Lady Sara Harland was as sensible as she was beautiful. Since she had to have a husband, she decided to take her pick from a list of the choicest lords available. One name, however, she crossed off her list. Why should she even consider Myles Fenwick, the Earl of St. Quinton, when so many other eligible lords were much less insufferably arrogant and shockingly libertine? Sara was sure she would have no trouble snaring a perfect mate while herself avoiding the infamous charm and insidious attractiveness of the infuriating earl. But though this level-headed young heiress had her mind made up, her heart had ideas of its own.
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Entering the library at a desultory pace, Myles slapped his gloves impatiently against his impeccably clad thigh. Glancing back at the long-case clock in the hall, he noted the time, then, with a shrug of resignation, selected a book from the excellently stocked shelves. The large, rather shadowed room was empty, just as he preferred.
Myles relished his time alone, being by nature quite a private person. His aura of reserve made him a challenge to all the matchmaking mamas and their determined daughters who each year made calculated bows to society with the aim of capturing a husband. Myles tended to look down his nose at those scheming women. No simpering miss just escaped from the schoolroom would ever catch him. He had become quite adept at depressing the interest of the cunning young things.
Sauntering down the length of the room, he found a comfortable wing chair. It was drawn near to the window that faced the rear of the house and the wealth of spring blooms to be viewed. He settled down, knowing his cousin, Kit Fenwick, could be depended upon to be at least half an hour late for their appointment. If Kit had not insisted it was of dire import, Myles would have let him stew. But a fondness for his ebullient young relative brought forth unusual tolerance in Myles. Besides, staying with his relatives while his own town residence was under renovation added a certain obligation to indulge Kit. He crossed his polished Hessians, opened the book, and began to read.
The book did not live up to his hopes. Perhaps the very late night he had spent at White's contributed to his feeling of fatigue. He found his head dropping against the high back of the chair, sliding towardthe broad and nicely padded corner. With a soft thud the book fell unnoticed to the Turkish carpet. Myles Fenwick, the Earl of St. Quinton, had dozed off in a light slumber.
With unusual stealth, two young women entered the Fenwick library. Corisande Fenwick shrugged and gestured her companion to be seated. Her gold-on-white spotted-muslin dress was heedlessly crushed as she plumped herself on a dainty chair. "I wonder what Sara wants?" she asked. Her china-blue eyes were puzzled as she gazed thoughtfully about the deserted room. "Why the need for such secrecy?" Her voice dropped to a whisper, as though afraid she might be overheard. "What do you suppose has happened?"
Lady Amanda Tynt seated herself with quiet composure. "You know our Sara. She is ever up to something. Remember the pranks she led us into while at Miss Tilbury's?" Her eyes lit with mirth as she contemplated some of Lady Sara's past ideas. Drawing off her gloves, Amanda settled back on her chair. Soft brown hair peeked from beneath her demure bonnet. Her dress of figured pink jaconet fitted gently about her neat figure. Although as curious as Corisande, she contained it well, waiting patiently for the others to arrive.
There was a stir at the front entry, a flurry of movement, then a dashing redhead in green-striped muslin rushed into the room. "Am I very late?" The breathless inquiry was followed by a heartfelt sigh as Fiona Egerton sank onto a chair. "Oh, I had the veriest devil of a time getting away. Mama was wanting to scold me and I simply couldn't listen to another of her tirades." Fiona pulled at the green ribands of her bonnet, then carelessly tossed that elegant creation on the floor beside her. She settled back on the cushion with another dramatic sigh.
"What is it this time? Another escapade in the park?" Lady Amanda smiled indulgently at her dear friend. "Your mother does not understand how much you love to ride."
"I daresay she would be in alt if I had your feminine grace and charm, dear Amanda." Fiona shot Amanda a rueful smile, one totally lacking in envy. "Indeed, I had intended to ride with utmost care, but the morning was so fine after all that rain we have had, and my horse is such a sweet goer. It was too, too much to expect to plod along like some utter flat!"
"Given time, I am certain she will reconcile herself to your, ah, talents, Fiona." Amanda was renowned for her diplomacy. Indeed, Fiona could only wish she had Amanda at her side when attacked by her mother's angry temper.
"Does either of you know why Sara wishes us to meet?" Fiona looked to the others for a clue to the mystery. "I vow her message brought all manner of questions to mind."
"Since she is not one to keep us waiting, I suspect we shall know soon enough," said Amanda with her usual calm.
As Amanda spoke, a soft murmur was heard in the hall; then a figure in blue entered the library, closing the door firmly behind her. "Oh, good, you are all on time," she said with evident pleasure. Violet eyes sparkling, Lady Sara Harland strolled across to lean dramatically against the imposing walnut desk. She removed her bonnet, setting it carefully aside. Ebony curls modishly framed the piquant face that was lit with impish delight. In a low voice, reminiscent of Sarah Siddons at her most expressive, she announced, "I have the greatest scheme, my dears." She gave them a teasing look from mischievous eyes. "Perhaps we ought to have a cup of tea while we discuss this wonderful idea I have."
Corisande bounced on her chair, pouting adorably. "You know how I simply cannot wait for treats. Do tell us this very minute.
"Well ... it must remain a secret. Will you agree?"
"Sara," urged Amanda, curious to know what Sara had concocted this time. Never were her plots dull.
"If you insist. You know we must all marry. Our families expect it of us and none of us desires to remain on the shelf." The other three exchanged glances at that most obvious statement. Sara cleared her throat. "Be a love and order tea, Corisande. I'm simply perishing for a cup.
Fiona clasped her hands in her lap as though restraining herself. "Sara, dear, we are waiting with baited breath for this momentous notion you have conceived. No more roundaboutation, if you please."
"I would never wish to tease--you know that." Sara chuckled at Fiona's answering sniff of disbelief. "Very well. If you are agreed, with the expert help and guidance of my aunts, each of us shall be able to marry the man of her choice! Think on it--to marry a man you admire and cherish rather than someone you may dislike, even detest! We shall have all prospects carefully scrutinized and matched to our tastes by my dear aunts. Is this not the most modern, scientific way to find a husband?" Sara paused, tilting her head like a violet-eyed pixie. She gave them an engaging, persuasive grin. "After all, this is 1816, not the Middle Ages. Why should we sit helplessly by and let someone else do the choosing for us?"
Amanda gave a cautious nod. "It sounds like a lovely idea, but I would not wish to be thought forward."
Nodding vigorously, Fiona added, "No scandals, please."
Sara gave them a reassuring look. "No one else shall know a thing about it but us, I promise you. Tell me, is this not precisely what you have secretly longed to accomplish?"
Amanda's eyes sparkled with mirth as she said, "And how do you propose to do this marvelous thing?" She waited, knowing Sara would reveal all in her own good time, after her bit of drama.
Sara turned to her closest friend, red-headed Fiona, to demand, 'Tell me what you think."
Fiona hedged. "Mama will not be best pleased if I land myself in the suds once more. Will your scheme get me in trouble? Your aunts are dear, dear ladies, but even you must admit they are, well, a trifle eccentric."
At the sudden rise of Sara's chin, Amanda inserted, "They are charming and knowledgeable about the ton, though. And they would of a certainty know all there is to know."
Corisande, whose family library was being pressed into use this fine April day, bubbled a delighted laugh. She toyed with the artful blond curl draped enticingly over her shoulder with one delicate finger. "I think it is a famous scheme. I ever fear my mother will take a horrid notion to settle me on Sir Cedrick Fenton. Though I suppose he might have to apply to my brother, Kit, it would be Mama who decides the thing." At the bewildered expression on the faces of her friends, she explained, "I would like to change my last initial, you see. Shall we have that cup of tea while we hear what Sara has to present? I fear she will not tell us one more word unless we appease her." At the general nod of agreement, Corisande rang for a tea tray and settled back on the little chair her mother had favored when joining her husband in his room.
Sara slipped onto the leather-upholstered chair behind the grand desk, appearing slightly lost in spite of her taller-than-average frame. She drew several slips of paper from her reticule, looking about her with an air of suppressed excitement.
"I do hope you will all go along with my idea. I discussed this proposal with my aunts this week past. As Amanda said, they delight in knowing everything about everyone. She gave a reproving look at her dearest friend as Fiona choked back a laugh. "Here are their lists of the most likely candidates for conquest. The men on each of your lists are based on your interests and expressed past preferences. Since I do not agree perfectly with the first choice for me, I cannot expect you to totally fall in with every name on your list either."
Amanda leaned forward, one dainty hand extended. "Do we get to see these exciting lists before we all perish from curiosity?" Gentle humor lurked in the gray depths of her eyes.
Rising from her place at the desk, Sara walked around with the slips of paper in her hand. She was about to hand them out, then quickly hid them behind her as a footman entered with a large silver tray holding an elegant tea. Amanda sighed with unusual impatience and placed her hand in her lap once more. The tray was placed on the desk--for lack of a more convenient spot--with great ceremony. James bowed from the room, closing the door behind him with a muted snap.
Sara cast a guarded look at the door, then declared in soft but firm tones, "No one must get word of what we plan. You do realize that all will be ruined if anyone learns of our scheme. Not only will our chosen partners be lost to us, but we will be the laughingstock of the ton!" She was well aware she must impress the importance of secrecy on Corisande or that lovable widgeon might bubble over with their plans and the game would be up.
Glancing at the others, Amanda nodded thoughtfully. "Of course you are right, dear Sara. Certainly we shall never say a word!"
"Too true. I would not wish to be thought coming." Fiona shifted uneasily in her chair. Memory of that last dust-up with her stern mama still rang in her ears. One more madcap lark and Fiona would be sentenced to marriage with the dullest, most staid eligible male who could be found.
Corisande bounced a little on the dainty chair, resembling a pretty gold-and-white bird on a nest of chintz flowers. "I intend to look on this as far more than a lark. I was quite serious when I said I feared someone like Sir Cedrick Fenton. Mama said she thought him to be a fine upstanding man. He is as dull as ditch-water and twice as hard to understand. I should very much like to find a mate who shared at least a few of my interests. And not too clever, if you please. I am not at all inclined that way, you know." The others heroically refrained from replying to this obvious statement.
"Now, dear, you are the most tenderhearted of women and that is important too," consoled Amanda.
Fiona added, "It is difficult to imagine you as mute as a fish regarding any plan, Corisande, love. But then, I expect even you can accomplish the impossible, given a motive."
Darting a glance of offended pique at her friend, Corisande was prevented from retribution by Sara. If she could keep Fiona from teasing Corisande into a tantrum, it would be a miracle. "Now, you two, we must not make mice feet of this! Fiona has made an excellent point. Unless we are to be thought quite coming, we must keep this strictly to ourselves. And that especially means our maids, as well as our families. Not a word to your rattle of a brother, Corisande." Sara's look defied Corisande to any defense of her brother, known to be up to every wild rig and row in town.
Amanda nodded, again reflective. "And I suppose your aunts will be as silent as the grave as well?"
Corisande poured cups of tea, then offered them around while they waited for Sara's answer.
Sara spoke slowly, and with caution. "I believe my aunts look on this as an adventure of sorts. Relegated to the drawing room as elderly widows often are, it offers them a chance to live through us, you see." Sara recalled that the estimable Lady Jersey had been given the name "Silence" in great jest, as the lady in question never appeared to stop talking. "Unlike Lady Jersey, they will remain dependably silent."
A gasp escaped the pouting coral lips of the adorable Corisande. "Oh, dear! We should never see the inside of Almack's again if word of this got out!"
"Serious consequences, indeed!" Fiona had thrown off her former uneasiness and now chuckled. Glancing to where Sara once again leaned against the desk, Fiona inquired, "Are we ever to see the lists? If I loathe the names on mine, I might as well settle for the baron Mama has been urging on me.
Sara looked confused for a moment, then recalled where she had placed the lists before tea was poured. She was more nervous about this scheme than she had anticipated. She'd best take care that no one saw her list. "Very well. I trust you will find them quite acceptable."
Amanda extended her hand as though she suspected the list might bite, while Corisande eagerly tugged hers from Sara's hand, quickly perusing the brief collection of names with an excited gaze. Only Fiona held her slip of paper a moment, watching the others. Each read her list before looking up to ascertain what reactions her dear friends had had to their own lists of names. Then Fiona, too, looked to the slim piece of paper in her hand with four names neatly written out in spidery copperplate. "Purple ink? Must have been your Aunt Millicent who wrote this."
"Dear Aunt Milly." Sara laughed softly with great affection in her voice. "She is ever the romantic. I confess I went to her with my idea first, knowing how zealously she follows all the romances of the ton." Sara felt it prudent to spare her friends the first skeptical reaction the aunts gave her scheme. It might very well lead to withdrawal before they even gave it a test.
Fiona shot them a mischievous look. "Ah, yes, we could truly say she is awake to every suit?"
Amanda groaned, while Corisande merely looked puzzled.
"What does she mean by that? I wish people would not say things I cannot understand."
Shaking her head at the intended pun, Sara explained, "She means 'suits' as in engagements, love interests, and the like."
Corisande gave Fiona a cross look. "Then why didn't she say so?"
"Peagoose," answered Fiona with a fond regard for her dear, if not overly bright, friend. "I shall try to remember not to upset you in the future."
Sara took a deep breath. "Well?"
Fiona spoke first. "Viscount York. It seems to me I saw him once. He has the same rusty color hair I have, as I recall," she mused in a pleased voice. "They note he is excessively devoted to his horses."
A gurgle of gentle laughter escaped from Amanda. "It would seem to me that the aunts chose well for you, Fiona. Any man you married would have to be devoted to horses."
"Just as long as he is devoted to me as well!" Fiona shot back in amused accents.
"That is why I wanted to do this, you know," Sara said in a confiding manner. "So that each of us might stand a chance of a happy marriage, rather than the common sort of tolerated situation where each mate goes a different direction." She gave them an earnest look. "I would so hope to find a man I can admire, and whose good nature would make him an excellent companion."
"Well," Corisande said enthusiastically, "I quite like their first choice for me. They note Sir Percy Wolrige is not only highborn, rich, and exceedingly good-looking, but agreeable as well. If only he is not too clever!"
"Seems he is well-matched, for I believe he is considered quite unliterary," Amanda said, reaching over to place a comforting pat on Corisande's hand. "I must agree to my choice as well. Though I have but seen him once, Lord Rolfe appears to me to be a refined and considerate man." At Fiona's questioning look, Amanda added, "I saw him assisting an elderly lady from the crush at a rout with great solicitude. His grandmother, I understand."
Dismissing the men named so far, Corisande turned. "What about you, Sara? Who could be found elegant enough for your tastes?"
"Now, Corisande," reproved Amanda, "you know Sara is not at all high in the instep."
Quite affronted at this misreading of her words, Corisande huffed back, "That was not what I meant at all. It is simply that Sara requires a very special sort of man, one who has a good notion of how to go on in the world. I doubt Sir Percy Wolrige would do for her in the least, if you take my meaning."
Nodding, Amanda agreed. "Quite right. Come, give over, Sara."
Corisande bounced from her chair and peeked over Sara's shoulder before Sara realized her intention. The dear, irrepressible girl blurted forth, "Oh, how famous! She has Myles ... I mean, the Earl of St. Quinton!"
Sara drew herself up, snatching the list away from Corisande's view. "I have no intention of trying to capture the attentions of St. Quinton."
"Why ever not?" queried Amanda. "He is very eligible and certainly the most handsome of men. You could scarcely find a man with more polished address."
"He has wealth enough, and his horses are prime bits of blood and bone," added horse-mad Fiona.
"Myles is the dearest of cousins, though I suppose he can be rather awesome," Corisande inserted with an air of helpfulness. 'He never teases me, you see. And he is terribly good about Kit. Honestly, if Kit manages to reach five-and-twenty, I daresay my mother will be most amazed."
"Runs in the family, does it?" twitted Fiona in an amused voice.
"Fiona, leave off teasing Corisande. Rather get to the reason Sara prefers the second man on her list." Amanda wrinkled her brow in bewilderment. "For my life, I cannot think who could surpass St. Quinton as a choice for you."
"I was so certain you had developed a tendre for him at that house party this Christmas past," added Fiona. "I recall you murmuring something about how a certain black-haired gentleman with wickedly dark eyes and charming manners had quite stolen your heart. Was I wrong in thinking it to be St. Quinton? No other gentleman matched that description half so well."
Sara's eyes flashed with scorn. "I want none of that man, I tell you. I might have been so foolish as to admire him briefly"--she emphasized the word with particular care--"but hardly enough to truly capture my heart! He can use his so-called famous address to snare some other poor soul. He is too top-lofty, too rakish, too ... utterly boring for words!"
Fiona's brow cleared. "Now, why did I ever think you might be enamored of him? 'Tis clear you are ... most unsure of yourself, my love. How can you consider a man too rakish and yet too boring?" Her green eyes danced with mischief.
"Fiona, it is clear Sara has for some strange, unexplained reason taken the most perfectly suitable man in the realm into a peculiar dislike," Amanda stated with quiet firmness. "While I cannot understand such a start, I expect we must allow her to go to her second choice. Who is it?" Amanda steadily met Sara's gaze, silently assuring her that she would drop the subject of St. Quinton once and for all.
Drawing in a careful breath, Sara replied in a hesitant voice, "Lord Naesmyth." She rushed on in explanation, "The aunts declare him to be nice-looking and of respectable birth and wealth. He is a quiet man of scholarly interests that I am quite certain I will enjoy sharing. Who knows, with his reputed study of Turkish antiquities, I might travel with him, as did Lady Elgin with her husband to Greece. We could discover some lost city with spectacular remains ... or something." Her voice trailed off in a vague whisper. Sara didn't know why it was so important that she convince her friends she was set on this second man. Perhaps because it might help to persuade herself.
Fiona had watched this odd performance with skeptical eyes. "Strange, I never knew you had a fancy to travel. Nor was I aware you maintained a partiality for Turkish antiquities. As I recall, Amanda had a difficult time prevailing upon you to visit the Elgin Marbles."
Sensing the distress Sara was experiencing, Amanda intervened. "I am certain the aunts would not have selected his lordship without due consideration, and Sara will make a lovely Baroness Naesmyth."
Corisande gave a sniff of disagreement. "I would far rather see her a countess. She would be, you know, if she were to wed my cousin. I simply do not understand you, Sara. How you could prefer Lord Naesmyth to St. Quinton ... Well!" She gave an irritated flounce of her skirts.
This time it was Fiona who scolded gently, "Leave be, Corisande. You admitted your dear cousin is a bit awesome. Perhaps Sara finds him too much so."
Tossing her head with a fine disregard for the elaborate arrangement of her curls, Corisande added, "Yes, well, I should like to point out that she has not captured Lord Naesmyth's heart, nor has she met the gentleman in question as yet. Time enough to talk about becoming a baroness when he asks her."
With an attempt to appease, Sara nodded. "Corisande has the right of it, you know. While the aunts have selected gentlemen who closely match our ideals, it does not follow that the same gentlemen will fall into our arms."
"Sara!" Corisande gave a shocked exclamation. "I should hope I know better than to permit such a familiarity."
Fiona's eyes sparkled with humor. "I believe it is quite acceptable to allow an embrace after the engagement.
"I am not so certain of that, dear Fiona. Witness with what speed the mamas and papas rush their daughters into marriage once the engagement is announced. The last two I noted were no more than four and five weeks at the most between the notices in the Post and the wedding dates. It seems to me there must be some reason for the haste."
Bursting into quiet laughter, Amanda added, "No one can accuse you of not being observant, Corisande. I believe Sara meant her words figuratively."
"Then why did she not say what she meant?" Corisande gave Sara a cross look, then smiled. "I forgive you. It must be terribly difficult to give up the thought of Myles as a lover. Were he not my cousin and so excessively clever, I would not mind having him at the top of my list, you know. Ah," she sighed wistfully, "he is so handsome and cuts such a fine figure. Have you ever seen him waltz? Utterly divine!"
Sara cleared the strangled sensation from her throat before addressing her friend. "Corisande, love, I think we had better adjourn this meeting of our little conspiracy before I succumb to the urgent desire to throttle you." Turning to the others, she added, "Do you all agree that we shall meet here every Saturday to apprise each other of our progress--with our targets--or lack thereof? I know we will see one another at the various balls and routs and such, but with the need for secrecy, we d best not speak of it unless private. Are we of one mind in this?" She sought Corisande's gaze, wondering not for the first time if they would be able to depend on the darling blond to keep her lovable mouth shut.
"You all stare at me so." Corisande pouted. "I should never do or say anything which might harm my chance at marrying a nice man. The alternative gives me the shudders."
"We shall hold you to that, dearest," Fiona rose from her armchair, placed her cup and saucer on the tray with a sharp clink, then brushed down her skirts. "Amanda, perhaps you will come to Hatchards with me? I have a desire to see the latest offering from Minerva Press." She crammed her bonnet on her head with little regard for how it sat.
Amanda rose to place her china on the tray as well, then nodded. "Very well, though I suspect you have an abundance of wild ideas without the need for further stimulation."
Nearly upsetting her Wedgwood teacup when she gave a delighted bounce, Corisande managed to rescue it in the nick of time, then also surrendered it to the safety of the tray. "I think this is a splendid way to begin the Season. Oh, I hope it goes well."
Sara, thinking of the probable choice of mate her uncle would select for her, agreed. It was well enough to reside with her aunts, sisters of her dear departed mother, and enjoy their company as she went about, but her uncle, her father's brother, was not at all in sympathy with her aunts, and he was the one to decide her future. He would carefully sift through any proposal. No fortune hunter would be allowed to get his hands on the sizable portion left to Sara following her parents' death. Thoughtfully, she tied the blue ribands of her bonnet after setting it just so on her short curls.
The young ladies gathered up their reticules, tucking each list with great care to the very bottom. It was a wonderful secret, and they relished the thought of so daring a scheme. Chattering about the promised treats in store, they sauntered from the room.
The new footman, James, hurried forward to assist them from the house to the various carriages that patiently awaited them. He cast a speculative look at the ladies, wondering if one of them might use his services as a butler before the Season was over.
Back in the library, a shadowy figure rose from the wing chair facing the window and gave his body a lazy stretch. Myles Fenwick had the look of a panther about to embark on a hunt. His eyes narrowed in concentration.
So the exquisite Sara Harland thought him a bore, did she? The other epithets hadn't stung. He was aware some mothers considered him a rake, and that wasn't so terrible. As to being top-lofty, he supposed he might be accused of that--he had been told his manner was a bit off-putting at times. It wounded his pride a little that she could not admire him, true. But boring! Now, that was quite the outside of enough!
It didn't concern St. Quinton that he had been deliberately listening in on a conversation quite definitely not intended for his ears. The old saying that the eavesdropper never heard well of himself was totally lost in his rising ire.
When he woke to the chatter from the young women, his first impulse had been to rise and depart as gracefully as possible. Then he heard his name mentioned, and nothing could have pushed him from the chair. In all his nearly thirty years, he had never been so insulted. How dare that young miss presume to speak of him so! Boring, indeed.
Myles had been quite aware of the incomparable Sam's interest in him at that Christmastime house party. Not to mince words, it was a matter of habit with him to put down any young miss who dared flirt with him. Far safer, especially in the dangerous environs of such a setting. House parties were notorious as a convenient means of arranging an engagement. With all due modesty, the Earl of St. Quinton knew he was quite the most eligible of men. He was accustomed to lures being cast in his direction. He was certainly not familiar with the sensation of being rejected as unworthy!
That she might consider David Naesmyth as a substitute really stung! Myles conceded Naesmyth was a well-enough-looking fellow, certainly well to grass and not given to gaming. But Myles had heard him nattering on and on about this Turkish nonsense. He was a demmed prosy bore!
Though he tried to banish his anger, it remained, simmering just below the surface. Why he simply didn't laugh and sneer at the amusing pretensions of the four young women, especially Lady Sara, he did not pause to consider.
The elegant Lady Sara was about to discover she was not the only one who could scheme. She would find St. Quinton a master at the art. Forgetting his promise to meet Kit Fenwick in the library, he decided to leave, only to discover his cousin in the process of entering the house.
"Thank heaven you waited, St. Quinton," Kit declared. "I have had a devilish time of it this afternoon. Some female thinks I should wed her simply because I held her hand too long. Now, I ask you! Women!"
"You have come to the right man for help, coz. I am well up on women, particularly at the moment." An unholy fire gleamed in St. Quinton's eyes as he gestured toward the door. "Come, let us put our heads together and see what we can devise."