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William Summersby stared into the darkness that surrounded the terrace of Trenton House. He’d stepped outside with his father in order to escape the squeeze inside the ballroom. Taking a sip from the glass of Champagne in his hand, he shot a quick glance in his father’s direction. “I’ve made up my mind, Papa.”
Bryce said nothing in response to this, but merely waited for his son to continue, the cigar he held in his hand seemingly forgotten for the moment.
“I’ve decided to marry.”
“Oh?” His father’s surprise was clear. “I suppose you must have some candidates in mind then?”
William turned away from the darkness to face his father, knowing that what he was about to say would probably be met with disapproval. “I have done far better than that, Papa. In fact, I have already proposed.” He paused for a moment, allowing his father to digest this surprising piece of news. “It may please you to know that the lady in question has accepted, and that we hope to marry before the year is out.”
“I…er…I see,” his father muttered in a half-choked tone that did little to conceal how astonished he was. “I always imagined that you would consult me first when it came to choosing a bride. However, you’re grown, undoubtedly capable of making such a decision on your own. What, if I may ask, is the name of the lady who has so suddenly captured your heart, William?”
“Lady Annabelle—Lord and Lady Forthright’s daughter, if you recall.”
An immediate frown appeared on his father’s forehead. “Yes, I know her well enough, though it did not occur to me that you were so well acquainted with her.”
William merely shrugged. “I’m hardly getting any younger, you know. It’s bad enough that both of my siblings are now married. I’m your heir, and, as such, I have a certain responsibility.”
His father’s frown deepened. “You aren’t even thirty years of age.”
“Perhaps not, but I’ve attended enough social gatherings by now to have met all the eligible young ladies, and I am forced to admit that not one has made my heart beat faster. Thus, my decision has been based on logic. Lady Annabelle will make a most agreeable wife. She is from a very respectable family. She has a level head on her shoulders, and I dare say that her looks suggest that our children shall not be lacking in physical attributes.”
Bryce stared back at his son with sad eyes. “I always hoped that you would marry for love, William. I was fortunate enough to do so, and it is quite clear that Alexandra and Ryan were as well.”
“We can’t all be that lucky, Papa. First comes duty, however unfortunate that may be. But I will not run from it. I’ve tried long and hard to make a match that would put Romeo and Juliet’s love to shame but with no success. I see no point in wasting any more time. Lady Annabelle will suffice. She’s quite pleasant, really.”
“Well, if your mind is made up, then the least I can hope for is that you might, in time, find more appropriate words with which to describe your bride. ‘Most agreeable’ and ‘quite pleasant’ are rather lacking, if you ask me. And don’t forget that if you both live long and healthy lives, you will be stuck with each other. Do you really wish to spend the remainder of your days with a woman who merely suffices?”
William let out a lengthy sigh. He’d always longed for the sort of happiness his father and mother had shared, but as time passed he’d gradually been forced to acknowledge that he would be denied that sort of marriage. The woman he longed for didn’t exist. “There’s no one else—. Besides, I’ve already proposed, and she has accepted. It would be badly done if I were to go back on my word now.”
“Perhaps.” His father patted him roughly on his shoulder. “But whatever you do, you have my full support. I hope you know that.”
Lucy Blackwell’s gaze swept across the ballroom like a hawk seeking out its prey. She’d barely made it through the door before finding herself assaulted by a hoard of young gentlemen, all wishing to know her name and why they’d never seen or heard of her before. She’d favored each of them with a faint smile but had otherwise done little to enlighten them. She wasn’t there to elaborate on her pedigree in the hopes that one of those young gentlemen might find her eligible enough to merit a courtship. No, she’d done her research as meticulously as any detective, and, consequently, she already knew whom she planned to marry. All she had to do now was make his acquaintance.
Moving forward, she slowly made her way around the periphery of the room until she found her path blocked by a small gathering of women who appeared to be quite caught up in whatever subject it was that they were discussing. Lucy was just about to squeeze past them when one of these ladies—a lovely blonde with bright blue eyes, stopped her. “Please excuse my ignorance,” the woman said, “but I don’t believe that you and I have been formally introduced.”
Lucy stared back at her, making an admirable attempt to hide her annoyance. How many people would delay her this evening?
“I am the Countess of Trenton, and these ladies who are presently in my company are the Marchioness of Steepleton and my sister-in-law, Lady Cassandra.”
“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintances,” Lucy told them, managing an even broader smile at the realization that the woman before her was not only her hostess but also Lord Summersby’s sister. “My name is Lucy Blackwell. I am Lady Ridgewood’s ward.”
“I had no idea that she had a ward,” Lady Trenton said, looking to her companions as if to see if either of them had ever heard of such a thing. Both ladies shook their heads.
“As you may know, Lady Ridgewood favors the country,” Lucy told them by way of explanation. “And since I have only recently turned eighteen, there hasn’t been much reason for us to come to London until now. But her ladyship has most graciously agreed to grant me a season, so here I am.”
“And not a moment too soon,” Lady Cassandra blurted out. “One can never start scouring the masses quickly enough. Finding a good match can often take more than one season.” She followed her statement with a nervous giggle, which led Lucy to believe that Lady Cassandra had probably been on the marriage mart for some time.
Lucy responded with an awkward smile. “I dare say that I hope it won’t take more than this one.”
“Have you perhaps set your sights on someone already?” the marchioness asked with a great deal of curiosity as she moved a little closer. “I was practically stampeded on my way in here,” Lucy remarked, unwilling to divulge any important details to these women for fear that they might sabotage her plan. “Surely there must be a potential husband among them.”
All three women nodded in agreement.
“But for now, I am actually searching for a certain Lord Summersby, for he and I are meant to dance the next set together, and with the crowd being as dense as it is, I’m finding it rather difficult to seek him out.”
Lady Trenton served her a bright smile. “I would be delighted to be of service. Are you not aware that he is my brother?”
“Forgive me, my lady, but I really had no idea.” It was a small lie perhaps but one that Lucy deemed necessary.
“Well, he most certainly is. And if I am not entirely mistaken, I saw him not too long ago on the terrace with our father. Come; I will take you to him directly.”
“That is most kind of you, my lady, but really quite unnecessary. I should hate to impose.”
“First of all,” Lady Trenton began, linking her arm with Lucy’s, “you shall call me Alexandra from now on, for I am quite certain that the two of us shall be wonderful friends. Second of all, it is no imposition at all.”
Lucy could think of nothing more to say. She was quite certain that she and Alexandra would be far from friends once she put her plan into motion, but she couldn’t help but admit that she did need her, if for no other reason than to lead her to the right man.
“Shame on you, William,” Alexandra teased moments later as she stepped out onto the terrace with Lucy in tow. “It seems that you’ve quite forgotten your dance partner—a bit out of character for you and rather ungentlemanly, I might add.”
If Alexandra continued speaking, Lucy found it impossible to focus on what it was she was saying, for the man who presently turned toward her, the very one she planned to ensnare, would undoubtedly be capable of taking her breath away ten times over. In short, he was the most perfect, the most handsome, the most memorable of any man she’d ever set eyes upon. That Mother Nature had taken it upon herself to create such a fine specimen must surely be a crime against all the other poor creatures who’d have to walk in his shadow. She drew a sharp breath.
“Lucy?” a distant voice from a far-off place seemed to ask.
Lucy’s first instinct was to ignore it, but then she felt Alexandra’s hand tugging gently on her arm, hurtling her with startling force right back to reality. “Hm?” She couldn’t for the life of her imagine what she might be expected to say, much less overlook the puzzled expression on Lord Summersby’s face.
“I don’t believe we’ve ever met, Miss Blackwell.”
Panic swept over her from head to toe until she realized that the words had been spoken not by Lord Summersby but by an older gentleman who stood to his right. He wasn’t quite as tall as Lord Summersby, but he still had an imposing figure, and Lucy considered how terrifying he must be when he was angry. Thankfully, he looked rather cheerful at present. His eyes were a tone lighter than Lord Summersby’s, his chin a little rounder around the edges, and his nose slightly bigger.
“Please allow me to introduce myself. I am the Earl of Moorland. It seems I must apologize for detaining my son from his prior engagement.”
There was a flicker of something in the old man’s eyes that was by no means lost on Lucy. Mischief perhaps? How odd.
Lord Summersby, on the other hand, had taken on a rather stiff stance, his gray blue eyes regarding Lucy with a mild degree of interest.
“It is a pleasure, my lord,” Lucy responded, offering the earl a graceful curtsy.
“William, you’ve not said a single word to Miss Blackwell as of yet.” Lord Moorland’s voice was stern—the mark of a man who was used to being in command. “I dare say you’d do rather well to make your own apology. A lesser woman would already have had a fit of the vapors in response to your lack of attention.”
There was a momentary pause. Lucy held her breath, wondering if Lord Summersby would act as a gentleman or declare her a liar before all. Her heart hammered and her palms grew sweaty, but then, like her very own knight in shining armor, he gave a curt nod and took a step toward her, not only saving her from utter humiliation but unwittingly helping her realize the next part of her plan.
“Forgive me, Miss Blackwell.” His eyes bore into hers, holding her captive as he spoke. “It seems that I was so engrossed in the conversation I was having that I must have had a complete lapse in memory. Indeed, it is so severe that I might just as well not recall having asked you at all. I do apologize with the sincerest hope that you will still allow me to make good on my promise.”
Lucy almost lost her nerve. Not in a million years would she have imagined that any man would make her feel so small and wretched. His tone had not been mocking, but his meaning had been clear. He thought her a charlatan, and why wouldn’t he? After all, they’d only just met, and she’d hardly done anything to make him think highly of her. Quite the opposite. She groaned inwardly, knowing that what she planned to suggest would sound ludicrous to him. She hoped he’d accept without a fuss however, for if he didn’t, he’d likely hold a harlot in higher regard than he would her once the night was over.
Pushing all sympathy from her mind, she squared her shoulders and strengthened her resolve. “Nothing would please me more, my lord,” she replied, allowing him to take her by the arm and lead her back inside the ballroom.
Taking up their respective positions for the start of the quadrille, Lucy shot a quick glance at Lord Summersby who was standing right beside her. “Thank you,” she whispered as the music started and two other couples began their turn about the dance floor.
“I cannot say that you are welcome,” he muttered in response, “for I despise deception.”
“I’m sorry, my lord, but I saw no other way in which to make your acquaintance.”
“Really?” Though his face remained fixed upon the other awaiting couple across from them, his irritation was quite apparent. “I’m not sure what game you’re playing, Miss Blackwell, but I can assure you that I am far from amused.”
Before Lucy could manage a response, he’d taken her by the arm and led her forward, turning her about before leading her in a wide circle while the other couples looked on. As soon as they were back in their places, Lucy pulled together every ounce of courage she possessed. This was the reason she’d come, and she would have only one chance at getting it right. “I have a proposal,” she whispered. “Indeed, I am in need of your service.”
For a moment, she wasn’t entirely sure if he’d heard her. Her heart hammering in her chest, her legs growing weak with expectation, she feared she might suddenly collapse from sheer nerves.
“And what service might that be?” he finally asked, leading her forward once again.
“I’ve done my research, my lord, and am quite familiar with your career. In fact, you are regarded as the best foreign agent that England has to offer, and, as it happens, I am in need of precisely such a man. I will pay you handsomely enough, of that I promise you.” She wondered if there would be enough money in the world to pay him for participating in her mad endeavor.
Lord Summersby shot her a sideways glance. “As tempting as your offer may be, I fear you must take your business elsewhere. You see, Miss Blackwell, I am soon to be married and have every intention of settling down to a peaceful family life in the country, away from all the excitement that the Foreign Office has to offer.”
Apparently she had far less time to set her plan in motion than she had hoped for. If Lord Summersby married someone else, then… She had intended to let him in on her scheme, but if he’d already proposed to another woman, then she might have to resort to more desperate measures.
Her mind reeled as he steered her smoothly back toward their places. The music faded, and all the couples bowed and curtsied—all but Lucy. She was far too busy making a hasty change of plans.
“I take it that your so-called research didn’t mention that I am betrothed?” He was leading her back toward the periphery of the ballroom.
“It did not.”
“Well, it has been a rather hasty decision, I suppose.”
Lucy stopped walking, forcing Lord Summersby to a halt as well. Staring up at him, she searched his eyes for the answer to a question that she dared not ask. Until that very moment, William had paid very little attention to the physical attributes of the woman with whom he’d been dancing. Not only had the lighting been quite poor outside on the terrace, but he’d also been so angry that she’d had the audacity to slither her way into his life through lies and deceit that her looks had been the last thing on his mind.
Since then, he’d barely glanced in her direction, but now that he was given no choice but to take a good look at her, he couldn’t help but feel his heart take an extra beat—a rather disconcerting feeling indeed, given the fact that he intensely disliked her. However, as well as that might be, he could not dismiss her exceptional beauty. Her hair was fiery red, her eyes intensely green, and her bone structure so fine and delicate that she could have worn a sack and still looked elegant. But the gown that Miss Blackwell was wearing was by no means any sack. Instead, it showed off a figure that boasted of soft curves in all the right places.
Clenching his jaw, William swallowed hard and forced himself to ignore the temptation. He would marry Annabelle, and that would be that.
“Do you love her?” Miss Blackwell suddenly asked, her head tilted upward at a slight angle.
By deuce, even her voice was delightful to listen to. And those imploring eyes of hers…No, he’d be damned if he’d allow her to ensnare him with her womanly charms. She’d practically made a fool of both his sister and his father; she’d get no sympathy from him. Not now, not ever. “You and I are hardly well enough acquainted with each other for you to take such liberties in your questions, Miss Blackwell. My relationship to Lady Annabelle is of a personal nature and certainly not one that I am about to discuss with you.”
Miss Blackwell blinked. “Then you do not love her,” she said simply.
Good grief, but the woman was insufferable. Had he at any point in time told her that he was not in love with his fiancée? Why the devil would she draw such a conclusion? It was maddening and quite beyond him to understand the workings of her mind. “I hold her in the highest regard,” he said.
Miss Blackwell stared back at him with an increased measure of doubt in her eyes. “More reason for me to believe that you do not love her.”
“Miss Blackwell, if I did not know any better, I should say that you are either mad or deaf—perhaps even both. At no point have I told you that I do not love her, yet you are quite insistent upon the matter.”
“That is because, my lord, it is in everything you are saying and everything that you are not. If you truly love her, you would not have spent a moment’s hesitation in professing it. It is therefore my belief that you do not love her but that you are marrying her simply out of obligation.”
Why the blazes he was having this harebrained conversation with a woman he’d only just met, much less liked, was beyond him. But the beginnings of a smile that now played upon her lips did nothing short of make him catch his breath. With a sigh of resignation, he slowly nodded his head. “Well done, Miss Blackwell. You have indeed found me out.”
Her smile broadened. “Then it really doesn’t matter whom you marry, as long as you marry. Is that not so?”
He frowned, immediately on guard at her sudden enthusiasm. “Not exactly, no. The woman I marry must be one of breeding, of a gentle nature, and graceful bearing. Lady Annabelle fits all of those criteria rather nicely, and with time, I am more than confident that we shall become quite fond of each other.”
The impossible woman had the audacity to roll her eyes. “All I really wanted to know was whether or not anyone’s heart might be jeopardized if you were persuaded to marry somebody else. That is all.”
“Miss Blackwell, I can assure you that I have no intention of marrying anyone other than Lady Annabelle. She and I have a mutual agreement. We are both honorable people. Neither one of us would ever consider going back on our word.”
“I didn’t think as much,” she mused, and before William had any time to consider what she might be about to do, she’d thrown her arms about his neck, pulled him toward her, and placed her lips against his.