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The Earl's Untouched Bride

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«The Earl's Untouched Bride» - Энни Берроуз

Fearing a forced betrothal with a man known for his cruelty, Heloise Bergeron throws herself on the mercy of Charles Fawley, Earl of Walton. He believes himself attracted to her younger, beautiful sister, so what is he doing entertaining thoughts of marriage to the plain, quiet Heloise?But marry her he does. Returning to England with a convenient wife, who inspires a very inconvenient desire, Charles is about to discover just how untouched his French bride really is….
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Charles had taken her completely by surprise.

Charles had taken her completely by surprise.

She didn’t know what to do. No man had ever kissed her before.

But she didn’t want to evade Charles, she discovered after only a fleeting moment of shock. What she really wanted, she acknowledged, relaxing into his hold, was to put her arms about him and kiss him back. If only she knew how!

Uttering a little whimper of pleasure, Heloise raised shaky hands from her lap and tentatively reached out for him.

“My God,” he panted, breaking free. “I never meant to do that!”

The fierce surge of desire that even now was having a visible effect on his anatomy was an unexpected bonus. When the time was right, he was going to enjoy teaching his wife all there was to know about loving….

The Earl’s Untouched Bride

Harlequin®Historical #933—February 2009

To my parents, who taught me to love reading.

Praise for Annie Burrows

“Annie Burrows is an exceptional writer of historical romance who sprinkles her stories with unforgettable characters, terrific period detail and wicked repartee.”




Available from Harlequin® Historical and ANNIE BURROWS

One Candlelit Christmas #919

“The Rake’s Secret Son”

The Earl’s Untouched Bride #933


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Only she can help to clear his name in town.


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The thrilling conclusion to the Ladies of Paradise Road trilogy!


Viking warrior Earl Wulfrum has come to conquer—starting with the beautiful, spirited Lady Elgiva. He must break down the walls to his defiant bride’s heart!

Just one look from a smoldering Viking and her fate is sealed….

Author Note

Recently I had the opportunity to look at some cover pictures from Harlequin Mills & Boon’s very earliest publications. As a lover of all things historical, I found it fascinating that it was fairly easy to date each book, simply by the style of the cover art. The 1920s and 30s was replaced by a more patriotic and earnest tone during the war years. Then came a profusion of bright colors which reflected the hopes of a nation emerging from austerity and rationing.

Whatever decade we live in, though, one thing is certain. Though our lifestyles may change, the deepest needs of each human being remain the same. Each of us longs to feel valued—loved for ourselves, just as we are.

The hero and heroine of The Earl’s Untouched Bride are both painfully aware of their own deficiencies. So aware that it is hard for either of them to believe another person can truly love them. I hope you enjoy reading their story, which is set against the turbulent times France and England had to face when Napoleon escaped from Elba and tried to reestablish his empire.


Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter One

Giddings opened the door to find His Lordship standing upon the step, his face set in such rigid lines a shiver went down his spine. It was a relief when the Earl of Walton looked straight through him as he handed over his hat and coat, turning immediately towards the door to the salon. Thank God young Conningsby had taken it into his head to pass out on one of the sofas in there, instead of staggering back to his own lodgings the previous night. It was far better that it should be a man who could answer back, rather than a hapless member of staff, who became the butt of His Lordship’s present mood.

But Charles Algernon Fawley, the ninth Earl of Walton, ignored Conningsby too. Striding across the room to the sideboard, he merely unstoppered a crystal decanter, pouring its entire contents into the last clean tumbler upon the tray.

Conningsby opened one eye warily, and rolled it in the Earl’s direction. ‘Breakfast at Tortoni’s?’ he grated hoarsely.

Charles tossed the glass of brandy back in one go, and reached for the decanter again.

‘Don’t look as though you enjoyed it much,’ Conningsby observed, wincing as he struggled to sit up.

‘No.’ As the Earl realised the decanter was empty, his fingers curled round its neck as though he wished he could strangle it. ‘And if you dare say I told you so…’

‘Wouldn’t dream of it, my lord. But what I will say is—’

‘No. I listened to all you had to say last night, and, while I am grateful for your concern, my decision remains the same. I am not going to slink out of Paris with my tail between my legs like some whipped cur. I will not have it said that some false, painted jilt has made the slightest impact on my heart. I am staying until the lease on this apartment expires, not one hour sooner. Do you hear me?’

Conningsby raised a feeble hand to his brow. ‘Only too clearly.’ He eyed the empty decanter ruefully. ‘And while you’re proving to the whole world that you don’t care a rap about your betrothed running off with some penniless artist, I don’t suppose you could get your man to rustle up some coffee, could you?’

‘Engraver,’ snapped the Earl as he tugged viciously on the bell-pull.

Conningsby sank back into the sofa cushions, waving a languid hand to dismiss the profession of the Earl’s betrothed’s lover as the irrelevance it was.

‘Judging by the expression on your face, the gossip-mongers have already been at work. It’s not going to get any easier for you…’

‘My mood now has nothing whatever to do with the fickle Mademoiselle Bergeron,’ he snarled. ‘It is her countrymen’s actions which could almost induce me to leave this vile charnel house that calls itself a civilised city and return to London, where the most violent emotion I am likely to suffer is acute boredom.’

‘But it was boredom you came to Paris to escape from!’

He let the inaccuracy of that remark pass. Staying in London, with his crippled half-brother, had simply become intolerable. Seeking refuge down at Wycke had not been a viable alternative, either. There was no respite from what ailed him there. The very opulence of the vast estate only served as a painful reminder of the injustice that had been perpetrated so that he could inherit it all.

Paris had seemed like the perfect solution. Since Bonaparte had abdicated, it had become extremely fashionable to hop across the Channel to see the sights.

Leaning one arm on the mantelpiece, he remarked, with an eloquent shudder, ‘I will never complain of that particular malady again, I do assure you.’

‘What is it?’ Conningsby asked. ‘What else has happened?’

‘Another murder.’

‘Du Mauriac again, I take it?’ Conningsby’s face was grim. The French officer was gaining a reputation for provoking hot-headed young Englishmen to duel with him, and dispatching them with a ruthless efficiency gleaned from his years of active service. And then celebrating his kill by breakfasting on broiled kidneys at Tortoni’s. ‘Who was it this morning? Not anybody we know, I hope?’

‘On the contrary. The poor fellow he slaughtered before breakfast today was a subaltern by the name of Lennox.’ At Conningsby’s frown, Charles explained, ‘Oh, there is no reason why you should know him. He was typical of all the others who have fallen by that butcher’s sword. An obscure young man with no powerful connections.’

‘Then how…?’

‘He served in the same regiment as my unfortunate half-brother. He was one of those young men who constantly paraded through my London house, attempting to rouse him to some semblance of normality.’ Sometimes it seemed as if an entire regiment must have marched through his hall at one time or another, to visit the poor wreck of a man who had once been a valiant soldier. Though few of them paid a second visit after encountering his blistering rejection. Captain Fawley did not want to be an object of pity.

Pity! If only he knew! If he, the ninth Earl, had been injured so badly, there would be not one well-wisher hastening to his bedside in an attempt to cheer him. On the contrary, it would be vultures who would begin to hover, eager to see who among them would gain his title, his wealth…

‘At least he was a soldier, then.’

‘He never stood a chance against a man of Du Mauriac’s stamp, and the blackguard knew it! He sat there laughing about the fact that the boy did not look as though he needed to shave more than once a week! And sneered at his milk-white countenance as he faced him…God, the boy must have been sick with fright.’

Charles smote one fist into his palm. ‘If only Lennox had asked me to be his second, I would have found a way to stop it!’

Conningsby eyed him with surprise. The only thing he had known about the Earl before his arrival in Paris was that, upon coming of age, he had caused a ripple through society by ousting his guardians from his ancestral home and subsequently severing all connections with that branch of his family. He had not known of a single man who dared claim friendship with the chillingly insular young lord. In Conningsby’s capacity as a junior aide at the English embassy, he had dutifully helped him to find these lodgings in the Rue de Richelieu, and generally smoothed his entry into the social scene. It had been quite a surprise, the previous night, when the Earl had reacted as any man might on discovering the beautiful Parisienne to whom he had just proposed had run off with her lover. He had gone straight home to drown his sorrows. Though his head had proved stronger than Conningsby’s.

‘Couldn’t have backed down, though, could he?’ he ventured sympathetically. ‘Wouldn’t have wanted to live with an accusation of cowardice hanging round his neck.’

‘Somebody should have found some way to save Lennox,’ the Earl persisted. ‘If only…’

He was prevented from saying anything further when the butler opened the door. ‘There is a visitor for you, my lord.’

‘I am not receiving,’ Charles growled.

Giddings cleared his throat, and eyed Conningsby warily, before saying diffidently, ‘The young person insists you would wish to see her.’ He stepped forward and, in a voice intended only for his master, said, ‘She says her name is Mademoiselle Bergeron.’

Charles felt as though he had been punched in the stomach.

While he struggled to draw breath, Conningsby, who had remarkably acute hearing, rose gingerly to his feet. ‘She has in all probability come to beg your forgiveness…’

‘She shall not have it!’ Charles turned to grasp the mantelpiece with both hands, his shoulders hunched. ‘I shall not take her back. If she prefers some artist to me, then she may go to him and welcome!’

‘But there may have been some dreadful mistake.

Let’s face it, my lord, the Bergeron household last night was in such a state of turmoil, who knows what may have been going on?’

They had gone to escort Felice to a ball, where the engagement was to have been announced. They had found Monsieur Bergeron slumped in his chair, as though all the stuffing had been knocked out of him, and Madame Bergeron suffering from a noisy bout of hysterics upon the sofa. The only clear piece of information either of them had been able to glean was that she had turned off the wicked maidservant who had aided and abetted her ungrateful daughter to elope with a nobody when she could have married an English earl.

The Earl was breathing rather rapidly. ‘I am not safe to see her.’ He turned back to face the room, his entire face leached of colour. ‘I may well attempt to strangle her.’

‘Not you,’ Conningsby assured him.

The Earl looked at him sharply, then straightened up. ‘No,’ he said, his face freezing into a chillingly aloof mask. ‘Not I.’ He went to one of the fireside chairs, sat down, and crossed one leg nonchalantly over the other. ‘You may show Mademoiselle Bergeron in, Giddings,’ he said, keeping his eyes fixed on the door.

Conningsby got the peculiar impression he had just become invisible. And, though he could tell the Earl would not care one way or another, he had no intention of becoming a witness to the impending confrontation. It was one thing helping a man to drown his sorrows in a companionable way. Hell, what man hadn’t been in a similar predicament at one time or another? But becoming embroiled with some hysterical Frenchwoman, with his head in its present delicate state, was asking too much! He looked wildly round the room for some other means of escape than the door through which Mademoiselle Bergeron would shortly appear. The only other exit appeared to be through the windows.

It took but a second to vault over the sofa on which he’d spent the night and dive through the heavy velvet curtains.

‘Mademoiselle Bergeron,’ he heard Giddings intone, as he fumbled open the shutter bolts.

Charles experienced a spurt of satisfaction when she paused on the threshold, her gloved hand fluttering to the heavy veil draped from her bonnet.

Instead of rising to his feet, he deliberately leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, eyeing her with unremitting coldness. She squared her shoulders, taking one faltering step forward. Then, to his complete astonishment, she broke into a run, flying across the room and landing upon her knees at his feet. Seizing his hand, she pulled it to her face, kissing it through the veil.

Impatiently, he snatched it back. Whatever she had been up to last night, he was not prepared to unbend towards her without a really good explanation. And probably not even then. To feel such strong emotions that they could reduce you to the state of mind where not even copious quantities of alcohol could anaesthetise them was something he did not care to experience again. He was just about to tell her so when she knelt back, lifting the veil from her face.

‘Oh, thank you, milord! Thank you for letting me in. I was so afraid! You have no idea how unpleasant it is to walk the streets unescorted with feelings running so high…’

Charles reeled back in his seat. ‘You are not…not…’

‘Felice? No.’ The young woman who knelt before him returned his look rather defiantly. ‘I regret the deception, but I did not think you would agree to see anyone but her today. And so I led your butler to believe I was she. And, indeed, the deception was not so very great. You were expecting Mademoiselle Bergeron, and I am Mademoiselle Bergeron…’

‘You are entirely the wrong Mademoiselle Bergeron,’ he snapped. How could he have mistaken the much shorter and utterly plain Heloise for her beautiful, glamorous, and entirely captivating younger sister? He couldn’t blame the bonnet, though the peak of it did protrude from her face by over a foot, nor the heavy veil that was suspended from it, though it had concealed her features. He had wanted to see Felice, he acknowledged painfully. He had clung to the faint hope that there had been some dreadful mistake, and that she had come to tell him that she wanted no other man but him. And so he had seen what he wanted to see. What kind of fool did that make him?

Heloise swallowed nervously. She had been expecting a little antagonism, but the reality of facing a man whose heart had been broken was altogether more daunting than she had supposed it would be.

‘No,’ she persisted. ‘I do not think you will find that I am when you hear what I have to propose…’

‘I cannot imagine what you hope to accomplish by coming here and prostrating yourself in this manner,’ he began angrily.

‘Oh, no—how could you, when I have not yet explained? But you only need to listen for a very few minutes and I will tell you!’ Suddenly very conscious that she was still kneeling like a supplicant at his feet, she glanced about the room.

‘May I sit upon one of these so comfortable-looking chairs, my lord? This floor it is most hard, and really I do not see that you can take me at all seriously if I do not make some effort to look more rational. Only I did not know what was to become of me if you did not let me in. I was followed all the way from the Tuileries gardens by a contingent of the National Guard of the most vile manners. They refused to believe at all that I am a respectable female, merely visiting a friend of the family who also happens to be an English milord, and that they would be entirely sorry for accusing me of the things they did—for why should I not be entirely innocent? Just because you are English, that does not make me a bad person, or unpatriotic at all, even if I am not wearing either the white lily or the violet. If they are going to arrest anyone, it should have been the crowd who were brawling in the gardens, not someone who does not care at all that the emperor has gone, and that a Bourbon sits on the throne. Not but that they got the chance, because your so kind butler permitted me to enter the hall the moment he saw how things were, and even if you would not see me, he said there was a door to the back through the kitchens from which I could return home, after I had drunk a little something to restore my nerves…’

The Earl found he had no defence against the torrent of words that washed over him. She didn’t even seem to pause for breath until Giddings returned, bearing a tray upon which was a bottle of Madeira and two glasses.

She’d risen to her feet, removed her bonnet and gloves, and perched on the edge of the chair facing him, twittering all the while like some little brown bird, hopping about and fluffing its plumage before finally roosting for the night.

She smiled and thanked Giddings as she took the proffered drink, but her hand shook so much that she spilled several drops down the front of her coat.

‘I am sorry that you have been offered insults,’ he heard himself saying as she dabbed ineffectually at the droplets soaking into the cloth. ‘But you should have known better than to come to my house alone.’ Far from being the haven for tourists that he had been led to believe, many Parisians were showing a marked hostility to the English. It had started, so he had been reliably informed, when trade embargoes had been lifted and cheap English goods had come on sale again. But tensions were rising between die-hard Bonapartists and supporters of the new Bourbon regime as well. If factions were now brawling in the Tuileries gardens, then Mademoiselle Bergeron might well not be safe to venture out alone. ‘I will have you escorted home…’

‘Oh, not yet!’ she exclaimed, a look of dismay on her face. ‘For you have not heard what I came to say!’

‘I am waiting to hear it,’ he replied dryly. ‘I have been waiting since you walked through the door.’

Heloise drained the contents of her glass and set it down smartly upon the table that Giddings had placed thoughtfully at her elbow.

‘Forgive me. I am so nervous, you see. I tend to babble when I am nervous. Well, I was only nervous when I set out. But then, after the incident in the Tuileries, I became quite scared, and then—’

‘Mademoiselle Bergeron!’ He slapped the arm of his chair with decided irritation. ‘Will you please come to the point?’

‘Oh.’ She gulped, her face growing hot. It was not at all easy to come to the point with a man as icily furious as the Earl of Walton. In fact, if she wasn’t quite so desperate, she would wish she hadn’t come here at all. Looking into those chips of ice that he had for eyes, and feeling their contempt for her chilling her to the marrow, Heloise felt what little courage she had left ebb away. Sitting on a chair instead of staying prostrate at his feet had not redressed their positions at all. She still had to look up to meet his forbidding features, for the Earl was quite a tall man. And she had nothing with which to combat his hostility but strength of will. Not beauty, or grace, or cleverness. She had the misfortune to have taken after her mother in looks. While Felice had inherited her father’s even features and long-limbed grace, she had got the Corbiere nose, diminutive size, and nondescript colouring. Her only weapon was an idea. But what an idea! If he would only hear her out, it would solve all their difficulties at a stroke!

‘It is quite simple, after all,’ she declared. ‘It is that I think you should marry me instead of Felice.’

She cocked her head to one side as she waited for his response, reminding him of a street sparrow begging for crumbs. Before he could gather his wits, she had taken another breath and set off again.

‘I know you must think that this is preposterous just at first. But only think of the advantages!’

‘Advantages for whom?’ he sneered. He had never thought of little Heloise as a scheming gold-digger before. But then nor had he thought her capable of such fluent speech. Whenever she had played chaperon for himself and her sister she had been so quiet he had tended to forget she was there at all. He had been quite unguarded, he now recalled with mounting irritation, assuming, after a few half-hearted attempts to draw her out, that she could not speak English very well.

Though the look he sent her was one that had frozen the blood in the veins of full-grown men, Heloise was determined to have her say.

‘Why, for you, of course! Unless…Your engagement to Felice has not been announced in England yet, has it? She told me you had not sent any notice to the London papers. And of course in Paris, though everyone thinks they know that you wished to marry Felice, you have only to say, when they see me on your arm instead of my sister, “You will find you are mistaken,” in that tone you use for giving an encroaching person a set-down, if anyone should dare to question you, and that will be that!’

‘But why, pray, should I wish to say any such thing?’

‘So that nobody will know she broke your heart, of course!’ Her words, coupled with her look of genuine sympathy, touched a place buried so deep inside him that for years he had been denying its very existence.

‘I know how her actions must have bruised your pride, too,’ she ploughed on, astonishing him with the accuracy of her observations. Even Conningsby claimed he had not guessed how deep his feelings ran until the night before, when, in his cups, he’d poured out the whole sorry tale. But this girl, of whom he had never taken much notice, had read him like an open book.

‘But this way nobody will ever guess! You are so good at keeping your face frozen, so that nobody can tell what you are truly feeling. You can easily convince everyone that it was my family that wished for the match, and that they put Felice forward, but all the time it was me in whom you were interested, for I am the eldest, or—oh, I am sure you can come up with some convincing reason. For of course they would not believe that you could truly be attracted to me. I know that well! And if any rumours about a Mademoiselle Bergeron have reached as far as London—well, I have already shown you how one Mademoiselle Bergeron may enter a room as another. Nobody else need know it was quite another Mademoiselle Bergeron you had set your sights on. If you marry me, you may walk round Paris with your head held high, and return home with your pride intact!’

‘You are talking nonsense. Arrant nonsense!’ He sprang from his chair, and paced moodily towards the sideboard. He had ridden out malicious gossip before. He could do so again. ‘The connection with your family is severed,’ he snapped, grasping the decanter, then slamming it back onto the tray on discovering it was still empty. He was not going to be driven from Paris because a few tattle-mongers had nothing better to talk about than a failed love affair. Nor would anything induce him to betray his hurt by so much as a flicker of an eyelid. ‘I see no need to restore it!’

He turned to see her little face crumple. Her shoulders sagged. He braced himself for a further outpouring as he saw her eyes fill with tears. But she surprised him yet again. Rising to her feet with shaky dignity, she said, ‘Then I apologise for intruding on you this morning. I will go now.’

She had reached the door and was fumbling her hands into her gloves when he cried out, ‘Wait!’ His quarrel was not with her. She had never given him a moment’s trouble during the entire time he had been courting Felice. She had never voiced any protest, no matter where they had dragged her, though at times he had been able to tell she had been uncomfortable. All she had done on those occasions was withdraw into the shadows, as though she wished to efface herself from the scene completely. That was more her nature, he realised with a flash of insight. To have come here this morning and voiced that ridiculous proposition must have been the hardest thing for her to do. It had not been only the brush with the National Guard that had made her shake with fright.

He had no right to vent his anger on her. Besides, to let her out alone and unprotected onto the streets was not the act of a gentleman.

‘Mademoiselle,’ he said stiffly, ‘I told you I would ensure you returned to your house safely. Please, won’t you sit down again, while I get Giddings to summon a cabriolet?’

‘Thank you,’ she sighed, leaning back against the door. ‘It was not at all pleasant getting here. I had no idea! To think I was glad Maman had turned off Joanne, so that it was an easy matter for me to sneak out without anyone noticing.’ She shook her head ruefully. ‘It is true what Papa says. I am a complete imbecile. When I had to pass that crowd in the Tuileries, I knew how stupid I had been. Then to walk right up to the door of an Englishman, on my own, as though I was a woman of no virtue…’

Seeing her tense white face, Charles felt impelled to check the direction of her thoughts.

‘Please, sit down on the sofa while you are waiting.’

She did so, noting with a start that her bonnet still lay amongst its cushions. As she picked it up, turning it over in her hands as though it was an object she had never seen before, he continued, ‘Whatever prompted you to take such drastic steps to come to my house, mademoiselle? I cannot believe you are so concerned about my wounded pride, or my—’ He checked himself before alluding to his allegedly broken heart.

She turned crimson, suddenly becoming very busy untangling the ribbons of her bonnet. Her discomfort brought a sudden suspicion leaping to his mind.

‘Never tell me you are in love with me!’ The notion that this plain young woman had been harbouring a secret passion for him, while he had been making love to her sister under her very nose, gave him a very uncomfortable feeling. ‘I had no idea! I did not think you even liked me!’

Her head flew up, an arrested expression on her face when she detected the tiniest grain of sympathy in the tone of his voice. ‘Would you marry me, then, if I said I loved you?’ she breathed, her eyes filled with hope. But as he returned her gaze steadily she began to look uncomfortable. Worrying at her lower lip with her teeth, she hung her head.

‘It is no good,’ she sighed. ‘I cannot tell you a lie.’ She sank back against the cushions, her whole attitude one of despondency. ‘I’m not clever enough to make you believe it. And apart from that,’ she continued, as Charles settled into his favourite fireside chair with a profound feeling of relief, ‘I confess I did dislike you when you first came calling on Felice and she encouraged your attentions. Even though Maman said I was letting the family down by making my disapproval plain, and Felice insisted I was being a baby. But I couldn’t help feeling as I did.’ She frowned. ‘Although, really, it was not you at all I did not like, so much as the idea of you. You see?’

He had just opened his mouth to reply that he did not see at all, when she continued, ‘and then, when I got to know you better, and saw how much you truly felt for Felice, even though you hid it so well, I couldn’t dislike you at all. Indeed, I felt most sorry for you, because I knew she never cared for you in the least.’

When she saw a flash of surprise flicker across his face, she explained.

‘Well, how could she, when she had been in love with Jean-Claude for ever? Even though Maman and Papa had forbidden the match, because he has no money at all. I really hated the way you dazzled them all with your wealth and elegance and seemed to make Felice forget Jean-Claude.’ Her face brightened perceptibly. ‘But of course you hadn’t at all. She merely used your visits as a smokescreen to fool Maman into thinking she was obeying her orders, which gave Jean-Claude time to make plans for their escape. Which is all as it should be.’ She sighed dreamily. ‘She was not false to her true love.’ She sat up straight suddenly, looking at him with an expression of chagrin. ‘Though she was very cruel to you when you did not deserve it at all. Even if you are an Englishman.’

Charles found himself suddenly conscious of a desire to laugh. ‘So, you wish to marry me to make up for your sister’s cruel treatment of me? In fact because you feel sorry for me—is that it?’

She looked at him hopefully for a few seconds, before once more lowering her eyes and shaking her head.

‘No, it is not that. Not only that. Although I should like to make things right for you. Of course I should. Because of my sister you have suffered a grievous hurt. I know you can never feel for me what you felt for her, but at least your pride could be restored by keeping the nature of her betrayal a secret. It is not too late. If you acted today, if you made Papa give his consent today, we could attend a function together this evening and stop the gossip before it starts.’ She looked up at him with eyes blazing with intensity. ‘Together, we could sort out the mess she has left behind. For it is truly terrible at home.’ She shook her head mournfully. ‘Maman has taken to her bed. Papa is threatening to shoot himself, because now there is not to be the connection with you he can see no other way out.’ She twined one of the bonnet ribbons round her index finger as she looked at him imploringly. ‘You would only have to stroll in and say, “Never mind about Felice. I will take the other one,” in that off-hand way you have, as though you don’t care about anything at all, and he would grovel at your feet in gratitude. Then nobody would suspect she broke your heart! Even if they really believe you wanted to marry her, when they hear of the insouciance with which you took me they will have to admit they were mistaken!’

‘I see,’ he said slowly. ‘You wish to save your family from some sort of disgrace which my marrying Felice would have averted. That is admirable, but—’

The look of guilt on her face stopped him in his tracks. He could see yet another denial rising to her lips.

‘Not family honour?’ he ventured.

She shook her head mournfully. ‘No.’ Her voice was barely more than a whisper. ‘All I have told you is part of it. All those good things would result if only you would marry me, and I will be glad to achieve all of them, but—’ She hung her head, burying her hands completely in the by now rather mangled bonnet. ‘My prime reason is a completely selfish one. You see, if only I can persuade you to marry me, then Papa would be so relieved that you are still to pull him out of the suds that he will forget all about compelling me to marry the man he has chosen for me.’

‘In short,’ said Charles, ‘I am easier to swallow than this other fellow?’

‘Yes—much!’ she cried, looking up at him with pleading eyes. ‘You cannot imagine how much I hate him. If you will only say yes, I will be such a good wife! I shall not be in the least trouble to you, I promise! I will live in a cottage in the country and keep hens, and you need never even see me if you don’t want. I shan’t interfere with you, or stop you from enjoying yourself however you wish. I will never complain—no, not even if you beat me!’ she declared dramatically, her eyes growing luminous with unshed tears.

‘Why,’ said Charles, somewhat taken aback by her vehemence, ‘would you suspect me of wishing to beat you?’

‘Because I am such a tiresome creature!’

If it hadn’t been for the fact Heloise was clearly on the verge of tears, Charles would have found it hard not to laugh.

‘Papa is always saying so. So did Gaspard.’


‘My brother. He said any man fool enough to marry me would soon be driven to beat me. But I feel sure…’ her lower lip quivered ominously ‘…that you would only beat me when I really deserved it. You are not a cruel man. You are not cold, either, in spite of what they all say about you. You are a good person underneath your haughty manner. I know because I have watched you. I have had much opportunity, because you never took the least notice of me when Felice was in the same room. And I would not be afraid to go away with you, because you would not ever wish to beat a woman for sport like he would…’

‘Come now,’ Charles remonstrated, as the first tears began to trickle down her heated cheeks. ‘I cannot believe your papa would force you to marry a man who would be as cruel as that…’

‘Oh, but you English know nothing!’ She leapt to her feet. ‘He would very easily sacrifice me to such a man for the sake of preserving the rest of the family!’ She was quivering from head to toe with quite another emotion than fear now. He could see that. Indignation had brought a decidedly militant gleam to her eye. She was incapable of standing still. Taking brisk little paces between the sofa and the fireplace, she did not notice that she was systematically trampling the bonnet, which had fallen to the floor when she had leapt to her feet. It occurred to him, when she stepped on it for the third time, that her sister would never have been so careless of her apparel. Not that she would have been seen dead in such an unflattering item in the first place.

‘And, besides being so cruel, he is quite old!’ She shuddered.

‘I am thirty-five, you know,’ he pointed out.

She paused mid-stride, running her eyes over him assessingly. The Earl’s light blue eyes twinkled with amusement from a face that was devoid of lines of care. Elegant clothes covered a healthily muscled physique. His tawny hair was a little disarrayed this morning, to be sure, but it was neither receding nor showing any hint of grey. ‘I did not know you were as old as that,’ she eventually admitted with candour.

Once again, Charles was hard put to it not to burst out laughing at the absurdity of this little creature who had invaded the darkness of his lair like some cheeky little song bird hopping about between a lion’s paws, pecking for crumbs, confident she was too insignificant to rate the energy required to swat her.

‘Come, child, admit it. You are too young to marry anyone!’

‘Well, yes!’ she readily admitted. ‘But Felice was younger, and you still wanted to marry her. And in time, of course, I will grow older. And by then you might have got used to me. You might even be able to teach me how to behave better!’ she said brightly. Then, just as quickly, her face fell. ‘Although I very much doubt it.’

She subsided into the chair opposite his own, leaning her elbows on her knees. ‘I suppose I always knew I could not be any sort of wife to you.’ She gazed up at him mournfully. ‘But I know I would have been better off with you. For even if you are as old as you say, you don’t…’ Her forehead wrinkled, as though it was hard for her to find the words she wanted. ‘You don’t smell like him.’

Finding it increasingly hard to keep his face straight, he said, ‘Perhaps you could encourage your suitor to bathe…’

Her eyes snapped with anger. Taking a deep breath, she flung at him, ‘Oh, it is easy for you to laugh at me. You think I am a foolish little woman of no consequence. But this is no laughing matter to me. Whenever he comes close I want to run to a window and open it and breathe clean air. It is like when you go into a room that has been shut up too long, and you know something has decayed in it. And before you make the joke about bathing again, I must tell you that it is in my head that I smell this feeling. In my heart!’ She smote her breast. ‘He is steeped in so much blood!’

However absurdly she was behaving, however quaint her way of expressing herself, there was no doubt that she really felt repelled by the man her father thought she ought to marry. It was a shame that such a sensitive little creature should be forced into a marriage that was so distasteful to her. Though he could never contemplate marrying her himself, he did feel a pang of sympathy. And, in that spirit, he asked, ‘Do I take it this man is a soldier, then?’

‘A hero of France,’ she replied gloomily. ‘It is an honour for our family that such a man should wish for an alliance. An astonishment to my papa that any man should really want to take on a little mouse like me. You wonder how I came to his notice, perhaps?’ When Charles nodded, humouring her whilst privately wondering why on earth it was taking Giddings so long to procure a cab to send her home in, she went on, ‘He commanded Gaspard’s regiment in Spain. He was…’ An expression of anguish crossed her face. ‘I was not supposed to hear. But people sometimes do talk when I am there, assuming that I am not paying attention—for I very often don’t, you know. My brother sometimes talked about the Spanish campaign. The things his officers commanded him to do! Such barbarity!’ She shuddered. ‘I am not so stupid that I would willingly surrender to a man who has treated other women and children like cattle in a butcher’s shop. And forced decent Frenchmen to descend to his level. And how is it,’ she continued, her fists clenching, ‘that while my brother died of hunger outside what you call the lines of Torres Vedras, Du Mauriac came home looking as fit as a flea?’

‘Du Mauriac?’ Charles echoed. ‘The man your father wishes you to marry is Du Mauriac?’

Heloise nodded. ‘As commander of Gaspard’s regiment, he was often in our home when my brother was still alive. He used to insist it was I who sat beside him. From my hand that he wished to be served.’ She shuddered. ‘Then, after Gaspard died, he kept right on visiting. Papa says I am stupid to persist in refusing his proposals. He says I should feel honoured that a man so distinguished persists in courting me when I have not even beauty to recommend me. But he does not see that it is mainly my reluctance that Du Mauriac likes. He revels in the knowledge that, though he repels me, my parents will somehow contrive to force me to surrender to him!’

Heloise ground to a halt, her revulsion at the prospect of what marriage to Du Mauriac would entail finally overwhelming her. Bowing forward, she buried her face in her hands until she had herself under control. And then, alerted by the frozen silence which filled the room, she looked up at the Earl of Walton. Up until that moment she would have said he had been experiencing little more than mild amusement at her expense. But now his eyes had returned to that glacial state which had so intimidated her when first she had walked into the room. Except…now his anger was not directed at her. Indeed, it was as if he had frozen her out of his consciousness altogether.

‘Go home, mademoiselle,’ he said brusquely, rising to his feet and tugging at the bell pull. ‘This interview is at an end.’

He meant it this time. With a sinking heart, Heloise turned and stumbled to the door. She had offended him somehow, by being so open about her feelings of revulsion for the man her father had decided she should marry. She had staked everything on being honest with the Earl of Walton.

But she had lost.


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