A Lady's Most
Unexpected Match



One Year Ago


Lady Valsberry had a flair for excess. Estelle Barnes had never seen so much food in her life. The first few courses offered to her, comprising rich meats and soups, buttered vegetables, and bread had been delicious, but after a while, the act of eating had become difficult. She had tried to be judicious during the meal, eating very, very slowly, and having only a cursory taste so as not to fill herself to discomfort. As yet another course was presented, fish, or game, or jelly, she began to dread the pudding and custard on the horizon. 

“My dear, is the meal not to your liking?” Lady Valsberry asked, loudly and abruptly enough not only to catch Estelle’s attention but also that of several other people at the table. Quite alarmed, she cleared her throat and fixed a smile on her face.

“Forgive me, my lady. It is simply that I’ve never seen a bounty quite like this,” she said, trying to salvage what might have been an unexpected faux pas on her part. Was it really her fault that the consumption requirements of parties such as these were far too high to be justifiable? As one of the first dinner balls of the Season, it had to be extravagant, and Lady Valsberry had spared no expense. It was also Estelle and her sister’s first Season, and Estelle supposed that Lady Valsberry, their older cousin, perhaps wanted to mark their coming out in some way. 

But the gesture was wasted on Estelle because she had never felt so much hunger in her life as to be able to physically consume the amount of food being offered to her. She had already attended two other dinner parties thus far during the Season, and already, she had quite had her fill, both of the food, and the Season.

“My lady, I can only regret that I was not able to make my appearance earlier,” Estelle’s sister, Camille chirped from across the table. She had a seat right next to Lady Valsberry, while Estelle was seated across the table from them. Throughout the dinner, Lady Valsberry, the hostess, had taken care to engage her guests, but her gaze and attention had frequently ended up being drawn back again and again to Camille. Their cousin, older than them by over half a decade, had always fawned over Camille, which made her very much the same as everybody else in the sisters’ lives.

“Come out earlier? How early would you have preferred to emerge, my dear?” Lady Valsberry asked with a laugh. Camille smiled prettily.

“I only wish that I might have been able to participate in such soirées earlier,” Camille said, batting her eyelashes at their cousin. Estelle was already beleaguered by far too much rich food, but the obsequious display from her sister to charm their cousin turned her stomach, causing her to place her fork down and push her plate away. 

Evidently, nobody else was as put off by Camille’s display as she was. They laughed at her quip as if it was the most amusing thing they had ever heard.

“My darling, how could I endure without your flattery,” Lady Valsberry said. The conversation continued, the people surrounding them apparently entranced by everything Camille had to say, while Estelle was forced to sit in silence, picking over her food. 

So, is this it? Is this what it means to be out in Society? 

She had heard from others that after coming out, she would experience the greatest excitement she had ever had in her life. She would be able to spend night after night at balls, parties, and, of course, meeting scores of eligible men who would pursue her for marriage. 

She obstinately pushed her spoon through her custard instead of eating it, feeling utterly underwhelmed by her experience thus far. She found dinner parties maddening, balls boring, and socializing tiresome. While she flagged under the social expectations of the Season, her sister Camille, who was coming out at the same time, was shining. Her sister was older than her, so why did they have to make their debut at the same time?

Granted, it was only a year that separated them in age, but that would logically afford Estelle another year of peace. Another year of delaying the exhausting social responsibility of appearing in society as a marriageable woman. 

Camille seemed to have been primed for the ordeal all her life. Longer than that, if it were possible. She must’ve been born with something that allowed her to not only charm every man, woman, and child she came across, but also to swan her way through Society with the ease and comfort Estelle lacked. 

Estelle picked her way through a few more courses until, finally, it was time to make their way to the ballroom. She stood, lingered, and then made her escape. Inching her way in the opposite direction to everybody else, she managed to escape the dining room and make a mad dash for the drawing room. It was the room where the women would be able to retire if they wanted, and that was exactly what she desired to do.

Entering the room and finding it, thankfully, empty, she heavily sat on one of the settees, feeling an immediate lift in her mood now she was alone and surrounded by sweet, sweet silence.

She closed her eyes. She only needed a moment. She would not be away long enough for anybody to become alarmed. Though, the more she thought about it, nobody would be thinking too hard about her whilst Camille, lovely Camille, beautiful Camille, was in their midst. 

Her eyebrows furrowed with annoyance, and she opened her eyes. 

Maybe she would take more than just the few moments away that she had intended in the beginning.

Rising to her feet, she took a slow turn around the beautifully furnished room. It had Lady Valsberry’s touch all over it, from the rich material of the curtains to the plush carpets. Lady Valsberry was several years older than Estelle and her sister, though they were cousins. She had come out and been married while the two of them were still children, being taught by their governess.

Allowing her eye to move across the fine wood of the mantle, she found her mind contemplating a certain possibility. It might be nice to be able to decorate a home as she liked, according to her own wishes and preferences. Would it not be enjoyable to preside over a household? It felt almost absurd that she was contemplating such things when having newly come out, though she knew that was very much her destination.

The kind of life partner that she wanted was still not terribly clear to her. She wanted somebody with whom she would be able to live happily, whether he was also handsome was secondary. Soberness, intelligence, and kindness felt more important than a trim figure or tall height. Camille had talked her ear off about the kind of man that she was after. If it was up to her, she would not entertain any person unless their wealth matched or surpassed their own father’s. No small feat, seeing as he was a duke.

No matter, Camille could deal with the consequences of her selection when the time came. Estelle would have to wait for her, in any case. Seeing as the standards for her future groom were so high, Estelle, the second daughter, would have some years to go before she met her match.

Feeling restored from her brief time alone, Estelle straightened her back and readied herself to make her way to the ballroom with the rest of the party. Pushing the door open, she was stopped by the sound of some men speaking directly outside. She paused, trying to peek around the ajar door without drawing attention to herself. 

“I’d say it was very much worth attending tonight, seeing the guests,” one of the voices said. Whoever he was, his voice was not familiar to Estelle. A throaty laugh issued from another unseen participant.

“The trick is to meet the freshly out women before they have had a chance to be tired out by the Season. Make a lasting and grand impression, and do so with alacrity,” the other man said. 

“Has the dancing begun?” the first man asked. “I wish to secure my turn with the remarkable Barenshire’s daughter.”

Estelle’s heart lurched. They were talking about her father. 

“Lady Camille, is it?” 

She jerked back from the door as if she had been struck. Embarrassed, feeling as if she was being watched, she wondered why she had allowed that moment of fancy, of allowing herself to think that they might have been talking about her. 

When the Duke of Barenshire’s daughter was brought up, there were two people whom that title could describe. Herself, or, of course, Camille. When the daughter was described as bookish, quiet, or shy it referred to her. When the daughter was described by her great beauty and charm, it was Camille they were talking about. 

Estelle hung back from the door until the sound of the men speaking disappeared completely, telling her she was alone again. Checking the hall outside the room was empty, she scuttled out and made her way to the ballroom, her chest still burning. She was used to being unfavorably compared to her sister, but she was not prepared for how much more keenly she would feel her shortcomings now they were both out in Society. How she wished she was allowed another year before her debut, so that the comparisons to Camille might be avoided. 

No matter, she told herself, approaching the ballroom. It had been her lot all their lives; she was used to the position if not comfortable with it. 

Her footsteps were heavy as she entered the ballroom, her entrance going mostly unnoticed as the ton was busy socializing. She searched for her family, seeing them engaged in conversation with a finely dressed man and woman. She frowned at the thought of joining them. She imagined appearing at their sides and them not taking any notice until the people they were talking to left. Pursing her lips, she searched for better allies.

Her friends Daisy and Lily soon came into view, standing a few yards from Daisy’s brother, Lord Ashton.

“Pray, where have you been?” Daisy asked as she approached. 

“My ship was wrecked on the way back from Jamaica, but alas, I have made it back in one piece,” she said. Only Lily was charmed by her sarcasm. Being the same age and friends since childhood, the pair were as close to her as sisters.

“I informed you she had merely strayed. She desires to do so, and she always comes back,” Lily said to their friend. 

“Had the two of you put a wager on where I was?” Estelle asked. Daisy said no.

“It was only unexpected that you would not exhibit more enthusiasm, as it is your first Season,” she said. Estelle felt some indignance at the notion it should excite her. It was a special occasion, arguably one she had been preparing for all her life. Both Daisy and Lily had come out the year previous and had peppered her with stories of their experiences. 

“Both of you are back for your second Season unmarried, so I shall have another chance to enjoy as much socialization as I can handle next year,” she said. Daisy glared at her, while Lily laughed. Daisy had ended her first Season with three proposals, but her brother had turned all of them down resolutely. None of the men, two barons and one wealthy merchant, were good enough for his sister in his estimation, much to her chagrin. He was more protective over her than most fathers were over their daughters. She was under her brother’s guardianship, since their mother had died, and their father had taken up permanent residence in the countryside. 

Lily’s father was a wealthy marquess, and she had also come away with two proposals at the end of her first Season. What she had experienced afterwards was a reversal of fortune, where men she had seen previously presenting themselves as accomplished and intelligent turned out to be cleverly disguised fools. 

“I would say that out of the three of us, you have the highest requirements for marriage,” Lily said to Estelle. “Newly out on the marriage mart, and already her requirements exclude half the eligible men of the ton.”

Estelle made a face. She did not think her requirements for a partner were high. She told the woman exactly that.

“Is it too much to ask for amity and affection from a spouse?” she asked.

I would not think so, and neither would Lily, but many matrimonies have been established on far fewer grounds,” Daisy said.

“And, of course, the lower the standards, the faster one is able to make a match.” Lily’s words were said lightly but felt heavy with darkness. Estelle tried to disregard the fact that if her standards proved to be obstructive, the forbearance her parents would have for her making her choice would eventually run out. 

She hoped for their understanding though, seeing the nature of their own marriage. She saw in them two people who were, first and foremost, friends. They enjoyed each other’s company, talked frequently, and for all the years she had been alive, had the tradition of going on evening walks if both were available. Why should a loving marriage be thought an excessive demand if marriage was to be withstood for the rest of one’s life?

“Very well, then my sister must quickly make a match so that I might swiftly follow suit,” she said. She cast a glance around the ballroom to see if she could spot Camille. Her golden hair was hard to miss. It seemed she had a halo of light about her wherever she went. Estelle felt dowdy in comparison, even though she did not think herself plain. 

“Between the three of us, you will be leg-shackled first,” Lily said to Estelle.

“My sister is very much hungry for the highest title available, so very few men pass muster. At her discretion, I might be on the marriage mart for the next five years,” Estelle said. “You, Lily will be married first,”.

Lily looked at her with surprise.

“Have you recently taken to gambling? What will you put on that wager?” she asked jokingly.

Estelle laughed but said nothing. She did not mean anything by her joke but having lived so many years in the shadow of her sister, she would not be surprised if she continued to play understudy to her friends as well, although no such hierarchies existed between them, which was a great relief to her. Glancing back at her sister socializing with her parents and other guests, she had the distinct feeling that by the end of the Season, Camille would be drowning in proposals, but she would be lucky if she received even one.


Chapter One

Present Day


“An earl?”

The word was repeated around the table, echoed with awe and disbelief by all present. Estelle tried to restrain herself but could not stop the deep sigh that huffed from her chest on hearing her sister’s comment. It was one she had heard many times before, so it did not shock her. Because she had heard it so many times, it had begun to bore her.

“Indeed,” Camille said primly. She looked around the table at the other guests. “I say, ladies, have I misspoken? You all look quite shocked.” Around the table was a gathering of Estelle’s mother’s friends. Estelle, Camille, and their friends Lily and Daisy were all there too. Lily’s mother, Lady Josephine Spender, sat next to Estelle’s mother with her other friend, Lady Southesby, who was in attendance as well. On the garden terrace, the women enjoyed the fair early spring weather over steaming cups of tea.

Camille, though neither the hostess nor seated at the head of the table, had a talent for drawing attention to herself. Estelle kept her lips pressed tight together, withering under what was to come. She’d had to brace herself similarly many times before. In a matter of moments, the entire party would be plunged into deep conversation and discussion about Camille. Camille’s demands. Camille’s prospects. How beautiful Camille was. How fair. How desirable. How perfect.

Her sister pulled and drew the attention of all in her vicinity with not so much as a flutter of her eyelashes. Estelle looked down, another sigh heaving from her.

“It is not that you misspeak, Camille, it is simply that we are astounded,” their mother’s friend Lady Southesby said.

Camille giggled indulgently and lifted her teacup to her lips.

“Is matrimony to be embarked upon so carelessly? Is it not judicious to desire the most advantageous match?”

“Yes, darling, but there are many fine gentlemen who are lower titled than an earl. In truth, there are many estimable gentlemen without any society’s distinction,” Lily’s mother announced. 

Camille wrinkled her nose at the notion. 

Everybody else saw the quaint, small motion she made with her face, but Estelle, after knowing her sister for nineteen years, recognized the current of consternation behind her sister’s look. She saw the flutter of disgust in her eyes, and the incredulity that anyone would propose that her wish was out of reach for her.

“Indeed, that might be the case.” She put her cup down without drinking from it. “And that means there are plenty of men for other young ladies to choose from, whilst I pursue marriage with an earl.” The group around the table laughed. Estelle knew that meant two things. First, as usual, they were utterly charmed by Camille’s wit. It was not particularly sharp, but combined with her unbearably pretty face and mannerisms, it was irresistible. Second, they agreed with her. Camille Barnes was exceedingly lovely and was perfectly capable of securing a match with an earl, or better. It was, indeed, what she deserved.

Estelle settled back in her seat, back into the familiar shadows she was used to. When Camille was around, everything centered on her. After so many years she was used to it. Camille was bewitching. She had received more than her fair share of beauty. Indeed, perhaps some of the beauty meant for Estelle had ended up going to her instead.

A year older that Estelle, Camille had inherited bright blonde hair from their father’s side of the family, and her bright blue eyes sat like jewels in her milky complexion. Her fine features, nose, mouth, and the line of her jaw seemed to have been put together by a painter or some other expert in proportion. Though they had been brought up together, and barely thirteen months separated them in age, where Camille was exceedingly pretty, Estelle was comparatively plain. She was not unattractive, however; the beautiful countryside always looks better under a bright cast of sunshine than on a cloudy day. Estelle, for all her charms, was the cloudy day to Camille’s bright sunshine.

She was not homely, but next to every woman, Camille simply shone more brightly. Estelle’s hair was brown, the color of turned earth, but shone with health. Her complexion was darker than her sister’s but clear. When her face was not buried in a book, her blue-green eyes were deep and enchanting. Her books entranced her far more than any socializing did, so there were few opportunities for others to appreciate them. 

“Then you will be pleased to hear that a certain earl will be making an appearance this Season,” Lady Southesby said. Estelle’s mother waved a hand in the air.

“There are always earls in attendance, my lady,” she said loftily. Lady Southesby, knowingly in possession of a particularly pertinent piece of gossip leaned forward as if she was about to reveal a great secret.

“Well,” she said haughtily, “the Earl of Gilenwood is supposed to be in London this Season.”

Gilenwood? Is he?” Estelle’s mother asked. There was a flutter of excitement about the table. Estelle was sure she had never heard the name in her life. 

“Gilenwood?” she asked under her breath to Daisy at her side. “Who on earth is that?”

“The Earl of Gilenwood?” Daisy said, eyes wide with disbelief. Estelle felt quite stupid at her lack of knowledge. Her friend sighed.

“Oh, of course. I almost forgot who I’m talking to. The earl is an exceptionally eligible bachelor,” Daisy explained. Estelle blinked, her search for clarity still not met.

“Aren’t they all bachelors? Married men aren’t typically on the hunt for a wife,” she said lightly. Daisy simply pursed her lips at her friend’s attempt at a joke.

That particular bachelor’s father died several years ago, and he became exceptionally wealthy through his inheritance. However, since then, he hasn’t been seen in London for years.” Lily on her other side nodded emphatically.

“I heard he lived abroad. India, and then Jamaica.” The passing thought that living in India or Jamaica might be quite exciting crossed Estelle’s mind, but she kept those thoughts to herself.

“If he lived there, why would he return to London now? Is this Season any more exceptional than any that has passed?”

“That means, my dear,” Lady Southesby said, overhearing their conversation, “that he is in want of a wife.”

“It may be necessary for her to prepare herself to reside overseas after the marriage,” Estelle said, thinking aloud.

“It is not uncommon for young men to pursue their exploits overseas before resuming their lives and responsibilities when the appropriate time arrives,” Estelle’s mother said.

“Does he possess a pleasing countenance?” Lily asked. For everything she and the other women had heard about the earl, he was so rarely seen, that many facts about him were shrouded in mystery.

“Surely, a fortune large enough can forgive other shortcomings,” Camille said.

“The last time I saw him, he appeared quite well,” their mother announced.

“Other shortcomings? And what might those be?” Daisy asked Camille. Camille shrugged her slim shoulders.

“If it is my fate to become the future countess, I will not begrudge the earl a swollen belly or bulging eyes,” Camille said, delicately picking at the hair that draped across her brow framing her face. The women laughed.

“Will any man do Camille, as long as he is an earl or better?” Daisy asked. Camille shrugged again with a small smile on her face.

“In a grand abode, surrounded by magnificent furnishings, lovely attire, and ornamentation, will the visage of my spouse still be my paramount worry?”

Camille’s observation made the others laugh, but Estelle shuddered quietly. She loved her sister, but in moments like these, the differences between them seemed particularly stark. Camille was very much driven by wealth and titles. They had both debuted the year before, and Camille had been replete with proposals, all of which she had turned down because none of the men had ranked highly enough for her. The suggestion that a man’s slack belly or unattractive face could be eclipsed if his fortune was vast enough seemed funny on the face of it, but Camille was very serious.

Estelle bit her lip. She had different ideas about what made a good husband. She had also received proposals, but only two, and they had been from men who had expressed their interest in her once Camille had rebuffed them. It had smarted at the time. As much as she did not want to admit it, she did have her pride. That aside, however, if a man’s only interest in her came when his initial choice did not want him, he was no choice at all.

More than his title or his wealth, though both were admittedly nice, Estelle wanted a man who would engage her. She wanted a friend with whom she could speak freely and deeply. She desired a deep affection, and even though she had not experienced such as yet, she knew it was only because she had not come across it yet. It was going to be her second Season, not yet time to begin to worry about failing to find a match, but nevertheless, hearing the talk of marriage and titles disturbed her peace.

The Season was upon them again. The weather, fair enough for their current gathering on the garden terrace, should have lightened her spirit, but the prospect of endless socialization and the possibility of more painful interactions put a cloud over her heart. She did not socialize and move through Society as easily as Camille. She thought the entire ordeal quite tiresome.

Privately, she thought about the man who might become her husband one day. She didn’t have any notion of what he should look like, how much money he should have, or what lands he presided over. She hoped, however, that he would like books. A man of great knowledge was one she imagined she might be able to love. Otherwise, what was she to talk about with her husband? 

“Permit me to inform you,” Lily’s mother announced, “that the Earl of Gilenwood is quite handsome. Pray, have no fear of his condition.”

The women clamored for details. It seemed Lady Josephine had been in contact with the Earl most recently, albeit cursorily. She was acquainted with the Earl’s widowed mother, the Dowager Countess of Gilenwood. Others had warring theories on the earl’s looks, and by the end of the discussion, had concluded that the man was tall, but not too tall, and had eyes that might have been blue, gray, perhaps green. He had hair that was both blond and auburn, and though he was famously reclusive, had the fine figure of an athlete.

Despite not having enough of an idea what the earl looked like, it was concluded that whatever the configuration of his features, they came together in a handsome aspect.

Estelle found her attention drifting as inquiry was made into the earl’s background. It was well known that his father had died, owing to the famous inheritance. While the dowager countess was sometimes seen in Society, her son was far more reclusive. She did not say it, but she imagined it might be quite a bother, having people clamber over you when you made an appearance when, clearly, you would rather remain secluded.

Estelle found herself empathizing with the mysterious earl. He probably had the luxury of spending his time exactly as he wanted, whilst in London, the ton was baying for his blood. Well, nothing quite so macabre, but if she and the earl were ever to share their feelings about mixing with Society, it seemed likely that both would have preferred to be left in their solitude. 

Her eyes wandered from the table in front of her, replete with teacups, fine porcelain crockery, and various cakes and other sweets, to the garden. On the terrace, they were shielded from the sun’s warmth. She thought the garden looked quite sumptuous, with the green of the lawns and the foliage bathed in sunlight. It would be quite pleasant to take a walk in the early spring warmth. On a day like this, though, she would not be able to have one of her walks, for it was unlikely she would be able to convince her friends to accompany her once more to the Egyptian Hall. Having been once was enough for them both, but each time Estelle visited, she felt as if she came away with even more knowledge than before.

How sad that the brightening of the weather came with a darkening of her mood. Having only weathered one Season, she felt one was quite enough. It seemed she was only to expect the continued humiliation of being Camille’s shadow. The second choice. The one for whom a gentleman settled because the fair Camille had her sights set higher.

She brought her teacup to her lips, drawing in the last of the cooling dark liquid. The Season could not last forever. As much as they had been under dark skies and rain just months ago, the forthcoming Season Two would come to an end with the darkening of autumn. Unlike the rest of the party gathered around the table, Estelle could not wait for the Season to be over.


Chapter Two

The sound of the horse’s hooves thundering against the ground was music to Harry’s ears. He held the reins loose in his hands, allowing the animal to speed towards the stables. He felt the warm sunshine on the back of his neck, and the breeze fast and cool on his face. Coming up to the stables, the animal came to a natural halt. Harry pulled the reins, and then dismounted, handing them to the ostler. Standing on solid ground, walking on his own feet, the exhilaration of the ride still pumped through his body.

Fairwoode might be the best place on earth, he reckoned. He had done some traveling, but he wasn’t interested in seeing too much of the world, when his idea of paradise was his own home. Fairwoode was outside of London, close enough that he wouldn’t have to inconvenience himself too much to make it into the city, yet far enough that none of its drab grayness was anywhere in sight.

It was the place where Harry was lucky enough to have lived all his life. That meant there were good and bad memories that came to mind when he thought of Fairwoode, but the good far outweighed the bad.

Walking to the house, memories of playing riotous games in the garden with his brother came to mind. The pair of them as youngsters had been as thick as thieves, though in adulthood they’d drifted apart significantly. If Howard wanted to pay him a visit, he was more than welcome. It seemed that since their father had passed, Howard had decided to mourn alone. 

It had been six months since the Earl of Gilenwood had died and the title had passed to Howard. Harry hadn’t been sure what his brother would do when it happened. Obviously, he’d thought Howard would stay put at Fairwoode and oversee his new duties. Instead, Howard had set sail, and the last Harry had heard, his brother might have been somewhere in France.

Granted, when his father had taken ill, Harry had overseen Fairwoode. That had happened three years ago. Imagining Fairwoode well taken care of, perhaps Howard had thought he was at liberty to take his leave.

Harry let himself into the house. It did not pain him terribly to oversee Fairwoode. It was a task he was used to, he was good at, and he enjoyed. He far preferred Fairwoode to anywhere else. However, it was impossible not to feel the heavy tension that had settled in the brother’s relationship over the past three years.

Harry quickly washed up and changed out of his riding clothes. Having spent the early morning riding, he was ready to tackle his work. Making his way into his study, he was so distracted by his daily routine, he did not at first notice the man seated on the sofa next to the bookshelf until he rose and called Harry’s name.

“I say, is this the welcome I receive when I return home after a prolonged departure?”

Harry startled, looking up quickly from his desk. Rising from the sofa with a small, smug smile on his lips was his brother, Howard, the Earl of Gilenwood. Harry quickly composed himself, remaining on his feet instead of sitting.

“Howard? Is that you? After all this time, I cannot be convinced of what my eyes tell me,” he said, maintaining a sober, even tone. Howard strode up to his desk. Was it still his desk now Howard was back? Howard had inherited their father’s title, being the older of the two brothers. Well, older in that he had arrived first. They were twins. Born one after the other, they appeared identical in all the ways noticeable to other people. Howard reckoned he was a little bit taller, but from their sandy-blond hair and gray eyes, to their strong, athletic physiques, they were the same.

Howard was the earl, but Harry had overseen Fairwoode for the past three years now. It felt as good as his. The desk too was his, no matter that Howard had returned, he decided.

“I have to say, I was expecting a warmer welcome than this,” Howard said. His eyes darted about the room as if checking to see what Harry had changed since he had been gone. Harry’s expression soured briefly. Why was it any of his brother’s concern? He had not remained to see to the everyday goings-on of the place, so was it Harry’s task to take into account Howard’s preferences in the furnishings? In fact, the study was very much unchanged since their father’s death. If anything, the number of books on the shelves had increased, owing to Harry’s compulsion to read.

“My good fellow, after such a long absence, how am I to know you have not found yourself here simply because you are lost?” Harry said. Howard chuckled indulgently.

“Is my presence such an imposition?” he asked.

“Never, Brother. You must forgive me for maintaining my suspicion, however. I feel your presence precedes a request,” he said. Howard grunted and clapped his hands slowly.

“An astute observation. It appears you truly are the more intelligent of the pair of us,” Howard mused. He picked up a letter from the desk and turned the envelope over in his hands a couple of times. Harry began to grow anxious. He was right. The man was there on a mission. He had a request to make. However, rather than coming out with it at once, he was dawdling, looking at letters not addressed to him. Harry cleared his throat.

“Well, then, out with it,” Harry said. Howard glanced up at him. Taking his time, he once more drew his eyes across the room, from the desk, the bookshelves, the seating, and the fireplace.

“Am I disturbing you, Harry? Is there a pressing matter that demands your attention?” he asked. Harry chafed under his brother’s tone. The brothers were not particularly close, having lived separately for many years now. Still, their relationship was not hostile. That was Harry’s opinion. Maybe things had changed without his notice.

“While I have no notion of why you have come to Fairwoode, I do have affairs that require my attention. If there is nothing I may be of assistance with, then I shall be grateful for being permitted to attend to my pursuits,” he said succinctly. 

Howard’s eyebrows went up. Had that been such a surprise, Harry wondered. Was Howard shocked at the transformation that had happened in his younger brother? Being his brother’s junior, he was frequently forced to humor him. It had been the case when they were children, busy at their games, and then, when they were older, and when Howard had received their father’s title. Despite being the earl, he had not performed any of the duties expected of that role.

“Very well,” Howard said, removing all levity from his voice. “The London Season is near at hand. I am obligated to be present, yet I am unable to attend. Thus, you must represent me in my stead.”

Harry barked a short, derisive laugh.

“Is that your entreaty? In that case, my answer is in the negative,” he said.

“This is no entreaty, Brother.” Howard leaned his weight on the desk. “I have been in France over the past few years, and an important business opportunity has arisen.”

“Howard, tell me what on earth your business in France has to do with me?” Harry asked, his patience beginning to run thin. Howard put the envelope down. 

“I have been in France since.” He paused and pursed his lips. The emotion seemed to overwhelm him. He had been in France . . . since their father had died. 

“If France is to be your fate, why have you returned?” Harry asked hastily, sparing Howard from going into details about their father’s passing. A frisson of frustration rushed through him. Wasn’t Howard being too frivolous with his emotion? It was Harry who had been with their father during his last moments. During the final six months of his life, Harry and the Old Man had managed to become very close. Though they had spent much time butting heads in the past, it seemed that with his father so close to death, their differences had faded into the background, and they became close friends. 

Harry had been allowed to experience his father in a way he never imagined he would. As a peer. As a fellow man, with his own fears beyond his place as a father. Howard had fled to France by that point. Harry chose to hold back his protestations, however, not willing to engage his brother in a fight. Not when he was taking so long to come out with his request. Howard took a moment to compose himself.

“The proposal came as a surprise. I had previously given my word to make an appearance during the Season this year. A number of individuals are counting on my attendance,” he said. Harry fought the urge to sigh and throw himself about like a petulant child. All this time speaking, and his brother still had not come to the crux of the matter.

“Well, you wrote the first round of letters. Write another one,” Harry said. In his mind, it made perfect sense. If anything, Howard’s presence during the Season was not owed to anybody. Neither brother had made it a habit to mix frequently with Society. If anything, their presence would be surprising and their absence more routine.

“I have already given my response to a multitude of solicitations. I must honour them.”

“Then do it. What stops you besides this fabled engagement in France?” Harry asked, his anger now getting the best of him.

“I cannot predict the duration of my absence with certainty. You need to go in my stead.”

“If it was you who replied to the invitations, it is you they will expect,” Harry said. Howard’s fists clenched.

“I request so little of you, will not desist from this on my account?” Howard said. Harry grunted in disbelief. Little? Was it? When Howard had disappeared after their father’s funeral and Harry was left alone on the estate, had that been little? In fact, he was being far too generous with his brother. He had been the earl in nothing but title for years now. When their father had fallen ill, the responsibility of Fairwoode had come to Harry, Howard shirking it completely. Perhaps the person who had stewarded Fairwoode should appear as the earl, but Harry could not bear it. He hated the entitlement his brother exhibited. He simply could not stand it that Howard clearly felt so comfortable in taking such liberties.

“My reply is in the negative. You do not ask for little, Brother. You make a request of excessive proportions. Are you cognizant of the petition you make of me? Deception. A complete sham. A charade that affronts me and all society..”

Howard was shaking his head.

“Do you think it does not embarrass me to make this request? I am desperate, Harry. That is the only reason why I’m willing to disgrace myself in this way.” He sucked air in through his mouth sharply. Looking back up at his brother, his eyes were almost mournful. “Harry, we are identical in every way. Nobody will be aware of the switch.”

Harry laughed then. It was ridiculous. It was nothing but a joke, surely? How could it be serious? On top of it, Howard was knowingly, or unknowingly, pushing his brother into his most reviled activity. Socializing with the ton. He had only spent one Season in London—it was the year when his father had offered him and Howard a chance to go on the Grand Tour, but he had chosen to stay at Fairwoode. 

He’d had his reasons, in the form of a beautiful young farmer’s daughter named Grace. He’d had it in his mind to court her, but when his father had found out, he’d sent him off to London for the Season. He had hated every second of it and returned to Fairwoode . . . to find Grace already wed. Every association he’d ever had with the Season angered him.

“If this is your only intention in coming to Fairwoode, I suggest you take your leave immediately,” Harry said. He looked around his study, utterly befuddled as to why Howard was there. His ire was too high to focus on anything else. His brother merely standing in the room annoyed him. Any more from Howard, and he wasn’t sure what he would do.

“Shall I implore you, Brother? Is that your desire?” Howard asked, his lip curling with anger. Harry knew that trick. He would not be drawn into a fight. It was Howard’s way to use any weapon in his arsenal, guilt, threats, even violence, to compel him, and he would not be moved. Turning away from the man who shared his face, he walked out, ignoring Howard’s shouts of protest.

I hope you enjoyed the preview of my new novel “A Lady’s Most Unexpected Match”. Get it now on Amazon!

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Brenda Maynard

    The beginning of a very interesting story.

  2. April K

    Can’t wait to read this!

  3. Ruth

    OOOOOOOOOOOO, what comes next????? I’ll be ready to read the answers to that !!

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