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Robert, Lord Bradleigh, is a wealthy earl recently betrothed to a beautiful young girl in her first Season. Emily Townsend is an impoverished spinster hired as a companion to his grandmother, the dowager countess. Robert agrees to help his grandmother find a husband for Emily, but how is he to bear the thought of her in another man’s arms?
Previous Cover: 1995
This was my first published book, and the first book I ever wrote. In its early stages, it won several local RWA contests. One of those contests, Romancing the Novel, sent the winners in each category to an editor. Mine went to Judy Stern Palais at Berkley/Jove. She liked the entry (two chapters) enough to request the whole book. Unfortunately, I had not yet completed the book. So I sent her the chapters I’d completed (about a third of the book) and she offered me a contract. I was extremely lucky to sell a book without a completed manuscript, and I will forever be grateful to Judy for jump-starting my writing career.
I confess that the first character to be fully developed for this story was the dowager countess. In my head, she had the distinctive drawling voice of my friend’s Great Aunt Ruth. And so the dowager came to life first as a voice, then as a complete character.
I created this story with sequels in mind. The hero, Robert, has two best friends and I planned a book for each of them. Jack’s story became A Change of Heart and Sedge’s story became An Affair of Honor.
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Emily looked up to see the earl as he stood framed in the doorway. She sucked in her breath as she gazed at one of the handsomest men she had ever seen. He was quite tall and broad of shoulder, fairly dwarfing the elderly Barnes. His dark chestnut brown hair fell in a deep wave over one brow. He was still covered with the dust of the road, which, together with the mischievous gleam in his brown eyes and his boyish grin, gave him an appearance more youthful than his thirty-five years.
He had relinquished his greatcoat to Barnes along with his curly brimmed beaver. Though slightly ruffled from the drive, he nevertheless appeared quite appealing in his dark blue superfine coat of impeccable cut, buckskin breeches, and top boots. His cravat was simply tied and his shirtpoints were conservatively low. Although he obviously patronized an excellent tailor, his dress spoke more of comfort than of high fashion.
Emily stared openly at this man of whom she had heard so many tales. He was no doubt handsome enough for a rake, but there was also a certain boyishness about him which was most appealing.
“My dear boy!” exclaimed the dowager as she stretched out her arms to her grandson. In two quick long strides Lord Bradleigh was at her side, clasped her to him in a fierce bear hug, and then swung her through the air like a young girl.
“Put me down, you fool! I am an old woman!” she snapped, although her eyes gleamed with delight.
Lord Bradleigh returned his grandmother to earth and planted an affectionate kiss upon her cheek. “Old woman?” He grinned. “Ha! You are forever young, my dear heart. You look wonderful.”
“You have not lost your charm, I see.” The dowager glared up at him, still somewhat breathless. Without warning her eyes darkened, and she reached up and soundly boxed his ears. “How dare you!” she said.
Completely startled, Lord Bradleigh stammered, “W-what is this?” while he rubbed his stinging ears.
“As if you did not know. Emily, show him.”
Emily had observed the unusual scene with amusement. Failing to completely suppress a smile, she offered the Gazette to Lord Bradleigh.
He turned, and for the first time noticed Emily’s presence. He hesitated a brief instant as his eyes caught hers, full of amusement but with a hint of caution. He turned to the dowager with a questioning look.
“I beg your pardon, my dear,” she said. “This is my companion. Miss Emily Townsend. Emily, this is my impudent and surprisingly foolish grandson, Lord Bradleigh.”
Lord Bradleigh turned to Emily and bowed. “Your servant, Miss Townsend.”
Emily nodded and dipped a tiny curtsy. “Lord Bradleigh.” She smiled as she held out the crumpled Gazette. He returned her smile with a look in his eye that caused her knees almost to buckle as he took the newspaper from her hand. So that’s what it’s like, she thought, to be stared at by a rake. It was a most unsettling experience.
Lord Bradleigh glanced down at the Gazette, and his eyes immediately caught the announcement of his betrothal. “Oh,” he said blankly.
Clearly he hadn’t yet seen the announcement, though he did not appear entirely surprised. A fleeting expression of irritation crossed his face. Emily guessed that his unexpected visit to Bath was to let his grandmother, the Cameron family matriarch, know of his plans, and he would not be pleased that his future in-laws did not have the courtesy to wait until the Cameron family had been informed before sending an announcement to the papers.
Or was she reading too much into a momentarily furrowed brow, and making hasty judgments based on the dowager’s low opinion of the Windhurst family?
“Oh? Is that all you have to say, Robert? Oh?”
Emily tensed as the dowager bellowed. This was likely to be a very uncomfortable conversation.
“Please sit down, Grandmother, Miss Townsend.” Lord Bradleigh led the dowager to a small settee by the window. Charlemagne scrambled up on her lap. The earl reached down and tickled him behind the ears. “Bonjour, mon petit carlin. Veilles-tu sur ma grand’mère?” he whispered to the pug.
Emily smiled at this gesture. Everyone who was acquainted with the dowager was quickly made to learn that the pug must be addressed in French, as the dowager was convinced he comprehended only his native tongue.
Despite her curiosity about Lord Bradleigh, she had no desire to be a part of what was sure to be an awkward meeting. This was a family matter and none of her concern. She excused herself to allow the dowager privacy with her grandson, saying that she must speak with Mrs. Dougherty, the housekeeper, about arranging rooms for the earl. She would also have fresh tea sent up.
* * *
After Emily departed, the dowager turned to her favorite grandson. “So. Are you ready to explain this proposed mésalliance?”
The earl grinned. “Now, dear love, do not be so quick to judge.”
“You have not developed a grand passion for the chit, have you?”
“No, of course not.”
“Then you lost another one of your silly wagers and were forced to make an offer?”
“Good God. You compromised her!”
“Well, then, what?” the dowager asked, her hands flying up in exasperation. “You never even mentioned you had intentions of marrying, though God knows I have wished it for ages. After all, you have been on the town for years and years, with mamas throwing their daughters in your path since you inherited your title. What brought about this sudden capitulation, my boy?”
“Nothing very extraordinary, my dear,” the earl replied. “But you are right. I have been on the town for too many Seasons. As you are well aware, it was my disgust—no, indeed my terror—of those mamas you mention that has caused me to avoid the parson’s mousetrap at all costs.”
He paused as Barnes brought in a fresh pot of tea along with slices of plum cake and tiny apricot tarts. The dowager poured a cup of tea and handed it to the earl. He took a restorative swallow.
“I recently celebrated my thirty-fifth birthday, as you know,” he continued. “And I suddenly realized that I could now legitimately be considered middle-aged.” His mouth twisted in distaste. “I concluded that it was time to finally take that dreaded and long- avoided plunge into matrimony in order to produce an heir.”
“Just so. As you know, I have never experienced a serious emotional attachment to any woman, at least since the age of seventeen. Once I had determined to marry, I was therefore not very particular in my criteria for a bride. I required only that she be young enough to bear my children, have a respectable background, a spotless reputation, and at least passable looks.”
“That’s it?” the dowager squeaked. “Why, any number of women could have answered those requirements.”
“True. The field was wide open, in fact, despite my … er… reputation. But then I realized that I would prefer that she not be a giggler or a chatterbox. That eliminates half the Season’s crop. And I cannot abide a watering pot. You see how the field narrows. And I would have no patience with a clinging vine. So now very few candidates remain. I would especially prefer that she be practical and businesslike in approaching marriage. I would be most uncomfortable with a female who fell head over heels in love with me when I know I could never reciprocate such depth of feeling. I wanted a woman who could accept me on those terms without reproach. And I believe I have found just such a one.
“For the first time in my adult life I decided to take a serious look at what the Season had to offer. You will be astonished to know that I even went so far as to grace Almack’s with my noble presence. You know how I hate that place and its self-righteous patronesses. But it was actually at Almack’s that I first met Miss Windhurst. Augusta.”
He paused to take a sip of tea, then continued. “She is nineteen years old, and her background, on her father’s side at least, is unexceptionable. She also happens to be very beautiful.”
The dowager nodded. “I am not so removed from Society that I am unaware Miss Windhurst is this Season’s Incomparable.”
“Yes, she exceeds all my requirements in that respect. An added bonus, so to speak. She is also elegant, cool, and supremely aloof. I have no apprehension about her sensibilities. She does not giggle, chatter, whimper, swoon, or cling. She suits my requirements down to the last peg, so I lost no time in paying court to her. We have been much in each other’s company during the last month. Two days ago I spoke with her father, who gave me permission to pay my addresses to her.” He then reached over and took his grandmother’s hand. “I am truly sorry, my dear, that you had to learn of my betrothal through the Gazette. I had every intention of breaking the news to you myself. Indeed, I have come to Bath for just that purpose. I assure you, I had no idea the announcement would be made public so soon.”
“No doubt,” Lady Bradleigh said with a sneer. “I suspect, however, that your future mother-in-law was anxious to make everyone in the ton aware of her great good luck in settling her daughter as a countess. What a triumph for her!”
Lord Bradleigh’s face became grim, although his eyes twinkled with amusement. “Now, Grandmother. You must try to maintain a civil tongue when discussing my betrothed. Oh, I know what you think of Lady Windhurst, but, after all, she’s not the one I’m going to marry. Augusta is cut from a different cloth altogether. She will make a fine countess.” He squeezed her hand. “I had hoped for your blessing,” he crooned in his most seductive tone.
The dowager jerked her hand from his clasp. “Do not go trying to turn me up sweet. You cannot wrap me around your finger like all your other women. You have my blessing. But I give it grudgingly and only because I do not see that I have a choice. I am not happy with this arrangement, Robert. In the first place, I still strongly object to having Lady Windhurst thrust into our family circle. The woman is not to be tolerated. Secondly, I take exception to this cold, calculating way in which you have apparently chosen your bride. I suspect that you will regret your heartless business arrangement in years to come. Have you no desire for an affectionate, loving relationship at the center of your life? Do you not think it is worth waiting until you find a woman with whom you can share such a relationship?”
“You presume too much, Grandmother,” the earl said, scowling. “I have been immune to Cupid’s arrow for thirty-five years, and it is unlikely that I will succumb at this stage in my career. Besides, I do not have the time, or the inclination, to wait for such a miracle.”
The dowager was halted in her reply as Emily reentered the morning room to say that the earl’s bedchamber was ready. She absently indicated that Emily should be seated, and continued her conversation with the earl. “All right, Robert,” she said. “I will not fight you. I wish you every happiness with your bride. In fact,” she drawled, “I intend to return with you to London to meet this paragon. And I suppose the least I can do is to stage a grand engagement ball in your honor.”
Lord Bradleigh rose, bowed to his grandmother, and took her hand to his lips. “My dear countess, you do us a great honor. You are most welcome at Bradleigh House.”
“Well, that is settled, then. Emily and I will begin preparations at once,” the dowager said. She settled back, smiling mischievously. “I believe I will make a long stay in London. Perhaps ride out the Season there. I haven’t been to Town in an age. It’s such an ordeal, you know. But this is a special occasion. I expect it will take us several weeks to prepare. You will stay here with us, of course, Robert, and then escort us to London. And now, you must be tired from your journey, and you are certainly dirty. Emily, ring for a footman to show Robert to his rooms. We dine at seven, my boy.”
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