Authors: Olivia Kingsley
Tags: #Romance, #General, #Historical, #Fiction
Copyright © 2011 Olivia Kingsley.
Cover design © 2011 Olivia Kingsley.
Cover images by
© Björn Höglund | Dreamstime.com
© House of Lime Houseoflime.com
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system without the prior written permission of the author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
To Justin. You know why.
Huge thanks to Mica, Rey, and Larissa for your invaluable help, support and friendship. I couldn't have done any of this without you.
Special thanks to Heather Webber for the incredibly helpful feedback.
My agent, Marlene Stringer, deserves gratitude for taking a chance on me in the first place. It'll pay off eventually, I promise.
And a huge thank you to all the wonderful authors out there who inspire me every single day. Reading your books enriches my life.
"Dreadful news! Lord Sheffield broke his neck in a fall from his horse, and perish'd Instantly. Mamma and Aunt Arabella have been beside themselves since they heard. I also grieve for him, for he was a kind and amiable man, but I cannot help but wonder if this means the Rat shall finally come away from the West Indies, now that he is Earl. I have yet to decide whether I should like to see him again."
— From the diary of Lady Georgiana Montford, aged 19
THE PARTY WAS a damned crush. Robert Balfour, sixth Earl of Sheffield, sighed inwardly as he surveyed the sun-filled parlor's chattering and eminently fashionable inhabitants. If he had known Lady Mansell's garden party would be so crowded, he'd have spared himself the drive to Kensington; he could have waited another day to reacquaint himself with his prospective wife.
But it was too late to turn back now. And there was a sense of rightness about it, too. Familiarity settled over him like a threadbare but warm coat as he negotiated his way through the throng of gossip-hungry guests. Flimsy muslin dresses brushed against him, and with each sight of a tall, starched cravat, he could almost feel his shorter, softer one dig into his own neck, choking him to death with his conscious ignorance of high fashion.
He cursed his commitment to good manners while accepting tea and cake, tea and scones, tea and more tea, until he was hard-pressed to remember why he had missed England in the first place. Moving from one set of guests to another, he tried not to appear impatient as he answered the same questions again and again.
"Can it be…? Holcroft, by Jove! Though it's Sheffield now, is it not? So sorry about your loss, old chap. Fine fellow, the old earl. And such a tragic end. It grieved us deeply."
Condolences sounded rather trivial when one was on the receiving end. Yet he knew that if his acquaintances were to ignore his father's death, he'd think them rude and inconsiderate. So he expressed his gratitude and tried not to appear impatient.
"Lord Sheffield! What a wonderful surprise! Didn't know you had returned from the West Indies. Dare say you must be pleased to be back in civilization, eh?"
They had no idea just how pleased he was. He murmured a polite response—and tried not to appear impatient.
"Are you acquainted with my daughter, Lord Sheffield? You
permit me to introduce you to her…"
There were limits to how much he could endure. When he was presented with the fifth simpering young thing he set his good manners aside and escaped to the terrace. He found the Duchess of Southwell near the entrance, immersed in subdued conversation with a half dozen other society matrons.
She looked not a day older than the last time he had seen her. Her auburn tresses shone with no hint of gray, and middle age had treated her figure kindly. She was still one of the most elegant ladies in society, and the sight of her brought him out of the daze that an hour's mindless chitchat had produced.
He looked at her and remembered Georgie. At thirteen, she'd been a tall and gangly girl whose face was sprinkled with freckles. It was seven years since he had laid eyes on her. Had she changed? Of course she had. But how much?
He quickened his step toward her mother. As he drew near, the cluster of women parted to let him into their midst. Elizabeth Southwell offered her hand and he bowed over it. "Your grace."
"Lord Sheffield," she said with apparent surprise. "You have taken us quite unawares. I had not heard word of your return to England."
"I tried to make my arrival as unremarkable as possible," he replied. "I spent two weeks at Holcroft Park and came up to London only three days past."
"I see," said the duchess with a slight frown. "Do tell me: how is your mother?"
"As well as can be expected. She chose not to accompany me at present but might come up later in the season."
The duchess sighed. "Our correspondence has been regrettably sporadic of late. It must be a comfort to her that you have finally returned."
Robert murmured in agreement, even though he knew that any consolation his presence gave his mother was soon undone by his brother's antics.
"Have you seen Lady Georgiana yet, Lord Sheffield?"
Of course. The reason he was here. Clenching his hand, Robert turned toward the question and recognized Lady Ashcombe, the duchess's sister.
"Not yet." He glanced about the terrace, searching for… a raven head, he supposed. Surely the color of her hair hadn't changed. "The duke assured me she would be in attendance, and I arrived with hopes of meeting her."
"You have spoken with Southwell?" the duchess asked sharply.
"Ah, yes—yes, he called on me yesterday."
"Well!" Her lips thinned. "He said not a word about it to me."
The other ladies clucked in sympathy, and because it was not a topic he wanted to pursue, Robert said, "Is Georgiana nearby?"
"Why, yes." The duchess half turned to peruse the grass-covered terrace. "She was strolling about with Lady Louisa. I believe they disappeared into the garden."
Though he had little interest at present, courtesy forced him to ask, "Lady Louisa?"
"Wentworth," the duchess replied, gesturing at the woman by her side. "Lady Albermarle's daughter."
"One of them, anyhow," Lady Albermarle added with a titter. She was a tiny woman with a large… presence. Though fashionably dressed, she sported a hat she must have owned since the previous century—a monstrous thing, its brim ringed with something furry. He hoped it was dead.
"But you mustn't stand around here with us," the lady said, cheerfully shooing him. "Go on. Join the young people. Find your Lady Georgiana."
Robert managed a smile as he excused himself and stepped off the terrace. Friendly clouds dotted the sky, and the early afternoon sun gave the air a pleasant warmth, so unlike the humid and oppressive Caribbean heat to which he'd never managed to grow accustomed. Mansell's garden was all English: winding gravel pathways flanked by neatly trimmed trees and whimsical patterns of privets and flower beds, all arranged to look like nature's own creations. He passed several young people on his trek—large groups and lone couples, enjoying the balmy spring day—but Georgie was not among them.
Though unexpected, Southwell's visit the day before had reminded him that it was time to marry and settle down. His desire to do so went beyond mere duty; the prospect of a wife and family, a normal life as peaceful as it was mundane, held vast appeal. He had thought of little else during the trip back from Barbados.
Whether his wife of choice would be Georgie remained to be seen, however. They had been friends once, strange as that notion seemed to him now. But one day, during the annual summer house party at his father's estate in Yorkshire, she had turned on him, for reasons of which he still remained ignorant.
He was reluctant to break the tie of their fathers' agreement but not so reluctant that he was willing to saddle himself with a puerile girl for a wife. Granted, it had been seven years, and, as previously acknowledged, she might have changed. He was here to find out.
He reached a part of the garden where one arm of the walk intersected the other and came upon a solitary figure sitting primly on a stone bench. She looked young and was of a pretty countenance, but unremarkable—except for her white-blond hair. He had not been away from society long enough to forget that particular color; she was a Wentworth, to be sure.
As if sensing his presence, she turned her head and noticed him. At once, she shot to her feet and exclaimed, "Lord Sheffield!"
So she recognized him. They must have been introduced at some point, but no one could blame him for only remembering her as one of Albermarle's brood. He sketched a bow. "Lady Louisa Wentworth, I presume."
"Yes." She paused. "I didn't know you had returned to England. Georgie didn't—" She cut herself short and blushed the way only a person of fair hair and complexion could: color creeping up her neck to her cheeks until it flooded her entire face.
"Mention it?" he supplied. "I do not think she is aware of my arrival. I don't suppose you know her whereabouts?"
"Oh, um…" She began fidgeting, wringing her hands, her eyes evading his. "As a matter of fact, I do know where she is—"
"—but I do not think you ought to seek her out. Right now, that is." A firm nod accompanied that statement, as if a show of self-assurance would convince him. "She is having a private conversation with a… a friend."
A friend of the male kind, no doubt. A chill crept over him, like a gust of wind stirring up from nowhere. Apparently, he had indeed expected Georgie to await him eagerly, had imagined it would be up to
to decide if he wanted her. Now it seemed she had taken the decision out of his hands, and surprisingly, it stung. Right down to his toes, it stung.
Of course, he could be making assumptions. He needed to be certain. "I applaud your efforts, but I'm afraid you're not a very accomplished liar."
Her face scrunched up; she tried very hard to look indignant, he had to grant her that. "I vow I do not know what you mean. Why on earth would I be lying?"
"I'd appreciate it if you could tell me exactly where your friend is," he said, deliberately ignoring her inane question. "It would save me some time and effort."
She shook her head, showing more stubbornness than he had expected. "I cannot."
"Very well; I shall find her unaided. Good day, Lady Louisa." He touched his hat and started down the path she'd been guarding. He did not get far before she caught up and jumped out in front of him.
"Please, Lord Sheffield! You cannot interrupt them." Her chest heaved, and there was a desperate look in her pale blue eyes. "It would be a violation of all that is… decent and gentlemanly!"
The chit had more pluck than she appeared to. There was such a thing as too much bravery, however. He scowled at her, letting her know that he was not in the mood to be crossed.
She backed away slowly, repeating in a weaker tone, "Please?"
"Do not fret. I'll tell Georgie you performed your duty most faithfully." And with that, he brushed past her.
He knew he would be looking for the most isolated spot in the garden, and he wandered around for a bit before he found it—a latticed bower amid a thicket of trees, its dense growth of red and yellow climbing roses shielding it from general view. It was the perfect spot for a lovers' tryst.
As he approached the nook, he slowed down, hesitating. Should he abandon his plan to discover what Georgie was about? It could be argued that he oughtn't concern himself with her private affairs. But then again, she had been promised to him since birth—a verbal and informal arrangement, to be sure, but an agreement nonetheless—and he was anxious to settle the business once and for all.
He snuck up to the bower and stood very still. The first sweet but subtle whiff of roses went to his head, and he closed his eyes and inhaled more deeply. English flowers. He had paid such things little heed before. Strange how fondness grows with deprivation.