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En Route to London, 1817
Oh, Grace, it can be none of our concern!" Grace's younger sister, Lydia, warned softly. "I am persuaded it would be better if we did not get involved." But Grace was already walking toward their parlor door at the Blue Swan Inn.
Sitting quietly over a pot of tea in their private parlor, Lady Grace Endicott and her sister had been surprised to hear voices from the next room come clearly through the inn's thin walls.
"I tell you, Mama, it was Lord Weston pulling into the yard," said a faceless voice in a tone of loud frustration.
"But, dear, what does it matter?" asked a harried older woman in response.
The first voice, more menacing now, drawled, "Really, Mother, must I spell everything out for you?"
Grace now had the two women pictured in her mind and she did not like the view. Would a daughter really speak so to her parent?
"My dear Charlotte," the mother complained, "Lord Weston is rich, to be sure, but should you like to be married to him? He has quite a reputation as a rake."
Charlotte snorted loudly. "What a singularly stupid question. Do I wish to be a marchioness with more pin money than you can even imagine? He must marry sometime. He has to beget an heir. Once I have provided one, I will be free to go my own way
with all the money I need to do so."
Charlotte's mother responded, "So you have a plan?" Then she asked eagerly, "You think you can catch him?"
"Mother, dear, I have a splendid plan," Charlotte replied, her tone oozing with evil intentions. "I will happen to encounter him when he enters the inn. I will insist he join us. He cannot refuse to pay his proper respects to my beloved mother. When I bring Lord Weston here, you must rush past us, claiming that you are ill, and leave the room. I will keep the marquess in here long enough to be fully compromised." She laughed wickedly. "He will be honor bound to marry me, and I will be very rich!"
That was the point at which Grace knew she must do something. She knew it was none of her affair, yet she would not wish such a thing forced upon an innocent person. She was appalled at the way Charlotte and her mother had spoken to one another. That they would contrive to trap a man into marriage went beyond her comprehension or experience. A husband at any price? Grace did not remember Society to be so avaricious in her own Season. She knew she and Lydia would never fit in with London's ton if deception and plotting was the way of life there.
Lydia was so looking forward to her Season, the purpose behind the girl's first trip to London, but Grace had visited the city many times and had always felt the people to be cold and calculating. She regretted having to leave her country home, even for a short while. She also worried that Lydia's innocent and kind heart would be hurt by the cruel ton.
The best way to protect her precious sister would be to lead by example, through helping others in need whenever possible.
Grace would start now.
"Darling Lydia, I cannot stand by and allow such a malevolent act." She walked out of their parlor, intent on saving this man from his conniving assailants. She knew she would appear forward to address a stranger, but that was a small price to pay if she could warn him of their intentions.
Grace need not have feared identifying the marquess; there was only one man and he was with the landlord. He was large, with the blackest hair, and he was obviously a Corinthianas men of fashion were often calledbased on the number of capes on his driving coat. With a short prayer, she walked up behind him.
"Sir?" she asked, summoning her most charming smile. "When you are finished making arrangements with Mr. Dobbins, may I speak to you a moment?"
As the most handsome man she had ever seen turned to her with a question in his dark eyes, she held out her hand, and indicated a small table centered in front of the benches beside the entryway.
The gentleman raised a brow and asked, "I beg your pardon?"
He began smiling lazily down at her, waiting for her to explain herself. But those eyes were awake upon every suit, despite his smile.
"Will you not sit, my lord?"
"I prefer to stand, I thank you." He looked at her askance. "But I should like to know how you know me." He leaned up against the wall and crossed his arms over his chest. "I admit I am quite at a loss as to know how I might be of help to you."
"No, sir," she said, almost in a whisper. "It is I who wish to help you" As he laughed out loud, Grace began to seriously regret not listening to Lydia's pleas.
Brandon Roth, Lord Weston, had no idea what was afoot, but he was enjoying himself immensely. When the tedium of the journey to London had initiated the stop at this inn, little had he known what awaited him. The woman before him was behaving in a peculiar fashion, to say the least, but he sensed no malice from her. He could not help but be intrigued by her plea for a private conference. They were in full public view, so he felt relatively safe from the traps normally set for him. Yet he remained wary.
"My lord," she said, "I have overheard a plot to compromise you into marriage, and I wished to put you on your guard."
He had not known what to expect, but he would have never guessed this! She appeared to be telling the truth, and he wondered at such innocence in one certainly out of her girlhood. "You overheard?"
"Yes. You see, my sister and I were taking tea in that parlor there, and the women in the room next to ours were talking quite loudly."
"Ahh, an eavesdropper, are you?"
"Of course I am not
" She put her hands on her hips, frustrated. "You are making sport of me when I am trying very hard to be of help." Her voice had a low timbre. He would not go so far as to say sultry, but it was soothing, even in the exasperation he caused her.
Brandon did his best to avoid laughing. He wondered whether she was coming from or going to London. Already he hoped the latter and that their paths would cross again in Town; though he supposed even she would lose her charm eventually.
"Very well, madam. Why don't you finish your tale and we may proceed from there."
She tried to explain to him about the conversation she and her sister had overheard, and she finished with, "I thought if I could get word to you before she appeared, you would be able to handle the matter in whatever manner you wished."
He asked, "Did you by any chance catch the, ah
She turned red at his insinuation. "Oh, dear, it was Charlotte, I think. Yes, I am sure it was Charlotte." She bowed her head, saying, "Godspeed, my lord," and turned to go.
He could not think of a Charlotte at the moment, but truth be told he was not terribly concerned with her. It was obvious this woman was unaware of his reputation, but somehow, he thought she would have offered her help even if she had known of his well-earned title of rake. For the first time in a long time he was touched. Amused, but touched.
He grasped her hand as she turned away, and she looked askance at him over her shoulder. He pulled her back, to face him, and took hold of her other hand, as well. She smelled goodof lavender, he thought. He was still intrigued by her; he wasn't ready for their tête-à-tête to come to an end.
"As a man too often in the presence of grasping and manipulative women, I apologize for my behavior to one who is obviously not."
"Great guns! You are the strangest man I have ever met!"
"'Great guns'?" he repeated, and threw back his head in laughter once more, squeezing the hands he was still holding. "What a delight you are, my dear!"
"Shh! I beg your pardon," she said, eyes downcast. "I am not in the habit of having to watch my tongue."
He lifted her hands to his lips and kissed them. "On the contrary, you are the most delightful and"
A gasp from across the room broke the spell, and his rescuer broke the hold he had on her hands. She nervously smoothed her gown. Looking over, Brandon felt his smile immediately give way to a frown. It had never occurred to him the Charlotte she had mentioned could be Lady Charlotte Marchmont, one of the most outrageous gossipmongers in all of London.
The lady's eyes were mere slits and her voice was insinuating. "Well, my lord, either you are being much less discreet, even for you, or it appears you have kept a budding romance secret from the ton. I wonder which it could be." Apparently if Lady Charlotte was kept from carrying out the seduction overheard through the walls, she would, at the least, be sure of retribution. Brandon feared it would be directed at the perceived interloper. So here he stood, free of Lady Charlotte, but bound now, in honor, to protect this woman. Her reputation could soon be in tatters, if Charlotte Marchmont had her way.
He could walk out that door as though nothing had happened; Charlotte could spread any tale she liked of his actions; Society would forgive him. And there would be no penalty to Lady Charlotte for spreading unsavory tales, from a society that loved juicy gossip more than reputations.
No, the consequences would rest solely on the woman in front of him, who had done nothing to deserve them.
He had not expected the backbone of the lady before him as she retorted, "I am not a secret anything to this gentleman. And I will thank you" she said, just as Brandon announced:
"Lady Charlotte, may I introduce you to my betrothed?"
Both women turned to stare at him as if he had grown two heads.
"Mayhap, my love, we should take our discussion into your private parlor," he drawled. "Landlord, please have my horses stabled and a room prepared for me. I would appreciate dinner within the half hour." Brandon thought he did a very creditable job of not clenching his teeth.
He was now betrothed to this unknown woman. He must keep up appearances. "Let me just give my coachman a word on the horses and I will join you, my dear."
As he passed by the first doorway, he bowed to the flashy redhead and smiled. "Charmed, Lady Charlotte."
If the caterwauling coming from the room after the door slammed shut was any indication, she was not happy with the turn of events.
His coachman was still in the foyer, so giving him his final instructions of the night took very little time. Brandon leaned against the doorjamb outside of his new betrothed's private room. Despite his attitude of nonchalance, he knew he was in as much danger from the unknown woman as he was from Charlotte Marchmont.
He would use the same tactics she had used: seeing what he could glean through the thin walls.
"Oh, Grace, dearest, what kept you? I thought you were just going to warn him and come right back. The lady in the next room has been ranting. I had to cover my ears, it was so loud." He listened, not recognizing the voice that spoke. He would guess she was a younger woman, likely the sister who had been mentioned. "Oh, dear, are we in the suds this time?"
"Lydia, darling, we are not in the suds. But I must clear up some confusion with the gentleman. We will be on our way to London on the morrow as planned." From the tone she used, it was clear that the second woman was someone "Grace" loved very much. "I think if you will just go up to bed, it will be easier to make the necessary explanations."
"Cor, my lady," interrupted the clear voice of a servant. "We can't be leavin' you alone with a gentleman, 'specially one you are unacquainted with." Hearing her called "my lady" by the maid made him more wary. It could complicate matters considerably.
"For pity's sake, I am six and twenty, not sixteen." So, this beauty had fire in her! "I apologize. Everything will be fine once I have spoken with the gentleman. The staff and guests here think I am betrothed to the man, so there is no reason for anyone to wonder at us being in here alone."
"Betrothed to him?" the one called Lydia asked.
"But I," Grace continued, as if she had not been interrupted, "cannot have the two of you watching us as we discuss what must be done. He did not seem in a particularly good humor at the end of our meeting, so I should like to get over this rough ground as smoothly as possible."
Hmm, she had been able to detect his shift in mood after the charade stopped being interesting. She was more than just a pretty face. He listened again. "I will join you upstairs directly." She resorted to pleading. "Please, Lydia."
He stepped back into the shadows as the door opened and two women left the room. From his vantage point, he could not see their faces, but one was definitely a servant and the other a very young lady.
When he entered the room, lowly lit by the fireplace, he found the mysterious woman leaning against the mantel, staring into the flames, and he had a few moments to study her as she remained lost in thought. She was not a conventional beauty, but standing in the glow of the embers, she almost took his breath away. She was a little taller than most and the colors of the fire turned her brown hair to a shining chestnut. Her tanned skin indicated she spent much time out-of-doors. It would not help her in the marriage mart, where porcelain skin was envied, but he thought it becoming to her.
She was an enigma to be sure, but until he knew her mind he would keep his guard up. Since he'd been nineteen years old women had been trying to entice him or entrap him into marriage. He knew every trick in the book, and if that was this woman's plan, he would put her in her place soon enough. For some reason, however, he believed her when she said her only thought had been to rescue him. If that proved true, he must act honorably now. He could not afford a scandal, at least not this Season. The stakes were too high.
"Well, madam," he growled, scowling from the doorway and making her jump. "Perhaps we should be properly introduced!"