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Берроуз Энни

The Debutante's Daring Proposal

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Edmund pushed his way through the cluster of people gathered by the railings of Durant House and gave his name to the burly footman stationed there.

He’d known tonight’s event would rouse interest in certain circles, but had not anticipated it creating quite such a stir. He had underestimated the amount of people who had nothing better to do than gossip, obviously. Though Lord and Lady Havelock, the owners of Durant House, had certainly done plenty to create it. Lady Havelock had been a complete unknown before their marriage, which had taken place just before Christmas, while most of the ton had been spending the Season on their country estates. And, according to the very few people who’d been on terms to visit since the couple had taken up residence, she had performed an almost miraculous transformation upon one of the gloomiest town houses known to the haut ton.

What was more, before this mysterious woman could take up her place in society, her lord had proved equally efficient in his own endeavours at siring an heir. Her appearances in public therefore were few and far between and invitations to Durant House were scarcer than hen’s teeth. Which meant that everyone who hadn’t seen inside wanted to know how the young Lady Havelock had managed to effect the sort of improvement upon her new home—that those who had been privileged to see it were raving about—without bankrupting her husband in the process.

‘You are expected, Lord Ashenden,’ said the footman, before stepping aside to allow him to pass.

A smile tugged at Edmund’s lips as he mounted the steps to the front door which swung open as if by magic. Georgiana’s stepmother must have been cock-a-hoop when she received her invitation to this ‘informal gathering of friends and family’, especially once she’d seen how many others were not being admitted to the select gathering. After tonight, the three Wickford ladies would be invited to all sorts of events hosted by ladies whose determination to discover the latest gossip about the interior of Durant House knew no bounds. They would not even be deterred by their humble origins, if anyone ever bothered delving into their antecedents.

Edmund handed his hat and coat to the footman who’d opened the door to him, and made his way across the wainscoted hall to the staircase that swept up the left wall, via a series of half-landings, to the gallery spanning the next storey. The hall was massive. And could have been imposing, but somehow felt welcoming, in spite of Lord Havelock’s forebears scowling down at him from their heavily gilded frames.

That was possibly because he didn’t care about the opinion of long-dead nobles. To be frank, he didn’t give much for the opinion of living ones either. The only person whose thoughts interested him in the slightest, at this moment, was Georgiana.

She was bound to be angry with him after the way they’d parted. Though at least this time he knew why she was angry with him and had a perfectly sound explanation to offer. At least, he intended to explain why he hadn’t called upon her before she’d left Bartlesham. He was tolerably certain she would understand his need to think things through. And that she’d forgive his earlier offence once he demonstrated his willingness to be her friend once more, if not her husband.

What he was not going to do, however, was offer any explanation as to why he hadn’t called upon her now that he was in Town as well.

A flush crept up his neck as he mounted the stairs, brought on by the recollection of the impetuous way he’d stormed out of Six Chimneys before he’d gathered all the information he needed. And then the difficulty he’d had attempting to track her down. By the time he had done so, it was far too late to simply pay her a morning call, since she was bound to have known exactly how long he’d been in residence at Ashenden House. Various newspapers regularly reported his movements, for reasons that remained a mystery to him. It would have looked as though he’d been too busy, or too indifferent to call before.

Besides, he’d reasoned, they wouldn’t have been able to converse privately anyway. He could just imagine the scene in her drawing room, with her shooting dagger glances at him, while he would have been unable to explain anything to his satisfaction. Not with her stepmother in earshot. For he was certain the woman could not have known about their meeting by the trout stream. If she’d been brought into Georgiana’s life to teach her how to behave, then one of the first things she would have taught her was the impropriety of meeting single gentlemen without a chaperon.

Once he’d come to that conclusion, he had then briefly wondered how Georgiana had managed to engineer the meeting at all. But only briefly. For she had been wearing a riding habit and there had been no sign of a horse. Somewhere close by there must have been a groom who had somehow been persuaded to let her out of his sight for a few minutes.

He shook his head. The stepmother must be completely hen-witted if she thought she could trust Georgiana out of her sight with only a groom to guard her. Didn’t she know what a wild, free spirit dwelled in that shapely body?

Which reflection made his heart speed up considerably.

Or perhaps it was simply that he’d just climbed several flights of stairs and would soon be walking into the reception room in which Georgiana must surely be by this time of the evening. He’d deliberately arrived late, telling Lord Havelock that he would ‘pop in’ on his way back from another engagement. ‘It would be best to commence my association in London with Miss Wickford by meeting as if by chance,’ he had explained, ‘at some event where we have mutual friends.’

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