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Authors: Catherine Coulter

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BOOK: Lord Harry's Folly
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“Oh, how very lovely you are, Miss Langley.” Hetty thought she owed this enthusiastic compliment to Lord Harry, who, she decided, would have been far more outrageous in his flattery.

Miss Caroline looked again at Miss Rolland, surprise widening her eyes. She wasn’t used to receiving such frank praise from another lady. Indeed, she wasn’t used to receiving any praise at all from another lady. She revised her opinion, forgot her affected drawl and smiled pertly. “You are a flatterer, I fear, Miss Rolland.”

“Oh, have I offended you? Truly, Miss Langley, you are one of the loveliest ladies I have yet seen in London.”

“She only arrived yesterday,” Miss Maude said.

“Oh no, Miss Langley, I’ve been here quite some time now. Your dear sister jests.”

It occurred to Miss Caroline that such frankness and candor, such generosity of spirit, should be encouraged. After all, she had nothing better to do at the moment, and conversing with such a homely girl as Miss Rolland might very well make her appear noble and virtuous to the dowagers who had jealously proclaimed her to be conceited.

She ignored her sister and said, “Do come sit with me, Miss Rolland. I think I would like to know you better.” Hetty nodded and trailed after Miss Caroline to a small sofa by the fireplace. If she continued to fill Miss Langley’s ears with compliments, it would at least keep her from further notice by Lady Melberry’s other guests.

“Now, Miss Rolland, you must tell me all about yourself,” Miss Caroline said, patting Hetty’s hand as she sat down beside her.

Hetty knew very well that Miss Caroline could give two farthings about her and so prepared to give a very limited account of herself. She had scarce time to open her mouth, when she realized that Miss Caroline’s attention had riveted itself to the drawing room door. She saw her lips part ever so slightly and her vivid eyes sparkle with excitement. Hetty followed her gaze and stiffened.

“His grace, the Marquess of Oberlon.” Higgins’s voice was deeply resonant, bringing everyone’s attention to the gentleman who stood with negligent ease beside him.

Hetty, who had never before seen the marquess at such close range, was aware that her own eyes had widened in surprise. At a distance, she had believed him swarthy and tight-lipped, had imagined his dark eyes cold and hard. Had he displayed horns and a pitchfork tail, she wouldn’t have been overly taken aback. But now, with only the narrow room separating them, she saw that his deeply tanned face was quite pleasant to look at and that his dark eyes were warm and alight with amusement. When he laughed at one of Lady Melberry’s remarks, Hetty found his smile so disarming that for an instant she forgot who he was. He was a monster, he had to be, to show the world such a pleasant face and jest so easily, and yet be so evil beneath.

Miss Caroline grabbed Hetty’s hand and whispered, “Is Lord Oberlon not the most dashing, handsome man you have ever seen, Miss Rolland? Ah, I feared he wouldn’t come tonight, for he isn’t known to come to such insipid affairs as this. He has just returned from Italy, you know, so I dared to hope. He is Lady Melberry’s nephew, you know.”

“No, I didn’t know that,” Hetty said. She resolutely turned her back upon Lord Oberlon and nodded stiff-lipped, for Miss Caroline to continue.

“Lord Oberlon’s father, like Lord Melberry, was very influential in the ministry before his death several years ago,” Miss Caroline said behind her gloved hand. “Of course, my mama and Lady Melberry are the dearest of friends. Poor man, such tragedy he’s borne. He needs pleasure; he needs beauty.” She rose, her movements intensely feminine, the look in her eyes predatory. “Ah, you must excuse me, Miss Rolland, but I really must pay more attention to our kind hostess.”

Really, Miss Caroline, Hetty thought, you think to gain his attention? Perhaps he’ll give it to you, but there will be a price. She watched Miss Langley move quickly to where Lady Melberry and Lord Oberlon stood in amiable conversation. She herself sat back to watch Lord Oberlon with forced objectivity, but she could not. The familiar hatred welled up inside her. Here he was carefree and quite at his ease, laughing, damn him, while Damien lay dead, forgotten by all save his family. Poor man, indeed. How ironic it was that she should finally be in the same room with him, not as Lord Harry but as Henrietta Rolland. The fates must be against her.

She continued to study him. She was forced to admit, grudgingly, that he was a superb guest who would delight any hostess, for he mingled easily with ladies and gentlemen alike. It occurred to her that his good manners might lead him to even seek her out, and she rose swiftly and slipped into a half-hidden position behind a curtain.

Later in the evening, when Hetty had relaxed her vigilance, she chanced to see him approaching her. Not only were the Fates against her, they were trying to kill her. She quickly turned her shoulder and attempted painstaking conversation with the deaf old dowager next to her. She thought she saw a puzzled frown sweep over his brow at her blatant rudeness. But then, he turned easily, and was soon caught up in Caroline Langley’s gay chatter. Had he wondered who she was? Had his aunt Melberry told him to seek her out? She wondered what he thought.

What the marquess was thinking was that the Rolland girl his aunt had directed him to meet was wearing one of the most unfortunate gowns and caps he’d ever seen. He didn’t know if she was as unfortunate of face as she was of clothing, but it seemed likely. She’d turned away from him. She was either very rude or very myopic. He smiled at something Caroline Langley said, though he hadn’t heard anything.

Hetty turned reluctantly at the sour, whining voice of Miss Maude Langley. “I fear my sister must learn decorum. Isn’t it shocking, Miss Rolland? She has been hanging on Lord Oberlon’s arm all evening. Of course, you must know about him.”

Hetty, who had drawn a fatalistic sigh at Miss Maude’s jealous attack on her sister, now raised her eyes to the young lady’s face, all attention. “No, Miss Langley, I fear I don’t know about Lord Oberlon, save that he is Lady Melberry’s nephew and the Marquess of Oberlon. He appears to be charming to all of Lady Melberry’s guests.”

Miss Maude arched a thick brow, darted her eyes once again in Lord Oberlon’s direction. “Oh la, Miss Rolland, you are new to London. Our mama wouldn’t approve my saying so, but you must know he is a rake. But then, from all that I have heard, I suppose a gentleman who is a rake is perforce charming.”

“But why is he a rake, Miss Langley?”

Miss Langley lowered her voice even more and cupped her gloved hand over her mouth. “Listen to this, Miss Rolland. His poor wife died but eight or nine months ago, in childbirth. He left England immediately, scarce after her funeral, and traveled to Italy. His exploits with the Italian ladies were all the talk of London. Indeed, I have seen him with a new mistress; he flaunts her all about London in the most high-handed way. Haven’t you seen them, Miss Rolland?”

“Only from a distance, Miss Langley.” Elizabeth had died in childbirth? Surely Miss Langley must be mistaken, for had Elizabeth not married Lord Oberlon only seven months before her death? Hetty said, “Who was Lord Oberlon’s wife, Miss Langley? How sad that the poor lady died so quickly after their marriage.”

“Elizabeth Springville was her name. She and I were both in our first season last year. She was loose, Miss Rolland, and a flirt. I suppose that she was pretty enough, but I can’t excuse her easiness with the gentlemen, no lady could. Lord Oberlon was only one of several gentlemen dangling after her. When he suddenly married her by special license, and then removed her immediately from London to one of his estates in the West Country, there was much speculation. I will tell you, Miss Rolland, that I don’t need to speculate. My mama is Lady Melberry’s best friend, and she is, of course, Lord Oberlon’s aunt well, I know for a fact, that Elizabeth was in the family way. She was pregnant with Lord Oberlon’s child.”

Hetty said, “Then it would appear to me, dear Miss Langley, that Lord Oberlon behaved in a most honorable way. Surely a rake wouldn’t have married the lady.”

Miss Maude looked pityingly at Hetty. Hetty wanted to smack her. “You didn’t let me finish, Miss Rolland. It was rumored that after he took his bride to the West Country, he left her and returned to his old ways. Shocking, is it not? I only pray that my own sister won’t fall into the same dire predicament that led poor Elizabeth to her death.”

 

Much later that night, Hetty said to Millie as she pulled her nightgown over her head, “She is a spiteful, jealous cat, Millie, and I’m not at all certain that I can believe all that she told me.” Hetty fumbled with the buttons on her nightgown, forcing them into their proper holes. “But you know, the fact of the matter is that Lady Langley is Lady Melberry’s best friend and what with Lord Oberlon being her nephew, well, it does make some sense that Miss Maude could find out that Elizabeth had been pregnant. Oh my God. Millie, you do not think, do you, that perhaps the child was Damien’s?”

“Well, it may be the truth, Miss Hetty. You remember that we couldn’t understand why Elizabeth would have no choice, as she put it in her letter to your brother. It would appear that she wished to avoid a scandal by marrying herself off as quickly as possible. You told me yourself that her father, Old Colonel Springville, was a stiff, proper curmudgeon. Probably curl up his toes were his daughter to disgrace him in such a way. Probably shoot her if he could get away with it.”

“Poor Elizabeth. I can see it all now, Millie. She loved Damien, and though I can’t condone her behavior, or my brother’s, for that matter, they must have planned to marry.”

Millie was silent a moment, staring thoughtfully over the top of Hetty’s head. “Do you think it’s possible that Lord Oberlon married Elizabeth without knowing she was pregnant?”

Hetty nodded, her eyes sad. “Yes, she must have kept silent to protect herself. When Lord Oberlon realized she was pregnant with Damien’s child, he practically deserted her, just as Miss Langley said. It’s ironic, is it not, Millie? He sent Damien to his death, thus winning the lady, only to discover that she had used him. How Damien must have suffered, knowing that she carried his child and he could do nothing about it.”

“Miss Hetty, hold a moment, there is something here that simply doesn’t let the key fit the lock.” Millie frowned and rubbed her fingertips against her thin ribs.

“You’re thinking that Lord Oberlon’s actions weren’t those of a libertine, a man who used women and didn’t care what happened to them once he was through?”

“Yes, it sounds like to me that his grace loved the girl. My ma told me that when men are smitten they will do any number of outrageous things to get what they want.”

Hetty said, her voice as harsh as the winter wind, “I don’t care about Lord Oberlon’s motives, Millie. The fact remains that it was he who is responsible for Damien’s death. No one else, just Lord Oberlon. And by God, he deserves all that I have planned for him.”

Several hours later, Millie quietly entered Hetty’s bedchamber to ensure that she had indeed locked away the fine pearl necklace her mistress had worn this evening, the only item she’d worn that was worth saving. She stood silently at her mistress’s bedside, the slender candle flame darting shafts of orange light, and gazed down upon Hetty’s face. Millie felt a sudden wrenching of fear. Deep in sleep, with her tousled blond curls softly framing her small face, Miss Hetty looked like an innocent, vulnerable young girl, which of course she was. Ah, but she had the heart of a lion. Millie turned, the candle trembling in her hand. What chance could Miss Hetty have against such a powerful, ruthless man as Lord Oberlon?

 

 

 

Chapter Ten

 

 

Lord Harry and Sir Harry Brandon stood outside the Earl of March’s elegant three-story town house on the northern corner of Grosvenor Square. A strong February wind whipped their greatcoats about their ankles and tugged at the top hats set rakishly over their pomaded hair.

“I tell you, Lord Harry, if my brother-in-law backs you, you’ll be a member of White’s by this very evening. You can’t go on missing out on all the good sport. Just be yourself and Julien will like you well enough. I already dashed him a note, telling him all about your pedigree.”

“If you’re certain, Harry. I have no wish to bother him.”

“Julien doesn’t bite, but he does make me very nervous sometimes. It’s just the way he is. He looks down his nose at you and you turn red, but he isn’t bad. He and my sister, Kate, have just returned from St. Clair. Since he hasn’t seen me for a good while, I expect he’ll be pleased enough to see me. Time away from me does make him more tolerant I’ve found. Come along, my boy.”

Sir Harry grasped Lord Harry’s arm and pulled him up the front steps. Hetty wasn’t certain why she felt so uneasy about making the acquaintance of the powerful earl of March. But the die was cast. She really couldn’t afford to draw back now. It was imperative that she become a member of White’s, a regular habitus of that famous club, the club where Jason Cavander, Lord Oberlon, spent a good deal of his time.

But an instant after Harry rapped the large brass knocker, the door was opened by one of the most distinguished-looking men Hetty had ever seen.

“Good morning, George,” Sir Harry said, grinning at the butler. “It’s me. It’s been a long time, you know. His lordship should be delighted to see me. What do you think, George?”

“Certainly your sister will be delighted, sir.” George stepped quickly aside for them to enter. “As for his lordship, I just heard him laughing. He should welcome you pleasantly enough. Ah, you’ve brought a friend. Do come in, both of you.”

“My sister well, George?”

“Quite fit, Sir Harry, quite fit.” George shifted his kind gaze to Lord Harry and lifted an elegant gray brow inquiringly.

Sir Harry said with a wide grin, “This gentleman is another Harry, George Lord Harry Monteith. He’s from up north where there’s nothing but cows and moors and byres. No society whatever, poor chap, but that’s changing now. I’ve taken him in hand.”

BOOK: Lord Harry's Folly
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