From beloved New York Times bestselling author Mary Balogh comes this passionate tale of a proper lady who discovers just how desirable she really is after one very improper night...
It was unthinkable. It was irresponsible. It was...
Sophia Armitage was a friend, indeed. She had agreed to help Sir Nathaniel Gascoigne find a husband for his cousin Lavinia in the glittering city of London—only half hoping that she’d find one for herself. Sophia knew the odds were against her. Men simply did not seem to be attracted to her—not in that way. Even her late husband had treated Sophia more as a companion than a lover. But then something shocking happened in London—Sophia found herself in the arms of Nathaniel himself! Not only did this act of indiscretion threaten their lifelong friendship, it revealed a depth of passion that defied everything Sophia believed about herself...
There was always a sense of pleasurable anticipation attached to entering London even though one had to travel through the poorer, more crowded outer areas before reaching Mayfair and its splendid mansions and thoroughfares. There was an indeﬁnable air of energy about the city and the promise it gave of busy, varied activities to ﬁll every hour of every day of one’s stay.
It was even more exhilarating to be arriving at the very beginning of the spring Season, when all the beau monde would be converging on the city, supposedly so that their menfolk might take their seats in one of the two Houses
and conduct the nation’s business. But that was only a small part of the reason—an excuse, if one would—for the general exodus from country estates and smaller popular centers and spas.
Members of the ton came to London during the spring to enjoy themselves. And enjoy themselves they did with a dizzying array of balls and soirees and concerts and Venetian breakfasts and garden parties, not to mention attendance at theaters and pleasure gardens and walks and rides in fashionable Hyde Park or excursions to see the sights, like the Tower of London, or simply to shop on Bond Street or Oxford Street.
It was a special bonus, perhaps, to be arriving on a sunny spring day. The journey from Yorkshire had been a long and tedious one—and much of it had been accomplished in dull, cloudy weather, with even the occasional rain shower to slow their progress. Mud on the roads was al- ways to be respected, even when one was eager to end a long journey. But although the morning had been cloudy, the sky cleared off during the afternoon and the sun beamed down.
‘‘Is this really it, Nathaniel?’’ Miss Georgina Gascoigne asked, her voice awed as she leaned closer to the window.
It was a foolish question, perhaps, since they had long known that they were close and there was no mistaking London for any village along the route. But Sir Nathaniel Gascoigne recognized it as a largely rhetorical question and smiled at his sister’s awed expression. She might be all of twenty years old, but her experience of the world had been limited until now to their Yorkshire home and the few miles surrounding it.
‘‘This is really it,’’ he said. ‘‘We are almost there, Georgie.’’
‘‘It looks dirty and disagreeable,’’ the young lady who sat beside Georgina said, sitting very upright on the seat and looking disdainfully from the window without leaning closer to it.
Lavinia. Their maternal cousin, Miss Lavinia Bergland, and Nathaniel’s ward despite her advanced age—she was four and twenty—and his own relatively young age. He was one and thirty. Lavinia was his cross to bear, he often thought. She might have used that second epithet—disagreeable—to describe herself.
‘‘You will change your mind when we reach Mayfair,’’
he assured her.
‘‘Oh, Lavinia,’’ Georgina said without turning her head from the window, ‘‘look at all the people and all the build- ings.’’
‘‘The streets are not paved with gold,’’ Lavinia said. ‘‘But then we have not arrived at Mayfair yet. You must not be disappointed too soon, Georgina.’’
Nathaniel pursed his lips. His cousin was not without her own brand of caustic wit.
‘‘I can scarce believe we are actually here,’’ Georgina said. ‘‘I really thought you were funning us when you ﬁrst suggested it after Christmas, Nathaniel. Will we receive many invitations, do you suppose? At home you have enormous consequence, but here you are but a baronet, after all.’’
‘‘I am a gentleman of wealth and property, Georgie,’’ he told her. ‘‘It will sufﬁce. We will be invited everywhere. By the end of the Season, I will have found suitable husbands for both of you, never fear. Or Margaret will have done so.’’
Margaret, their eldest sister, two years his senior, was the wife of Baron Ketterly. She too was coming to London with her husband with the express purpose of sponsoring and chaperoning her second youngest sister and her cousin, the only two remaining unmarried females in the family. There had been six of them, counting Lavinia. Two of them had been married before Nathaniel returned home two years before, summoned by his ailing father. He had been away from home for years before that, ﬁrst as a cavalry ofﬁcer with Wellington’s armies during the Peninsular Wars and Waterloo, and then for another year after he sold out, indulging in every imaginable extravagance and debauchery with his friends.
But he had gone home, albeit reluctantly, had buried his father a mere three months later, and had proceeded to take up the life of a country gentleman and to run his estate, which had been somewhat neglected during the last years of his father’s life. He had married two of his sisters to respectable suitors, and had been left with just these two.
At Margaret’s suggestion, made over the Christmas holiday, he had considered bringing them to London, to the great marriage mart.
It was going to feel very good indeed to have the last of them married and respectably settled, to have his home and his life to himself at last. One of his main reasons for purchasing his commission had been his desire to escape from a home that was beset by females. Not that he was not fond of his sisters. But there were limits to a man’s endurance. He had certainly never imagined that he would spend several years of the prime of his life organizing matches for his sisters—and Lavinia.
‘‘I am sure, Nathaniel,’’ Georgina said now, ‘‘there will be scores of ladies lovelier than I—and younger. I cannot imagine that I will attract many suitors.’’
‘‘Do you wish to attract many, then, Georgie?’’ he asked with a smile and a wink. ‘‘Would one wealthy, handsome one not be enough—and one who loved you and whom you loved?’’
The anxiety went from her face and she laughed. ‘‘Yes, such a one would sufﬁce very nicely indeed,’’ she said.
Georgina, he rather suspected, had had her heart broken at one time. Their youngest sister had married almost a year before. But her husband, a personable young gentleman of some fortune who had leased a property not far from Bo- wood a few months before Nathaniel’s return there, had apparently directed his attentions to Georgina before turning them on Eleanor. Georgie, a young lady of tender heart and strong loyalties, had often stayed at home instead of attending assemblies and other entertainments with her sisters. She had stayed in order to give her company to their ailing father, who had always seemed to grow worse when his girls were planning some outing. And so her suitor had chosen to pay court to the more easily accessible Eleanor. Twenty was an advanced age for a young lady to be making her come-out. But not too advanced—certainly not for a young lady of Georgina’s delicate prettiness and sweet disposition. And she would have a more than adequate dowry. Nathaniel had no real fears for her.
Now, Lavinia . . .
‘‘You need not look at me like that, Nat,’’ she said as soon as his eyes turned in her direction and long before they could have assumed any expression that might be referred to as that. ‘‘I agreed to come. I even agreed quite readily as I wished to see London and to visit all the galleries and museums. I will even concede that there will be some pleasure in being outﬁtted by a modiste who will probably know what she is doing—Margaret has always spoken highly of her, anyway. And of course it will be interesting to attend balls and to witness all the follies of human nature as exhibited by its wealthiest and most privileged members. But nothing will prevail upon me, I warn you—nothing—to take my place in the marriage mart. Thank you kindly, but I am not for sale.’’
Nathaniel sighed inwardly. There was nothing delicately pretty about Lavinia. She was a ravishing beauty, a surprising fact when she had sported carroty red hair as a child and had shot up to a gangly and quite shapeless height before he had left home, with freckles and large teeth that did not ﬁt her face. But he had returned home to ﬁnd that her hair had been interestingly transformed to a shining ﬂame red, that the freckles had disappeared, that her teeth, strong and white and even, now belonged with her face and enhanced its loveliness, and that shape had more than caught up with her height.
She had over the years—and she was four and twenty— refused probably every eligible gentleman, and a few in- eligible ones, within a ﬁfteen-mile radius of home, not to mention several who had happened into the neighborhood for one reason or another and would have liked nothing better than to happen out of it again with a red-haired bride. She had no intention of marrying anyone ever, Lavinia always declared. Nathaniel was beginning to believe her. It was a gloomy thought.
‘‘You need not look so glum,’’ she said now. ‘‘You could be rid of me in a ﬂash, Nat, if you would just not be >so stuffy and release my fortune to me. I am four and twenty, for God’s sake.’’
‘‘Lavinia,’’ Georgina said reproachfully. Georgie was al- ways the perfect lady. She never took the Lord’s name in vain.
‘‘And am not entitled to manage my own fortune until I marry or turn thirty years of age,’’ Lavinia continued. ‘‘If Papa were still alive, he should be shot for including such a Gothic clause in his will.’’
Nathaniel tended to agree. But he could not change the will. And though he could, he supposed, arrange for his cousin to set up her own home somewhere under his supervision—something she longed to do, though he believed the supervision part did not appear large in her imagination—he would prefer to see her married to someone who could handle her and perhaps bring her some happiness. She was not a happy young woman.
Georgina gasped before he could reply—though in truth there was nothing to say that he had not said ad nauseam over the past two years—and drew their attention to the window again.
‘‘Oh look!’’ she said. ‘‘Oh, Nathaniel!’’ Her hands were clasped to her bosom and she was gazing out at the streets and buildings of Mayfair as if they really were faced with gold.
‘‘I must confess London is improving with every fur- long,’’ Lavinia admitted.
Nathaniel drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. He had found himself unexpectedly content with country life, but it felt good to be back in town. And though his sister and his cousin believed that he had come for the sole purpose of giving them a Season and ﬁnding them husbands, they were only partly correct.
His three closest friends were also coming to London and had written to beg him to come too. They had been cavalry ofﬁcers together and had developed a deep friendship based on shared experiences, shared dangers, a shared need to make light of all the dangers and discomforts and to live their lives to the full—both on the battleﬁeld and off it. One fellow ofﬁcer had dubbed them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse for their tendency to be always in the spot where the ﬁghting was thickest and most intense. They had sold out together after Waterloo and had celebrated their survival together for several months after that.
Kenneth Woodfall, Earl of Haverford, and Rex Adams, Viscount Rawleigh, were now married. Each had one son. Both spent most of their time on their country estates, Ken in Cornwall, Rex in Kent. Eden Wendell, Baron Pelham, was single and unsettled, the only one of them still to feel the restlessness and the need to grasp at every pleasure life had to offer that had consumed them all at ﬁrst. Nathaniel had not seen any of them for almost two years, but they stayed in close communication with one another. The other three were to spend the spring in London. It did not take Nathaniel long to decide that he would join them there, especially since he had already been toying with Margaret’s suggestion.
And there was yet another reason for his coming to town. He felt a strong aversion to the idea of marrying even though there were several eligible young ladies in the neighborhood of his estate and he had plenty of female relatives eager to play matchmaker. Indeed it was Margaret’s declared intention not only to ﬁnd husbands for Georgie and Lavinia in London, but also to ﬁnd a wife for her brother.
But he had been beset by women for the past two years. He was longing for the time when his home would be his own, when he might come and go as he pleased, be as tidy or as untidy about the house as he pleased, put his booted feet up on the desk in his library if he pleased, or even on the best sofa in the drawing room, for that matter. He looked forward to the time when he might walk into any of the dayrooms in the house without looking about him in fear of seeing yet another new piece of embroidery or crocheting adorning tabletops or backs of sofas or arms of chairs. He looked forward to the time when he might bring one or two of his favorite dogs into the house if he pleased. He had no intention of replacing sisters and a cousin with a wife, who would of necessity be with him for the rest of his life, managing his home for his supposed comfort. He intended to remain a bachelor—at least for a good number of years to come. Time enough to marry when he was in his forties, if at that time he found himself unable to quell the guilt of not having even tried to get an heir for Bowood. But although his mind was quite set against a wife, he felt an almost overpowering need for a woman. Sometimes it amazed and even alarmed him to realize that he had not had one for almost two years. Yet all through his years with the army he had been as lusty as any man and a good deal lustier than most—he and Rex and Ken and Ede had never lacked for willing partners. And those months after Waterloo had been one continuous orgy—or so it seemed in memory. He supposed he must have taken a few nights off for sleep. Though perhaps not.
It was next to impossible in the country to satisfy his very natural male appetites without at the same time saddling himself with a wife. But London was a different matter. Georgie and Lavinia were without a doubt his primary responsibility. But they would not take all his time. There would be all sorts of activities that were for ladies only, and Margaret was sure to be a diligent chaperon. Besides, his nights would be his own except on those occasions when there was a ball—though they would be frequent enough, he realized.
He intended to slake his appetites quite thoroughly while he was in town. Eden would be sure to have a suggestion or two on the topic.
Yes, it deﬁnitely felt good to be back. His carriage drew to a halt before a tall, ﬁne-looking house on Upper Brook Street. It was the house Nathaniel had leased for the Season.
It was, he knew, not far from Park Lane or from Hyde Park itself. It was in one of the best neighborhoods of Mayfair.
He vaulted out of the carriage even before his coachman had put down the steps, and looked up at the house. He had always taken bachelor lodgings when he had stayed in London. But with a sister and a cousin to bring out, of course, a house was necessary. It felt good to stretch his legs and to breathe in fresh air. He turned to hand down the ladies.
Early the following morning a lady sat alone at the escritoire in the sitting room of her home on Sloan Terrace, brushing the feather of her quill pen across her chin as she studied the ﬁgures set out neatly on the paper spread before her. Her slippered foot smoothed lightly over the back of her dog, a collie who was snoozing contentedly beneath the desk.
There was enough money without dipping into her woe- fully meager savings. The bills for coal and candles had been paid a week ago—they were always a considerable expense. She did not have to worry about the salaries of her three servants—they were taken care of by a government grant. And of course the house was hers—given to her by the same government. The quarterly pension money that had been paid her last week—the coal and candle bills had been paid out of it—would just stretch to pay off this new debt.
She would not, of course, be able to buy the new evening gown she had been promising herself or the new half boots. Or that bonnet she had seen in a shop window on Oxford Street when out with her friend Gertrude two days ago— the day before she had been presented with this new debt. Debt—what a sad euphemism! For a moment there was a sick lurching in her stomach and panic clawed at her. She drew a slow breath and forced her mind to deal with practicalities.
The bonnet was easily expendable. It would have been a mere extravagance anyway. But the gown . . .
Sophia Armitage sighed aloud. It was two years since she had had a new evening gown. And that, even though it had been chosen for her presentation at Carlton House to no less a personage than the Regent, the Prince of Wales, was of the dullest dark blue silk and the most conservative of designs. Although she had been out of mourning, she had felt the occasion called for extreme restraint. She had been wearing that gown ever since.
She had so hoped this year to have a new one. Although she was invited almost everywhere, she did not usually accept invitations to the more glittering ton events. This year, though, she felt obliged to put in an appearance at some of them at least. This year Viscount Houghton, her brother- in-law, her late husband’s brother, was in town with his family. Sarah, at the age of eighteen, was to make her come-out. Edwin and Beatrice, Sophia knew, hoped desperately that they would ﬁnd a suitable husband for the girl during the next few months. They were not wealthy and could ill afford a second Season for her next year.
But they were kindness itself to Sophia. Although her father had been a coal merchant, albeit a wealthy one, and Walter’s father had resisted her marriage to his son, Edwin and Beatrice had treated her with unfailing generosity ever since Walter’s death. They would have given her a home and an allowance. They wanted her now to attend the grander events of the Season with them.
Of course, it could do them nothing but good to be seen in public with her, though she did not believe they were motivated by that fact alone. The truth was that Walter, Major Walter Armitage, who had fought as a cavalry ofﬁcer throughout the war years in Portugal and Spain, always doing his duty, never distinguishing himself, had died at Waterloo in the performance of an act of extraordinary bravery. He had saved the lives of several superior ofﬁcers, the Duke of Wellington’s included, and then he had gone dashing off on foot into the thick of dense ﬁghting in order to rescue a lowly lieutenant who had been unhorsed. Neither of them had survived. Walter had been found with his arms still clasped protectively around the younger man. He had been in the act of carrying him to safety.
Walter had been mentioned in dispatches. He had been mentioned personally by the Duke of Wellington. His deed of valor, culminating in his own death while trying to save an inferior, had caught the imagination of that most soft- hearted of gentlemen, the Prince of Wales, and so, a year after his death, Major Armitage had been honored at Carl- ton House and decorated posthumously. His widow, who had shown her devotion by following the drum throughout the Peninsular campaigns and Waterloo, must not suffer from the death of so brave a man. She had been gifted with a modest home in a decent neighborhood of London and the services of three servants. She had been granted a pension which, though modest, enabled her to achieve an in- dependence of either her brother-in-law or her own brother, who had recently taken over the business on their father’s death.
Walter himself had left her almost nothing. The sizable dowry that had persuaded him to marry her—though she believed he had had an affection for her too—had been spent during the course of their marriage.
Life had been rather pleasant for a year after that appearance at Carlton House. For some reason the event had aroused considerable interest. It had been reported in all the London papers and even in some provincial ones. Sophia had found that in the absence of Walter himself, she had become the nation’s heroine. Although the daughter of a merchant and the widow of the younger son of a viscount, a lowly person indeed, she was much sought after. Every hostess wished to boast of having the famous Mrs. Sophia Armitage as her guest. Sophia grew accustomed to telling stories about the life of a cavalry ofﬁcer’s wife following the drum.
Even last year, when she might have expected her fame to have waned, it was suddenly revived when Lieutenant Boris Pinter, a younger son of the Earl of Hardcastle, and a fellow ofﬁcer whom Walter had not even liked, had arrived in London and chosen to regale the ton with the story of the time when Walter, at considerable risk to his own life, had saved Pinter’s when he had been a mere ensign and had got into danger through his own carelessness and na¨ıvete´.
The ton had been enchanted. Their love affair with Major Armitage’s widow had continued unabated.
And then she had been presented with the ﬁrst of the great debts, as she had come to think of them. She had been innocent enough to believe it was also the last. But there had been another, slightly larger, one month after that. That time she had hoped it was the last. Hope had blossomed over the winter, when nothing else had been forthcoming.
But it had happened again. Just yesterday. A new debt, slightly larger than the second had been. And this time she had understood. She had spent a sleepless night pacing and understanding that her comfortable world had gone—perhaps forever. This time she was without hope. This would not be the last of such demands. Not by any means.
She knew she would go on trying to pay. She knew she must. Not only for her own sake. But how would she pay the next one? With her savings? What about the next after that?
She set down the pen and bowed her head. She closed her eyes in an attempt to ward off the dizziness that threatened. She must live life one day at a time. If she had learned nothing else during her years with the army, she had learned that. Not even always one day at a time. Sometimes it had been reduced to hours or even minutes. But always one at a time.
A cold nose was nudging at her hand and she lifted it to pat her dog’s head and smile rather wanly.
‘‘Very well, then, Lass,’’ she said just as if the dog had made the suggestion, ‘‘one day at a time it is. Though to borrow some of Walter’s vocabulary, I ﬁnd myself in one devil of a pickle.’’
Lass lifted her head to invite a scratching beneath the chin.
The door of the sitting room opened and Sophia raised her head, a cheerful smile on her lips.
‘‘Aunt Sophie,’’ Sarah Armitage said brightly, ‘‘I could not sleep for a moment longer. What a relief to ﬁnd that you are already up. Oh, do get down, Lass, you silly hound. Dog paws and muslin do not make a good combination. Mama is to take me for a ﬁnal ﬁtting for my new clothes later this morning, and we are to ride in the carriage in the park this afternoon. Papa is to take us. He says that everyone rides in the park at the fashionable hour.’’
‘‘And you cannot wait to return home so that all the excitement may begin,’’ Sophia said, getting to her feet after putting the paper with its ﬁgurings inside one of the cubbyholes at the back of her desk.
Sarah had been so restless with pent-up excitement the afternoon before that Sophia had suggested a walk back to Sloan Terrace and an evening and night spent there. Sarah had accepted the treat with alacrity. But now, of course, she was terriﬁed that she would miss something. Soon— two evenings after tomorrow—all the activities she so eagerly anticipated would begin with the ﬁrst major ball of the Season at Lady Shelby’s.
‘‘Shall we have some breakfast and then walk back through the park?’’ Sophia suggested. ‘‘It will be quiet and quite enchanting at this hour of the morning. And it looks to be as lovely a day as yesterday turned out to be. You need not dash about the room with such exuberant glee, Lass. There is to be breakfast ﬁrst and you are not going to persuade me otherwise.’’ She led the way to the dining room, her collie prancing after them, since Sophia had been unwise enough to use the word walk in her hearing.
How wonderful it would feel to be eighteen again, Sophia thought, looking wistfully at her niece, and to have all of life, all of the world, ahead of one. Not that she was ancient herself. She was only eight and twenty. Sometimes she felt closer to a hundred. The ten years since her marriage had not been easy ones, though she must not com- plain. But now, just when she had achieved some measure of independence and had made a circle of amiable friends and had expected to be able to make a life of quiet contentment for herself . . .
Well, the debts had arrived.
It would have been so very pleasant, she thought with an unaccustomed wave of self-pity, to have been able to afford a new gown, to have been able to afford to have her hair trimmed and styled, to have been able to convince herself that though not beautiful or even pretty, she was at least passably elegant. She had never felt passably elegant or frivolous or lovely. Well, not at least since the days of her youth, when she had deluded herself into believing that she was pretty enough to compare with anyone.
The truth was that she was dumpy and frumpy and unattractive and—and in a sorry state of self-pity indeed. She smiled in self-mockery and set herself to amuse Sarah with her conversation. She ignored Lass, who sat beside he chair breathing loudly and gazing unwaveringly into her face.
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