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London Late May 1814
Over the past five years, Sebastian Carr, Viscount Langley, had come to the conclusion that there was no catastrophe so great that its impact could not be blunted with an excessive amount of brandy, and he was not about to let this morning’s disaster negate that theory. His lack of available libations, however, might prove to be a problem.
The viscount tried to focus on the meager amount of amber liquid remaining in the decanter on the sideboard. Devil take that Corsican upstart. If not for this damned inconvenient war, Sebastian would have had enough of the exquisite French nectar to keep himself happily oblivious for days. As it stood now, yes, he might be drunk, but not nearly drunk enough. He’d have to start in on the blue ruin after this; if he’d had any foresight at all, he would never have polished off the last of the claret two nights ago. Ah, well. Foxed was foxed, no matter how one got there. He reached for the bottle.
Light glinted mockingly off the cut crystal, flinging rainbows of pain into his tortured eyes. He winced, shielded his gaze, and squinted toward the window. Bloody hell! Had nature itself decided to conspire against him as well? What had begun as a fittingly gloomy day had somehow metamorphosed into a veritable ode to spring. A very bad ode, from the look of things, complete with brilliant sunshine, trilling birdsong, and flowers popping up everywhere. Egad, the only thing it lacked was a few frolicking nymphs. Come to think of it, nymphs would be a definite improvement. Sebastian grinned at the thought.
The gesture, however, quickly wilted beneath the sun’s dazzling onslaught. His eyes began to water. This would never do. He thought about ringing for Grafton, his long-suffering valet (come to think of it, he had never known a valet who wasn’t long-suffering, especially in his service), then remembered he’d sent the man out on a mission of vital importance. No matter. He could do this small task himself.
The viscount turned, and the room turned with him. Turned—and tilted at a rather alarming angle. He halted, swaying, palm pressed to his suddenly clammy forehead. Hmm. Perhaps he was more disguised than he thought; he seemed to move with all the grace of a pregnant rhinoceros. True, he did not have far to stumble in order to yank the draperies shut, but he did not trust the perfidious floor not to spin and deposit him on his backside. It certainly wouldn’t do to greet his guests from that rather inelegant position. Not that they hadn’t seen him that way many times before, of course, but according to the strict rules that governed Society, one could collapse in a sodden heap after they were gone, but not before. A pity, that, especially since he would be obliged to pay closer attention to those rules from now on. Sebastian swerved back to the sideboard, then with unsteady hands managed to drain the contents of the decanter into his glass.
He stared into the depths of his drink for a moment, brought the glass to his lips . . . and hesitated. No, the voice was still there. He had not managed to drown it out, though not for lack of trying.
If only you were more like your brother . . .
The words ricocheted through his muzzy mind with all the subtlety of cannon fire. Very loud cannon fire. The deliverer of those words had never possessed anything resembling diplomacy or tact, much less sensitivity, and this latest utterance was true to form. As far back as the viscount could recall, the only time his father had deigned to speak to him at all was to deliver some form of scathing criticism—with the exception of the last five years, when the man seemed to have forgotten about his heir’s very existence. Not that Sebastian had minded, of course. For the first time in his life he had been free to live as he pleased, and he had made the most of it, if he dared say so himself. But that had all come to a crashing halt this morning when the earl had appeared, unannounced, on his doorstep.
If only you were more like your brother . . .
The words persisted, delivered in his father’s clipped, disdainful tones. More like his brother . . . Sebastian made a rude noise. He would never be anything like Alexander—or should that be Saint Alexander? Given the reverent manner in which his father pronounced the name, divinity was a distinct possibility.
He knew full well he would never attain Alex’s level of perfection. Not that he hadn’t tried, mind you. Tried and failed time and time again, until he had grown weary of making the effort. Alex had been and always would be the handsomer, the more intelligent, the more accomplished, the more athletic, the more anything-you-could-possibly-name of the two. His father never missed an opportunity to remind Sebastian that he would stand forever in the shadow of his older brother, even when that brother was five years dead.
The corners of the viscount’s mouth twitched. Actually, he had come to this conclusion on his own years ago; it had been painfully obvious to his then ten-year-old self. The revelation had been liberating, for only then did he discover how much easier it was for him to be a scoundrel than a paragon. Why make the attempt when he could never be something he wasn’t? After all, one could not expect a leopard to change its spots, a fact that seemed to annoy his father to no end.
But Sebastian could not bring himself to say it. He had tried, wanting to fling the words at his father’s expressionless face, to provoke some response—any response—but one glance from the earl’s cold blue eyes and his tongue stuck fast to the roof of his mouth. He had stood in silence, face flaming, body tense, jaw clenched until he thought his teeth would shatter, while the earl pronounced sentence over him.
If only you were more like your brother . . .
Blast and damnation! Determined to silence the hateful voice, or at least muffle it into unintelligibility, the viscount tossed back a heady gulp, then coughed as the liquor blazed a fiery path down his throat.
A sudden burst of noise intruded on his maudlin musings, a combination of the violent creaking of unoiled hinges and a torrent of invective delivered in a patrician accent. Sebastian cocked an ear.
“I am not traveling one more step, you beastly little toad, until you tell me what the bloody hell is going on!”
The viscount chuckled. Nigel sounded rather out of sorts this morning.
“Calm yourself, my lord,” Grafton cajoled in a soft, soothing tone. “As I told you, Lord Langley will explain everything. This way, please.”
“Well, all I can say is that he had better have a deuced good explanation for rousing me out of bed at this ungodly hour,” groused Nigel.
“My dear fellow,” said a third man in amused tones, “to you, anything earlier than noon is an ungodly hour.”
“And it is now half past eleven,” Nigel huffed. “Barbaric, I tell you!”
Help had arrived. Good. If anyone could steer him in the right direction, they could. After all, what were friends for? With a lopsided grin, Sebastian propped himself against the sideboard and watched as two gentlemen made their way into his shabby, Lilliputian drawing room.
Lord Nigel Barrington shuffled in, appearing more like a figure from the commedia dell’arte than the younger brother of a duke. His straight, guinea-gold locks drooped over his forehead, and dark smudges shadowed the skin around his bloodshot blue eyes. His cravat, an intricate waterfall of pristine linen under normal circumstances, appeared as through he’d tied it in the dark. Wearing mittens. Sebastian tried to hide his widening smile; he knew the signs well. His friend was paying the price for the four—or was it five?— bottles of the questionable vintage he’d consumed at the gaming hell they had patronized last night. It was hoping too much, though, that an excess of spirits would improve the young man’s taste in dress; this morning’s combination of a mulberry jacket over a blue-and-lime-striped waistcoat made Sebastian want to draw the shades over Nigel as well.
Mr. Jason Havelock, on the other hand, appeared every inch the young Corinthian in his coat of midnight-blue superfine, buff inexpressibles, and tasseled Hessians polished to a mirror finish. Although he was not as tall or as handsome as Nigel (well, Nigel when he was in looks, that is), his tanned skin and dark, striking countenance garnered him more than his share of feminine admiration. And it appeared that he was the only sober one of the three. Well, at least someone had a clear head.
“Good day, Nigel, Jace,” Sebastian said with forced good humor. He lifted his glass in salute.
“Well, aren’t you cheerful?” grumbled Nigel. He collapsed none too gently into one of the worn high-backed chairs by the fireplace, which creaked in protest.
Sebastian waggled a finger at him. “Cup-shot, my good man, cup-shot,” he corrected. “The only cheer in this room is the sort one pours from a bottle. I would offer you something, but I fear I’ve already drunk it all. Unless you’re partial to blue ruin, of course.”
Nigel turned vaguely green and shook his head.
Jace leaned one shoulder against the cracked marble mantelpiece, his brow creased in a thoughtful frown. “Your man said the matter was urgent, Sebastian. Am I correct in assuming it has something to do with why you’re drunk as a lord? What happened?”
The viscount observed the curiosity on his friends’ faces. He had known these two since they were at Eton, when the three social outcasts had little recourse but to band together against the bullying of the older lads. Black sheep, the lot of them, but their loyalty to each other had never wavered. Although they had had no secrets between them ever since their school days, it rankled that he had been put in this position.
Before he could say anything, however, Nigel blurted out, “Oh, Lud, you lost to Fairleigh. That’s it, isn’t it?” His lips curled in disgust. “The fellow’s a Captain Sharp! I knew you were in the suds the moment you accepted his challenge.”
“I think your words were: ‘Devil take it, man, your wits have gone begging,’” Sebastian drawled. “But I did not lose to Fairleigh, and you would have known that had you stayed to watch, rather than sporting with that improbably red-haired Cyprian.”
“You won? By Jove! How’d you manage it?” Nigel sat up in his chair, suddenly attentive.
Sebastian raised a laconic eyebrow. “You seem to forget that I cut my teeth at piquet. Fairleigh’s method of marking the cards is so obvious even a child could make it out. He didn’t seem to realize I was on to him until the very end, and the look on his face was worth more than all his vowels put together.”
“Then why didn’t you call him on it?” Nigel demanded.
“I could have, but I do not fancy grass for breakfast, thank you very much. Besides, the possibility that I might let this knowledge slip should be enough to prevent him from gulling anyone else—for a while, at least.” Sebastian frowned and glanced down at his brandy. He was no longer slurring his words, and the pleasant, fuzzy sensation he’d cultivated seemed to be wearing off. Without another infusion of spirits, in a few hours he’d be sober as a parson on Sunday. Blast.
Jace cleared his throat. “Forgive me for being such a doubting Thomas, Sebastian, but you win and lose fortunes at the drop of a hat. Care to tell us what is this really about?”
“Very well, I shall come to the point.” The viscount made a grandiose gesture with his glass. “My friends, I stand before you a condemned man. My esteemed father, the all-powerful Earl of Stanhope, has declared that I must marry before my twenty-fifth birthday or be cut off.”
A moment of stunned silence greeted this pronouncement.
Jace recovered first. “Your birthday is but two months hence!”
“Exactly so. Two months to find a suitable bride, or I shall be left without a feather to fly with.”
“But you bested Fairleigh last night,” Nigel blustered. “And that was hardly for chicken stakes.”
The viscount shook his head. “What I won is not nearly enough to make up for my string of reversals over the past six months. My father has me over a barrel and he knows it.”
“You’ve suffered reversals before and come out on top,” Nigel pointed out. “He’s bluffing.”
“Would that he were.” Sebastian contemplated the last of his brandy, then finished it off with one convulsive swallow. Try as he might, he could not block out the echo of his father’s derisive statements and the thread of steel that ran beneath them. “He is deadly serious, I assure you.”
“Why now?” Jace wondered. “Forgive my impertinence, ’Bastian, but I find it odd that your father ignores you for the better part of five years, then suddenly barges into your life and makes this astonishing demand.”
“No more so than I. I can only tell you what he said: that he has grown weary of paying my debts, and that it’s high time I turned my attention to my responsibilities, namely, marrying and producing an heir.”
“There are scores of unmarried ladies in London at this time of year,” Havelock pointed out, “any one of whom would be happy to secure the title of viscountess.”
Sebastian rubbed his forehead; his temples pulsed in rhythm with his heart. Was it his imagination, or had the close confines of his drawing room grown uncomfortably warm?
“Scores of unmarried ladies,” Nigel muttered darkly, “and their mamas.”
“How many of them come with a fortune?” Sebastian’s voice grew rough. “I know what my father is doing—he has set these conditions in the hope that I will fail, allowing him to regain control over me. If I must marry, then it must be to an heiress; I’ll be damned if I allow myself to be dependent on him for anything any more.”
Nigel loosed an inelegant snort.” ’Pon rep, if you’d gotten leg-shackled to that wealthy widow when you had the chance, you wouldn’t be in this pickle.”
Jace’s booted toe shot out and clipped him across the ankle. “Stubble it, you oaf,” he said with a growl, then shot a significant glance in Sebastian’s direction.
“Ow!” Nigel shoved his chair beyond his friend’s reach. “Well, it’s true. She and her fortune would have been his for the asking, had Bainbridge not stolen a march on him.”
Jace’s scowl darkened; he and Nigel glared at each other until the viscount held up a hand.
“Cease and desist, you two—I have no wish to dredge up ancient history. And you need not concern yourself with my tender sensibilities, Jace. I have long since forgotten about Mrs. Mallory.” Sebastian set down his glass, careful to school his features into a bland mask so his friends would believe the out-and-out lie. Kit—Mrs. Mallory—the Marchioness of Bainbridge, he should call her now—had been the first woman in a very long time whose company he actually enjoyed. Her wealth and unusual beauty had attracted him at first, but the few weeks he had spent in her company gave him an appreciation of her as a woman. But she had not loved him. Oh, she regarded him as a friend, something most properly brought up females would never consider, but nothing more than that. When he went so far as to propose marriage (a mad gesture if ever there was one!), she had hesitated. Perhaps she had even considered his offer for a second or two. But in the end she had graciously refused, even though the arrangement would have saved her reputation—not to mention his finances.
The news of her marriage to Lord Bainbridge last September had not surprised him; Kit had been head over heels in love with the dashing marquess. She still was. God’s blood, anyone with eyes in his head could see that. He had spotted her in Town a few weeks ago, happy and smiling on her husband’s arm, her belly beginning to swell with pregnancy. A strange, hollow sensation spread beneath his breastbone, but he shrugged it off. He could never have made Kit happy. Ultimately, a rogue like him cared for no one’s happiness but his own.
“So, what is your plan?” Jace prodded.
Sebastian shoved his hands in his coat pockets, heedless of the way the fabric strained at the shoulders. “Gentlemen, I intend to take a logical approach to this dilemma. I need blunt, lots of it. And, somewhere in London, an heiress has her eyes set on a title. I propose a fair exchange.”
“Egad, the thought of any of us leg-shackled to some simpering miss curls my liver,” Nigel stated, shuddering.
Sebastian paced a few steps from the sideboard, turned—and grabbed for the back of the threadbare sofa as the room seemed to wobble a bit. So much for sobriety! “Believe me, if I thought there was another way out of this dilemma, I would take it in a heartbeat.”
Nigel leaned forward and stroked his chin. “What about the moneylenders?”
“I am already deep enough in debt without throwing myself headfirst down a well,” replied Sebastian with no little sarcasm.
Nigel slumped. “Just a thought.”
“Then what do you need from us?” Jace asked.
The viscount flashed a sardonic smile. “I have not had much contact with polite Society of late, so I need the names of heiresses in Town for the Season.”
“I say,” Nigel interrupted, “what if you were to marry a Cit’s daughter? Plump in the pocket, but completely outré. Oho, wouldn’t that send your pater into the boughs? Er . . . no offense, Jace.”
“None taken. After all these years, you would think I’d be used to it,” Havelock muttered.
Sebastian’s hand tightened on the back of the sofa, his fingers digging into the thinning fabric. “No, not a Cit. I do not wish the earl to take exception to my choice of bride; that would be too obvious. No, she must be well bred in addition to well inlaid.”
“Is the magnitude of the lady’s fortune your sole consideration?” Jace wanted to know.
The viscount thought a moment. “She should be a comely chit—no diamonds of the first water, but no antidotes, if you please. I should hate to have to consummate the marriage in the dark.”
A half-smile tipped Havelock’s mobile mouth. “Anything else?”
“A sweet, biddable disposition would not be unwelcome.”
Nigel guffawed. “Then for God’s sake, stay away from Lady Blythe Daventry. She has fifty thousand pounds, but you couldn’t pay me enough to put up with that shrew. Gives you her opinion on everything, then expects you to thank her for it. She cornered me at Lady Rowland’s ball last week, and I barely escaped with my life.”
“I would have paid good money to see that,” Jace quipped, snickering.
Nigel ignored him. “There’s also Lady Amelia Winthrop; she has fifteen thousand pounds, but she’s a shy little dab of a thing. Can’t say boo to a goose. And Miss Gray is fetching enough, but I doubt if she has two thoughts to rub together.”
Jace rolled his eyes. “When did you become such an expert on heiresses?”
Nigel spread his hands. “Can I help it if ladies find me irresistible? After all, I am everything a woman could want: charming, handsome, gallant, well bred—”
“— vain, pompous, conceited, and ill dressed,” Jace finished dryly.
“Ill dressed?!” Nigel echoed in outraged tones. “You wound me, sir. I’ll have you know I am considered quite a Tulip of fashion.”
“By whom? The desperately nearsighted?” Jace grinned at him.
Sebastian folded his arms over his chest and sighed. “Gentlemen, if you please . . .”
The two men exchanged one more good-natured glare and subsided.
“I have one last requirement,” he continued. “I require the lady’s fortune to be in excess of ten thousand pounds.”
Nigel gaped. “Ten thousand? You are dipped.”
“Yes, but not that badly. Once I have paid off my debts, the remainder will allow me to live quite well indeed.”
Havelock remained skeptical. “A fair countenance, good breeding, a sweet nature, and ten thousand pounds—are you certain you can find this paragon in only sixty days?”
“I will find someone, Jace; if I have to sacrifice one or more of my requirements, then so be it. Beggars cannot be choosers and all that, but if such a paragon exists, I will make a go of it before I am forced to lower my sights. Within the next sixty days, I will find an heiress, wed her, bed her, and hopefully get her with child as quickly as possible. She will remain in the country to raise our offspring, while I reside in Town. I shall be flush in the pocket; she will be Viscountess Langley and eventually Countess of Stanhope. An even trade, wrapped up in a very neat package.”
“An even trade, if a cold-blooded one,” Jace mused.
“Cold-blooded? Highly sensible, I’d say,” Nigel countered. “You may not have been born to the upper ten thousand, Jace, but you’ve seen enough of Society to know that among the ton, most marriages are nothing but contracts. In such cases it’s far safer not to know one’s spouse too well. Have you ever seen my brother, the Duke of Wexcombe, with his wife? Brrr. Now there’s a chilly arrangement.”
Havelock’s dark gaze remained on the viscount. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
“I cannot change what I am, Jace. The less time my wife spends in my company, the less chance we have to make each other miserable. So . . . will you help me?”
Jace’s clouded expression did not waver. “All right, Sebastian; I’ll help you. But I still think you’re making a dreadful mistake.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, man, leave off your harping,” Nigel scolded. “The situation is bad enough without you playing the role of the Greek chorus. You can count me in, Sebastian.”
The viscount relaxed enough to smile. “Excellent. Now, before we begin in earnest, I suggest you get me out of this stuffy little hole in the wall and into a bottle of brandy.”
What am I doing here? I don’t begrudge Pen her Season, but I do wish Mama had not been quite so insistent that I come along to acquire some “Town bronze.” Whatever will I do with it anyway, when I am going to do nothing but return to Leicestershire and marry Augustus? If she had been able to find a suitable chaperone, I suspect she would have left me back at Wellbourne. I should have preferred that. “Town bronze.” Hmph. It sounds as though Mama wants to turn me into a statue. Well, she’s too late. I’m already bored stiff!
If only something interesting would happen! I vow we have done nothing but go to silly balls and parties where women simper and flutter their eyelashes at any remotely eligible man unfortunate enough to come within range of their claws. Last night I all but expected Miss Torrence to shout “tally ho!” and sprint off in pursuit of poor Lord Rockhurst. Life in London is a farce—if only it were half so entertaining. Drat it all. I would much rather be back home; there is so much work to be done. . . .
“Jane Honoria Rutledge!”
Penelope’s peal of laughter echoed through the confines of the small town house garden. “Honestly, dearest, you might at least try to pretend some interest in the conversation. La, my own sister thinks me dull as dishwater.”
For the first time that afternoon, Jane was grateful for the brisk spring breeze; at least it would cool her burning ears. She ducked her head and made a great show of smoothing the wrinkles from her poplin skirt. “That’s not true. Don’t be ridiculous.”
Penelope’s laugh subsided to an indulgent chuckle. “You have always been a terrible liar. You were thinking about home, weren’t you? Dearest, Mr. Finley can manage just fine without us for a few months.”
“I was not thinking about Wellbourne.”
“It is no use, dearest, you may as well confess—you have not heard a single thing I’ve said, have you?”
“Of course I have. I . . .” Jane hesitated when she noticed her older sister’s amused I-dare-you-to-deny-it look. She bit her lip and smiled a sheepish smile. “Not a word. I’m sorry, Pen. What were you saying?”
Penelope sighed. “I was asking you what you thought of Lord Heathford.”
Oh . . . the List. Jane snugged her wool shawl more tightly around her narrow shoulders and tried to bring some order to her jangled thoughts. Heathford, Heath-ford . . . which one was Lord Heathford? Lud, she could not possibly keep track of all her sister’s admirers. “Well . . .” she hedged.
Seated next to her on the stone bench, Pen looked up from the small leather-bound book, pencil poised. She lifted one delicate eyebrow in a knowing arch. “You remember. The talkative gentleman with whom I danced the allemande last night at Lady Allenby’s.”
“Oh, him,” replied Jane, and rolled her eyes. “The looby whose cravat was so tight it cut off the circulation to his brain. If only it had cut off circulation to his tongue as well.”
Her older sister tried, unsuccessfully, to stifle her explosive giggle. “If you are trying to spare my feelings, dearest, it won’t fadge.”
Jane wrinkled her nose and grinned back. “Well, you wanted my opinion.”
“Which is as brutally honest as ever,” Pen acknowledged, still fighting her laughter. “But I had hoped for something a little more specific.”
“All right, specific it is. Merits: Viscount Heathford is rather well favored, I will admit. He has very fine blue eyes. Drawbacks: he chatters like a magpie about the most trivial matters imaginable. While you were dancing with another partner, he proceeded to quiz me on your preferences for a gentleman’s style of cravat. He then launched into an incredibly long-winded discourse on the advantages of tying one’s neckcloth in a trone d’amour as opposed to à oreilles de lièvre, or some such nonsense. I had to plead a megrim in order to escape; it was either that or run shrieking from the ballroom. Anyone who marries that idiot will never get a word in edgewise.”
Pen made a few scribbles in her book. “So noted.”
“And what did you think of him?”
Jane snorted. “You are not getting off so easily, Pen. I know you dislike to speak ill of anyone, but we agreed when we started this that we each must voice an opinion, even if that opinion is not entirely flattering. You have already heard mine—now it is your turn.”
Her older sister shifted on the hard bench, her pretty features contorted in a grimace of distaste. “Of his merits—yes, I also found him handsome. His eyes are very fine indeed. But his drawbacks . . . he trampled my feet black-and-blue during the allemande and talked about nothing but himself and his tailor the entire evening. As much as I hate to say this, dearest, Lord Heathford has to be the greatest clunch I have ever met!”
“Oh, well,” Jane murmured. “Another one out of the running.”
The older girl finished writing and turned the page. “But enough about him. What about Lord Camden?”
Jane started. “Stay away from that one, Pen! The way he looks at you, the way he follows you with his eyes . . . he reminds me of a fox stalking a prized pullet. He makes me dreadfully uneasy. I cannot even give you anything for the Merit column.”
A tremor shook Penelope, and she rubbed her palms briskly along her upper arms. “I agree. The last time I encountered him, he frightened me with the intensity of his regard. And I cannot overlook his terrible reputation as a rake and a spendthrift.” She made several more notes. “I think we can take Lord Camden out of consideration.”
Jane leaned over to look at her sister’s scribblings. “Where does that leave us?”
“See for yourself,” Pen replied, and handed her the book.
Ever since their arrival, Pen had kept a catalog of her beaux, complete with a column for the perceived merits and shortcomings of each, in order to make a more rational choice of a husband. And every afternoon the two of them sought out a quiet place in the house, well away from the curiosity of the servants (and the especially prying eyes and ears of McBride, their mother’s dresser), to go over what they called the List. Today the lovely May weather had enticed them into the tiny garden behind their rented town house; dappled sunlight filtered through the leaves of the knobby elm under which they sat, and a lovely profusion of jonquils and crocuses bloomed in the sunny spot toward the center of the garden. The playful breeze twitched at the edges of their skirts and rustled through the elm’s burgeoning cloak of green leaves. But all this vernal splendor could not distract Jane from the fact that so far their search was a dismal failure. She scowled and gave the List back to her sister. “This cannot be all the eligible bachelors you have met in the past six weeks.”
“Well,” Pen sighed, “these are all the titled ones I have met. Botheration. If only Mama were not so insistent that I marry a lord. I have made the acquaintance of several amiable, untitled gentlemen, but Mama would fly up into the boughs if I even considered a mere ‘mister,’ or even a younger son.”
Jane noted the dejected droop of her sister’s lips. Pen was right—and their mother’s temper was legendary. She took Pen’s hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. “We have been in London little more than a month, and we have over a month left. Give yourself time. I am certain you will find someone to your liking before then.”
“You mean, find a lord to my liking. Why have I not hit upon the right gentleman? Something must be wrong with me, Jane. Or am I being too particular?” Penelope’s anxious gaze searched her sister’s face.
“Of course not,” Jane replied with asperity. “It would be easier if you could select a potential husband like you would a horse—check the soundness of his legs, look at his teeth, judge his gait and his disposition—but in this case you’re perfectly justified in being particular. After all, you will be joined to this man for the rest of your life, so you may as well hold out for someone whose presence you can at least tolerate.”
“But what if I do not find anyone who wants me for who I am and not for my money?” Pen’s question came out as a thready whisper.
“Stop talking nonsense. Goodness, you have half of the men in London at your feet already! Dozens of your beaux crowd into the drawing room almost every afternoon, and they send you flowers by the greenhouseful. You have to all but fend off the admiring throngs with your parasol when you venture out of doors. You are this Season’s Incomparable, Pen. You will meet someone soon, I am sure of it.”
And if she did not, Jane would eat her new bonnet, ostrich feathers and all. Penelope was an acknowledged beauty; her ebony curls, perfect oval face, and stunning green eyes attracted men by the score . . . as did her dowry of twenty-five thousand pounds. But she was also sweet, demure, and even tempered, if a little on the shy side. At twenty, she was perhaps a trifle old to be making her debut, but that could not be helped. Besides, her age seemed to matter only to the jealous misses whose suitors Pen bewitched. Although he possessed no title himself, their late father was the younger son of a viscount, and their family name went back to the age of Queen Elizabeth. Pen would make a suitable match. It was simply a matter of finding a suitable gentleman.
Pen closed the ledger with a small sigh. “You are right, Jane. I must not let myself become blue-deviled. Still, I wish I might meet at least one lord who meets all our criteria. I am beginning to think no one like that exists.” She paused, tilted her head to one side, and regarded Jane with a searching gaze. “But I still hold out hope for you.”
Oh, no. Not this again. Jane averted her eyes. “Don’t, Pen.”
“Have you even thought about it? You have, haven’t you? You’re blushing.”
Jane fought to extinguish the heat blooming in her cheeks. “Stop talking nonsense. I am betrothed to Augustus.”
“That addlepate,” Pen muttered. “And you are not yet betrothed, not formally. He has not come right out and asked you to marry him, has he?”
“He asked me if I would consider it.”
“And what did you say?”
“That I would.”
Jane fidgeted. “Well . . .”
Pen’s eyes rounded. “What did Mama say?”
“She looked me up and down and wondered why any man would ever want me.”
“Oh, Jane.” Her sister reached out a consoling hand. “Why did you not tell me?”
She shrugged. “Because I knew you would try to talk me out of it. I cannot afford to be a romantic, Pen.”
“Perhaps, but that does not mean you must settle for the first man who offers for you! Especially a man who indulges in gossip and delights in ruining reputations.
There is still time to change your mind. Mama will not approve Mr. Wingate’s suit until I am married off.”
Jane concentrated on twirling a lock of her stubborn, straight-as-a-pin hair around one finger. Seeing her eldest daughter married to a count, a marquess—or even, in her wildest flights of fancy, a duke—was Lady Portia Rutledge’s fondest wish. Her hopes for Jane, however, were another matter entirely. “With Augustus I shall be well settled, and with a minimum of effort.”
“Oh, what fustian,” Penelope persisted. “We are in London, dearest, and surrounded by some of the most illustrious bachelors in England! We have dreamed of this for years. You can do so much better than an over-padded, gossip-mongering oaf like Augustus Wingate.”
“It’s not as though I have suitors throwing themselves headlong at my feet,” Jane replied, more sharply than she had intended. She saw her sister flinch, then softened. “I’m sorry, Pen, but you must understand. Papa wanted me to wed a man who would maintain the stables as they are and help me to run them. I cannot marry someone who would do as he pleases with the land and destroy everything that Papa worked so hard to achieve. Wellbourne means the world to me, and I would do anything to keep it . . . even marry Augustus.”
“Will you be happy with him, dearest? Truly?”
Jane shrugged. “Happy enough.”
“Can you be certain of that?” Pen demanded. “Dearest, Mr. Wingate wants to marry you because his lands march with yours. He wants nothing more than to expand his holdings and line his own pockets.”
“I know.” The skin around Jane’s eyes tightened, and her fingers curled convulsively around the smooth edge of the bench. Her sister had not meant the comment to be hurtful, but it stung just the same. No one glanced twice at a drab little thing like her when Penelope’s beauty blazed so brightly. She realized from the moment he had proposed that her lands, not her looks, had attracted Augustus Wingate. “I am not looking to make a love match, Pen. My marriage to Augustus will give us both what we want. He will gain ownership of the property, but he has agreed not to interfere with my management of the stables. He barely knows a cart horse from a race horse.”
A worried frown creased Penelope’s brow. “Can you trust him to follow through, dearest?”
“We have an understanding.”
“I wish you would reconsider; I hate to see you hold yourself so cheaply. There are other fish in the sea more amiable and broad-minded than Mr. Augustus Wingate.”
Now that she thought about it, Augustus, with his slightly receding chin and round-eyed stare, did bear a rather pointed resemblance to a brown trout; it wasn’t too difficult to imagine him with gills and fins. Not the sort of husband she had imagined for herself, but she must be practical. As plain as she was, she doubted she would receive any other offers.
Jane swallowed around the lump in her throat, then tried to smile. “We hardly need fret over my prospects, Pen, when we have our hands full with yours. At any rate, Mama would have my head if she thought I was trying to compete with you for a husband.”
Penelope was not convinced. She frowned. “But—”
“Please, Pen,” Jane entreated, “we have been over this before. Arguing serves no purpose; I have quite made up my mind.”
“But at least consider someone else—”
Sudden movement caught the corner of Jane’s eye; a prim, scowling visage disappeared behind a window on the ground floor. She held up a warning hand to stem the flow of Penelope’s indignation.
“We had best go inside,” she said in low tones. “McBride is becoming suspicious.”
Pen’s eyes widened with alarm. “Do you think she knows what we are doing?”
“I’m not sure, but I caught her eavesdropping outside your chamber door yesterday. She suspects we are up to something, and, knowing her, she will not rest until she discovers exactly what it is.”
Pen paled. “If Mama finds out about the List, she will have fifty fits; she is still upset that I did not accept the Earl of Haydon.”
Jane made a moue. “Even though he is seventy years old, gout-ridden, and smacks his lips whenever he sees you. For shame, Pen. He was such a catch, too.” Observing her sister’s distressed expression, she quickly added, “I was joking, you goose. All right, here is what we shall do: give me the List, then go back in the house. McBride is sure to follow you, so I will hold onto the List until it is safe to return it to you.”
“Oh, dearest,” murmured Penelope. She surreptitiously slipped the small journal to Jane. “You are the best of sisters.”
“Make haste, before she notices we have made the switch,” Jane murmured. “I will follow in a few moments.” Turning her back to the house, she tucked the book snugly into her sleeve.
Penelope rose and took her leave; Jane watched her make her way back into the town house. She breathed a sigh of relief. The List was safe, for the moment. She rose, shook out her skirts, then wandered over to admire a patch of fragrant hyacinths that grew by the garden wall. She would stay outside a little longer so that Pen might send McBride on a merry chase. Rather like playing hunt the slipper, only with a slipper that would never—could never—be found.
Then a voice intruded on her solitude.
“Dammit, Alex, why did you leave me alone with him?”
Jane recoiled; her heart knifed sideways in her breast. Who was that? Heavens—the voice sounded like it came from right in front of her! She retreated several steps.
“He was never this bad when you were here,” continued the voice, “but now . . . God’s blood, I never thought he would go this far.”
Jane gulped. The voice, hard, brittle, and definitely male, emanated from the other side of the garden wall. Who was this man, and who was he talking to? She edged closer to the brick partition.
“But I think I have found a way to get the better of him. He will never suspect. You’d be proud of me, I know you would.”
Jane waited for another voice to reply, but the only thing she heard was the sound of the breeze rustling through the branches of the elm tree. She frowned. How very peculiar. When they had rented this house for the Season, Lady Arnholt had mentioned in passing that the place next door had stood empty for the last five years, something about a terrible tragedy. Obviously it was not empty now. Her heart slowed its frantic pace as curiosity overcame her alarm.
“I would never have had to resort to such drastic measures if you were here.” The stranger sighed. “I miss you, Alex. I only wish I had had the courage to tell you sooner.”
Who was this man? Did he have anything to do with the tragedy Lady Arnholt mentioned? Jane’s better judgment told her to go back into the house, but something—perhaps mere curiosity, perhaps a reckless response to all the talk of marriage to pompous, trout-like Augustus Wingate—made her stay. Not only that, it made her want to catch a glimpse of the speaker on the other side of the wall. She had been responsible and dependable even before her father’s untimely death; for once, she longed to do something—well—adventurous.
Lifting her skirts, she stepped up onto the stone bench beneath the elm tree. But even when she stood on tiptoe, she still was not tall enough to see through the decorative ironwork at the top of the wall. Drat.
Jane glanced back toward the house; she could see no one at the windows. McBride was busy trying to glean information from Pen. Their mother was not due back from her afternoon calls for another hour. Even so, remaining unseen would be tricky. She would have to move swiftly.
Several of the elm’s branches stretched from their property into the garden next door. After tying her shawl around her waist so it would not get in the way, she took hold of the lowest limb, then used the knobby growths on the trunk like stepping stones and clambered her way up and onto the slender bough that arced over the wall. The branch bent and swayed beneath her weight; she lay there a moment, breathless, the rough bark digging into her hands. Twigs poked sharp fingers through the fabric of her dress. She ignored them and peered through the concealing veil of leaves to catch a glimpse of the mysterious stranger. Movement caught her eye. Her breath quickened.
As far as she could see, only one man occupied the overgrown tangle of vegetation that passed for a garden on this side of the wall. Had he been talking to himself, then? How odd. He stood several paces away from her hiding place, his back to her, his hands clasped behind him. From what she could see, he was tall, but not overly so, with thick, wavy, golden brown hair that brushed the top of his collar. His shoulders needed no padding, judging by the precise cut of his jacket. Biscuit-colored inexpressibles outlined his muscular legs so closely as to be almost indecent. His Hessians gleamed. Athletic, well dressed, and probably wealthy, to boot—all the hallmarks of a Corinthian. Who was he?
“Gads, I am getting maudlin in my old age. I had better get on with this before I lose my nerve . . . or my stomach,” he muttered, and turned as if to leave.
If only she could see his face . . .
She edged herself a little farther out onto the bough. The branch trembled. A colossal CRACK! split the air, followed closely by Jane’s shriek. And then the tree limb, with Jane aboard, crashed into the rhododendrons on the other side of the wall.