A Marquis whose life has been uprooted more than once
A lady who traded love for a title
An affair that will shake the very foundation of the ton
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Chilham, Kent – Summer 1806
Lady Edith had never been so thoroughly humiliated. The Saint Augustine’s Day Fair should have marked the beginning of her new life as the betrothed of a duke’s son. Instead, she was cowering behind a column, too ashamed to show her face.
How would she go back home after failing to compromise Lord Clovelly?
Her mother had been furious and uttered the most hurtful statements before leaving her alone under the Roman Bridge to fend for herself—such was her rage she had not even been concerned about her daughter’s reputation.
Whimpering, Edith hugged her knees and hid her face. The ground was slightly damp close to the riverbank, but not even the certainty that her beautiful muslin day dress would be irremediably ruined made her pull herself up. If she were lucky, she would catch a cold or an inflammation of the lungs that would consume her slowly, and her mother would be sorry she had forsaken her only daughter.
Who would be the good-for-nothing then?
I gave you the good looks to trap a future duke, and you squandered my plan…
At your age, I was already married to an earl!
You make me blue as megrim.
You are a useless daughter.
You make a mull of everything.
You, mutton-headed, silly chit…
Edith had heard those insults before—those scathing remarks were nothing new. Her mother made sure to remind her daily what an utter failure of a lady she was. For all her seventeen years on earth, she had tried to please her mother, to make her proud, but nothing she did was ever enough.
What should I do with you? You know there is no money for a Season, and yet, you couldn’t even secure a husband when I put him on a silver platter for you.
Was it Edith’s fault if Lord Clovelly had refused to play by the rules and declined to do the honorable thing once they had been caught in a compromising position? If he hadn’t foiled her attempt at securing a titled husband, she would have applauded the young lord’s rectitude. Like an avenging and quite furious angel, he had told her and her mother that he would never marry Edith.
Was she so hideous that nobody liked her? What did she lack that other ladies had? Would her misery never end? If only she could marry a duke as her mother wanted, maybe then she would finally be content.
A loud sob wracked her chest. She was a wretched soul, all alone in the world. If her own mother wouldn’t love her, who would?
“Please, stop crying,” a polished, young voice said, startling her. Immediately after, a white handkerchief with lace accents appeared in front of her face.
When she raised her gaze, she met eyes so dark they looked like liquid pools.
“You are too pretty a lady to be sad.” A dark-haired boy pressed the fine linen into her hand.
He was about her age, maybe slightly older, and wore a blue cutaway coat over a striped waistcoat, a white cravat, tan pantaloons, black shoes, and looked and sounded like Quality. She perked up.
“I am afraid there is nobody around to introduce us,” he said after briefly looking over his shoulder—his manners were as impeccable as his clothes. There was a twinkle in his gaze that made her smile. Tilting his head, he regarded her with a long stare. “I was wrong in calling you pretty.” He made an elegant leg. “You are the most beautiful young lady I have ever met.”
Butterflies filled her stomach. Nobody had ever called her beautiful.
“My name is Ambrose Allston.” He pressed his gloved hand against his chest. “Forgive me the etiquette breach, but I must know your name, or I will forever wonder.”
He was no lord. The disappointment swiped away her budding hope he was an eligible parti.
She raised her chin and squared herself up. After crouching for so long, her legs were numb, but she pulled herself to her feet with as much grace as she could muster. “I am Lady Edith, the daughter of the Earl of Dedham.” She infused her statement with enough haughtiness to send him scurrying.
Instead, Mr. Allston reacted most disconcertingly to the news: His face lit with unabashed joy. “It is the best news I could hear!”
His enthusiasm was contagious, and she had to remind herself he was not worthy of her interest when her lips quirked up into a smile. She raised her brow in disdain but kept silent as she had been taught by her mother—when dealing with anyone of lower social standing always maintain proper distance.
“I am visiting my uncle, the Marquis of Camden, and he informed me just this morning that we have received an invitation from the Countess of Dedham,” he continued, unaffected by her cold reception. “We will call on you tomorrow.” His smile brightened. “Camden told me all about the pranks he and your father pulled on their Eton’s mates. They were geniuses!”
Dumbfounded, Edith stared at him for the longest time. She couldn’t understand what he had just said. The single words held meaning, but she found it difficult to believe the strict Earl of Dedham had ever been the kind of youth who had friends… or fun.
“I hope they will share some more stories over dinner.” Mr. Allston’s gaze had a faraway look for a moment, then he looked back at her with a hopeful expression. “I am writing down everything to recreate some of the pranks when I go back to Eton, and—”
“I cannot marry you because you are a mere mister,” she blurted out.
That finally erased the silly grin from his too-beautiful face. Leaning away ever so slightly, he frowned. “I didn’t realize I asked for your hand in marriage.”
Edith couldn’t remember the last time she had spoken her mind.
In her world, women smiled, played an instrument, maybe sang, and did embroidery—if particularly accomplished, they could paint watercolor landscapes—but they never opened their mouths to express their opinion.
“I am telling you so that you don’t raise your hopes in vain.” She worried the fabric of her muslin day dress with her hands.
“My hopes?” He smirked. “Or yours?”
“How dare you!” She gasped. “That is preposterous!”
He waved his hand in a vague gesture. “It is settled then.”
“What is settled?”
“I am not husband material.”
“You are surely not!”
“What about friend material?” he asked with a shrug and a smile that revealed a dimple on his left cheek.
Edith blinked. “Friend?”
“Yes, you know, a person you talk to or have fun with.”
“I cannot have a male friend,” she cried.
He nodded. “That wouldn’t be proper. To share secrets and vent…”
“Exactly!” Not that she had true female friends with whom she could do what he had mentioned—her mother had impressed on her how all the other young ladies were rivals in the marriage mart, so she kept shallow relationships with the other girls debuting in society at the same time she was.
“A secret friend, perhaps?” he asked.
“Is there such a thing?” she couldn’t help but say.
“If nobody knows about it…”
“It will be grand!” He raised his voice in excitement.
His eyes were rimmed with dark lashes, and his lips were perfectly shaped, and she couldn’t stop staring at him. It would be pleasant to have a friend—a secret one, even better.
When he offered his hand, she took it, and a warm feeling radiated inside her, making her feel better than she had in a long time.
“I think I am going to like being secret friends with you,” she said, and when he joyously laughed, she joined him.
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