She may be his favorite mystery...
All of Lady Abigail Hurst's dreams seem to be coming true when at long last her childhood sweetheart asks for her hand. But when a maid is found dead, and her betrothed is the chief suspect, Abigail begins to wonder just what manner of man she's marrying...
The Marquess of Longcroft, Edmund Townsend, has always preferred complex mathematical equations to the trappings of society. And love? Love is a non-quantifiable concept. Still, Lady Abigail is his sister's friend, and he finds himself drawn into the mystery of her affianced... even as he begins to anticipate Lady Abigail's company with unfathomable pleasure.
Investigating the murder may reveal more than the sordid truth. It may just reveal the love Abigail always wanted... a little too late.
|Publisher:||Entangled Publishing, LLC|
|File size:||3 MB|
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Say You'll Love Me
An Unexpected Suitor Novel
By Ally Broadfield, Robin Haseltine
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2015 Ally Broadfield
All rights reserved.
London, April 1815
Despite Lord Wrexham's ballroom being dimly lit, with widely spaced chandeliers and burgundy silk wallpaper that did nothing to dispel the dreary atmosphere, Lady Abigail Hurst would not allow it to dampen her spirits. This was her night. At long last, she was attending her own betrothal ball.
She drew in a prolonged breath before cementing a smile on her face and striding forward to greet her soon-to-be mother-in-law.
"My lady, it is a pleasure to see you again." She executed a low curtsy. Though she had known Lady Wrexham for most of her life, as her father's estate shared a border with Lord Wrexham's country property, this was their first encounter since Abigail had officially become betrothed to her son, Robert, who currently held the title of Viscount Hinsdale.
Lady Wrexham's eyes traveled up to the top of Abigail's head and all the way back down to her toes which, thankfully, were doubly concealed by her slippers and ball gown. She resisted the urge to reach up and check her hair for loose tendrils. The stern expression on Lady Wrexham's face didn't waver, and Abigail was left feeling she had failed the first of many tests in her near future. She had never been particularly comfortable in public, and Lady Wrexham was hardly bolstering her confidence.
"You are shorter than I remember," Lady Wrexham said.
Abigail's mother widened her eyes, indicating she should reply, but honestly, how was she to respond to that? She was fairly certain she hadn't been shrinking.
"I suppose you'll do." Lady Wrexham waved a loose hand at Abigail. "Your father is tall enough, and you are passably attractive. The men have made their decision and we can't expect any better from them."
"Thank you, my lady." Abigail was relieved that Lady Wrexham's expectations of her were so low. Hopefully, her son would have higher standards. Her stomach fluttered at the thought of seeing Robert. Despite the long-standing expectations of their parents that they would one day marry, Robert had been away traveling on the continent for so long that she had begun to doubt this day would ever come; but it was here now and she intended to enjoy it. Robert had been the epitome of courtesy and charm since his return, and she found herself wishing they had already wed.
"Go along now," Lady Wrexham said. "You've made an excellent match with my son and you must accept your congratulations from our guests."
Pleased to be given her freedom, Abigail sought the retiring room before the dancing began. She followed the edge of the ballroom, using the wall to help her discern an exit amidst the shadowed edges of the room. After entering the first corridor she came to, she slowed and took in her surroundings. Surely Lady Wrexham would not expect her guests to traverse an unlit path. She must have stumbled upon a servant's passage of some sort. As she turned to go back to the ballroom, she discerned the outline of a man and woman in close proximity farther down the corridor.
"My lord, we will have to continue this conversation later. I must return before Lady Jane notes my absence," said a feminine voice.
The lord in question's back was turned toward Abigail. He wore evening clothes, clearly intending to attend the ball, but he had the maid pushed up against the wall, her skirts lifted, his hand between ... oh my.
"My lord, please," the maid begged. The flicker of the candle in the wall sconce illuminated the tears on her cheek.
He dropped her skirts abruptly. "I will seek you out after the ball."
Abigail stiffened, horrified at the sound of her intended's voice. She backed away carefully, her slippers blessedly silent against the wood floor, dread heavy upon her. The retiring room forgotten, she whirled and scurried toward the ballroom, seeking escape to anywhere else before he noticed her.
Moving quickly, she slipped into another empty corridor and leaned against the wall. Though she was aware that some men consorted with women who were not their wives, she had not expected Robert to be one of them. And with his younger sister's lady's maid, at that. The maid had said that Lady Jane would note her absence.
Abigail forced herself to inhale and exhale slowly, willing her heart to stop racing. After a few more deep breaths, her heart ceased its frantic beating and her mind cleared. She must accept that he had been carrying on with the maid prior to their formal betrothal, but surely he would stop now that they were finally to be married and he would no longer live in this house. For now, she would focus on the ball and not allow what might be a small indiscretion to taint what ought to be the happiest night of her life. After all, this was Robert. He had played lawn bowls with her and taught her how to skip stones and drive a curricle.
Abigail lifted her chin and reentered the ballroom. A scan of the room revealed Lady Georgiana Townsend in conversation with her elder sister. She let out a pent up breath and moved toward them.
"Lady Varnham, Lady Georgiana, how lovely to see you." Though they were on a first name basis, Abigail used their proper titles lest Lady Wrexham overhear their conversation and find fault with their familiarity.
"Abigail," Henrietta said, dispensing with formality, "I believe congratulations are in order. I wish you joy and happiness in your alliance."
Abigail took her proffered hand. "Thank you, Henrietta." Though it wasn't well known among the ton, Henrietta had narrowly survived a disastrous, but thankfully brief, marriage to an abusive husband.
Georgiana was the first person Abigail had told about her betrothal, so there was no need for felicitations from her. Robert's association with the maid still weighed heavily on her mind, and if they were anywhere else, Abigail would have told her what she just witnessed.
"Is there something amiss?" Georgiana asked. "You are pale."
As if her will meant nothing, the words slipped out unbidden. "I couldn't see well enough to tell who it was, but I witnessed a nobleman making free with one of the maids in the corridor." Abigail lowered her voice and moved closer. "The maid begged him to stop, and he reluctantly dropped her skirt, but told her to expect him after the ball."
"Oh, my," Georgiana said.
Henrietta's eyes were wide with fright. Abigail chastised herself. It was unkind of her to mention the incident in front of Henrietta. She ought not to have said anything at all. "I will speak with Robert about it and make sure he puts a stop to it." The twisted irony of her words robbed her of breath for a moment. She patted Henrietta's hand.
Henrietta and Georgiana's older brother, Edmund Townsend, the Marquess of Longcroft, joined them.
He bowed. "Lady Abigail, I understand congratulations are in order."
"Yes, thank you, my lord." Abigail wasn't sure what to think of Lord Longcroft. She was surprised to see him here since she knew from her friend's frequent complaints that he loathed attending social events, and most especially balls. But with responsibility for six unwed sisters, he could not withdraw from society all together.
The string quartet took position across the room, signaling that the dancing would soon begin.
"Lady Abigail, would you care to join me for the first dance?" Lord Longcroft asked.
Handsome in an unconventional sort of way, he was wider through the shoulders than Robert, with hair the color of polished mahogany that was longer than the current fashion. Georgiana had joked that he was so engrossed in his studies of science and mathematics that he sometimes forgot to tend to mundane things like having his hair trimmed.
"I thank you, my lord, but I have promised the first dance to my intended."
"Yes, yes, of course. How silly of me." He gave her a crooked grin.
Just then, Robert entered their circle. "Lady Varnham, Lady Georgiana." Robert bowed over each of their hands before turning to nod to their brother. "Longcroft."
Robert's warm hand pressed against her back. "Shall we?"
Her stomach fluttered with a peculiar mix of excitement and dread. "By all means." Everyone in the ballroom was focused on them as he led her to the center of the floor to dance the minuet. Lady Wrexham was very traditional and wouldn't dream of starting a ball with any other dance.
Robert smiled and stroked the inside of her wrist in a soothing circular pattern as they allowed the other dancers time to take their places. Perhaps Abigail was mistaken, and the incident she'd witnessed with the maid wasn't as horrible as she'd thought. Surely the maid was crying because she didn't want Lady Jane to scold her, and not because she was afraid of Robert. Abigail would give her betrothed the benefit of the doubt and stop behaving like a silly girl instead of a mature woman who would soon be married. She squared her shoulders, determined that no one detect her inner turmoil.
Despite her central location, Abigail was unable to locate Georgiana among the dancers. Even with the aid of the wall sconces, the light was too dim for her to make out the faces of any of the guests at the edges of the ballroom. When she became mistress of this house, she would immediately have the room painted in bright tones and have more chandeliers installed in the ballroom.
The notes of the minuet surrounded them and they began to move. Normally when she danced, she would hold a conversation with her partner as the movements of the dance allowed, but Robert was strangely silent, distracted even. They had known each other for as long as she could remember. As children, they had explored Yorkshire together. She had always been the first person he visited during his school holidays. Nothing had ever been awkward between them until tonight.
She accepted the fact that she wasn't a great beauty who inspired sonnets or other such attention, and Robert had never been anything but polite and kind to her. If her stomach quivered slightly when thoughts of him consorting with his sister's maid entered her mind, well surely that was natural for a young, inexperienced girl. Her social circle was quite limited, and aside from Henrietta, she wasn't acquainted with anyone who had married yet. It would have been helpful to find that other women grappled with the same feelings as their weddings rapidly approached, but she knew not whom to ask.
"The ballroom looks lovely this evening," she said to break the silence.
"Do you know who created the flower arrangements?" In truth, they weren't very impressive, but at least a question required a response.
"No. You'll have to ask Mother." He kept looking toward the entrance as if anticipating someone's arrival.
To distract herself from obsessing over the maid, she reverted to her favorite activity. In her mind, she redesigned the gowns of the ladies around her. Mama had once commented that had she been born to a different family, she would have made an excellent modiste.
After vowing not to allow anyone to convince her to use Lady Wrexham's seamstress, she began with Robert's mother because she was clearly in need of the most help. Instead of the pale peach color, which in Abigail's opinion was inappropriate for a woman of Lady Wrexham's age — not to mention how unpleasantly it blended with her mottled complexion — she would use a deep blue to bring out the color in her eyes. A lower neckline, enhanced with tiny seed pearls embroidered in a circular pattern on the bodice and above the hem. Oh, and a sash of the finest —
"Abigail? You seem worlds away."
Now he deigned to speak with her, just as she was about to decide on the piece de resistance of his mother's gown. "My apologies," she said as she moved away from him. When they came back together, she said, "Was there something you wanted to ask?"
"Not particularly." He laughed as they spun around. "You were so intent, I merely wished to know what was occupying your mind."
This was a good sign indeed. "Well, if you must know, I was thinking about ways to improve your mother's gown."
His eyes narrowed immediately, and she regretted her sudden impulse to share her innermost thoughts with him.
"That is not only an insult to her modiste, but my mother as well," he said stiffly.
She wished she could melt through the floorboards. It seemed nothing would go her way this evening. "I meant no insult. I merely thought that a more vibrant color would emphasize her beautiful eyes."
"What a strange way for a lady to occupy herself. I shall have to come up with more productive activities to occupy your mind." His eyes sparkled as his lips curved into a smile. "I must agree that she does rather resemble a pumpkin in that gown."
And just like that, he dispelled her worry. He was still the Robert she had known. She simply needed to spend more time with him, get to know him more intimately, as she had when they were younger, and then she would be able to interpret his words and moods more accurately. It was unreasonable for her to expect him to still be the boy that she had once known so well. The eldest of her brothers was eight years her junior, so she had very little experience interacting with men. Except for Papa, of course, but that was very different.
They finished the set, and Robert guided her back to her mother. He kissed her hand. "Save the first waltz for me."
"Of course." She returned his smile and tracked him as he strode down a corridor leading away from the ballroom. Thankfully, it was not the same passage where she had happened upon him earlier. After accepting a glass of champagne from a passing footman, she sipped it the way her governess had taught her rather than gulping it down, as she would have preferred, to dampen her nerves.
After receiving congratulations from several people and securing three offers to dance, Robert still had not returned to the ballroom. With each passing moment, the weight of her doubts about Robert pressed harder upon her, making it difficult to breathe deeply.
The first waltz was set to start as soon as the current set ended. It was odd that her betrothed would seclude himself in the card room when this ball was being held in their honor. Perhaps he was similarly weighted down by guilt over his reprehensible behavior, as well he should be. Papa entered the ballroom and approached. Maybe he would know Robert's whereabouts.
"Are you enjoying yourself, my dear?" he asked.
She continued to skim the perimeter of the ballroom. "Yes, of course, but I'm wondering why Robert is spending so long sequestered in the card room."
His brows drew together. "Robert isn't in the card room."
Her pulse jumped a notch. Where could he be? "He asked me to save the first waltz for him, but he seems to have disappeared."
He patted her hand. "No need to worry. I'll go speak with Lord Wrexham and see if we can hunt your young man down."
Papa was not fond of dancing, or society in general, so he was likely grateful for the excuse to exit the ballroom. He preferred to spend his time at his club, and only occasionally accompanied Abigail and her mother to society functions when Mama insisted.
"Lady Abigail." The deep tones of Lord Longcroft reached her like a caress to her frazzled nerves. "Would you care to dance?"
She placed her hand in his. "I would be honored." Abigail hoped Robert wouldn't be angry with her if he suddenly returned and found her waltzing with Lord Longcroft, but Robert had certainly been less attentive than he ought to have been, considering this was their betrothal ball, and she so loved to waltz.
He led her onto the floor, and as they took their positions, she caught Georgiana smiling from the edge of the ballroom. She must have noted Abigail's distress and sent her brother to occupy her. There was no other reason he would choose to dance with her. Though Abigail spent a fair amount of time at his home, she saw him only rarely when she visited with Georgiana, as he was generally sequestered in his library working on some project or another.
Lord Longcroft wore a perplexed expression. "So tell me, since I'm never quite sure, what is one meant to discuss while dancing?"
She couldn't quash the smile that curved her lips at his guileless question. Warmth emanated from his body, enveloping her in a safe cocoon, and she relaxed for the first time since the ball had begun. "Perhaps the weather, the current state of the roads, or a compliment on the decorations."
Excerpted from Say You'll Love Me by Ally Broadfield, Robin Haseltine. Copyright © 2015 Ally Broadfield. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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