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Allison Munroe had no idea that her fate was being sealed. She had concerns of her own as she accompanied her sister Genevieve shopping for gloves to match the gown Gen was to wear to Allison's come out ball. Only three months ago she'd been anxiously awaiting the event; now she was having a difficult time looking forward to it. And even though she was ready to admit that her change in attitude was closely connected to a certain young man, marriage was the farthest thing from her mind. Allison had only a faintest of premonitions that it might be on the Marquis DeGuis's mind. Of course, that was exactly what the marquis had intended when he had sent the note to her mother a few days previously. He considered it highly improper for the young lady to know his intentions before her parents did, and the marquis was never improper.
"I must meet with you on a matter of some importance," the carefully worded note had read. "It concerns your daughter's future happiness. Please return word of a time when we might meet in private. Sincerely yours, Thomas, Marquis DeGuis."
The Widow Munroe was certain she knew the nature of that important matter. Allison's mother thought the marquis had been rather marked in his attentions to Allison since their arrival in London two months ago. She hadn't wanted to attribute too much to the drives in the park or the occasional afternoon call, but when he asked Allison to dance three times at Grace Dunsworthy's come out ball last week, Mrs. Munroe was sure he had made his intentions clear.
Ermintrude Munroe gazed off into space as she sat waiting for the marquis in the sunny sitting room of the London townhouse they had rented for the Season. Shestill could not credit how her daughter could have attracted such a man. Dashing, wealthy, and titled, the Marquis DeGuis was one of the most sought-after bachelors on the marriage mart that year.
Allison was lovely; there was no doubt about that. Unfortunately, she was nearly as tall as most of the men of the ton. Thankfully, the fact that she tended to look the men boldly in the their eyes did not seem to bother them as much as her mother had feared. But to her mother's mind, Allison had a regrettable tendency to speak without thinking and rather loudly at that. Her lanky figure made her a tolerable dancer and an excellent horsewoman, but her grace when moving about a withdrawing room or taking dinner with company left something to be desired. Mrs. Munroe hoped her daughter hadn't mentioned that she kept a pet ferret with an annoying habit of escaping at exactly the right moment to create total chaos in a social situation. And, of course, the marquis wouldn't have had time to learn that her embroidery consisted of knots and ill-placed threads, the only words she had mastered in French were those no well-bred young lady should claim to know, and, if left to her own devices, her choice in reading material could only be called original.
Mrs. Munroe certainly hoped that the marquis was willing to overlook such deficits and focus on Allison's one shining trait: her kind heart. Allison was considerate with everyone, and with those in need most of all. Furthermore, once she had made a friend, Allison was loyal to the point of obsession.
Look at how she had practically adopted that oaf Geoffrey Pentercast last Christmas when all the world thought him the veriest villain. As it turned out, he was as innocent as Allison had claimed, but that was beside the point. Another young lady of their circle, Mrs. Munroe was sure, would have had nothing to do with him after he had been accused of being the village vandal. But Allison had ever followed her own heart. It was her mother's duty to make sure that when it came to something as important as choosing a marriage partner, the choice was made with more thought than someone as young, loyal, and heedless as Allison could provide.
She heard the sound of the door knocker and absently patted an iron-gray hair back into place. Another woman might have glanced about the small, satin-draped room to make sure the servants had dusted the correctly placed collection of arm chairs and matching sofa, knowing the man she was about to entertain had a reputation for being fastidious. But Ermintrude Munroe was nothing if not fastidious herself, and every room she had owned had always been properly dusted.
Another woman might have paused to wonder whether the floral patterned walls, upholstery, and Aubusson carpet were perhaps too obvious for a gentleman who was known to pride himself on his subtlety. However, the Widow Munroe considered the soft roses and ivories and the cool blues the perfect choice to tone down the sunlight coming through the gauze curtains. The whole decor gave the room a gentle feeling of femininity that satisfied her as an appropriate place in which to discuss marriage.
Another woman would have at least sat a little straighter in the scroll-backed arm chair, knowing she was soon to be in the presence of the aristocracy, but Ermintrude Munroe was already sitting ramrod straight. She had her own reputation to maintain, the reputation of keeping her poise in the face of the most dire calamity. An event as minor as an interview with a prospective son-in-law was hardly enough to cause so much as a tremor. Her classic features were composed, her lavender silk day dress showed nary a crease. She was the epitome of refined womanhood, and she was certain that the marquis' nod was of approval as he entered.
"The Marquis DeGuis, madam," Perkins intoned with a bow of his equally ramrod straight back. Hiding a smile of satisfaction, Mrs. Munroe inclined her head in recognition of the peer. Even though she had hired Perkins only for the Season, she was seriously considering taking him back with her to Wenwood Abbey, their home in Somerset. A butler, she had always felt, should reflect the good taste and refinement of his employers. One simply could not find fault in Perkins's dignified tread, his spotless black coat and knee breaches, or his noble profile. The marquis, of course, did not indicate that he noticed what a paragon of servitude Perkins was, but that was only to be expected.
"Mrs. Munroe," Lord DeGuis murmured, moving to take her hand and bow over it. "Thank you for receiving me."
"Always a pleasure, sir," Mrs. Munroe assured him, noting that Perkins had taken up his place to one side of the doorway and stood as silent and immobile as a Grecian statue. "Please," she nodded to the marquis, "won't you sit down?"
"Thank you," the marquis replied, seating himself on a chair not far from her. It gave her a moment to appreciate the precise cut of his short raven hair, the sapphire gaze, and the composed, chiseled features of his handsome face. It also gave her a moment to note with approval the perfect cut of his immaculate navy coat and fawn-colored trousers. They could only have been done by Weston. He was every bit as polished and refined as she had first thought. And every bit too refined and polished for a young hoyden like her Allison. She wondered again whether she could have misinterpreted his motives.
"And how are all the Munroes?" he asked dutifully, diamond stick pin glinting from the folds of his elaborately tied cravat. "I understand from Miss Munroe that her sister has been unwell?"
Mrs. Munroe let the tiniest of sighs escape. "Yes, she was, but we are all in satisfactory health now. Thank you for asking. I think it was only the rich London food that upset Genevieve's constitution for a time. She is used to the plainer fare one generally gets in the country."
"Quite understandable," he agreed. "And how is Miss Munroe enjoying her sojourn in London?"
"Very nicely, thank you," she replied. "She is at this moment out shopping with her sister for the come out ball," she added, hoping to assure him that they would not be disturbed, if he was indeed going to ask something of a personal nature. "She is quite looking forward to it, as you might imagine."
"As am I," the marquis assured her. He eyed her for a moment thoughtfully, then straightened his broad shoulders. "Mrs. Munroe, might I speak candidly?"
"Certainly," Mrs. Munroe granted him. "You and my daughter seem to have become friends. I hope you can speak to me as you would to her."
He smiled. "Well, perhaps not entirely. Your daughter is remarkably quiet in my presence."
Mrs. Munroe struggled not to show her surprise. "Indeed?"
"Indeed. I find her delightful in that regard. So many young ladies deem it witty to prattle on about the most nonsensical things. Your daughter has the great virtue of knowing when to remain silent. In fact, Mrs. Munroe, your daughter is quite the most perfect specimen of womanhood I have had the pleasure of meeting."
The man was obviously besotted; there was no other way to explain his assessment. Allison, remaining silent? She could not imagine how he had gotten that impression. She had never known Allison to remain silent above a moment. "Of course it does a mother's heart good to hear her daughter praised, sir," she managed.
"Who could not praise her? She is lovely, unassuming, and the most docile of creatures. Yet she dances and rides with a spirit few can show. In short, Mrs. Munroe, I find that your daughter would make an excellent marchioness. What can I say or do that would convince you to grant me her hand in marriage?"
It was one of the few times in her life that Ermintrude Munroe was ever tempted to leap to her feet and shout for joy. Instead, she forced herself to remember her duty to her daughter. If Allison had somehow managed to attach him, Mrs. Munroe must do nothing that might cause him to have second thoughts.
"I am aware of your family connections, my lord," she replied with the proper deference. "It is well known that the DeGuis are descended from the Normans. Your excellent reputation for handling your estates proceeds you as well. Having seen you with my daughter, I can safely say that you would make her an excellent husband. Have you mentioned your feelings to Allison?"
The marquis sat even straighter, blue eyes flashing. "Certainly not! It would be most improper of me to speak to Miss Munroe without speaking to you first."
Mrs. Munroe inclined her head in acknowledgment, pleased by his response. "Of course. Forgive me. I am very glad to hear that you feel as I do about the proper course of matters. A decision about marriage is better made with more experienced heads than my daughter's."
"Then I may count on your support?"
Mrs. Munroe held up her hand, making sure he listened as she stated her case. "In general, sir, you may. You have my permission to marry my daughter. However, as I'm sure you will understand, this Season is very important to her. It will properly introduce her to Society. It will allow her to meet a number of young ladies she may count as friends in the future. And it will give her the social polish she needs as your marchioness. She will do much better if you do not announce your engagement until the end of the Season."
He frowned. "But if she does not know she is engaged to me, she may form an attachment to some other fellow."
"My dear marquis," Mrs. Munroe said with an indulgent smile, "as long as you dance attendance, what young lady could possibly look elsewhere?"
The marquis' frown turned into a satisfied smile. "Very well. I can understand what this Season must mean to Miss Munroe. As long as I have your solemn word that your daughter's hand is mine within the year, I will remain silent for now."
Mrs. Munroe offered him her hand, and he bowed over it again. "My lord, you have my word. Allison will be your bride before Parliament starts in November. You will be a most welcome addition to the family."
Allison Munroe was finally to have her long-anticipated come out. She had begged and pleaded and yearned for the day for the last four years, even since her fourteenth birthday. She had dreamed of wearing her blond hair high and her slender neckline low. She had envisioned the elegant dancing couples, the delectable foods, and the splendid conversation so many times that she often wondered whether they hadn't already occurred. Now the much-hoped-for event was in reality only a week away.
And she could hardly wait to get it over with.
She found it hard to understand her change in attitude. She had been looking forward to the event right up until the time she left Wenwood Abbey, their home in Somerset. She could not see how the journey of a little over a hundred miles could so change her. It wasn't that by traveling she had lost family or friends to witness her moment of glory. Her mother and older sister Genevieve had accompanied her, and, ever since she had arrived in London in March, she had met any number of young ladies from sixteen to nineteen who would be making their debuts this Season.
Some seemed almost competitive about the whole affair, which seemed rather pointless to Allison. God gave them each gifts, and a gentleman would appreciate those gifts or not as the mood took him. Other young ladies failed to attract her because they did not share a single one of her interests. Some couldn't ride, others were abysmal dancers, and still others preferred to spend each day gossiping incessantly. While she enjoyed a good coz as well as the next person, she found frequent visiting a bit of a bore. In fact, she had found the other young ladies here for the Season as a rule lackluster and cowed, depending on their mothers or a gentleman for conversation. Most would never have considered owning a pet ferret as she did. She had made friends with the few who seemed to have some sense as well as a flair for living. And each one of those, from the sophisticated Lady Janice Willstencraft to sweet Grace Dunsworthy, had been invited to her own ball.
And certainly, it wasn't her financial state that made her view the coming affair with considerably less enthusiasm. Eighteen months ago when her father had died suddenly, leaving them penniless, she had thought she might never have her day. But last January, Genevieve became engaged to Alan Pentercast, a handsome landowner of considerable fortune. When she married him in February, he had readily agreed to pay all expenses for Allison's Season. So, here she was, in a luxurious London townhouse rented through the summer, with an entirely new stylish wardrobe and her own lady's maid. That part of her dream had worked out better than she could ever have hoped.
And it wasn't that she feared she'd be compared to her elder sister. Genevieve had been the toast of the ton with her hair of spun gold, soft blue eyes, and womanly curves compacted in a tiny frame. Allison was confident that her own flaxen ringlets, vibrant blue eyes, classic features so much like her mother's, and taller, more slender form would still attract enough notice to be called a success. Besides, Genevieve could hardly be considered the toast of the ton of late. Since their first day in the Mayfair townhouse, her sister had been pale and listless, prone to tears and unexplainable bouts of illness, particularly right after breakfast. The Widow Munroe had threatened to call in a famous London physician, but Genevieve had refused. She claimed she was merely homesick and sent a note home to Wenwood begging Alan to join her in London. Accordingly, the Squire was expected at any time, and Allison would be certain to have his handsome presence at her ball.
And the ball itself held no worries for her. She hadn't had much to do with the planning. The Widow Munroe had been unstinting in her efforts to ensure every detail was painstakingly perfect. From the selection of music for the string quartet to the tiny yellow roses that would decorate the refreshment tables at the midnight supper, her mother had overlooked nothing. The one hundred guests had been carefully chosen to include the doyens of society whose approval Allison must meet. It was a tribute to her family's connections as well as her mother's reputation as a hostess that not one person had refused the invitation. Like her mother, she should be in alt.
But the very idea of her come out was making her miserable, and it was entirely Geoffrey Pentercast's fault.
"I cannot get him out of my mind," she had complained to Genevieve only the day before.
Genevieve had smiled wanly from her seat across the damask-draped breakfast table. "Did you dream of him again last night, love?"
"Yes," Allison admitted with disgust. "And I find myself thinking of him at the most inappropriate times! Yesterday when I was having the final fittings of my gown, I caught myself wondering whether Geoffrey would like the way it calls attention to my bosom."
Genevieve had choked on her tea. "Allison! I certainly hope you didn't tell Mother!"
Of course she hadn't. She wasn't cork-brained. Her calm, proper mother would have ruined her reputation for restraint if she'd known how often Geoffrey Pentercast intruded on her daughter's thoughts. Her mother considered Geoffrey's powerful frame and brash manner to be signs of boorishness. Allison found the latter open and honest, and what she thought about the former would have made her mother give up all hope of her daughter's maidenly virtue. Truthfully, she had found him rather annoying growing up together in Wenwood. But when she had returned last Christmas after a six-year absence, she had been surprised to find she rather liked the way his dark brown eyes twinkled with laughter. She could not imagine what her mother saw that was unlikable. His nose was long and straight, his mouth generous and nearly always set in a wicked grin, and his chin was as firm and confident as his manner. He was broad shouldered and sturdily built, a solid gentleman very unlike some of the spindly-shanked dandies she met here. Unlike some of the cool, sophisticated London gentlemen, he rode and danced with enthusiasm. All in all, Geoffrey Pentercast was a fine specimen of a man. That was entirely the problem.
She had met any number of gentlemen since her arrival in London. Some were handsome, some were charming, some were intelligent, and a few were all three. Several had made it clear that as soon as she was officially out they would be calling in earnest. One, the Marquis DeGuis, hadn't even waited that long. She had been driving with him twice and riding once, and she had entertained him for visits on four separate occasions. And at Grace Dunsworthy's debut, he had asked her to dance three times. She could scarcely believe it.
Her mother was obviously cautious about his interest. He had survived to the age of thirty immune to the lures of the ladies of London. It did seem too good to be true that such a paragon would seek out Allison.
And he was a paragon. That she could not argue. He was reportedly worth thirty thousand per annum. His jet black hair, piercing blue eyes, and noble chin made the ladies sigh with delight. His ability with horses, both riding and racing, made the gentlemen sigh with envy. While his build was more slender than Geoffrey's muscled bulk, he was a head taller than she was, making her feel deliciously feminine. In fact, he was in every way the sort of gentleman she had always dreamed of attaching.
Only he simply wasn't Geoffrey Pentercast.
For the fourth time in as many days she scolded herself for what was surely misplaced loyalty. She could not be in love with Geoffrey. She would not let herself be. She had known him since attending the vicarage school in the nearby village of Wenwood. Last Christmas, she had thought it entertaining to enter into a mild flirtation with him, which he seemed to enjoy equally as much. In fact, since her sister's marriage to his brother, they had become the best of friends. The problem was, not a single gentleman she had met in London so far, with the possible exception of the ever-so-wonderful Marquis DeGuis, was half so enjoyable to tease or half so delightful to ride or dance with as Geoffrey Pentercast.
She poked the needle into the white lawn night cap she was embroidering for her trousseau and glanced across the sitting room fire to where her sister dozed. The self-satisfied smile on Genevieve's face surely had nothing to do with the half-finished pillow cover on her lap. Not for the first time Allison wished for the composure her mother and sister seemed to call on so easily. Genevieve was nothing if not sophisticated and courtly. She moved with confidence and elegance. She was the perfect lady of the manor to Alan's country squire. Allison sometimes felt her own movements seemed precipitous and overly dramatic next to her sister's. True, Genevieve liked to call her wonderfully animated, but, watching her sister, Allison wondered whether the ton would find her abilities as enviable.
Certainly the Marquis DeGuis was tolerant of her foibles, although she had to admit she did her best to hide them from him. The other day in the park, for example, he had magnanimously insisted that they ride on the Ladies Mile when she knew she was perfectly capable of taking Rotten Row beside him with the rest of the gentlemen riders. Why, she and Geoffrey Pentercast had taken more difficult stretches back home in Wenwood, and at a much faster clip than the marquis was likely to try with her. Unfortunately, the fact that she was a bruising rider would have been rather scandalous in London, or so it seemed to her. That was the problem with so many of the people she had met in London--she felt to be accepted by them, she had to be less than what she was. Or perhaps considerably more than what she was capable of being. It was a perplexing problem. No doubt the reason Geoffrey Pentercast was so much on her mind was that, with him, she did not have to be anyone but Allison Ermintrude Munroe.
She shook her head and pulled the needle back out of the cap, giving it an extra tug as she realized she had inadvertently snagged her new pink sarcenet gown. She really had to take herself in hand. She hadn't come to London to pine away for a boy she had known all her life. She had much more important matters to attend to. Her come out would signal to the world that she was a woman grown. And successfully navigating the Season would show her family that she was every bit the lady. Even if her ball would be dull beyond words without someone of Geoffrey's caliber to tease her into a grin, it was still a major accomplishment to be savored. Besides, relying on Geoffrey to make her happy made her just as bad as those young ladies who could not speak without the permission of their mothers. She was better than that.
The butler her mother had hired for the Season moved into the room so silently she almost didn't notice him among the floral patterns that decorated nearly every surface. Although his ramrod straight posture, impressive build, and no-nonsense manner had endeared him to her mother, Allison found his demeanor cold and forbidding. Coupled with a long nose, determined chin, and thinning gray hair, his gray eyes were all the more judgmental and not a little calculating. Besides, it seemed that, like her mother, he believed young ladies who were not yet formally out should be seldom seen and never heard. Now he cleared his throat to make them aware of his presence.
"What is it, Perkins?" she asked as Genevieve stirred and opened her eyes.
As usual, he ignored her, focusing on her sister. "Pardon my interruption, Mrs. Pentercast, but there are two gentlemen here to see you."
Allison tossed her needlework aside in annoyance at his manner even as Genevieve frowned.
"At this hour?" her sister murmured, stifling a yawn. "Please tell them we are no longer receiving."
Perkins bowed and started toward the door.
Allison knew she should abide by her sister's decision, but for once the staid and proper response was completely unsatisfactory. "Wait!" she commanded and had the pleasure of seeing the butler hesitate, most likely weighing the consequences of disobeying so direct an order. "Shouldn't we at least find out who they are, Gen?"
Genevieve nodded. "Of course. How silly of me. I seem to have my head in the clouds these days." The same self-satisfied smile crossed her lips again as she patted down the skirts of her blue kerseymere gown, and Allison frowned at her before returning her gaze to the waiting servant.
"Well, Perkins?" she encouraged him.
Perkins sniffed distastefully, and she wasn't sure whether it was her forward behavior or their guests' he found lacking. "No one of importance, Mrs. Pentercast. They claim to be relations, but they are not at all dressed like gentlemen. They appear to be dressed for some kind of farming activity."
"Alan!" Genevieve exclaimed, rising.
Allison jumped to her feet. "Now see what you've done, Perkins! You've kept the Squire standing about in the cold, and he's the one who pays your salary!"
Perkins paled, but his tread toward the door was stately and composed. "You must be mistaken, miss. However, I will endeavor to inquire again."
"Never mind!" Genevieve proclaimed, bustling past him. "I intend to see these gentlemen myself. Please go find my mother." Allison hurried to follow her.
Perkins bowed again. "As you wish, Madam."
"I'll wager you my pink beads against your white silk parasol," Allison hissed to her sister as they hurried down the darkly paneled corridor toward the entry, "that he won't make the servants stair before we reach the front door."
"Foolish bet," Gen hissed back. "I like that parasol too well to risk it on Perkins' ability to move with any speed. And I will never understand his obsession with taking the servants stair when he could take the main."
The corridor opened onto a two-story entry, with a black and white marble-tiled floor and white Corinthian columns flanking the solid front door. Backs against the columns stood the underfootman and footman her mother had hired for the Season. While their arms were at the sides of their navy livery, their gazes rested with suspicion on the two characters who waited. One stood square in the center of the entryway, in a pool of yellow light from the brass chandelier overhead, worn great coat flapping about his muddy country boots--Alan Pentercast, just as his wife had guessed.
And behind him, half in shadow, grinning at Allison in the most audacious manner that somehow made her heart stop, stood his brother Geoffrey.
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