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The Debutante's Daring Proposal

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The Earl of Ashenden took a silk handkerchief from his pocket, removed his spectacles and began to polish the lenses.

The way he’d always done when he was trying to think about exactly what to say before saying it. If she wasn’t trying so hard to convince him she could act the part of a grand lady, she would have done a little victory dance. Because she’d succeeded into shocking him into silence. Edmund Fontenay. The man who was never at a loss for a clever remark.

‘While I am flattered by your proposal,’ he said, replacing his spectacles on his nose, ‘I must confess to being a touch surprised.’

Hah! He didn’t need to confess any such thing. Not to her. Not when she knew exactly what the whole spectacles removing and wiping and replacing routine was all about. She’d stumped him. ‘Would you mind very much explaining why you have suddenly developed this interest in becoming...’ he paused, his gaze growing even colder than it normally did whenever it turned in her direction these days ‘...the Countess of Ashenden?’

She sucked in a sharp breath at the low blow. ‘I have no interest in becoming the Countess of Ashenden. It isn’t like that!’

‘No?’ He raised one eyebrow as if to say he didn’t believe her, but would very graciously give her the chance to explain.

‘No. Because I know full well I’m the very last person qualified to hold such a position.’ At least, that’s what his mother would say. And what Stepmama had said. Countless times. That it would be useless to set her cap at him—even if she’d been the kind of girl to indulge in that sort of behaviour—since the next Countess of Ashenden would have a position in the county, and the country, for which Georgiana simply didn’t have the training. Let alone the disposition.

‘In fact, I would much rather you weren’t an earl at all, but just...my neighbour.’ But unfortunately he was an earl. And he hadn’t been her neighbour for some years. He came back to Bartlesham as rarely as possible. His interests lay in London, with the new, clever friends he’d made. Her real neighbours had begun to wonder if he was going to turn out just like his father, who’d only ever returned to his ancestral seat to turn his nose up at it. ‘Oh, what’s the use? I might have known this was a waste of time.’

‘You might,’ he said.

‘Well, we cannot all be as clever as you,’ she retorted. ‘Some of us still do stupid things, hoping that people won’t let them down. You might as well say it—some of us never learn, do we?’

‘Some of us,’ he replied, slowly advancing, ‘would be more inclined to assist a...neighbour in distress if that neighbour would explain themselves clearly, without flinging emotional accusations left, right and centre. If, for example, you have no interest in becoming a countess, why have you asked me to consider marrying you?’

He was standing closer to her now than he’d done since they’d both been children. Close enough for her to see those blue flecks in his eyes, which prevented them from looking as though they were chiselled from ice. This close, she’d swear she could see a spark of interest, rather than cold indifference. This close, she could even, almost, imagine she could feel warmth emanating from his body.

She got the most inappropriate urge to reach out and tap him on the shoulder, to tag him and then run off into the trees. Only of course, he wouldn’t set off in pursuit nowadays. He’d just frown in a puzzled manner, or look down his aristocratic nose at her antics, and shake his head in reproof.

The way Papa had started to do whenever she did anything that Stepmama declared was unladylike.

Just then Lion yawned, making her look down. Which shattered the wistful longing for them to be able to return to the carefree days when they’d been playmates. Smashing the illusion that he’d just looked at her the way he’d looked at her then. As though she mattered.

When the painful truth was she’d never mattered to him at all. Well, she’d never mattered to anybody.

Still, it did look as though she’d succeeded in rousing his curiosity.

She peeped up at him warily from beneath her lashes. He was studying her, his head tilted slightly to one side, the way he so often used to look at a puzzle of some sort. Her heart sped up. And filled with...not hope, exactly. But a lightening of her despair. And she wondered whether it would be worth explaining why she’d considered making the outrageous proposal, after all.

‘Look, you know my father died last year—’ she began.

He flinched. ‘Yes. I did mean to offer my condolences, but—’

She made a slashing motion with her hand. It was far too late for that now. And she couldn’t bear to talk of it. It was bad enough that she’d turned out to be such a disappointment to the bluff, genial man she’d adored. That his final words to her had been an admonition to try and be more like Sukey, her stepsister.

‘I don’t wish to go over old ground,’ she said, proud that a slight hitch in her voice was the only thing betraying how very much Edmund’s absence, his silence, last year, had added to her grief. Which had been foolish of her, considering they hadn’t spoken to each other for several years. Why had she thought a bereavement would have made a difference to the way he dealt with her?

‘The point is,’ she continued, ‘that now we are out of mourning, Stepmama has decreed we go up to London, so that Sukey and I can find husbands.’

‘And?’

The impatience bordering on irritation he managed to inject into the single word cut her like a rapier thrust.

‘And I don’t want to go! I don’t want to have to parade around before a lot of men who will eye me up like some prize heifer at market.’ She bit back the painful admission that she could just imagine what they’d say of her, all those smart London beaux. They’d sneer at her, no doubt, and scoff and turn their noses up at her. She couldn’t imagine any decent man actually liking her enough to propose marriage. Not when she’d been such a disappointment to her family that they’d spent years trying to turn her into something she wasn’t.

‘I don’t want to have to accept an offer from some horrible man—’ who’d probably be deranged; well, he’d have to be to want to marry someone who struggled so hard to behave the way a lady should ‘—who will probably take me heaven knows where...’

The Hebridean Isles, like as not. Where there would be nobody to talk to. Because nobody lived there. Which was why the wild and hairy Scot would have gone to London to find a bride. Because there simply weren’t any women in those far-flung isles. And that would be the only reason she’d look like a good choice—because he wouldn’t know any better.

‘You may meet some man who is not horrible,’ he replied in a flat voice that cut right through her deepest, wildest imaginings. ‘That is the whole purpose of the Season, I believe? To meet someone congenial?’

She took a deep breath. Counted to five. ‘Whoever they are, they will take me somewhere...’ Somewhere remote, so that nobody could criticise him for his poor choice.

Or populated with odd people who wouldn’t notice her own failings because they were practically savages themselves.

But because her fears about her future would sound pathetic when voiced aloud, she finished limply, ‘Somewhere else.’

‘Then all you have to do is refuse all offers,’ he said in a condescending tone, ‘return to Bartlesham and live out your days as a spinster.’

Spinster! Ooh, how she hated that word. She much preferred the word virgin. A virgin was pure. Unsullied. A spinster was...a sort of dried-up husk of a person.

‘If you had spent any time at all down here since Papa died,’ she spat out, ‘you could not have just said anything so fatuous. Six Chimneys is entailed. And my prig of a cousin who inherited only gave us leave to stay on here for the year of mourning. Once we leave and go up to London, there will be no coming back. It’s marry some stranger, or...or...’

Oh, no. Her eyes were prickling. She’d sworn she wouldn’t cry. Not in front of Edmund. She turned away. Slashed at the reeds with her riding crop a few times to relieve her feelings. Turned back, her spine stiff.

‘Look, I know I’m not much of a catch,’ she said in a voice that only quivered just a little bit. ‘I’m not an heiress and I don’t have a title or anything, but I wouldn’t interfere with your life, like some wives would. You could leave me down here once we’re married and go back to London. I wouldn’t even put your mother’s nose out of joint by trying to take over running the house, or trying to outshine her at county affairs, or anything like that.’ Well, she couldn’t. She wouldn’t know how. But neither would she embarrass him by gallivanting all over the countryside like the hoyden she’d used to be. At least she knew better than that, now. ‘I’d keep out of everyone’s way, I swear!’

He looked her full in the face for the space of what felt like an eternity, though it was impossible to tell what he was thinking. Apart from the fact that it wasn’t anything good, since he’d got that flinty look again.

‘It is of no use looking up at me,’ he said eventually, ‘with those big brown eyes of yours, the way Lion does when he’s begging for scraps. I am not soft.’

‘I know that. Nobody,’ she said bitterly, ‘knows that better than I.’

‘Which only confirms your unsuitability to become my wife. You wouldn’t come to London with me, you wouldn’t even run the house if I left you down here alone. Just what, exactly, are you offering? What will I get out of this ridiculous marriage you claim to wish to make?’

‘Well...I don’t...I mean...’ She swallowed. Lifted her chin. Forced herself to say it. ‘That is, I don’t know if you remember, but you promised me, you did, that when you grew up, you’d do anything to help me if I needed a friend. And I’ve never needed one more than I do now...’

‘When I made that promise I was a boy,’ he bit out, his mouth twisted with distaste. ‘A callow youth. And I never imagined that you’d expect repayment this way. By demanding I make you my Countess!’

Georgiana sucked in a deep, agonised breath. The...the...brute. Didn’t he know what it had cost her to break through all the years of estrangement and write to him, begging him to meet her? Couldn’t he see how desperate she must have been to have broken all the rules by proposing to him?

‘I’m not demanding anything,’ she protested. ‘I was just hoping...’ She shook her head. That was the trouble with hope. It might raise your spirits for a while, but when someone tore it away, it left a ragged, gaping wound in its place. ‘I can see it was foolish to expect you to keep your promise. I might have known you’d find some way to wriggle off the hook.’

His nostrils flared as he sucked in a furious breath.

‘Don’t you dare accuse me of breaking my promises Georgie. Or trying to wriggle out of anything—’

‘But you just said you wouldn’t marry me. That you wouldn’t do anything to help me at all.’

He darted forward as she made to turn and leave, seizing her by the upper arm.

‘I never said anything of the sort,’ he growled. ‘It’s just that you didn’t offer me the one thing that might make me consider your...offer.’

Her heart kicked at the inside of her chest. There was something about the way he was looking at her that made her feel...weak. And sort of...trembly inside.

‘W-what might that be?’

‘Heirs,’ he said. ‘The only reason I will ever marry, any woman, is to fulfil my duty to provide heirs to take over my responsibilities when I’m gone.’

‘But that would mean...’ A vision flashed into her brain of how babies were made. It still made her feel ill to think about that day she’d gone into the stables and seen Wilkins lying face down in what had looked like a bundle of rags, with his breeches round his ankles, pounding that bundle of rags into the straw. There had been a pair of female legs spread grotesquely on either side of his hairy bottom, legs, she had discovered a few months later, which had belonged to one of their housemaids. The whole episode left a bad taste in her mouth, especially since, no matter how hard Liza had wept, Stepmama had insisted on turning her off, for being a bad influence on the daughters of the house.

And, by the way Edmund thrust her from him angrily, her disgust over the whole affair showed plainly on her face.

‘What, did you think I’d accept a marriage in name only?’

Once again, her face must have given her thoughts away, because he flinched.

‘My God, you did, didn’t you?’ He whirled away from her, his coat fanning out like the wings of a storm behind him. ‘What kind of man do you think I am?’ He paced back, his eyes glittering angrily. ‘You believe all those stupid things your idiot of a father said about me, don’t you? That I’m not a real man at all, because I prefer observing living creatures to galloping about the countryside in pursuit of them? That I have ink running through my veins, not hot, red blood?’

‘Papa was not an idiot,’ she said, since she couldn’t deny she had hoped he might have been willing to accept her terms. Which made her an idiot, too.

‘And that is the kind of man you wish to marry, is it? A man you don’t think is a real man at all?’

‘Yes,’ she cried. ‘That’s the only kind of man I could imagine being able to tolerate marrying. A man who’d let me have a marriage in name only.’

He stepped smartly up to her and took her by both shoulders.

‘When I marry it won’t be in name only. I want heirs. Several, in fact. I am damn well not going to have only one son, then carry on with my life as though he doesn’t exist.’

Her heart went out to him. Because she could see exactly why he was saying that. He’d been such a lonely child, of course he wouldn’t want to inflict the same fate on his own offspring.

‘And my wife will not be willing to let my mother carry on reigning over the county. She’ll have to take up the position herself, not try to stay out of everyone’s way. She’ll have to be strong enough to stand at my side, her sword metaphorically drawn, not cower in the background lest she put anyone’s nose out of joint.’

And then he flung her from him as though touching her had contaminated his hands.

‘Y-yes, I see,’ she stammered. And what she saw was that, yet again, she didn’t measure up. Not as a daughter, not as a possible wife, and not as a woman. ‘Oh, God,’ she whimpered, seeing her last hope slipping through her fingers. ‘You are going to make me go through with it, aren’t you? I’m going to have to go to London and face the humiliation of—’ she broke off before voicing her fears that no man with any sense would want her as a wife.

‘I am not making you do anything. This has nothing whatsoever to do with me,’ he said, making a slashing motion with his hand.

It was as though he’d landed a blow to her very heart. It was the final proof that he’d changed beyond all recognition. Either that, or her memory of him had been very deeply tinged by wishful thinking.

‘I might have known you’d take that attitude. Out of sight is out of mind with you, isn’t it? You don’t care about anything but what is right under your nose.’

A muscle twitched in his jaw. ‘You are deliberately twisting my words.’

‘No, I’m not. I’m just forcing you to see what you are doing to me! You. Yourself. Because you refuse to help me, some strange man is going to gain rights over my body. He will paw at me and...mount me...and...I will have to...endure it.’ Her stomach lurched in revulsion. ‘God, how I hate being a woman,’ she said, pressing her hand down hard on the centre of the nausea.

‘Georgie,’ he gasped, clearly shocked by her explicit description of what marriage meant to her. Her outrageous admission that she hated everything about being female. ‘Listen to me...’

‘No. I don’t want to hear any more stupid platitudes. The only thing you could possibly say that I want to hear is that you are going to marry me. Will you? Will you marry me?’

The look on his face said it all. It was a mixture of shock and distaste, and withdrawal.

‘No, you won’t, will you? Well then, I will stop wasting your precious time,’ she said, dashing her hand across her face to swipe away the one tear she hadn’t been able to blink back, and bent to pat Lion one last time. Then she turned and stumbled from the riverbank.

He didn’t reach out a hand to try and stop her. He didn’t call out her name. He just stood there, coldly watching her flee the scene of her humiliation. At least, she assumed the look on his face was cold. She wasn’t going to betray any weakness by looking over her shoulder to find out.

* * *

‘Well, Lion, what do you make of that?’

The exhausted spaniel flopped down on the hearthrug with a sigh and closed his eyes. Even when Edmund nudged him with the toe of his boot, the dog did not react.

‘You are not being any help,’ said Edmund, gazing down at the almost-comatose dog. ‘You are the one person—I mean creature—who knows her as well as I, since you were there for many of our escapades. Have you no useful advice to give me?’

Of course Lion didn’t have any advice to give. He was a dog. By heaven, he was actually talking to a dog, instead of sitting down and going over the encounter with Georgiana in a rational fashion.

But how on earth could he possibly go over the encounter in a rational fashion, when it felt as if he’d been beaten about the body all day by a series of highly irrational explosions?

First, the letter had infuriated him, dredging up as it had a whole host of insecurities and hurts he’d deliberately buried beneath years of strenuous denial.

And then there had been his visceral reaction to seeing her again, standing in the place that represented a sort of oasis during his childhood, wearing that figure-hugging, vibrant pink gown that stood out like a beacon against the background of all those dead reeds. His entire body had leaped in response. That was what it had felt like. Almost the same as the feeling he’d had when taking part in those experiments with galvanism. An involuntary reaction in his muscles that had nothing to do with his brain, his intellect.

And then she’d shocked his mind too, with that completely unexpected proposal. But what had been most shocking about it was the fact that, for a moment, he’d actually considered it. Even though he’d assumed she’d only proposed out of ambition to become a countess.

Which had made him twice as angry as he might have been when she’d explained that the reason she wanted him was because, primarily, she didn’t think he’d be interested in bedding her. She might as well have spat in his face. Which had, in turn, provoked him into telling her exactly what he wanted from marriage. The words had come pouring out of his mouth like a dam bursting, in spite of never having actually sat down and thought it through.

He strode to the sideboard and wrested the top from the decanter.

He couldn’t believe, now, that he’d become angry enough to grab her. Grab her! Which meant that he’d been so close to her that when he’d drawn breath, he’d unwittingly filled his nostrils with the scent of her. And had, at the same time, become aware of the warm contours of her shoulders, rising and falling under his palms.

He shook his head as he poured himself a large brandy. If he didn’t habitually keep such firm control over himself, he’d have flung her to the ground right there and shown her exactly how normal and healthy his appetites could be.

What man wouldn’t react that way to having such a slur cast on his masculinity?

He downed half the drink and slammed the glass back down on the sideboard.

And how on earth had she reached the conclusion that sexual congress was a revolting act that would humiliate her, anyway? Though at least he now could see why she’d wanted the sterile union she’d imagined she’d have with him.

He whirled away from the sideboard and strode to the window. What was he doing, taking brandy at this time of day? Five minutes in her presence and she’d driven him to drink.

And yet...

She’d turned to him. She might have insulted him in the process, but she had practically begged him for help.

He braced his hands on the windowsill and gazed out in the direction of their stream. If only he’d stayed calm and cool and rational, he could have walked away from that encounter feeling like a victor. Instead of which...

An image of her face swam before his eyes. Her face, not as it had been today, all pinched up as she struggled not to cry, her whole body rigid with the effort of sacrificing her pride and begging him to rescue her from being bedded by a Real Man, but alight with laughter as she hung upside down by her legs from a tree.

‘I still miss her, Lion,’ he whispered, bowing his head in defeat. ‘Where did she go? What happened to that girl who wasn’t afraid of anything, or anyone, to turn her into the woman she is today?’

And, more importantly, what was he going to do about it?

.

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