Chapter 1

It was a quiet May afternoon in the village of Little Compton, Hampshire, and Lady Brentwood was in her summerhouse with her two daughters, discussing their toilettes for the upcoming assembly at Alton.

Lady Brentwood was an invalid, and although, in the course of the years, she had become accustomed to her secluded life, there was a keen sense of regret when she thought of her poor daughters, whom she would have loved to escort to various entertainments. To bring them out in London was one of Lady Brentwood's favourite dreams, but, she felt, there was no chance of ever doing so. She had once tried to enlist her sister-in-law's assistance, but had not been very successful. Mrs. Brentwood had three daughters of her own to dispose of, and was not at all willing to ruin their chances by presenting them along with their prettier cousins. Because, to be honest, and without wishing to be unkind, one had to say that Mrs. Brentwood's daughters were among the plainest girls to be found in London. Lady Brentwood was heartily sorry for them, but she felt it was highly unfair that, due to their cousins' plainness, her own girls were deprived of their chance to shine in the Metropolis. She looked at her girls with considerable pride.

Of the two Brentwood sisters the younger, Miss Emilia Brentwood, was by far more beautiful. She reminded her mother of what she had been in the days of her youth. Emilia was the one of the sisters that turned everyone's head wherever she went, and Lady Brentwood did not blame people if they stared. Emilia was a beauty, with her classic features, her skin like porcelain, and her rich, chestnut-coloured curls. Large green eyes added some distinction to her face, and her figure was spectacular. If she had one flaw, it was her size. Emilia was not very tall, but she made up for this with a lively, unaffected manner and a kind heart. For, though she was the local Beauty, it had not gone to her head. She did not think herself superior to others, and did not want to cause pain to anyone. It was no wonder, Lady Brentwood thought, that young men circled her like moths circled the light.

Her elder daughter, Matilda, was pretty as well, as no one who knew her would have denied. It was true that in comparison to her sister's more spectacular looks Matilda was hardly noticed. Her hair was brown like her sister's, but not quite as radiant, and her eyes, though green, had a greyish hue that diminished their sparkle. Matilda was taller than her sister and her figure was pleasing as well, and Lady Brentwood felt that, had Matilda not been quite so shy, she would have done very well for herself. Unfortunately, Matilda did not speak up very often and was to content to walk in her sister's shadow. Whenever Emilia tried to put her sister forward – which she did quite often, feeling that no one paid her the credit that was her due – Matilda shrunk back even more. It seemed she had resigned herself to the lot of the unattractive sister, which was a crying shame. One would not have thought a girl who possessed so much common sense as Matilda would be so foolish in such matters.

Had it not been for their neighbour Mrs. Morton, the two girls would have been confined to their home and not got anywhere. Luckily, Mrs. Morton was only too happy to present the two girls to the local society. She was a widow and, though she had two sons, had no daughters of her own. She was excessively fond of company, and glad to have an excuse to go into company as often as she chose. Since both Mrs. Morton's reputation and manners were faultless, Sir Harry Brentwood had given his permission that she should, on occasion, take his daughters to various functions. Lady Brentwood felt greatly obliged to that lady, but felt resentful towards her husband, who had gone off to the East Indies without arranging a London season for his girls, as she had asked him to do. They could have easily afforded to rent a house for the Season, and Lady Brentwood was certain that Mrs. Morton would have consented to take the two girls there to be presented. With a tinge of malice, Lady Brentwood thought of her sister-in-law, who would have deserved such a set-down. But it was not to be. Sir Harry had left England and was not likely to come back within the next twelvemonth. In the meantime, her girls would probably be on the shelf. Unless they managed to find suitable husbands at the assemblies of Alton or Winchester, which, Lady Brentwood thought, was highly unlikely.

"Look, Mama," Emilia exclaimed and took her copy of Ackermann's Repository to her mother. "Would this hairstyle not look splendid on Tilda? She says it is too dashing for her taste, but I believe she would look ever so lovely if she wore her hair in such a fashion."

Lady Brentwood examined the picture critically, and agreed with her daughter.

"I do not like these striking fashions," Matilda protested. "You know I feel uncomfortable when I am decked out in such splendour."

"I do not see why you should," Emilia said. "You are a lovely girl, so why should not everybody see that you are? – Mama, tell Tilda to give it a try, at least."

"If Matilda says she is uncomfortable wearing her hair in such a fashion, I advise her not to do so," Lady Brentwood said. "Because, my dear, everyone will notice that she is not at ease, and her spectacular headdress will do her more harm than good."

"Thank you, Mama," Matilda said gratefully. "I knew you would understand."

Emilia shook her head in disbelief. "How will you ever catch Sir George Harbury's attention if you keep acting in such a manner?" she asked her sister in exasperation.

"If I can only catch his attention by acting out of my nature, I had better refrain from doing so," Matilda said coolly.

"Do you have a tendre for Sir George?" Lady Brentwood asked her eldest daughter. Matilda blushed violently.

"No," she said curtly, in a tone that contradicted her words.

"Do not believe her, Mama," Emilia said dryly. "Tilda is head over ears in love with Sir George Harbury."

Lady Brentwood did not blame her daughter. Sir George Harbury was a very handsome and charming young man, and one of the few eligible bachelors in the neighbourhood. Falling in love with him was, in her opinion, a sign of good taste, and so she told her daughter.

"Much good it will do me," Matilda said darkly. "He only sees Emilia whenever we meet."

"Whenever? How often have you met him?" Lady Brentwood asked. Sir George had spent most of his time in London ever since he had come into his inheritance. If he had begun to prefer country life to the gaieties of London, there could be only one reason…

"Oh, he seems to turn up at every assembly in Winchester," Emilia said dismissively.

"Which does not seem to make much of an impression on you," Matilda said accusingly.

"Of course not, Tilda," Emilia said with a smile. "Sir George is yours."

Sir George was quite unaware that he was trying to court the wrong sister, which, Emilia thought, was unfortunate. Instead of realising Matilda's much greater worth, and falling in love with her, he tried to fix his interest with Emilia, who was not at all interested in him.

Emilia gave an inward sigh when Sir George came towards her at the assembly, asking her to dance the first two dances with him. Fortunately, she had already bestowed the first two on Mr. Morton, her chaperon's eldest son, and she found it easy to pass Sir George on to her sister – but she knew that this was hardly a compliment for Matilda. If only she could find a way to make Sir George realise that Matilda would suit him much better … but she could not. As long as he fancied himself in love with her, he would not even notice Matilda's presence. There had to be a way to cure him of his infatuation, Emilia thought, but unfortunately she had not found any just yet.

Sir George finally contrived to engage her for the last two dances, and was radiantly happy about it. It was strange, Emilia thought, that she could not love him – he was an amiable young man, good-looking and intelligent, and she knew her Papa would give them his blessing immediately, after all Sir George was not a Nobody. But, owing to Tilda's tender feelings for him, Emilia had never seen him as husband material. Brother-in-law material, yes. Husband material, no. Even if she had been inclined to marry him, Emilia thought, she could never do anything that hurt her sister.

Sir George's hints during the Assembly should have forewarned her, and yet Emilia was surprised when, the next morning, he came into the drawing room along with her mother and her mother sent her to "show Sir George our rose garden". That Sir George Harbury was not at all interested in roses but had something else in mind was evident. Emilia saw the look of anxiety in her sister's eyes and hardened her heart. She would not, she determined, give in to Sir George's pleading, no matter how sorry she felt for him. But what reason should she give him for not wanting to become his wife?

I do not love you, Emilia thought, is an honest answer, but will it suffice to keep him at bay? Very likely not. It will just convince him that he has to try harder to make me appreciate him. No, that will not do. The truth? I cannot marry you because my sister is in love with you? Impossible! Tilda would never forgive me if she found out. But what else can I say?

Sir George, as she had expected, led her to the summerhouse, made her sit down and declared himself. It was a flattering proposal, Emilia thought, he expressed himself just as he ought, and that he meant what he had said was obvious. For a while, she said nothing, biding her time.

"Miss Emilia," Sir George said, in an insistent voice. "What do you say?"

"I do not know what to say," Emilia said desperately. "This is most unfortunate!"

"That you do not know what to say, or my proposal, Miss Emilia?"

"Your proposal, sir," Emilia said, blushing.

"It is unwelcome?" He gave her a disbelieving look. "Miss Emilia, I am aware that I may have been rash but … if you need time to think about it, I am prepared to wait for your decision. Do tell me – may I hope?"

There was her chance, Emilia thought, to put off the decision for a while – but it would not be fair on Sir George. Her decision was already made, and she should tell him about it and get over with it, not keep him in suspense for sheer cowardice. He was an honest, decent man, and deserved to be treated with respect. If only she could give him a reason for her refusal – a reason he would find acceptable. A reason that would make him put her out of his mind and look for another.

"You see," Emilia began hesitantly, and stopped when he took her hand. "Don't, Sir George," she said quietly. "I cannot marry you, sir."

Had been angry, had he shouted at her – Emilia would have been prepared to endure the unpleasant scene. But he did not. He merely gave a sigh of disappointment, and quietly asked her the question she had dreaded most.

"Why not?"

"Please, sir, do not question my motives," Emilia pleaded. "Just trust me – I cannot marry you. There is one reason that makes it … that makes it impossible for me to accept your highly flattering offer."

"Without wishing to seem impertinent, Miss Emilia – may I know that reason?" he asked. "It would make it easier for me to accept your refusal."

"You may be sure, sir, that if it concerned only me, I would tell you," Emilia said. It was true. She would.

"There is someone else then," he said dejectedly.

"There is," Emilia agreed. This, too, was the pure and simple truth – though she knew that he put her words in another context. He now thought she was in love with another man, when it was actually another woman who was in love with him. A woman who would be devastated if he married her sister.   But if he thought she was in love with another man, that was fine with her.

"Who is he?" he suddenly demanded to know.

"Does it matter?" Emilia asked.

"Yes it does," he said. "I want to know whom I will have to contend against."

"Sir, there will be no competition," Emilia said in exasperation. "I said there was someone else, and you will have to be satisfied with that."

"But I am not," he said fiercely. "Forgive my jealousy, Miss Emilia, but I do love you – I will not hand you over to whoever he is without even trying to make you change your mind."

"I will not change my mind, sir, so your attempts will be useless," Emilia said. There was no other man – there never had been. Emilia wished there had.

"You sound as if this affair was serious," Sir George said.

"As serious as it can get," Emilia said. "You see … we are betrothed." That, she thought, would scare him away. One little white lie – what did it matter? It was all for Tilda's sake.

"I do not believe it," Sir George said determinedly. "If matters were thus, why did Lady Brentwood not tell me that there was a … a previous attachment when I asked for her permission to pay my addresses to you?" Sir George was no fool, Emilia thought appreciatively. He would do very well for Tilda.

"Our engagement is to remain secret until Papa returns from India," she said.

"So confidential that not even your own mother is admitted to the secret?" Sir George asked sarcastically. "Come, Emilia, you must think me a complete fool to believe that."

"Oh, she does know about it," Emilia said. "But she is not very happy with it – my father and one of his friends have arranged it, you see, and she thinks I should not marry a young man I barely know just because our fathers used to be at school with each other."

"So she thought you might wish to marry me instead?" Sir George asked.

"This must have been it," Emilia agreed. She felt immensely guilty for telling him this enormous pack of lies, but now that she had begun doing so, there was no way out of it. She would have to see it through and face the consequences.

"Who is he?" Sir George asked again.

"I told you our engagement was a secret still," Emilia said.

"Never mind that," he said. "I shall not believe a word of that story of yours unless you furnish me with the name of your fiancι. Or are you ashamed of him?"

"I am not," Emilia exclaimed heatedly. "There is no need to be ashamed of him. He is a very pleasant gentleman, with excellent manners and … and … very handsome too."

"And his name is?" Sir George asked.

"His name is…" Emilia paused. She had to find a name that sounded impressive, a name that would sound real but did not exist in reality.

"I am all ears, Miss Emilia," Sir George said, with an amused grin.

"Lord Elham," Emilia suddenly said. Sir George's smile vanished, and he turned white. It was obvious he had not expected her to come up with a name, she thought triumphantly, but she had.

"Lord Elham," he repeated, slowly.

"Quite so," Emilia said.

"How long have you been acquainted with Lord Elham?" He gave her an earnest look.

"Oh, not long," Emilia said lightly. "But we soon grew fond of each other."

"I daresay," Sir George said and offered her his arm. "In that case, Miss Emilia, I have nothing more to say to you but how sorry I am to have put you through this ordeal. Be assured it will never happen again. May I take you back to the house?"

Emilia allowed him to escort her back to the front entrance of the house, where he took leave of her.

"Good bye, Miss Emilia Brentwood," he said with a sad smile. "We shall not meet again, I believe."

"Why not?" Emilia asked. "We can still be friends, can't we?"

Sir George gave her a look she could not fathom. "We will see," he finally said, bowed, and went towards the stables to get his horse.

"You did what?" Tilda gasped when Emilia told her what had passed between her and Sir George.

"I told him I was engaged to a Lord Elham," Emilia said. "There was no other way to convince him that I would not marry him. He asked if there was someone else, and I said there was – so he demanded to know who his rival was. He should have asked who my rival was instead, but that's men for you."

"You lied to him!" Tilda said, glaring at her sister accusingly. "And I suppose he knows. We will never see him again – thanks to you! Oh, Emilia, what have you done?"

"I am sorry," Emilia said, crestfallen. "I just wanted you to be happy, Tilda."

"Well, thank you very much," Tilda said sarcastically. "It will be a great comfort to me, I am sure."

"At least there is no Lord Elham," Emilia said with a forced smile.

Suddenly, Tilda got out of her chair and went out of the room. A couple of minutes later she returned, carrying her father's copy of the Peerage.

She slammed it onto the table in front of her sister.

"Read," she demanded.

"What…" Emilia asked, puzzled.

"Just read, Emilia."

Emilia started to read the passage and blenched. This could not be true! There was an Earl of Elham in existence – but the Earl was eighty years old. Emilia was engaged to be married with a man old enough to be her grandfather. An old man whose father had been at school with hers. Should Mama ever find out about this, Emilia thought, she will kill me. In cold blood. And I'd deserve it, too.

Her only hope now was that her lies should never come to either her mother's or – even worse – Lord Elham's ears. Her mother might, she felt, understand her motives. Lord Elham would not.



Chapter Two

Sir George did not care to stay in Hampshire. After his disastrous proposal to Emilia Brentwood, he returned to his family home only to give some peremptory orders to his valet to pack his trunks, for they would return to London the following day. He fervently wished to leave Hampshire behind him, never to see the setting of his humiliating experience again.

He had not believed Emilia's story – not until she had told him her fiancι's name. Elham. The Earl of Elham. One of his closest friends. Damn him.

Had she known that he was acquainted with her betrothed? Certainly not – she had never mentioned him in his presence before. On the other hand, if the engagement was not to be announced before her father returned, it was very likely that she would not talk about Elham, to avoid gossip. A young lady's reputation was fragile.

But why had Elham not given him a hint? Why had he not warned him to stay away from his bride? He had never said a word when Sir George had gone to Hampshire to see the beautiful Miss Brentwood. Neither had he ever accompanied him. What would have been more natural for Elham than to make use of their acquaintance to go to Hampshire and meet his betrothed whenever he could? This was a mystery that had to be solved, and Sir George determined he would pay his friend – if he deserved that name – a visit to find out. After that, one would see. He was not sure he wanted to keep up a friendship with someone who allowed him to make such a fool of himself without giving him a word of warning.

Desmond Ingleton, Earl of Elham, would have been greatly surprised had he been aware of his friend Harbury's sudden resentment. But he was sitting in his club, playing a quiet game of cards with his brother, not suspecting what was in store for him.

"You're quite in luck tonight," Mr. Ingleton observed when his brother had won the third game in succession.

"Good," Lord Elham said with a grin. "That means I'll run out of luck in other matters."

"Des, you're ungrateful," Mr. Ingleton said. "If only half as many ladies lay at my feet as they are lying at yours…"

"You'd have fled the country by now," Lord Elham finished his brother's sentence. "Which I am much inclined to do."

"Is it as bad?"

"Are you joking?" Lord Elham gave a bitter laugh. "I have a feeling as if every single female in London is trying to hunt me down. Apart from that, my mother and grandmother want to see me married at last. I have the Family to consider, they say. I need an Heir. I owe it to our Name. God, you'd think I was in my dotage! Besides, I have an heir! You!"

"I am touched," Mr. Ingleton said with a smile. "But you know, I don't fancy being an earl. Thank you all the same."

"Besides, Gerry," Lord Elham continued in a bitter voice, "You don't think those ladies are all captivated by my natural charms, do you? Even if I were a nasty, quick-tempered, ugly old hunchback, they'd still be lying at my feet!"

"You're not ugly, Des," Mr. Ingleton said with a teasing grin.

"Thank you," his lordship said dryly.

"I may be biased, however," Mr. Ingleton said. "One becomes accustomed to one's brother's features over the years. – I hope you'll forgive my frankness if I tell you that you never seemed to object to the ladies' partiality for you. On the contrary."

Lord Elham was known to be most appreciative of female beauty, as his brother knew very well. One only had to look at his most recent mistress to realise that – more than one gentleman coveted Elham's place in the fair Chloe's bed.

"But I do," Elham insisted. "I don't believe for one moment that it's me they are fond of. My title and fortune, perhaps, and they may not find me altogether repulsive, but … Just once I'd like to meet a girl who does not fall over herself to please me the moment she sets eyes on me."

"She'd annoy you to no end," Mr. Ingleton predicted. "Because you're spoilt, dear brother."

"Idle speculation," Elham said. "It will not happen, Gerry. The females are nothing but a bunch of scheming, avaricious vultures. I have yet to meet one that is different."

"I'll live to hear you sing a different tune," Mr. Ingleton said laughingly. "Once you meet the right girl."

"And until then, I'll pass my time quite pleasantly with the wrong ones," Lord Elham said with a wicked grin, putting his cards on the table. Mr. Ingleton groaned in mock desperation. He had just lost the fourth game in a row.

"How much do I owe you, Des?" he asked.

"Do you think I'll demand payment of your debts and draw my mother's attention to myself?" Elham asked with a laugh. "I don't think I want to hear what she has to say on the subject of robbing my poor brother of the paltry means he's got."

"I don't think I want to hear what she has to say on any subject," Mr. Ingleton agreed with a laugh. Their mother was not known for the intelligence of her conversation.

Their pleasant discourse was interrupted by a stormy-looking Sir George Harbury coming into the room and walking past them as if they were not there.

"Was that Harbury?" Gerry asked in amazement.

"That was Harbury," Lord Elham said. "In a temper."

"I never thought I should live to see the day," Gerry said with a grin. "Harbury, the paragon of good breeding, giving you the cut direct. What have you done this time?"

"For once, Gerry, my conscience is clear," Lord Elham said. "I refuse to be responsible for Harbury's fits of the sullens."

"Come, Des, you must have done something," Gerry insisted. "Harbury is never cross without a reason."

"You will have to beg him to enlighten us then," Lord Elham said calmly.

This turned out to be unnecessary. About five minutes and a couple of whiskies later, Sir George Harbury approached their table and asked Elham, in icy accents, if he could spare a few minutes.

"So we are on speaking terms again, Harbury?" Lord Elham asked with a grin.

"You…" Sir George exclaimed before he could stop himself. "This is not a laughing matter," he added in a fierce whisper. "So, will you oblige me or not?"

"I am a most obliging person, Harbury." Lord Elham said. "Unburden yourself."

The amusement in his tone of voice was evident and infuriated Sir George even more. In his opinion, Elham did not take matters seriously enough. He might have been able to forgive his friend's transgression, had he shown proper remorse. But he did not. In fact, he behaved as if he did not even know what this was about. There were no limits to his effrontery.

"What have I done to you to deserve being made to look like a fool?" Harbury asked bitterly. "I suppose I should have seen it coming, after all I have experienced your warped sense of humour often enough."

"My warped sense of humour?" Lord Elham asked. For a moment, he was taken aback – but then matters became clear to him. Harbury had simply gone mad. Poor fellow.

"You knew all the while that I was going to propose to the Brentwood girl," Sir George said accusingly.

"I fail to understand what this has to do with my sense of humour," Lord Elham said. "Besides, if she is one of the Brentwoods I am thinking of at the moment, I must tell you I would have credited you with better taste. But we shall not argue on that matter."

"Stop this!" Sir George bellowed. "I know you're engaged to her! There is no use in denying it! She told me!"

"Me engaged to one of the Brentwood girls?"

"Miss Emilia Brentwood, of Little Compton, Hampshire. Does that ring a bell, Elham?"

In his mind, Lord Elham reviewed all the Misses Brentwood he had ever met. He was quite certain there had never been an Emilia. Nor was any of them from Hampshire.

"You strongly remind me of Chloe enacting one of her tragedies," he said.

"Now that is rich!" Sir George ranted. "First you made me look like the greatest fool on earth by not telling me that you were engaged to the woman I wanted to marry, and now you take things even further by trying to deny it all!"

"Did you not just tell me that there was no use in denying it?" Lord Elham asked with a dangerous glint in his eyes. That his friend had believed him to be capable of such a nasty trick was bad enough, but making a scene in the club was even worse – an almost unforgivable transgression.

"And then you have the audacity to speak of your mistress! Do you mean to tell me that, although you are engaged to the most beautiful, sweet-tempered creature on earth, you still keep up your relationship with that … that…"

"Woman," Elham suggested helpfully. "I am not married yet, Harbury."

"You don't deserve her," Harbury said.

Lord Elham quite agreed. He did not deserve a girl who told such blatant lies to a perfectly amiable fellow like Harbury. Someone ought to give her a set-down. How would she like to see her lies exposed to everyone in London society? Lord Elham tried to think of a way to accomplish this – without actually committing himself. He was not a fool. Announcing an engagement would make him liable to all sorts of blackmail.

"I suppose not," he said, looking into his friend's eyes. "I never said I did. And I understand why you are upset, Harbury. I had no idea you were talking about her, otherwise I would have dropped a hint now and then."

"You thought I was talking about her sister?" Harbury asked, suddenly recollecting himself. He had never thought of that possibility. In company, he had only referred to Emilia as "Miss Brentwood". If Elham had indeed thought he was talking about the elder sister, it was no wonder he had not interfered. Why should he, especially when his friend spoke of his honourable intentions regarding Miss Brentwood? He might even welcome the possibility of their becoming brothers-in-law.

"Quite a pretty girl, her sister," Lord Elham said. True, it was a wild guess, but if one sister was a beauty, as she appeared to be according to Harbury, the other girl could hardly be a fright.

"Well, yes, she is not ill-looking," Harbury admitted grudgingly. "And quite clever, I have always thought."

"You should have been more specific in your description of the young lady," Lord Elham said. "How was I to know you were talking about my … fiancιe?"

The ironic emphasis on the word "fiancιe" was lost on Harbury – but it alerted Gerry. He did not say a word, but gave his brother a warning look. Gerry knew his brother well enough to know when he was up to some mischief.

"It seems I have done you wrong," Harbury said hesitantly.

"Let us talk no more about it," Lord Elham said and ordered some drinks for himself and his friend.

He noticed that a certain Mr. Wells, one of London's most notorious gossipmongers, was drawing nearer to them, no doubt expecting to overhear something of interest. Lord Elham broke into a wicked smile. This was just the sort of man he wanted to overhear something. Within the next twenty-four hours, the news of his supposed engagement would be all over London – especially if he asked Wells to keep everything he had overheard to himself. In fact, twelve hours would do if he did so.

Elham doubted Miss Brentwood had wanted the news of their "betrothal" to get around. So he would see to it that it did - he hoped it would make her learn her lesson. He had nothing to lose, apart from those matchmaking mamas fawning over him. A tempting prospect.

"Where did you meet Miss Emilia Brentwood?" he asked his friend in a casual tone designed to be overheard.

"At an assembly in Winchester," Sir George said. "She was the most stunning beauty there – do you actually realise just how fortunate you are, Elham?"

"I am trying to get accustomed to my good fortune," Lord Elham said dryly. He could almost see Wells prick his ears.

"Be assured, Elham – had I known that she was…"

"I said we shall talk no more of this," Lord Elham interrupted him, watching Wells from the corner of his eye. He had succeeded in capturing the man's interest. Wells took great pains in appearing unconcerned, which was a sure sign that he was anything but unconcerned.

"You understand why the matter has not been made public?" he continued, trying to think of a probable excuse but not wishing to say too much – he did not know what Miss Emilia Brentwood had told his friend.

Sir George, very obligingly, told him. "She said the engagement was to remain a secret until her father's return from abroad."

"Just so," Lord Elham said, giving the girl credit for some sense. Whatever faults she had, she was not stupid, apparently.

"You may rely on my strictest confidence, of course," Sir George said.

"May I?" Lord Elham said sarcastically. "I am afraid, Harbury, that after your performance tonight every man in this club is in the know, and though most of them will keep quiet, I fear not everyone will be as kind as to mind their own business." He cast a significant glance at Wells, who was trying to act inconspicuously.

"Do you think he might tell tales?" Sir George asked nervously, realising the fatal error he had made. He should have confronted Elham in private, not here, with people like Wells witnessing the ugly scene.

"There is no telling what he might do," Lord Elham said. "But I will deal with him. Do not worry."

Sir George left shortly after that, worried at what mischief his unguarded behaviour might have caused. He did not want Emilia's name to be bandied about, yet he knew that by confronting Elham in public, he had started something that would be difficult to stop. But Elham's influence might keep the damage within a tolerable limit. No one dared to oppose him – and those who did realised their error very soon. Elham was a dangerous man to cross.

Mr. Wells was just as familiar with that fact as anyone else, and when he found himself addressed by Lord Elham later in the evening, he became rather nervous. Lord Elham was at his most amiable, yet something in his demeanour told Mr. Wells that he was in deadly earnest when he pointed out that he had better forget the scene he had witnessed that evening.

"What scene?" he asked innocently.

"You know what I am talking about," Elham said. "I have my reasons for not wishing this to become known, Wells. I hope you catch my meaning."

"I daresay it was a most awkward situation for you, my lord," Mr. Wells said, trying to sound sympathetic. "Such a quarrel between friends is painful, isn't it? – But may I take leave to tell you that the young lady must consider herself most fortunate?"

That, Lord Elham thought, was unlikely. She certainly wouldn't consider herself fortunate once he was finished with her.

"Which young lady?" he asked, in a threatening voice.

"Oh, your secret is safe with me," Mr. Wells said with an odiously complacent smile.

"I hope it is," Lord Elham said. "I would hate to see her name bandied about in London, sir, and if it was, I would know whom to hold responsible."

"I give you my word of honour that Miss Brentwood's name will never be mentioned," Mr. Wells assured him.

"I shall be most obliged," Lord Elham said with the blandest of smiles. He could be sure that the news would be all over London by tomorrow morning.

Mr. Ingleton had been remarkably quiet after the incident with Sir George, but when they were on their way home, he asked his brother if there was any truth in what Sir George had said.

"Gerry!" Lord Elham said in a reproachful tone, but with a mischievous smile. "How dare you doubt the lady's word?"

"Honestly, Des," Mr. Ingleton said. "Is there?"

"It seems I have reason to be worried," Lord Elham replied. "What kind of ugly customer do you take me for? Do you really think I'd play such a nasty trick on one of my friends? You, of all people, should know better, Gerry."

"Then why did you not tell him so?"

"Do you think he would have believed me that I've never even set eyes on this Emilia Brentwood?" Lord Elham asked. "Rather than believing that she'd lied to him, he would have thought I was up to some prank or other. Which, for once, I wasn't. But I shall make her pay for this, Gerry. No one does this to one of my friends and goes unpunished."

"Was this why you set up Wells' bristles?" Gerry asked with a grin.

"Of course. She wants to be engaged to me? Fine. By the time I have done with her, she'll wish she'd never heard my name."

"Des," Gerry said anxiously, "Are you sure this won't backfire? You'll be in a devil of a fix if the girl takes it into her head that she wants to marry you after all."

"She won't," Lord Elham predicted. "But it is nice to see that you have decided to be my Voice of Reason, Gerry."

"What are you up to, Des?" Gerry demanded, fearing the worst.

"Wait and see," Lord Elham said with an evil grin. "Just wait and see."



Chapter Three

Lord Elham's estimation turned out to be accurate. Before noon the following day, London was buzzing with gossip concerning his betrothal. Though Mr. Wells had kept his word regarding Emilia Brentwood's name, he had been able to furnish the curious with her identity – he had merely mentioned she was a young lady from Hampshire, related to a well-known Member of Parliament residing in Grosvenor Square. Since Mr. Brentwood was the only MP fitting the description, it was not hard to find out who "E.B." was.

Lord Elham decided to wait a couple of days – until those gazettes dealing in gossip had spread the news to Hampshire, as he felt sure they would - and then travel to Little Compton to see the chit and introduce himself as her fiancι.

He'd give her a thundering scold and show himself at his worst, demanding that she keep her "promise" to marry him, for he would not be made a fool of. Elham was determined to be rude and overbearing. That would convince her that not even his title and fortune could outweigh his insupportable character, and it would teach her a much-deserved lesson. She'd be glad to be rid of him in the end. Such were his plans, but he had made his reckoning without his host – that was, his grandmother.

Despite her age – she was approaching her seventy-eighth birthday – the Dowager Countess of Elham was a power to be reckoned with. Her mind was as sharp as a razor, and so was her tongue. Lady Elham took a great amount of interest in both her children and grandchildren's welfare, and gave her advice, whether asked for it or not. Lord Elham had been her latest project – it was "about time the boy set up his nursery", she had said to his mother, and Lady Gilmorton, afraid of her mother-in-law, had concurred.

So, when Lord Elham received an invitation - or rather, a summons - from his grandmother to dine with her, he knew what to expect.

He was surprised to see how kindly the old lady received him when he presented himself in Clarges Street at the appointed time. His mother, however, gave him a look of mild reproach and informed him that she was indeed disappointed to hear that he took such an important step as choosing a wife without asking for her advice – or her consent.

"Nonsense, Lydia," the old lady interrupted her sermon. "He is the head of the family, he need not consider anyone."

Lord Elham laughed. "Grandmama, you would be most upset if I did not consider you."

"You did not ask me for my consent either," the old lady said sharply.

"There was no need to," he pointed out. "The engagement is not official yet."

"It's only the Topic of the Day in London," Lady Elham said with a snort. "Not at all official, oh no. Do not try to fool me, my boy. I've known you from the cradle, you cannot deceive me. Something fishy is going on and I want to know what it is."

"There is nothing fishy going on, Grandmama," Lord Elham said calmly. He'd be mad to tell her the truth – he had no desire to be reduced to the status of a schoolboy. "I thought you would be pleased to hear that I have finally decided to … settle down."
He had almost said "marry", but that was the last thing he had on his mind.

"But who is the girl?" his mother wanted to know. "I have never heard of her before! Emilia Brentwood!"

"Her lineage is impeccable," Lord Elham said soothingly. He had not been idle that day – sensing that his grandmother would want to have a couple of questions answered, he had made some discreet inquiries into Miss Emilia Brentwood's circumstances. "You know Cyril Brentwood, the Member of Parliament?"

"I do," the Dowager Countess said and added, "an amiable man, but his wife! She's a harpy if ever I saw one!"

Lord Elham laughed. "Emilia Brentwood is his niece," he said. "His elder brother's daughter. Her mother, I am told, is related to the Leavens. A second cousin or some such thing."

He knew his grandmother would be gratified by this fact. Viscount Leaven – that was, the father of the present Viscount – had been one of her many admirers in the days of her youth.

"Good stock, I admit," Lady Elham said, not mincing words.

Elham laughed. "Grandmama, this is not a brood mare we are talking about!"

"Desmond, we have to consider such things. There is no need for you to lose your temper about it," Lady Elham said. "How old is she?"

"Twenty," Lord Elham said.

"Twenty?" Lady Elham exclaimed. "That's nearly on the shelf! What has she been doing with herself all those years? Why is she not married yet?"

"Hampshire society is somewhat confined, and Lady Brentwood is an invalid. She is not able to take her daughters to London," Lord Elham said.

"Not an inherited illness, I hope," Lady Gilmorton said worriedly.

"You, too, Mama?" Lord Elham asked indignantly. Where was this questioning leading to, anyway?

"Well, there is no harm in inquiring a bit more closely into this," Lady Gilmorton said. "We do not want you to have an invalid on your hands – and we must think of your children too."

Lord Elham took this personally. After plaguing him for months to get married, the two ladies should have been delighted with the news of his betrothal – no matter whether it was true or not. Instead, they had goaded him into defending his unknown bride. He found the entire situation most annoying. Did they not trust him to find himself a suitable wife? It was almost enough to make him go ahead and marry the girl out of spite.

"I hope you will forgive my saying so, Mama, but I find your way of expressing yourself a trifle tactless," he said stiffly.

"Lydia, be quiet," Lady Elham commanded her daughter-in-law. Lady Gilmorton shrunk visibly, giving her son an injured look for having brought his grandmother's censure on her head.

"What does she look like?" Lady Elham continued her cross-examination.

"Very beautiful," Lord Elham said. He could trust his friend Harbury's judgement in matters of female beauty. If Harbury said she was beautiful, she'd be a diamond of the first water.

"That goes without saying," Lady Elham said dryly, well acquainted with her grandson's ways. "She would not have caught your eye if she were not. Where did you meet her?"

Luckily, he did not have to answer that question. A servant came into the drawing room and announced that dinner was served, and Lady Elham did not continue the discussion during the meal – the servants waiting on them, she felt, should not be regaled with their betters' affairs. There was enough gossip in the servants' hall as it was.
Lord Elham knew better than to feel safe, however, and his suspicion turned out to be justified when, after having enjoyed a solitary glass of port, he joined his mother and grandmother in the drawing room.

"Desmond, in your absence your mother and I have discussed your fiancιe," the Dowager Countess announced.

Lord Elham doubted that there had been much of a discussion going on. More likely, his grandmother had said something, and his mother had agreed.

"We want to meet her," Lady Elham declared.

"Err …. What?" Surely he had misheard his grandmother's request.

"I said we want to meet her," Lady Elham said. "Therefore I suggest you go to Hampshire immediately and invite her to come to stay with us for a couple of weeks."

"Here? In London?"

"Where else?" Lady Elham said. "The girl has seen enough of the country, I daresay, and it will be a treat for her to come to town for a while."

This would without doubt be so, Lord Elham thought. But it would not be a treat for him. He had planned to keep up the sham engagement for a week or two, and then release the girl from her "obligation" to marry him. Instead, he would be saddled with her for he knew not how long.

"I do not know whether Lady Brentwood…" he began weakly.

"Her mother will understand the necessity of the visit. The girl must get acquainted with her future husband's family," Lady Elham said. "And since she cannot take her to London herself, I suggest that you will do this for her."

"Me?" Lord Elham said weakly. "I am afraid I have promised Gerry to …"

He had not promised Gerry anything, but he could rely on his brother to endorse him. His grandmother was not inclined to take no for an answer, though.

"What can be more important than introducing your intended wife to your family?" Lady Elham snapped. The furious expression in her eyes told her grandson that she would have no opposition in this matter. She wanted him to present Miss Emilia Brentwood to her – so he had better present her.

When, for a couple of days, nothing had happened, Emilia began to breathe more freely. Her little white lie had not come to Lord Elham's ears – she was safe. Sir George Harbury was gentleman enough to keep the matter to himself. He was also gentleman enough to stay away from her, she thought with a considerable amount of relief. There was nothing she needed to be afraid of.

Her peace of mind was smashed to pieces the following day, when Mrs. Morton came to call on them, carrying with her a periodical that mainly concentrated on society gossip.

"My dear girl, I had no idea you had made such a catch!" she exclaimed, beaming at Emilia. "You must tell me all about it, you sly thing!"

"I have no idea what you are talking about, Mrs. Morton," Emilia said, her voice trembling with anxiety. Her mother gave her a searching look.

"What mischief have you been up to, Emilia?" she asked in a low whisper.

"Nothing, Mama," Emilia whispered in reply. Her mother would suffer a relapse if she heard what Emilia had done. She was ruined. Better keep the news from her mother as long as she could. It was not long.

"Let me congratulate you on your engagement, my dear," Mrs. Morton said.

"Engagement, Emilia?" Lady Brentwood asked sharply. "What is this about?"

"Mrs. Morton must be mistaken, Mama," Emilia said, blushing furiously.

"But the paper says…" Mrs. Morton began, and then opened the page in question. "You had better see for yourself, Emilia."

"Read it aloud," Lady Brentwood demanded. There was no escape.

"It seems as if one of London's most sought-after bachelors, Lord E., has surrendered to the charms of one Miss E.B., whose uncle is a well-known Member of Parliament. Miss E.B. is to be congratulated on her conquest – Lord E. has been known to be fastidious to a fault. Society awaits the formal announcement of the betrothal with bated breath but, according to His Lordship, no such announcement will take place until the young lady's father has returned from a prolonged stay in the East Indies. - Oh, no!"

"You must have met Lord E. at one of the assemblies at Winchester," Mrs. Morton said. "Though for the life of me I cannot remember what he looks like. – You must know, Lady Brentwood, that your daughters are very popular young ladies. I cannot possibly keep track of every young man desiring an introduction."

"You never said a word, Emilia," Lady Brentwood said, looking at her daughter earnestly. "Who is this Lord E.?"

For a moment, Emilia considered telling her mother the truth. Then she realised how disappointed her mother would be with her for acting in a manner so unbecoming to a young lady of quality. She had been rather ill lately, and Emilia knew that if anything upset her mother, she would suffer another attack of her illness. It would not do.

"Lord Elham," she said guiltily. Lady Brentwood misinterpreted the remorseful look in her eyes – in her opinion, Emilia felt at fault because she had not told her mother about her betrothal.

"You allowed him to pay his addresses to you before he had spoken to either me or your father?" she asked indignantly.

"I had no idea that was what he wanted," Emilia said with tears in her eyes. In comparison to lying to her mother, lying to Sir George had been a treat. If only she could unsay the things she had said to him, she thought miserably. Nothing of this would have happened, had she just held her tongue.

"There, there, my dear," Mrs. Morton said. "I am sure you have no reason to cry. Lord Elham is an amiable gentleman."

"Is he not a little old to be marrying a twenty-year-old?" Lady Brentwood asked. "I met a Lord Elham during my first Season in London, and I remember he was already quite elderly then. Even his son, if he has one, must be in his forties, if not older."

Emilia excused herself and went in search of Matilda. She needed someone to help her get out of this scrape – although of late, Tilda had not shown quite as much support for her sister as she had done before. Emilia supposed this was because she had hurt Sir George Harbury. But what choice had she had? Between hurting Sir George and hurting Tilda, she had chosen the lesser of two evils. But she realised she had been in the wrong. She should not have lied to Sir George. She should have put up with his continued efforts to win her affection instead of lying to him.
If only she could mend matters now, she thought and, for a moment, contemplated writing a letter of apology to Lord Elham. He would be furious, no doubt, but his opinion of her did not matter to Emilia. She wondered if, with Lord Elham's help, she could right matters. The question was, did Lord Elham want her to make amends? How had the papers got wind of her deception? What was she to do? Her situation seemed absolutely hopeless.

Lord Elham was driving his curricle towards the Manor House at Little Compton, trying to devise a strategy. It would be prudent, he thought, to speak to Lady Brentwood first. He had no desire to commit an act of grave impropriety by seeing the young lady alone without having asked for her mother's permission. Lady Brentwood might already be prejudiced against him– somehow he had had to get engaged to her daughter, and he had not asked for her permission to address her, had not even made a push to get to know her. This solecism – though it was not his fault - would show him in a bad light. For all he knew, the lady was not acquainted with her daughter's transgression, so he had better not mention it to her – not before he had seen the girl.

Unfortunately, when he arrived at the Manor House, he was informed that Lady Brentwood was unwell and would not see any visitors that day.

"Are the young ladies at home to visitors then?" Elham asked the butler, handing him a visiting card.

"I will see what I can do, my lord," the butler said stolidly, showed him into a small but pleasant parlour and left him to his own thoughts. For a couple of minutes, nothing happened, and Elham had the unpleasant suspicion that he was going to be sent away without having seen any member of the family. Then the door opened, and the young lady coming in quite took his breath away.

She was not very tall – not much more than five foot, he guessed – but her bearing made her look taller. Her gown was simple and modest, as befitted a young lady of her age. Her rich, auburn hair was done in a most becoming style – some ringlets had escaped the tight bun and formed an enchanting frame for an even more captivating face. A pair of big, green eyes looked up at him apprehensively and she asked, in a slightly nervous tone, "Lord Elham?"

Elham nodded, unable to say anything just yet. Harbury had not understated her beauty.

"You really are Lord Elham?" she asked. "I thought you were…" She broke off.

"You thought I was what, ma'am?" he prompted.

"Older. I thought you were older," she said.

"And just how old did you expect me to be?" he asked. Her dignified, straightforward manner took the wind out of his sails. That girl, he felt, would resist his attempts to intimidate her.

She smiled apologetically. "Eighty," she said. "According to my father's copy of the Peerage, you were eighty years old."

He could not help it – she amused him. "That was my grandfather," he said, trying to hide his amusement. "I inherited the title from him two years ago."

"I am Emilia Brentwood," she said, holding out her hand to him. "And I owe you an explanation, my lord."

Dutifully, Lord Elham took her hand and kissed it lightly. "I would indeed like to know how I came to be engaged to you," he said, trying to sound harsh. He failed miserably.

"Do take a seat, my lord," she said. "I think it may take some time to explain."

She watched him intently as he sat down on a sofa. "I am aware," she began, sitting down in a chair facing him, "that what I say may seem hard to believe. Considering that the first thing you heard about me was that I had told a lie about you, I suppose I cannot blame you for thinking so. But you have my word that I am going to tell you the truth."

"An admirable notion," Elham said.

"I thought you did not exist," she said, after a short pause.

"Not five minutes ago you said you thought I was eighty years old," he said mockingly. "Could it be that you are contradicting yourself, Miss Brentwood?"

"It sounds like it, doesn't it?" she said, with an uncertain smile. "Well, first I thought you did not exist. Then I found out that you did – and that was when I thought you were eighty."

"But why did you invent a fiancι in the first place, Miss Brentwood?" he asked.

"Isn't that plain?" she asked, frowning.

"Not to me, Miss Brentwood, whatever reasoning on your part may be behind it," he said dryly.

"I did not want to marry Sir George Harbury," she said, quietly.

"Then why did you not tell him so?"

"I did," she protested. "But he did not want to believe it! He asked me why not and … and I could not tell him the truth about it. That is, I did tell him the truth, but he … misconstrued it."

"Harbury misunderstood your meaning when you said you were engaged?" Elham asked sharply.

"No. He asked me if there was somebody else, and I said there was. He misinterpreted that."

"How could he misinterpret that? The statement seems clear enough to me."

"He thought that I was in love with another man," she said gloomily.

"Well, that is what it means," Lord Elham said. Perhaps the girl had less sense than he had thought.

"No, it doesn't," she said heatedly. "What I meant was that there was another woman in love with him."

"I see," Lord Elham said. She had a point. "But I do not see why you could not tell him so – or why that made you refuse his offer."

"Because she is my s… - someone who is very dear to me," she said, giving him an imploring look. Her eyes were enchanting. Elham could well understand why Harbury had fallen in love with that girl. If he did not take care, he'd follow suit. Perhaps it would do no harm to keep in mind what she had done to his friend.

"She would never have forgiven me if I had married him – or told him about her affection for him. I did not want to betray her confidence, my lord. So I thought if I made up a non-existent fiancι he'd leave me alone, and he might turn to my si … my friend." She gave him a rueful smile. "I daresay this sounds rather muddled to you," she said. "But this was how it happened, and I can only apologise for the inconvenience I have caused you, my lord. I hope you can forgive me."

The confession managed to soothe Lord Elham's ruffled feathers somewhat. She really was not as bad as he had thought her to be – she was a pretty girl and seemed to be a warm-hearted little creature. Her lapse had not been lost on him and he realised that the woman in love with Harbury had to be her sister. She had indeed been in quite a predicament if that was true, and had taken refuge in a desperate scheme that had gone awry. Her distress on finding out that there was a Lord Elham had probably been punishment enough. He should quit Hampshire and leave her alone, Lord Elham thought, and then realised that he did not want to. The girl intrigued him. He wanted to get to know her better.

"So what are we going to do now?" he asked her, giving her one of his famous smiles.

"Can there be a question?" she said despondently. "We will have to let everyone know what I did."

"I have a better idea than that," Elham said. "We will stand by the engagement."

"You cannot be serious," she said. "Why, you do not even know me!"

"True," he said. "But, Miss Brentwood, I must tell you that you have placed me in an awkward situation. If we told people now that the story about our betrothal is not true, I will look quite the fool, for in a fit of gallantry I did not deny it." He had never had a fit of gallantry in his entire life, but Miss Brentwood did not know that. His manoeuvre worked.

"Oh dear," she said. "I did not consider that! I am so sorry ... but tell me, my lord, for how long will we have to keep up this pretence?"

"A couple of weeks will do," he said soothingly. "After that, you are welcome to end our engagement for whatever reason you choose, and I won't bother you again."

She got out of her chair and walked around the room, apparently concentrating on the problem at hand.

"Very well," she finally said. "I suppose I have no choice, my lord. As you have pointed out, I have placed you in an awkward situation, and it is only fair I should assist you in extricating yourself from it. But you must promise me one thing, my lord – I need not marry you."

"You need not marry me," he agreed, getting up and taking her hand. "It's a bargain."

"Good," she said with a smile. "For I would not want to, you see?"

That, Lord Elham thought, had been quite an unnecessary remark, and it irritated him to no end. Who did she think she was? She should be glad he had been so generous as to show her a way out of her dilemma without exposing her – she should be grateful! Instead, she snubbed him.

He got up and took her hands, trying to pull her into his arms. An engagement had to be sealed with a kiss, didn't it? Besides, why should he not try to get some fun out of this?

"Do not even think about it," she hissed angrily, pushing him away.

He tried to hide his exasperation behind a laugh. "Why not?" he asked her lightly. "We're engaged."

"But we will never be married," she said resolutely. "And I will not allow you to take liberties with me, my lord. You may not believe it, but I am not lost to all sense of propriety."

With a slight bow, his lordship decided to let the matter rest for a while. But there would be one day, he promised himself, when she would welcome his embrace. So far, every woman had done so - sooner or later. Most of them sooner. Emilia Brentwood would not be an exception.




©2005 Copyright held by the author.





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