Improper (The Phoenix Club #1) by Darcy Burke

Fiona tipped her head back and counted four stories stretching into the gray sky. A raindrop landed on her nose, and she grinned. Then she glanced down at the part of the house below the street. Five stories in all.

“I think my legs have completely gone to sleep,” Mrs. Tucket said, grasping Fiona’s arm to steady herself.

The footman held the gate open and indicated Fiona and Mrs. Tucket should precede him. Holding her head high, Fiona made sure Mrs. Tucket had a good hold on her before moving through the gate onto the short path that took them to five steps. Fiona went slowly so Mrs. Tucket, who had an aching hip, could keep up. This was more than fine since Fiona’s heart was beating even faster than it had been in the coach as she contemplated how her life was about to change.

She was the ward of an earl in London on the brink of her first Season. It was, in a word, unbelievable.

The door stood open and another man in dark green livery was positioned just inside. “Good afternoon, Miss Wingate, Mrs. Tucket. Welcome to Overton House.”

“You’ve arrived!” The booming masculine voice sounded through the marble-floored, wood-paneled foyer before Fiona could see the man himself. But then he, presumably the Earl of Overton, was there, striding through a wide archway directly across from them.

Fiona stared at him, surprised at his youth. No, not his youth, for he was likely almost thirty. No, she was surprised to see that he was…handsome. She’d expected someone like his father, whom she’d met a dozen or so times over the course of her lifetime. But where the former earl had been dour-faced and without any exceptional physical traits, the current earl possessed a dashing smile and eyes the color of pewter. His dark hair was damp; artful waves contrasting against his light forehead. He tugged at his coat and fidgeted with his simply knotted cravat as he came to stand in the center of the foyer.

Recalling her practice with Mrs. Tucket, Fiona sank into a deep curtsey. Unfortunately, her arm was still in her maid’s grasp, so her descent was a trifle awkward. She hoped the earl didn’t notice. “My lord.”

“Well done,” he said, grinning. “You are nearly ready for your presentation to the queen.”

Fiona had started to rise but she nearly toppled to the floor. “My what?”

“You’re to be presented to the queen?” Mrs. Tucket began to breathe heavily, so much so that Fiona feared she would faint.

“Can she sit?” Fiona asked, searching wildly for a chair.

Lord Overton’s brow creased as he hurried forward to take Mrs. Tucket’s other arm. “In here.” He ushered them to a sitting room to the right of the foyer. Decorated in warm yellow and burnished bronze, the room welcomed them like a sunny afternoon.

Together, Fiona and the earl brought Mrs. Tucket to a chair near the hearth where coals burned in the fireplace. “Better?” Fiona asked.

“A drop of sherry would not come amiss,” Mrs. Tucket said, untying her bonnet beneath her chin.

The earl stalked back to the doorway and asked someone to fetch sherry and tea. “Carrin will be along presently. That’s the butler. He was standing just in the foyer when you arrived. I’ll introduce you to the household a bit later, if that’s all right.”

“Yes, thank you,” Fiona said, trying not to gape at the splendor of the room with its multiple paintings, rich window hangings, and lavish furniture. She’d known the earl would have a large house and fine décor, but she hadn’t realized how large or how fine. And now it was her home. Her heart started to pound again.

Mrs. Tucket coughed. “Were you jesting about my Fiona being presented to the queen? Surely you must have been.”

“Not at all,” Overton said with a smile. “It is expected that young ladies entering upon their first Season are presented to Her Royal Highness.”

Now it felt as if Fiona’s heart might actually leap from her chest. The queen!

Mrs. Tucket’s dark eyes widened, and she stared at Fiona in something akin to horror, which was just a wee bit annoying. “She doesn’t know a thing about how to do that!”

The earl continued to smile placidly. “Do not fret, for Miss Wingate shall have ample opportunity to prepare. Her presentation is not until next week.”

“Next week?” Mrs. Tucket squeaked as she drooped in the chair. She pressed the back of her hand to her cheek and muttered something unintelligible.

Moving to stand near Fiona, the earl murmured, “Er, is she all right?”