantha-Callie as she allowed him and his brother to call her-was a surprisingly sweet, shy young lady who would in no way hinder his plans for the evening. If only he could say that about the other unmarried ladies at the ball.
He couldn't remember a time when he had had to actively hide at events. Since he'd reached his full height and been praised by his trainers in the military arts, he'd always stood in protection of the king, his father, and the crown prince, his brother. Leo, in the scarlet and gold of the House of Archambault, would take center stage, as was his birthright. Fritz would watch from the wings: Captain Archambault, head of the Imperial Guard. Only the most senior member of that guard knew the day he had let them all down, and he had done everything he could to prevent his lapse from ever happening again.
But since his father had seen fit to hand him a title of his own, he felt as if someone had painted an archery target on his chest, and every unmarried lady in London was taking aim. His father had joked that all young ladies wanted to be princesses. Apparently being a countess was just as coveted, especially now that his brother had announced his engagement to Lady Larissa, Callie's older sister. How was Fritz to do his duty when he had to keep dodging attempts to ensnare him?
"You cannot be invisible," Callie hissed beside him. "That black coat with all the gold braid is entirely too noticeable."
At least he was back in his dress uniform tonight. There was comfort in the familiar coat, the loose-fitting trousers that allowed for quick movement. For the last few weeks, he'd had to pretend he was the crown prince to give his twin brother the ability to determine who was trying to stop them from approaching King George. Leo believed the miscreants had been captured, but Fritz remained on guard.
As two young ladies promenaded past, he bent to keep his head below the tops of the palms.
"I don't see him anywhere," one complained, pausing directly in front of him. "He looks perfectly fit. Why won't he dance?"
"We must be persistent," the other said, gaze darting about. "He was trained to be a gentleman. If we make it appear he asked us to dance, Count Montalban will be honor-bound to take our arms."
He looked to Callie, and she nodded as if realizing why he might need to hide.
She was clever that way.
"Well, at least he hasn't asked Lady Calantha yet," the first said. "We still have a chance to turn his head."
Callie let out the tiniest of squeaks and pressed herself so far back against the door it was a wonder she didn't break the glass.
Fritz's gloved hand was on the latch a moment later. He jerked his head at Callie to indicate she should accompany him, then slipped out onto a terrace that ran along the back of the Marquess of Kendall's town home. She followed.
He closed the door behind them, shutting off all conversation. Only faint music from the ball hovered in the air as they stepped out onto the flagstones.
She drew in a deep breath. "You might have noticed that rumor has it you are courting me. Rubbish."
"Decided rubbish," he agreed.
She raised her chin. "Well, you needn't sound so sure of the matter."
Fritz gave her his most disarming smile. "It is rubbish because I am not courting any young lady, even one so winsome as yourself."
The moonlight showed her pink lips tightening. That was one thing he'd noticed about Callie. She had a preference for pink. Tonight, her ballgown was of a fine matte satin in a rosy color, with flowers decorating the hem.
"And you can cease the flattery as well," she said. "We both know you don't mean it."
"Of course I mean it," Fritz said. "Unlike my brother, who must veil his opinions in diplomatic platitudes, I have the luxury of saying what I like. You are pretty, intelligent, and delightfully original. I like you."
Her mouth dropped open before she recovered herself. "You do?"
He went to lean a hip on the stone railing edging the terrace, drawing a breath of the cool night air and savoring his few moments of freedom before he must return to the ball. "I do. I see no reason why we cannot be friends. After all, your sister is marrying my brother. It would be unseemly if we took each other in dislike."
"I suppose there's that," she allowed. One arm stole around her waist.
Fritz straightened. "Are you cold?" He started unbuttoning his coat.
She held up her other hand. "No. I'm fine." She purposely dropped her arm.
"So fine you had to hide behind potted palms?" he asked.
She lowered her gaze. "It seemed expedient. I'm sure you don't mind the number of people, but sometimes I find it a bit overwhelming."
"Focus on your goal," he advised. "Ever since I was fifteen and joined the guard, I have had to attend events with more than six hundred people, most of whom thought themselves better than me. But I know my purpose for being there-to keep my father, the king, and Leo safe."
"Oh!" She hurried closer, face turned up to his and eyes bright. "You will need to be on your guard. I overheard the most horrid conversation just before you joined me. Two men were plotting with Württemberg to harm your family."
"What?" Fritz put his hands on her shoulders to peer into her face, pale in the moonlight. "When? What did they say?"
Behind her, the door opened, and a tall, slender man stepped out onto the terrace. His bearing was noble, his movement confident. As his gaze narrowed in on Fritz and Callie, his nose looked like a dagger aimed in their direction.
"Calantha," he said, striding toward them. "Your mother is looking for you."
Fritz dropped his hold.
Callie turned to face the door. "Father. I'm so sorry. I just needed a moment alone."
The Duke of Wey's gaze fell on Fritz like an anvil. "Apparently not alone. I expect to receive a call from you tomorrow, Count Montalban."
"Father, no!" she cried.
It was one of the few times Fritz had heard her assert herself in company. Every part of her lithe form vibrated with the same anguish that rang in her voice. He wanted to put her behind him, challenge her father to a duel, anything to keep her from harm.
What was he thinking? She wasn't his to protect. He wasn't looking for a bride. Courting would only slow him from doing his duty. And a wife would want to know too many things about a past he tried so hard to forget.
Her father's look softened as she ran to him, and he put his arm about her shoulders. "You must leave this to me, Callie. It is my duty to keep you safe." As he glanced at Fritz, his face hardened once more. "I will see you tomorrow after church services, my lord."
The king, his father, would not thank him for alienating one of their only allies, especially a man as powerful as the Duke of Wey. Fritz inclined his head. "Of course, Your Grace."
Callie sent him one last look before her father took her inside.
And Fritz knew he was well and truly trapped.