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Берроуз Энни

An Escapade and an Engagement

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Chapter Three

‘Lord Ledbury is coming to take you for a drive today? Are you quite sure?’

Lady Penrose regarded her over the top of her lorgnettes, which she was using to peruse the pile of correspondence that had arrived that morning.

‘Yes,’ said Lady Jayne, crossing her fingers behind her back. ‘Did I not mention it last night?’

Lady Penrose looked pensive. ‘I was aware he was at the Beresfords’ last night, of course. But not that you had been formally introduced. Nor that an invitation had been given. Or accepted. In fact you should not have accepted at all.’ She laid her glasses down with evident irritation. ‘You know it was quite wrong of you to do such a thing. The young man ought to have applied to me for the permission which I alone am in a position to give.’

Though Lady Jayne hung her head, her spirits leaped at the possibility that Lord Ledbury was not going to have it all his own way after all. In any confrontation between the hard-faced viscount and her stern duenna regarding a breach of form she would lay odds on Lady Penrose emerging victorious. Lady Penrose was such a stickler for etiquette. It was why her grandfather had appointed this distant relative to oversee her Season.

‘She won’t stand any nonsense from you,’ he had warned her. ‘And she is astute enough to spot a fortune-hunter a mile off. Yes, Lady Penrose will get you safely married before the Season’s out …’

Lady Jayne felt the sting of his rejection afresh. He had been so keen to get her off his hands. His attitude had made her even more determined to take up with Harry when he had shown up. At least Harry liked her.

‘Although,’ mused Lady Penrose, ‘since he is exactly the sort of man your grandfather would wish to encourage, I am inclined to permit the outing to go ahead.’

When Lady Jayne’s eyes widened in shock, her duenna explained, ‘I dare say he slid into bad habits during his years on active service. I have seen this kind of thing before with younger sons who never expected to inherit. It will take him a while to adjust to polite society, no doubt. We will have to make allowances for him.’

‘Will we?’

‘Of course,’ said Lady Penrose, looking at her as though she was an imbecile. ‘He is now a most eligible parti. It would be foolish beyond measure to make a to-do simply because he seems to have forgotten the way things ought to be done. I shall rearrange your engagements for today accordingly.’

Lady Jayne practically gaped at Lady Penrose. Up till now she had been scornful of just about all the young men who had attempted to fix their interest with her. Not that she’d had any objection to Lady Penrose frostily sending those men about their business. For she had no intention of marrying anyone—not this Season! If her grandfather thought he could marry her off just like that then he had another think coming.

She stayed angry for the rest of the day. By the time Lord Ledbury arrived to take her for the drive he had coerced her into taking with him she was almost ready to tell him to do his worst. Except for the fact that he might know Harry’s commanding officer. It would only take one word in the right quarters to ensure he paid dearly for last night’s foolishness. Which reflection only made her crosser than ever. It was so unfair that he could get away with behaving as badly as he wished and even a high stickler like Lady Penrose would forgive him because of his rank.

And then he had the gall to turn up at her front door in a barouche. If she had to be seen out and about with him, could it not at least have been in something a bit more dashing—like a phaeton? Did he not know that this was the very first time Lady Penrose had permitted her to go out driving with a man in the park?

No, she fumed, climbing in, he did not know. Or care. For he was not really her suitor.

At least there was some consolation in that. She twitched her furs up to her chin and glared at the groom’s back as Lord Ledbury sat down next to her. She felt him giving her a hard look, but he said nothing. And continued to say nothing all the way to the park.

As they bowled along the streets she conceded that she supposed she could see why he had chosen such a stuffy, staid form of transport. With a groom to drive there was nothing to distract him from the lecture he looked as though he was itching to give her. He’d probably only held back last night because of that single tear remorse had wrung from her.

Yes—she would warrant he’d feared she would cry in earnest if he shouted at her the way he’d shouted at Harry. That pensive expression as he’d wiped that teardrop from her chin had probably been due to him imagining how dreadful it would be to have to escort a weeping female home through the darkened streets.

It also accounted for the way he was darting her assessing glances now, as though she was an unexploded bomb that might go off in any direction should he make an unwise move.

Not that he would have succeeded in making her cry if he had shouted at her. She had learned almost from the cradle the knack of keeping her emotions well controlled. It had started with her determination never to let her father reduce her to tears. She’d refused to give him the satisfaction!

By the time they drove through the gates of the park she had managed to compose her features into the carefully blank mask behind which she always sheltered when on the receiving end of a dressing-down.

Though there was nothing Lord Ledbury could say to her that she had not heard a thousand times before—from someone whose opinion actually mattered to her.

‘You are angry with me, Lady Jayne,’ he observed dispassionately. ‘It appears that since we parted you have decided to regard me as your enemy.’

‘How can I be anything other than angry,’ she retorted, ‘when you think you have me at your mercy?’

He sighed. Her emphasis on that word think confirmed his belief that she was no docile creature to meekly reform after a stern talking-to.

‘Even those who have been at war a long time can become allies against a common foe. Or act within agreed limits under a flag of truce.’

‘I … I don’t understand.’ But she was intrigued. What could he possibly be thinking to make a remark like that?

‘Perhaps we have more in common than you might think. For example, you told me that you were sent to London to contract a marriage, in spite of your preferences. Well, I too have been set upon a path I would rather not have trod. And before you rehash that argument about men only ever doing what they want, no matter who they tread down in the process,’ he put in quickly, when she drew a breath to give him the benefit of her opinion, ‘I would advise you not to judge us all by the conduct of the males to whom you are closely related. For I assume it is their conduct which has formed your opinion of my sex?’

‘I … Well, um, yes.’

It had started with her father. He had made no secret of the fact that he resented her for being the only child of his to survive past infancy, when what he wanted from his wife was an heir. If she ever inadvertently crossed his path, the way he would look at her—his eyes so icy, his lips flattening in displeasure—would chill her to the marrow. It meant that she had spent most of her childhood roaming wild about their estate in an effort to keep well out of his way. There had been one groom who had taken it upon himself to teach her to ride, but apart from him she had never met a man who’d shown her the slightest bit of concern.

Until she’d gone to live with her grandfather. And his horror on discovering that she could barely read or write, let alone know the first thing about mixing in polite society, had resulted in him going to the other extreme. He had hired a succession of tutors and governesses who invariably gave up on her, telling him that she was impossible.

The real problem was that no matter how hard she had tried to absorb all the information they’d attempted to cram into her brain, there had always been more. So that no matter how hard she’d worked, she had never managed to measure up. It had felt as though not a single day passed without her being sent to her grandfather’s study to hear how far she fell short of the standards he expected from a young lady living beneath his roof.

The set of her lips as she went into a brown study put him in mind of exactly the way he felt about his own brothers. Mortimer, his father’s pride and joy, had gambled and whored his way through life, only to end up breaking his neck by falling from his horse dead drunk. And Charlie, his mother’s precious baby, had been packed off to France, where he was living exactly as he pleased—no doubt at enormous expense—because the laws over there were far more lenient towards men of his stamp.

‘I, too,’ he said with a curl to his lip, ‘have male relatives who care for nothing but their own pleasure. And they have left me with the unenviable task of cleaning up the mess they’ve created. Though it is far from being what I would wish to do at this juncture in my life, now that I have become a viscount I have had to resign my commission and embark on a hunt for a wife.’

‘That’s silly. I mean, there’s absolutely no need to resign your commission just because your family is putting pressure on you to marry. Plenty of officers with titles marry, and even take their wives on campaign with them. And I should have thought that our country is in particular need of every experienced officer it can get if we are to keep Bonaparte from rampaging all over Europe again.’

‘That was exactly what I said to my grandfather when he insisted I sold out!’

It was extraordinary to hear her voice his own objections with almost the same vehemence as he’d felt when his grandfather had banged his fist on the desk, his face turning purple with rage as he’d bawled, ‘I want you married and setting up your nursery without delay. I let your father persuade me that Mortimer needed time to make his own choice. Hah! See where that got me! Chased every skirt in the neighbourhood and told me to my face he was enjoying himself too much to settle down. Well, I shan’t make the same mistake with you! Either get yourself to Town and pick a bride, or I shall pick one for you.’

He shot Lady Jayne a wry smile. ‘But after a lengthy … discussion …’ the details of which he would never reveal to a living soul ‘… I realized that even though, as you correctly state, England does need experienced officers, Wellington himself would agree that the preservation of an old and distinguished family is of at least equal importance as trouncing the Corsican tyrant.’

He paused, gripping the handle of his cane so hard she wondered he did not snap the head clean off.

‘My grandfather is old,’ he said eventually, ‘and, though he won’t admit it, not in the best of health.

Over the last year he has suffered a series of nasty shocks. You probably know that both my father and then my older brother suffered fatal accidents within months of each other. He has become seriously concerned about the continuation of our family line. And, as he so pithily put it, anyone can lead troops into battle, but I am the last hope of the Cathcart family.’

His stomach swooped into the same knot as it had done that day, when he’d seen his entire life’s achievements brushed aside as being of no consequence. For a moment the demons that had plagued his childhood had come swarming back. The demons that had insisted he was of no intrinsic worth. How could he be, when even his own parents did their best to ignore his very existence, whilst pampering and coddling his brothers?

But then he’d remembered that, in spite of what his grandfather had said about anyone being able to lead troops into battle, there was a damned sight more to being an officer than he knew. Earning the men’s respect, for one thing, was no sinecure. The majority of them came from the gutters, and had a natural distrust of anyone who represented authority. But they’d learned to trust him with their lives. Depended on decisions he’d made for their very survival. And, more than that, he’d maintained their morale—even when times were at their toughest.

The demons had fled, whimpering, as he’d drawn on all the self-confidence he’d acquired during the eleven years he’d served in the army. Eleven years during which he’d grown from a diffident boy into a seasoned veteran.

His grandfather had implied that his only function in life was to father the next generation. But, by God, he was going to do more than that. If he could organize a regiment, then he could damn well learn to manage the estates that were now his responsibility.

And, what was more, he would make a better job of it than either of his self-indulgent brothers could have done.

‘So … You are saying that you sympathise with my plight because you know what it feels like to be pushed into marrying when you don’t really want to?’

‘Something like that,’ he said with a hard smile, continuing, ‘I certainly admire the fact that you have not allowed your head to be turned by all the flattering attention you attract. From what I observed last night, one would expect you to be hanging out for a duke, or at the very least a marquess.’ That was probably what Berry had assumed when she made it obvious she was not interested in any of the men who’d tried to get her to dance. ‘You have half the male population of London at your feet, and yet you have set your heart on a man with no rank and few prospects.’

She was not cold and proud at all, or she couldn’t have rushed headlong into such an inappropriate relationship.

He turned towards her to make his next point, to find her looking up at him, wide-eyed, and his breath caught in his throat. Cornflower-blue. The exact shade to round off the perfection of her features.


He’d half hoped that he would be able to detect some flaw upon seeing her in broad daylight. She had, after all, been on the far side of the ballroom the night before. And everyone knew candlelight was particularly flattering. And then in the park it had been so dark he might well have imagined her beauty was far beyond that which really existed. But here they were, their faces mere inches away, and her utter perfection had just literally taken his breath away.

‘Your Harry … Lieutenant Kendell … must be so dazzled by you,’ he eventually managed to grate, ‘that he has completely lost his head.’

And perhaps that really was the truth. Perhaps he was no fortune-hunter at all. With those big blue eyes, that glorious mane of golden curls and that utterly kissable little mouth, she was capable of ensnaring just about any man she set her sights on. If she had given the lowly lieutenant the least bit of encouragement, she might easily have enslaved him.

But she wasn’t going to enslave him. He whipped his gaze away from her mouth to glare at a hapless matron whose own barouche happened to be passing theirs. He was not going to allow this attraction, no matter how strong, to deflect him from his primary objective. Which was to marry a paragon of some kind.

He was not only going to learn how to manage his estates to the admiration of his peers, he was going to marry a woman who would excite envy and admiration. Not a girl whose very nature meant she was bound to teeter permanently on the brink of one scandal or another.

‘Um … Actually …’ She faltered on the verge of confessing the truth. He had just said he admired the way she was not hanging out for a man with a grand title. It was so rarely she heard any praise for anything she did that she was loath to admit she didn’t deserve even that.

Not that she did think people should attempt to marry for social advancement.

‘I believe that people should only marry for love,’ she declared.

‘I might have guessed,’ he said, so scathingly her temper flared up all over again.

Her own family had been quite needlessly torn apart when her aunt Aurora had eloped with a man the Earl of Caxton had decided was beneath her, socially. Her grandfather would still not permit anyone to mention her name. Which had, according to Josie, wounded her mother deeply. Yet the man with whom she had eloped had been the son of a gentleman. There had been no need to banish them both and forbid any communication between the sisters, surely?

There had always been a sort of gaping hole in the family where Aunt Aurora and her husband ought to have been round which they all had to tiptoe. And she had long since come to the conclusion that her grandfather had behaved in a perfectly ridiculous fashion. Just because his daughter had fallen in love with a man of whom he did not approve.

‘If two people love each other—really love each other—then nothing should be allowed to stand in their way,’ she said vehemently.

His heart sank. For he’d hoped that in the light of day she’d somehow wake up and see that Harry was not worth the risks she was taking. And then he could forget about this detour and return his full attention to the important business of scouring London Society for his bride.

But the tone of her voice revealed a determination that no amount of arguing was going to be able to shake. She left him with no alternative. He was going to have to employ a little subterfuge so that he could limit her exposure to potential danger, whilst keeping close enough to protect her should it become necessary.

‘Then who am I to stand in the way of true love?’ he said, with such sarcasm she just knew she wasn’t going to like whatever he was going to say next. ‘Not that I condone your behaviour, young lady. Nor his. Especially not his.’

Ah, that was more like it. She knew how to deal with a man who spoke to her with just that tone of disapproval in his voice.

She lifted her chin and looked him straight in the eye.

‘You have no right to criticise my behaviour.’

He quite liked it when she squared up to him, he realized, leaning back against the squabs to study her mutinous expression. When she dropped the frigid mask she employed to deceive the rest of Society and revealed her true self. It made him feel privileged to get a glimpse of a facet of her nature she permitted nobody else to see.

He’d felt like this last night, too, when she’d been pleading with him to spare her maid. She’d completely forgotten all about acting as though she didn’t care about anything. Her eyes had glowed with a similar fervour, and those petal-soft lips had trembled with emotion….

It was only with a great effort that he tore his eyes from those tantalizingly tempting lips. It made his voice quite gruff when he said, ‘Catching you in the arms of your lover last night gives me every right to speak my mind. I know what you are capable of. I know what you are really like.’

He raised one gloved hand to silence her when she drew breath to object.

‘And I cannot, in all conscience, just allow you to carry on as you have been doing. Dammit, if anyone else had caught the pair of you together there would have been hell to pay. I have no confidence that if I do not, personally, put a curb on your behaviour you will not carry on sneaking out to meet him in secret. And it must stop. Do you hear me?’

She nodded, her lips pressed hard together on the reflection that there was nothing so infuriating as being ordered to do something she had already decided on doing.

‘Now, it will not be as bad as all that. If you do me one favour I am willing to arrange for you to see your young man, in circumstances which will compromise neither him nor you.’

‘You will do what?’ How could the man be so exasperating? She had been relying on him insisting she give Harry up completely.

‘I will arrange for you two to meet. But only when I, myself, will be your chaperon.’ He half turned towards her again. ‘Now, look. Everyone knows I have only very recently sold out. What could be more natural than for me to be seen about with other military men? Lieutenant Kendell will be accepted into certain situations if he is with me. And I seem to be exactly the sort of man your family would encourage you to mix with. The fact that we are here, riding out together, with only my own servants to chaperon us, is proof of that. It will be quite easy for me to ensure that you may see each other whenever his duties permit. In a properly managed, decorous fashion. Not in this sneaking way in which you have so far engaged.’

She felt ready to explode. The last thing she could do was tell him he had got completely the wrong idea about her and Harry. He had already made her feel stupid and selfish. If she admitted that she had fallen into the relationship in a fit of pique with her grandfather, and was now quite keen to wriggle out of it again, she would never live it down!

She was going to have to appear to agree to his terms. Oh, Lord, and that meant that she would have to meet Harry again and tell him to his face that she did not love him. Could never marry him.

It would be painful. Very painful. But in a way would it not be a fitting punishment for the way she had led Harry on these past months?

Though she still could not understand why on earth Lord Ledbury was so keen to act as a go-between. Just when she had been relying on him to put an end to what was becoming an increasingly untenable situation, he was coming to their aid—as though he had every sympathy for what he assumed was a pair of star-crossed lovers.

‘Why are you doing this?’

He took a deep breath. ‘I am going to ask you to do something for me that means I shall have to take you into my confidence. I am going to trust you to keep what I am about to tell you to yourself. Just as you are trusting me to keep my mouth shut about your continuing relationship with Lieutenant Kendell.’

He was going to trust her with a secret? A great deal of her irritation with him ebbed away. Even if his words did contain that thinly veiled threat about him keeping quiet so long as she kept quiet, nobody had ever reposed any confidence in her upon any matter whatsoever. On the contrary—all her life her male relatives had been drumming it into her that she was completely useless.

‘I want you to help a … a friend of mine.’ He frowned. ‘Perhaps it is best I go back to the beginning. You know I was wounded at Orthez last February?’

‘No.’ But hadn’t he said something about not being able to sleep because his leg troubled him? She looked down at it. Then her eyes flicked to the cane she recalled he’d made use of when he’d limped into Lucy’s ballroom the previous night.

She caught her lower lip between her teeth, feeling really ashamed of all the nasty things she’d thought about him just because he’d looked so grim-faced.

‘Stupidest thing, really,’ he admitted, looking a bit uncomfortable. ‘My horse got shot out from under me, and instead of jumping clear I let the damn thing roll on me. Clumsy. I was pretty well out of it for a while. And then I came to in the field hospital, with Milly defending me like a tigress from surgeons whose sole idea of a cure is to amputate anything that looks the least bit untidy. So, you see, she saved my leg.’

He held up one finger as though keeping score.

‘Then, eventually, I got sent back to England on a transport, while the rest of my regiment pushed across the border into France. Milly’s father, who was the regimental quartermaster, gave his permission for her to come with me as my nurse, thank God, else the fever I contracted would most probably have carried me off.’

He held up another finger.

‘I was weak as a kitten all through last summer. And desperately hard up. But thanks to Milly’s ingenuity and Fred’s skill at foraging—perhaps I should mention Fred is, or was, my batman—I slowly began to recover. And then winter came, and I took an inflammation of the lungs. It looked as though I was done for, but they both stuck with me even though by this time I could not even pay their wages …’

‘But you are a wealthy man!’

‘I am a wealthy man now,’ he corrected her. ‘Before Mortimer died I had to live on my pay. And what with doctors’ bills and so forth …’

‘But surely if you had applied to your family, they would have …?’

‘I have already told you that you are not alone in being disappointed in your male relatives, Lady Jayne. I wrote on several occasions, but never received any reply.’

‘How can that be? Did they not receive your letters? Do you suppose they went astray?’

‘Oh, no,’ he said, looking particularly grim. ‘The minute my brother died the family’s man of business came to inform me that I was now Viscount Ledbury—proving that they had known exactly where I was, and how I was circumstanced, all along.’

And they’d left him? Hovering between life and death? Oh, how could they?

‘Would it surprise you to learn that my first reaction on hearing of my older brother’s death was gratitude—for at last I had the means to reward the only two people who had shown any loyalty towards me?’

‘Not one bit.’

She was only surprised that he was so determined to do his duty by a family that had neglected him so woefully. A family that, by the sound of it, cared as little for him as hers did for her. She found herself wanting to lay her hand upon his sleeve and tell him she understood all about that particular kind of pain. But that would be the very last thing he would want. She knew that for certain because the last thing she wanted was for anyone to discover that she was constantly repressing a keening wail of her own. Why does nobody love me? Or even like me?

‘When I learned that I would have to move into Lavenham House and actively start looking for a wife, I set Milly up in a snug little house in Bedford Place and gave her a generous allowance. I told Fred to stay with her, though I would have preferred to have kept him on as my valet. But, you see, she has no acquaintance in London. I could not just abandon her, after all she has done for me. It is no exaggeration to say I owe her my life. And, no matter how bleak things looked, she always looked on the bright side. She kept our spirits up. It could not have been easy for her, coming to what was to her a foreign country and having to adapt to its ways. And its climate.’

And then there was the fact that when he’d told her he was going to have to leave the army, get married and take up his position in Society, she had burst into tears and told him she was in love with him. Not that he was altogether sure he believed her, but still … He hated the thought that everything he did now must be hurting the only person who had ever said they loved him.

‘I worry about her,’ he admitted. ‘Only last week I went round to see them both and she came running down to the kitchen dressed in an outfit that made her look … tawdry. When she told me how much she’d laid out for the gown I could not believe she’d spent so much and ended up looking so cheap. To be frank, she desperately needs guidance. From a woman of good taste.’

His eyes skimmed her outfit. She was wearing a carriage dress of deep blue, a jaunty little bonnet that framed the natural beauty of her face and chinchilla furs about her shoulders to shield her from the breeze, which was quite brisk that day.

‘I know it will involve a great personal sacrifice for you to spend time with a woman of Milly’s class, but I cannot think of anyone else I would rather she emulate. I cannot imagine you ever choosing anything that did not become you.’

He thought she was a woman of good taste? That was two compliments he had paid her within the space of a few minutes. Two more than she’d ever had in her life, apart from on her looks—which did not count since she hated the fact she resembled her father so closely.

‘I promised her father I would take good care of her, but I find it is not enough to just give her a house and an allowance. I am afraid if I do not find some way to restrain her she will end up becoming … easy prey to men who have no scruples. It was while my valet was shaving me this morning that I thought of you.’

It had suddenly struck him that setting Lady Jayne a task would make her feel as though he was making her pay for allowing her to see Harry—rather than let her suspect he felt compelled to keep an eye on her. Or, more specifically, Kendell.

And she had complained of feeling bored. She would enjoy the sensation of having a little adventure. And this time he could ensure the adventure was harmless.

‘I realized that you would be the perfect person to teach Milly a little about genteel behaviour and style. For you are not so high in the instep that you would look down your nose at Milly and make her feel uncomfortable.’

She’d given her heart to a low-ranking, impoverished soldier, hadn’t she? And she had no qualms about engaging in a spot of deception when it suited her purposes.

‘And I cannot do the thing myself, much as I would wish it, because—well, you must see how it is. Were I still just Major Cathcart nobody would pay any attention. But now I am Lord Ledbury. If I were to escort her to a modiste everyone would think she is my mistress.’

Worst of all, if he relaxed the stance he had taken towards her Milly herself might start to think she was making some headway with him. And he could not encourage her to think she meant any more to him than—well, than Fred did. They had all become very close, living as they had done this past year. They’d become more like friends than master and servants. But you couldn’t be just friends with a woman. Not, at any rate, a woman who said she was in love with you.

‘She … she isn’t your mistress?’

‘If she was, I would be the one to take her shopping, wouldn’t I?’

‘Oh,’ she replied, a little perplexed. It sounded so very odd for a man to go to such lengths to see to a woman’s welfare. Not to let anyone think she was his mistress, which was the natural conclusion to draw. Unless … Suddenly his reference to them having more in common than she might guess, his interrogation of her opinion of marriages between persons of unequal rank, and the way he’d sung Milly’s praises all began to make sense.

Lord Ledbury was in love! With a girl of lowly station. No wonder he had looked so kindly on her own situation. No wonder he had jumped to all the wrong conclusions, too. His head must be so full of doomed love affairs between persons of different ranks that he could see them everywhere.

‘Say no more,’ she said, gently laying her hand upon his arm. Her heart went out to him. No wonder he looked rather cross most of the time. He was the living image of all the tortured, romantic heroes she had ever read about in the books Josie had smuggled in to her.

‘Not surprising you can’t take to reading,’ she had said, ‘if all you have is that rubbishy stuff meant for little children. This is what young ladies of your age enjoy.’

‘Life can be so unfair,’ Lady Jayne said to Lord Ledbury softly, completely forgiving him for every harsh word he had uttered, every criticism he had levelled at her. When a man was in the throes of a painful, thwarted love affair, it was bound to make him a little short-tempered.

‘Of course you do not want anyone to say unpleasant things about your … friend. I shall be only too pleased to meet her, and help her in any way I can.’

In fact it would be quite wonderful to be the one giving advice to someone else, instead of constantly being on the receiving end of it. Even if it was only on matters of fashion and etiquette.

‘Somehow,’ he said with a smile, ‘I never doubted it.’

Was that a third compliment? She positively glowed with pleasure.

But then his expression turned hard and businesslike once more.

‘I have already told you that I am in Town primarily to find a bride,’ he said. ‘And, since our families would definitely approve of a match between us, I propose to make it seem as though I am trying to fix my interest with you. And you would do well to make it appear as though you reciprocate that interest,’ he said quite sternly, ‘if you want to continue seeing Lieutenant Kendell. Though I warn you, I will not allow this covert operation to interfere with my primary objective. Which is to find a woman who is worthy of holding the title of Countess of Lavenham. Is that clear?’

She turned to look out of the carriage as though somebody she knew had caught her eye. As though Lord Ledbury had not just cut her to the quick with one throwaway remark. After all those compliments, genuine compliments, she had begun to think that he quite liked her. But now he’d made it plain that he would rather not have to spend any time with her at all.

‘Abundantly,’ she replied coldly. ‘Though,’ she observed after a moment or two, ‘I cannot help but remark that I think you are carrying your sense of duty too far.’

‘By which I assume you mean you think I ought to marry for love.’

Yes! If he was in love with Milly then he ought to marry her, and that was that. Why, earls married widows with shady reputations, or even actresses upon occasion. It caused a bit of a scandal—but when had what others thought ever stopped a man of rank from doing just as he pleased?

‘It is the only reason one should marry …’

‘Well, there we will have to agree to differ.’

Oh, the man was impossible. But there was no point in trying to make him see how foolish he was being. Apart from the fact he was a man, and men always thought they knew best, they were only—as he’d put it—working together under a flag of truce.

And yet she couldn’t help feeling rather sorry for him. The poor man must be in hell, being in love with one woman whilst feeling duty-bound to marry another. True, she had been packed off to London to be married off, but at least her affections had not really been engaged elsewhere. He could not even elope, as her aunt had done—not when he had so many responsibilities. He was not that kind of man. She had only met him the night before, but already she could tell he was determined always to do the right thing. No matter what the personal cost. Why, he wouldn’t even take Milly shopping in case it gave rise to the suspicion that the woman he loved was his mistress. Even though most men of his class would have made her his mistress in reality, without batting an eyelid.

Well, she would not say any more upon that topic. Not only would it be like prodding at a decaying tooth, but they did not know each other well enough to share those kind of confidences.

Though she would do whatever she could to help his lady-friend. Apart from any other consideration, she relished the chance to be really, truly useful to someone for the very first time in her life.

‘Oh!’ she said, clapping her hands in glee. ‘I have just had a brilliant idea. I shall be in Conduit Street tomorrow. I have to purchase some new gloves. If you could arrange for Milly to loiter outside the front of Madame Pichot’s at about ten o’clock I could pretend to recognise her, and introduce her to Lady Penrose as an old friend.’

He looked at her with approval, making her swell with pleasure when he said, ‘Yes, I think that could work.’

Not for long. She sighed. The first thing Lady Penrose would do, upon her introducing a new friend, would be to write to her grandfather and enquire if Milly was proper company for her to keep. And as soon as he wrote back, disclaiming all knowledge of any such person amongst her acquaintance, the game would be up. But there was no saying how long it might take for a letter to reach him if he were not at Darvill Park for any reason. So they might have a few days before their ruse was discovered.

And in that time she would do all she could to help the pair who, for reasons of stupid custom—because he was all bound up with doing his duty rather than following his heart—could not be together even though they plainly should be.

‘Tell me how I might recognise her,’ she said. ‘What does she look like?’

‘Milly? Oh, she is …’ He looked at her, a puzzled frown on his brow. ‘She is quite a bit taller than you. Dark hair and eyes. Strong. Plain of face,’ he said, his eyes wandering over her features individually and softening. ‘Nothing much to look at at all, really.’

And yet he loved her. She was plain, and poor, and yet the eyes that could look as hard as chips of granite turned all soft and smoky when he thought about her.

Because they had shared all those hardships and she’d come through them all with flying colours.

Jayne knew she would never have been able to nurse a man through such a difficult time. She had no skills, no experience. And would never be allowed anywhere near a sick room in any case.

She turned her head away abruptly while she grappled with a fierce stab of jealousy for the girl who, despite all her disadvantages, had managed to capture the heart of a man like this. A man unlike anyone she’d ever met before. Now that she wasn’t quite so cross with him she could admit that she found his rough-hewn face ruggedly attractive. Even that terrible scar, which at first sight had made him look a bit scary, now only served as a reminder that he was a battle-hardened soldier, a man to be admired for his bravery.

She heaved a deep sigh. If any man in London deserved to find happiness with the woman he loved, then it was this man.

It was such a pity he couldn’t see it for himself.


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