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Берроуз Энни

Reforming the Viscount

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Chapter Two

‘Good to see you, Morgan,’ said Rothersthorpe, his gaze sliding right past her as if she was not there.

After a moment’s struggle, she acknowledged that it was probably just as well he had not spoken to her first. Apart from the fact that it wasn’t the done thing, she still wasn’t fully in control of her temper. Only think how dreadful it would be if he’d said, ‘Good evening, Lydia’, as though nothing was wrong, and she’d let all this bottledup hurt and anger burst forth like a cork flying from a shaken bottle.

As it was, she felt Robert’s hand go to the back of her chair. And when she turned to look up at him, she saw her stepson glaring at him too. He’d placed his other hand on the back of Rose’s chair and taken up such an aggressive posture that not even Rothersthorpe could fail to read the warning signs.

Oh, no. It looked as though there was going to be some kind of scene after all.

But at least it would not be of her making.

Not that Lord Rothersthorpe looked in the least bit daunted.

‘It has been a long time,’ he persisted. ‘Too long,’ he said with a rueful smile and thrust out his hand.

Lydia’s heart thundered in her breast while Robert stood quite still, looking at that outstretched hand. It was only when Robert finally took it, saying, ‘Yes, yes, it has’, that she realised she had been holding her breath. It slid from her in a wave of guilty disappointment. She hadn’t wanted Rose’s evening ruined by a scene, she really hadn’t. But a part of her would still very much have liked to see Rothersthorpe flattened by her stepson’s deadly right hook.

‘I cannot believe our paths have not crossed in all this time,’ Robert was saying as though he truly liked Rothersthorpe. When she’d been relying on him to dismiss him, the way he’d dismissed one penniless peer after another, during the few weeks Rose had been attending balls.

‘I do not spend much time in town these days,’ replied Lord Rothersthorpe. ‘And when I do come up, it is not to attend events such as this.’ He looked around the glittering ballroom with what, on another man’s face, she would have described as a sneer.

‘I have made a point of avoiding the company of most of the set I ran with at one time,’ he drawled. ‘A man has to develop standards at some point in his life.’

Standards? He had always laughed at people who claimed to have standards.

What on earth could have happened to make him sneer at his younger self?

And now that he was standing so close, she could see that there were subtle changes to his appearance which she had not noticed from a distance. Time had, of course, etched lines on his face. But they were not the ones she might have expected. Instead of seeing creases fanning out from his eyes, as though he laughed long and often, there were grooves bracketing his mouth, which made him look both hard and sober.

‘So, the rumours about you,’ said Robert, ‘are all true, then? You have reformed?’

Lord Rothersthorpe smiled. In one way, it did remind her of the way he’d used to smile, for one corner of his mouth tilted upwards more than the other. But although he’d moved his mouth in the exact same way, it was somehow as though he was merely going through the motions.

‘Not entirely,’ he said. ‘I still enjoy the company of pretty young ladies.’ He looked down at Rose in a way that made Lydia’s hackles rise. Had there been just the tiniest stress on the word young? And where had all his charm disappeared to? When she’d been a girl and Nicholas Hemingford had spoken such words, she would have defied any girl it was aimed at not to have melted right off her chair.

But this man, Lord Rothersthorpe, well, she couldn’t quite explain why, but he did not sound charming at all.

And when he said, ‘Will you not introduce me to your lovely companion?’ the expression on his face put Lydia in mind of a…of a…well, yes, of a pirate intent on plunder.

Her fear crystallised when Rose smiled back up at him, for Rose did not appear to find anything about him the least bit sinister. But then what girl, fresh from her schoolroom, could fail to be anything but fascinated when he turned those smiling blue eyes upon her so intently?

A painful sensation struck her midriff. Rose was as deaf to warnings as she’d been herself at that age. She couldn’t see the danger. And nor, apparently, could Robert, because he was performing the introduction.

‘This is my half-sister, Miss Rose Morgan,’ said Robert. ‘It is entirely on her account we have all uprooted ourselves and come to town this spring.’

‘Enchanted,’ said Rothersthorpe, bowing low over her hand. ‘London society will be all the better for having such a beauty adorn its ballrooms.’

‘And this is my stepmother, Mrs Morgan,’ continued Robert, while Lord Rothersthorpe continued to gaze at Rose. ‘Though, of course, you already know her.’

Rothersthorpe turned his head.

The expression of admiration which he’d bestowed upon Rose vanished without trace.

‘I would hardly claim to know her,’ he replied, making her a curt bow. ‘Our paths crossed, briefly, almost a decade ago. I seem to recall that you came to town for the sole purpose of catching a husband?’

There was a distinct note of accusation in his voice, which was monstrously unfair. She could have snatched at those rambling words and held him to account for them. Instead, when he’d made it so obvious he regretted them the moment they’d left his lips, she’d let him escape.

‘You know very well that I did,’ she therefore replied. In fact, she’d told him quite plainly that if she didn’t find a husband before the end of the Season she was going to be in a pickle. And he’d brushed her concerns aside by making a jest about things never being so bad as you feared when the time came to face them.

‘And since,’ he said with a hard smile, ‘in those days, I was virtually penniless, that naturally meant you did not waste much of your time upon me.’

It had not been like that. Why was he twisting it to make it sound as though she’d been in the wrong?

‘Not when you made it so very clear that you did not wish to get married, my lord,’ she retorted, confusion temporarily diluting her annoyance. ‘No woman with an ounce of self-respect would wish to be accused of setting her cap at a man so clearly averse to the notion of getting leg-shackled.’

‘Touché.’ He raised his hands to acknowledge the hit. ‘It is true to say I was young and enjoying my freedom far too much to sacrifice it. However, now,’ he said, turning his attention back to Rose once more, his expression softening, ‘I have matured to the point where the prospect of matrimony no longer terrifies me. On the contrary, now that I am a respectable man of means, marrying is not only the next logical step for me to take, but one which I find most desirable.’

Lydia felt as though he’d slapped her. The prospect of marriage back then had terrified him. She’d seen it on his face, understood it from the way he’d vanished without trace after uttering what she might have interpreted as a proposal, if she hadn’t known him better.

Mrs Westerly’s words rang in her ears, for the second time that night. ‘You mark my words, when the time comes, he will marry an heiress…’

An heiress. She looked at the predatory way he was examining Rose. Rose, who was not only incredibly wealthy, but extremely pretty too.

Had it been only this evening, before setting out, that she’d decided she’d never been in better looks? Oh, she’d dismissed Rose’s comment that she looked like a fairy princess as the nonsense it was. She was too curvaceous nowadays to warrant that description. Not that she minded. She’d been positively scrawny when she’d been Rose’s age. Worn down by cares that the Colonel had lifted from her shoulders. From the moment she’d married him, her health had begun to improve. And bearing and feeding a child had even bequeathed her a bosom of which she was positively proud.

She was better at picking out clothing that suited her, too. The pastels Mrs Westerly had told her to wear for her own début had always made her look completely washed out. Whiteblonde hair, greyish-blue eyes and milk-white skin could really make a girl look, according to the acid-tongued reigning beauty that year, like a streak of pump water.

So she’d been pleased with the ensemble she was wearing tonight. The rich blue of her underskirt brought out the colour in her eyes, though it was the gauzy overskirt, sprinkled with spangles, that had caused Rose to make the comment about fairy princesses. She’d even decided not to worry that the neckline was a touch too daring, that there was nothing wrong with revealing what she now regarded as her best feature. Besides, the pearls that nestled between her generous breasts had always boosted her confidence. Colonel Morgan had given them to her on her wedding day, telling her she was a pearl beyond price. If he’d only said it on that occasion, she might have dismissed the words as idle flattery. But he’d kept on saying it, right up to the day he’d died. Even when he’d taken to giving her diamonds, these pearls remained her favourite. Because they made her feel…valued.

But now she felt as though she’d become invisible because Lord Rothersthorpe had eyes only for Rose.

‘But I am being remiss,’ he said, turning towards her with an obvious effort. ‘I really ought to offer my condolences on your loss. Although…’ he paused, his eyes scanning her outfit slowly, before returning to her face ‘…you are so clearly out of mourning that I wonder if it is indelicate of me to remind you of Colonel Morgan’s demise at all.’

It felt just as though he’d honed sarcasm into a sharp blade and thrust it between her ribs. The others might have missed it, but she’d seen the barely concealed contempt with which he’d assessed the finery with which she’d been so pleased, not half an hour since.

And it all became too much.

‘Do you think I ought to go about in blacks for ever?’ She felt Rose flinch, though she was too angry to tear her gaze from Lord Rothersthorpe’s sardonic eyes.

‘And if it was indelicate to remind me of my husband’s demise,’ she continued, in spite of Robert clamping the hand that had rested on the back of her chair firmly on her shoulder, ‘why did you do just that?’

‘Naturally,’ put in Robert, while Lydia was floundering under the horrible feeling that Lord Rothersthorpe was deliberately trying to hurt her, ‘we had to delay Rose’s come-out until we were out of full mourning.’

‘I beg your pardon,’ Lord Rothersthorpe said mechanically, ‘if I have caused any offence.’

But he didn’t look the least bit sorry. On the contrary, she’d seen a flare of something like satisfaction flicker through his eyes when he’d goaded her into lashing out at him. And just to prove how insincere his apology to her had been, when he turned to Rose, his face showed nothing but compassion. ‘The death of a parent is always a difficult milestone in one’s life.’

A parent, but not a husband, was what he meant.

‘I trust it would not be inappropriate for me to ask if you would care to dance? Is it too soon for you to think of it?’

‘Not at all,’ said Rose, leaping to her feet.

‘Oh, but, Rose,’ said Lydia, ‘you really ought not…’

Lord Rothersthorpe turned to her and smiled. Mockingly.

‘If you remember me at all, Mrs Morgan, surely you recall that I never pay the slightest attention to anything a girl’s chaperon might have to say?’

Oh, but that twisted the knife in the wound he’d already inflicted. To refer to her as a chaperon…

She knew his opinions of chaperons, all too well. He’d never had a good word to say about any of them and now he was calling her one, to her face.

And it was no good reminding herself that a chaperon was exactly what she was. She knew what he meant.

Her eyes stung as the last vestige of hope that she might ever have meant anything to him at all curled up and blackened, like a sheet of paper tossed on to an open flame.

‘Rose,’ said Robert sharply, ‘you cannot dance. You know you cannot.’

‘I know no such thing,’ she retorted. ‘My brother has some dreadfully stuffy notions about the suitability of dance partners,’ she said to Lord Rothersthorpe. ‘If he had his way, I would never dance with anyone. But he cannot object to you, since you are clearly a good friend of his.’

‘That is not the reason for my objection and you know it,’ growled Robert. ‘Lord Rothersthorpe, I hope you will forgive my sister for being so outspoken—’

‘Of course,’ he cut in smoothly. ‘It is far better than blushing and stammering out some nonsense, like so many of the débutantes one comes across.’

Lydia flinched. It was as though he was deliberately distancing himself from all he’d once claimed to find appealing about her.

The only good thing to come of her reaction was the fact that Rose noticed it. Her eyes flicked from Lydia to Lord Rothersthorpe, and for a moment, she looked as though she was regretting her defiant outburst.

But then Robert, fatally, said, ‘Rose, I am warning you…’

At which she stiffened her spine, shot her brother a rebellious look and laid her arm on Lord Rothersthorpe’s sleeve.

Short of leaping over the chairs, and forcing her back into her seat, there was nothing Robert could do.

With one last hard smile, Lord Rothersthorpe bore Rose away with him.

And Lydia felt as though a chasm had opened up inside her. A cold, aching void, into which all her cherished memories of this man tumbled. And shattered.

Lord Rothersthorpe hadn’t known he had it in him to dissemble so convincingly. He hadn’t known he could smile and perform all the steps of the dance in the correct sequence, and even flirt with his partner as though he was enjoying himself, when his gut was roiling with acid rancour.

But then, a gentleman simply couldn’t give way to the savagery that had welled up in him when he’d seen Lydia sitting there draped in the silks and satins she’d got from marrying that disgusting old man. A gentleman couldn’t walk up to a woman he had not seen for eight years and twist on the obscenely opulent ropes of pearls she had round her neck until they choked her.

Especially since no jury in the land would believe he had any reasonable excuse for feeling so murderous, if there was such a thing as a reasonable excuse for committing murder.

But then what man would feel reasonable when a woman betrayed him by marrying another man without even having the decency to reject his proposal first?

And not just any man, but one old enough to have been her father?

He snorted in disgust, causing Miss Morgan to raise her brows in surprise.

‘Slight cold,’ he excused himself. ‘Beg pardon.’

Father? Grandfather, more like. Much-married grandfather, too, according to Robert when he’d broken the news. ‘He’s already worn out three women with his filthy temper and his unreasonable demands,’ Robert had slurred, his voice thick with alcohol and revulsion. ‘Each of them younger and more unsuitable than the last. Can you imagine how I feel,’ he’d said, downing yet another glass of brandy in one gulp, ‘having to call a chit of a girl, scarce out of the schoolroom, “Mother”?’

He hadn’t cared a jot what Robert thought about having a stepmother who was younger than he was. It wasn’t as if they’d ever been close friends. They’d fallen in with each other because they were much of an age and enjoyed the same pastimes, that was all. Besides, he was having too much trouble coping with the sensation of having been punched, hard, in the gut.

Lydia, married?

‘She cannot have married him,’ he’d just about managed to gasp. ‘She wouldn’t.’ Fearing he might actually be going to cast up his accounts as he imagined her giving herself willingly to that stick-thin, papery-skinned old man he’d glimpsed striding about the grounds on the fateful day he’d taken her to the picnic Robert had thrown at Westdene, he’d shakily reached for the brandy decanter himself. ‘I only took her there two weeks ago. And I…’ asked her to think about marrying him.

‘Well, we’re not talking about a love match, are we?’ Robert had splashed a measure of brandy into a glass and passed it to him, when his own hands had failed to accomplish the task himself. ‘My father likes young women. The younger the better, apparently. And he’s so rich that he has no trouble getting them to marry him.’

The words had eaten into him like acid scoring into a printer’s plate.

This was her answer, then. The Colonel had money and he didn’t, that was what it boiled down to. She was just like all the rest.

Though at least all those eligible débutantes who’d turned their pretty noses up at him because of his reputation, and the state of his finances, had been honest. Only Lydia had fooled him into dropping his guard. Into making him…hope.

‘If your reaction means what I think it does,’ Robert had said, looking at him with such concern he knew he must have turned white, ‘then let me tell you, my friend, you’ve had a lucky escape. She’s obviously mercenary to the core. God, but I pity my sisters, having that harpy foisted on them.’

The remainder of that encounter had vanished into the red mist that had risen up and swamped him. He knew he’d said some pretty harsh things about elderly men preying on females barely out of the schoolroom, but he could not recall which of them had thrown the first punch.

It could well have been Robert. A man can say what he likes about his own parent, but he won’t tolerate hearing it from another’s lips.

Family was family, after all.

Which brought him neatly back to this darkhaired, wilful beauty, with whom he was dancing right now. One of Robert’s half-sisters from one of those wives Colonel Morgan had worn out with his unreasonable demands and filthy temper while he’d been clawing his way up the rungs of the Company army ladder. Not his first, or she would be Robert’s full sister. But did it really matter which of them it was? All that concerned him was that Lydia had been his fourth wife. He ground his teeth. His fourth.

Of course, he’d known Lydia had come to town to find herself a husband. It was why they all came, year after year, all these well-bred girls in their uniform white dresses. But he’d started to think she shrank from the prospect. He’d seen the way that dragon of a chaperon was always breathing down her neck, and how the longer the Season went on, the more she’d wilted under the constant pressure to bring some man up to scratch.

She’d started to look so fragile she’d put him in mind of a dandelion clock. All that silvery-haired trembling beauty, being held together only by a tremendous effort of will. One hard knock was all it would take to scatter her to the four winds.

Or so he’d thought.

He snorted again. When he thought of how hard she’d made him work to get her to speak without stammering and blushing…or when he recalled the sense of triumph she’d aroused when she’d shyly confided that he could take her mind off her woes just by being there…or worse—that surge of protectiveness that had swept through him that day when she’d just about fainted, and he’d caught her in his arms, and carried her into the house.

‘God, how I wish I had the right to take you away from that dragon,’ he’d bitten out as she’d turned her face into his chest with a moan. ‘I would never force you to do anything you didn’t want,’ he’d said, wishing he could drop a kiss into the curls that had been tickling his chin. ‘You’re so delicate,’ he’d said, ‘you should have someone to look after you. I wish it could be me.’

And before he’d gone three more paces, he’d loved the way she felt in his arms so much he’d found himself casting caution to the winds.

‘And why shouldn’t it be me? I’ve got to get married some day. I’ve got a duty to my family to preserve the name, if nothing else. And you know, I don’t think it would be such a dreadful chore, if it was to a girl like you. You make me feel as though I’m worth something, even though I haven’t two brass farthings to rub together.’

She hadn’t said a word in reply. She hadn’t thrown her arms round his neck and said that marrying him would make her the happiest girl on earth. Even though he knew she was determined to marry someone. She’d confided in him, just the once, that she dreaded what would happen if it came to the end of the Season without her getting even one proposal.

So the look on her face, as he’d lain her down on the sofa, had filled him with foreboding.

It could have been the result of the headache that had felled her, of course, but he’d been so worried she was about to frame the words of refusal that he’d cut her short.

‘Don’t say a word,’ he’d said, backing away hastily. He could see he was going to have to prove he could support her, even if it wasn’t in very much style. He’d noticed that his rather cavalier attitude towards paying bills had perturbed her. And she’d expressed open disapproval of his tendency to make rather reckless wagers. He was going to have to prove that for once in his life he was in deadly earnest. In short, he was going to have to raise enough money to at least pay for a ring, and a licence, and the vicar. ‘Just think about it,’ he’d said as he backed out of the room.

He’d thought she would at least have done that, while he was off fleecing every drunk too crosseyed to see what cards he held in his hands. But no. By the time Robert caught up with him at Newmarket, she’d already worked her wiles on that…jumped-up clerk! She’d coldly, ruthlessly assessed what the Colonel could give her and then…sold herself to him without a qualm. She must have a core of steel to have survived marriage to a man who had gone out to India with nothing but the clothes he’d stood up in, and burning ambition, but who’d returned to England with wealth beyond most men’s wildest dreams.

And nobody was ever going to convince him that a man could amass such a fortune, so quickly, by honest means.

‘I beg your pardon?’

Rose Morgan was giving him an odd look. ‘What was that you said?’

It was only then he realised he’d been getting so worked up he’d begun muttering under his breath.

‘I’m thinking of a poem,’ he came back smoothly. ‘Something along the lines of…Your beauty surpasses my wildest dreams, I mean to have you by any means…’

Miss Morgan giggled and blushed. ‘You really should not repeat that kind of verse to me. If Robert ever found out, he would be simply furious.’

But she did not look displeased. She simpered and looked up at him from under those long, dark lashes of hers, with just the hint of a smile hovering round her lips.

Had Lydia coached her to look at men like that? Miss Morgan must definitely have practised often, to have perfected a look that conveyed so neatly both maidenly modesty, spiced with a clear dash of willingness to accept his suit, should he choose to further her acquaintance.

Well, if anyone knew how to get her young charge to bag herself a husband, no matter what obstacles society’s high sticklers might throw in her way, Lydia was the woman. Lydia had not appeared to have anything going for her when she’d come to town for her own Season. Not only had she been of a naturally timid disposition—or so he’d thought—but she’d also lacked the means to make the most of what assets she had. He had sometimes overheard other girls mocking her for having no more than two evening dresses, which she’d made over, in various ways, time after time. He had not minded. On the contrary, he’d admired her ingenuity, for he knew what it was like to always be juggling his own finances.

But she’d clearly minded more than he’d guessed. She’d been determined to marry money, no matter what kind of man would provide it for her. And being wealthy certainly looked as though it had suited her. Just look at her, sitting on the chaperons’ bench, fanning herself indolently while she watched Rose dancing with, he made no bones about admitting, just about the most eligible bachelor in the room.

Yes, she’d positively thrived on having married money. There was a sleek, contented look about her, like a cat that had been at the cream. He had always known she had the potential to become a beauty, but she’d had to paint on a facsimile of the roses that bloomed naturally in her cheeks now. She’d entirely lost those gauche mannerisms that had so appealed to him, too. And her gawky, coltish figure was now hidden beneath distinctly feminine curves.

She was no longer that frail, pale waif, who’d made him feel she needed some big strong man to come dashing to her rescue. The girl who’d so cunningly made him feel as though he could be that man. She was a self-assured, healthy, wealthy widow. A woman who’d got exactly what she’d set out to achieve in life.

In fact, to her way of thinking Colonel Morgan’s age might have been a positive advantage. She certainly had not had to put up with his filthy temper or his unreasonable demands for very long. She’d been a widow now for almost two years.

‘Typical,’ he muttered. The very year he’d finally decided that he was ready to dip his toe into matrimonial waters, some malign fate had brought her up to town as well.

Dammit, how could he search for a bride, when the mere sight of her provoked him so much that he’d started muttering imprecations under his breath while he was dancing with just about the prettiest girl in the room? He’d thought he’d got over his disillusion. His disappointment. His mistrust of everything a woman said. But then he’d seen her sitting there, pretending she had not seen him. Or worse, she simply hadn’t recognised him. The thought he might have been such an insignificant feature of her life that she did not even remember him had made him so boiling mad, he’d had to march across the ballroom and challenge her. Hurt her. And the only way he could think of to do it was to make her think he was only interested in her stepdaughter—when nothing could be further from the truth. He’d scarcely been aware of her, throughout this entire set.

Damn her, but Lydia had even ruined this for him, too. He’d used to enjoy dancing for its own sake. What could be more pleasant than indulging in vigorous exercise alongside an appreciative female? And then being able to return her to her seat, and walk away, and select another one, without risk of censure?

But he was not enjoying dancing with Rose Morgan. Not with his head full of Lydia. Not knowing that the moment would come when he would have to return the girl to her seat and stand within strangling distance of her all-too-alluring stepmother once more. And make polite conversation, when what he wanted was to demand an explanation.

It was hard to know whether he was angrier with her for being here, or himself for reacting to her in such an illogical, irrational…uncontrollable way.

His face set, he steeled himself to escort Rose across the floor. Why the hell should he let her make him feel in the least bit uncomfortable? He had as much right to be here as she did. More. He belonged in society, had been born to a position of rank and privilege. And what was more, he’d really made something of himself. People no longer assumed he would never amount to anything, because of the family he’d come from. They’d seen him turn his fortunes around by dint of hard work and resourcefulness. He’d become famous for being the first Hemingford for generations who hadn’t resorted to charming an heiress into marriage to pull the family out of debt. He’d come back to town knowing that, at last, he could marry any woman he damn well chose.

And he was not going to let her return to society spoil his plans.

‘This is all your fault,’ Lydia had said to Robert, as Rothersthorpe led Rose on to the dance floor. ‘You might have known that being so strict with her would drive her to some act of rebellion.’

‘Well, I don’t regret sending Lord Abergele to the rightabout,’ he retorted. ‘Not when everyone knows his pockets are to let.’

‘What does that have to say to anything? Rose has no intention of marrying the first man she dances with. She has come to town to find her feet socially and enjoy herself. She was the very first one to declare she would not think her Season a disaster if she did not find a man who truly loved her, whom she could love in return. She knows it won’t be easy to find a man like that, on just one trip to town. But you are making it impossible. How is she going to get to know any man well enough to know if she could possibly fall in love with him, if you won’t let any of them get anywhere near her?’

She’d never raised her voice to him before and he clearly didn’t know how to take it.

‘I’m only trying to protect her,’ he protested, looking for all the world like a man who had gone to pick an apple and accidentally put his hand in a wasp’s nest. ‘She is so innocent…’

‘But she is not a fool. You should let her associate with all sorts of men, Robert, and let her judge for herself. Do you really think she is the sort to be taken in by a handsome face and a lot of flummery?’

‘You never know.’ He sighed. ‘You hear about it all the time. And Rose is not only extremely wealthy, but extraordinarily pretty, too.’

He pulled out the chair behind which he was standing, so that he could squeeze through, and sit next to Lydia.

‘The only danger, so far as I can see,’ she said, ‘comes from you keeping her on too tight a leash. I wouldn’t put it past her to start a flirtation with the most unsuitable man she can find just to teach you a lesson.’ She looked pointedly at Rose as she skipped down the set with a hard-faced Lord Rothersthorpe.

‘I suppose it could have been worse.’ Robert sighed. ‘If she had to choose someone to be her rebellion, then at least it is a man to whom I cannot object for himself.’

‘I should have thought he was exactly the sort of man you would object to. You have been at pains to shield Rose from so very many other penniless peers.’

Robert shot her a quick frown. ‘Rothersthorpe is not penniless. I won’t say that he’s wealthy, exactly, but he has prospects.’

‘Prospects? What do you mean, prospects?’

‘Well, it is some kind of uncle, or cousin, or something. I’m not sure of the exact details. But it is well known that some elderly bachelor related to him has decided to make him his heir, since he has no other. Rothersthorpe stands to inherit mills and mines and what-have-you from him. Because of the way he turned his own estates around.’

‘He did what?’

‘I know. Hard to believe of the young scapegrace we knew back then, isn’t it? But apparently, when his father died, Rothersthorpe worked like the very devil to bring his holdings back from the verge of bankruptcy.’

Hard to believe? Impossible to believe! He’d been hopeless with money. And as for working, at any level, let alone like a devil…no, she just could not credit it.

‘Rose could do a lot worse,’ he said thoughtfully, his eyes following the couple as they conversed whilst passing each other in the set.

‘Y-you mean, you seriously think that Rose, and Lord Rothersthorpe…’

‘I don’t see why not. You heard what he said. He’s obviously come to town to look for a bride.’

Rose and Lord Rothersthorpe. Her head began to spin. It couldn’t be…

And yet they did make an extraordinarily handsome couple—him with his fair athleticism, and her with all her dark, spirited beauty.

‘I’ve seen it before with men of his class,’ Robert continued. ‘All of a sudden, they abandon their wild ways, make themselves a list of the qualities they want from a wife and come up to town to find a woman who has them. At least if Rothersthorpe does start to court her in earnest, we can rest assured that he wants her for herself. He has no pressing need of her fortune.’

Robert might as well have slapped her repeatedly in the face as deliver all those salient facts in such a blunt manner.

Eight years ago, Rothersthorpe had been so terrified of the prospect of matrimony that he’d fled at the mere mention of something that might have put him in danger of getting leg-shackled. But during the years they’d been apart, he’d turned his fortunes around through dint of hard work. And now he’d come to town to crown his achievements by acquiring a wife to preserve his proud lineage.

She did not need to ask Robert what Lord Rothersthorpe would require of a wife. Her own chaperon, Mrs Westerly, had told her often enough. Men of rank wanted an ornament to grace their house. And a substantial portion to swell their coffers. They also wanted a woman in the full bloom of health, so that they could be fairly sure of getting heirs and spares.

But, above all, they wanted a virgin.

She forced herself to watch Rose and Lord Rothersthorpe, as they circled one another on the dance floor, though their delight in each other was making her feel so old, and unwanted, and unattractive. And second-hand, to boot. She knew that she was not completely worthless in the scheme of things, but now her value was more like that of a chipped vase. One that had been removed from the best rooms and put to utilitarian purpose in the kitchens.

And she would just have to accept it.

They had all come to town, after all, to see if Rose could find a man who would want her for herself.

If it had been anyone but Rothersthorpe showing an interest in her, anyone but he who’d broken through Robert’s defences, she would be thrilled. He was exactly the kind of man they had hoped she would find.

She should be smiling with approval as they twirled round the ballroom with their arms round each other’s waists.

It was what everyone would expect from her.

So she smiled. And waved her fan indolently before her cheeks, as though everything was as it should be. Whilst inside…

She’d got out of the habit of pretending to be content with her lot, that was the trouble. Since Colonel Morgan’s death, she hadn’t had to pretend quite so often.

Well, she’d have to get back in the habit, that was all. She wasn’t going to let anything spoil Rose’s Season. Rose needed her to stand up to Robert and be her friend and advisor, not start acting like a silly, jealous schoolgirl.

She pulled on her social armour, rather in the same way she would have reached for a fire screen to shield herself from the heat of a blazing fire. And after a while, her smile began to feel less forced. Her manner towards Robert became more natural as she obliged him to chat of this and that.

Mrs Westerly would have been proud of her. She was elegant and poised. It might only be on the outside, but at least nobody, looking at her, would ever guess she felt as though she had been fatally wounded.


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