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Love with the Perfect Scoundrel
Nobody could really explain the reasons behind the failed engagements of the beautiful Countess of Sheffield.
Oh, there was speculation. Oodles of speculation, and none was kind.
But that was to be expected.
For the aristocracy of England was unparalleled in its ability to knock one of their own off the fragile ladder of rank...with merely a look or an emphasis on a single syllable of a word. And they accomplished it with relish...especially during the little season, when few of the amusements of town were in the offing.
Yes, during those cold days of December, Grace Sheffey often wondered with dark humor if it had something to do with all the falsely elegant variations of boiled mutton and prune pudding that coddled lords and ladies endured following autumn's cornucopia.
Whatever the cause for the malaise coursing London's ballroom jungle, the countess knew that the traditional method of clawing out survival involved an iron jaw and a tin ear. For if a lady possessed an "of" in her name, she had best armor herself well against the vicious jaded humor prowling about Mayfair's upper ten thousand.
And so, after fleeing her circle of friends in Cornwall on the heels of her second engagement debacle, Grace tightened her corset and valiantly tried to brazen out the sting of rumors in London.
Quite miserably and quite alone, for there had not been a single invitation addressed to her for a single event during the upcoming holidays, nor had there been a single acceptance to a small soiree she had meticulously planned.
There were only regrets. Regrets fromeveryone she had invited and her own regrets for ever thinking she should attempt a return to London in the heat of such ferocious gossip.
That was why she next chose to do what she did best: to leave. Again. Grace Sheffey decamped from this newest disaster in the making, as far and as fast as she could. Little did her kindhearted traveling companion know of Grace's ultimate plan.
"Put your feet on the hot brick, lass," Mr. John Brown pleaded, his bushy salt-and-pepper eyebrows rising over faded, owlish eyes.
"I'm perfectly fine, thank you," replied Grace softly, taking care to keep her back perfectly arched, her lustrous pearls and dress perfectly elegant, her expression perfectly blank. "Forgive me, Mr. Brown, but do you think we'll reach York before nightfall?"
Silence and their frosted breath mingled inside the cold, cramped space.
"Perhaps," he said across from her as he rubbed at the tiny window and glanced at the leaden sky. "But perhaps no. Roman is an excellent driver, but I see patches of ice forming. Well, at least there's no snow. My old bones tell me it's too early in the season. But it might have been better to secure rooms at that last inn."
She put aside her book. "I'm sorry I asked that we continue on."
It was the longest stretch of conversation they'd had since leaving town. And it was the first time she'd offered anything other than a response to a question.
"No, Lady Sheffield, 'tis I who am sorry. I shouldna have presented you with the chance to go north with me. The dowager duchess will no' forgive me for taking you from her. But then again, she'll no' forgive me for anything else." He muttered the last under his breath. "Take this, Countess."
Grace grasped the heavy horsehair blanket but it slipped from her stiff fingers. Mr. Brown unfolded it and arranged it to cover both their laps.
"Lady Sheffield, I know you willna like me for it, but may I have a word? You've stewed too long. I know now you're no' going to crack and..."
He stopped cold when she dared lift her eyes to his. She then took care to draw the lacy veil of cool elegance back into place.
Mr. Brown would not be deterred. "Perhaps we should speak about your future, about the past, about your..."
"...recent ill fortune."
She exhaled sharply and her ghostly breath swirled into nothingness. "Do you mean to propose we examine all the details that led up to my being thrown over by one gentleman and jilted by the next, Mr. Brown?"
"There's no need to..."
"You're absolutely right. There's no need to discuss any of it. It's the most tedious story in the world. If you really want to help, perhaps you can give me your opinion concerning two bonnets I saw at Locke and Company. Shall I order the one in pale pink satin with grapes dripping off the ends, or should I reconsider the lace creation with the blue bird of happiness tipping drunkenly to one side? What say you, Mr. Brown? Are fruits or birds the thing this winter?"
He refused her well-baited trivialities like a cunning, seasoned old trout. "I admire you, Countess. More than you know. I've always thought you gentle, sweet, and full of feminine sensibilities. But I do believe I might have misjudged you on the last. I came prepared for this journey with three dozen handkerchiefs and yet they remain as dry as a Scotsman's throat when gin runs thin."
"Tears never change the facts, Mr. Brown."
He scratched his balding pate, returned his hat to its place, and refused to drop the matter. "After Ata is through with me, the marquis and the duke will probably drag my bones through all of England for taking you to Scotland."
"And I shall tell them that this was the only solution," she continued. "I will not ruin my friends' happiness by staying and becoming an embarrassing reminder of past expectations."
"Is that what you call ruptured engagements now? Past expectations?" He snorted. "The dowager duchess calls them something entirely different, and unforgivable. But that's not fit for your ears."
Grace knew his pride was still bruised from the dowager duchess's stalwart refusal to reconsider a life with him.Love with the Perfect Scoundrel
. Copyright © by Sophia Nash. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.