June 2003 (ISBN 0-8217-7485-9, Zebra Historical Romance)
Cassie Bentbrooke is content to study the heavens with her father's telescope, until a French privateer searching for a fortune in stolen gems gives her a better reason to stay up late at night. Can a shy lady with a scientific bent convince a jaded adventurer to settle down?
Or is she merely starstruck?
"Here is a book that will intrigue you whether you like gazing at the stars or not. Fast paced and sub-plots that will keep events interesting. Terrific reading here!" -- The Huntress Reviews
"Regina Scott's irresistible characters will win your heart. This is a whimsical tale of love and the stars... in which the greatest adventure is love itself. Delightful!" -- Eloisa James, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author
"Fascinating details about astronomy in the Regency era are deftly sprinkled into Scott's superb historical, which will cast a spell over readers with its subtly nuanced characters, danger-tinged plot, sharp wit, and graceful writing." -- Booklist
"A dashing, if somewhat mysterious, privateer and an intelligent, resourceful heroine, along with a charming debutante and several greedy villains, enliven the intricate plot of this historical, set in the Regency era. Nicely interweaving romance and intrigue, Scott overlays it all with an excellent sense of time and place." -- Library Journal
"Ms. Scott weaves a tale that readers will enjoy long into the night. Her multilayered characters and intriguing plotline all coalesce into a most interesting story. Get your copy of STARSTRUCK today. It's definitely not one to be missed." -- The Word on Romance
"Fans of historical romances, as well as those of traditional Regencies, will adore STARSTRUCK. I highly recommend this well-written, entertaining tale. Regina Scott's wit, graceful prose, and deft interweaving of fascinating astronomical details into the plot will leave readers as spellbound by her first historical romance as the sight of the comet renders her characters." -- Romance Reviews Today
"STARSTRUCK is a delightfully action-packed regency romance! Ms. Scott brings Cassie to life with a wonderful twist of charm and humor. Devon is devilishly charming and mysterious. The other characters have their own quirks and characteristics that bring even more life to the story. A fun book, I could hardly wait to see what was going to happen next! I went from chuckling to sighing and indignation and back again as I read. If you like the regency period and a mystery, this book is a good combination of both. I would recommend this to lovers of both genres." -- Romance Junkies
84 out of 100 ". . . I enjoy reading Starstruck because of the characters and their well-written interactions with each other. In a way, this book is like the last few of a dying species: a romance starring an actually intelligent bluestocking." -- Mrs. Giggles
"So if you like your Regency stories with a strong mystery element, dangerous characters, an unusual heroine and hero (mon Dieu, he has strong ties to France!), and room for a complex plot to develop, you will enjoy Starstruck." -- Rakehell and Under the Covers Reviews
"So you refuse to let me view your father's effects," the duke said.
Reginald Ames, his private secretary of many years, nervously smoothed down his brown frock coat. The duke of Devonlee never spoke above a conversational tone. When one controlled half of England, one didn't need to raise one's voice. It was when the duke lowered his voice, as he had now, that Ames knew fear.
The young woman across from them did not seem so affected. Perched serenely on an armchair, she regarded the duke with light-gray eyes, head slightly cocked so that the haphazard knot of white-blond hair on the top of her head threatened to fall into her angular face. "I am sorry, Your Grace. I refused my father's colleagues in the Royal Society. I see no reason to grant permission to a lay person, however titled and powerful."
Ames risked a glance at his employer. By the way the duke's lips compressed in his lean face, he held his temper under tight control. His posture in the immaculate black coat and trousers was just as rigid.
"More tea, Your Grace?" the dark-haired girl at her elbow piped up, lifting a dented silver pot. The pretty young lady, who had been introduced earlier as Miss Bentbrooke's ward Elise Kearney, obviously hoped to salvage the situation with pleasantries. Unlike himself, Ames thought, she could have no idea of the stakes. Money, not respect, kept the Devonlees in power, and thirty years of lavish living was taking its toll. Only he knew how tight the purse strings had become, and how quickly they would snap if the Sebastien treasure was not soon found.
The duke ignored the girl, who slowly lowered the teapot. "Perhaps you do not understand what I can offer," he said to her guardian. "Your father was an astronomer of some note. I could see his work given its proper credit."
"As my father has been dead for three years," she replied, "I hardly think he will care."
The duke relaxed against the back of the sofa on which he sat, and sunlight from the windows of the sitting room reflected off his raven hair, highlighting the gray that had wormed its way into the dark. Ames was perplexed by the signs of aging. He had somehow thought that even time obeyed the duke.
"Then perhaps you would like compensation for having to gather up the material for me," His Grace allowed. "I have instructed my man to offer you a handsome stipend."
Ames obligingly opened the satchel on his narrow lap. He drew out a bank draft with an impressive number of zeroes on it. Miss Kearney's green eyes widened. Miss Bentbrooke's narrowed.
"You are too kind," she said. "But the answer is still no."
Ames glanced back at his employer. The duke smiled, and Ames clenched his elbows to his rib cage to still his trembling. No one ever refused the duke. Indeed, it was only the repeated failures of his underlings to get the correct response from Miss Bentbrooke that prompted His Grace here today.
"I admire your convictions, Miss Bentbrooke," the duke replied, though Ames was sure he lied. "However, I cannot help but wonder why you would refuse my offer." Ames watched as the duke let his cold blue gaze roam about the sparsely furnished room, to come to rest on the out-moded black dresses both women wore. The duke's gaze met Miss Bentbrooke's. "I could see you richly rewarded."
"Money means nothing," she said. "I know you cannot understand, Your Grace, but I am using the materials."
"Miss Bentbrooke is an astronomer as well," Miss Kearney offered with a worshipful gaze at her guardian. The other woman sat a bit straighter as if she expected censure for such a ridiculous statement. His Grace merely deepened his smile.
"In that case," he purred, "perhaps I might see you awarded entry to the Royal Society, as an honorary member, of course."
Her face tightened. "If I am awarded a place among the nation's scientists, my lord, it will be because I earned it. This interview is at an end. Allow me to show you to the door."
The duke's eyes flashed as color flared in his cheeks. "That will not be necessary," he said, rising. "Come, Ames."
Ames stuffed the bank draft back into his bag and scrambled to his feet to follow his employer to the door. He caught a quick glimpse of Elise Kearney staring at him, face ashen. Miss Bentbrooke stood regally. As no servant appeared, Ames ducked in front of the duke and flung open the door to let His Grace storm down to the waiting carriage. The duke's face was composed by the time the horses set off for his estate on the edge of town.
"Impossible woman," he murmured. "I would simply arrange a robbery, but we have no idea what we are looking for, so we can hardly take possession while she is out."
"If she ever goes out," Ames muttered.
The duke shook his head. "I refuse to admit defeat. I have been kept from the prize ever since Jean-Luc Sebastien disappeared twenty years ago. No more. Keep watch on the house, Ames. If my cousin does not arrive forthwith to confront the woman, send word."
"You expect Captain Sebastien?" Ames frowned, fumbling in the satchel for his paper and pencil to make a note of this new task. "Why would he come here?"
"Because he received a note from the Astronomer Royal just as I did. Why do you think I insisted on coming today? My cousin is at our heels. The insufferable puppy claims he wishes to find his uncle Jean-Luc. What he wishes to find is the treasure."
Here was a wrinkle. By fair means and foul, the duke had managed to keep the heir to the treasure, his cousin Devon Sebastien, away from the hunt. "How much does he know?" Ames fretted, licking his lips as he made a note on the paper.
"Enough to be dangerous. Enough to be useful. We will follow him until he finds the treasure and take it from him."
"Will he not protest, Your Grace?"
The duke turned his gaze to the passing landscape in obvious dismissal. "Most likely, but I see no need for concern. He is powerless to stop me, even if he aligns himself with a starstruck spinster. If he gets in the way, he may disappear as thoroughly as his uncle."
"Impossible man," Cassie murmured as she closed the door on the duke and his trembling lackey. She glanced at her ward, but Liza only looked perplexed. "Why would they want our father's materials?"
As Cassie passed the eighteen-year-old to return to the sitting room, Liza shook her dark head. "I don't know. Do you think it has anything to do with that man watching the house?"
Cassie grimaced as she started to gather up the tea service. "There is no man watching the house."
"You may claim ignorance, but I've seen him from the sewing room window. He hides under the trees across the street."
"Let's be logical about this," Cassie tried. She liked logic; it was neat, clean, and precise. If more people applied it, she would be spared confrontations like that one she'd just had with the duke. "We do not live in a particularly fashionable neighborhood," she told her ward, "so this fellow cannot expect favors. We do not own anything he might want to steal."
"Unless you count your father's astronomy equipment."
"Doubtful, despite the duke's interest. And we aren't engaged in any criminal or immoral activities, so he cannot wish to blackmail us. In fact, we are probably two of the most boring creatures in London. Such intrigue does not seem likely, worse luck."
"He must be after the treasure," Liza said.
Cassie calmly picked up a cup. "And wouldn't that be interesting?" she asked as she pointed Liza toward the pot. "Unfortunately, we really don't know there is a treasure."
"My father said there was a treasure," Liza replied doggedly with a shake of her black curls. "Of course, he wasn't in the best of spirits when he told me."
"He was dying," Cassie supplied, setting the last of the cups on the tarnished tray. "And we did look afterward, if you recall. In fact, we have looked repeatedly over the last nine years and found nothing resembling a treasure."
"Then why is there a man watching the house?"
Cassie shook her head. At least the girl hadn't brought up some sordid reason why a man would watch the house of two lone women. "Liza, sometimes I think you create these stories just to keep me from going mad."
Liza scowled, setting the pot on the tray so firmly, she nearly spilled the liquid on her thin black mourning dress. "It isn't a story, Cassie! He may not be after the treasure, but we may have something of value! What if your brother doesn't arrive to inherit? You will be rich."
"I will never be rich," Cassie corrected her, "regardless of whether my brother chooses to claim his inheritance this Friday. You remember what it was like when my mother and father were alive, Liza. We were never rich."
"You were wealthy enough to keep my father as an assistant to yours and my mother as your governess," Liza argued. "Now we can't even afford a cook!"
A cook isn't the only thing we can't afford, Cassie thought. The duke's money had been harder to resist than he could know. They were approaching beggary. All the less reason for someone to care enough to watch their house.
She had to prove Liza wrong, for both their sakes. Going to the sitting room window, she drew back the curtains and trained her gaze on the small park that graced the center of their little square. Bright leaves fell from the trees; a nanny held her charges hands on an autumn walk. It was as bucolic a scene as one would wish for. She turned to her ward. "I see no one, Liza."
"Perhaps if you trained your telescope on the park instead of the sky," Liza replied with a sniff, "you'd believe me."
"I cannot change my mount," Cassie scolded. "The Great Comet is just coming back into range. I must keep up my observations. I promised Mr. Pond."
Liza sighed dramatically. "Well, I suppose one must keep a promise to the Astronomer Royal. I just wish he'd pay you."
"If I prove my worth, he may yet approach the regent for a salary for me." Cassie started at the yearning in her voice. The duke might have scored there as well, if her pride hadn't gotten in the way. She tried another tact. "I'm sorry I was up so late again. Thank you for calling me when the duke arrived. I suppose you've been awake for hours."
"Several," Liza admitted. "I cleaned the kitchen and dusted the library. I tire of reading. Could we go to the market?"
Cassie didn't have the heart to tell her they had already spent their allowance for the month. "Not today, love. I have to document my observations for Mr. Pond."
Liza groaned. "Must your work always come first? Could we at least go for a walk?"
The sunshine was tempting, but her notes from the night before were even more so. She had sighted the Great Comet for the first time in weeks. Just wait until she compiled her observations. She might even be able to calculate an orbit. "You are welcome to go," she offered her ward, "but just around the park."
As the girl wandered dejectedly from the room to fetch her pelisse, Cassie felt a twinge of guilt. Liza needed a normal life. She had long ago accepted the idea that she herself was an oddity. By four years of age she had been able to outreason her French governess, and by six she had already shown a marked preference for her father's astronomy equipment over the dolls her mother provided. Her mother, Lady Bentbrooke, had given up on her shortly thereafter, claiming that Cassie had surely been switched by faeries at birth, as no daughter of hers could be so lacking in the feminine graces. At times, Cassie thought the explanation made a great deal of sense.
For one thing, she did not resemble anyone in her family. Her mother had been a striking redhead, and her father and brother had wavy, golden hair and eyes of the deepest azure. Her pale hair and gray eyes were like faded copies of the original. To make matters worse, she had a feeling that she did not act like the women of her generation. Not that she'd seen very many. Few women visited the house on St. Mary's Circle when she was growing up. Her father had felt that entertaining interrupted his scientific pursuits.
Cassie was fairly certain, however, that a woman of nearly seven and twenty had usually been married for some time. They were busy mothering children of their own, not watching over an eighteen-year-old girl who had been the ward of the family. If they entertained callers, it was a select group of friends, not an occasional member of the Royal Society or dowdy little Herbert Montague, an old colleague of her father's who lived a few houses down on the square. If they did not rise until afternoon, as she did, it was because they had been up all night at balls or parties and not because they had spent the night making astronomical observations. Yes, she was certain that, whatever way one looked at it, she was an oddity.
But did that mean Liza had to be one? There was no money for her to enter society, but surely she deserved better than to consider a trip to the market a festive event. Of course, when Cassie was younger, she had seldom left the house except to go to church or take a constitutional in the park under the watchful eyes of her governess. After her parents had died and she had been forced to let the servants go, she had quickly learned that proper young ladies did not wander about London unattended. To do so seemed to invite pitying glances at best, and often far more suggestive looks that set her cheeks to blazing. Odd was one thing; wanton was another. Yet she refused to remain inside at all times, like some fungus shut away from the light.
The answer came to her the first time one of her more affluent neighbors mistook her for a servant in her mourning black. A lady's maid could generally pass through London unremarked. All she needed to fit the part was a cap over her pale hair and a humble look on her plain, narrow face. Only the last was any kind of challenge. She had gone about her necessary business for a year that way until Liza was old enough to accompany her. Now they went together to the lending library or market. If no one could tell which was mistress and which servant, so much the better. She preferred the anonymity of her disguise.
But Liza deserved better. If Cassie could prove herself an adept astronomer, she earn enough money to help her ward. For that, she needed her father's equipment and journals. The duke and any interested scientists would have to wait. She had a greater need.
When Liza returned, Cassie saw her out the door, then went to the writing desk in the corner of the sitting room to open the journal in which she recorded her observations. The numbers marched neatly down the page, as precise as the logic she loved. But try as she might, she couldn't seem to focus on the notations below her. She kept seeing the duke's determined glare and Liza's wide-eyed face. What if her ward was right? What if someone was watching their house? The idea seemed to have taken hold of her mind. Annoyed, she rose and opened the curtains again. Liza was nowhere in sight. In fact, the street was empty.
Someone moved across from the house.
Cassie flinched. Then she shook her head. It was merely a gentleman leading a horse among the shadows of the trees. He stepped suddenly into the light. He was tall and well built, in a navy riding jacket. The sun glinted off dark hair escaping from his top hat. As she watched, safe behind her reflecting window, he smiled a warm, approachable, promising smile that somehow made her smile back, even though she knew he could not possibly see her.
Now, there was a man. Her mother had attempted to introduce her to two different gentlemen, but Cassie had been so nervous, she could do no more than stare at her feet. Neither of the men had been so handsome or smiled so beautifully. If her mother had presented this gentleman, things would have turned out differently. Of course, such magnificent specimens were likely reserved for women with fortunes, faces, and families far greater than hers.
However, nothing said she could not admire him from a distance. She continued to watch as he led the horse up to the front of the house. To her surprise, he tethered the chestnut to the metal post at the curb and took the stairs in a single bound. The door knocker sounded before she could convince herself that he really meant to call on them.
Why today? she thought. With Liza gone, she could hardly let a strange man into the house. But oh, what an opportunity! The knocker sounded again, more sharply this time. Cassie hurried for the entry hall.
"He's only misdirected," she told herself, digging through the hall table drawer for the cap she knew it contained. "He couldn't possibly want to see us. It will only be for a moment. No one need know." She crammed her hair into the wrinkled cap. Strands of pale gold still hung loose, tickling her cheek, but she decided she looked as if she had been working hard. The knocker sounded for the third time; he was losing patience. She pinched her cheeks and bit her lips for color, then threw open the door.
Cassie caught her breath. He was even finer up close. He had an aquiline nose, gray eyes flecked with green, and a mobile mouth that was curling now as if in annoyance. His face was weathered and tanned; lines etched his eyes. It was a masculine face, she decided, although the shape of his jaw, more pointed than square, saved him from looking too arrogant. That he took her for a servant was obvious by his appropriately courteous nod. He said in a voice that was deep and not a little rough-edged, "Good afternoon. Is Miss Cassiopeia Bentbrooke at home?"
Her? Why would he want to see her? She fought to keep the surprise off her face as she lowered her gaze and bobbed a curtsey, mind whirling. She could not possibly receive him, though all of her ached to do so. Even if she could have received him alone, she could hardly whip off the cap and proclaim herself the mistress of the house. She would have to send him away. And if he ever returned, she'd have to hope he didn't recognize her.
"I'm right sorry," she said with true regret, "but Miss Bentbrooke is out. Might I tell 'er 'oo called?"
She could only hope she had put in the right amount of accent. They'd had an upstairs maid who talked like that some time ago-Bess, hadn't it been?
She peeked up at him from under her lashes. The tightening of his mouth told her he found her answer less than pleasing, but he kept his smile polite. "I was told she never goes out."
Now who was spreading gossip? His description made her sound like a wizened old spinster. "Oh, la, sir, 'oo ever was telling you such tales? Why, we can't keep straight Miss Bentbrooke's whereabouts most days, that popular she is."
"Indeed." Now the quirk of his mouth told her he was amused. "I have it on good authority that she is rather eccentric, refusing to see callers, hiding in her room for days on end."
"Why, I never!" The words exploded out of her before she could stop them, and she clapped her hands over her mouth in dismay. His eyes narrowed, and he leaned forward. She was caught. Whoever had called her eccentric before would surely revise the opinion once it was known she had masqueraded as her own maid. They would surely think her mad!
He leaned against the doorjamb, mouth twitching into a smile. "Come now, my girl. You know you have given yourself away."
Cassie straightened, meeting his gaze, daring him to call her out. He blinked as if surprised by her show of bravado. Then his smile widened.
"Your mistress is home," he said, "and you are shielding her."
Cassie grinned at him in relief. "Lord love you, sir, but you've guessed it right and tight. Please don't say nothing to the mistress. Faith, but she'd beat me if she knew I let on she was 'ome."
"Very well, my girl, but you'll have to do me a favor as well." He leaned closer. Oh, please don't let him be one of those who pinch serving girls under the stairs, Cassie prayed, unable to take her eyes off the approaching face. His hand came up, and she flinched, but it only held a calling card. "Make sure she gets this, will you?"
"Devon Sebastien, Marquis de Renard," she read aloud. She looked up in time to see his eyes widen in surprise. Now what had she done to give away the game? "I'll see she gets this right off," she promised, hand going to close the door. "Good day to you, Monsieur le Marquis."
He started, then offered her a gracious bow, sweeping his top hat off his head. His hair was thick and rich, ranging from ebony at the crown to a deep brown along the edges. He grinned at her as he straightened. "Good day to you as well, Mademoiselle Maid. May we meet again soon."
Cassie nodded, shutting the door firmly and leaning against it, heart pounding wildly. Why would such a magnificent person want to see her? He couldn't be an astronomer; none of her father's colleagues was the least bit robust. He couldn't be a salesperson. One look at the peeling paint on the trim of the house would tell him that there was no money to be spared at the Bentbrookes'. She ran back to the sitting room window and yanked open the curtain, watching him untether his horse from the post. He glanced back at the house and smiled.
What was she going to do if he called again?
His horse shied suddenly as Liza dashed past. He caught at the bridle, frowning. The front door burst open as Cassie let go of the curtains and ran back into the entry hall.
"Murderers, cutthroats, thieves!" Liza cried as she slammed the door and braced herself against it. "Send for the Bow Street Runners or we're done for!"