Once upon a time three young ladies vowed to record their first London seasons…and to fill in the gaps of their finishing school educations. Thus began The Debutante Diariesand London will never be the same…
“Fans of Regency romance authors Eloisa James, Tessa Dare, and Mary Jo Putney will go wild.”Booklist
An heiress with a daring proposal. An earl who’s determined to resist her. And a love that just might be written in the stars, in First Earl I See Tonight by Anna Bennett.
Recently jilted by his fiancée, David Gray, Earl of Ravenport is not in the market for a wife. Even if Gray didn’t have his hands full renovating his crumbling country house, it would take more than a bold marriage proposal from a headstrong young beauty to thaw his frozen heart. Gray is confident that spending a week at his ramshackle estate will change her mind about marriage, but every passionate moment he spends with her tempts him to change his…
A talented artist, Miss Fiona Hartley desperately needs her dowry money to pay off a blackmailer set on ruining her sister. The handsome earl seems a sensible choice for a husband…if only she can convince him that romance will play no part. But marrying in name only may prove difficult for Fiona. Gray can’t help but be dazzled by her genuine warmth. Yet as their feelings deepen, Fiona’s deadline looms. Will her secrets destroy them, or is true love their final destiny?
About the Author
Anna Bennett started swiping romances from her mom’s bookshelf as a teenager and decided that books with balls, dukes, and gowns were the best. So, when she had the chance to spend a semester in London she packed her bagsand promptly fell in love with the city, its history, and its pubs. She dreamed of writing romance, but somehow ended up a software analyst instead.
Fortunately, a few years and a few careers later, Anna found her way back to writing the stories she loves and won the Romance Writers of America’s Golden Heart®. She lives in Maryland with her husband and three children, who try valiantly not to roll their eyes whenever she quotes Jane Austen.
Anna's books include the Wayward Wallflowers series and the Debutante Diaries series.
Read an Excerpt
Miss Fiona Hartley's etiquette was far from flawless, but even she was not in the habit of writing letters to gentlemen who were of no relation to her. And she'd certainly never had occasion to propose marriage in such a letter.
Frowning, she sat at her desk and tickled her chin with the tip of the downy quill she held poised above a blank sheet of stationery. Miss Haywinkle's School for Girls had neglected to cover the finer points of proposing to an earl. But then, the headmistress had failed to cover any number of topics that might have proven helpful, such as how to walk down the street wearing a ridiculous bonnet without feeling foolish. Or how to properly hit a cricket ball while encumbered by a gown and two petticoats.
And, regrettably, Miss Haywinkle had never offered the lesson Fiona needed the most: how a shy heiress might discern which of her gentlemen suitors was interested in more than her fortune. Alas, the men of Fiona's acquaintance seemed unable to comprehend that she was a person first and foremost — that she existed wholly independently of her substantial dowry and the vast wealth she stood to one day inherit. Perhaps it was a naïve notion, but she'd always longed to marry a man who genuinely cared for her. Maybe even loved her.
At least now she needn't bother continuing her fruitless search. The dream of a love match had flown out the window yesterday afternoon — with the arrival of a perfectly ordinary-looking letter in the regular post, addressed to her.
Curious, Fiona had lifted it from the silver salver, admiring the heavy paper and elegant script. But as she'd opened and read it, dread had seeped into her veins.
No one could discover the truth revealed in that letter — not her parents or her dearest friend, Sophie, or the authorities. Most certainly not her younger sister, Lily.
A shiver stole over Fiona's skin despite the silk shawl draped over her shoulders and the cozy fire burning in her bedchamber's fireplace. The scoundrel who'd sent the horrid note obviously knew she'd sacrifice anything to protect her sister and was demanding an exorbitant amount of money to keep Lily's secret. But procuring such a large sum wasn't easy — even for an heiress.
Papa was out of town and wasn't expected back for at least a week. Even if time weren't of the essence, Fiona didn't dare tell him the shocking news for fear his weak heart would give out. After Papa collapsed in his office last year, his doctor had warned him to avoid undue stress. Fiona had already lost her real mother, and the thought of losing Papa terrified her.
She'd lain awake much of the night, debating what to do, and had reached the only logical conclusion. What she needed was a titled husband — and fast.
The Earl of Ravenport was the perfect candidate. His desperate financial situation was widely rumored, and though he'd once been engaged, his fiancée had called off their marriage a fortnight ago. His lack of fortune and his brooding personality kept most of the matchmaking mamas at bay, which reduced the competition and increased Fiona's odds of success.
He'd come to mind for one other reason as well — on the most humiliating night of her life, the earl had shown her kindness. She'd tripped on the dance floor and landed among the musicians in the orchestra, sending their sheet music flying. Her dance partner had frozen, aghast. Other guests had snickered.
Only Lord Ravenport had stepped forward and offered his hand, effortlessly pulling her to her feet. Somehow, that simple contact — his large gloved hand enveloping hers — had managed to be simultaneously reassuring and thrilling. The brief encounter had meant a great deal to her, and yet she wasn't at all certain that the earl knew her name.
The fact that the earl happened to be handsome was immaterial. Entirely irrelevant, really. But if his devil-may-care smile made Fiona's stomach flutter now and again, she saw no harm in it. She deserved to glean something from the deal after all, and what girl wouldn't enjoy having a tall, athletic, ruggedly attractive husband — at least in name? It wasn't as though she intended to give him her heart.
Nevertheless, she'd enjoy sketching him ... one day. She didn't yet know him well enough to do him justice. Oh, she could recall his physical traits all too easily: the dark hair that spilled across his forehead, the slightly crooked nose, and the boxer's physique. But in spite of his self-assured demeanor, he was more guarded than most — reluctant to reveal who he truly was. She, of all people, respected that.
Fiona tapped a fingernail on her gleaming mahogany desk, determined to forge ahead. How, precisely, did one broach the subject of marriage with a relative stranger? Shrugging, she dipped the nib of her quill and let the ink flow.
Dear Lord Ravenport,
We've not been formally introduced, but you may remember me from the Millbrook ball, where I tripped during the cotillion and tumbled headfirst into the musicians, knocking the violinist clear off his chair. Would you consider binding yourself to me in matrimony for the rest of your natural life?
A bit too honest, perhaps. And too direct. Miss Haywinkle would be utterly appalled by Fiona's lack of decorum. Though the thought of shocking her former headmistress cheered her slightly, the letter would never do. Sighing, she tossed it in the dustbin, withdrew a clean sheet from the desk drawer, and began writing anew.
She took the most polite and businesslike approach she could manage given the rather forward nature of her request.
Dear Lord Ravenport,
I am writing to you with a proposal that is unconventional but quite sincere. After much deliberation, I've reached the conclusion that that each of us would benefit greatly if we were to ally ourselves through marriage. I possess a very large dowry which I'm certain you would find useful. In addition, I would promise to be a very undemanding wife. Indeed, you would be free — nay, encouraged — to pursue your own interests.
All I would ask in return is that you allow me to retain a small property with a cottage in Cornwall, five thousand pounds for my own use, and a reasonable yearly allowance. The stipulated monies shall be mine to spend as I please without any explanation or interference.
I do have one last requirement. We must wed within a fortnight. I understand that this may seem rash, but since our union would merely be one of convenience, I see no reason to delay. Please consider my proposal and provide your response at the first opportunity.
Miss Fiona Hartley
In the end, she was quite satisfied with the result. And yet her hands trembled as she folded the sheet and melted the sealing wax.
Once sent, the letter could not be retrieved; the words could never be taken back. There was no way to know how Lord Ravenport would react to the deal she'd proposed. He might tell all his friends and make her the laughingstock of the ton, or he might refuse to dignify her proposal with a response. But proposing to him was her best hope of sparing her sister, Lily, untold ridicule and pain. Fiona had no choice but to try.
A knock on her bedchamber door made her jump guiltily. She quickly hid the letter in the folds of her skirt. "Come in," she said, attempting a breezy tone.
Her sprightly maid, Mary, bustled into the room, and Fiona released the breath she'd been holding. "Pardon the interruption, Miss Fiona. Miss Kendall came for a visit. She and Miss Lily are in the drawing room, and they're quite eager for your company."
"Please tell them I'll be down momentarily. I require a few minutes to ..." To contemplate the sheer madness of what I am about to do. To come to terms with my future, which most notably includes a cold, loveless marriage. " ... to finish up a bit of correspondence."
The maid set freshly folded linens on the damask-covered bed. "I'll gladly tell them. But your sister is not a particularly patient person. Don't be surprised if she insists on retrieving you herself." Mary cocked an ear to the door and clucked her tongue. "Alas, it sounds as though she and Miss Kendall are heading this way now."
Oh dear. Fiona sprang from her chair and, before she could change her mind, thrust the letter into Mary's hands. "Would you please see that this is delivered immediately? It's quite important," she said, "and requires the utmost discretion."
Before the maid could reply, Lily burst into the room, poor Sophie in tow. Propping her hands on her slim hips, Lily narrowed her eyes at Fiona. "Here you are. Why have you closeted yourself away in your room on this glorious day? Sophie and I had begun to despair of you ever making an appearance, and we've much plotting to do in advance of tonight's ball."
"Plotting sounds rather sinister," Sophie said softly. "Perhaps you meant planning?"
"No, no, I meant plotting." Lily swept the heavy velvet panels away from the window and shot a suspicious look at Fiona and the maid. "Have we interrupted something?"
"Certainly not," Fiona said, a bit too brightly.
Mary whisked the letter behind her back and dipped a quick curtsy as she inched her way toward the bedchamber door. "I'll leave you ladies to your own devices. Be sure to ring if you require anything." She shot Fiona a reassuring smile before scurrying down the hall.
Fiona fought the urge to chase after the maid, seize the letter, and tear it into a thousand pieces. Instead, she greeted her friend with a warm hug and waved a hand at the armchair beside her bed. "What an unexpected pleasure, Sophie. Please, make yourself comfortable while Lily explains the nature of this apparent pre-ball emergency." Fiona arched a brow at her sister. "No, wait. Allow me to guess. You tried on the blue silk this morning only to find the bodice has grown too snug?"
Lily grinned and launched herself toward Fiona's bed, bouncing on the mattress in a most hoyden-like manner. "No, the gown is fine. Care to take another guess?"
Fiona tapped a finger against her lower lip. "You cannot find a hair ribbon in just the shade of sapphire to match your slippers?"
"Wrong again." Lily sat up on the edge of the mattress, and the familiar gleam in her green eyes sent a chill down Fiona's spine. "I realized something during my walk after breakfast. Here we are — the three of us — barely a month into our first season, and despite all we learned while we were away at finishing school, it seems we are woefully unprepared."
Fiona wrapped an arm around the post at the foot of her bed and smiled. "I had a similar thought this morning. But I doubt Miss Haywinkle will agree to reimburse our tuition, if that's what you're thinking."
Sophie smoothed a lock of golden blond hair behind her ear and tilted her head. "I found the headmistress's lessons quite instructive. Perhaps I could have done without the endless French conjugations, but she did teach us how to avoid a myriad of social blunders."
"You would have avoided them anyway," Lily said, and Fiona agreed. Sophie possessed a natural grace, was unfailingly polite, and never uttered an unkind word about anyone. "Besides," Lily continued, "I'm not talking about black-and-white matters, like which fork to use during the first course or the correct way to address a dowager duchess. I want to know ... more important things."
Sophie's brow wrinkled. "What sorts of things?" Lily leaned her head back and closed her eyes. "I should like to know how it feels when the most handsome man in a crowded ballroom looks directly at me."
"As would I." Fiona sighed. "And I'd like to know precisely how it feels when he puts his hand on the small of my back and whispers in my ear." She sat on the arm of Sophie's chair and lightly bumped her friend's shoulder. "What would you like to know?"
Sophie shifted uneasily, and her fair cheeks turned pink. "Well, I suppose it would be helpful to know how it would feel ... that is, the particular sensation of ... well, being ravished."
"Why, Sophie," Lily cried, "how positively wanton of you! I am impressed."
Sophie covered her face with hands and groaned. "I'm mortified. I don't suppose we could forget I ever said that?"
Fiona slipped an arm around her friend. "Don't be silly. Lily's only teasing. You can tell us anything."
Lily leaped off the bed, impatiently pushing a long, dark curl away from her face. "Yes! These are precisely the sorts of things we must know. I'm going to make a list." She plopped herself behind Fiona's desk and began rummaging through the piles of sketches covering the surface, pausing to consider one. "Oh, Fi, this is a brilliant drawing of Lady Everly, and the parrot perched on the branch behind her is genius. That woman is an insatiable gossip."
"Thank you," Fiona said sincerely. "But I wasn't trying to make a statement."
"I know," Lily said with admiration. "And yet your drawings never fail to reveal the truth about people." She shuffled the sketches some more and opened a desk drawer. "Do you have a blank sheet of paper around here?" She peered over the desktop. "Never mind, I shall reuse this one in the dustbin."
"No!" Fiona's heart pounded as she snatched the first draft of her proposal to the earl from Lily's hand and crumpled it in a fist. "This list deserves a new, clean sheet." She quickly located one in her drawer and placed it in front of her sister, who stared at her curiously.
Lily raised her delicate eyebrows, dipped the pen in the ink, and meticulously enumerated all the things they wished to experience during the remainder of their first season. "It's ambitious, to be sure, but I have faith that we shall learn all this ... and more."
Fiona was not quite as optimistic as her sister. As of this morning, her season was not about finding love, but rather, about securing a husband in the least amount of time possible. The blackmailer had demanded payment within a fortnight, which meant she must convince the earl to marry her before then.
Obviously, she did not have the luxury of indulging in a slow, heartfelt, romantic courtship. But surely there were advantages to a betrothal that was perfunctory, businesslike, and practical — even if they escaped her at the moment.
"We are all agreed then?" Lily said, more like she was issuing an edict than asking a question.
Fiona and Sophie nodded and murmured their assent. Resisting Lily was an exercise in futility.
"Excellent," she said, pacing the length of the bedchamber. "Each of us will keep a diary in which we record these things" — she waved the list — "so that we don't forget what it's like to ... to fall in love."
Sophie shook her head vehemently. "Oh dear. I can't write such things in a diary. What if my mother were to discover it?"
Lily shrugged. "You can tell her it's mine."
"Mama knows my handwriting." Sophie stood and nibbled the tip of a finger. "No, a journal is much too dangerous. Besides, I doubt I'll have anything of significance to record."
"Nonsense," Fiona countered. Oddly enough, her sister's idea had some merit. It was a small way of taking charge of their lives when very little else seemed to be within their control — a most vexing state of affairs. "If you pay attention to your feelings, you will discover little things can be the most meaningful. Sincere compliments, gallant gestures, furtive smiles ... I think we should give it a try."
"You don't have to write names if you'd rather not," Lily added. "Let the gentlemen remain anonymous if you wish. What we want to capture are the feelings."
"But why?" Sophie asked. "Who is our audience? It's not as though we're going to publish our journal entries." She turned a shade paler. "Are we?"
"No. The diaries will be for our own edification," Fiona said firmly. She glared at her younger sister sternly. "Perhaps we'll choose to share them with each other. Maybe we'll save them in the bottom of a trunk so that one day, when our own daughters make their debuts, we'll be able to warn them about the unique combination of exhilaration, dread, and hope that's wrapped up in one's first season."
"I suppose there's no harm in taking a few notes," Sophie said, still more than a little skeptical. "With all names excluded."
"Good. It's decided," Lily announced. "We shall begin keeping journals immediately. May tonight's ball provide ample material."
Fiona cringed inwardly. If the Earl of Ravenport made an appearance tonight — as she hoped he would — there'd be no shortage of drama in her corner of the ballroom.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "First Earl I See Tonight"
Copyright © 2018 Anna Bennett.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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