Avon Books by Julia Quinn Brighter Than the Sun Dancing at Midnight The Duke and I Everything and the Moon How to Marry a Marquis Minx An Offer From a Gentleman Romancing Mr. Bridgerton Splendid To Catch an Heiress The Viscount Who Loved Me Coming Soon The Further Observations Of Lady Whistledown (with Suzanne Enoch, Karen Hawkins and Mia Ryan) Brighter Than The Sun Julia Quinn For Auntie Susan— Thank you. —Miss Julie And for Paul, even though he just doesn’t understand why I can’t end all of my titles with exclamation points. Chapter 1 Kent, England October 1817 Eleanor Lyndon was minding her own business when Charles Wycombe, Earl of Billington, fell— quite literally—into her life. She was walking along, whistling a happy tune and keeping her mind busy by trying to estimate the yearly profit of the East & West Sugar Company (of which she owned several shares) when to her great surprise, a man came crashing down from the sky and landed at, or to be more precise—on her feet. Further inspection revealed that the man in question had fallen not from the sky but from a large oak tree. Ellie, whose life had grown decidedly dull in the last year or so, would have almost preferred that he had fallen from the sky. It certainly would have been more exciting than from a mere tree. She pulled her left foot out from underneath the man‟s shoulder, hiked her skirts above her ankles to save them from the dirt, and crouched down. “Sir?” she inquired. “Are you all right?” All he said was, “Ow.” “Oh, dear,” she murmured. “You haven‟t broken any bones, have you?” He didn‟t say anything, just let out a long breath. Ellie lurched back when the fumes hit her. “Sweet heavens,” she muttered, “You smell as if you‟ve imbibed a winery.” “Whishkey,” he slurred in response. “A gennleman drinks whishkey.” “Not this much whiskey,” she retorted. “Only a drunk drinks this much of anything.” He sat up—clearly with difficulty, and shook his head as if to clear it. “Exactly it,” he said, waving his hand through the air, then wincing when the action made him dizzy. “I‟m a bit drunk, I‟m afraid.” Ellie decided to refrain from further comment on that topic. “Are you certain you‟re not injured?” He scratched his reddish-brown hair and blinked. “My head pounds like the devil.” “I suspect that isn‟t only from the fall.” He tried to get up, weaved, and sat back down. “You‟re a sharp-tongued lass.” “Yes, I know,” she said with a wry smile. “It‟s why I‟m a long-toothed spinster. Now then, I can‟t very well see to your injuries if I don‟t know what they are.” “Efficient, too,” he murmured. “An‟ why are you so certain I‟ve got an injurty, er, injury?” Ellie looked up into the tree. The nearest branch which would have supported his weight was a good fifteen feet up. “I don‟t see how you could have fallen so far and not been injured.” He waved her comments aside and tried to rise again. “Yes, well, we Wycombes are a hardy lot. It‟d take more than a—Sweet merciful Christ!” He howled. Ellie tried her best not to sound smug when she said, “An ache? A pain? A sprain, perhaps.” His brown eyes narrowed as he clutched the trunk of the tree for support. “You are a hard, cruel woman, Miss whatever-your-name-is, to take such pleasure in my agony.”
Ellie coughed to cover a giggle. “Mr. Whosis, I must protest and point out that I tried to tend to your injuries, but you insisted you didn‟t have any.” He scowled in a very boyish sort of way and sat back down. “That‟s Lord Whosis,” he muttered. “Very well, my lord,” she said, hoping that she hadn‟t irritated him overmuch. A peer of the realm held much more power than a vicar‟s daughter, and he could make her life miserable if he chose. She gave up all hope of keeping her dress clean and sat down in the dirt. “Which ankle pains you, my lord?” He pointed to his right ankle, and then grimaced when she lifted it in her hands. After a moment‟s examination, she looked up and said in her most polite voice, “I am going to have to remove your boot, my lord. Would that be permissible?” “I liked you better when you were spitting fire,” he muttered. Ellie liked herself better that way, too. She smiled. “Have you a knife?” He snorted. “If you think I‟m going to put a weapon in your hands ...” “Very well. I suppose I could just pull the boot off.” She cocked her head and pretended to ponder the matter. “It might hurt just a bit when it gets stuck on your hideously swollen ankle, but as you pointed out, you come from hardy stock, and a man should be able to take a little pain.” “What the devil are you talking about?” Ellie started to pull at his boot. Not hard—she could never be that cruel. Tugging just enough to demonstrate that the boot wasn‟t coming off his foot through ordinary means, she held her breath. He yelled, and Ellie wished she hadn‟t tried to teach him a lesson, because she ended up with a face full of whiskey fumes. “How much did you drink?” she demanded, gasping for air. “Not nearly enough,” he groaned. “They haven‟t invented a drink strong enough—” “Oh, come now,” Ellie snapped. “I‟m not that bad.” To her surprise, he laughed. “Sweetheart,” he said in a tone that told her clear as day that his usual occupation was rake, “you‟re the least bad thing that has happened to me in months.” Ellie felt an odd sort of tingling on the back of her neck at his clumsy compliment. Thankful that her large bonnet hid her blush, she focused her attention back on his ankle. “Have you changed your mind about my cutting your boot?” His answer was the knife he placed in her palm. “I always knew there was some reason I carried one of these things around. I just never knew what it was until today.” The knife was a bit dull, and soon Ellie was gritting her teeth as she sawed through his boot. She looked up from her task for a moment. “Just let me know if I—” “Ow!” “—poke you,” she finished. “I‟m dreadfully sorry.” “It is astonishing,” he said, his voice liberally laced with irony, “how much sorrow I hear in your voice.” Ellie caught another giggle in her throat. “Oh, for the love of God,” he muttered. “Just laugh. Lord knows my life is laughable.” Ellie, whose own life had descended into the miserable ever since her widower father had announced his intention to marry the village of Bellfield‟s biggest busybody, felt a pang of empathy. She didn‟t know what could have prompted this remarkably handsome and well-heeled lord to go out and get himself blindingly drunk, but whatever it was, she felt for him. She stopped her work on his boot for a moment, leveled her dark blue eyes at his face, and said, “My name is Miss Eleanor Lyndon.” His eyes warmed. “Thank you for sharing that pertinent piece of information, Miss Lyndon. It isn‟t every day I allow a strange woman to saw off my boots.” “It isn‟t every day I nearly get knocked to the ground by men falling from trees. Strange men,” she added for emphasis. “Ah yes, I should introduce myself, I s‟pose.” He cocked his head in a manner that reminded Ellie that he was still more than a touch inebriated. “Charles Wycombe at your service, Miss Lyndon. Earl of Billington.” Then he muttered, “Much as that‟s worth.” Ellie stared at him unblinkingly. Billington? He was one of the county‟s most eligible bachelors. So eligible that even she‟d heard of him, and she wasn‟t on anybody‟s list of eligible young ladies. Rumor had it that he was the worst sort of rake. Ellie had heard him whispered about at village gatherings, although as an unmarried lady she‟d never been privy to the juiciest gossip. She tended to think that his reputation must be very black if he did things that couldn‟t even be mentioned in her presence. Ellie had also heard that he was fantastically wealthy, even more so than her sister Victoria‟s new husband, who was Earl of Macclesfield. Ellie couldn‟t personally vouch for that, as she hadn‟t seen his personal finance ledgers, and she made it a point never to speculate on financial matters without hard evidence. But she did know that the Billington estate was vast and ancient. And it was a good twenty miles away. “What are you doing here in Bellfield?” she blurted out. “Just visiting my old childhood haunts.” Ellie motioned toward the branches above them with her head. “Your favorite tree?” “Used to climb it all the time with Macclesfield.” Ellie finished her work on the boot and put the knife down. “Robert?” she asked. Charles looked suspicious and a bit protective. “You‟re on a first-name basis with him? He‟s recently married.” “Yes. To my sister.” “The world grows smaller by the second,” he murmured. “I‟m honored to make your acquaintance.” “You might rethink that sentiment in a moment,” Ellie remarked. With a gentle touch, she slid his swollen foot from his boot. Charles looked down at his mangled boot with a pained expression. “I suppose my ankle is more important,” he said wistfully, but he didn‟t sound as if he meant it. Ellie expertly prodded his ankle. “I don‟t think you‟ve broken any bones, but you‟ve a nasty sprain.” “You sound experienced at this sort of thing.” “I come to the rescue of any wounded animal,” she said, arching her brows. “Dogs, cats, birds—” “Men,” he finished for her. “No,” she said pertly. “You‟re the first. But I cannot imagine that you‟d be that much different from a dog.” “Your fangs are showing, Miss Lyndon.” “Are they?” she asked, reaching up to touch her face. “I shall have to remember to retract them.” Charles burst out laughing. “You, Miss Lyndon, are a treasure.” “That‟s what I keep telling everyone,” she said with a shrug and a wicked smile, “but no one seems to believe me. Now then, I fear you will require a cane for several days. Possibly a week. Have you one at your disposal?” “Right now?” “I meant at home, but....” Ellie‟s words trailed off as she looked around her. She spied a long stick several yards away and scrambled to her feet. “This should do,” she said, picking it up and handing it to him. “Do you need assistance getting to your feet?” He grinned wolfishly as he swayed toward her. “Any excuse to be in your arms, my dear Miss Lyndon.” Ellie knew she should be affronted, but he was trying so hard to be charming, and devil take it, he was succeeding. Handily. She supposed that was why he was such a successful rake. She stepped around to his back and put her hands under his arms. “I warn you, I‟m not very gentle.”
“Now why doesn‟t that surprise me?” “On the count of three, then. Are you ready?” “That depends, I suppose, on—” “One, two ... three!” With a grunt and a heave, Ellie pulled the earl to his feet. It wasn‟t an easy task. He outweighed her by a good four stone and was drunk, to boot. His knees buckled, and Ellie only just managed to keep herself from cursing as she planted her feet and braced them. Then he started to topple over in the other direction, and she had to scoot to his front to keep him from falling. “Now that feels nice,” he murmured as his chest pressed up against hers. “Lord Billington, I must insist that you use your cane.” “On you?” He sounded intrigued by the notion. “To walk!” she fairly yelled. He flinched at the noise, then shook his head. “It‟s the oddest thing,” he murmured, “but I have the most appalling urge to kiss you.” For once, Ellie was speechless. He chewed thoughtfully on his lower lip. “I think I just might do it.” That was enough to spur her into motion, and she jumped to the side, sending him sprawling to the ground once again. “Good God, woman!” he yelled. “What did you do that for?” “You were going to kiss me.” He rubbed his head, which had hit the tree trunk. “The prospect was that terrifying?” Ellie blinked. “Not terrifying, exactly.” “Please don‟t say repulsive,” he grumbled. “I really couldn‟t bear it.” She exhaled and held out a conciliatory hand. “I‟m terribly sorry for dropping you, my lord.” “Once again, your face is a picture of sorrow.” Ellie fought the urge to stamp her foot. “I meant it this time. Do you accept my apology?” “It appears,” he said, raising his eyebrows, “that you might do me bodily harm if I do not.” “Ungracious prig,” she muttered. “I am trying to apologize.” “And I,” he said, “am trying to accept.” He reached out and took her gloved hand. She pulled him to his feet again, stepping out of his reach once he had steadied himself on his makeshift cane. “I will escort you to Bellfield,” Ellie said. “It isn‟t terribly far. Will you be able to get home from there?” “I left my curricle at the Bee and Thistle,” he replied. She cleared her throat. “I would appreciate it if you would behave with gentility and discretion. I may be a spinster, but I do have a reputation to protect.” He sent a sideways glance in her direction. “I am considered something of a blackguard, I‟m afraid.” “I know.” “Your reputation was probably shredded the moment I landed on top of you.” “For heavens‟ sake, you fell out of a tree!” “Yes, of course, but you did put your bare hands on my bare ankle.” “It was for the noblest of reasons.” “Frankly, I thought kissing you seemed rather noble, but you appeared to disagree.” Her mouth settled into a grim line. “That is exactly the sort of flippant remark I am talking about. I know that I shouldn‟t, but I do care what people think of me, and I have to live here for the rest of my life.” “Do you?” he asked. “How sad.” “That isn‟t funny.” “It wasn‟t meant to be.” She sighed impatiently. “Contrive to behave yourself when we reach Bellfield. Please?” He leaned on his stick and swept into a courtly bow. “I try never to disappoint a lady.” “Will you stop!” she said, grabbing him by the elbow and pulling him upright. “You‟re going to knock yourself over.” “Why, Miss Lyndon, I do believe you are beginning to care for me.” Her answer was a marginally ladylike grunt. With fisted hands, she began to march toward town. Charles hobbled behind her, smiling all the way. She was walking much more quickly than he, however, and the space between them grew until he was forced to call out her name. Ellie turned around. Charles offered her what he hoped was an appealing smile. “I cannot keep up with you, I‟m afraid.” He held out his hands in a gesture of supplication and then promptly lost his balance. Ellie rushed forward to straighten him. “You are a walking disaster,” she muttered, keeping her hand on his elbow. “A limping disaster,” he corrected. “And I cannot—” He lifted his free hand to hir mouth to cover an inebriated burp. “I cannot limp quickly.” She sighed. “Here. You can lean on my shoulder. Together we should be able to get you into town.” Charles grinned and slid his arm over her shoulder. She was small, but she was a sturdy little thing, so he decided to test the waters by leaning on her a little more closely. She stiffened, then let out another loud sigh. Slowly they moved toward town. Charles felt himself leaning on her more and more. Whether his incompetence was due to his sprain or his drunkenness he didn‟t know. She felt warm and strong and soft all at once next to him, and he didn‟t much care how he had gotten himself into this fix—he just resolved to enjoy it while it lasted. Each step pressed the side of her breast up against his ribs, and he was finding that to be a most pleasant sensation indeed. “It‟s a beautiful day, don‟t you think?” he inquired, thinking he ought to make conversation. “Yes,” Ellie agreed, stumbling slightly under the weight of him. “But it is growing late. Is there no way you can move a little bit faster?” “Even I,” Charles said with an expansive wave of his hand, “am not such a cad that I would feign lameness merely to enjoy the attentions of a beautiful lady.” “Will you stop waving your arm about! We‟re losing our balance.” Charles wasn‟t sure why, and maybe it was just because he was still decidedly unsober, but he liked the sound of the word we from her lips. There was something about this Miss Lyndon that made him glad she was on his side. Not that he thought she would make a vicious enemy, just that she seemed loyal, levelheaded, and fair. And she had a wicked sense of humor. Just the sort of person a man would want standing beside him when he needed support. He turned his face toward hers. “You smell nice,” he said. “What?” she screeched. And she was fun to torture. Had he remembered to add that to his list of attributes? It was always good to surround oneself with people who could take a bit of teasing. He schooled his face into an innocent mask. “You smell nice,” he said again.
“That is not the sort of thing a gentleman says to a lady,” she said primly. “I‟m drunk,” he said with an unrepentant shrug. “I don‟t know what I‟m saying.” Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. “I have a feeling you know exactly what you‟re saying.” “Why, Miss Lyndon, are you accusing me of trying to seduce you?” He didn‟t think it possible, but she turned an even deeper shade of crimson. He wished he could see the color of her hair under that monstrous bonnet. Her eyebrows were blond, and they stood out comically against her blush. “Stop twisting my words.” “You twist words very nicely yourself, Miss Lyndon.” When she didn‟t say anything, he added, “That was a compliment.” She trudged along the dirt road, pulling him with her. “You baffle me, my lord.” Charles smiled, thinking that it was great fun to baffle Miss Eleanor Lyndon. He fell silent for a few minutes, and then, as they rounded a corner, asked, “Are we almost there yet?” “A little more than halfway, I should think.” Ellie squinted at the horizon, watching the sun sink ever lower. “Oh, dear. It is growing late. Papa will have my head.” “I swear on my father‟s grave—” Charles was trying to sound serious, but he hiccupped. Ellie turned toward him so quickly that her nose bumped into his shoulder. “Whatever are you talking about, my lord?” “I was trying—hic—to swear to you that I am not— hic—deliberately trying to slow you down.” The corners of her lips twitched. “I don‟t know why I believe you,” she said, “but I do.” “It might be because my ankle looks like an overripe pear,” he joked. “No,” she said thoughtfully, “I think you‟re just a nicer person than you‟d like people to believe.” He scoffed. “I am far from—hic—nice.” “I‟ll wager you give your entire staff extra wages at Christmas.” Much to his irritation, he blushed. “A-ha!” she cried out triumphantly. “You do!” “It breeds loyalty,” he mumbled. “It gives them money to buy presents for their families,” she said softly. He grunted and turned his head away from her. “Lovely sunset, don‟t you think, Miss Lyndon?” “A bit clumsy as changes of subject go,” she said with a knowing grin, “but yes, it is quite.” “It‟s rather amazing,” he continued, “how many different colors make up the sunset. I see orange, and pink, and peach. Oh, and a touch of saffron right over there.” He pointed off to the southwest. “And the truly remarkable thing of it is that it will all be different tomorrow.” “Are you an artist?” Ellie asked. “No,” he said. “I just like the sunset.” “Bellfield is just around the corner,” she said. “Is it?” “You sound disappointed.” “Don‟t really want to go home, I suppose,” he replied. He sighed, thinking about what was waiting for him there. A pile of stones that made up Wycombe Abbey. A pile of stones that cost a bloody fortune to keep up. A fortune that would slip through his fingers in less than a month thanks to his meddling father. One would think that George Wycombe‟s hold on the pursestrings would have loosened with death, but no, he still found a way to keep his hands firmly around his son‟s neck from the grave. Charles swore under his breath as he thought about how apt that image was. He certainly felt like he was being strangled. In precisely fifteen days, he would turn thirty. In precisely fifteen days, every last unentailed scrap of his inheritance would be snatched away from him. Unless— Miss Lyndon coughed and rubbed a piece of dust from her eye. Charles looked at her with renewed interest. Unless—he thought slowly, not wanting his still somewhat groggy brain to miss any important details—unless sometime in these next fifteen days, he managed to find himself a wife. Miss Lyndon steered him onto Bellfield‟s High Street and pointed south. “The Bee and Thistle is just over there. I don‟t see your curricle. Is it „round back?” She had a nice voice, Charles thought. She had a nice voice, and a nice brain, and a nice wit, and— although he still didn‟t know what color her hair was—she had a nice set of eyebrows. And she felt damned nice with his weight pressed up against her. He cleared his th. iat. “Miss Lyndon.” “Don‟t tell me you misplaced your carriage.” “Miss Lyndon, I have something of great import to discuss with you.” “Has your ankle worsened? I knew that putting weight on it was a bad idea, but I didn‟t know how else to get you into town. Ice would—” “Miss Lyndon!” he fairly boomed. That got her to close her mouth. “Do you think you might—” Charles coughed, suddenly wishing he were sober, because he had a feeling his vocabulary was larger when he wasn‟t tipsy. “Lord Billington?” she asked with a concerned expression. In the end he just blurted it out. “Do you think you might marry me?” Chapter 2 Ellie dropped him. He landed in a tangle of arms and legs, yelping with pain as his ankle gave way beneath him. “That was a terrible thing to say!” she cried out. Charles scratched his head. “I thought I just asked you to marry me?” Ellie blinked back traitorous tears. “It is a cruel thing about which to jest.” “I wasn‟t jesting.” “Of course you were,” she returned, just barely managing to resist the urge to kick him in the hip. “I have been very kind to you this afternoon.” “Very kind,” he echoed. “I did not have to stop and help you.” “No,” he murmured, “you did not.” “I‟ll have you know that I could be married if I so wished it. I am on the shelf by choice.” “I wouldn‟t have dreamed otherwise.”
Ellie thought she heard mocking in his voice, and this time she did kick him. “Curse it, woman!” Charles exclaimed. “What the devil was that for? I am being utterly serious.” “You‟re drunk.” she accused. “Yes,” he admitted, “but I‟ve never asked a woman to marry me before.” “Oh, please.” she scoffed. “If you are trying to tell me that you fell head over heels blindingly in love with me at first sight, let me tell you that it won‟t wash.” “I am not trying to tell you anything of the sort,” he said. “I would never insult your intelligence in such a fashion.” Ellie blinked, thinking that he might have just insulted some other aspect of her person, but not sure which. “The fact of the matter is—” He stopped and cleared his throat. “Do you think we might continue this conversation elsewhere? Perhaps somewhere where I might sit in a chair rather than in the dirt.” Ellie frowned at him for a moment before grudgingly holding out her hand. She still wasn‟t certain that he wasn‟t making sport of her, but her recent treatment of him had been less than gentle, and her conscience was nagging her. She didn‟t believe in kicking a man when he was down, especially when she was the one who had put him there. He took her hand and eased himself back onto his feet. “Thank you,” he said dryly. “You are clearly a woman of great strength of character. It is why I am considering taking you to wife.” Ellie‟s eyes narrowed. “If you do not cease mocking me....” “I believe I told you I am utterly serious. I never lie.” “Now that is a clanker if ever I heard one.” she retorted. “Well, then, I never lie about anything important.” Her hands found their way to her hips and she let out a loud, “Harumph.” He exhaled in a vaguely annoyed manner. “I assure you I would never lie about something like this. And I must say, you have developed an exceedingly poor opinion of me. Why, I wonder?” “Lord Billington, you are considered the biggest rake in all of Kent! Even my brother-in-law has said so.” “Remind me to throttle Robert the next time I see him,” Charles muttered. “You very well might be the biggest rake in all of England. I wouldn‟t know, since I haven‟t left Kent in years, but—” “They say rakes make the best husbands,” he interrupted. “Reformed rakes,” she said pointedly. “And I sincerely doubt that you have any plans in that direction. Besides, I‟m not going to marry you.” He sighed. “I really wish you would.” Ellie stared at him in disbelief. “You are mad.” “Thoroughly sane, I assure you.” He grimaced. “It is my father who was mad.” Ellie suddenly had a vision of crazy, cackling babies and lurched backward. They said insanity was in the blood. “Oh, for the love of God,” Charles muttered. “Not truly mad. He simply left me in a cursed bind.” “I don‟t see what this has to do with me.” “It has everything to do with you,” he said cryptically. Ellie took another step backward, deciding that Bil-lington was beyond mad—he was ready for Bedlam. “If you‟ll beg my pardon,” she said quickly, “I‟d best be getting home. I‟m sure you‟ll be able to manage from here. Your carriage ... you said it was around back. You should be able to—” “Miss Lyndon,” he said s iarply. She stopped in her tracks. “I must marry,” he said plainly, “and I must do it within the next fifteen days. I have no choice.” “I cannot imagine that you would do anything that did not suit your purposes.” He ignored her. “If I do not marry, I will lose every drop of my inheritance. Every last unentailed farthing.” He laughed bitterly. “I will be left with only Wycombe Abbey, and believe me when I tell you that pile of stones will soon fall into disrepair if I lack the funds to keep it up.” “I have never heard of such a situation,” Ellie said. “It is not wholly uncommon.” “It seems uncommonly stupid, if you ask me.” “On that matter, madam, we are in complete agreement.” Ellie twisted some of the fabric of her brown skirt in her hand as she considered his words. “I don‟t see why you think I should be the one to aid you,” she finally said. “I am certain you could find a suitable wife in London. Don‟t they call it The Marriage Mart?‟ I should think you would be considered quite a catch.” He offered her an ironic smile. “You make me sound like a fish.” Ellie looked up at him and caught her breath. He was devilishly handsome and thoroughly charming, and she knew she was far from immune. “No,” she admitted, “not a fish.” He shrugged. “I have been putting off the inevitable. I know that. But here you are, dropped into my life at my most desperate—” “Excuse me, but I believe you dropped into my life.” He chuckled. “Did I mention that you‟re also vastly entertaining? So I was thinking, „Well, she‟ll do as well as any, and—” “If your aim was to woo me,” Ellie said acidly, “you are not succeeding.” “Better than most,” he corrected. “Really, you‟re the first I‟ve come across I think I could bear.” Not, Charles thought, that he had any plans to devote himself to a spouse. He didn‟t really need anything out of a wife save for her name on a marriage certificate. Still, one had to spend some time with one‟s wife, and she might as well be a decent sort. Miss Lyndon seemed to fit the bill nicely. And, he added silently, he‟d have to get himself an heir eventually. Might as well find someone with a bit of a brain in her head. Wouldn‟t do to have stupid progeny. He eyed her again. She was staring at him suspiciously. Yes, she was a smart one. There was something damned appealing about her. He had a feeling that the process of getting that heir would be just as pleasant as the result. He gave her a jaunty bow, clutching onto her elbow for support. “What do you say, Miss Lyndon? Shall we have a go at it?” “ „Shall we have a go at it?‟ “ Ellie choked out. Really, this was not the proposal of her dreams. “Hmmm, I‟m a bit clumsy at this. The truth is, Miss Lyndon, that if one‟s got to get oneself a wife, she might as well be someone one likes. We‟d have to spend a bit of time together, you know.” She stared at him in disbelief. How drunk was he? She cleared her throat several times, trying to find words. Finally she just blurted out, “Are you trying to say you like me?” He smiled seductively. “Very much.” “I shall have to consider this.” He inclined his head. “I wouldn‟t want to marry anyone who would make such a decision on the spur of the moment.” “I shall probably need a few days.” “Not too many, I hope. I have only fifteen before my odious cousin Phillip gets his paws on my money.” “I must warn you, my answer will almost certainly be no.”
He didn‟t say anything. Ellie had the unpleasant sensation that he was already trying to decide who he would turn to if she refused him. After a moment, he said, “Shall I see you home?” “That won‟t be necessary. I am only a few minutes down the road. You will be able to manage on your own from here?” He nodded. “Miss Lyndon.” She bobbed the tiniest of curtsies. “Lord Billington.” Then she turned and walked away, waiting until she was out of his sight before falling back against the side of a building and mouthing, “Oh my God!” * * * The Reverend Mr. Lyndon did not tolerate his daughters taking the Lord‟s name in vain, but Ellie was sufficiently stunned by Billington‟s proposal that she was still muttering, “Oh my God,” when she walked through the front door of their cottage. “Such language is entirely unbecoming in a young woman, even if she is not so young any longer,” a woman‟s voice said. Ellie groaned. The only person worse than her father when it came to moral standards was his fiancee, the recently widowed Sally Foxglove. Ellie smiled tightly as she tried to make a beeline for her room. “Mrs. Foxglove.” “Your father will be most displeased when he hears of this.” Ellie groaned again. Trapped. She turned around. “Of what, Mrs. Foxglove?” “Of your cavalier treatment of the name of our Lord.” Mrs. Foxglove stood and crossed her plump arms. Ellie had half a mind to remind the older woman that she was not Ellie‟s mother and had no authority over her, but she held her tongue. Life was going to be difficult once her father remarried. There was no need to make it downright impossible by deliberately antagonizing Mrs. Foxglove. Taking a deep breath, Ellie placed her hand over her heart and feigned innocence. “Is that what you thought I was saying?” she said, making her voice deliberately breathless. “What were you saying, then?” “I was saying, „So I thought.‟ I hope you did not misunderstand me.” Mrs. Foxglove stared at her with patent disbelief. “I had misjudged a certain, er, problem,” Ellie continued. “I still cannot believe I did. Hence I was saying, „So I thought,‟ because, you see, I held a certain thought, and if I had not held that thought, I would not have been mistaken in my logic.” Mrs. Foxglove looked so befuddled that Ellie wanted to whoop with delight. “Well, whatever the case,” the older woman said pointedly, “such bizarre behavior will never land you a husband.” “How did we come to be on this topic?” Ellie muttered, thinking that the subject of marriage had come up entirely too often that day. “You are three and twenty,” Mrs. Foxglove continued. “A spinster, to be sure, but we might be able to find a man who would deign to take you.” Ellie ignored her. “Is my father home?” “He is out performing his calls, and asked me to remain here in the event any parishioners decide to visit.” “He left you in charge?” “I will be his wife in two months.” Mrs. Foxglove preened and smoothed down her puce-colored skirts. “I have a position in society I must uphold.” Ellie muttered some unintelligible phrases under her breath. She was afraid that if she actually allowed herself to form words, she‟d do far far worse than taking the Lord‟s name in vain. She exhaled slowly and tried to smile. “If you‟ll excuse me, Mrs. Foxglove, I find I am most weary. I believe I will retire to my room.” A pudgy hand landed on her shoulder. “Not so fast, Eleanor.” Ellie turned around. Was Mrs. Foxglove threatening her? “I beg your pardon.” “We have some matters to discuss. I thought that this evening might be a good time. While your father is gone.” “What could we possibly have to discuss that we could not say in front of Papa?” “This concerns your position in my household.” Ellie‟s mouth fell open. “My position in your household?” “When I marry the good reverend, this will be my home, and I will manage it as I see fit.” Ellie suddenly felt ill. “Do not think that you may live off my bounty,” Mrs. Foxglove continued. Ellie didn‟t move for fear that she‟d strangle her future stepmother. “If you do not marry and leave, you will have to earn your keep,” said Mrs. Foxglove. “Are you insinuating that I must earn my keep in some other way than I am currently earning it?” Ellie thought about all of the chores she performed for her father and his parish. She cooked him three meals a day. She brought food to the poor. She even polished the pews in his church. No one could say that she did not earn her keep. But Mrs. Foxglove clearly did not share her opinion on the matter, because she rolled her eyes and said, “You live off of your father‟s largesse. He is entirely too indulgent with you.” Ellie‟s eyes bugged out. One thing the Reverend Mr. Lyndon had never been called was indulgent. He had once tied up her older sister to prevent her from marrying the man she loved. Ellie cleared her throat in yet another attempt to control her temper. “What exactly do you wish me to do, Mrs. Foxglove?” “I have inspected the house and prepared a list of chores.” Mrs. Foxglove handed Ellie a slip of paper. Ellie looked down, read the lines, and choked on her fury. “You want me to clean out the chimney?!?” “It is wasteful for us to spend money on a chimney sweep when you can do it.” “Don‟t you think I am a bit too large for such a task?” “That is another matter. You eat too much.” “What?” Ellie shrieked. “Food is dear.” “Half of the parishioners pay their tithe in kind,” Ellie said, shaking with anger. “We may be short of many things, but never food.” “If you don‟t like my rules,” Mrs. Foxglove said, “you can always marry and leave the house.” Ellie knew why Mrs. Foxglove was so determined to see her gone. She was probably one of those women who could not tolerate anything less than absolute authority in her household. And Ellie, who had been managing her father‟s affairs for years, would be in the way. Ellie wondered what the old biddy would say if she were to tell her that she‟d received a proposal of marriage just that afternoon. And from an earl, no less. Ellie planted her hands on her hips, ready to give her father‟s fiancee the blistering setdown she‟d been holding in for what seemed like an unbearable length of time, when Mrs. Foxglove held out another slip of paper. “What‟s this?” Ellie snapped. “I have taken the liberty of making a list of eligible bachelors in the district.” Ellie snorted. This she had to see. She unfolded the paper and looked down. Without lifting her eyes back up, she said, “Richard Parrish is engaged.”
“Not according to my sources.” Mrs. Foxglove was the worst gossip in Bellfield, so Ellie was inclined to believe her. Not that it made a difference. Richard Parrish was stout and had bad breath. She read on and choked. “George Millerton is past sixty.” Mrs. Foxglove sniffed disdainfully. “You are not in a position to be choosy about such a trivial matter.” The next three names on the list belonged to equally elderly men, one of whom was downright mean. Rumor had it that Anthony Ponsoby had beaten his first wife. There was no way that Ellie was going to shackle herself to a man who thought that marital communication was best conducted with a stick. “Good God!” Eliie exclaimed as her eyes traveled down to the second-to-last name on the list. “Robert Beechcombe cannot be a day over fifteen. What were you thinking?” Mrs. Foxglove was about to respond, but Ellie interrupted her. “Billy Watson!” she shrieked. “He is not right in the head. Everybody knows that. How dare you try to marry me off to someone like him!” “As I said, a woman in your position cannot—” “Don‟t say it,” Ellie cut in, her entire body shaking ith rage. “Don‟t say a word.” wMrs. Foxglove smirked. “You cannot speak to me like that in my home.” “It isn‟t your home yet, you old bag,” Ellie bit out. Mrs. Foxglove lurched backward. “Well, I never!” “And I have never been moved to violence,” Ellie fumed, “but I am always willing to try a new experience.” She grabbed Mrs. Foxglove‟s collar and pushed her out the door. “You will be sorry you did this!” Mrs. Foxglove yelled from the walkway. “I will never be sorry,” Ellie returned. “Never!” She slammed the door and threw herself on the sofa. There was no doubt about it. She was going to have to find a way to escape her father‟s household. The Earl of Billington‟s face danced in her head, but she pushed it aside. She wasn‟t so desperate that she had to marry a man she‟d scarcely met. Surely there had to be some other way. * * * By the next morning, Ellie had devised a plan. She wasn‟t as helpless as Mrs. Foxglove would like to believe. She had a bit of money tucked away. It wasn‟t a vast sum, but it was enough to support a woman of modest taste and frugal nature. Ellie had put the money in a bank years ago but had been dissatisfied with the paltry rate of interest. So she took to reading the London Times, making special note of items relating to the world of business and commerce. When she felt she had a comprehensive knowledge of the change, she went to a solicitor to handle her funds. She had to do it under her father‟s name, of course. No solicitor would handle money on the behalf of a young woman, especially one who was investing without the knowledge of her father. So she traveled several towns away, found Mr. Tibbett, a solicitor who did not know of the Reverend Mr. Lyndon, and told him that her father was a recluse. Mr. Tibbett worked with a broker in London, and Ellie‟s nest egg grew and grew. It was time to draw on those funds. She had no other choice. Living with Mrs. Foxglove as her stepmother would be intolerable. The money could support her until her sister Victoria returned from her extended holiday on the continent. Victoria‟s new husband was a wealthy earl, and Ellie had no doubt that they would be able to help her find a position in society—perhaps as a governess, or a companion. Ellie rode a public coach to Faversham, made her way to the offices of Tibbett & Hurley, and waited her turn to see Mr. Tibbett. After ten minutes, his secretary ushered her in. Mr. Tibbett, a portly man with a large mustache, rose when she entered. “Good day, Miss Lyndon,” he said. “Have you come with more instructions from your father? I must say, it is a pleasure to do business with a man who pays such close attention to his investments.” Ellie smiled tightly, hating that her father received all of the credit for her business acumen but knowing that there was no other way. “Not precisely, Mr. Tibbett. I have come to withdraw some of my funds. One-half, to be precise.” Ellie wasn‟t certain how much it would cost to lease a small house in a respectable section of London, but she had close to 300 pounds stashed away, and she thought that 150 would do nicely. “Certainly,” Mr. Tibbett agreed. “I will simply need your father to come here in person to release the funds.” Ellie gasped. “I beg your pardon.” “At Tibbett & Hurley, we pride ourselves on our scrupulous business practices. I could not possibly release the funds into anyone‟s hands but your father‟s.” “But I have been conducting business with you for years,” Ellie protested. “My name is on the account as a codepositor!” “A codepositor. Your father is the primary holder.” Ellie swallowed convulsively. “My father is a recluse. You know that. He never leaves the house. How can I get him to come here?” Mr. Tibbett shrugged his shoulders. “I will be happy to come out to visit him.” “No, that will not be possible,” Ellie said, aware that her voice was growing shrill. “He gets most nervous around strangers. Most nervous. His heart, you know. I really couldn‟t risk it.” “Then I will need written instructions with his signature attached.” Ellie sighed in relief. She could forge her father‟s signature in her sleep. “And I will need these instructions witnessed by another upstanding citizen.” Mr. Tibbett‟s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “You do not qualify as a witness.” “Very well, I will find—” “I am acquainted with the magistrate in Bellfield. You may obtain his signature as a witness.” Ellie‟s heart sank. She also knew the magistrate, and she knew that there would be no way to get his signature on that vital piece of paper unless he actually witnessed her father write out the instructions. “Very well, Mr. Tibbett,” she said, her voice catching in her throat. “I will—I will see what I can do.” She hurried out of the office, pressing a handkerchief up to her face to hide her frustrated tears. She felt like a cornered animal. There was no way she was going to be able to get her money from Mr. Tibbett. And Victoria wasn‟t due back from the continent for several months. Ellie supposed she could throw herself on the mercy of Victoria‟s father-in-law, the Marquess of Castleford, but she wasn‟t at all certain that he would be any more amiable to her presence than Mrs. Foxglove. The marquess didn‟t much like Victoria; Ellie could only imagine how he‟d feel about her sister. Ellie wandered aimlessly through Faversham, trying to gather her thoughts. She had always considered herself a practical sort of female, one who could rely on a sharp brain and a quick wit. She had never dreamed that she might someday find herself in a situation she couldn‟t talk her way out of. And now she was stuck in Faversham, twenty miles away from a home she didn‟t even want to go back to. With no options except— Ellie shook her head. She was not going to consider taking the Earl of Billington up on his offer. The face of Sally Foxglove loomed in her mind. Then that awful face started talking about chimneys, and spinsters who ought to be and act grateful for anything and everything. The earl started looking better and better. Not, Ellie had to admit to herself, that he had ever looked bad to begin with, if one was going to take the word “look” in its literal sense. He was sinfully handsome, and she had a feeling he knew it. That, she reasoned, should be a black mark against him. He was most likely conceited. He would probably keep scores of mistresses. She couldn‟t imagine he‟d find it difficult to gain the attentions of all sorts of females, respectable and otherwise.
“Ha!” she said aloud, then looked this way and that to see if anyone had heard her. The blasted man probably had to beat women away with a stick. She certainly didn‟t want to deal with a husband with those kinds of “problems.” Then again, it wasn‟t as if she were in love with the fellow. She might be able to get used to the idea of an unfaithful husband. It went against everything she stood for, but the alternative was a life with Sally Foxglove, which was too horrifying to contemplate. Ellie tapped her toe as she thought. Wycombe Abbey wasn‟t so very far away. If she remembered correctly, it was situated on the north Kent coast, just a mile or two away. She could easily walk the distance. Not that she was planning to blindly accept the earl‟s proposal, but maybe they could discuss the matter a bit. Maybe they could reach an agreement with which she could be happy. Her mind made up, Ellie lifted her chin and began walking north. She tried to keep her mind busy by guessing how many steps it would take to reach a landmark ahead. Fifty paces to the large tree. Seventy-two to the abandoned cottage. Forty to the— Oh, blast! Was that a raindrop? Ellie wiped the water from her nose and looked up. The clouds were gathering, and if she weren‟t such a practical woman, she would swear that they were congrega ing directly over her head. She let out a sound that one could only call a growl and trudged onward, trying not to curse when another raindrop smacked her on the cheek. And then another pelted her shoulder, and another, and another, and— Ellie shook her fist at the sky. “Somebody up there is deuced mad at me,” she yelled, “and I want to know why!” The heavens opened in earnest and within seconds she was soaked to the skin. “Remind me never to question Your purposes again,” she muttered ungraciously, not sounding particularly like the God-fearing young lady her father had raised her to be. “Clearly You don‟t like to be second-guessed.” Lightning streaked through the sky, followed by a booming clap of thunder. Ellie jumped nearly a foot. What was it that her sister‟s husband had told her so many years ago? The closer the thunder follows the lightning, the closer the lightning is to oneself? Robert had always been of a scientific bent; Ellie was inclined to believe him on this measure. She took off at a run. Then, after her lungs threatened to explode, she slowed down to a trot. After a minute or two of that, however, she settled into a brisk walk. After all, she wasn‟t likely to get any wetter than she was already. Thunder pounded again, causing Ellie to jump and trip over a tree root, landing in the mud. “Damn!” she grunted, probably her first verbal use of the word in her life. If ever there was a time to begin the habit of cursing, however, it was now. She staggered to her feet and looked up, rain pelting her face. Her bonnet sagged against her eyes, blocking her vision. She yanked it off, looked at the sky, and yelled, “I am not amused!” More lightning. “They are all against me,” she muttered, starting to feel just a little bit irrational. “All of them.” Her father, Sally Foxglove, Mr. Tibbett, whoever it was who controlled the weather— More thunder. Ellie gritted her teeth and moved onward. Finally, an old stone behemoth of a building loomed over the horizon. She‟d never seen Wycombe Abbey in person, but she‟d seen a pen and ink drawing of it for sale in Bellfield. Relief finally settling within her, she made her way to the front door and knocked. A liveried servant answered her summons and gave her an extremely condescending look. “I-I‟m here t-to see the earl,” Ellie said, teeth chattering. “Servants‟ interviews are conducted by the housekeeper,” the butler replied. “Use the rear entrance.” He started to shut the door but Ellie managed to jam her foot in the opening. “Noooo!” she yelled, somehow sensing that if she let that door shut in her face she would be condemned forever to a life of cold gruel and dirty chimneys. “Madam, remove your foot.” “Not in this lifetime,” Ellie shot back, squeezing her elbow and shoulder inside. “I‟ll see the earl, and—” “The earl doesn‟t associate with your kind.” “My kind?!” Ellie shrieked. Really, this was beyond tolerable. She was cold, wet, unable to get her hands on money that was rightfully hers, and now some puffed-up butler was calling her a prostitute? “You let me in this instant! It‟s raining out here.” “I see that.” “You fiend,” she hissed. “When I see the earl, he‟ll—” “I say, Rosejack, what the devil is all this commotion?” Ellie nearly melted with relief at the sound of Billington‟s voice. In fact, she would have melted with relief if she weren‟t so certain that any sort of softening on her part would prompt the butler to squeeze her out of the doorway. “There is a creature on the doorstep,” Rosejack replied. “It refuses to budge.” “I‟m a „she,‟ you cretin!” Ellie used the fist she‟d managed to wedge inside the house to bat him in the back of the head. “For the love of God,” Charles said, “Just open the door and let her in.” Rosejack whipped open the door and Ellie tumbled in, feeling very much like a wet rat amidst such splendidly opulent surroundings. There were beautiful rugs on the floors, a painting on the wall that she would swear had been done by Rembrandt, and that vase that she‟d knocked over as she fell down—well, she had a sick feeling that it had been imported from China. She looked up, desperately trying to peel the wet locks of hair from her face. Charles looked handsome, amused, and disgustingly dry. “My lord?” she gasped, barely able to find her voice. She sounded decidedly unlike herself, raspy and hoarse from her arguments with God and the butler. Charles blinked as he regarded her. “I beg your pardon, madam,” he said. “Have we met?” Chapter 3 Ellie had never had much of a temper. Oh, she was, as her father frequently pointed out, a bit mouthy, but on the whole she was a sensible and levelheaded lady, not given to outbursts and tantrums. This aspect of her personality, however, was not in evidence at Wycombe Abbey. “What?!?” she screeched, vaulting to her feet. “How dare you!” she then shrieked, launching herself toward Billington, who was trying to back up, hindered considerably by his injury and cane. “You fiend!” she finally squawked, pushing him over and tumbling down to the floor with him. Charles groaned. “If I have been knocked to the ground,” he said, “then you must be Miss Lyndon.” “Of course I‟m Miss Lyndon,” she shouted. “Who the devil else would I be?” “I might point out that you look remarkably unlike yourself.” That gave Ellie pause. She was certain she bore more than a passing resemblance to a drowned rat, her clothes were liberally streaked with mud, and her bonnet... She looked around. Where the devil was her bonnet? “Lose something?” Charles inquired. “My bonnet,” Ellie replied, suddenly feeling very sheepish. He smiled. “I like you better without one. I was wondering what color your hair was.” “It‟s red,” she shot back, thinking that this must be the final indignity. She hated her hair, had always hated her hair.
Charles coughed to cover up yet another smile. Ellie was spitting mad, well beyond furious, and he couldn‟t remember the last time he‟d had so much fun. Well, actually he could. Yesterday, to be precise, when he‟d fallen out of a tree and had the good fortune to land on her. Ellie reached up to push a wet and sticky lock of hair from her face, causing her sodden dress to tighten around her bodice. Charles‟s skin grew suddenly warm. Oh yes, he thought, she‟d make a very fine wife. “My lord?” the butler interjected as he leaned down to help Charles up. “Do we know this person?” “I‟m afraid we do,” Charles replied, earning himself a scathing glare from Ellie. “It appears that Miss Lyndon has had a trying day. Perhaps we might offer her some tea. And”—he eyed her dubiously—”a towel.” “That would be very nice,” Ellie said primly. “Thank you.” Charles watched her as she stood. “I trust you have been considering my proposal.” Rosejack halted in his tracks and turned around. “Proposal?” he gasped. Charles grinned. “Yes, Rosejack. I am hoping that Miss Lyndon will do me the honor of becoming my wife.” Rosejack went utterly white. Ellie scowled at him. “I was trapped in a rainstorm,” she said, thinking that that ought to be self-evident. “I am usually a bit more presentable.” “She was trapped in a rainstorm,” Charles repeated. “And I can vouch for the fact that she is usually much more presentable. She will make an excellent countess, I assure you.” “I have not yet accepted,” Ellie muttered. Rosejack looked as if he might faint. “You will,” Charles said with a knowing smile. “How can you possibly—” “Why else would you have come?” he interjected. He turned to the butler. “Rosejack, the tea, if you please. And don‟t forget a towel. Or perhaps two.” He glanced down to where Ellie was leaving puddles on the parquet floor, then looked back toward Rosejack yet again. “You had better just bring in a stack of them.” “I have not come to accept your proposal,” Ellie sputtered. “I merely wanted to talk with you about it. I—” “Of course, my dear,” Charles murmured. “Would you like to follow me to the drawing room? I would offer you my arm, but I fear I cannot provide much support these days.” He motioned to his cane. Ellie let out a frustrated breath and followed him into a nearby room. It was decorated in cream and blue, and she didn‟t dare sit on anything. “I don‟t think mere towels are going to be sufficient, my lord,” she said. She didn‟t even want to step on the carpet. Not with the way her skirts were dripping. Charles surveyed her thoughtfully. “I fear you are correct. Would you like a change of clothing? My sister is married and now lives in Surrey, but she keeps some dresses here. I‟d wager she is about your size.” Ellie didn‟t like the idea of taking someone‟s clothing without asking permission, but her other option was coming down with a raging case of lung fever. She looked down at her fingers, which were shaking from the cold and damp, and nodded her head. Charles rang the bellpull, and a maid entered the room within the minute. Charles gave her instructions to show Ellie to his sister‟s room. Feeling as if she had somehow lost control of her destiny, Ellie followed the maid out. Charles sat down on a comfortable sofa, let out a long sigh of relief, then sent up a silent thanks to whomever it was who was responsible for her arriving on his doorstep. He had started to fear that he was going to have to go to London and marry one of those awful debutantes his family kept throwing his way. He whistled to himself as he waited for tea and Miss Lyndon. What had made her come? He‟d been still a bit past tipsy when he‟d blurted out that bizarre proposal the day before, but he hadn‟t been so drunk that he had not been able to gauge her feelings. He‟d thought she would refuse. He‟d been almost certain of it. She was a sensible sort. That much was obvious even after such a brief acquaintance. What would make her give her hand in marriage to a man she barely knew? There were the usual reasons, of course. He had money and a title, and if she married him, she‟d have money and a title as well. But Charles didn‟t think that was it. He had seen the look of desperation in her eyes when she‟d— He frowned, then laughed as he got up to look out the window. Miss Lyndon had attacked him. Right there in the hall. There really wasn‟t any other word for it. Tea arrived a few minutes later, and Charles instructed the maid to leave it in the pot to steep. He liked his tea strong. A few minutes after that, a hesitant knock sounded at the door. He turned around, surprised at the sound since the maid had left the door open. Ellie was standing in the doorway, her hand raised to knock again. “I thought you didn‟t hear me,” she said. “The door was open. There was no need to knock.” She shrugged. “I didn‟t want to intrude.” Charles motioned for her to come in, watching her with an appraising eye as she crossed the room. His sister‟s dress was a shade too long for her, and she had to hold up the pale green skirts as she walked. That was when he noticed she wasn‟t wearing any shoes. Funny how the sight of a foot could cause his midsection to tingle this way ... Ellie caught him looking at her feet and blushed. “Your sister has tiny feet,” she said, “and my own shoes were soaked through.” He blinked, as if he were lost in thought, then shook his head slightly and looked her in the eye. “No matter,” he said, then let his gaze fall to her feet again. Ellie dropped her skirts, wondering what the devil was so interesting about her feet. “You look quite fetching in mint,” he said, hobbling over to her side. “You should wear it more often.” “All my dresses are dark and serviceable,” she said, her voice containing equal parts irony and wistfulness. “Pity. I‟ll have to buy you new ones once we‟re married.” “Now, see here!” Ellie protested. “I have not accepted your proposal. I am merely here to—” She broke off when she realized she was yelling and continued in a softer tone. “I am merely here to discuss it with you.” He smiled slowly. “What do you want to know?” Ellie exhaled, wishing that she‟d been able to approach this interview with a bit more composure. Not that that would have helped much, she thought ruefully, after the entrance she‟d made. The butler was never going to forgive her. Looking up, she said, “Do you mind if I sit down?” “Of course not. How rude of me.” He motioned to the sofa, and she took a seat. “Would you care for tea?” Charles asked. “Yes, that would be lovely.” Ellie reached for the tray and began to pour. It somehow seemed a sinfully intimate act, pouring tea for this man in his own home. “Milk?” “Please. No sugar.” She smiled. “I take mine the same way.” Charles took a sip and assessed her over the rim of his cup. She was nervous. He couldn‟t blame her. It was a most uncommon situation, and he had to admire her for facing it with such fortitude. He watched as she drained her teacup and then said, “By the way, your hair isn‟t red.” Ellie choked on her tea.
“What is it they call it?” he mused, lifting his hand and rubbing his fingers together in the air as if that would prompt his brain. “Ah yes, strawberry blond. Although that seems rather inadequate to me.” “It‟s red,” Ellie said baldly. “No, no, it really isn‟t. It‟s—” “Red.” His lips spread into a lazy smile. “Red, then, if you insist.” Ellie found herself oddly disappointed that he‟d given in. She‟d always wanted her hair to be something more exotic than just plain red. It was an unexpected gift from some long-forgotten Irish ancestor. The only good thing about it had been that it was a constant source of irritation to her father, who had been known to develop nausea at the merest intimation that there might be a Catholic somewhere in his background. Ellie had always rather liked the idea of a rogue Catholic hiding out in her family tree. She had always liked the idea of anything out of the ordinary, anything to break up the monotony of her humdrum life. She looked up at Billington, who sprawled elegantly in a chair opposite her. This man, she decided, definitely qualified as extraordinary. As did the situation in which he‟d recently placed her. She smiled weakly, thinking that she ought to be made of sterner stuff. His was a remarkably handsome face, and his charm—well, there was no arguing that it wasn‟t lethal. Still, she needed to conduct this interview like the sensible woman she was. She cleared her throat. “I believe we were discussing ...” She frowned. What the devil had they been discussing? “Your hair, actually,” he drawled. Ellie felt a blush creeping along her cheeks. “Right. Well. Hmmm.” Charles took pity on her and said, “I don‟t suppose you want to tell me what prompted you to consider my proposal.” She looked up sharply. “What makes you think there was a specific incident?” “You have the look of desperation in your eyes.” Ellie couldn‟t even pretend to be affronted by his statement, for she knew it was true. “My father is remarrying next month,” she said after taking a long sigh. “His fiancee is a witch.” His lips twitched. “As bad as that?” Ellie had a feeling he thought she was exaggerating. “I am not jesting. Yesterday she presented me with two lists. The first consisted of chores I must perform in addition to those I already do.” “What, did she have you cleaning out the chimney?” Charles teased. “Yes!” Ellie burst out. “Yes, and it was not a joke! And then she had the effrontery to tell me I eat too much when I pointed out that I would not fit.” “I think you‟re just the right size,” he murmured. She didn‟t hear him, though, which was probably for the best. He didn‟t need to scare her away. Not when he was this close to having her name on that blessed marriage certificate. “What was the other list?” he inquired. “Marriage prospects,” she said in a disgusted voice. “Was I on it?” “Most assuredly not. She only listed men whom she thought I might have a chance at catching.” “Oh, dear.” Ellie scowled. “Her opinion of me is quite low.” “I shudder to think who was on the list.” “Several men over sixty, one under sixteen, and one who is simpleminded.” Charles couldn‟t help it. He laughed. “This isn‟t funny!” Ellie exclaimed. “And I didn‟t even mention the one who beat his first wife.” Charles‟s humor faded instantly. “You will not be married off to someone who will beat you.” Ellie‟s lips parted in surprise. He sounded almost proprietary. How very odd. “I assure you that I won‟t. If I marry, it will be a man of my own choosing. And I‟m afraid to say, my lord, that out of all my options, you do seem to be the best of the lot.” “I‟m flattered,” he muttered. “I didn‟t think I would have to marry you, you see.” Charles frowned, thinking that she didn‟t need to sound quite so resigned. “I have some money,” she continued. “Enough to support myself for some time. At least until my sister and her husband return from their holiday.” “Which is in ...” “Three months,” Ellie finished for him. “Or perhaps a bit longer. Their baby has a small respiratory problem, and the doctor feels a warmer climate would do him good.” “I trust it is not serious.” “Not at all,” Ellie said, giving him a reassuring nod. “One of those things one outgrows. But I‟m afraid I am still left at loose ends.” “I do not understand,” Charles said. “My solicitor will not give me my money.” Ellie quickly recounted the day‟s events, leaving out her undignified argument with the heavens. Really, the man didn‟t need to know everything about her. Better not say anything that might lead him to think she was a bit unhinged. Charles sat quietly, tapping his fingertips together as he listened. “What exactly do you want me to do for you?” he asked when she was finished. “Ideally, I‟d like you to march into the solicitor‟s office on my behalf and demand that he release my funds,” she replied. “Then I could live quietly in London and await my sister.” “And not marry me?” he said, a knowing smile on his face. “That isn‟t going to happen, is it?” He shook his head. “Perhaps I could marry you, you could get my money, and then, once your inheritance is secure, we could obtain an annulment...” She tried to sound convincing, but her words trailed off as she watched him shake his head again. “That scenario presents two problems,” he said. “Two?” she echoed. She might have been able to talk her way around one, but two? Doubtful. “My father‟s will specifically addresses the possibility that I might enter into a sham marriage merely for the sake of my inheritance. Were I to obtain an annulment, my assets would be immediately seized and handed over to my cousin.” Ellie‟s heart sank. “Secondly,” he continued, “an annulment would require that we not consummate our marriage.” She gulped. “I don‟t see any problem there.” He leaned forward, his eyes burning with something she didn‟t recognize. “Don‟t you?” he asked softly. Ellie didn‟t like the way her stomach was jumping about. The earl was far too handsome for his own good—far too handsome for her own good. “If we marry,” she blurted out, suddenly very eager to change the subject, “you will have to get my money for me. Can you do that? Because I won‟t marry you otherwise.” “I shall be able to provide for you quite handsomely without it,” Charles pointed out. “But it‟s mine, and I worked hard for it. I‟m not about to let it rot in Tibbett‟s hands.” “Certainly not,” Charles murmured, looking as if he were trying very hard not to smile. “It‟s the principle of the matter.”