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"You will not marry this woman, Nigel. I absolutely forbid it."
Richard Cameron, Earl of Mulgrave, stood at the library window of his ancestral home, Cuttingswood Manor, and delivered his edict to his nephew, his heir, in his usual calm, authoritative manner. And Nigel reacted precisely as the earl expected.
"I love her, Uncle Richard," Nigel protested vehemently. "She is my heart, my destiny. I love my dearest Miss Paget, my sweet Nicole, from the depths of my soul. "I love her heartily, for she is fair and wise as she hath proved herself." ?
"I believe the correct quote is: ?I love her heartily, for she is wise, if I can judge of her, and fair she is, if that mine eyes be true, and true she is, as she hath proved herself,"--the earl insisted with a sigh. He moved from his position in front of the window and came to stand a few feet in front of his nephew. "Mangled Shakespeare aside, I cannot permit such a liaison. Be sensible, Nigel. You have only recently met this young woman. We know absolutely nothing about her nor her family."
Nigel made an impatient sound of disgust. "That is untrue! Her name is Nicole Paget. She is the fourth of five sisters, followed by two younger brothers. Her father is the Baron of Althen, her mother, Lady Althen late of Hampshire currently residing in London."
"Never heard of them," Lord Mulgrave replied briskly.
"How could you, Uncle Richard?" Nigel declared. "You live like a monk, rarely leaving this place and never attending any society function in or out of season."
The earl lowered his chin slightly, conceding the point. "True, I prefer the quieter pursuitsof country living, but I own I know something of the goings-on of town life. You are the heir to an old, respected and wealthy title. There are many eager mothers who will encourage their eligible daughters to employ any means necessary to attract your attention."
"Miss Paget is nothing like those giggling ninnies who simper and flirt with every titled gentleman unlucky enough to cross their path. Nicole is a lady. My lady." Nigel drew himself up to his full height, which still left him several inches shorter than his uncle. "Naturally, I want your blessing in my choice of bride, Uncle Richard. But I give you fair warning I shall marry my Miss Paget whether or not you approve. I am of age, you know."
Lord Mulgrave clenched his jaw. "I see this wondrous new love has given you a backbone. I hope it has also given you the means to support yourself. "But love is blind, and lovers cannot see the pretty follies that themselves commit." ?
Judging from the twitching of Nigel's facial muscles the earl knew that he had scored a direct hit. Perhaps the Shakespeare quote about love being blind was a bit over the top, but it seemed so appropriate, Richard was unable to stop himself.
Lord Mulgrave genuinely liked his nephew or else he would not have made the boy his heir, but the earl held no illusions about the young man's character.
Nigel was an impulsive young man, indulged and spoiled by a mother who fairly doted on her son. Richard knew he should have been more insistent that his sister keep a tighter rein on her headstrong son, especially since Nigel's father had died when the boy was an infant. Richard had been able to offer some assistance, teaching Nigel to ride, shoot and hunt, but he had been away fighting on the Peninsula during Nigel's formative years.
By the time Lord Mulgrave returned to England, Nigel had already developed a taste for independent thinking. Unfortunately, he also possessed a somewhat underdeveloped sense of duty and took the wealth and privilege of his lifestyle very much for granted.
The earl was certain his nephew would barely last out the month if he was cut off from his generous allowance. Eternal love was one thing, but abject poverty was an altogether different situation.
"Of course, I may be jumping to all the wrong conclusions," Lord Mulgrave said politely. "Does your Miss Paget have a large dowry perchance? Or a sufficient yearly allowance that will enable the two of you to live comfortably until you come into your majority a few years hence when you turn twenty-five?"
"I would never presume to discuss anything as vulgar as finances with Miss Paget," Nigel exclaimed hotly.
The earl smiled. "I take it that means Miss Paget has little or no money. Somehow I figured as much."
"You go too far, Uncle!" Nigel exclaimed, losing control of his facial muscles as well as his temper.
The tense set of his shoulders warned Richard that Nigel was angling for a fight. At least he is passionate about the chit, the earl thought with grudging admiration. Maddeningly immature, but passionate. Yet it was clearly unrealistic to hope that Nigel would simply abandon the notion of marrying Miss Paget merely because he disapproved. Richard decided he would have to devise a more subtle approach.
"If I remember correctly, you were head over heels for Lord Kersey's daughter at Christmas time, and last summer it was the Thornapple girl," the earl said calmly. He paced back toward the window, then turned to face his nephew. "Marriage is a commitment that spans a lifetime. The woman you choose will be the next Countess of Mulgrave as well as your lifelong companion. The mother of your children. I fear you are far too young to have fixed on a bride at this juncture of your life."
"I will be twenty-two years old in six months. You were married at twenty-three," Nigel flung out in anger. "And already a father."
"There is no basis for comparing our situations. My marriage took place during wartime. The civilized rules that govern society no longer exist at a battlefront."
"Love crosses all boundaries, Uncle. My love for Miss Paget is as strong and deserving as your love was for Juliana."
The earl did not reply. Nor did he correct his nephew's misconceptions. Everyone in society believed he had been totally devoted to his young wife who died so tragically in childbirth. Richard had worked hard over the past seven years diligently keeping Juliana's memory alive for the sake of their daughter, Alexandra.
Fortunately, his supposed obsession with his wife had been viewed as a romantic tragedy by society's most influential matrons. Little scrutiny had been given to the actual circumstances surrounding his nuptials, and female interest was directed mostly toward the depth and magnitude of the earl's suffering now that the love of his life was forever taken from him.
Richard had been uncomfortable maintaining the charade of an undying love between him and his countess, yet, as he knew they eventually would, the ton shifted their attention away from him the moment a new, more exciting bit of gossip came along. But they never forgot what he wanted them to believe.
Crossing his arms over his chest, the earl watched calmly as Nigel wrestled with and then mastered his temper. Lord, was he ever that young? That innocent? That full of optimistic passion? A small sigh escaped the earl's lips. No, he was not. War had quickly stolen his youth, and while he never regretted his decision to serve his king and country, Richard did regret the loss of his innocence.
"You must not dismiss this out of hand, Uncle Richard," Nigel pleaded woefully. "I know that if you had the opportunity to meet Miss Paget, to see and judge for yourself what a truly spectacular woman she is, your opinion of my marriage would be entirely different."
Feeling generous in light of Nigel's abject misery, the earl elected to be magnanimous. "I am certain there is a great deal of truth in what you say. However, as you so accurately pointed out, since I seldom travel to London there will be little opportunity for me to meet Miss Paget. The season will be ending in a few short weeks, so it would be futile to attempt to organize a trip to town at this late date.
"However, if your feelings remain so passionate in the future, I promise I shall do whatever is necessary to meet Miss Paget and her family next season."
Nigel's head shot up, revealing an expression of sheer delight. "But, Uncle Richard, it is not necessary to wait until next season. Miss Paget and her entire family are right here in Devon, staying with Sir Reginald Wilford."
"What?" the earl shouted. The chit was here? In Devon? What a scheming little wench! This was rapidly developing into a far more serious situation than he thought.
"Sir Reginald Wilford is in fact the recluse you so eagerly accuse me of being, Nigel. He seldom ventures out of his house and leaves the daily running of his estate to his agent. Even though his property borders mine, I rarely set eyes on him." The earl stroked his chin thoughtfully. "I remember Sir Reginald had a younger brother but he died before he reached manhood. I was unaware of the existence of any other living relations."
"The connection between the two families is rather distant," Nigel admitted with a blush. "And recently renewed. Needless to say, I was over the moon when I learned that Miss Paget would be near enough to visit regularly."
Lord Mulgrave remained silent for several minutes, digesting this newest tidbit of information. He was certain Sir Reginald had no close relations, so the connection between him and Miss Paget must be extremely slight. How the devil did she manage it? the earl wondered, not believing for an instant that this miraculous kinship with his closest neighbor was a remarkable coincidence.
"Then I shall look forward to receiving an invitation to dine with Sir Reginald and making the acquaintance of his houseguests," the earl replied. "Including the infamous Nicole."
Nigel neatly pounced on Lord Mulgrave's hastily spoken offer. "I will be honored to present her to you this evening, Uncle Richard. She plans on attending the Earl of Rosslyn's masquerade ball celebrating the first anniversary of the victory at Waterloo."
"This evening?" The earl cast his nephew a shrewd glance. He suspected he had been rather cleverly set-up, but Richard realized he could easily turn the situation to his advantage. A masked ball. The ideal circumstance to test the true intentions and character of the clever Miss Paget, especially if she had no idea to whom she was speaking.
"I feel certain it will be a most enlightening experience to finally meet the sparkling Miss Paget," Lord Mulgrave stated smoothly. "Most enlightening."
* * *
"Anne, you must come at once," Nicole wailed in horror. "I have torn the skirt of my gown!?
Anne Paget, oldest daughter and mainstay of the Paget clan, answered her sister's howl with the good humor and level head for which she was known and seldom appreciated.
"Do not fret, Nicole. I have brought my basket of threads and sewing needle. Since I designed and sewed this garment for you, I am certain I shall have no difficulty repairing it."
Anne sank to her knees and began examining the damage to the costume. Nicole had decided to appear at the ball dressed as Queen Elizabeth, and it had taken Anne three weeks to create the magnificent dress. Historically accurate from the starched white ruff collar to the flared skirt that jutted out stiffly from the hips, the outfit gave the diminutive Nicole a regal, feminine look.
Nicole fidgeted impatiently as Anne expertly ran her fingers through the deep blue material. She soon discovered a substantial rip in the silk overskirt of the gown but decided that with careful, tight stitching it would be barely noticeable.
Nicole lowered her head and watched her sister's every move. "The tear is right in the center of the skirt," Nicole cried when Anne began threading her needle. "Everyone will see that my gown has been mended, especially Nigel's horrid uncle, the Earl of Mulgrave."
Nicole's china-blue eyes widened to huge proportions and her bottom lip began quivering. Without further warning she burst into tears. "I cannot wear this dress in public," Nicole sobbed. "I simply cannot."
Anne, her mouth filled with pins, sat back on her heels in surprise. She knew Nicole was especially nervous about tonight's ball, but this was carrying things a bit too far. Some, indeed many, thought Nicole was a selfish, self-centered, spoiled young girl, but Anne knew that beneath the surface Nicole had a good and true heart.
Doted on by both parents since she was a young child, Nicole had been destined to become a woman who needed pampering and protecting. On occasion Nicole became totally wrapped up in the circumstances of her own life and was oblivious to the situation of other family members, but Anne knew it really wasn't her fault that she was so demanding.
For Nicole everything must be perfect. Her greatest desire at the moment was to become officially betrothed to Nigel Gwyn, future Earl of Mulgrave. And even though she was only seventeen years of age, Nicole seldom had difficulty achieving her goals.
"No one will be looking at the skirt of your gown," Anne told her distraught sister. "Everyone will be staring at your lovely face."
"Really?" Nicole sniffed, dabbing at her eyes with a linen handkerchief.
"Absolutely," Anne replied honestly.
Nicole was by far the prettiest of the five Paget sisters. She was a true English beauty, tiny and petite with masses of honey blond curls artfully framing an oval face, fair flawless skin and blue eyes that gazed upon the world with delight and excitement. Their father often remarked that Nicole had an eager face that invited all to approach her.
Well, men at least. Being the oldest child, at twenty-five, Anne could have easily resented all the male attention and adulation bestowed upon her younger sister. But she didn't.
Oh, Anne liked men well enough when they happened to spare her a glance. She did not possess her sister's stunning good looks, few women did, but Anne's willowy slimness, warm brown eyes and light brown hair brought her an occasional request for a dance or an invitation to the theater.
For Anne it was enough. The simple truth was that Anne was not especially interested in attracting a man. For herself. She had worked diligently and successfully for the past three London seasons securing husbands for her younger sisters. The twins, Prudence and Madeline, were now happily married, thanks in large part to Anne's scheming. Next would come Nicole and in a few years Rosalind, who at fifteen was displaying the kind of fair, blond beauty that seemed to attract men like bees to wildflowers.
"Oh, Anne, I can clearly see the ridge of fabric where you have stitched my gown together," Nicole protested as she peered closely into the mirror. "This costume is beyond repair. What am I going to do? I cannot attend the ball without a proper costume."
Anne stood beside her sister. She rustled the skirt so that the repaired section was hidden inside a fold of material. "There. It looks fine."
"No, it does not," Nicole insisted defiantly, taking a step forward and revealing the mended section. "The imperfection of the skirt appears each time I move. How can I possibly dance in this beastly dress? Everyone will notice and comment upon my mended garment. You must find me another costume."
"The ball begins in less than five hours, Nicole," Anne said with a trace of weary annoyance in her voice. "There is no other costume to be found. You must wear this dress."
"I will not." Nicole lifted her chin and shook her head vehemently. "There must be another gown somewhere in the house that can be altered for me. What are you wearing tonight?"
"I fashioned a simple Grecian gown for myself," Anne explained patiently. "There was not time to do much else since I exerted all my efforts on your dress and the Marie Antoinette costume that Mother requested."
"I want to see the Grecian gown," Nicole declared. "I do hope it is not white. I look horrid in white, rather like a ghost who is haunting a castle."
Anne's eyes moved quickly over her sister's well-endowed curves. "The gown is pale blue, and it will be both too long and too tight across the bosom for you to wear."
"Please," Nicole said with a quick artificial smile that Anne knew was trouble. "There cannot be any harm in letting me look at the dress."
Knowing it was a mistake, Anne nevertheless retrieved the gown from the bedchamber she was sharing with Rosalind. The moment Nicole put it on, Anne knew they were doomed. The color was wonderful for Nicole, bringing out the blueness of her eyes, complementing her blond hair and showcasing her creamy skin. Perhaps a bit too much creamy skin.
"The bodice does not drape properly, making the neckline too low," Anne stated flatly.
"Shockingly low," Nicole breathed excitedly.
"The hem is easily six inches too long."
"If you pin it for me, I will gladly spend the remainder of the afternoon sewing it. I do not have your skill with a needle, but you did teach me how to run a proper stitch. Please?"
Their eyes met in the mirror and Anne could feel her resolve slipping. Nicole did look stunning in the outfit. Certainly far more beautiful than Anne ever could. After all, this was a most important night for Nicole; it might very well decide her future. For Anne it was merely another party.
"What will I wear if you go as a Greek goddess?"
"Oh, thank you, Anne." Nicole rushed forward and hugged her older sister tightly. "I knew you would not fail me. As for your dress, why don't you go as Queen Elizabeth? If we can shorten your gown for me, why not lengthen my costume for you?"
Anne snorted. "It will take more than a lengthened hem to make the queen's outfit ready for me."
"I'm sorry." Nicole hung her head and plucked at the golden sash tied around her waist. "You need not give me the dress if you really want to wear it. Perhaps I can find another gown. As you said, there are five whole hours before the ball begins. And if there is no appropriate garment for me to wear then I shall remain at home. All alone."
"Cease being so Gothic, Nicole. I already agreed to switch costumes."
Nicole's transformation was instantaneous, as Anne knew it would be. With a delighted giggle she twirled about the room.
"I do look fetching in this gown. Nigel will be speechless when he sees me, and doubly surprised since I told him I was going to appear as Queen Elizabeth. Would it not be hilarious if he did not recognize me? Then I could flirt with him and judge for myself if his heart has truly been given to me. I certainly would not want a husband whose head is easily turned by a beautiful face."
It seemed ironic to Anne that Nicole, a woman who made flirting an art form, would be so threatened by the idea of her beau showing interest in another. For all her supposed sophistication, Nicole was still in many ways a seventeen-year-old girl.
"If you are wearing a mask, then Nigel will not know that you have a pretty face," Anne pointed out. She motioned for Nicole to stand on the low stool near the window so she could take the measurements for the new hemline on the Grecian gown. "Besides, Nigel will most likely be too busy ogling your magnificent breasts to care what you look like behind your mask."
"Anne! What a positively vulgar thing to say." Nicole gasped. Crouching low, she added in a whisper, "Do you really believe that Nigel will think my bosom is magnificent?"
"If he is half the man you claim he is," Anne said with a laugh. "Of course, you must remember that Nigel may look all he wishes, at this juncture in your relationship, but he absolutely may not touch until you have exchanged your wedding vows."
"Anne!" Nicole straightened and thrust her nose in the air. "You really must learn to curb your tongue. Whatever will Nigel's uncle think if he heard you speak so bawdily?"
Anne merely shrugged her shoulders in response. Although it was hardly a proper subject for conversation, she was more than willing to allow the discussion to continue. She had never subscribed to the notion that it was beneficial to keep women ignorant about life, and that included sexual matters.
Anne might have little firsthand experience of men to offer her sister, but years spent sitting among the older society matrons at various balls, parties and soirees had taught Anne a thing or two about males.
In her opinion it was only through ignorance that a young, or older, woman found herself ruined. Anne firmly believed it was her duty to educate her sisters. Their mother would have had a fit of the vapors at such frank talk, but Lady Althen had never been the type of parent to overly concern herself with the activities of her offspring.
It was Anne, not either of their parents, who determined that Lord Marton was a disreputable rake who had no intention of making a legitimate proposal of marriage to Nicole at the start of this year's season. So she had skillfully encouraged Nigel's interest in her lovely sister, especially after discovering he would one day inherit a respectable title and a sizable fortune.
Anne had also negotiated the favorable marriage contracts for her two married sisters, Prudence and Madeline, when it became apparent that their father, Lord Althen, was incapable of securing a fair settlement for his daughters.
In truth, Anne had assumed responsibility for the entire family four years ago when they teetered on the brink of social and financial ruin. Her quick thinking, level head and skillful weaving of fact and fiction had been the family's salvation.
In a society that was so easily swayed by scandal, Anne had performed nothing short of a miracle to ensure that not even a breath of impropriety ever touched her family. After all, the truth of their disgrace was not an uncommon one. Although they appeared to live the carefree, privileged life of the nobility, the Baron of Althen and his family were in fact nearly penniless.
Anne would never forget the moment she realized the serious extent of their financial dilemma. She had reached her twenty-first birthday with great anticipation. Her grandmother had generously bequeathed her oldest granddaughter a special inheritance, a yearly allowance that would enable her to forgo the necessity of marriage and live independently if she so chose.
And Anne defiantly chose an independent life. Her greatest dream had always been to travel to Europe and study art. Seriously study art. Yet as she sat in her father's library on that dreary winter day and heard the truth from her grandmother's solicitor, Mr. Addams, all her dreams turned to dust.
"There is no money, Miss Paget," Mr. Addams said sympathetically, clearing his throat and shuffling his papers noisily. "Lord Althen has borrowed heavily against this stipend over the years. With every good intention of repaying the loan, I am certain.
"However, he has not yet made restitution of the funds. In order for you to collect the inheritance, you must demand payment from your father. I regret to inform you that he is already deeply in debt. The only asset he possesses of great value is this estate, which is entailed and cannot be sold or mortgaged. The property will, of course, one day be inherited by your brother, William."
Anne flinched and struggled to control her breathing. It was a mistake. Some sort of horrid legal mixup that would soon be remedied. Then they could all have a good laugh over it. Anne stared hopefully at the lawyer, but he quickly lowered his gaze, refusing to meet her eyes. At that moment Anne knew deep in her heart he was speaking the truth.
"What about my dowry?" Anne inquired in a small voice. "Am I not legally entitled to that money since my father has seen fit to use my inheritance for his own purposes?"
The lawyer bent his head even lower, attempting to squirm away from Anne's troubled eyes. "Lord Althen has spent the dowry funds also, Miss Paget."
Stifling a cry of alarm, Anne stiffened her spine. "I have four younger sisters. What of their dowries?"
"What has happened to all our money, sir?" Anne asked urgently. "I know that my father is not a gambler; a modest wager or two on a horse race or an occasional card game at a party is the usual extent of his wagering. How is it possible that all of our money is gone?"
"It is highly improper for me to discuss these matters with you, Miss Paget," the solicitor protested. He made a move to get to his feet.
"Sit down, Mr. Addams!?
The firmly issued command hung in the air. The lawyer pursed his lips in defiance but slowly resumed his seat, cracking under Anne's hard, determined stare. By the time he left the estate, Anne had received a full accounting of her father's financial situation. It was not a very encouraging picture.
Her parents had blindly followed the lead of the Regent when it came to matters of money. Thrift of any sort was absolutely foreign to their nature. Over the course of their twenty-six-year marriage they thought nothing of spending money they did not have on anything from extravagant clothing to expensive horseflesh.
If they continued on their current course the family would be completely ruined in less than a year's time. As oldest, Anne knew she had no choice but to accept responsibility for the welfare of the family. So on that dreary afternoon, with the reluctant aid of Mr. Addams she devised a plan of survival.
The rich, fertile farmland surrounding the family estate was leased to neighbors and the impressive manor house was rented to a rich merchant from Brighton.
She packed up the entire family along with their personal servants and descended, unannounced, on her mother's brother who lived in Cornwall. They lived with her uncle for almost nine months until early spring when the London season began. Imposing this time upon a cousin once removed on her father's side, the entire clan traveled to London, and the twins, Prudence and Madeline, were launched into Society. With one special goal in mind. To snare a mate.
Prudence succeeded that first year; Madeline the next. They each married men they liked and admired who were socially acceptable and independently wealthy. With the funds secured from their marriage settlements, Anne was able to rent a modest home in a fashionable section of London for several months. When the rent money ran out, the Paget clan simply ?visited? another relative.
Anne's plan for survival was simple. Without the added burden of the family estate expenses, Anne was able to more effectively utilize the family income. By curbing her parents? extravagances as much as was humanly possible and saving the bulk of the family funds to outfit the next sister eligible for marriage, Anne was able to pay the salaries of their personal servants, meet the bills for her younger brothers? schooling and keep the family fashionably clothed. After all, appearance was everything.
Relieved of the financial burdens which had plagued him for years, Lord Althen did not interfere with his daughter's plans. Nor did he acknowledge her efforts, but Anne honestly never expected he would.
"Do you think that Nigel might declare his intentions tonight?" Nicole breathed with a sigh. "Perhaps he will make a formal offer. Just think of it, Anne! By the end of the evening I could be an engaged woman."
"No good will come of anticipating the event before it actually occurs," Anne said, clucking her tongue.
"Really, Anne," Nicole replied with some indignation. "How can I avoid it? 'Tis all well and good for you to be so calm and composed. It is not your future happiness that rests on the outcome of tonight's ball. I shall be on pins and needles all evening waiting for the odious Lord Mulgrave to pass judgment upon me."
"I am merely reminding you to be sensible," Anne suggested gently. "Disappointment is never a pleasant experience."
Truthfully, she wasn't sure who was more excited over the prospect of an imminent engagement, her or Nicole. Seeing her sister safely married would bring Anne one step closer to her ultimate goal of independence. For as soon as Nicole was settled, only Rosalind would be left.
Then in a few short years Rosalind too would be wed and Anne would finally be free. Free! Free to indulge her passion for painting. Free to travel to Europe and see for herself the great works of art by the masters she had always admired.
Free to express her innermost feelings through her own humble sketches and oils. Free to become the artist she always imagined and experience life beyond the rigid confines of the society into which she had been born.
Still, Anne cautioned herself to heed her own advice. Disappointments were cruel enough to bear, shattered dreams nearly impossible to survive.
And yet as the two sisters prepared for the ball, Anne's naturally optimistic spirit overtook her. Nigel might very well propose this evening. Nicole was a vision in her Grecian costume; no man with red blood in his veins would be able to resist her.
"You will outshine every woman in attendance this evening," Anne remarked to her sister as they entered the coach for the short carriage ride to the party.
And I shall be close by to assure that all goes as planned, Anne added silently to herself. For your success, dear sister, will bring me one step closer to my own dreams of artistic freedom.