Sophia Armitage does not consider herself attractive. Even her late husband treated her more as a companion than a lover when she accompanied him to war. But Sophia hopes to enjoy a Season in London as her niece makes her social debut—until, that is, her hopes are dashed when she is faced with a threat she can reveal to no one. Then she meets Sir Nathaniel Gascoigne, an old army friend, and falls in love with him even as she must discourage his growing passion for her. Nathaniel can sense Sophia's unhappiness and fear, but does not understand that his attempts to protect and help her can only bring about her downfall...
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There was always a sense of pleasurable anticipation attached to entering London even though one had to travel through the poorer, more crowded outer areas before reaching Mayfair and its splendid mansions and thoroughfares. There was an indefinable air of energy about the city and the promise it gave of busy, varied activities to fill every hour of every day of one's stay.
It was even more exhilarating to be arriving at the very beginning of the spring Season, when all the beau monde would be converging on the city, supposedly so that their menfolk might take their seats in one of the two Houses and conduct the nation's business. But that was only a small part of the reason-an excuse, if one would-for the general exodus from country estates and smaller popular centers and spas.
Members of the ton came to London during the spring to enjoy themselves. And enjoy themselves they did with a dizzying array of balls and soirees and concerts and Venetian breakfasts and garden parties, not to mention attendance at theaters and pleasure gardens and walks and rides in fashionable Hyde Park or excursions to see the sights, like the Tower of London, or simply to shop on Bond Street or Oxford Street.
It was a special bonus, perhaps, to be arriving on a sunny spring day. The journey from Yorkshire had been a long and tedious one-and much of it had been accomplished in dull, cloudy weather, with even the occasional rain shower to slow their progress. Mud on the roads was always to be respected, even when one was eager to end a long journey. But although the morning had been cloudy, the sky cleared off during the afternoon and the sun beamed down.
"Is this really it, Nathaniel?" Miss Georgina Gascoigne asked, her voice awed as she leaned closer to the window. "London?"
It was a foolish question, perhaps, since they had long known that they were close and there was no mistaking London for any village along the route. But Sir Nathaniel Gascoigne recognized it as a largely rhetorical question and smiled at his sister's awed expression. She might be all of twenty years old, but her experience of the world had been limited until now to their Yorkshire home and the few miles surrounding it.
"This is really it," he said. "We are almost there, Georgie."
"It looks dirty and disagreeable," the young lady who sat beside Georgina said, sitting very upright on the seat and looking disdainfully from the window without leaning closer to it.
Lavinia. Their maternal cousin, Miss Lavinia Bergland, and Nathaniel's ward despite her advanced age-she was four and twenty-and his own relatively young age. He was one and thirty. Lavinia was his cross to bear, he often thought. She might have used that second epithet-disagreeable-to describe herself.
"You will change your mind when we reach Mayfair," he assured her.
"Oh, Lavinia," Georgina said without turning her head from the window, "look at all the people and all the buildings."
"The streets are not paved with gold," Lavinia said. "But then we have not arrived at Mayfair yet. You must not be disappointed too soon, Georgina."
Nathaniel pursed his lips. His cousin was not without her own brand of caustic wit.
"I can scarce believe we are actually here," Georgina said. "I really thought you were funning us when you first suggested it after Christmas, Nathaniel. Will we receive many invitations, do you suppose? At home you have enormous consequence, but here you are but a baronet, after all."
"I am a gentleman of wealth and property, Georgie," he told her. "It will suffice. We will be invited everywhere. By the end of the Season, I will have found suitable husbands for both of you, never fear. Or Margaret will have done so."
Margaret, their eldest sister, two years his senior, was the wife of Baron Ketterly. She too was coming to London with her husband with the express purpose of sponsoring and chaperoning her second youngest sister and her cousin, the only two remaining unmarried females in the family. There had been six of them, counting Lavinia. Two of them had been married before Nathaniel returned home two years before, summoned by his ailing father. He had been away from home for years before that, first as a cavalry officer with Wellington's armies during the Peninsular Wars and Waterloo, and then for another year after he sold out, indulging in every imaginable extravagance and debauchery with his friends.
But he had gone home, albeit reluctantly, had buried his father a mere three months later, and had proceeded to take up the life of a country gentleman and to run his estate, which had been somewhat neglected during the last years of his father's life. He had married two of his sisters to respectable suitors, and had been left with just these two. At Margaret's suggestion, made over the Christmas holiday, he had considered bringing them to London, to the great marriage mart.
It was going to feel very good indeed to have the last of them married and respectably settled, to have his home and his life to himself at last. One of his main reasons for purchasing his commission had been his desire to escape from a home that was beset by females. Not that he was not fond of his sisters. But there were limits to a man's endurance. He had certainly never imagined that he would spend several years of the prime of his life organizing matches for his sisters-and Lavinia.
"I am sure, Nathaniel," Georgina said now, "there will be scores of ladies lovelier than I-and younger. I cannot imagine that I will attract many suitors."
"Do you wish to attract many, then, Georgie?" he asked with a smile and a wink. "Would one wealthy, handsome one not be enough-and one who loved you and whom you loved?"
The anxiety went from her face and she laughed. "Yes, such a one would suffice very nicely indeed," she said.
Georgina, he rather suspected, had had her heart broken at one time. Their youngest sister had married almost a year before. But her husband, a personable young gentleman of some fortune who had leased a property not far from Bowood a few months before Nathaniel's return there, had apparently directed his attentions to Georgina before turning them on Eleanor. Georgie, a young lady of tender heart and strong loyalties, had often stayed at home instead of attending assemblies and other entertainments with her sisters. She had stayed in order to give her company to their ailing father, who had always seemed to grow worse when his girls were planning some outing. And so her suitor had chosen to pay court to the more easily accessible Eleanor.
Twenty was an advanced age for a young lady to be making her come-out. But not too advanced-certainly not for a young lady of Georgina's delicate prettiness and sweet disposition. And she would have a more than adequate dowry. Nathaniel had no real fears for her.
Now, Lavinia . . .
"You need not look at me like that, Nat," she said as soon as his eyes turned in her direction and long before they could have assumed any expression that might be referred to as that. "I agreed to come. I even agreed quite readily as I wished to see London and to visit all the galleries and museums. I will even concede that there will be some pleasure in being outfitted by a modiste who will probably know what she is doing-Margaret has always spoken highly of her, anyway. And of course it will be interesting to attend balls and to witness all the follies of human nature as exhibited by its wealthiest and most privileged members. But nothing will prevail upon me, I warn you-nothing-to take my place in the marriage mart. Thank you kindly, but I am not for sale."
Nathaniel sighed inwardly. There was nothing delicately pretty about Lavinia. She was a ravishing beauty, a surprising fact when she had sported carroty red hair as a child and had shot up to a gangly and quite shapeless height before he had left home, with freckles and large teeth that did not fit her face. But he had returned home to find that her hair had been interestingly transformed to a shining flame red, that the freckles had disappeared, that her teeth, strong and white and even, now belonged with her face and enhanced its loveliness, and that shape had more than caught up with her height.
She had over the years-and she was four and twenty-refused probably every eligible gentleman, and a few ineligible ones, within a fifteen-mile radius of home, not to mention several who had happened into the neighborhood for one reason or another and would have liked nothing better than to happen out of it again with a red-haired bride.
She had no intention of marrying anyone ever, Lavinia always declared. Nathaniel was beginning to believe her. It was a gloomy thought.
"You need not look so glum," she said now. "You could be rid of me in a flash, Nat, if you would just not be so stuffy and release my fortune to me. I am four and twenty, for God's sake."
"Lavinia," Georgina said reproachfully. Georgie was always the perfect lady. She never took the Lord's name in vain.
"And am not entitled to manage my own fortune until I marry or turn thirty years of age," Lavinia continued. "If Papa were still alive, he should be shot for including such a Gothic clause in his will."
Nathaniel tended to agree. But he could not change the will. And though he could, he supposed, arrange for his cousin to set up her own home somewhere under his supervision-something she longed to do, though he believed the supervision part did not appear large in her imagination-he would prefer to see her married to someone who could handle her and perhaps bring her some happiness. She was not a happy young woman.
Georgina gasped before he could reply-though in truth there was nothing to say that he had not said ad nauseam over the past two years-and drew their attention to the window again.
"Oh look!" she said. "Oh, Nathaniel!" Her hands were clasped to her bosom and she was gazing out at the streets and buildings of Mayfair as if they really were faced with gold.
"I must confess London is improving with every furlong," Lavinia admitted.
Nathaniel drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. He had found himself unexpectedly content with country life, but it felt good to be back in town. And though his sister and his cousin believed that he had come for the sole purpose of giving them a Season and finding them husbands, they were only partly correct.
His three closest friends were also coming to London and had written to beg him to come too. They had been cavalry officers together and had developed a deep friendship based on shared experiences, shared dangers, a shared need to make light of all the dangers and discomforts and to live their lives to the full-both on the battlefield and off it. One fellow officer had dubbed them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse for their tendency to be always in the spot where the fighting was thickest and most intense. They had sold out together after Waterloo and had celebrated their survival together for several months after that.
Kenneth Woodfall, Earl of Haverford, and Rex Adams, Viscount Rawleigh, were now married. Each had one son. Both spent most of their time on their country estates, Ken in Cornwall, Rex in Kent. Eden Wendell, Baron Pelham, was single and unsettled, the only one of them still to feel the restlessness and the need to grasp at every pleasure life had to offer that had consumed them all at first. Nathaniel had not seen any of them for almost two years, but they stayed in close communication with one another. The other three were to spend the spring in London. It did not take Nathaniel long to decide that he would join them there, especially since he had already been toying with Margaret's suggestion.
And there was yet another reason for his coming to town. He felt a strong aversion to the idea of marrying even though there were several eligible young ladies in the neighborhood of his estate and he had plenty of female relatives eager to play matchmaker. Indeed it was Margaret's declared intention not only to find husbands for Georgie and Lavinia in London, but also to find a wife for her brother.
But he had been beset by women for the past two years. He was longing for the time when his home would be his own, when he might come and go as he pleased, be as tidy or as untidy about the house as he pleased, put his booted feet up on the desk in his library if he pleased, or even on the best sofa in the drawing room, for that matter. He looked forward to the time when he might walk into any of the dayrooms in the house without looking about him in fear of seeing yet another new piece of embroidery or crocheting adorning tabletops or backs of sofas or arms of chairs. He looked forward to the time when he might bring one or two of his favorite dogs into the house if he pleased.
He had no intention of replacing sisters and a cousin with a wife, who would of necessity be with him for the rest of his life, managing his home for his supposed comfort. He intended to remain a bachelor-at least for a good number of years to come. Time enough to marry when he was in his forties, if at that time he found himself unable to quell the guilt of not having even tried to get an heir for Bowood.
But although his mind was quite set against a wife, he felt an almost overpowering need for a woman. Sometimes it amazed and even alarmed him to realize that he had not had one for almost two years. Yet all through his years with the army he had been as lusty as any man and a good deal lustier than most-he and Rex and Ken and Ede had never lacked for willing partners. And those months after Waterloo had been one continuous orgy-or so it seemed in memory. He supposed he must have taken a few nights off for sleep. Though perhaps not.
It was next to impossible in the country to satisfy his very natural male appetites without at the same time saddling himself with a wife. But London was a different matter. Georgie and Lavinia were without a doubt his primary responsibility. But they would not take all his time. There would be all sorts of activities that were for ladies only, and Margaret was sure to be a diligent chaperon. Besides, his nights would be his own except on those occasions when there was a ball-though they would be frequent enough, he realized.