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Chapter 1

In retrospect, Charles really should have known better.

He should have known that a mistress like Loretta Fanshawe would come with a price.

Charles Burnsten, the sixth Earl of Dresford, knew he was a very sought after protector, and was usually quite careful in selecting his mistresses. Though none of the women who occupied his bed ever laid claim to his heart, he was titled, wealthy, and generous both during and after an affair. He provided the funds, the jewels, and even the brief boost in reputation (of a sort) that came along with being the mistress of the Earl of Dresford.

In return, he expected a modicum of skill in the bedroom, monogamy as well as a certain amount of discretion for the duration of the affair, and of course, the good grace to let things go when a relationship had reached its natural conclusion.

None of these things were ever verbally agreed upon.

They were just known.

And always, always, adhered to.

Except now, here, was Loretta Fanshawe, making a complete nuisance of herself. Yes, she was beautiful in the frail ballerina type of way, and quite sought after in her own right -- she was, after all, a young widow of independent means who had a reputation for being particularly creative in the bedroom. But she was not Charles’s normal type of mistress. Though he occasionally indulged with a particularly fetching actress or singer, he was usually quite satisfied with slightly older widows who were experienced enough to separate the physical from the emotional. Usually, he willingly traded youth for discretion: far better the circumspect matron than the giddy debutante.

But Loretta had approached Charles at a time when he had been between mistresses and truthfully, a little bored. She had propositioned him in the middle of the ballroom, with those lush long lashes and her cinched and straining bosom. Yes, it had all been a trifle overdone. Yet he’d been intrigued by her brazenness, and truthfully, feeling a bit lazy. Selecting and setting up a new paramour was a tedious and lengthy process. Merely acquiescing to the admittedly delectable female presenting herself? He’d taken a long look at her and then shrugged. Why not?

After a few months, the affair had naturally run its course, which was to say, Charles had become bored with Loretta’s more theatrical tendencies. She had been a pleasurable bedmate, and socially she was quite adept -- always able to turn the latest gossip into an interesting tidbit with her decidedly incisive brand of humor. But, in time, her tendency towards malicious gossip had begun to pall, and, as often happened during the course of such affairs, Charles found his mind wandering, and his already lukewarm affection waned. Though Loretta had hinted several times that they might pursue a more permanent relationship, Charles was simply not interested. Indeed, the fact that she seemed to genuinely believe a widow of her rather questionable, borderline salacious reputation might be a fitting candidate for the future Countess of Dresford... well, it showed an appalling lack of sense, not to mention wit.

(Which of course, only further weakened her case, a point Charles was loathe to mention.)

If and when he did marry, it would be to produce heirs, and he would choose one of the many boring, bland debutantes who cycled through the ballrooms year after year. Someone who would bear him children, have long conversations about the linen rotation with his housekeeper, and fade conveniently into the background of his life.

The last person he’d choose would be an overly-experienced widow with loose morals and a flair for smashing vases when in a temper.

No, no, no. Charles shook his head and almost shivered just from the idea of such a disastrous match.

Loretta had been quite entertaining, yes.

But that was where it should have ended.

Before, he’d always been able to end such affairs peacefully, and without too much additional drama. He hated the recriminations and tears that sometimes accompanied such conversations, and had long ago found that gifts, in the form of expensive jewelry, went a long way towards soothing bruised egos and those mercurial things women labeled as their sensitivities, their feelings.

But with Loretta, nothing had gone as planned. The first time Charles had tried to break things off, more than a month ago now, Loretta had laughed at him and said, in that pretty lilting voice of hers, “Don’t be daft. We’re wonderful together.” She told him quite confidently that what they had was special and unique, and that she had never felt for anyone else what she felt for him. Charles had been hard put not to roll his eyes. He wondered how much she would have protested if he hadn’t been the wealthiest, most titled of her conquests. Still, he’d held himself back from expressing such dubious thoughts. His purpose (at least then) was to appease her, not fan the flames. He’d told his secretary, a staid young man who took his duties very, very seriously, to add matching earrings to the ruby necklace he’d already given her, and thought the matter done.

But Loretta Fanshawe had proven to be more tenacious than he’d originally guessed. Though she’d had many lovers in the past, she claimed that she had always been the one to end the affair. She began approaching him discreetly, at balls they both attended, inviting him back to her place, saying that she was sure he had some spare time for her, that no man had ever, could ever, walk away from her. That there were pleasures he hadn’t even begun to imagine...

When that failed, she had (like the chameleon she was) switched tactics again: she said she needed his advice and missed his embrace. Despite his rapidly thinning patience, he’d tried to be polite. He’d made excuses, and said he was already engaged with one task or another, until finally, one night last week he’d run out of platitudes (it was her seventh attempt after all, and he felt that even the slowest of brains should have figured out the overwhelming pattern by then). He’d said, quite bluntly, “It’s over. Truly. Time to cut line and move on.”

Though she had looked shocked and disappointed, she had picked up her skirts and left, knowing it would be unwise to cause a public scene. She was a beautiful, shrewd woman, heavily in demand; Charles felt certain that she would soon find another protector, and then finally, the thing would be over and done with.

And now, here he was at White’s, more than a week later, and still the woman had yet to give up! Charles had actively avoided the more popular balls these past few days -- usually, such events already veered somewhere between moderately and dreadfully boring, especially now during the season’s zenith. But now that there was the additional annoyance of the-ex-mistress-who-would-not-quit, it seemed wiser to stick to his clubs. Somehow, Loretta had tracked him down even here, in broad daylight, sending an overly scented appeal, written in a flowery scrawl that was extraordinarily hard to decipher, disturbing what would have been an otherwise perfectly restful afternoon at his club.

Charles squinted and then finally gave up trying to muddle his way through her handwriting -- it was much the same as what she’d already said, that she considered him a dear friend, and was certain they could come to some mutually beneficial arrangement to continue. She truly believed (this had been underlined three times, for emphasis) in their future together. If he hadn’t already heard that she seemed close to accepting a liaison with Lord Jennison, an aging baronet with more money than sense, he might, just might, have felt a smidgen of… well, something. Instead, he snorted at what was an obvious last ditch effort to better her situation. Charles ripped the card neatly in two, and motioned for the waiter to come and pick up the remnants of Loretta’s impassioned pleas.

“Tired of your latest conquest already?” Archibald Barrington, Viscount Robeson, took the wing-tipped chair across from him and motioned to the torn parchment as the waiter left them. To his left, Oliver Stanley, Baron Billings approached and threw Charles a quick, half-apologetic smile. Oliver spread his hands in supplication, as if to say: don’t blame me.

Charles didn’t bother to hide his grimace. Oliver was an old friend, practically a brother, the two had grown up together, as their main properties abutted one another, but he and Robeson had never gotten along. Nothing overt, just a mutual antipathy that had caused them to rarely cross paths over the years.

“Not that it’s any of your business,” Charles said.

Robeson waved for a waiter, and ordered a snifter of brandy before speaking again. “Loretta Fanshawe is your latest, isn’t she?”

His tone sounded bland and uninterested, but Charles knew the jealousy Robeson tried so carefully to hide -- Loretta had told Charles about Robeson’s advances, in an effort to impress upon Charles how sought after she was. Charles shook his head. Why could no one understand that quantity and quality were very different phenomena? He’d never been particularly impressed by how many suitors his mistresses may or may not have turned down, especially when the suitor in question was someone like Robeson, who had nothing more than looks, a title, and an exceedingly supercilious attitude to recommend him.

In retrospect, the mere fact that he and Robeson had briefly been interested in the same woman should have served as a warning that Loretta was trouble.

Then again, a lot of things about Loretta had become clearer in hindsight.

“I’ve always considered gossip distasteful, and, like I said before: it’s hardly any of your business.”

Robeson’s handsome face flushed briefly. “If you knew you would tire of her, and so quickly, why did you bother in the first place? Some of us might have been interested... seriously interested... before she became your used goods.”

Oliver, ever the peacemaker, tried to butt in with a “now, now” but was quickly waved aside by Robeson, who seemed intent on carrying on his one-sided argument. “Who’s to say I wouldn’t have kept her well, and longer?”

Charles closed his eyes briefly. Loretta Fanshawe hardly seemed worth arguing over; still, he was damned if he would let a man like Robeson lecture him on morality. “If I understand you correctly -- you are disappointed that a particular lady was unaccepting of your attentions. In which case, that is your business, and hers. It has always been my experience that women have the power to choose their protectors. If our interests have coincided, however briefly, in the past, rest assured that they won’t in the future. If you’re inclined to engage a new mistress, by all means, don’t let me stand in your way.”

Robeson shrugged his massive shoulders under a tightly-fitted, over-styled top coat, “Easy for you to say, now that you’re done with her.”

Charles spread his hands wide and made a show of examining his fingernails, hopeful that Robeson would move on now that he’d said his piece, and he would still be able to salvage some of the afternoon. He wondered idly when town life had become so boring, so crammed with meaningless arguments like quibbling with Robeson over a woman neither of them now wanted. He’d laugh if he wasn’t one of the unfortunate participants.

But Robeson, it seemed, was not quite finished. “She only chose you because you’re an earl, you know. Women always care about the titles and such. If I were an earl, she would have chosen me.”

Oliver rolled his eyes; it was well known that Robeson had always had a chip on his shoulder: he had been the third son of the previous viscount, and had never expected to inherit. Rumor was that he’d been ill-prepared for the role, and had severely drained the family coffers. Of course, none of this stopped him from flaunting his rank in front of his supposed inferiors (he often said things like, “We viscounts...” or began sentences with “Well, as a viscount...” when talking to mere knights and baronets), but he’d always been particularly touchy around peers with superior titles (then, he would say, “As a mere viscount...” and so on).

Charles gave an exaggerated shrug. His patience had run out. Between Loretta’s machinations and Robeson’s snide comments, his supply of forbearance had been completely and utterly exhausted. After a measured pause, he said, “I can’t help the fact that I’m an earl, no more than you can help being a complete ass.”

Oliver inhaled a bit sharply, and a couple of other men from a nearby sitting area sat up a little straighter as well, ruffling newspapers and tilting heads in that discreet-but-not manner, no doubt salivating over the unfolding drama and hoping to enliven their otherwise routine afternoons.

Robeson’s eyes narrowed dangerously, and it was apparent to all who could see him that he was considering what to do next -- such an insult could not go completely unanswered. But, equally obvious to their many interested observers, was that Robeson was apparently sifting through his limited responses and not liking any of them, frowning, and clearing his throat repeatedly.

Charles Burnsten was, after all, a boxer of some repute, a sporting man who was known as a crack shot, and who had the steady nerves that would have made him an excellent general, had he had any inclination that way.

And most likely, considering the relative disparity between their physical health (with Charles being a lover of all things physical and sports-like, and Robeson more often confining himself to gaming and other, more sedentary activities), odds were that Robeson would lose any sort of sporting challenge decisively. Embarrassingly. A contest between the two would be laughably one-sided, and would probably be memorable fodder for the more salacious gossips for months, perhaps years, to come.

“I won’t stand for such an insult,” Robeson said finally, though his tone lacked conviction.

“Then don’t.” Charles was tempted to point out that Robeson was in fact, not standing, but rather, sitting, but he doubted that Robeson was in the mood for puns over semantics.

That had been part of the problem with Loretta, of course: not only had seen been prone to tantrums and fits, she’d had absolutely no sense of humor, and usually gave not even the faintest imitations of curiosity beyond society gossip. Whenever Charles tried at a joke, or mentioned anything beyond what had happened at last night’s ball, she’d draw her pretty little eyebrows together and bat her eyelashes, perplexed.

There was another tense pause while Oliver looked on in wide-eyed anticipation; several of the men around them shifted papers, trying not to show how closely they were following the conversation.

“If you weren’t an earl, I would challenge you.”

Charles sighed, already dangerously bored with the conversation, “You won’t challenge me because I’m an earl, women only choose me because I’m an earl. It would seem, Robeson, that you’re more obsessed with my title than... well, anyone else. I don’t put stock in it, why must you?”

There was another beat of silence before Robeson whispered, almost sibilantly, “Would you be willing to prove that?”

Surprised for the first time that day, Charles raised his eyebrows and said, “Excuse me?”

“Prove to me that you could really get on without your title. That you could get a girl, any girl, to choose you without your wealth and connections.”

Charles let out a bark of laughter, “I’m hardly about to renounce my title over a silly argument.”

“That’s not what I’m suggesting.” Robeson leaned forward, and Charles would see a faint sheen of sweat gathering on the man’s brow, so intent was he on their conversation. “If you prove that you could get a girl to choose you, a girl who didn’t know you were wealthy or the great and almighty Earl of Dresford, I would apologize in a heartbeat. I’ll forget the fact that you’ve insulted me and… I’ll admit I’m an arse.”

Charles allowed an almost artistically timed moment to pass before murmuring, “I didn’t realize the latter was in question.”

To his left, Oliver tried (rather unsuccessfully) to turn a snort into a cough. To his right, Lord Cleyara slapped his knee and murmured something like, “He’s got you pegged.”

But Robeson ignored them, and pressed on, “I’m serious, Dresford. I think you’re so used to being the famous Earl of Dresford, whose reputation alone makes damsels faint and swoon, that you’ve forgotten what it’s like to truly have to survive just based on your wits alone. In fact —” Robeson paused dramatically, clearly enjoying the amount of attention they were generating, “— I’ll wager, anything you like, that you couldn’t do it.”

“Do what, exactly?”

“Make a girl choose you -- become your mistress, accept a marriage proposal, publicly declare her love for you, forfeits we can debate over later -- believing that you were nothing more than a lowly commoner, a mere mister with limited means and no reputation, no connections.”

“That is the most asinine suggestion you’ve ever come up with,” Charles said, though he could see the trap had already opened beneath him. If he backed down now, people would talk, and say that he was afraid to be without his title and his reputation, that despite the fact that he always treated them lightly, and never flaunted either, he was as attached, more attached perhaps, than even people like Robeson. Or worse, that he doubted his ability to attract women without his title and background.

No doubt Loretta Fanshawe, once she heard about it, would spread and expand upon this particular story until it was whispered about in very saloon and ballroom. Either way, Charles would have no peace this season. He could walk away now and call Robeson’s bluff, or he could entertain this ridiculous wager. Neither were particularly appealing.

“I abhor theatrics in general, and public declarations seem particularly base.”

“Then suggest an alternative.”

Charles could think of several, what he couldn’t figure out was a way to wiggle out of the noose that was being tightened slowly around him. The silence yawned out in front of him until finally he said, “What, exactly, do you have that’s worth wagering?” It wasn’t polite to boast of one’s wealth, but the truth of the matter was, Robeson’s viscounty compared against the Dresford earldom? Hard to think of something Robeson could possibly wager to make it worth his while.

“My Rembrandt.”

Charles took a slow and measured breath, and tried not to show his excitement. Robeson’s father had acquired a Rembrandt landscape some years back, one that had, when Charles had first seen it, made him feel calm and peaceful in a way that had been hard to replicate. He’d remarked on it the one time he’d been to Robeson’s townhouse, and had even offered quite a generous sum to purchase it.

“Your Rembrandt,” Charles said finally. “And what do you want in return?”

“Two thousand pounds. And a public apology.”

Charles closed his eyes briefly -- the money was inconsequential. It was, in fact, exactly double the sum Charles had offered to pay years ago, upon first seeing the painting: he’d been that taken with it. But a public apology? The very idea of having to be at the center of such a display...

“You heard me, public.”

Charles opened his eyes and saw a bevy of interested spectators, most of whom had long ago given up pretending disinterest, several of whom were standing in a small cluster around them.

“Name your terms -- what girl, how much time, what are the forfeits et cetera, and I’ll think about it.”

Robeson smiled, and Charles couldn’t help but feel a tingling feeling down his spine. Though he hadn’t agreed, yet, he knew he would. The opportunity to get his hands on the Rembrandt, coupled with the fact that he had more or less allowed himself to be maneuvered into an untenable position from which he would have trouble backing down...

“Come now, Dresford, either you’re in, or you’re out. We’re not missish virgins trying to decide which shawlette brings out our eyes. My Rembrandt, against your money and apology. Yes or no.”

Charles gritted his teeth and threw a quick glance at Oliver, who was giving a barely discernable head shake. This was definitely not the way he had envisioned his day unfolding. Still, before he had time to second guess himself further, he said, “Yes.”

One of the men who’d been standing to the side gave a hoot and quickly motioned the waiter to bring him some paper. Clearly, a wager of such proportions needed to be written out, the details debated and then formalized. “Though I have some rules: no debutantes. I won’t seriously impede some girl determined to marry. No gossip surrounding this either. If the merest hint of this gets out…” He looked pointedly at the ten or so men gathered around in a tight-knit circle. “If I’m going to have to pretend to be someone else, and do so successfully, this will need to have as little publicity as possible.”

Robeson’s thin smile only stretched further, “Don’t worry about that, I’ve got the perfect location, and the perfect girl for that matter. A place where no one will have ever heard of the Earl of Dresford, and, if you’re curious, a girl who isn’t going to give you the time of day.”

Chapter 2

“Well, well, isn’t this a pleasant surprise.”

Julia stopped humming, and felt as if every muscle in her body had suddenly tensed. She would recognize the self-satisfied voice of Archibald Barrington anywhere. She wished she could say that it had become nasally or pinched, but if anything, his voice had deepened over the intervening years, and was now infused with a certain gravitas.

She wiped her dirt-stained hands thoroughly along the edges of the apron she’d put over one of her oldest day dresses, stalling. She’d known Archie was coming back, of course. Her stepmother had talked in breathless whispers about little else over the past three weeks. Munthrope was a small village, and a viscount, any viscount, especially one they’d all met before, but who had since come into a title and fortune… was big news.

Thus Julia had known that sooner or later she’d have to meet Archie again.

She just hadn’t thought she’d have to see him this soon.

Or that she’d be quite so dirty and dusty.

She forced her hands to be steady and turned to find not one, but three pairs of eyes trained intently upon her.

“Lord Robeson.” Julia inclined her head and made a facsimile of a curtsy. “As you say, an unexpected surprise.”

She held his gaze, and forced herself not to fidget, not to give him, or his companions, any inkling of how discomforted she felt, standing here in her country worst while they appeared in all their splendor. She especially tried not to notice how well Archie had aged: his once lanky frame had filled out nicely, his shoulders looked broader, his blond hair seemed thicker and was styled just so. Despite the fact that his green eyes twinkled with some combination of mirth and malice, Julia couldn’t help noticing that he was, perhaps, the handsomest man she’d ever seen.

My, what a stir he would cause. With his looks. And his title. And his fortune.

Eight years ago, no one had paid him any attention. Then, he’s been nothing more than Archie Barrington, the insolvent, shabbily-dressed, directionless third son. Even the mothers of Munthrope had thought they’d be able to find a better mate than a brooding, too-skinny, third.

At the time, only Julia had found him attractive; she’d been the only one to laugh at his jokes, to listen to his stories, to look beyond his meager allowance and awkward appearance.

Robeson returned her perusal indolently, his well-shaped mouth twisting briefly. “Now, now,” he said, his supercilious tone causing all of Julia’s already-heightened senses to notch upwards, “There’s no need to quibble over adjectives.”

He smiled again, and Julia thought that she could almost see traces of the man he’d been, before the title and fortune, in the lopsided half-smile he now wore. It was an effort not to smile back, to hold herself aloof and still under his scrutiny.

“I’ve been hoping to introduce you to two of my closest friends from London. May I present Lord Billings?” A man of moderate height and very ordinary, fair, features stepped forward and bowed, smiling reassuringly, as if he’d guessed her distress.

“And this fellow, though a bit of a ne’er do well to the rest of the world, is nonetheless a particular friend of mine. Mr. Charles Alver, may I present Miss Julia Morland? The vicar’s daughter I mentioned to you once.”

Julia studied the man in front of her, noting that unlike Billings, who looked warm, kind and had an almost inviting air, Mr. Alver was nothing but hard planes and stiff contours. Where Robeson and Billings were dressed in a decidedly flashy style, with a variety of fobs dangling from brightly trimmed waistcoats, Mr. Alver’s attire was simple, almost stark – hessian boots with cream-colored breeches and a black overcoat that molded nicely over his trim but athletic physique. His eyes were grey and his mouth looked more suited to sneers than friendly smiles. He was, by far, the tallest of the three men, and he stood with the confidence of someone used to commanding everyone’s attention.

He wasn’t handsome, but there was an unmistakable something about him.

Julia licked at suddenly dry lips and told herself she wouldn’t -- she just wouldn’t -- ask why Robeson would have mentioned her to his friends, or what he might have revealed.

As if reading her mind, Mr. Alver said, “He’s said nothing but good things, of course.”

“Thank you, but let me assure you that such reassurances are entirely unnecessary.”

She regretted her words almost instantly. Whatever else she’d become, she was never intentionally rude. And though Robeson perhaps deserved some of her angst, his friends surely did not. She was on the cusp of apologizing when she was forestalled by Mr. Alver, who, instead of seeming at all insulted, merely raised a single eyebrow sardonically, almost as if she had said something... cute. Julia’s eyes narrowed.

“Societal norms must be preserved, don’t you think?” Mr. Alver said in what Julia was sure was meant to be a charming, soothing voice.

“Only when it’s the truth.”

“And who’s to say that we can’t observe the niceties while adhering to the truth?”

“Nicety: from the Latin, nescius, for ignorant.” Julia knew that she was being rude, and she knew she should stop, yet somehow, she couldn’t seem to stop herself. Thanks to Robeson, she no longer tried to be all-things-biddable, she no longer went out of her way to please and mollify, and there was something about this man’s tone, his entire bearing that set her teeth on edge. She enunciated, quite clearly, “What do the ignorant know of truth?”

Mr. Alver’s eyebrows rose alarmingly, but before he could reply, Robeson waved his arm rather gracelessly at Julia’s basket of lemons, derailing anything his friend had been about to say by stating, “Still obsessed with the freckles, I see.”

Julia drew in a deep breath, and turned her attention to Robeson. “Not obsessed, no. Still searching for practical ways to ameliorate an unwanted attribute, yes.” She managed, just barely, to keep herself from explaining that the lemon trees were part of a larger experiment, a side project she and her father had become interested in: whether citrus, if shielded and otherwise protected, might be able to survive a winter outside of their greenhouse. She didn’t want any of them to get the impression that she actually wanted to converse with them.

“I’ve always found that freckles, like beauty spots and moles, add something to a woman’s face, a certain flair.”

Julia looked at Mr. Alver wonderingly, perplexed that he actually seemed to be trying to pay her a compliment, in the midst of their argument, as though he thought he was being charming. He’d delivered his pronouncement with aplomb, as if bestowing some great favor.

She sniffed her nose in the way her young stepsister Claire did, when the flowers or lace hadn’t been arranged to her liking. “I don’t think you know me well enough to be commenting on whether or not I have any flair. Further, the predilection for exaggeration is gender specific.” Later, when she was alone and had time to think about it, she was sure that she’d be mortified by her own remarks. Though she prided herself on being blunt, she wasn’t usually quite so…acerbic. She wasn’t sure whether it was Robeson’s reappearance, or something inherent to Mr. Alver that set her back up, but she couldn’t seem to stop herself: no sooner had the words formed than they were out of her mouth.

Mr. Alver’s jaw jutted out and to the side, as if pondering her rather graceless remarks, while Robeson coughed out a bark of laughter, and Billings mostly stood, slightly awkwardly to the side, examining the lemon tree as if it was the most fascinating citrus he’d ever seen.

“Are you always so forthright?” Mr. Alver stared at her, his eyes boring into hers. Though they were out in broad daylight, and the question seemed a perfectly innocuous one, Julia nevertheless experienced a curious sensation. She pressed her hand to her stomach, certain it was merely indigestion. For surely she was past the age of believing in flutters, butterflies, or other romantic nonsense.

“If you mean to ask whether I am always this rude, you should do so. I don’t cower at blunt pronunciations, especially when they’re true. I am forthright, blunt, and sometimes rude.”

She saw the quirk of his lips and wondered if the man was laughing at her. Almost, she succumbed to the temptation to apologize, to slip into the shy, diffident girl she’d been before Robeson, the one who wanted nothing more than to please.

But she knew better, didn’t she?

She bit her lip and continued in a firm voice, her father’s preaching voice, the one laced with a mixture of authority and forbearing, as if explaining something to a young child, “You should say what you mean, Mr. Alver, and not waste time buttressing it overly much. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.”

“Latin and geometry all in one day --” Mr. Alver started.

“Ah, but that’s the one thing I should have mentioned: our Miss Morland considers herself quite the scholar,” Robeson interrupted, with a bit of sneer.

Julia tilted her head in acknowledgement: it was an old argument between them: Robeson always used to complain that she paid more attention to her studies than to him. But that was then, and both of them had long since made their choices. It seemed silly to second-guess or continuing sparring now, when it served nothing and no one. She sighed soundlessly and then picked up her basket and skirts. “Gentlemen, if you’ll excuse me: the day is young and I have many more errands to run.”

She half-turned before good manners forced her to continue, “It was a pleasure meeting you, Lord Billings.” She paused for a half-second before adding, “Mr. Alvers, Lord Robeson.” Then she began a brisk pace back to the vicarage. Her walking boots were caked in mud and the basket of lemons weighed heavily on her arm, but she didn’t let either of these slow her progress. The only thing she cared about was putting as much distance as possible between herself, Robeson, and his obnoxious friends.

*

Charles watched Julia Morland’s rapidly retreating back and wondered briefly if he should just concede the bet now. Rembrandt be damned.

Yes, Julia Morland was moderately attractive -- something Charles supposed he ought to be grateful for. He’d been afraid that Robeson would’ve picked out the homeliest girl this side of the Atlantic, just to humiliate him.

While Julia wouldn’t have been able to hold a candle to the Loretta Fanshawes of the world, she was at least passably pretty. She had a pert nose, too-wide lips, and of course, the freckles that were so clearly a touchy subject, but still, a decent figure. Her waist had been slim without seeming artificial: clearly this was a woman who did not bother with overly constraining corsets. As he watched her march away in silence, Charles couldn’t help but notice the suggestive sway of her hips.

Physically, she quite acceptable.

Her voice too, was not unattractive. Clearly, she was an educated woman and not a simpleton. This had been another of his fears: Robeson had described Julia Morland as being “not particularly slow” in a way that had seemed to imply the exact opposite. He had suffered through much of their carriage ride half-fretting that Robeson had paired him with a slow top who would have forced him to talk endlessly of ribbons and lace before finally giving him one of the forfeits specified by the rules of their bet.

He thought back to her brief, though quite invidiously articulate, lecture and mentally shook his head: no, Julia Morland was not slow.

And her smell... for he’d been close enough to inhale her scent, had been attractive. Unlike the manufactured perfumes that Loretta and many of his other mistresses had preferred, scents that were almost cloyingly clingy and had often caused even his perfectly trained valet to grimace, Julia Morland had smelled like a delightful combination of soap and lemons. Charles thought, with some satisfaction, that her smell matched her personality: fresh, straightforward, and more than a little tart.

Her conversational skills, on the hand...

Charles turned on Robeson, who was still laughing intermittently, despite the fact that Julia’s form was barely a speck in the distance. “A bit of a spinster, you said.”

“Yes,” Robeson smirked.

“More or less decided against marriage and thus a worthy challenge.”

“Those were, I believe, more or less my words.”

Charles paused, his narrowed eyes taking in Robeson’s self-congratulatory expression as well as Oliver’s decidedly amused countenance. Oliver was here to observe and bear witness, after all, and had no particular stake in the eventual outcome. In fact, to ensure his impartiality, he was probably the only person who’d heard of the bet and had not put down money on one side or the other.

 


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

I'm a blessed, but exhausted, mother of three. I learned English by reading regency-era romances, and when I ran out of escapist fiction that was exactly the type I wanted (low stakes, less alpha, more fun bodice ripping), I started to write my own.

Q. What books have influenced your life the most?
A.
In no particular order: Heyer's Frederica, Atwood's The Blind Assassin, Crittenden's The Price of Motherhood
Q. Why do you write?
A.
All I want, at the end of my day, is a good, fun, escapist romance -- I ran out of the stories that I wanted, so I started writing!

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