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The Earl's Untouched Bride

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Chapter Two

It came as something of a shock, once the door had closed on Heloise’s dejected little figure, when Conningsby stepped in over the windowsill.

‘My God,’ the man blustered. ‘If I had known this room overlooked the street, and I was to have spent the entire interview wedged onto a balcony when I fully expected to be able to escape through your gardens…’

‘And the curtains were no impediment to your hearing every single word, I shouldn’t wonder?’ The Earl sighed. ‘Dare I hope you will respect the confidentiality of that conversation?’

‘I work for the diplomatic service!’ Conningsby bristled. ‘Besides which, no man of sense would wish to repeat one word of that absurd woman’s proposition!’

Although Charles himself thought Heloise absurd, for some reason he did not like hearing anyone else voice that opinion. ‘I think it was remarkably brave of her to come here to try to save her family from ruin.’

‘Yes, my lord. If you say so,’ the other man conceded dubiously.

‘I do say so,’ said the Earl. ‘I will not have any man disparage my fiancée.’

‘You aren’t really going to accept that outrageous proposal?’ Conningsby gasped.

Charles studied the tips of his fingers intently.

‘You cannot deny that her solution to my…uh…predicament, will certainly afford me a great deal of solace.’

‘Well,’ said Conningsby hesitantly, loath to offend a man of Lord Walton’s reputation, ‘I suppose she is quite a captivating little thing, in her way. Jolly amusing. She certainly has a gift for mimicry that almost had me giving myself away! Had to stuff a handkerchief in my mouth to choke down the laughter when she aped your voice!’

The Earl stared at him. Captivating? Until this morning he had barely looked at her. Like a little wren, she hid in the background as much as she could. And when he had looked he had seen nothing to recommend her. She had a beak of a nose, set above lips that were too thin for their width, and a sharp little chin. Her hair was a mid-brown, without a hint of a curl to render it interesting. Her eyes, though…

Before this morning she had kept them demurely lowered whenever he glanced in her direction. But today he had seen a vibrancy burning in their dark depths that had tugged a grudging response from him.

‘What she may or may not be is largely irrelevant,’ he said coldly. ‘What just might prompt me to take her to wife is that in so doing I shall put Du Mauriac’s nose out of joint.’

Conningsby laughed nervously. ‘Surely you can’t wish to marry a woman just so that some other fellow cannot have her?’

The Earl returned his look with a coldness of purpose that chilled him. ‘She does not expect me to like her very much. You heard what she said. She will not even be surprised if I come to detest her so heartily that I beat her. All she wants is the opportunity to escape from an intolerable position. Don’t you think I should oblige her?’

‘Well, I…’ Conningsby ran his finger round his collar, his face growing red.

‘Come, now, you cannot expect me to stand by and permit her father to marry her off to that butcher, can you? She does not deserve such a fate.’

No, Conningsby thought, she does not. But then, would marriage to a man who only wanted revenge on her former suitor, a man without an ounce of fondness for her, be any less painful to her in the long run?

Heloise gripped her charcoal and bent her head over her sketchpad, blotting out the noise of her mother’s sobs as she focussed on her drawing. She had achieved nothing. Nothing. She had braved the streets, and the insults of those soldiers, then endured the Earl’s mockery, for nothing. Oh, why, she thought resentfully, had she ever thought she might be able to influence the intractable Earl one way or another? And how could she ever have felt sorry for him? Her fingers worked furiously, making angry slashes across the page. He had coaxed her most secret thoughts from her, let her hope he was feeling some shred of sympathy, and then spurned her. The only good thing about this morning’s excursion was that nobody had noticed she had taken it, she reflected, finding some satisfaction in creating a most unflattering caricature of the Earl of Walton in the guise of a sleekly cruel tabby cat. She could not have borne it if anyone had found out where she had been. It had been bad enough when her maman had laid the blame for Felice’s elopement at her door—as though she had ever had the least influence with her headstrong and pampered little sister!

With a few deft strokes Heloise added a timorous little mouse below the grinning mouth of the tabby cat, then set to work fashioning a pair of large paws. Folly—sheer folly! To walk into that man’s lair and prostrate herself as she had!

There was a knock on the front door.

Madame Bergeron blew her nose before wailing, ‘We are not receiving visitors today. I cannot endure any more. They will all come, you mark my words, to mock at us…’

Heloise rose to her feet to relay the information to their manservant before he had a chance to open the door. Since her seat was by the window, where she could get the most light for her sketching, she had a clear view of their front step.

‘It is the Earl!’ she gasped, her charcoal slipping from her suddenly nerveless fingers.

‘It cannot be!’ Her papa sprang from the chair in which he had been slumped, his head in his hands. ‘What can he want with us, now?’ he muttered darkly, peering through the window.

‘I might have known a man of his station would not sit back and take an insult such as Felice has dealt him. He will sue us for breach of promise at the very least,’ he prophesied, as Heloise sank to the floor to retrieve her pencil. ‘Well, I will shoot myself first, and that will show him!’ he cried wildly, while she regained her seat, bending her head over her sketchbook as much to counteract a sudden wave of faintness as to hide the hopeful expression she was sure must be showing on her face.

‘Noo!’ From the sofa, her maman began to weep again. ‘You cannot abandon me now! How can you threaten to leave me after all we have been through?’

Instantly contrite, Monsieur Bergeron flung himself to his knees beside the sofa, seizing his wife’s hand and pressing it to his lips. ‘Forgive me, my precious.’

Heloise admired her parents for being so devoted to each other, but sometimes she wished they were not quite so demonstrative. Or that they didn’t assume, because she had her sketchpad open, that they could behave as though she was not there.

‘You know I will always worship you, my angel.’ He slobbered over her hand, before clasping her briefly to his bosom. ‘You are much too good for me.’

Now, that was something Heloise had long disputed. It was true that her mother should have been far beyond her father’s matrimonial aspirations, since she was a younger daughter of the seigneur in whose district he had been a lowly but ambitious clerk. And that it might have been reprehensible of him to induce an aristocrat to elope with him. But it turned out to have been the most sensible thing her mother had ever done. Marriage to him had saved her from the fate many others of her class had suffered.

The affecting scene was cut short when the manservant announced the Earl of Walton. Raising himself tragically to his full height, Monsieur Bergeron declared, ‘To spare you pain, my angel, I will receive him in my study alone.’

But before he had even reached the door Charles himself strolled in, his gloves clasped negligently in one hand. Bowing punctiliously to Madame Bergeron, who was struggling to rise from a mound of crushed cushions, he drawled, ‘Good morning, madame, monsieur.’

Blocking his pathway further into the room, Monsieur Bergeron replied, with a somewhat martyred air, ‘I suppose you wish to speak with me, my lord? Shall we retire to my study and leave the ladies in peace?’

Charles raised one eyebrow, as though astonished by this suggestion. ‘Why, if you wish, of course I will wait with you while mademoiselle makes herself ready. Or had you forgot that I had arranged to take your daughter out driving this morning? Mademoiselle—’ he addressed Heloise directly, his expression bland ‘—I hope it will not take you long to dress appropriately? I do not like to keep my horses standing.’

Until their eyes met she had hardly dared to let herself hope. But now she was sure. He was going to go through with it!

‘B…but it was Felice,’ Monsieur Bergeron blustered. ‘You had arranged to take Felice out driving. M…my lord, she is not here! I was sure you were aware that last night she…’

‘I am engaged to take your daughter out driving this morning,’ he continued implacably, ‘and take your daughter I shall. I see no reason to alter my schedule for the day. In the absence of Felice, Heloise must bear me company.’

For a moment the room pulsed with silence, while everyone seemed to be holding their breath.

Then Madame Bergeron sprang from the sofa, darted across the room, and seized Heloise by the wrist. ‘She will not keep you waiting above ten minutes, my lord.’ Then, to her husband, ‘What are you thinking of, not offering his lordship a seat? And wine—he must have a glass of wine while he is waiting!’ She pushed Heloise through the door, then paused to specify, ‘The Chambertin!’

While Monsieur Bergeron stood gaping at him, Charles strolled over to the table at which Heloise had been sitting and began to idly flick through her sketchbook. It seemed to contain nothing but pictures of animals. Quite strange-looking animals, some of them, in most unrealistic poses. Though one, of a bird in a cage, caught his attention. The bedraggled specimen was chained to its perch. He could feel its misery flowing off the page. He was just wondering what species of bird it was supposed to represent, when something about the tilt of its head, the anguish burning in its black eyes, put him forcibly in mind of Heloise, as she had appeared earlier that day. His eyes followed the chain that bound the miserable-looking creature to its perch, and saw that it culminated in what looked like a golden wedding ring.

His blood running cold, he flicked back a page, to a scene he had first supposed represented a fanciful scene from a circus. He could now perceive that the creature that was just recognisable as a lion, lying on its back with a besotted grin on its face, was meant to represent himself. The woman who was standing with her foot upon his chest, smiling with smug cruelty, was definitely Felice. He snapped the book shut and turned on Monsieur Bergeron.

‘I trust you have not made the nature of my interest in your elder daughter public?’

‘Alas, my lord,’ he shrugged, spreading his hands wide, ‘but I did give assurances in certain quarters that a match was imminent.’

‘To your creditors, no doubt?’

‘Debt? Pah—it is nothing!’ Monsieur Bergeron spat. ‘A man may recover from debt!’

When Charles raised one disbelieving eyebrow, he explained, ‘You English, you do not understand how one must live in France. When power changes hands, those who support the fallen regime must always suffer from the next. To survive, a man must court friends in all camps.

He must be sensitive to what is in the wind, and know the precise moment to jump…’

In short the man was, like Talleyrand, ‘un homme girouette’, who was prepared, like a weather vane, to swing in whichever direction the wind blew.

Somewhat red in the face, Monsieur Bergeron sank onto the sofa which his wife had recently vacated.

‘So,’ Charles said slowly, ‘promoting an alliance with an English noble, at a time when many Parisians are openly declaring hostility to the English, was an attempt to…?’ He quirked an inquisitive eyebrow at the man, encouraging him to explain.

‘To get one of my daughters safely out of the country! The days are coming,’ he said, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket and mopping at his brow, ‘when any man or woman might go to the guillotine for the most paltry excuse. I can feel it in the air. Say what you like about Bonaparte, but during the last few years I managed to hold down a responsible government post and make steady advancements, entirely through hard work and capability. But now the Bourbons are back in power, clearly bent on taking revenge on all who have opposed them, that will count for nothing!’ he finished resentfully.

Charles eyed him thoughtfully. Monsieur Bergeron feared he was teetering on the verge of ruin. So he had spread his safety net wide. He had encouraged his pretty daughter to entrap an English earl, who would provide a safe bolthole in a foreign land should things become too hot for his family in France. And he had encouraged the attentions of his plain daughter’s only suitor though he was an ardent Bonapartist. Every day Du Mauriac openly drank the health of his exiled emperor in cafés such as the Tabagie de la Comete, with other ex-officers of the Grand Armée. Much as he disliked the man, there was no denying he would make both a powerful ally and a dangerous enemy.

Finding himself somewhat less out of charity with his prospective father-in-law, Charles settled himself in a chair and stretched his legs out, crossing them at the ankles.

‘Let me put a proposition to you.’

Monsieur Bergeron eyed him warily.

‘I have my own reasons for not wanting my…er…disappointment to be made public. I wish, in fact, to carry on as though nothing untoward has occurred.’

‘But…Felice has run off. That is not news we can keep quiet indefinitely. It may take some time to find her, if you insist you still wish to marry her…’

He made an impatient gesture with his hand. ‘I am finished with Felice. But nobody knows for certain that it was her I intended to marry. Do they?’

‘Well, no…’

‘Then the sooner I am seen about in public with your other daughter, the sooner we can begin to persuade people that they were entirely mistaken to suppose it was Felice to whom I became engaged.’

‘What are you suggesting?’

‘Isn’t it obvious? Since Felice is out of the picture, I will marry your other daughter instead.’


‘You can have no objections, surely? She is not contracted to anyone else, is she?’ He held his breath while he watched the cogs whirring in Monsieur Bergeron’s head. Heloise had spoken of proposals to which she had not agreed, but if her father and Du Mauriac had drawn up any form of legal agreement things might be about to get complicated.

‘No, my lord,’ Monsieur Bergeron said, having clearly made up his mind to ditch the potential alliance with the man whose star was in the descendant. ‘She is free to marry you. Only…’ He slumped back against the cushions, closing his eyes and shaking his head. ‘It will not be a simple matter of substituting one girl for the other. Heloise has so little sense. What if she won’t agree? Ah!’ he moaned, crumpling the handkerchief in his fist. ‘That our fortunes should all rest in the hands of such a little fool!’

Charles found himself rather indignant on Heloise’s behalf. It seemed to him that it was Felice who had plunged her family into this mess, but not a word was being said against her. And, far from being a fool, Heloise had been the one to come up with this coldly rational plan which would wipe out, at a stroke, all the unpleasantness her sister had created.

‘I beg your pardon?’ he said coldly.

‘Of course our family owes it to you to redress the insult my younger daughter has offered you. But I pray you won’t be offended if I cannot make Heloise see reason.’

His brief feelings of charity towards the older man evaporated. He had no compunction about forcing his daughter into any marriage, no matter how distasteful it might be to her, so long as he stood to gain by it. If Charles hadn’t already known that Heloise was all for it, he would have turned away at that point and left the entire Bergeron family to sink in their own mire.

‘I am sure she will do the right thing,’ he said, in as even a tone as he could muster.

‘That’s because you don’t know her,’ her father bit out glumly. ‘There is no telling what the silly creature will take it into her head to do. Or to say. She is nowhere near as clever as her sister.’

Charles eyed Monsieur Bergeron coldly. He had encouraged Felice to ensnare him when she’d never had the slightest intention of marrying him. Heloise, for being, as she put it, too stupid to tell a lie, was castigated as being useless. On the whole, he found he preferred Heloise’s brand of stupidity to Felice’s sort of cleverness.

‘A man does not look for a great deal of intellect in his wife,’ he bit out. ‘I am sure we shall deal well together. Ah,’ he said, as the door opened and Heloise and her mother returned to the room. ‘Here she is now, and looking quite charming.’ Walking to her side, he bowed over her hand.

‘Pray, don’t overdo it,’ she whispered, her eyes sparking with alarm.

Tucking her hand under his arm, and patting her gloved hand reassuringly, he smiled at her mother, who had also hastily donned her coat and bonnet. ‘I am sure you will agree there is no need for you to act as chaperon, madame, since the news of my engagement to Heloise will soon be common knowledge.’

Her jaw dropped open as she reeled back. ‘You wish to marry Heloise?’ she gasped.

‘Why not?’ he retorted. ‘I have already settled the matter with your papa,’ he turned to inform Heloise. ‘He thinks your family should make recompense to me for the insult your younger sister offered me. Since I have rather got used to the idea of returning to England with a bride, it might as well be you. And, before you raise any foolish objections, let me inform you that I expect your full cooperation.’ He bent a rather stern eye on her. ‘I have no wish to appear as an object for vulgar gossip. I do not want anyone to know your sister jilted me. You will explain, if you please,’ he said, turning once more to Madame Bergeron, ‘that naturally you are upset by Felice’s running off with a totally unsuitable man, but that it has no bearing on the relationship which already existed between me and her older, better-behaved sister.’

The woman plumped down onto the sofa next to her husband.

‘People have grown used to seeing the three of us about together over the last few weeks. And while Felice was always the more flamboyant of the two, if we but stick to our story we can easily persuade people that it was Heloise all along who was the object of my interest. She is much better suited to becoming my countess, since her manner is modest and discreet. What man of breeding would want to take an outrageous flirt to wife?’

‘Heloise,’ her father now put in, rather sternly. ‘I hope you are paying attention to what his lordship is saying. As a dutiful daughter you must do all you can to protect the honour of this family. I expect you to submit to me in this, young woman! You will keep your mouth shut about how far things went between Felice and his lordship, and you will marry him.’

Meekly bowing her head, Heloise replied, ‘Whatever you say, Papa.’

Not wishing to linger any longer with that pair of opportunists, Charles ushered Heloise to the door.

She stayed silent, her head bowed to conceal her jubilant expression from her parents, until they were outside. Her eyes ran over the smart two-wheeled carrick Charles had procured for the occasion with approval. She had recognised the vehicle the moment it had drawn up outside. He had borrowed it once before, from another English noble who had brought it over to Paris for the express purpose of cutting a dash in the Bois de Boulogne. When Charles had taken Felice out in it, he had hired two liveried and mounted servants to ride behind, ensuring that everyone knew he was someone, even if he had picked up his passenger from a modest little dwelling on the Quai Voltaire.

Borrowing this conveyance, which he could drive himself, giving them the requisite privacy to plan their strategy whilst contriving to look as though they were merely being fashionable, was a stroke of genius.

He tossed a coin to the street urchin who was holding the horses’ heads, and handed her up onto the narrow bench seat.

‘You were magnificent!’ she breathed, turning to him with unfeigned admiration as he urged the perfectly matched pair of bays out into the light traffic. ‘Oh, if only we were not driving down a public street I could kiss you. I really could!’

‘We are already attracting enough notice, mademoiselle, by driving about without a chaperon of any sort, without the necessity of giving way to vulgar displays of emotion.’

‘Oh!’ Heloise turned to face front, her back ramrod-straight, her face glowing red with chagrin. How could she have presumed to speak in such a familiar fashion? Never mind harbour such an inappropriate impulse?

‘You may place one hand upon my sleeve, if you must.’

His clipped tones indicated that this was quite a concession on his part. Gingerly, she laid her hand upon his forearm.

‘I have decided upon the tale we shall tell,’ he said, ‘and it is this. Our alliance has withstood the scandal of Felice’s elopement with an unsuitable young man. I am not ashamed to continue my connection with your family. After all, your mother came from an ancient and noble house. That your sister has lamentably been infected by revolutionary tendencies and run off with a nobody has nothing to do with us.’

The feeling of happiness which his put-down had momentarily quelled swelled up all over again. She had known that if anyone could rescue her it was the Earl of Walton! He had grasped the importance of acting swiftly, then taken her rather vague plan and furnished it with convincing detail. She had always suspected he was quite intelligent, even though he had been prone to utter the most specious drivel to Felice. What was more, he would never let her down by making a slip in a moment of carelessness, like some men might. He was always fully in control of himself, regarding men who got drunk and made an exhibition of themselves in public with disdain.

Oh, yes, he was the perfect man to carry her scheme through successfully!

‘I was planning to announce my engagement officially at Lady Dalrymple Hamilton’s ball last evening.’

‘I know,’ she replied. It had been his decision to make that announcement which had finally driven Felice to take off so precipitously. She had hoped to keep him dangling for another week at the very least. Heloise worried at her lower lip. She hoped Felice had managed to reach Jean-Claude safely. Although he had gone ahead to Switzerland, and secured a job with a printing firm, he had planned to return and escort Felice across France personally.

‘No need to look so crestfallen. I do not expect you to shine in society as your sister did. I will steer you through the social shoals.’

‘It is not that!’ she replied indignantly. She might not ‘shine’, as he put it, but she had mingled freely with some of the highest in the land. Why, she had once even been introduced to Wellington! Though, she admitted to herself with chagrin, he had looked right through her.

He glanced down at the rim of her bonnet, which was all he could see of her now that she had turned her head away.

How shy she was. How hard she would find it to take her place in society! Well, he would do all he could to smooth her passage. It was her idea, after all, that was going to enable him to salvage his pride. He would never have thought of something so outrageous. He owed her for that. And to start with he was going to have to smarten her up. He was not going to expose her to ridicule for her lack of dress sense.

‘Deuce take it,’ he swore. ‘I’m going to have to buy you some more flattering headgear. That bonnet is the ugliest thing I think I’ve ever seen.’ He leant a little closer. ‘Is it the same unfortunate article you trampled so ruthlessly in my drawing room this morning?’

She looked up at him then, suddenly cripplingly conscious of how far short of the Earl’s standard she fell. ‘It is practical,’ she protested. ‘It can withstand any amount of abuse and still look—’

‘Disreputable,’ he finished for her. ‘And that reminds me. While we are shopping, I shall have to get you a ring.’

His eyes narrowed as a look of guilt flickered across her mobile little features. No wonder she did not attempt to tell lies, he reflected. Her face was so expressive every thought was written clearly there.

‘What is it?’ he sighed.

‘First, I have to tell you that I do not wish you at all to take me shopping!’ she declared defiantly.

‘You are unique amongst your sex, then,’ he replied dryly. ‘And what is second?’

‘And second,’ she gulped, the expression of guilt returning in force, ‘is that you do not need to buy me a ring.’ Holding up her hand to prevent his retort, she hastened to explain, ‘I already have a ring.’

He stiffened. ‘Our engagement may not have been my idea, mademoiselle, but it is my place to provide the ring.’

‘But you already have. That is—’ She blushed. ‘The ring I have is the one you gave Felice. The very one that made her run away. She gave it to me.’

‘The ring…made her run away?’ He had chosen it with such care. The great emerald that gleamed in its cluster of diamonds was the exact shade of Felice’s bewitching eyes. He had thought he was past being hurt, but the thought that she found his taste so deficient she had run to another man…

‘Yes, for until that moment it had not been at all real to her,’ he heard Heloise say. ‘She thought you were merely amusing yourself with a little flirtation. Though I warned her over and over again, she never believed that she could hurt you. She said that nobody could touch your heart—if you had one, which she did not believe—and so you made the perfect smokescreen.’

‘Is that estimation of my character supposed to be making me feel better?’ he growled.

‘Perhaps not. But at least it may help you to forgive her. It was not until you gave her that ring that she understood you really had feelings for her. So then of course she had to run away, before things progressed beyond hope.’

‘In short, she would have kept me dangling on a string indefinitely if I hadn’t proposed marriage?’

‘Well, no. For she always meant to go to Jean-Claude. But she did not mean to hurt you. Truly. She just thought—’

‘That I had no heart,’ he finished, in clipped tones.

Inadvertently he jerked on the reins, giving the horses the impression that he wished them to break into a trot. Since they were approaching a corner, there were a few moments where it took all his concentration to ensure they were not involved in an accident.

‘Oh, dear.’ Heloise was gripping onto his sleeve with both hands now, her face puckered with concern. ‘Now I have made you angry again, which is precisely what I wished not to do. For I have to inform you that when we are married, if you forbid me to contact her, knowing that I must obey I will do so—but until then I fully intend to write to her. Even if she has wronged you, she is still my sister!’

The moment of danger being past, the horses having been successfully brought back to a brisk walk, she folded her arms, and turned away from him, as though she had suddenly become interested in the pair of dogs with frills round their necks which were dancing for the amusement of those strolling along the boulevard.

‘Ah, yes,’ he replied, reaching over to take her hand and place it back upon his own arm. ‘You fully intend to bow to my every whim, don’t you, once we are married?’

‘Of course! For you had no thought of marrying me until I put the notion in your head, so the least I can do is be the best wife you would wish for. I will do everything I can,’ she declared earnestly. ‘Whatever you ask, I will do with alacrity!’ Pulling herself up short, she suddenly frowned at him suspiciously. ‘And, by the way, why did you suddenly change your mind about me? When you made me leave, you seemed so set against it!’

‘Well, your proposal was so sudden,’ he teased her. ‘It took me by surprise. Naturally I had to consider…’

She shook her head. ‘No, I may have surprised you, but you had made up your mind it was an absurd idea.’

‘So absurd, in fact,’ he countered, ‘that nobody would credit it. Nobody would believe I would take one Mademoiselle Bergeron merely to save face at being embarrassed by the other Mademoiselle Bergeron. And therefore they will have to believe that you were the object of my interest all along.’

When she continued to look less than convinced by his complete about-face, he decided it was high time he regained control of the conversation.

‘Now, getting back to the ring. May I enquire, although I somehow feel I am about to regret doing so, why your sister left it with you? The normal practice, I should remind you, when an engagement is terminated, is for the lady to return the ring to the man who gave it to her.’

‘I had it with me when I came to visit you this morning,’ she declared. ‘I was going to return it to you for her if you should not agree to my suggestion.’

‘Indeed?’ His voice was laced with scepticism. ‘And yet somehow it remains in your possession. How did that come about, I wonder?’

‘Well, because you were so beastly to me, if you must know! I told you the deepest secret of my heart and you laughed at me. For the moment I quite lost my temper, and decided I should do with it exactly as Felice said I ought to do! For you are so wealthy it is not as if you needed to have it back, whereas for me…’

She let go of his arm again, folding her own across her chest with a mutinous little pout which, for the first time in their acquaintance, made Charles wonder what it would be like to silence one of her tirades with a kiss. It would probably be the only way to stop her once she had built up a head of steam. Something in the pit of his stomach stirred at the thought of mastering her militant spirit in such a manner. He shook his head. It was not like him to regard sexual encounters as contests of will. But then, he frowned, when had he ever had to do more than crook his finger for a woman to fall obediently in line with his every whim?

‘I take it you meant to sell it, then?’

Heloise eyed his lowered brows contritely.

‘Yes,’ she confessed. ‘Because I needed the money to get to Dieppe.’

‘Dieppe?’ He shook himself out of his reverie. ‘What is at Dieppe?’

‘Not what, but who. And that is Jeannine!’

‘Jeannine?’ he echoed, becoming fascinated in spite of himself. ‘What part does she play in this farce, I wonder?’

‘She was Maman’s nurse, until she eloped with Papa.’

‘There seems to have been a great deal of eloping going on in your family.’

‘But in my parents’ case it was a good thing, don’t you think? Because even if they were terribly poor for the first few years they were married, since my grandpapa cut her off entirely, she was the only one to survive the Terror because her family were all so abominably cruel to the menu peuple—the common people, that is. Jeannine was cast out, but she married a fermier, and I know she would take me in. I would have to learn how to milk a cow, to be sure, and make butter and cheese, but how hard could that be?’

‘I thought it was hens,’ he reflected.


‘Yes, you said when you married me you would live in a cottage so that you could keep hens. Now I find that in reality you would rather milk cows and make cheese.’ He sighed. ‘I do wish you would make up your mind.’

Heloise blinked. Though the abstracted frown remained between his brows, she was almost sure he was teasing her. ‘I do not wish to milk cows at all,’ she finally admitted.

‘Good. Because I warn you right now that no wife of mine will ever do anything so plebeian. You must abandon all these fantasies about living on a farm and tending to livestock of any sort. When we return to England you will move in the first circles and behave with the decorum commensurate with your station in life. You are not to go anywhere near any livestock of any description. Is that clear?’

For a moment Heloise regarded the mock sternness of his features with her head tilted to one side. She had never been on the receiving end of one of these teasing scolds before. Whenever he had been playful like this, she had never been able to understand how Felice could remain impervious to his charm.

‘Not even a horse?’ she asked, taking her courage in both hands and deciding to play along, just once. ‘I am quite near a horse already, sitting up here in your carriage.’

‘Horses, yes,’ he conceded. ‘You may ride with me, or a suitable companion in the park. A horse is not a farm animal.’

‘Some horses are,’ she persisted.

‘Not my carriage horses,’ he growled, though she could tell he was not really the least bit cross.

The ride in the fresh air seemed to be doing him good. He was far less tense than he had been when they set out. Oh, it was not to be expected that he would get over Felice all at once, but if she could make him laugh now and again, or even put that twinkle in his eye that she could see when he bent his head in her direction to give her this mock scold, she would be happy.

‘What about dogs, then? What if I should go into some drawing room and a lady should have a little dog. Must I not go into the room? Or should I just stay away from it? By, say, five feet? Or six?’

‘Pets, yes—of course you will come across pets from time to time. That is not what I meant at all, you little minx!’

Pretending exasperation he did not feel, to disguise the fact he was on the verge of laughter, he said, ‘No wonder your brother said I should end up beating you. You would drive a saint to distraction!’

‘I was only,’ she declared with an impish grin, ‘trying to establish exactly what you expected of me. I promised to behave exactly as you would wish, so I need to know exactly what you want!’

He laughed aloud then. ‘You, mademoiselle, were doing nothing of the kind.’ Why had he never noticed her mischievous sense of humour before now? Why had he never noticed what an entertaining companion she could be when she put her mind to it? The truth was, he decided with a sinking feeling, that whenever Felice had been in the room he’d had eyes for nobody else. With her sultry beauty and her vivacious nature she had utterly bewitched him.

Flicking the reins in renewed irritation, he turned the curricle for home.


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