The Earl’s Wager for a Lady’s Heart – Preview

Sep 19

Chapter 1

Winston Ambrose ran his fingers along the cards in his hand, relishing the moment of anticipation that always came to him the half second before he flipped them up and saw what he had to work with.

Whist, he’d learned over the years, was like life. You could strategize and bluff your way through the most complicated bits, but there would always be an element you couldn’t control.

He hated that element, and longed for it at the same time.

“Lord Longberry.”

Winston looked up at the sound of his name. They’d turned over trumps. Hearts, of course.

He winced at the irony, and took a swig of sherry out of the glass near at hand. His partner, a man he’d played with occasionally but didn’t know well, had dealt the hand and drawn the trump into play.

Heath Lowell, Lord Ryewell in polite company, had played as well, catering to the dealer, and it was Winston’s turn.

“Hearts again,” he grunted, throwing out a low card.

“You’re a sour one tonight,” Heath said in a mocking tone. “Come now, what’s gotten under your bonnet?”

Heath had come into Winston’s life only a few years ago, but he’d stayed by the young earl’s side with creeping stubbornness, and before he knew it Winston found his name rarely bandied about without Heath’s alongside.

Heath was a foil to him in almost every way. He was short, where Winston was tall; fair, where Winston was dark; blue eyes to Winston’s green; calculating to Winston’s own rakish charm.

Sometimes Winston wondered whether he knew the truth of what went on behind his companion’s small bright eyes, but such a measure of understanding would require true friendship and Lord Longberry was not known for his lasting connections.

They went two more rounds, and the tricks were not in favor of Winston and his partner.

“It’s a good thing we bet split,” the other man grumbled halfway through the game. “If not, I’d be going out as skinned as a pig tonight.”

Winston took another drink.

“I’m unlucky,” he said at last. “It’s the hearts.”

“Is this about Lady Charlotte again?” Heath rolled his eyes as though the very mention of her name was a weariness to him. “Truly, you shouldn’t pride yourself so much. You are not the first man Lady Charlotte has rejected, and you won’t be the last.”

Winston shot him a sharp glance across the table as they finished the round. It was not Heath’s right to present his romantic troubles so openly before a table of strangers.

When asked to do another game, Winston’s partner stood up sharply and, with a black glare at Winston, gathered his meager winnings.

“I’ll not keep up with luck such as his,” he said. “I’ll only lose more, and my name won’t handle it.”

Heath’s partner pled his case as well, and when they had gone, he turned to Winston with a raised eyebrow. They were alone in the men’s club now, but for a small group of men tossing hazard by the fireside.

“What about you, old boy? Are you keen on turning in early or could I tempt you to a game of piquet? We’re private now, and you can tell me all that happened with the lovely Charlotte Allencourt this evening.”

Winston felt a misgiving at the suggestion, but he had long ago learned to bury such pangs of conscience under layers of bravado and extravagance.

He pulled out his purse and emptied the contents onto the table between them.

“Deal.”

“You give us rich gentlemen a bad name, Winston. Squandering away your evening as such.”

“Then I’m in good company.”

He poured himself another glass of sherry while his friend dealt out the hands. When he’d drawn up his cards he ventured a comment at last about the evening’s events.

“You saw it, after all. The third ball of the London Season and she wouldn’t speak two words to me after the dance.”

“Did you say anything to offend?” Heath picked up his cards and rearranged them, pushing a pile of money forward into the center of the table.

“How am I to know what goes on in a woman’s mind?”

He knocked on the table to declare his first category and watched as Heath did the same. His hand was not good, but he hoped he could bluff through it.

“We spoke of the weather. I flirted a bit, I’ll not deny it, but she did as well.”

“Women are fickle creatures. She may feel drawn to you tomorrow though she spurned you tonight.”

Winston thought about their conversation on the dance floor. They’d whirled in graceful bliss for a whole reel, but when they exited the dance floor she’d spurned his attempts at wooing her.

“Please,” he’d said with a bow. “Tell me I can see you again tomorrow.”

She had smiled that coy, untouchable smile, and then curtsied deeply. “I am sorry, I cannot wish it, and it would be best if you thought no further on the subject.”

He’d been too shocked to answer at first, and she rushed on with a blush. “You have a reputation,” she said softly. “My father would not like it, and I cannot hand my heart to you to have it crumpled up and tossed into the nearest gutter. Go find easier prey. Perhaps one of those ladies on the other side of the dance floor who haven’t taken their eyes off you all night?”

Her refusal had made her even more attractive.

“She is the loveliest woman I have ever seen.” Winston was beginning to regret the sherry as he went through the motions of gameplay, tossing out suits and taking tricks. His mind was not as sharp as it should have been, and by the end of the round Heath had won handily.

“Yes, nothing like that horrendous Miss Leighton.”

Winston looked up in surprise as he gathered the cards to shuffle and deal afresh.

“Grace Leighton? Why are you speaking of her?” He gave a scornful laugh and flipped the cards expertly through his hands. “Surely using her name alongside that of Charlotte Allencourt is a sacrilege of some sort.”

Heath’s eyes narrowed. “Some have found her charms irresistible.”

“Who? I’ve not seen her once this Season, and I know the town would hear about it in a moment if a Baron’s daughter as well-accomplished as her were to earn the attentions of an admirer. No, she’s not crushed by suitors for one simple fact.”

Winston pushed the last of his money into the center of the circle.

A smile played at the edges of Heath’s mouth. “She’s hard on the eyes, you mean.”

“She’s no Lady Charlotte, that’s for certain.”

Winston allowed his thoughts to play gently with the memory of Charlotte’s blond curls, ample bosom, and pale blue eyes gazing up at him from her petite place at his side that evening. She was a vision, an angel who deserved proper worship.

Miss Leighton, on the other hand, was a tall and scrawny red-head whose considerable fortune couldn’t quite disguise her abrupt plainness and her propensity for boring obsession with charitable missions about the city.

She was bookish, and sharp-edged. Winston thought with a smile that she’d only now entered his mind because of Heath’s recommendation—before that she hadn’t even crossed his vision.

Who could think of Miss Leighton when Lady Charlotte was near?

Two rounds later, and Winston was glowering over the table at all his money and his father’s treasured watch piled high on Heath’s side.

“Lord Ryewell,” he said coldly, “is this your plan? To cheer me up by stealing all my money and my family heirlooms?”

Heath shrugged halfheartedly. “If you win this round, you will have it all back.”

“And if not? I have nothing left with which to wager.” Winston stood and stretched. “I have no choice but to go home.”

“Come, my man. Don’t be poor sport. Here, I’ve just had a grand idea.” Heath brightened innocently, which Winston had come to learn was a dangerous thing. “Why don’t we make this all a bit more interesting?”

Winston sat back down. That sentence was the surest way to bring him back to the negotiating table. “Go on.”

“I’ll let it all go—the debt you’ve compiled tonight, including your father’s watch—if you seduce a woman of my choosing. Make her fall in love with you, and when you’ve done so and you can prove it, I will release you from the debts. It will be a gentleman’s agreement.”

Winston laughed, then looked at his friend again. “Are you in earnest?”

“I am.”

“I may have struck ill with Charlotte Allencourt, but you speak as though I have lost my touch with the feminine mind altogether. You know as well as I that I could walk into any teahouse in the area and have three ladies fawning on my arm in minutes.”

He smiled, the confident sign he often used to hide his discomfort. “It won’t be fair to you, to lose all your money so quickly.”

“You forget that I get to choose the lady.”

Winston rolled his eyes. “Even if you choose Lady Charlotte herself, I am not dismayed. I can win her—I intend to anyway—within a matter of months. Her initial walls will be broken down by my enchanting ways.”

He was making light of the matter, but both he and Heath knew it was true.

Lady Charlotte didn’t really stand a chance once Winston set his eyes on her. An earl, and a handsome one at that. He had all the aces in his hand, and would triumph in the end.

“So do you accept?”

Winston shrugged. “All right. You have won me over to your foolish plot, and I accept. Who will be the lady?”

Heath smiled slowly, like a weasel sighting its prey. “Miss Grace Leighton.”

Winston felt a great drop of spirit. It was not like being assigned an insurmountable task, for surely a lady as plain and un-pursued as Miss Leighton would be an easy enough mark.

It was an insult, rather, to Winston’s prowess that Heath would pick someone so unappealing.

“Why?” he asked at last.

“It doesn’t matter. It’s all in the bet. Make her love you and prove it to me within, say, four months. If you don’t, I will have the sum owed me and your father’s watch back in my possession.”

“She’s a recluse.” Winston rolled his eyes. “And a dull one, I imagine. Couldn’t you have at least given me a challenge that will be enjoyable to undertake? You have substituted the fox in my foxhunt with an old, tired hound.”

“She’s not old.”

Winston looked at the watch still in his friend’s fingers… He saw it as he had seen it years before in his father’s hand as his mother and sister were loaded into the carriage for the sea voyage that had claimed their lives in the end.

He was supposed to go with them. It was all arranged, but in the end he was too unwell to go—just a boy of fifteen, and an angry boy at that, left out of all the fun to stay home abed in the great estate alone.

He remembered his sister’s pleas that he should be allowed to travel.

“He is fit enough,” she’d said, casting him a pitying smile. “If you leave him here, he will go mad with boredom and loneliness.”

She’d had dark hair, like his, in soft ringlets. They had been very close, her two years younger and always tagging along after his adventures.

“I can’t risk the heir to the Longberry title if your illness were to develop into anything more serious at sea,” his father had said, pulling out that watch on its golden chain and pressing it into his hand. It had the estate emblem on the back. “Keep watch for us, son. Time will pass quickly.”

It hadn’t. In some ways, Winston felt time was still frozen in that moment on the front terrace, with his father’s kind eyes and his mother’s sweet smile; his sister, tossing a smile over her shoulder as she climbed into the carriage; the breeze, frozen on her curls.

The watch in his hand…

He looked up at Heath with a pained expression. “Give me the watch now, and I will have Miss Leighton confessing her love within the span of four months. If anything goes awry, I will return it to you.” He forced a smile. “But nothing will go awry.”

Chapter 2

She pulled her long hair forward so that it fell over her shoulders in a brilliant red fountain. Or that’s how it would have fallen if it behaved as other women’s hair did. Grace smiled wryly at her image in the floor-length mirror alongside her vanity table.

Her hair, almost orange in its intensity, frizzed out like it was weary of gravity itself. Her face was pale, thin, and plain, like everything about her. She had freckles that her mother detested sprinkled along her cheeks, and her blue eyes stared out as though they were scared of the rest of her.

She pulled her face into a smile, then dropped it again into a set look of confidence. The former was what her mother always wanted, but the latter got more things done in London.

She pulled her hair back tight against her head, hurrying to finish it all before the maid arrived. She couldn’t bear all the fussing and attempts at beautifying that would doubtless come again from her well-meaning lady in waiting.

The more you painted an ugly thing, she thought wryly, the more people wondered what you were hiding.

“Miss,” it was her maid, earlier than usual, but still too late to attire her mistress. “Are you finished, my lady?”

“I am.” Grace tried to smile winningly, but caught sight of herself in the mirror and ended up laughing at the sad attempt.

“Do you want me to braid your hair? Are you certain of that dress? You know your mother prefers lighter colors.”

Grace struggled to hide her annoyance. “I’m going into town later to see the children at the orphanage. I cannot wear pale colors when I am kneeling in the dirt, now, can I? And no, don’t bother with my hair. We both know it will tend towards exhaustion only moments after you finish.”

The maid let out a whisper of a sigh. “Your mother would like to see you, miss.”

“Already?” Grace usually beat her mother to the breakfast room in the morning.

“Yes. She’s in the sitting room.”

Grace wondered if other women felt that sinking misgiving in their chest when they were invited to speak with their mothers.

She didn’t like to be so unkind, but she knew with certainty what her mother would want to say. Last night, Grace had avoided yet another London Season ball, and the Baroness would surely be worried that yet another chance to marry off her daughter to a respectable mate had been sidestepped.

Grace followed the maid downstairs with a heavy heart and even heavier steps. Her mother was inside, bent gracefully over a bit of embroidery.

Baroness Leighton was a world of difference from her gangly daughter. All the height and hair and awkwardness Grace had inherited from her father, and she had none of the sweet petite features or dark brown eyes and hair of her mother, who had been the talk of the town in her youth.

The Baroness looked up when she entered, smiling a little too broadly.

“Grace, how lovely you look today.”

Grace let the lie slide, as she always did.

“Did you already breakfast, Mother?”

“I did not. I wish to speak with you first, on an important matter.” The Baroness waved a white, paper-thin hand to the nearby settee. “Please, dear. You’re making me nervous.”

Grace sat in silence and folded her hands. Her mother peered at her chest.

“Dear, do you know they have stays with a little cushion that might give you—“ she cleared her throat, “—a little lift, as it were?”

Grace looked down at her boyish chest and then back at her mother with a carefully constrained face. She would not be drawn into another loud argument. She would not.

“Never mind,” the Baroness continued breezily. “I wish to speak with you about last night. I hear you did not go to the ball we were invited to on North Side. You promised you would consider it.”

“I did consider it, Mama.”

She had considered it, for a few moments at least, but then she’d remembered as she always did that such events were grand and useless shows for the sake of attracting men who would tie down your independence for life.

Any man that showed an interest in Grace was really showing an interest in her money. She’d learned that lesson a long time ago.

With a pang, she thought of Charles, and his stuttering apologies the last time she’d seen him all those years ago. He’d looked so saddened, and embarrassed. She’d felt almost sorry for him, but not quite, standing there with her own shattered heart bleeding out before his eyes.

“Well, you should have gone.” The Baroness was not ready to give up, not yet. “I will speak frankly with you, Grace. I don’t want you to end up like Marion.”

Marion was Grace’s aunt, a spinster who had lived alone until she died at the age of forty-two. Grace had loved Marion; had profited from her education and passion for the poor, but it was always a relationship that her mother had frowned upon.

She feared that Marion’s happiness in singleness would encourage Grace to pursue things other than matrimony, and Grace thought her fears were likely true. Grace had watched her aunt with pride, and envy. Even now, she thought of her fondly.

“Do you want your life to go to waste?” her mother was asking.

“It is not wasted,” Grace protested softly. “I don’t want to devote myself to a man I do not love. I have pursuits of my own I enjoy, and I want to help others—“

“This is all nonsense,” her mother snapped. “You must attend the London Season this year. You are three and twenty years old—far past the youthful age that attracts young men, and if you continue much longer you will be lost to us entirely.

”At this point, I would be content if you would bring even a member of the titled gentry into this home, so long as he was respectable and well-apportioned.”

Her voice softened somewhat. “How can you write off all the men in London, Grace? If it’s your heart you desire to follow, then choose one you could love, who would love you in return.”

Grace looked at her mother in silence for a moment. When she spoke at last, she hated how her voice cracked. “Mama, how foolish would a man have to be to fall in love with this?” she waved her hand over her body dismissively.

“Oh, daughter, you’re not that bad.”

Grace shut her mouth, desperate to escape this conversation. She wanted to be away from her mother’s lily-white hands and perfectly shaped face so full of desire and disappointment.

If only she had been someone her mother could be proud of…

But life was not made for “if onlys,” and Grace had learned after that awful summer afternoon with Charles that if she stopped long enough to wallow in self-pity and her own broken heart, then she might never rise again.

“You must make yourself useful to the world,” Aunt Marion had always said.

One was not useful if one was wallowing.

“Go for my sake,” her mother said at last. “Just a few dances. Go out today and order a new dress for the Season and attend a few balls. If nothing comes of it, I cannot complain.”

Grace doubted that, but she was weary of all the discussion.

“I will go,” she relented. “But I have other business in town today, at the orphanage, and I cannot spend all my hours choosing fabrics and styles. I will stop in and find something simple, but then I will be on my way.”

“As long as you promise to attend the Season.”

Grace rose and curtsied. “I promise.”

In truth, she suspected she could get by with one or two dances this Season, enough to appease her mother, and then she would be permitted to give her time as she wished in the back streets of London.

Aunt Marion had taught her about the people who lived outside of the proper high society circles, of the children crawling in frozen gutters and the women forced to sell their virtue in the dark alleys.

It moved Grace, more than any sense of propriety or knowledge of social standing ever had. She looked with wonderment at the glowing women who passed in and out of her home with their heads full of social calls and the newest cloth from France.

How beautiful it would be, she often thought, to be content with only those things to occupy one’s mind?

If only she could lay aside the worries she had about the children in the orphanage, the fears she had about the families she supported in the winter, or the questions she had about the philosophy and intellectual assumptions of the upper class.

But no, these ran rampant and left no room for silk or crepe or tulle.

She put on a long coat and laced up her sturdy leather boots, headed first to the shop, with her gaze ultimately on the orphanage.

In the street outside the dress shop she passed a bookstore with a small blue volume in the window. The title was written in simple gold script on the cover: Out of Sight.

She stepped inside the shop and picked it up. “Who wrote this?” she asked the shopkeeper.

He looked up from the books he was cataloguing and nodded. “Caught your eye? It’s by John Spencer. You’ve likely not heard of him—he’s new on the scene but for a few articles of opinion in the papers. A good chap, with a casual way of writing. You feel like he’s talking straight to you.”

Grace smiled to herself and flipped open the first page. She didn’t even need to read it—the words came back to her as they had when she first penned them.

“In the lowest places of London, the wealthy can find all their fears huddling together for warmth.” She looked up at the shopkeeper. “Is this a pious book?”

“You’d think it, wouldn’t you? It’s story, fiction, about a boy who raises himself from the street and pursues better things. A bit scandalous, and uncomfortable at places, but good. Very good. And thought-provoking. You can tell this Spencer fellow is a scholar.”

A scholar. Grace blushed at the unintended praise.

She’d been writing for two years now, and this was her second published book. The first had been a collection of essays and articles, and had not sold well. This second one seemed to have a much more positive reception.

She allowed herself a shred of hope that storytelling would move hearts where frank speech and opinion had failed.

“What makes you think he is a scholar?”

“Allusions. He quotes many an author, and many a philosopher.”

Grace flipped aimlessly through the pages. “I dabble in philosophy myself,” she said softly. “Have you read Kant’s Logik?

“I’m not sure.” The bookkeeper’s smile faded at once. “You do mean Immanuel Kant, do you not?”

“I do.”

“I am simply surprised that such a lady as yourself would even know his name. Surely you have not read any of his works.”

Grace sighed despite herself at the blatant and unoriginal assumption the bookkeeper was making.

“Kant believes logic is the science of our understanding. Because forming a science is itself an act, and because philosophy is intended to be a science, Kant thinks that logic provides philosophy with the core blueprint of its structure.”

She watched as the bookkeeper set aside his book very slowly. Without pausing for breath, she pressed on.

“And therefore, just as it would be important for a ‘lady such as myself’ to read such things as they would improve my mind in the arena of the home and social structure, I can only imagine philosophy and logic would also be an important blueprint for basic reasoning and thought.”

The man swallowed. Grace realized she’d taken a step forward, and was somehow intimidating him.

She shrank back, and laid her copy of her own book aside.

“I haven’t the coin to purchase this now, but I will stop by later.”

“You do that, miss.” Then, just as she was about to leave, he added. “And I will find Logik and have it ready for you, miss.”

Grace broke into a rare smile, and stepped outside, the door to the bookstore swinging shut behind her. She crossed the street with a spring in her step.

Not even the dress and milliner shop, looming large with its promise of difficult fashion decisions that she felt ill-equipped to answer, could steal the joy that tiny little volume and the grain of confidence from the bookkeeper had given her.

Chapter 3

At first, Winston wasn’t sure where to begin.

Grace Leighton was infamous for her sly avoidance of parties and social gatherings, and despite her family’s wealth and consequence, he knew it was possible to go an entire Season without laying eyes on her, much less wooing her.

He thought perhaps he would drop by her family’s manor unexpectedly, but then he wasn’t sure what excuse he would give. He had never paid her any mind before.

Just as he was thinking the problem over yet again, Destiny stepped in and threw him a lifeline. He looked up from where the livery boy was tethering his horse and saw Miss Grace Leighton slip out of a bookshop and make her way quickly across the street to the milliner’s.

He couldn’t see her face very clearly, but he would have recognized that lanky body and that brilliant, carrot-red hair anywhere.

“Here goes nothing,” he said under his breath, making for the shop himself.

It was a larger establishment than most in London, with an upstairs devoted to ladies’ gowns and fitting, and a downstairs reserved for ribbons and hats. Winston looked around the crowded downstairs room and saw in a moment that Miss Leighton was not there.

Could it be that she, a fairly nauseating model of propriety and boredom, was squandering her money on new finery? He smiled to himself at the thought.

“Can I help you, sir?” It was a shop girl, and she accompanied the offer with a curtsy.

Winston nodded, appreciating her fresh and pretty face. “I’m on the lookout for a new pair of gloves and thought you might have some.”

“This is a ladies’ store, sir,” the girl said with some confusion.

“Of course,” Winston stumbled over his mistake for a moment but then, falling back on his usual charm, he smiled broadly at the girl. “I meant a new pair of gloves for my cousin.”

“Oh! Kid or wool?”

“Something light, I think.”

Winston realized with a bit of desperation that he didn’t know anything about ladies’ gloves, and besides that, if Miss Leighton was there for a dress fitting, it was unlikely she should be downstairs again anytime soon.

It was up to him to manufacture a reason to stay. “Perhaps if I could see your fabrics?”

“Of course, sir. I’ll fetch the bolts.”

The girl returned and laid out six different colors and textures, each more baffling than the next. Winston ran his fingers over them as though he was appreciating what they had to offer, all the while painfully aware that the charade could not continue much longer.

Then, to his surprise, Miss Leighton appeared in a rustle of muslin and a sigh, followed down the curving staircase by a very out-of-sorts lady in waiting.

“But, my lady,” the woman was protesting, “you can’t go yet. We haven’t made all the decisions, nor ascertained the fit.”

Miss Leighton turned around on the stairs, her back to him, and looked back up at the lady. “You measured me, didn’t you? And you’ve made all my dresses in the past. I assure you, nothing has changed in my person.”

“But what of the fabrics? You’ve not chosen a single one, and you were saying this gown is for the Season. It will make an impression, and it is your prerogative to choose what that impression might be.”

“If it really were my prerogative, I would choose to make no impression whatsoever. As it stands, I am here under duress, and therefore will only submit to the absolute minimum of shopping requirements.”

Winston couldn’t see her face, but after a pause he heard her voice soften and she put out a pale, freckled hand to the arm of the girl.

“Don’t worry, Dotty. I trust you. Pick something pretty.” She sighed. “I liked the cream, really, I did.”

“Will you look at ribbons with me, then?”

Miss Leighton turned then, to cast her eyes on the clock. “I suppose so, but only for a bit.”

This was his chance.

Winston was too familiar with the art of seduction to leap upon the graces of the lady he sought all at once. No, one must spin a web; make himself seem unreachable but enticing. Plant doubt and curiosity.

His goal was not to leave the shop with Grace Leighton’s hand—he only expected to confirm what he already knew, that she would be open to his suit were he to put it to her.

“Miss Leighton!” he said when she came down the stairs at last to look at the ribbons Dotty was laying out side by side near the glove fabrics. He hoped his voice sounded more genuine to her than it did to his own ears.

She looked up with mild surprise, then back at the ribbons. “Oh, hello, sir.”

With a shock, Winston realized she didn’t know who he was. Or perhaps she knew, and had simply forgotten his name.

He had been prepared for shyness, for a coy attitude, even perhaps for scorn after his misnomer with Charlotte Allencourt, but he had not prepared in the least for complete apathy.

“It is I,” he said, rather more stupidly than he meant. “Winston Ambrose.” Then, when she turned a rather blank look in his direction, he followed awkwardly with, “The Earl of Longberry.”

She raised her brow, a pale brow that almost blended in with her skin. “Lord Longberry. How lucky I am to have made your acquaintance.”

He wondered for a moment if she was making fun of him, but no sooner had the thought crossed his mind and she’d turned back to the ribbons again—apparently satisfied with the conversation.

Winston set his jaw. She would have him pull out his box of charms. Well, so be it.

He reached forward and laid a hand alongside hers, almost touching that milky skin, and pointed to the ribbon just beneath it.

“This would look lovely with your eyes.”

She cocked her head. “It is scarlet,” she said simply. Then, turning to face him full on, she added rather bluntly. “You think my eyes red?”

He shifted uncomfortably. It had been an unfortunate choice of color, but why had she to be so absolutely literal? Anyone could have picked up on how forward and intentional that gesture was.

“I merely meant it set off your eyes. Really, I’m surprised you can stand being in a place like this.”

She didn’t ask him what he meant, just went back to sorting through the slips of satin as though she’d forgotten he was there.

“I meant-” he began, pulling her attention back to him, “I meant that you must feel very odd being surrounded by all this paltry finery when God has given you such natural beauty. Such effortless elegance must feel affronted by even the slightest accouterment.”

She laughed. He blinked. She laughed again; held up a ribbon to examine it more closely, and then handed it across the table to Dotty.

“This will do for the trim,” she said simply. Then, peeking at Winston from beneath her long lashes she added, “And you’d best make the gentleman’s decisions for him. I fear the man is a bit addled.”

“I was serious,” he protested. He was beginning to feel a bit silly, and he didn’t like it one bit.

What right had Grace Leighton to ignore his advances? Even the shyest of women gave at least the whisper of a blush or a modest downward glance when he spoke of their beauty, but Miss Leighton acted as though he was merely speaking about the weather or conversing on local politics.

He ran his finger along his hat brim. “I wasn’t jesting with you.”

“You’re being redundant,” she said, passing her money over the table to the shop girl. “If you are serious, then of course you are not jesting.”

“I merely meant that I wanted you to know my sincerity on the subject. You, Miss Leighton, deserve sincerity above all else.”

“Above all else?” she shrugged. “Above even love? Freedom? My own choices?”

“Your wit delights me,” Winston said, wincing as soon as he did so. It was weak, flailing attempt at banter, and it failed miserably. It was too obvious, and unwieldy, not at all like his normal attempts at romance and conquest.

There was something about this woman that caused him to lose focus and disrupted his usual plans.

She blessedly didn’t say anything about his most recent comment before moving towards the door.

“Sir?” the shop girl asked. “The gloves?”

Winston was bent on following Miss Leighton and did not at first turn around, but when he reached the door his prize turned for him and sent a worried look at the shop girl.

“You left your purchase,” she said.

“Oh, it was nothing,” he answered back. “Just some gloves for my aunt.”

“Cousin,” the shop girl corrected him.

Winston wished himself buried in the ground. “Yes, cousin. I’ll come back for it later.” He smiled as charmingly as he could and held out his arm to Miss Leighton. “Will you allow me to escort you to your carriage?”

She looked at his arm for a moment and then walked out of the shop unassisted.

Damn Heath. Winston grit his teeth and followed her. If ever there was a woman more intent on ignoring social signals, it was Grace Leighton.

He caught up with her in the middle of the street and called out her name. She turned with an air of mild annoyance.

“Yes? Lord Longberry, is it?”

A purposeful forgetfulness about his name. How coy.

Winston extended his hand and took the one she offered most unwillingly. He bent over it and kissed it, casting a look up into her deep blue eyes.

“You have been most modest in our interactions today, but I will speak quite frankly, Miss Leighton. It will save us both a great deal of trouble and, dare I hope, heartache.

”Please, tell me that I might one day have the right to court you. Tell me that I might correspond with you in the meantime and earn a place in your heart. This is all that I need to be a happy man. Will you give me some hope?”

Grace Leighton opened her mouth, and then shut it again, wrinkling her forehead as though someone had posed her with a baffling question.

Then, just when Winston thought he could wait no longer, she gave a quick shake of her head and pulled her hand free from his.

“No, I’m afraid not, my lord.”

And then she walked away. Away from the Earl of Longberry, the famously handsome and rakishly confident Winston Ambrose. He watched her go in utter shock, standing dismayed in the empty street with his hands hanging uselessly at his sides.

Grace Leighton. Ugly, plain, coarse Grace Leighton had turned him down just like that, without the slightest explanation or apology. He could perhaps have borne it if she had given some reason, but it wasn’t even as elegant as Charlotte Allencourt’s refusal. It was harsh and sudden and final.

But not final, he corrected himself.

What had begun as a conquest to win back his money and his father’s watch, had morphed into something far different in the few minutes he’d shared with that red-headed annoyance. This was not a matter of simple gambling.

This was now a matter of pride.

He wondered, in a rare moment of self-awareness, if it was the dual rejection of Charlotte and Grace that turned this last affront into such a significant wound, but even as the thought crossed his mind, he knew it was more than that.

Grace was not like Charlotte—she was not desirable or sweet or deserving of any gallantry. No, she had been rude and used him ill, and her heart would be his as forfeit.

“I swear it,” he said to himself, watching her cut her way across the street toward her home. He reached up and touched the brim of his hat with a mocking finger.

“Till we meet again, Miss Leighton.”

Chapter 4

The run in with Winston Ambrose stayed with Grace all that day and into the next.

At first, she had dismissed it as nonsense, but as she thought about it she realized just how strange it was. She couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being set up. Not perhaps by Winston himself—Grace hadn’t been overly impressed with his wit or intelligence—but maybe by someone else.

The more she thought about it, the more she figured Charlotte Allencourt, the petite, vapid princess of the upper London classes, was to blame.

Charlotte never cared much for Grace, though the two had been moving in similar circles since they were children. Once, a few years ago, they’d had an unpleasant argument at one of the opening Season dances, and Charlotte had never forgiven Grace.

She’d been prancing around in her silks and satins, hanging onto the most eligible man in the room like he alone kept her afloat. She had brought that noble gentleman to Grace like a hunter parading the spoils before a lesser competitor.

Grace bristled at the memory, just as she had that evening so many years ago.

“Miss Leighton,” Charlotte had said with her sing-song voice and a toss of her pretty curls. “You came tonight. I thought you’d be poring over your books as usual. It’s bad for your eyes, you know.”

Grace had tried to avoid being pulled into Charlotte’s nasty orbit, she had tried to look away and let it go.

Charlotte had pressed on, her eyes shooting occasional mocking glances of inclusion at the young man towering over her.

“Mr. Tomas here was just telling me all about his travels. I say, it’s a wonderment that he should include a lady in his inner thoughts. I hardly know what continents and countries he speaks of.”

“No,” Grace had said at last, in clipped tones. “I suppose you wouldn’t.”

Charlotte had shot her a withering glare. “Well, it is not for us to fill our mind with useless things. It is for us, the fairer sex, to better ourselves as ladies should.”

Grace could still remember the heat that had flowed through her brain at such blatant assumption. She’d pulled herself up to her full height and glowered at her rival.

“It is good to know, Lady Charlotte, that you think the choosing of linens and the picking of flowers to be more useful than a basic understanding of the geography of your situation. I will come to you first if I need a posy arranged, but if I find myself searching for, say, the easiest route across London, I fear I will have to turn to other minds.”

It had been an awful success. The man in question had laughed, Charlotte had turned beet red, and the evening had gone to Grace.

It would be just like Charlotte to now seek her revenge, setting up Grace to think a man like Winston Ambrose would ever consider her a beauty.

She smiled to herself remembering his attempts to introduce himself. Did he realize how dry and forced he sounded? Like he was speaking at sword point—Grace could almost see Charlotte standing behind him, forcing him to go through with the joke.

And what a joke it would be, she thought wryly, the smile sliding from her face, if someone as handsome and accomplished as Winston were to walk about with her and then put her in her place a few weeks later. Charlotte would be thrilled.

However, Grace was no fool. She would not succumb to their cruel little jest.

But fate, it seemed, had other plans for her.

Two days after the incident in the dress shop, she was called again into the sitting room to speak with her mother. When she arrived, she was surprised to see the Baron there as well, standing alongside the fire with his arm resting nonchalantly on the mantelpiece.

He looked up with his usual languid air and then went back to ruminating on the flames while his wife drove the conversation.

“Grace, dear.” Her voice was dangerously congratulatory and happy. Her daughter had learned long ago that to be in the Baroness’ good graces was not a positive thing. “I have amazing news.”

“Really? Is my dress done so very soon?” Grace took a seat on the edge of the couch, ready to take flight at a moment’s notice.

“Nothing so slight, my dear. Nothing so slight.” She looked significantly at the Baron. “Your father will tell you.”

Grace’s father shifted twice, and cleared his throat awkwardly before stepping forward and presenting his only daughter with an opened letter. “This came today.”

She unfolded it, and read the contents with growing shock.

My dear Baron,” it began, “You may be surprised to hear from me—I fear we do not operate in as many of the same circles as I would wish—but my heart will not allow my pen to stay idle any longer.

”The truth is, I am quite taken with your daughter, Miss Leighton. I have been for some time, and my fervor will not abate. I have some reason to suspect that your daughter may return these affections-”

Grace paused to scoff, then continued reading, “-and I can only hope to have your blessing. I assure you, my intentions are most honorable, and perhaps there may come a day when the noble Baronage may be well connected with Longberry.

”Sincerely, Lord Winston Ambrose, Earl of Longberry.”

Grace looked up in amazement, momentarily without words.

Every part of the letter reeked of arrogance and presumption. That this Winston fellow would go behind her back and petition her father when she had been utterly clear to him only days before was an affront! She felt like a herd of cattle to be bartered over, and she hated the sensation.

At last, unable to settle on a respectful turn of phrase, she said simply, “How very self-aware of him to include his title in the signature.”

“Why do you frown so, daughter?” the Baroness asked. “Of course he contains his title in the letter. It is only right that he should do so, considering he is practically offering to take your hand.”

Grace’s indignation was growing by the minute.

She had presumed, wrongly, that this Winston character was as empty-headed as the rest. Now she saw a sly edge to his maneuvering, and it only worsened him in her opinion.

“Have you written back, Father?”

“No, I wished to speak with you first.”

“Thank you for waiting.” She struggled to mince her words. “I do not want to offend either of you, and certainly not you, Mother, but I cannot accept his suit.”

“What?” The Baroness fell back on the cushions as though she’d been struck a significant blow. “You cannot mean that.”

“I have reason to believe he is playing a sort of jest on me.”

Grace swallowed, deeply embarrassed. “I am not sure it’s of his own invention, but it is of his execution, there can be no doubt. I have seen him before, Mother, at many social functions. He has never looked at me or thought of me. I believe we may even have had conversations in which I spoke and was not heard.

”Aside from the amusement he may glean from playing some sort of game with my heart, I am certain he can have no use for me.”

The Baroness pulled out her fan and began waving it before herself. “I cannot allow this sort of behavior, Grace. I have been quiet in the past because I truly believed you had no suitors-”

“I don’t, Mama.”

“—don’t interrupt, it’s the height of rudeness. But here I find that you have earls at your door and you are scorning them. It is unjust. It is unfair to your family, too. You have a duty to us.”

“He doesn’t care for me. I cannot believe it.”

“He has never made any proposals of courtship to you?”

Grace swallowed. She could not tell a lie—he had indeed made a proposal of courtship, as insincere as she thought it might be.

At last, she turned to her father for support. “Papa, I am telling you he means nothing by this.”

The Baron shrugged. “He sounds serious.”

“He cannot be.” Grace took a few steps to her father and took his old hands in her own. She smiled up into his face. “Do not allow him to write me.”

The Baroness snapped her fan shut. “It is not for your father to write him or not to write him. You will go upstairs now and you will send him a thoughtful and grateful letter that will thank him profusely for all his offering you. You will walk out with him this season, and you will at least spend some time in his company before you decide that he is a rake.”

Grace opened her mouth to protest… but she could see a resilience in her mother’s eyes that had always boded ill in the past.

She turned to her father, who turned away, and at last settled on the only course of action she could see as available to her.

“Alright, Mother. I will write him as you say, but if it all comes to rot, you will remember that I told you he could not care for someone like me.”

“Wait.” Her father raised his hand as she turned to leave the room. “What do you mean by that, daughter?”

Grace pursed her lips and looked at him soberly. “You know what I mean, Papa.”

It was a holy moment, a chance for him to step forward and dispel all the lies and embarrassment that Grace had felt around her since she first stepped into womanhood as a plain and ill-advanced woman. She felt a sudden, nerve-wracking ray of hope that perhaps her father would stand up for her as no man ever had.

But he looked away, as Charles had—as though he didn’t blame her for her plainness, but couldn’t take her for it nonetheless.

She nodded, and forced a cheery smile. “I will write our good earl. No need to keep him waiting.”

As her feet climbed the stairs to her room, she felt they pounded out a refrain that echoed in her chest and through to her heart.

She thought about what she would say to Lord Longberry, and with every step the refrain grew more vehement, more indignant.

He had no right, and she would not bow to his machinations so easily.

At her writing table, she took out a cream sheet and dipped her quill into the pot too hurriedly, blotting her first attempt. She paused, took a breath, and began again.

To Lord Longberry,

How very creative of you to go behind my back and petition my father when I so frankly denied your suit two days past—such a thing is reminiscent of ancient civilizations, and shows an almost admirable ability to make yourself in every way unappealing to a lady such as myself.

I have no doubt that your intentions are disingenuous. I would apologize for my rudeness in calling out your actions as I see them, but you have graciously spared any such concern with the sly and deceptive mode of your own behavior.

You have loosened my pen to speak as I wish, which is to tell you that whatever game you are playing at, I would like you to cease at once. Remember, it is not just the laughable, bookish child of the Baron you endanger with your whims—my mother and father too fall prey to your graces.

I cannot imagine what your true intentions are, although I have enough faith in your ill nature to assume them troublesome and unworthy.

Leave me be, good sir. Do not renew your attentions.

Miss Grace Leighton

She finished, and took a deep breath. She hadn’t realized she’d been holding her air in while she wrote, angry and halting, across the page.

She re-read the words she’d written and wrinkled her forehead in thought. Perhaps it was too harsh, and too forward, but she felt it was deserved. Better to cut all ties now with no promise of hope, and the Earl of Longberry could go limping back to his friends to laugh at her expense.

It would save him time, in the long run, and it would save her as well.

She folded the letter and sealed it, ringing for the footman to deliver it at once. As she watched it go down the hall, she tried to feel victorious, but she couldn’t deny a pang of regret.

It was not, perhaps, regret regarding Lord Longberry… but rather a feeling that her temper would one day distance her from something truly good that she would push away in her zeal for what was right and true.

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