The morning began tranquilly enough. Finished with her breakfast, Miss Charlotte Hurst reached for the neatly stacked pile of correspondence beside her plate, when the doors to the dining room unexpectedly flew open and the butler entered, his normally impassive face flushed, his mouth pinched into an uncharacteristic frown.
Standing just inside the doorway, Hopkins turned toward Charlotte’s brother, Phillip Hurst. “My lord, there’s a man who insists he must see you. I explained you don’t receive visitors before breakfast, but he said he couldn’t wait, that the matter was urgent.”
“Did he now?” Phillip cut a bite of ham before spearing it with his fork. “Did this man give you his name? Or explain the nature of this urgent business?”
“He gave his name, sir. He said it was—”
A tall, dark-haired gentleman strode into the room, finishing the butler’s sentence in a commanding, lord-of-the-manor voice.
Startled, Charlotte dropped her correspondence, scattering the pages in an untidy disarray upon the table. Drat the man and his unheralded appearance.
“Don’t blame your servant, Hurst,” the gentleman said, coming to a halt beside Phillip’s chair. “He made it quite clear you don’t take visitors during meals. However, this cannot wait.”
Phillip laid down his fork. “You may go, Hopkins. I’ll attend to this.”
“Very well, sir.” With a nod, the butler departed.
“I can scarcely imagine any business between us that couldn’t wait, Norwood,” Phillip said.
“Can you not?” The man slapped a newspaper down on the table in front of Phillip. “Then read this. Perhaps it will jog your memory.”
Charlotte blinked, her interest sharpened. So this was the Earl of Norwood. She’d certainly heard of him, although they’d never been introduced. His social set and hers didn’t have much in common. Her brother knew him, since they were both peers in the House of Lords, but this hadn’t led to any sort of acquaintance between Charlotte and the earl.
Still, all of London knew Lord Norwood was a rising star in the world of English politics, and that among his greatest political assets, aside from his impressive family and social connections, were his poise and unflappability, though he seemed to have only a tenuous grip on those traits this morning. He was angry, that much was clear. Less obvious was how it concerned Phillip.
Her brother ignored the earl’s command. “Since Hopkins is usually allowed to usher in our guests, I must presume you have a singular reason for interrupting our meal in this irregular way.”
“I do.” If Lord Norwood noticed the hint of censure in Phillip’s voice, he gave no sign of it.
Phillip glanced at his unfinished breakfast, then picked up the paper and began to read. The earl’s gloved hand slapped softly against his thigh, producing a rhythmic tap, tap, tap that sounded unnaturally loud in the otherwise quiet room.
Since Charlotte remained an invisible entity—Lord Norwood had not yet spared a glance in her direction—she took the opportunity to study him. His manners left a great deal to be desired, but she couldn’t say the same for his looks. He was undeniably handsome with dark brown hair that showed a tendency to curl, and well-appointed features. His lips were firm and finely molded, his nose straight and patrician, and his slate-blue eyes, framed by dark lashes, had faint laugh lines at the corners. However, no hint of humor showed on his face at the moment. Instead, his gaze was stern and unwaveringly fastened on Phillip as he bent over the newspaper.
After a moment, Phillip pushed the paper aside. “I’m as mystified as you are. I’ve no idea how that came to be published.”
Lord Norwood gave her brother a hard, assessing stare. “Then perhaps she does,” the earl said tightly. His gaze swung for the first time to Charlotte, with a look so scorching she had to stifle the impulse to place more distance between them.
“If you think that, you’re barking up the wrong tree.” For some reason, Phillip looked amused rather than affronted by the earl’s angry insinuations. “However, Charlotte can speak for herself.” He slid the newspaper across the table to her. “Have a look at this.”
She hesitated, wishing the earl’s attention hadn’t shifted away from her brother. Lord Norwood glared at her as if she were an annoying insect he’d like to squash. For one defiant moment, she considered refusing, if for no other reason than she didn’t care for his rude, high-handed manner, but her curiosity surpassed this rebellious urge.
“If I must,” she said, deliberately keeping her tone cool and disinterested. She moved her neglected correspondence out of the way, then unhurriedly reached for the paper and drew it over, aware that her lack of haste was fanning the flames of the man’s wrath, and yet unable to behave otherwise. Her dislike of him had overruled any spirit of cooperation.
She read through the offending item, then once more, slowly this time, to make sure she hadn’t misunderstood. Cold tendrils of apprehension swirled through her, settling in a tight band around her chest as the implications of the brief paragraphs sank in. No wonder the man was so angry.
It was the announcement of her betrothal to the Earl of Norwood.
Shocked, she looked back at the earl, blinking stupidly. How had it come to be in the newspaper? It was false and utterly ridiculous. For heaven’s sake, she wasn’t even acquainted with the man. But true or false—it hardly mattered. This announcement could still ignite a firestorm of gossip that would upend her quiet, well-ordered life.
“Well?” Lord Norwood demanded.
The blood pounded in her ears at his accusatory tone. Her actions required no defense. On the contrary, if anyone had behaved indefensibly, it was the earl. Even now, apparently convinced of her guilt, he looked as if he’d like to leap over the table and shake a confession out of her.
“If by ‘well’ you mean to imply I have any knowledge of who published this”—she gestured toward the paper with a dismissive flick of her wrist—“disabuse yourself of the notion right now. I didn’t have anything to do with this, and I welcome it no more than you.”
A look of utter incredulity crossed Lord Norwood’s handsome face. “Forgive me if I sound conceited, Miss Hurst, but there are any number of young ladies who would more than welcome the chance to align themselves with my fortune and title, and—”
“And I assure you I’m not one of them,” she cut in coolly.
His lips pinched together for a second. “Furthermore, this wouldn’t be the first time a lady tried to entrap a gentleman by dubious methods.” He leaned forward and placed both hands on the table, his face so close to hers she could see the darker band that rimmed his blue eyes and smell the spicy scent of his shaving soap. “But make no mistake, I’ve not offered for you, nor shall I feel bound to honor a nonexistent engagement just because our betrothal announcement appeared in the Morning Post. It seems to me the only party who would benefit is you.”
They remained nearly nose-to-nose, Charlotte smarting from the sting of his last words. She searched her mind for a suitably scathing reply, but the perfect set-down eluded her. She settled for meeting his angry gaze with a defiant one of her own.
At last, he straightened and crossed his arms. “So, Miss Hurst? Do you still deny you had anything to do with this?”
It was his impossibly haughty expression, coupled with that presumptive I-know-you’re-guilty tone that loosened her tongue at last.
“I’ve already denied it,” she replied, “but you, with your colossal arrogance, have determined I must be guilty because of your faulty assumption that I’d welcome an alliance with you.” She paused and took a deep breath, determined to maintain control of her temper, especially since he seemed to have such a fragile grip on his. “However, nothing could be further from the truth. Most of society may put a premium on a man’s fortune and title when weighing his worthiness as a prospective husband, but I do not. I’m much more interested in the content of a man’s character than the contents of his purse.”
Her verbal slap hit the mark. The color rose on his face as he drew in a sharp breath.
“To put it plainly,” she continued. “I may not know you very well, but I’m completely sure you’re the last man I’d want to marry.” She shook her head. “No, not even the last man, because that implies a circumstance in which I’d agree to marry you, and I can say with great certainty you’re not a man I would ever choose to marry.”
He scowled at her in disbelief for a long, thunderous moment. Charlotte watched with a certain fascination as he struggled to control his emotions. A vein throbbed at his temple, his jaw tightened like a vise, and the muscles in his throat worked furiously, though no words slipped through his tightly clamped lips.
Once more she resisted the urge to put more space between them. Her rational side insisted his gentlemanly instincts would prevail over any murderous impulses he might presently harbor. And if not, surely Phillip’s phlegmatic nature wouldn’t prevent him from leaping to her defense if necessary.
After several seconds of glaring at her in strained silence, something in the depths of Lord Norwood’s stormy gaze shifted and the rigid lines of his shoulders relaxed ever so slightly. He’d become, once again, the unflappable aristocrat.
William Atherton, the Earl of Norwood, realized a few things in those moments he stood speechless before the Hursts. For one, they hadn’t appeared guilty when he’d challenged them on their knowledge of the engagement announcement. Confused, yes. And in Miss Hurst’s case, severely affronted. But culpable? No. It was now clear to him they’d had nothing to do with it.
But if they hadn’t submitted that false betrothal announcement, who had? A new possibility popped into his mind. One he ought to have seen earlier, and would have if he hadn’t let his emotions overrule his reason. But no, he’d been so angry at the notion that some girl he’d never met would try to entrap him into marriage—and so eager to give her the dressing-down he thought she so richly deserved—that he hadn’t stopped to consider anything else.
He was one of a half dozen or so candidates being considered for an important post in the prime minister’s government. It wasn’t at all far-fetched that one of his political rivals had tried to bolster their chance for the appointment by stirring up a scandal through a false claim that he and Miss Hurst were engaged.
He should have known easygoing Phillip Hurst was an unlikely accomplice for an entrapment scheme. As for Miss Hurst’s fiery denunciation of him, he had to admit it wasn’t how a lady reacted if she harbored ambitions of becoming the next Countess of Norwood.
In fact, if looks could kill, he’d be lying on the ground mortally wounded because Miss Hurst was currently shooting daggers at him with those fine blue eyes of hers. Not that he blamed her. He wasn’t such a boor that he didn’t realize he owed her an apology. A very pretty apology, and if she made him grovel a bit, it was probably no less than he deserved. He took a deep, fortifying breath and exhaled, prepared to do what it took to set things right between them. He’d need her cooperation if they hoped to minimize the damage.
“I owe both of you my deepest apologies. I had no right to invade your home as I did, much less make accusations for which I hadn’t a scrap of proof. I’m sorry. Deeply, deeply sorry.”
Miss Hurst’s eyes widened slightly. No doubt an apology was the last thing she expected from him. She probably pegged him a pompous ass after his performance and with good reason. After all, he’d informed her practically every unmarried female in the kingdom desired him for his title and fortune. And worse, accused her of doing so as well.
“Apology accepted, Norwood,” Phillip Hurst said. “Any man would be rocked to the core in similar circumstances.”
“You’re remarkably forgiving, Phillip,” his sister said. “I, however, am not.”
“I understand your reluctance to forgive me, Miss Hurst.” William gave her what he hoped was a charming (and conciliatory) smile. “Nonetheless, I ask you to forget the last few minutes and let us begin our acquaintance from this moment instead.”
“Would you like to go out and come back in again?” Phillip asked in an amused voice. “It might help Charlotte to erase the drama of your first entrance from her mind.”
“If only it were that easy,” William said. Miss Hurst, with her flashing blue eyes and stubbornly set mouth, didn’t appear as if she’d let go of her first impression of him too readily. “Naturally, we’ll carry on as if the betrothal were real. For the time being, at least.”
“Naturally?” She gave him a look that questioned his sanity. “You made it abundantly clear how you feel about that false betrothal announcement, not to mention your belief I was the scheming mastermind behind it.”
“A grave error on my part,” he assured her. “But you were also quite explicit in expressing your opinion of me. I admit your set-down of me was well-deserved. However, now that I realize you weren’t trying to carry out an entrapment scheme, a temporary engagement between us seems the best solution. I won’t let you suffer from a plot aimed at me.”
“A plot?” she asked, again looking as if he were touched in the upper works. “You make it sound as if we’re characters in a gothic novel. Surely this is nothing more than someone’s notion of a bad joke. But whatever the motive behind it, we need only insert a retraction into the next issue of the Morning Post, endure the inevitable tempest in a teapot, and get on with our lives. There’s no need to pretend we’re engaged.”
She spoke of an engagement to him with about as much excitement as one might use when mentioning a visit to the tooth-drawer, though he could hardly fault the absence of enthusiasm on her part. He didn’t deserve her approbation given the way he’d confronted her so rudely and with such an appalling lack of tact and diplomacy. Which was all the more ironic, given that he routinely relied on both to win over his political opponents.
“I must respectfully disagree,” he said. “There is every need to protect you from nasty gossip. And believe me, simply inserting a retraction wouldn’t prevent the sort of tongue wagging that could ruin your reputation, and by extension, your marital prospects.”
“I hope my marital prospects, as you put it, aren’t so delicate that they can’t weather the storm.”
William didn’t miss the sarcastic inflection she gave to his words, and recognized it as a subtle rebuke for using such a sterile phrase to sum up her value on the marriage mart. Still, they couldn’t ignore reality. “In a perfect world perhaps, but society can be unforgiving place, especially toward an unmarried female. I can’t let you risk your future.”
“But it’s my future, is it not?”
“It is, but you see it’s not only your future that’s at risk.”
“Ahh, yes,” she said. “I assume you refer to the aforementioned plot because the title of earl ensures your marital prospects are ever safe from the potential taint of scandal. Unlike mine, being merely a female of little consequence.” Her gaze sparked with a martial light, as if she dared him to contradict the truth of her statement.
An admiring smile tugged at his lips, but he wasn’t fool enough to take her bait. “You know I’m just stating a fact when I refer to the precarious state of a lady’s reputation when gossip begins to work its mischief.”
“If I may interrupt,” Phillip Hurst cut in. “This may take a while, Norwood, and I’m getting a crick in my neck looking up at you standing there. Have a seat. Help yourself to some breakfast, if you wish. I’m going to get a fresh plate myself.”
“Thank you, but I’ll decline the offer,” William replied, though he did take a seat. He’d begun to feel awkward carrying on the conversation standing over the Hursts while they remained seated. Furthermore, Miss Hurst wasn’t likely to adopt a cooperative attitude if she felt he towered over her.
“Honestly, Phillip, how can you still have an appetite?” Hurst’s sister remarked, eyeing him as he heaped food onto a plate.
“I can’t accomplish anything on an empty stomach.”
“What else is there to accomplish?” she asked, her gaze resting on William though ostensibly she was responding to her brother’s last remark. “I still say we insert a retraction and hope it blows over quickly.”
“You’re very willing to sacrifice your interests if it means you needn’t endure a temporary betrothal with me,” William said.
“If I am, haven’t you given me ample reason to be?”
“To my abundant regret I have, but surely that shouldn’t trump your good sense, which would argue that a temporary betrothal is the best way to protect your reputation.”
“That might persuade me if I were currently interested in making a match, but I didn’t come to London because I’m looking for a husband, nor am I in any hurry to do so. When I am, I trust my character will speak for itself and I won’t suffer any ill effects from whatever gossip arises from this.”
“All right, since that line of argument isn’t persuading you, let me offer another. You wouldn’t be the only one of us adversely affected by this. That false announcement may be a device to discredit me by a political rival. A scandal could destroy my chances of obtaining an important chairmanship on a commission the prime minister is forming. While this may not sound terribly important to you, it is to me, and possibly to the people of England.” There. He’d lain his cards on the table.
“My, my,” she said, tilting her head to one side. “It sounds as if we’ve circled back around to that plot you spoke of earlier. Do explain how our engagement, or lack thereof, could affect the people of England.”
He ran a hand through his hair impatiently. “It’s…complicated.”
“Then enlighten me.”
“Very well,” he said, hoping a brief summation would convince her. “The prime minister is creating this commission to address a number of issues, including the pain the Corn Laws are inflicting upon the general populace. Rising food prices have led to unrest, and several riots have broken out across the country. Former soldiers are struggling to find work, now that Napoleon is no longer a threat. The prime minister believes these issues should be addressed before things take a turn for the worse. He wants this new commission to study the problems facing England in these postwar years and to suggest ways to alleviate people’s suffering. Unfortunately, not every candidate being considered for the chairmanship is interested in effecting change. Some support the status quo, while some, I suspect, see it as a means to reject real reforms, and instead use it as a way to line their own pockets. Needless to say, I’ll do everything I can to prevent that from happening.”
“Including, so it would seem, becoming engaged to me,” she murmured.
“Yes, because to do otherwise could cost us both dearly. It need only last long enough for the prime minister to name a chairman and for us to become yesterday’s news. Society’s attention is fickle. Once it’s turned elsewhere, we can quietly and discreetly end our engagement.”
She remained silent for several moments. Hurst was busy consuming his new plate of food and William didn’t speak either, giving her an opportunity to think about what he’d said.
“Even if I agree to go along with your plan,” she said, “and I’m not saying I will—but if I did, I don’t see how it could possibly succeed. Nobody is going to believe it. There’s been no courtship, or any other connection between us.”
“None of which truly matters. If we behave like an engaged couple, people will believe we’re an engaged couple.”
She lofted a skeptical brow. “Don’t you think it stretches credulity that an earl who most often escorts the crème de la crème of fashionable society is suddenly enamored by the unexceptional daughter of a mere baron?”
“I think you rate yourself much too lightly, Miss Hurst.” She might not be a diamond of the first water, but she was quite pretty, with those lovely blue eyes of hers, and a rosebud mouth that looked soft and inviting when it wasn’t pinched into a frown of disapproval.
She blinked and drew in a quick breath. “Be that as it may, there’s still the fact that we’ve never spoken to each other before today. I don’t think the ton is so gullible as to believe that two strangers would suddenly decide they should marry.”
“Nonsense, Charlotte,” Phillip Hurst said. “Put aside such romantic notions. Slight acquaintance has never been a hurdle to an aristocratic marriage.”
She didn’t look pleased with her brother’s observation, but she didn’t challenge it either. Instead, she turned her attention back to William. “Wouldn’t it bother you to perpetuate such an out-and-out lie?”
“Yes, to be honest, it would, since I’m not in the habit of telling them. On the other hand, it seems the best solution to a problem that has landed in our laps and needs to be dealt with quickly.”
“Don’t try to make mountains out of molehills, Charlotte,” Phillip Hurst said. “Norwood’s generously offering the protection of his name and position until this blows over. At a more auspicious time, you can have the pleasure of jilting him.” He paused, frowning. “Unless, of course, you don’t jilt him. Then he’d have to marry you. You have considered that, haven’t you, Norwood?”
“It didn’t escape me that your sister would hold all the power,” William said dryly. “However, I’m confident she’ll cry off when the time comes, seeing as I’m…how did you put it?” he asked, turning to Miss Hurst. “Not a man you’d ever choose to marry. I believe that declaration followed an unflattering comparison between the quantity of my fortune versus the quality of my character.” Her mouth twisted slightly, though whether this indicated amusement or chagrin, he couldn’t tell.
“That does capture the gist of what I said,” she affirmed.
“Then I have no hesitation in considering us betrothed for the time being.”
She appeared to mull this over. “So how long would this betrothal need to last before I could cry off?”
He honestly had no idea how to answer that. Much depended on Liverpool, and how soon he made his decision. And then there was her reputation to consider. “That’s difficult to predict. As long as it takes for the right moment to arrive so that’s it safe for you to cry off.”
She looked alarmed, and he hastened to add, “Perhaps not that long at all. I promise we’ll keep it as short as possible.”
She let out a long exhale. “I suppose I could agree to a very temporary, very brief betrothal.” Again, she had that going-to-the-tooth-drawer intonation.
“Excellent. Then I’ll call on you this afternoon. We’ll take a carriage ride in the park, and let London get a look at us as a newly engaged couple.”
She frowned. “A carriage ride together? Is that really necessary?”
“Yes. I can’t think of a better way to kick off our charade than to ride through Hyde Park during the fashionable hour. We’ll be seen by dozens of people who will then have no reason to doubt the veracity of our betrothal. That is, provided you can manage to look appropriately infatuated with me.”
“When I agreed to this plan, I didn’t realize it would include flirtatious carriage rides. I’m not confident I’m that good of an actress.” She pursed her lips and gazed at him thoughtfully. “Although, if you let me drive, I think I could manage to look reasonably happy.”
“That, Miss Hurst, sounds suspiciously like blackmail.”
She gave a saucy little shrug. “In acting, I believe it’s known as motivation. And it’s the price you must pay to have a flirtatious fiancée by your side this afternoon.”
Her brother choked back a laugh. “Capitulate, Norwood. She can be stubborn when she gets her heart set on something.”
“Imagine that,” William murmured. He decided he might as well accept this defeat with good grace. “Have you ever driven a curricle before, Miss Hurst?”
“No, but under your tutelage, I’m confident I’ll do quite splendidly.” She gave him a bright smile.
“I’m not sure I’m that good of a tutor.”
She looked amused. “We’ll find out then, won’t we?”
“I’ll expect a performance worthy of Covent Garden if I’m to let you handle the reins,” he warned.
She dipped her chin and looked at him coquettishly through her lashes. They were dark and long and perfect for throwing flirtatious glances at a man. He was astonished by this transformation. She could be a stunner if she wished to.
“Will this do?” she asked, before dropping the pose and replacing the come-hither look with a faintly challenging one.
“Er, yes,” William replied after a beat of silence. “Send those looks my way during our drive, and we’ll have no trouble succeeding with our charade.”
“Good Lord, Charlotte, where have you been hiding those feminine wiles?” her brother asked in amazement.
“I haven’t been hiding them.” She directed an exasperated look at her brother. “I just haven’t had any reason to use them.”
Phillip Hurst grinned. “I guess the opportunity to drive Norwood’s bang-up equipage gives you sufficient reason to trot them out.”
“And that, dear brother, just proves my point about motivation.”
William pulled out his pocket watch to check the time. He had other business requiring his attention this morning and now that he’d secured her cooperation, it might be wise to depart before she could reconsider. “I see the day is getting on, so I’ll bid you adieu now that we’ve settled things between us.” Since neither of the Hursts offered any objection, he rose to his feet and bowed. “Until this afternoon.”
He’d reached the doorway before something prompted him to turn and look back at Miss Hurst. “You won’t renege on your promise, will you?”
“About being engaged, or about driving your curricle?” she asked, an arch smile playing about her mouth.
Her reply caught him off guard. He’d meant his question to refer to the planned drive this afternoon, but he could see how it could be taken both ways. “Either. Both,” he said.
“I won’t change my mind about this afternoon with a chance to drive your curricle on the line, and I suppose that commits me to the other, doesn’t it?” She spoke flippantly, but her expression was one of…of something hard to describe actually. A mixture of uncertainty, caution, doubt, defiance even, and somewhere in all those layers of emotion, he thought he detected a small gleam of something else. Not anticipation, exactly, more like a stirring of interest.
Whatever it was, he didn’t have all day to stand there and figure it out. But it was encouraging, given the intense dislike he’d seen in her eyes earlier.
“Until this afternoon then,” he said again, giving the Hursts a brief nod of farewell.
Miss Hurst’s voice followed him into the hallway. “I’ll see you later, Lord Norwood,” she called after him. “In the meantime, don’t forget your promise to let me drive.”
He smiled to himself. As if he could. Despite their short acquaintance, Miss Hurst was proving to be a surprisingly unforgettable girl.