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The Debutante's Daring Proposal

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Nothing. That was what he was going to do. Not until he was able to think straight. He’d learned at his mother’s knee that giving way to an emotional appeal, out of pity, or guilt, or a sense of indebtedness, or...whatever, only resulted in him committing what he’d later regard as an error of judgement.

But in spite of constantly reminding himself that he had far more important matters to think about, Georgiana’s outrageous proposal, and, to his mind, his even more disgraceful reaction to it, kept on pushing everything else aside.

They even affected the way he dealt with estate business.

‘I do not care what my mother says,’ he found himself saying, shocking both himself and his steward by pounding his fist on the desk. ‘I am the Earl of Ashenden. I am running this estate and all my other holdings. And if I wish plant the whole of the water meadow with pineapples, she has no right to gainsay it.’

Rowlands’s jaw dropped. ‘Pineapples, my lord?’

‘It was merely a hypothetical example,’ Edmund bit out. ‘The point is, my word here is law. Or should be.’

‘Yes, my lord.’

‘Then why do you persist in coming to me to report that work has not been done because the Countess would not like it? I do not,’ he said, rising to his feet and leaning forward, resting his palms on the desk, ‘wish to hear that excuse ever again. Do you understand?’

‘Yes, my lord,’ said Rowlands, twisting the sheaf of papers he held in his hand into a tight screw.

Edmund wiped his hand across his face. Devil take it, he was losing his temper with a subordinate. Shouting at a man who had not the liberty to answer back.

It was because he was tired, that was what it was. He’d fallen asleep with Georgiana on his mind, then been plagued all night by dreams in which he’d watched her being dragged to the altar by a variety of unsavoury-looking characters. Worse still, he was always present during the subsequent wedding night. Time and again, she’d turn her big brown eyes to him as the men had been stripping her naked and pushing her on to the bed, pleading with him to come to her rescue. But he never could. Either his legs had remained stubbornly immobile, no matter how hard he’d struggled to get to her. Or he’d reached out to thrust the shadowy bridegroom away, only to find his hand was pushing at empty air. At which point he would awake, sweating, and roused, and ashamed. Because he couldn’t be sure that his motives for getting to Georgiana were completely honourable. Had he been trying to rescue her, or did he simply want to replace the man in her bed?

Self-disgust had him getting up hours before his hapless valet could reasonably have expected a summons, ordering a breakfast which he couldn’t manage to eat and then marching down to the boathouse.

He must have rowed upstream for the best part of an hour. But no matter how hard he pushed himself, he could not achieve the clarity of mind that being out on the open water normally bestowed.

Infuriated to find that he couldn’t even escape her out there, he allowed the current to carry him back to the boathouse, and stalked to his study in the hopes that he could bury himself in work. And this was the result.

‘I appreciate you are in a most awkward position, Rowlands,’ he said as he sat down. ‘I am asking you to carry out orders of which she does not approve. I know that she comes here far more often than I and that you have been used to doing her bidding for some considerable time.’

Rowlands flushed. ‘We were all that grateful she took up the reins when your father dropped them, my lord,’ he pointed out. ‘Begging your pardon for saying so.’

‘No need to beg my pardon for that. She did a sterling job, considering. I am well aware that had it not been for her, I may not have inherited estates that were in such good working order.’ And he really ought to feel more grateful to her than he did. ‘Nevertheless, she has not studied modern farming methods, the way I have.

Nor is it her place to run things now that I have reached my majority.’

‘No, my lord,’ said Rowland. And took a breath, then closed his mouth.

‘Yes, what is it? You may as well tell me, so that we can clear the air once and for all.’

‘Well, it’s just that with her ladyship being so used to getting her own way, in these parts, it might be helpful to all of us down here if you would have a word with her.’ His face went beetroot-red.

‘Point taken,’ said Edmund.

It was for him to tell his mother to cease interfering with his plans. With an effort, he returned to discussing estate business with the poor man who would have to carry out those plans in the face of probably strident opposition from Lady Ashenden. But he could only manage to keep part of his mind on turnips, drainage and potential yields. The other part kept straying back to Georgiana and the way she’d looked in that gown. The wild, almost primitive surge of lust he’d experienced after breathing in her pure, undiluted scent. His insane desire to prove to her, right there on the riverbank, that he was just like any other red-blooded man.

No wonder his sleep had been so disturbed the night before after a scene like that. Especially as she’d told him that she would hold him personally responsible for whatever happened to her in London.

And as the day wore on, and his mind kept straying to Georgiana’s proposal, a couple of other things she’d said started to niggle at him. For instance, she’d flung the words, ‘Out of sight is out of mind with you, isn’t it?’ As though she was accusing him of turning his back on her. Which made no sense. For she was the one who hadn’t answered any of the letters he’d written to her. Apart from, ironically, the first. The note he’d thrust into the gap between the stone wall and the gatepost of the main drive, which was where they’d always left messages for each other if they couldn’t meet at their place for any reason.

Dr Scholes has persuaded Mother that I need to live in a warmer climate if I’m going to reach adulthood. I am leaving tomorrow. But I will write to you. Please write to me, too.

She’d written back.

I will. I will miss you.

Miss him—hah!

The footman, who’d been about to remove the cloth and bring in the port, flinched. Which alerted Edmund to the fact he must have actually said the word, rather than just thinking it.

Which infuriated him even more. Dammit, he couldn’t even sit down to dinner in peace because of her. He hadn’t been this unsettled since...since he’d first gone to St Mary’s. And waited for letters that never came. Six months it had taken him to accept the fact that she wasn’t going to keep her word. That she didn’t miss him at all.

He unstoppered the decanter which his footman had placed, warily, at his left hand and poured himself his usual measure. When he thought of the hours he’d spent, walking along the beach, howling his protests into the wind so that nobody would witness his misery, he couldn’t help grimacing in distaste.

It had taken a stern talking-to from Dr Scholes to put an end to it.

‘It is as well you learn what fickle creatures females are,’ the elderly scholar had told him. ‘Not that they can help it. They may well mean whatever it was they said at the time they said it, but five minutes later another idea will come into their head and they will forget all about the first one. Or simply change their mind.’

The explanation had made so much sense it had made him feel like the world’s biggest fool. He should already have learned, from the example of his parents, that men and women never said what they really meant, but only what they hoped would get them out of hot water. But it had been Georgie’s casually broken promise that had made him vow never to trust another person so much that he became that vulnerable, ever again.

And until he’d gone to the stream in answer to her summons, he had kept that vow.

He got to his feet abruptly, waving permission to the hovering footmen to clear the table. There was no clarity of thought to be found in port. What he needed was a good night’s sleep. But he was not likely to get it, not with his head still so full of Georgiana.

So he went to his study, sat down at his desk and out of habit when first considering a complex problem, drew out a fresh sheet of paper and trimmed his pen. But what to write, when it came to Miss Georgiana Wickford?

Why is she angry? he wrote. As though he’d betrayed her, not the other way round. What could possibly make her think that? He hadn’t chosen to leave. To leave her alone. So it couldn’t be that. But...

He closed his eyes, and concentrated. And another inconsistency popped up.

If she was so angry with him, why had she asked him to marry her?

It made no sense.

Especially not when she’d told him she’d almost expected him to wriggle off the hook.

From where, he wondered indignantly, had she acquired such a low opinion of him? He was a man who kept his word. Why, he’d even gone to the stream, in answer to her summons, because of a promise he’d made when he’d been too young to know any better. Even though she’d broken hers to him.

Angrily, he scratched another question mark. And put the matter aside. Because all he was doing, by concentrating on Georgiana, was getting even more angry than when he was trying not to think about her at all.

* * *

The next day, during the hours when he was supposed to be going over the accounts, his mind wandered to Georgiana’s peculiar view of what a London Season would be like. And he got a vivid flash of himself, as a bewildered youth, being put on a coach and shipped off to St Mary’s.

He leaned back and twirled his pen between his ink-stained fingers. She was clearly as scared as he’d been back then, about going to what was, to her, a foreign country. He seemed to recall that he’d even had the odd notion that he was being sent into exile, for some crime he hadn’t been aware he’d committed.

That same fear might explain why she had acted so irrationally and said so many other things that made no sense. Perhaps all she needed was reassurance. Perhaps he would not feel so guilty about not being able to accede to her ridiculous demand she marry him, if he could explain that, for him, going to the Scilly Isles had turned out to be the best thing that had happened to him. Once he’d stopped bewailing her betrayal, that was. Dr Scholes had encouraged him in all his studies, even going so far as helping him catalogue the incredible variety of moths to be found on the Isles at various times of the year. He’d encouraged him to row, regularly, which had improved his physique to no end. He’d allowed him to mix with the locals, too.

There, that was something he could do. Encourage her to look upon her London Season as an opportunity, rather than a form of torture.

Because he couldn’t leave things as they were. His conscience wouldn’t permit it, no matter how often he told it to be silent. It kept reminding him that he’d made a promise. And even though he couldn’t keep that promise in the way she thought she wanted him to, he ought to find some other way to prove he was not the sort of man to wriggle off the hook.

* * *

The next morning, when he was out rowing on the river, he came up with an answer that was so utterly perfect he couldn’t imagine why he hadn’t suggested it to her at once.

There were men who, for various reasons, did seek out the kind of marriage she’d asked him to contemplate. He couldn’t actually foresee that much difficulty in arranging such a match, if she was so sure that was what she wanted.

There. That was something constructive he could do. He could suggest she look, in London, for the kind of man who did want a paper marriage. Perhaps even offer to discreetly put out feelers to that end.

And then, once Georgie’s future was settled, maybe he’d be able to get a decent night’s sleep again.

* * *

Later that day, therefore, he sent for his carriage, heaved Lion up on to the seat beside him and set off for Six Chimneys. Lion had been a great help during their last interview. More than once, the old dog had inadvertently diffused the tension building between the two humans.

Besides which, Lion had enjoyed seeing her and she’d enjoyed seeing him.

It was the only thing about her, apparently, that hadn’t changed since their childhood—her love of dogs.

As the carriage bowled along the winding lanes that separated Fontenay Court from Six Chimneys, Edmund wondered what could possibly account for the drastic changes between the girl he’d loved and the woman who...irked him so much. Yes, irked him. Because, although she looked like a grown-up version of the girl who’d captivated him, she had none of the spark. Miss Georgiana Wickford was detachment and elegant deportment.

The very minute he’d left Bartlesham it was as if she’d turned into someone else.

Was there a connection between the two? He’d never really considered that the one might have been connected to the other, but it was most definitely the case that a, he’d left and then b, she’d changed. Apparently overnight.

Well, he’d changed, too. He was no longer the wounded adolescent in the throes of what he’d believed was his first and one true love. Even if he had behaved like one down by the stream, by grabbing her and shouting at her, and sending her away in tears.

Today, he was a rational, adult male who was in full control of himself.

And he wasn’t going to let her reduce him to...that state, again.

He gave the Tudor manor house a keen perusal as Benson drew the carriage up by the front gate. He’d never actually visited before. As a boy, he reflected ruefully as he lifted Lion down and strolled the few steps from the carriage to the front door, he’d rarely left the estate except for church on Sundays. As a man, he’d spent as little time as possible in Bartlesham, and—he paused with one booted foot on the front step—he rarely left the estate then, either. He stayed at Fontenay Court only long enough to attend to any urgent estate business, then retreated to London.

He raised the knocker and let it drop. After only the briefest pause, the door was opened by a ruddy-faced housemaid who was completely unfamiliar to him.

‘If you would please to come this way, your lordship,’ she said, bobbing a curtsy, ‘Mr Wickford will receive you in the parlour.’

He blinked. For two reasons. Firstly, though he was sure he’d never clapped eyes on the woman before, she clearly knew exactly who he was. Did he spend so little time down here that he no longer knew who inhabited the place? Georgiana had accused him of being ignorant of things he ought to have known.

It was definitely time to remedy that. The next time he came down here, he would devote at least one day to do a little mingling with the locals. Which would not only enable him to keep abreast of local news, but also convince his tenants that he intended to be an effective, efficient landlord.

Secondly, Mr Wickford? Whenever anyone said that name, he immediately thought of Georgiana’s father. The rather shabby, sporting-mad squire of Bartlesham, who always seemed to have a pack of dogs tumbling round his feet.

He and Lion followed the maid across the hall and into a small, sunlit room, where a short, fair-haired man, who had a vague look of Georgie’s father about his jawline, was standing.

‘Good morning, my lord,’ he said, sweeping a heap of what looked like curtain material from one of the chairs and wadding it up into a ball. ‘It is so good of you to call, to welcome us to the neighbourhood. An honour,’ he blustered, tossing the bundle of fabric behind the sofa. ‘Totally unexpected, I do assure you.’

Totally unexpected on Edmund’s part, too. Not that he was going to alienate the fellow by admitting he hadn’t come here to see him at all.

‘Oh, sit, please, do sit.’ The man he assumed must be the Mr Wickford the maid had meant indicated the chair he’d cleared of curtaining. ‘At sixes and sevens,’ he said apologetically. ‘Not really ready for visitors, Mrs Wickford would say. But in your case, of course...’ He petered out.

Edmund sank slowly into the proffered chair and Lion lay down at his feet with a sigh as the facts settled into order. This man was evidently the cousin of Georgie’s father, the one who’d inherited the house and land. The one who’d given her a year before evicting her.

And Mrs Wickford must be Georgiana’s stepmother.

‘She will be wishing me at the devil,’ he said, with what he hoped was a sociable smile. ‘Calling upon you all when she must be so very busy planning her removal to London.’

‘Removal to London?’ Mr Wickford gaped at him. ‘Whatever made you think...? Oh, I have it!’ He chuckled. ‘You are referring to my cousin’s widow, who has already left for Town. She and the girls moved out as soon as we moved in.’

They’d left? While he’d been getting his thoughts in order, they’d left? Before he had a chance to make amends for the way they’d parted?

Edmund went cold. Georgie had gone off to Town, believing that he’d completely repudiated her. That he cared so little about the fears she’d confessed to having that he’d left her to deal with them alone.

Even though he’d promised she could always consider him her friend.

No, he shook his head.

He wasn’t the kind of man who broke his word.

He hadn’t been trying to wriggle off the hook.

And he couldn’t bear to think that Georgie must now believe he was.


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