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A Michaelmas Wager

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A Michaelmas Wager

By Emily Murdoch

Shakespir Edition

Copyright © 2017 Emily Murdoch

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. All pictures are held by commercial license and may not be duplicated by anyone without express permission.

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Dedication

To all the people who I have tried to have married by Michaelmas.

To Granny, who was much in my thoughts as I wrote this book.

To Joshua, the man who took a wager on me.

To my readers.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

A Christmas Surprise

Historical Note

About the Author

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

“But the vicar said that’s not my wife – that’s my daughter!”

Guffaws rang out as Rufus Lovell, face flushed from wine, grinned round at his friends, his joke finally finished. A hand slapped him on the back as one of his companions brushed away a tear from his eye, and the chuckles did not recede for a good full minute.

“Rufus you dog!” Percival Quinn said beaming. “Who knew that you had such a joke in you? Not even my brother Isaac is that quick witted!”

Heads turned, and tongues tutted as the crowds gathered in Hyde Park stared to look at the group of young gentlemen making such a ruckus, and some parasols turned elegantly to block them from view. Rufus could see that their laughter was disturbing the May Day celebration held by Percival’s father, the Duke of Daventry, but he didn’t care. Drunk on friendship, if not a little wine, he felt as though he could take on the world.

“You must tell us another.” Anthony Griffiths shoved another glass of what looked like champagne into Rufus’ hand. “Rufus my boy you seem to know them all!”

Rufus grinned, his balance slightly shaken by the rough gesture and his cravat inelegantly twisted in the heat of the day. Whose idea had it been to have this year’s Daventry May Day party outside, anyway? He was sweltering under his linen shirt and silk waistcoat, and that was after he had managed to lose his jacket. Some of the ladies in their corsets must be near collapse.

“Come on now, Rufus, another joke!”

The statement from Nicholas Wingrave brought Rufus back to his party of friends: the four of them, his three best friends. He says best, of course: but four months ago he did not even know them. He glorified in their attentions like a sunflower glorifies in the sun.

“Another joke?” Rufus tried to steady his feet as he attempted to steady the conversation. “Surely you have heard them all!”

“You mean there are not more?” Nicholas looked genuinely shocked, and grabbed rudely at a glass from a silver platter that was being carried past them by a servant. “Dear boy, you disappoint me. Didn’t your brother teach you any more skits?”

Rufus winced though he tried to hide it from his friends, the most fashionable and talked about men in the tonne. He did not speak of his brother Hubert.

Anthony nodded, champagne dripping from the corners of his mouth and dribbling into his cravat, staining the white linen yellow. “Yes, surely a few years in prison would have taught your brother a fine caper or two!”

An elderly couple who had been standing close to the men now took definite strides away, and Rufus flushed.

Five months ago, he had not known them, except Percival Quinn to look at. Everyone knew the Daventry family, their five sons – Isaac and Percival especially, the two most likely to break a girl’s heart – but Rufus Lovell was just a second son of a tradesman who saw such people at the Assemblies and never even got within hearing distance.

That had all changed five months ago.

“What did your brother do, anyway?” asked Anthony lazily, staring indolently at a trio of young ladies, unchaperoned save for each other, strolling with flirtatiously lowered lashes – lashes that flashed upwards to gaze quickly at the group of young men as they went on their way to the punch bowl that stood in the middle of the party. “Arson? Treason?”

“I do know another joke,” said Rufus hastily, pushing back his dark hair from his eyes as the heat of the sun really started to play down on him. He would give anything to be able to remove his hat. “There were three men, an Englishman – ”

“No, we want to hear about Huey!” Nicholas was now slurring, and it was becoming more and more difficult to ascertain exactly what he was saying. “I can’t believe he rotted there for five years before he died of barrel fever!”

Rufus winced again. Drinking himself to death – the barrel fever – was not the way that he had expected his older brother to die, and certainly not before he had reached his thirtieth year. But then Hubert had not taken the course expected of him by his family, and after joining a rather illicit group he quickly became the scapegoat for their crimes. Estrangement from his family had taught him nothing, gossip and slander had not brought him to his knees, and even a prison sentence had not darkened the perpetual smile that seemed to rest on Hubert Lovell’s face.

After going missing for so long it had come as quite a shock to the Lovell family to find their first born up before a judge. He had been lucky to escape the ships to Australia, but it had not helped him in the end. And so the Lovell fortune, built in trade and covertly spent in London in fashion, now belonged to Rufus.

And what a life he now had. New friends, new clothes, new parties now open to him. He could not have dreamed of this: but with new found money came new found expectations.

“Let us leave off jokes,” Rufus said in a bored tone, “I weary of them faster than I weary of this gathering – apologies to the host!”

Percival shrugged. “No offence to be lodged with me, Rufus, it’s not my party. It’s hardly a crush, is it? I see hardly one pretty face amongst these girls, and I know that Father had a good deal of trouble with people being out of Town at this time in the season.”

“Oh tosh Percival, what nonsense you do talk!” Anthony scoffed, his eyes still watching the trio of ladies who had been so alluring five minutes before. A gaggle of ladies now stood around the punch bowl, gossiping and sharing news. The tinkle of their laughter caught on the breeze. “I could number two that I would not be averse to taking home with me.”

The men laughed, and Nicholas slapped Anthony on the back. “Only two?”

“At least two!” Anthony repeated, a sly grin creeping over his face. “And I’m sure that old Father Quinn is just keeping some of the best in reserve so as to tempt us to stay longer – just like he does with his wine!”

Percival punched Anthony jovially on the arm. “The less said about my Father’s hosting skills the better, I thank you sir! Anyway, I’m up for a wager if one of you are. How about it, Nick?”

Nicholas, Rufus quickly saw, was a little worse for wear. Unlike the others, he was unable to hold his drink – and unwilling to pass it up when offered – and so was gazing a little off focus when he heard his name called, and turned to face his friends.

“Me?” He said blankly. “What do you want with me?”

“A wager,” said Percival smoothly. Rufus stared at him in admiration; there really was no situation that the Quinn family could not find themselves in that they could not master immediately. He had met Isaac, one of the younger Quinn sons at a card table a few days previously, and he was exactly the same – perhaps even better able to merge seamlessly into any background you placed him in.

Nicholas nodded, his face slightly blotchy thanks to the medley of heat and wine. “A wager it is! I accept your bargain.”

The friends laughed as Rufus tried to explain to the inebriated gentleman. “No, Nick, there has been no wager set yet – do you not wish to know what it is that you have agreed to?”

“Doesn’t matter,” said Nicholas calmly, as he hiccoughed. “Bound to lose anyway, Percival Quinn always wins.”

Their laughter drew even more attention, and this time Rufus could see that two of the ladies who were standing near the punch bowl threw startling looks: daggers of disdain thrown in their direction.

“Now, let’s try to keep it down, lads.” Rufus said quietly. “I think we’re starting to draw a crowd.”

“Oh nonsense Rufus, you do worry so.” There was no hint of concern in Anthony’s voice, and it was matched by Percival’s face. “We’re the toast of the tonne! We’re the most eligible bachelors in London, perhaps the whole of England, and a few glasses of champagne – ”

“Eleleven.” Nicolas interrupted, barely able to get his tongue around the two syllables. “I am almost sure you know that it was eleven.”

“A few glasses of champagne,” Anthony continued, clasping Nicholas to him in a bear hug, “will do us no harm. Except Nicholas. He’s smashed.”

Rufus could not help but laugh with them – with his friends. Was this not what being young was about? Was this not what it meant to feel alive?

“And being smashed does not preclude you from our wager!” Percival interrupted smoothly. “Nicholas Wingrave: I wager you a guinea that you will not ask for that lady’s name in the next . . . oh, I don’t know. Five minutes?”

Rufus could not help but laugh. The lady in question, indicated by a pointed finger of Percival Quinn’s, looked old enough to be any of their grandmothers. She was dressed in the fashions of the 1790s, at least twenty years out of date, and was looking sternly at them with an expression of deep disgust.

This, however, did not appear to dampened Nicholas’ spirits. “You had better be good for the money, Percival, for you are about to become poorer.”

Rufus watched his friend, slightly in horror, slightly impressed, as he wandered over to the lady in question. True, his walking was a little wobbly, and it took him two attempts to find her as he started to drift off to the left slightly, but eventually he found himself before her.

They were just too far away to be able to hear the words that he used exactly, but they could all see the slap in the face that Nicholas received for his troubles. The woops of celebration and mirth rang out across the whole of Hyde Park, and several heads turned to see what the rumpus was all about.

Rufus cheered along with his friends as Nicholas tottered back to the group.

“And that,” he said proudly, “is how it is done.”

Chuckling, Rufus shook his head wonderingly and placed an arm on his friend’s shoulder. “Nicholas, how can you consider that a victory – we all saw you, the whole party saw you – receive a resounding response!”

“Aha!” And now Nicholas straightened up, his eyes finding their focus suddenly, his voice sounding stronger, and his smile becoming sharper. “Because the wager that my friend here made with a man whom he assumed was a drunkard was merely to ask for the name of the lady in question – not to receive it.”

Percival stared in shock as he realised that he had been duped, and Anthony roared with laughter.

“You mean you’ve played at drunkard?” Rufus stared at him in amazement, unable to take the veneration from his words. “Nicholas Wingrave, you old dog!”

“An old dog who taught this pup a lesson,” said Nicholas grinning, holding out his hand to Percival who placed his own in his waistcoat for his pocket book in very bad grace. “Do not feel bad, Percival old thing, I’m at least two years older than you with two years more experience. You’ll get me next time.”

Percival shook his head wryly. “You know, I’m not sure if I will. Well done, Nicholas, you deserve this guinea.”

“Does your face hurt much?” Anthony asked with a chuckle, still staring at the two of them and finding the situation hilarious.

Nicholas replied coolly, “Not as much as Percival’s pride.”

Rufus could not help but laugh, and the two ladies who had glared at him before repeated the gesture.

Percival Quinn however did not laugh. “You think it’s funny, Rufus? Well then, it looks like it’s your turn to receive a wager! Nicholas, as our reigning champion, would you like to do the honours?”

“You know, I would.” Nicholas mimicked the mock seriousness of Percival’s tone, and turned with an expressive face towards Rufus. “Now, what to bet with young Rufus here, what shall we do?”

“You could always ask him to pocket some silver,” suggested Anthony as another servant went by carrying a platter of what looked like delicious fruit tartlets. “Unless Percival here isn’t using the real thing with his cutlery?”

Rufus shook his head with a lazy grin. “No actual crimes, thank you gentlemen.”

“Yes,” giggled Nicholas, “The Lovell name has plenty of that already!”

A flush threatened at his cravat but Rufus managed to keep himself steady. Thankfully the men seemed far more interested in exactly what Nicholas was going to gamble on. What wager was about to be made?

Another tinkle of feminine laughter drifted across the air, and the men turned instinctively towards the punch bowl, and the gaggle of ladies that had accumulated there. So much beauty in such a small place, it seemed almost impossible and yet there they were, ready to be watched. Rufus could see that the pair who had been so disapproving earlier were still unhappy with them. One of them, dressed in a white gown, seemed far more interested in them however, despite her disapprobation. Her friend, attired in a cream gown that showed off the delicate white of her skin, spoke and claimed her attention.

“I have it.” Nicholas spoke with great finality, but with a hint of cheek in his voice. “Are you ready for your wager?”

“I do not think I have ever been more ready,” Rufus shot back excitedly. What was he to do then, what could possibly have caught Nicholas’ eye? Overturn the punch bowl, perhaps? Introduce himself as a Viscount to some chit? Perhaps strip off and dash through the party without his clothes, as he had once seen Anthony do at a similar gathering in March?

Nicholas’ eyes twinkled, and Rufus felt a flurry of anticipation. “Rufus Lovell: I wager you twenty guineas that you will not marry the next lady who takes a drink from the punch bowl – by Michaelmas.”

Rufus’ mouth fell open, but he moved with the others to stare at the punch bowl. Once, twice it seemed as though someone was about to pick up the ladle, and once, twice they were either distracted or seemed to think better of it. And then a delicate hand, the one attached to the young lady in white who seemed so unimpressed with Rufus and his lot, reached down and poured a small glass of May Day punch.

“Michaelmas . . . that’s the 29th of September . . .” Breathed Rufus, almost in shock.

Percival Quinn clapped him on the back. “A Michaelmas wager,” he said with a grin.

CHAPTER ONE

“But the vicar said that’s not my wife – that’s my daughter!”

Guffaws rang out as Rufus Lovell, face flushed from wine, grinned round at his friends, his joke finally finished. A hand slapped him on the back as one of his companions brushed away a tear from his eye, and the chuckles did not recede for a good full minute.

“Rufus you dog!” Percival Quinn said beaming. “Who knew that you had such a joke in you? Not even my brother Isaac is that quick witted!”

Heads turned, and tongues tutted as the crowds gathered in Hyde Park stared to look at the group of young gentlemen making such a ruckus, and some parasols turned elegantly to block them from view. Rufus could see that their laughter was disturbing the May Day celebration held by Percival’s father, the Duke of Daventry, but he didn’t care. Drunk on friendship, if not a little wine, he felt as though he could take on the world.

“You must tell us another.” Anthony Griffiths shoved another glass of what looked like champagne into Rufus’ hand. “Rufus my boy you seem to know them all!”

Rufus grinned, his balance slightly shaken by the rough gesture and his cravat inelegantly twisted in the heat of the day. Whose idea had it been to have this year’s Daventry May Day party outside, anyway? He was sweltering under his linen shirt and silk waistcoat, and that was after he had managed to lose his jacket. Some of the ladies in their corsets must be near collapse.

“Come on now, Rufus, another joke!”

The statement from Nicholas Wingrave brought Rufus back to his party of friends: the four of them, his three best friends. He says best, of course: but four months ago he did not even know them. He glorified in their attentions like a sunflower glorifies in the sun.

“Another joke?” Rufus tried to steady his feet as he attempted to steady the conversation. “Surely you have heard them all!”

“You mean there are not more?” Nicholas looked genuinely shocked, and grabbed rudely at a glass from a silver platter that was being carried past them by a servant. “Dear boy, you disappoint me. Didn’t your brother teach you any more skits?”

Rufus winced though he tried to hide it from his friends, the most fashionable and talked about men in the tonne. He did not speak of his brother Hubert.

Anthony nodded, champagne dripping from the corners of his mouth and dribbling into his cravat, staining the white linen yellow. “Yes, surely a few years in prison would have taught your brother a fine caper or two!”

An elderly couple who had been standing close to the men now took definite strides away, and Rufus flushed.

Five months ago, he had not known them, except Percival Quinn to look at. Everyone knew the Daventry family, their five sons – Isaac and Percival especially, the two most likely to break a girl’s heart – but Rufus Lovell was just a second son of a tradesman who saw such people at the Assemblies and never even got within hearing distance.

That had all changed five months ago.

“What did your brother do, anyway?” asked Anthony lazily, staring indolently at a trio of young ladies, unchaperoned save for each other, strolling with flirtatiously lowered lashes – lashes that flashed upwards to gaze quickly at the group of young men as they went on their way to the punch bowl that stood in the middle of the party. “Arson? Treason?”

“I do know another joke,” said Rufus hastily, pushing back his dark hair from his eyes as the heat of the sun really started to play down on him. He would give anything to be able to remove his hat. “There were three men, an Englishman – ”

“No, we want to hear about Huey!” Nicholas was now slurring, and it was becoming more and more difficult to ascertain exactly what he was saying. “I can’t believe he rotted there for five years before he died of barrel fever!”

Rufus winced again. Drinking himself to death – the barrel fever – was not the way that he had expected his older brother to die, and certainly not before he had reached his thirtieth year. But then Hubert had not taken the course expected of him by his family, and after joining a rather illicit group he quickly became the scapegoat for their crimes. Estrangement from his family had taught him nothing, gossip and slander had not brought him to his knees, and even a prison sentence had not darkened the perpetual smile that seemed to rest on Hubert Lovell’s face.

After going missing for so long it had come as quite a shock to the Lovell family to find their first born up before a judge. He had been lucky to escape the ships to Australia, but it had not helped him in the end. And so the Lovell fortune, built in trade and covertly spent in London in fashion, now belonged to Rufus.

And what a life he now had. New friends, new clothes, new parties now open to him. He could not have dreamed of this: but with new found money came new found expectations.

“Let us leave off jokes,” Rufus said in a bored tone, “I weary of them faster than I weary of this gathering – apologies to the host!”

Percival shrugged. “No offence to be lodged with me, Rufus, it’s not my party. It’s hardly a crush, is it? I see hardly one pretty face amongst these girls, and I know that Father had a good deal of trouble with people being out of Town at this time in the season.”

“Oh tosh Percival, what nonsense you do talk!” Anthony scoffed, his eyes still watching the trio of ladies who had been so alluring five minutes before. A gaggle of ladies now stood around the punch bowl, gossiping and sharing news. The tinkle of their laughter caught on the breeze. “I could number two that I would not be averse to taking home with me.”

The men laughed, and Nicholas slapped Anthony on the back. “Only two?”

“At least two!” Anthony repeated, a sly grin creeping over his face. “And I’m sure that old Father Quinn is just keeping some of the best in reserve so as to tempt us to stay longer – just like he does with his wine!”

Percival punched Anthony jovially on the arm. “The less said about my Father’s hosting skills the better, I thank you sir! Anyway, I’m up for a wager if one of you are. How about it, Nick?”

Nicholas, Rufus quickly saw, was a little worse for wear. Unlike the others, he was unable to hold his drink – and unwilling to pass it up when offered – and so was gazing a little off focus when he heard his name called, and turned to face his friends.

“Me?” He said blankly. “What do you want with me?”

“A wager,” said Percival smoothly. Rufus stared at him in admiration; there really was no situation that the Quinn family could not find themselves in that they could not master immediately. He had met Isaac, one of the younger Quinn sons at a card table a few days previously, and he was exactly the same – perhaps even better able to merge seamlessly into any background you placed him in.

Nicholas nodded, his face slightly blotchy thanks to the medley of heat and wine. “A wager it is! I accept your bargain.”

The friends laughed as Rufus tried to explain to the inebriated gentleman. “No, Nick, there has been no wager set yet – do you not wish to know what it is that you have agreed to?”

“Doesn’t matter,” said Nicholas calmly, as he hiccoughed. “Bound to lose anyway, Percival Quinn always wins.”

Their laughter drew even more attention, and this time Rufus could see that two of the ladies who were standing near the punch bowl threw startling looks: daggers of disdain thrown in their direction.

“Now, let’s try to keep it down, lads.” Rufus said quietly. “I think we’re starting to draw a crowd.”

“Oh nonsense Rufus, you do worry so.” There was no hint of concern in Anthony’s voice, and it was matched by Percival’s face. “We’re the toast of the tonne! We’re the most eligible bachelors in London, perhaps the whole of England, and a few glasses of champagne – ”

“Eleleven.” Nicolas interrupted, barely able to get his tongue around the two syllables. “I am almost sure you know that it was eleven.”

“A few glasses of champagne,” Anthony continued, clasping Nicholas to him in a bear hug, “will do us no harm. Except Nicholas. He’s smashed.”

Rufus could not help but laugh with them – with his friends. Was this not what being young was about? Was this not what it meant to feel alive?

“And being smashed does not preclude you from our wager!” Percival interrupted smoothly. “Nicholas Wingrave: I wager you a guinea that you will not ask for that lady’s name in the next . . . oh, I don’t know. Five minutes?”

Rufus could not help but laugh. The lady in question, indicated by a pointed finger of Percival Quinn’s, looked old enough to be any of their grandmothers. She was dressed in the fashions of the 1790s, at least twenty years out of date, and was looking sternly at them with an expression of deep disgust.

This, however, did not appear to dampened Nicholas’ spirits. “You had better be good for the money, Percival, for you are about to become poorer.”

Rufus watched his friend, slightly in horror, slightly impressed, as he wandered over to the lady in question. True, his walking was a little wobbly, and it took him two attempts to find her as he started to drift off to the left slightly, but eventually he found himself before her.

They were just too far away to be able to hear the words that he used exactly, but they could all see the slap in the face that Nicholas received for his troubles. The woops of celebration and mirth rang out across the whole of Hyde Park, and several heads turned to see what the rumpus was all about.

Rufus cheered along with his friends as Nicholas tottered back to the group.

“And that,” he said proudly, “is how it is done.”

Chuckling, Rufus shook his head wonderingly and placed an arm on his friend’s shoulder. “Nicholas, how can you consider that a victory – we all saw you, the whole party saw you – receive a resounding response!”

“Aha!” And now Nicholas straightened up, his eyes finding their focus suddenly, his voice sounding stronger, and his smile becoming sharper. “Because the wager that my friend here made with a man whom he assumed was a drunkard was merely to ask for the name of the lady in question – not to receive it.”

Percival stared in shock as he realised that he had been duped, and Anthony roared with laughter.

“You mean you’ve played at drunkard?” Rufus stared at him in amazement, unable to take the veneration from his words. “Nicholas Wingrave, you old dog!”

“An old dog who taught this pup a lesson,” said Nicholas grinning, holding out his hand to Percival who placed his own in his waistcoat for his pocket book in very bad grace. “Do not feel bad, Percival old thing, I’m at least two years older than you with two years more experience. You’ll get me next time.”

Percival shook his head wryly. “You know, I’m not sure if I will. Well done, Nicholas, you deserve this guinea.”

“Does your face hurt much?” Anthony asked with a chuckle, still staring at the two of them and finding the situation hilarious.

Nicholas replied coolly, “Not as much as Percival’s pride.”

Rufus could not help but laugh, and the two ladies who had glared at him before repeated the gesture.

Percival Quinn however did not laugh. “You think it’s funny, Rufus? Well then, it looks like it’s your turn to receive a wager! Nicholas, as our reigning champion, would you like to do the honours?”

“You know, I would.” Nicholas mimicked the mock seriousness of Percival’s tone, and turned with an expressive face towards Rufus. “Now, what to bet with young Rufus here, what shall we do?”

“You could always ask him to pocket some silver,” suggested Anthony as another servant went by carrying a platter of what looked like delicious fruit tartlets. “Unless Percival here isn’t using the real thing with his cutlery?”

Rufus shook his head with a lazy grin. “No actual crimes, thank you gentlemen.”

“Yes,” giggled Nicholas, “The Lovell name has plenty of that already!”

A flush threatened at his cravat but Rufus managed to keep himself steady. Thankfully the men seemed far more interested in exactly what Nicholas was going to gamble on. What wager was about to be made?

Another tinkle of feminine laughter drifted across the air, and the men turned instinctively towards the punch bowl, and the gaggle of ladies that had accumulated there. So much beauty in such a small place, it seemed almost impossible and yet there they were, ready to be watched. Rufus could see that the pair who had been so disapproving earlier were still unhappy with them. One of them, dressed in a white gown, seemed far more interested in them however, despite her disapprobation. Her friend, attired in a cream gown that showed off the delicate white of her skin, spoke and claimed her attention.

“I have it.” Nicholas spoke with great finality, but with a hint of cheek in his voice. “Are you ready for your wager?”

“I do not think I have ever been more ready,” Rufus shot back excitedly. What was he to do then, what could possibly have caught Nicholas’ eye? Overturn the punch bowl, perhaps? Introduce himself as a Viscount to some chit? Perhaps strip off and dash through the party without his clothes, as he had once seen Anthony do at a similar gathering in March?

Nicholas’ eyes twinkled, and Rufus felt a flurry of anticipation. “Rufus Lovell: I wager you twenty guineas that you will not marry the next lady who takes a drink from the punch bowl – by Michaelmas.”

Rufus’ mouth fell open, but he moved with the others to stare at the punch bowl. Once, twice it seemed as though someone was about to pick up the ladle, and once, twice they were either distracted or seemed to think better of it. And then a delicate hand, the one attached to the young lady in white who seemed so unimpressed with Rufus and his lot, reached down and poured a small glass of May Day punch.

“Michaelmas . . . that’s the 29th of September . . .” Breathed Rufus, almost in shock.

Percival Quinn clapped him on the back. “A Michaelmas wager,” he said with a grin.

CHAPTER TWO

Juliana Honeyfield was not having a good day.

“And what I want to know,” she said angrily, “is why you have dragged me here in the first place Audrey!”

“I thought that you would want to go to a party!” Audrey said, her opal eyes flashing blue and green. “A pleasant diversion from the staidness of home, I had thought – and is it not a beautiful day?”

Gesturing one pale arm upwards towards the sun, Audrey smiled. Her cousin was not amused.

“A beautiful day it may be, but a wonderful party, it is not!” Due to their close proximity to many other young ladies all situated around the punch bowl, Juliana was forced to keep her tone light and happy, but it was the last thing she felt. “Audrey, there are some very questionable characters here!”

They both turned to look at the group of young gentlemen.

“I mean, look at them.” Juliana said quietly. “All of them have managed to lose their cravats or suit coats, and one looks particularly . . . well, drunk.”

But despite this very proof of unsocial behaviour, Audrey just seemed to shrug.

“This is what happens at parties given by the rich,” she said gently, placing a hand on her cousin’s arm. “I had not realised that you would be so shocked at such churlish behaviour.”

Juliana flushed slightly at the inference that she was a prude. “This is not someone’s parlour, where an individual may embarrass themselves to no great harm: this is Hyde Park! I may just be a Reverend’s daughter, but even I know that propriety itself still matters, and surely in a place so open to the public as this – ”

“Stuff and nonsense,” said Audrey calmly. “Men, Juliana. Men are so different from you and I that they may as well be completely different species, set on God’s green earth to try us beyond our wits. Do you not think that this is precisely the reason why they are behaving so?”

“Good afternoon Lady Audrey.” An elderly gentleman interrupted them, bowing deeply before them but ignoring Juliana as the unknown at the party. “And I hope your father, the Viscount of Marchwood, is well?”

Audrey returned the bow with a courtesy. “Very well, my lord, and your dear wife?”

Juliana watched, unrequired in this conversation as she saw her cousin deftly move into the delicate questioning required of polite society, and then almost immediately extricate herself without giving offence, and turning back to her.

“Apologies old thing.”

Juliana smiled weakly. “None needed. I just don’t understand how at the same party one can have perfectly civil conversations, and then just over there with the son of the host himself . . .”

Her voice trailed off as she looked over to the men once again. One of them was meandering towards the Right Honourable Mrs Jemima Evesham, and the friends he left behind were laughing openly.

“How do they benefit from such a display?” she whispered to her friend. “Or am I such a green goose that I have lost all sense of what society dictates?”

It was bad enough, Juliana told herself, that she was the poor relation; now it seemed as though Audrey had a much greater handle on what society expected than she did. Hopefully the blush of embarrassment that was already creeping up her throat towards her cheeks could be blamed on the heat of the day.

“I know what you’re thinking, and you are wrong,” Audrey said perceptively. “The laws of the tonne are not changed because you are not titled, but because we are female.”

Juliana blanched. “And what has that got to do with anything?”

“You cannot be serious!” Audrey laughed, and the hand that she had reached out to help herself to more punch retracted as she turned back to Juliana. “My darling, you know what treatment society metes out to us and to the less fair sex is different, you cannot be ignorant as all that. Men may have lovers, but a woman left alone with a man in a library for more than five minutes? Scandal! A man may have debts, debts of honour, even debts of finance without being termed a brigand but for a woman to play cards with strangers? Whore! And ladies must wear corsets and stays and petticoats and layer after layer to protect one’s modesty – and a man may throw off all sense of dress and decency and he is just seen as a flamboyant youth!”

Juliana shook her head slightly as she looked back over to the men wistfully. “It must be liberating, being so free.”

“Stuff and nonsense,” said Audrey decisively. “They’ve never known any different, how can they value the freedom that is given to them?”

Audrey reached out her hand once more to help herself to punch, when Juliana whispered, “Who are they, anyway?”

Laughing, Audrey replied, hand back at her side, “Why, are you interested?”

The two of them collapsed into giggles.

“Oh yes, I cannot wait to be wed!” Juliana retorted smiling sarcastically, her good humour finally restored. “I’m just curious, that’s all. It’s easy for you, you know everyone here already!”

“Not everyone!” Audrey’s eyes raked over the crowd, and then she sighed. “Well, perhaps everyone.” Turning to view the young men again, she said quietly. “The one who approached Mrs Evesham, that’s Nicholas Wingrave. About thirty, I think, and fabulously rich of course. The friend beside him is Percival Quinn who you know, second son to the Duke of Daventry, and beside him is Anthony Griffiths. He’s a lawyer, but he married well and young, and when the poor girl died he inherited everything. That shorter one, with champagne all in his cravat? And the last one . . . you know, I don’t think I know him? No, wait: that’s a Lovell. Can’t remember his name, but he’s definitely a Lovell.”

“A Lovell – not a relation of Hubert Lovell?” Juliana stared at the man in amazement. She had read about the trial of Hubert Lovell last year, and again about his death in squalor and prison not six months ago. And he had a brother?

Audrey nodded. “You can tell, there’s something about the eyes – something devious, I think, or tricksy. I wouldn’t put anything past him.”

“So all fine men, by the sound of it,” said Juliana with a bite of sarcasm – a trait that she attempted to keep hidden from all save her closest friends. “Goodness, it’s hot, and no shade to speak of where we are situated. Why did you bring me to this hot place, Audrey?”

“Because you needed company, and your father cannot say no to the Duke of Daventry,” replied Audrey promptly. “Here, let me get you some punch.”

Her hand was reaching out, but it was overtaken by Juliana’s own. “Please don’t worry yourself,” Juliana said hurriedly, reaching the ladle first and pouring her own drink. “I’ve been more than ungrateful enough for your graciousness in having me invited to this party in the first place, and for visiting me when I know your Father would rather have you all to himself.”

She brought the punch glass to her lips, and it was cool and refreshing. Her eyes closed, revelling in the sensations, but she opened them sharply when Audrey’s hand grabbed her wrist.

“Goodness, Audrey, what on earth – ”

“Do you know him?” Audrey interrupted.

Juliana stared at her friend in amazement. “Know who?”

“Him.”

Looking in the direction of her friend’s gaze, she saw that the young man from the raucous group was striding towards them, staring . . . well, at herself.

“You must know him,” whispered Audrey, a gleeful smile dancing across her face. “Look at him, he’s making straight for you!”

“But I’ve never seen him before in all my life!” It was ridiculous to panic, but all Juliana could think about was the Lovell name, and that did not have much to recommend it. “Audrey, do something!”

“My darling, I may be the heiress to the Marchwood fortune,” and here she winced and as Juliana had heard the same rumours about her father’s financial difficulties, they both chose to ignore her wording, “but I am unable to control the decisions of young men – especially those who are smart enough to realise that you are the most beautiful woman here!”

Juliana laughed tersely. “Now you know that is nonsense – honestly, Audrey, what is he doing!”

But they did not have long to wait to find out. Indeed, before the last syllable had escaped her lips he was before them, and he bowed low.

“Rufus Lovell, at your service.”

Juliana could feel her cousin curtseying beside her, but she didn’t seem able to control her legs in a way that society demanded. Her curtsey seemed to be more like a steady fall which then suddenly moved in the opposite direction, and she felt her face blush.

Now that Rufus Lovell was closer, she could see that he was arguably very handsome. The sharpness in his eyes that Audrey had described as a Lovell trait seemed to be more intelligence than cruelty, as she had assumed, and his strong jawline and dark hair seemed perfectly formed to give a sense of manliness and – focus, Juliana! She forced herself to speak, instead of getting lost in her own banal thoughts.

“Good afternoon, Mr Lovell,” she said curtly.

She had hoped that her sharpness would discourage the young man, but if anything it made him smile all the broader.

“My dear ladies, I must apologise for I know but one of you by name and neither of you by reputation, for which I am sadly lacking and am determined to make up for immediately. Lady Audrey, would you be so kind as to introduce me to your friend?”

Juliana wanted to gape but she kept a hold of herself. Nervous hands smoothed down her white gown as her cousin spoke.

“Mr Rufus Lovell, may I introduce Miss Juliana Honeyfield, my dear cousin on my mother’s side. Miss Honeyfield is joining me for some of the season and her father, the Reverend Honeyfield, is being so good as to extend his welcome and hospitality during my stay here in London.”

How on earth did she do it? Juliana wondered. Perhaps there was something with good breeding that simply created a poise that could not be shaken, not under any circumstances whatsoever. Despite the fact that their mothers had been sisters you would not have known them to be related at this moment.

Mr Lovell bowed again, and smiled at the pair of them. “Your cousin you say, Lady Audrey? Well, I must say how glorious it is to make your acquaintance, Miss Honeyfield; I hope you are enjoying the party?”

“Not particularly,” Juliana found herself saying. “The heat is excessive, and yet despite that I had hoped for some dancing.”

What had come over her – and how was she to stop herself from talking! Frantic eyes turned to her companion, and she was rescued.

“Yes, is it not astonishing how hot the day is?” Lady Audrey fixed a smile on Mr Lovell, tilting her head slightly at the sky and gesturing with an elegant hand at the sun that was beating down on them. “And yet I had read that this May was going to be tirelessly grey.”

Not for the first time, Juliana gazed at her cousin’s loveliness. It was impossible to avoid being the lesser of the beauties when you attended soirees, card parties, and assemblies with the Lady Audrey: her opal eyes, never quite green, never quite blue, were always enough to captivate people even if you ignored her porcelain skin and the way she never seemed fazed by anything that happened to her.

She herself was not plain, certainly, but her beauty was that of an everyday kind. Regular features, unremarkable complexion, the same brown hair you could see on a hundred debutantes, and neither wit nor education nor fortune to recommend her. This was the time in the conversation, Juliana knew, that she would fade slightly into the background, like a velvet cushion that had been left out in the sun, and before long the conversation would continue as if she were not there.

And yet . . . why did Mr Lovell’s eyes keep slipping over to her? He was conversing quite happily with Audrey, that was true, and yet his attention did not seem to be on her. Was he – yes, he was more focused on herself than on her cousin.

“And have you attended the opera recently, Miss Honeyfield?” Rufus Lovell asked with a polite raise of his eyebrow. “I have heard that the music is simply divine at the moment, simply the best musicians in the world.”

Juliana willed herself to be charming, hoped beyond hope that she would be able to keep a close reign on her words, but they spilled out before she could even think to filter them. What did this man do to her?

“I have not the funds nor the means to attend the opera,” she said bluntly. “Tickets are already sold to those who are in the highest ranks of society – and moreover, even if I had access to them there would be no way that I could afford such a luxury.”

Crimson now flooded her cheeks, and she knew that there would be no way for her to blame that on the sun. The second eyebrow of Mr Lovell was raised, but he said no more. Instead he bowed shortly in her direction, then in Audrey’s, and strode back to his party.

“God in his Heaven, what has come over you?” Audrey hissed at her, eyes wide. “I know that we are honest and open with each other, but I have never seen you speak so brazenly before! And to a Lovell!”

Juliana sniffed. “I know, but what does it matter now? He’s gone, hasn’t he, and perhaps my lack of social graces was a prompt to get him to go away!”

But Audrey was shaking her head. “Go away? Do you not see him, he’s coming straight back here!”

And so he was. Rufus Lovell was tall and so it did not take him long to return back to them at the punch bowl – but instead of addressing Audrey, as Juliana had expected him to, he stopped in front of herself, and held out a hand.

“Miss Honeyfield?”

Mouth open, she was about to ask what on earth he expected of her, when the strains of a Scotch reel wafted on the air. Three musicians had appeared, instruments tuned, and couples were going hand in hand towards an area to their left, where dancing was evidently to begin.

“You wanted to dance, Miss Honeyfield,” said Rufus with a grin on his face – a grin, Juliana saw in dismay, that only increased his good looks. “I am a friend of the Quinn family, and a gentle word in the right ear ensured that a dance you could have.”

Juliana could hear a quiet gasp of astonishment from Audrey beside her, but it was nothing to what she felt. Who was this man, this Rufus Lovell, that he could demand music for dancing at a party given by the Duke of Daventry? And who was he to think her wishes, her desires important enough to take such a step – and now, to return and claim her hand?

Flattered she may be, but she was not overwhelmed. She was not about to fall head over heels in love with a man whom she had just met, let alone a Lovell.

“And of course she’ll dance with you,” Audrey pushed her slightly so that she took a stumbling step towards Mr Lovell.

He smiled, and Juliana’s traitorous heart fluttered. “Nothing could make me happier.”

Rufus Lovell beamed, and Juliana became very conscious of his smile, and his eyes never left her. “You never know, Miss Honeyfield. I may just end up proposing.”

CHAPTER THREE

Juliana sat at the breakfast table, and attempted to convince herself that she was not, as her feelings were leading her to believe, Cinderella. Why, she had read the story written by the Grimm brothers only this year, and she did not fit the story at all.

You did not go to a ball last night, Juliana reminded herself severely as she picked at her ham and potatoes. You did not meet Prince Charming, and golden shoes would be far beyond her father’s financial reach . . . and yet it was lovely to sit at the breakfast table and daydream about a young man who asked you to dance, beyond all others, and was so witty and so charming when –

“Good morning, my dear.”

Juliana started, and yet she should have expected the voice at any moment. “Good morning, Father.”

“You had a good day yesterday, I trust?” The Reverend Honeyfield seemed to his daughter almost entirely composed of trust: trust in the Lord, trust in herself, and trust that another day would come and go with little sadness. His sunny disposition made him a firm favourite with his parishioners, and Juliana doted on him.

Rising to pull out a chair for her Father, she said, “I am sorry that I missed you yesterday, but by the time that Audrey and I returned from the Duke of Daventry’s party, you had already gone out.”

“Indeed,” said Reverend Honeyfield, “to see whether I could gain any support for my Michaelmas celebration – the 29th September is fast gathering towards us and as far as I can see, there will be no patron for our gathering this year.”

“We worry about that every year,” Juliana said patiently, pouring him a drink of hot chocolate, “and every year we find someone. Leonard Tyndale and the other missionaries in India will have the support they need, and we will raise funds for their good works out there – I read a letter from him only yesterday telling us about the new well that they have dug.”

Yesterday – yesterday seemed so far away, and yet it was not even twenty-four hours since Mr Lovell had smiled when they spoke together, making their way through the dance. Was it only yesterday?

“I suppose you are right,” sighed her Father with a wary smile, “but if you are wrong – ”

Exactly what they should do if she was wrong she was never to learn, for a gentle cough in the doorway from the breakfast room to the hall announced the presence of their maid, Charlotte.

“Excuse me, Reverend, Miss Honeyfield, but there is a man here with a delivery.”

The Reverend Honeyfield blinked. “Well then, send him to the deliveries entrance so that Cook can receive him – Charlotte, you know how things are done here.”

Charlotte blushed, and Juliana noted a hint of curiosity in her voice as she replied.

“Yes sir, but the delivery isn’t for Cook. It’s for Miss Honeyfield.”

Two pairs of eyes turned to look at her. Cheeks pink, Juliana said hurriedly, “A delivery?”

Another door opened from behind them, and Audrey walked in beaming, attempting to hide a yawn. “I do apologise, am I late? I stayed up all night reading and now I’m completely done in for the day, Juliana we’ll have to stay at home. Is there anything we can help you with Charlotte?”

“Juliana has a delivery,” the Reverend Honeyfield said blankly. “A delivery for Juliana.”

Audrey threw herself into a chair and reached for a bread roll. “Goodness, for you my darling? What on earth could it be?”

Juliana turned to her cousin, and then to her father, with mouth open but no words appearing.

“Shall I send him in, Reverend?” asked Charlotte. “Only, he’s been told that he must deliver them directly to Miss Juliana, in person.”

“Them?” was the only word that Juliana seemed capable of saying, but Audrey clapped her hands in mirth.

“My word Juliana, what on earth are you to receive?”

Before any of the three of them could guess, a young man with reddish hair and a complexion of embarrassment that matched stepped in, his arms absolutely festooned with red roses.

“Ohhh,” breathed Juliana, a sentiment echoed in Audrey.

The man bowed to all three of them, and then said in a clear voice, “For Miss Juliana Honeyfield: a field of roses from her greatest admirer, Rufus Lovell.”

His arms outstretched towards Juliana, she felt beholden to take them immediately, and as soon as he was released from his burdensome task, the messenger left the room.

“My word.” The Reverend Honeyfield seemed speechless, but Audrey, as Juliana knew she would be, seemed unfazed. Perhaps this sort of thing happened to her all the time.

“Not bad, Juliana, not bad,” she said, taking a jar of preserve from the platter in front of her. “But it’s hardly a field of roses, is it?”

It may not have been that Tuesday, but by the Friday, the daily delivery of roses was starting to fill up the house, large as the rooms may be. Every morning, without fail, the same delivery man (whose name they soon learned was Edwards) would arrive between the hours of nine and ten, arms laden with roses with the same or similar message, and then he would be on his way again.

“So, who is this Mr Lovell?” asked Reverend Honeyfield of his daughter when a full week had passed and the delivery of roses did not seem to be abating. “I have no wish to pry, my dear, but after a week . . . An admirer, young Edwards says?”

“And one that I am not interested in, Father,” Juliana hastened to reassure him, her eyes purposefully ignoring the grin on Audrey’s face. “He is a gentleman that Audrey introduced me to at the Duke of Daventry’s May Day party, and there is an end to it.”

And yet, that it would be! A second week, and then a third passed, and the roses showed no sign of abating. Juliana had purposefully not responded in the hope of dampening whatever ardour this Rufus Lovell had managed to convince himself into, but it did not seem to cow him – if anything, the roses started to become more plentiful, and more extravagant.

“I hope this Mr Lovell is not bankrupting himself to gain your notice, my dear,” said Reverend Honeyfield eventually when, on the last day of May, no fewer than five men appeared with Edwards to lay roses down at her feet (something that Juliana had begged Edwards not to do the day before, to no avail). “It cannot be inexpensive, sending one lady so many flowers . . . unless you think that you are just one of many young women that he is courting?”

“He is not courting me, Father,” replied Juliana helplessly, “and the Lord knows that I have done nothing to encourage him! This is a joke, surely, and he will grow tired of it eventually.”

Audrey, sat opposite her at the breakfast table, raised a quizzical eyebrow, but said nothing.

Three days later, however, when no fewer than twelve messenger boys paraded into the breakfast room to lay down twenty-four roses each, all of different hues and shades, Juliana realised that enough was enough.

“Edwards: if you wait five minutes, you may take a message back to your Mr Lovell.”

It did not even take her the five minutes allotted to write what she wished on the small notecard that she handed over to him:

Mr Lovell: you will drive me mad by Michaelmas! Impossible to ignore as you are, why not visit us in person instead of sending floral tributes. We are at your leisure this afternoon, June 3rd. JH

“Is that all?” Edwards asked, in a small voice, clearly considering the short note rather perfunctory considering the number of roses that he had walked into her home.

“He is lucky to get that,” Juliana retorted, “and you can tell him that yourself.”

The Reverend Honeyfield shook his head with a smile. “Juliana, one day that sarcastic tongue will come out and bite you! Poor Edwards, I suppose it is not his wish to play Cupid!”

“He is not playing Cupid!” Her indignancy showed in every syllable. “Mr Lovell is just a man who cannot take a hint!”

“What hint have you given him now?” Audrey’s plate was empty and she was smiling up at her cousin who was standing resolutely by the window, watching Edwards and his messenger boys leave.

Juliana swallowed. “I’ve told him that if he wants to call this afternoon, then . . . he can. It is just a call, after all, and you two will be here.”

Audrey laughed, and rising from the table, shook her head with a smile. “Oh Juliana, you are the definition of a mixed message! Cannot you see that by ignoring him for over a month and now inviting him, this very day, to your home you could not have given more encouragement?”

She walked out of the room to complete her toilette, and Juliana turned to her father. “You do not think what I did was wrong, do you?”

Reverend Honeyfield stood up and went over to his daughter, clasping her in his arms. Whenever he did this, she never felt more safe.

“My child, what’s done is done – and you have done naught that I would be ashamed of. Let us meet this Mr Rufus Lovell, and see what we make of him.”

Rufus coughed. Then he coughed again. He had not expected Juliana’s note, but he was starting to get a tad desperate; more than a month had passed since Nicholas had made the wager, and though Michaelmas Day was fast approaching, he had been making absolutely no progress with Miss Honeyfield. And yet today, her note.

Admittedly, there was not a huge amount of warmth in her words. If anything, he thought he could discern a little frustration, perhaps a little pique. What woman didn’t like flowers, Rufus thought to himself ruefully as he stood in front of the Honeyfields’ door on Cannon Street. Surely he had sent enough flowers to sink a ship – and finding so many, even in London, had been no easy feat. He’d had to send away as far as Maplebridge, to Baldwin Flowers, to find roses enough to turn what seemed to be a frosty reception into . . . well, a frosty invitation.

I suppose, he thought to himself with a smile, that he should be relieved that it was her and not her cousin, Lady Audrey, who had eventually taken a drink that day at the party – heaven knows but Lady Audrey was far too many leagues above him, even now he was fabulously wealthy, to even think about courting! But this Juliana: she shouldn’t be too difficult. There’s no money in this house, you could tell by the door, and the chances were that she would welcome the sort of marriage that would secure her for life.

He’d never really thought about his marriage too hard, but as the woman herself didn’t bother him much, one way or the other, Rufus saw no harm in choosing Juliana for the reason of the wager. It was no better or worse than choosing another woman for beauty, or wit, or wealth.

But he wouldn’t get anywhere near winning those twenty guineas until he knocked on this door.

Ushered into a parlour by a servant, the first person that Rufus saw was Miss Honeyfield herself, and he was remarkably surprised to see that she was prettier than he had remembered. Perhaps she had paled beside her cousin, perhaps the heat had caused her to droop like a withered flower, but she certainly shone here, in her own home.

She rose from her seat, curtsied gently, and gestured to – to the clergyman, Rufus saw with surprise, who was seated beside her.

“Mr Rufus Lovell, may I introduce you to my father, the Reverend Honeyfield.”

The two men bowed to each other, and Rufus tried desperately to hide his confusion. Trust him to get a woman with a vicar for a father, he thought dismayed. This wager was going to be a lot more difficult if Miss Honeyfield turned out to be a staid and joyless woman outside of a party.

His fears seemed realised as they sat down; he had hoped that she would lead the conversation, but she picked up – was that embroidery? Sitting with her head down, she seemed completely unaware that he was even there.

This was not to be borne. “Miss Honeyfield, I am glad to see you in so much health; it has been a good four weeks since I have seen you.”

The response was slow, and it was not warm. “Five weeks,” said Miss Honeyfield, without looking up from her embroidery.

Rufus swallowed, and smiled. “Why, of course. And have you enjoyed the opera since we last spoke – I know that there are a few tickets that are left for next week’s performance.”

“None within my reach,” was the curt reply. Rufus could not tell, but there seemed to be a curve of a smile hinted at along one corner of her mouth . . . but then it was gone.

Rufus coughed. “That is indeed a shame; perhaps Lady Audrey and yourself could attend?”

Now her eyes were raised, but they were flashed with anger. “I do not require familial handouts to enjoy myself, thank you Mr Lovell. I am quite happy here, with my sewing.”

Where did these feelings of nerves come from – and whoever invented such a loud ticking clock? It sat above the mantelpiece and demarked the time deafeningly, pointing out the silence far more than it did the time.

The Reverend Honeyfield seemed oblivious to the awkwardness, and smiled inanely at him. Rufus tried a different tack.

“Are you aware, sir, that your daughter is a very accomplished dancer?”

The Reverend Honeyfield blinked. “I was not aware that you had been dancing with my daughter at all, Mr Lovell. I was not aware that anyone from your family was proficient as a dancer – although I only know your brother by reputation, of course.”

Shame burned through Rufus as he sat there, but he attempted to keep it as hidden from the Honeyfields as possible. Of course, his brother would be the one to lose this wager for him, even from the grave. Could the stain of his infamy ever be removed from the Lovell name?

“I cannot say whether my brother was a good dancer, sir, but I hope to one day give you the pleasure of viewing my own, should you wish it,” was the response that he managed to put together, but there was an excruciating gap whilst he gathered his thoughts.

Another silence followed this, and it was not one that Juliana was going to assist him out of. My word, she thought, it is funny watching him squirm; not so collected now are you, Mr Lovell, with your roses and your messenger boys? And yet it was difficult not to be impressed; even when her father raised the topic of Hubert Lovell, the man that disgraced his family name, Rufus Lovell did not seem to be too concerned.

And yes, he was still managing to continue the conversation. One that was admittedly more one sided than was preferable in good society, but the awkward gaps were evidently not fazing him.

The clock chimed four, and just as Rufus was beginning to think it was hopeless to even conceive of staying a moment longer, the door opened and Lady Audrey walked in. He hardly noticed – except for the effect that it immediately had on Miss Honeyfield. She shrank, she visibly altered her seating and became, somehow, less present in the room. Was that really how she felt when compared to others, Rufus could not help himself thinking? Does she not see how her beauty – for it was beauty, he could not deny it now that he had sat for half an hour in her presence – did not diminish even if different beauty was placed alongside it?

“Oh,” said Lady Audrey shortly. “You’re still here.”

She had clearly thought he would have left by this time; the chiming of the clock and her statement were too coincidental. But Rufus, ever the gentleman, rose and bowed to her.

“I am afraid you are close to the truth; sadly I must leave,” he said smoothly taking two steps towards her. “There is but one thing for me to do and I can now complete that task now that you, Lady Audrey, have joined us.”

Out of the corner of his eye he could see Miss Honeyfield lose herself even more in her embroidery purposefully, as if wilting at the very thought of his disinterest in her. This woman, he thought, I cannot make her out. She is a puzzle and one that eludes me, despite myself.

“Really?” Lady Audrey went to sit down in the seat that he had just vacated so that he had to turn to face the three of them again. “And what is that?”

Rufus swallowed. It was now or never if he wanted to win that wager. “I leave you with an invitation: to you, Miss Honeyfield, and to your cousin Lady Audrey if she is willing. I have three tickets to the opera for next week, and I would be humbled if you would graciously accompany me.”

Juliana’s eyes lit up. “I have never been to the opera.” The words had tumbled out of her mouth before she had been able to stop them.

Rufus took a step towards her, hesitated, and then took another, a genuine smile on his face. “Then let me open that world up to you.”

CHAPTER FOUR

The opera house in Covent Garden was a familiar sight to Juliana, but it was not an entranceway that she had ever passed through. Now, with Audrey on her left and the rather dashing Rufus Lovell – who knew that he could scrub up so well? – on her right, she felt as though she were floating on a cloud.

Surrounding her were the very essence of society; duchesses, baronets, men and women who did not know what it meant to go hungry or be cold, to whom opera was a necessity rather than an indulgence, and who knew absolutely everyone in these hallowed halls. Shouts of welcome and halloes of recognition fell around her on every side, but she was too busy drinking in the décor of the opera house than people spotting.

The ceiling was high, higher than any other building that she had ever seen – and the gentle stencilling and plaster work was truly exquisite, and even at the very tops of the walls where few would ever see the artwork closely, it was clear that great time and care had been taken over every facet. Red was the chosen colour for this opera house. Velvet lined all seats and floors, with gold thread and tassels around each curtain in every bay. The opulence was almost overwhelming.

“Does it suit?”

Dragged back to earth with a bump by Mr Lovell’s remark, she saw by the light of his eyes and the smile, hesitant but warm, that he was genuine in his question.

Juliana replied in the only way that she knew how when faced with such beauty: with stark truth. “Suit? It’s heaven itself; how do any of you drag yourselves away?”

Mr Lovell chuckled. “I am glad that it pleases you.”

“Pleases . . . to see such a place, and to know that it is a temple to the arts, to music, to the best costumes and the greatest talent that has walked across a stage: I know my father may consider this blasphemy, Mr Lovell, but I cannot help it. This is heaven!”

You’re saying too much, Juliana told herself even as the words were coming out of her mouth, you’re saying too much: and yet who could help it?

“Tis not much better than the one in Bath,” said Lady Audrey, and Juliana started, having almost forgotten that she was there.

Before either she or Mr Lovell could give her a response, a bell rang out.

“Is it beginning – is it time to take our seats?”

Rufus Lovell laughed kindly to see such excitement. “Yes, Miss Honeyfield, we are being called to our seats. Do not fear, we shall not miss a single second.”

Juliana flushed, and was glad that the candlelight hid some of the pinkness that had come to her cheeks. “Am I that transparent? You must allow me to thank you again, Mr Lovell, for your incredible kindness in procuring these tickets for myself, and for Audrey. I have not experienced anything like this before, and I am . . . well, I am grateful to you.”

“To see it through your eyes is to see it anew, afresh, and that is more than enough thanks for me.” Rufus surprised himself by finding that he was completely genuine in his remarks; it could only be six months since his first visit to an opera house, but its joy was already starting to fade, and seeing her face light up, those eyes like deep pools of water getting deeper and deeper as they drank in as much as they could as fast as they could – it was something akin to pleasure, just being with her.

It took but moments for them to be seated, and Rufus sat back and watched Juliana Honeyfield see more splendour and beauty in three minutes than she had probably done in her lifetime. It was strange, this effect that wealth could have: some he had met were astonished by him, still others by the reach of his coffers now that he had inherited, but Miss Honeyfield was the first to take simple and unadulterated joy in what money could simply do. It was strange.

Lady Audrey, on the other hand, seemed rather unimpressed. He had not expected her to be so impressed by the opera, having probably attended herself for years, but he had hoped that she would not be so wary of him. The result of the Lovell name, undoubtedly.

“Who is that man, waving at you?” She asked as more people started to take their seats. “There, in the box opposite ours . . . yours, I mean.”

Rufus looked over to where she was pointing, and saw a close friend, his blond hair completely unmistakable, from the other side of the opera house.

“That young gentleman is Jonathan Brodie, along with Sir Roger Brodie and Lady Elizabeth Brodie, his parents,” replied Rufus in a low tone, smiling and returning the wave to his childhood friend. “My father’s business has a large part of in Maplebridge, where they reside, and I have known the family for many years.”

Juliana nodded, and turned to say something to Lady Audrey, who sat on her other side, but the curtain twitched and the chatter below their box immediately dissipated.

“Oh, it’s starting!” She could barely help herself, and leaning forward, she placed both elbows inelegantly on the ledge before her, desperate to be as close to the action as possible. “These really are the best seats in the house, aren’t they?”

Rufus nodded in acknowledgement, but his pocketbook winced for him. It had already cost him over five guineas in courting Miss Juliana Honeyfield, and it seemed likely that it would require at least that sum again to win this wager – and yet, what money could buy such a response from such a woman?

The stage was set, and it was soon populated by talented singers and actors that even Rufus was impressed by. The opera was one that was known to him, but the aptitude of those who graced the stage were more than enough to keep him diverted. Or at least, they would have been, if it had not been infinitely more diverting to watch the woman beside him.

All attempt at elegance was gone. She was leaning forward, mouth open, eyes as wide as he thought it was possible to go, completely transfixed.

Though she seemed to be the only one. True, it was many a week that the opera had been open, and many of the attendees this evening were there to be seen themselves, rather than to watch an opera that they already knew. The chatter started off quietly at first, but eventually full conversations were being had in normal voices, almost crowding out the solitary lament that was taking place on the stage.

Miss Honeyfield turned to him, outraged. “Mr Lovell, people down there are actually talking! Talking, whilst that poor lady is pouring her heart out! Cannot something be done?”

He could not help himself. Leaning forward so that his ungloved hand brushed across hers, he whispered in her ear: “You would be astonished I think, Miss Honeyfield, if I told you that for most of the audience here, their own private lives holds far more drama than they could ever watch on a stage.”

The shock in her eyes was more than worth the censuring look that he received from Lady Audrey.

“I am indeed astonished!” Miss Honeyfield, rather than moving away from him as he had thought she might, instead leaned into him. He could feel the warmth of her even through his shirt and jacket. “To think that for some, this display is as sedentary as watching the carriages go by on Henrietta Street!”

Rufus shrugged, and smiled at the way that it meant his arm brushed past hers. “And yet, this is the world we live in. True art can be ignored if it means getting the last bit of gossip on Lord Byron.”

“Your friend Mr Brodie and his parents, at least, have their priorities in the right place,” whispered Miss Honeyfield, “and yet . . .”

Rufus raised an eyebrow. “And yet?”

She was clearly about to say something, but then thought better of it, and she held back. “It is of no importance.”

“On the contrary, anything that you say is of utmost importance Miss Honeyfield!” Rufus said quickly. He was aware that he was starting to receive glares from the box next door, but he could not help himself. Here was a woman that he would ignore an opera for.

And yet Juliana – he must think of her as Miss Honeyfield, he really must remember – seemed torn. He had only known her for six weeks, however, and he knew that her ability to hold her tongue would give out sooner or later.

Or sooner. “I was just thinking,” she whispered, her lips almost not moving as she tried to keep her voice down, “that although this is the only opera that I have ever been to . . . and it is likely that this will be the only opera that I will ever be able to attend . . . I find myself more intrigued by the man sat beside me than the opera before me.”

It was impossible not to smile at such a statement. “Miss Honeyfield, I am flattered.”

“Well you are not meant to be,” she shot back, with a smile, her eyes now turned and riveted back onto the stage. “Especially as I should not have said it, let alone thought it.”

“Nonsense,” breathed Rufus. “I cannot tell you how refreshing it is to actually meet a woman who speaks her mind.”

Miss Honeyfield laughed, and received a glare herself from the guests in the box beside their own. “Tis not seemly for a woman to speak her mind, Mr Lovell, that is no secret of society. I have spent many a-year taming my tongue, and yet just like any other tiger, it does sometimes escape its keeper.”

Rufus’ eyes widened. “Tiger?”

She laughed again. “Forgive me; we – my father and I – are in correspondence with a friend of ours, a Mr Leonard Tyndale, who is a missionary in India. His letters are most entertaining.”

He had not expected to feel jealousy, but its sharp fangs seemed to have sunk deep into his stomach, and he felt almost nauseous. Leonard Tyndale? He had not heard of the man, but he was clearly a close enough friend of the family to be writing to the only daughter. Leonard Tyndale, what sort of a man was he?

“Just an old student of Father,” replied Miss Honeyfield. Dear God, had he asked that aloud? “I barely know him really, I’ve never met him. I read his letters to Father.”

It may have been the tutting that he could hear behind him, it could have been the mention of this Tyndale chap, but it was probably Juliana Honeyfield’s beauty as she tilted her head back to the opera. Whatever it was, it took a hold of Rufus and made him say something wild.

“Miss Honeyfield, would you care to take the air with me? I feel inordinately hot, and I think I would gain great relief from the stuffiness here.”

Her eyes beheld him for a moment, a long moment, and Rufus was sure that she would decline; that she would see the impropriety; that she would want to stay with Lady Audrey, ostensibly her chaperone.

But he had not accounted for Juliana Honeyfield.

“Mr Lovell, I would be delighted. Audrey, I shall be but a moment.”

“Wait, what?” Lady Audrey, not a party to their previous conversation, was lost. “Juliana, where are you going?”

To Rufus’ relief, Miss Honeyfield did not seem in the mood to explain. “I shall return presently – hold my programme for me, won’t you?”

“But – ”

“I shall be but a moment.” Juliana tried to communicate with her eyes to her cousin, but clearly she did not do a very good job; never needing to do so before, it was an impossible task before she even started, and she was not entirely sure whether she had calmed Audrey or merely made her more concerned.

After all, what on earth was she doing? Here she was, seated in the best place at the opera, guest of Rufus Lovell – and everyone knew what his brother was like – and she was about to leave with him for . . . what? A breath of fresh air? This was madness, this was something that even she knew was scandalous, but there was something about him. Not just his looks: she was not immune to them, especially up close, but there was something deeper about Rufus Lovell. Something that she couldn’t quite make out.

They rose, and ignoring Audrey’s whispers that become more frantic the further they were from her, left the box. Juliana took a deep breath as they reached the stairs, and tried to fathom exactly what it was that she was doing – and a hand slipped around hers. Warm, and strong, it was completely unexpected, and it belonged to a man that she was fast considering: what? A friend?

“Come on.” Those were the only words he said, and yet they contained so much promise. Hurtling down the steps, almost running, they flung themselves out of the opera house and the cool June air hit Juliana’s face like a cool breeze in September. The street was almost empty, and Juliana had a moment of panic. What if he – well, did anything to her? Who was to stop him? Her hand was still in his, and –

“The stars are bright tonight,” said Rufus Lovell. “Even the Plough can be spotted through the lights of London.”

Juliana looked up, and saw the twinkle of countless stars smiling down at them. “The Plough? I have to admit ignorance in all matters of the stars; their knowledge is not something that I have ever learned.”

“Oh, but you must!” Mr Lovell stopped them in their tracks, and with one hand pointed upwards. “You see there, the North Star. ‘Tis the one that always burns brightest, and it heralds the dusk of evening each day.”

Juliana tried to look upwards, but was all too conscious of just how close Mr Lovell was to her. He was tall, and her eyes skirted along that sharp jawline as he pointed out the different stars.

“. . . and when brought together, they become the Plough,” he finished, and Juliana started, tearing away her gaze from Mr Lovell himself to his arm, still pointed upwards.

“They are beautiful,” she said, and she saw in him a gleam of pleasure. Here’s a man who loves to teach, she said to herself. Who would have guessed it all those weeks ago, at the May Day party?

“So,” he said, his hand still encircling his, “apart from the opera, what else is on your list?”

Mr Lovell started walking, and Juliana fell in step with him, almost unsure where to look. “My list?”

“Your list!” He smiled at her, and Juliana felt a strange squirming at the base of her throat that threatened to spread to her stomach. “Your list of things that you have never done, and you want to do. What else is there?”

Juliana laughed, and unconsciously squeezed his hand – and received an answering squeeze. “I suppose . . . lots of things! I have never been abroad, and travel is something that I would love to do.”

“Never been abroad?” Mr Lovell sounded surprised. “Where would be first on your list?”

She shrugged, and felt happier than she ever had before. The moment of panic had subsided, and all that was left was calm, and peace. She had not felt this safe with a gentleman . . . well, ever. But it was not just safety that she felt; there was something sharper there, and whatever that emotion was, it was tying her insides in knots.

“I suppose, France,” was Juliana’s reply. “Even to journey as far as Dover would be an achievement, to be frank; I have never even seen the sea!”

They reached a turn in the road, and now the street that they were on truly was empty.

“Never seen the sea?” Mr Lovell sounded amazed, and Juliana blushed. Was it embarrassment at her parochial nature; or was it something else?

“I surely sound most naïve to you, but truly, those are next on my list,” said Juliana, her hand now burning at the contact with Rufus Lovell’s. Why had she left her gloves in the opera box? “What is your list?”

“My list?” Mr Lovell considered, and smiled at her again. Juliana could not help but answer the smile, though it was a shy one. “Well, I suppose I do not have a list of things to do, or places to go, as such. My list is of a different nature.”

Juliana shivered, and she did not think it was because of the temperature of the evening air. “What kind of nature?” She had not realised just how personal their conversation had become until she saw Rufus swallow. “Please, I do not mean to pry – ”

“And you do no such thing,” Rufus Lovell assured her. “My list is more a catalogue, a collection of my favourite memories. The best meal that I ever tasted, the most hilarious joke that I have ever heard.”

She did not know what overwhelmed her, but it was impossible to prevent herself from speaking the words that next escaped her lips. “And do I make the list?”

Rufus Lovell stopped dead in his tracks and, not releasing her hand, turned to face her. There was a beat, a few unsteady heartbeats that seemed to pound in her ears before he spoke – and when he did, it was in a low voice. Such a low voice that Juliana had to take a step forward, closer to him, to even hear him.

“You do,” he said slowly, his eyes unflinchingly affixed on hers. “I will admit that I have never enjoyed anyone’s company before as much as I do yours. Not in all my life.”

Juliana stared at him. Rufus Lovell, enjoy her company? But she was the background to most gatherings, the one invited as a courtesy to her cousin, never the focus of anything.

“In fact,” said Rufus, his other hand now finding hers and forcing her to lean slightly closer to him once more, “I have a feeling that this next moment is going to be going right onto my list as well.”

She had no idea that it was coming, even when it was happening. His lips touched hers delicately, reverently at first, and then as his fingers pulsed and brought her even closer, his chest touched hers as his kiss strengthened. And for Juliana, the stars shone.

CHAPTER FIVE

“And that’s three of a kind, and I’m ever so sorry, but I seem to have won all of your money – again!”

The three men groaned as Anthony Griffiths smoothly drew the large pile of silver in the middle of the table towards him. Cigar smoke hung in the room, as they had for the last three hours, and some of the candles around the edges of the room were guttering.

“You can’t have such brilliant hands time after time, it’s simply impossible!” Nicholas Wingrave complained. “I want to see sleeves!”

Anthony, the winner of the night by a good few pounds, dramatically rose from his chair and flourished his hands. “Just like our very best magicians, you can see that my sleeves are – ” And here he pushed back the baggy linen sleeves from both of his wrists – “completely empty.”

He bowed as Rufus mock applauded him, and Percival Quinn chuckled as he poured more red wine into the four glasses that were on the table, surrounded by notes of paper, old cigar ends, crumbs from the capons that the servant had brought them, and a small IOU note that Nicholas, unwillingly, had been forced to sign for Anthony.

“I really don’t think,” said Percival lazily as he leaned back in a dark brown leather armchair, the like of which scattered the gentlemen’s club where they had spent the evening, “that there is any greater pleasure than cards.”

Nicholas belched slightly before he replied. “Not one that I would gladly share with the four of you!”

Rufus could not help but laugh with the others. The red wine, potent and spiced, had rid him of his ability to contribute to much of the conversation this last hour, but he was still standing – or rather, sitting. His only trouble was that beyond his general inability with cards, he was finding it rather difficult to concentrate. A mere week had passed since his outing to the opera with Juliana – Miss Honeyfield, he needed to get into the habit of calling her Miss Honeyfield – and yet each succeeding day had not dulled his sense in her regard.

Even the cards reminded him of her, the dark red of the Queen of Hearts the same tones as the roses that he had sent her; the crisp white of the background the same brilliance as the gloves that she had left behind in the opera house; the dark inky black of the Knave of Spades the same welcoming sky that witnessed their first kiss . . .

“I said, there is one thing better than cards and that’s wagers, Rufus!”

Rufus was brought back to the spot with a jolt, and stared wildly at Percival, the one who had been speaking – his discontent with the card game still playing across his furrowed forehead.

“I do beg your pardon,” said Rufus hastily, “. . . what?”

Percival guffawed slowly – or at least, as quickly as his drink-addled mind would allow it. “You’re not backing out now, are you? My mother saw you, you know, at the opera last Wednesday, and she mentioned how she saw you with Lady Audrey Marchwood, and one of her lady’s maids as chaperone. Have you given up with Miss Honeyfield – or is it Jamland, I forget – and taken up with a conquest a little more suited to your pocket?”

Nicholas and Anthony grinned, but Rufus felt hot, red hot.

“I was at the opera, and Lady Audrey was, indeed with us – but she was the chaperone,” he said, trying to keep the heat of his anger out of his voice. “The woman your mother mistook for a ladies’ maid was in fact Miss Honeyfield.”

“Honeyfield!” Percival clapped his palm to his forehead in mock embarrassment. “And I knew that the Jamlands had no daughter!”

Nicholas was laughing so much at this point that he had to wipe tears away from his eye, but Anthony had something else on his mind.

“Come on now, who’s for another hand?” He picked up the pack of cards and started shuffling, until Nicholas grabbed the cards from him.

“If we’re going to play again then there is absolutely no chance that I am letting you shuffle.”

Anthony threw his hands up in the air in mock surrender, but Percival wasn’t finished with Rufus, and he knew it. As Nicholas started to deal the next hand, the question that Rufus had known was coming was aired.

“So how is it going with young Juliana?”

Rufus swallowed, and picked up the cards that had been dealt him. “Miss Honeyfield? Rather well, actually. I’ve met her Father, the Reverend Honeyfield,” and he rolled his eyes dramatically, eliciting the groans he knew he would receive, “and received his blessing, of a sort, and I’ve spent more money than I’ve known possible on roses. We’ve attended the opera, as you all know, and she will be accompanying me to the Right Honourable Mrs Evesham’s dinner two nights from hence.”

“Sounds like you’re doing well,” said Percival shrewdly.

Rufus laughed uncomfortably, trying to force the bravado that he didn’t feel as he gazed at the cards in his hand. Two of a kind. “Sounds like within a week she’ll be eating out of my hand.”

He winked and hated himself as the laughter rang out from the table, deep and low. They had joked about women before, of course: women they didn’t know, women who went looking for attention and wore their dresses low, lower than was decent – women who wanted those sorts of jokes made about them, and occasionally made them themselves. The five of them had gawked at beautiful women, and spoke openly about their wishes, but it had been something Rufus had been on the periphery of; watching, but not taking part.

Now he felt as though he had sullied himself. He felt dirty, and it was a stain that would not come clean.

“Well said Master Lovell, well said!” Nicholas tilted his head in a small fake bow. “So my money is quite lost then, for this wager?”

Rufus crinkled his eyes and forehead into a miserable expression. “I am so sorry for your loss, Nick, it must have hit you so hard.”

Percival punched Nicholas gently on the arm. “You haven’t lost yet – and Rufus, you haven’t won yet! Michaelmas is growing ever closer, it’s only two months away now, and I haven’t seen any invitations come to my door with silver lettering and RSVPs dripping off them.”

“No, of course not!” Anthony interrupted, his face gleaming as he perused his cards. “I see Rufus here as more of a gold and green sort of type, none of this fancy silver nonsense. Only the best for our Miss Jamland!”

“Honeyfield,” said Rufus, almost absentmindedly as he threw down another shilling into the ever-growing pile in the middle of the table. If only he could move the subject on to something completely different . . .

“The real question is – no no, forget lettering or foiling and all of that nonsense,” Nicholas said, placing a newly lit cigar into his mouth as he threw down a crown into the middle, forcing them all to raise their stakes, “the real question is: how long are you going to let it go on for, Ruffy old boy, until you send her off to Parliament to get your divorce?”

There was a stunned silence: or at least, it was stunned in Rufus’ ears. Parliament? Divorce? How could they possibly know, surely they – but they made sure that no one had known, they had even paid off most of the important journalists to ensure that the news had never got out. And yet somehow, someone had talked.

“I don’t wish to discuss it,” he said finally. “I fold.”

He placed down his cards and looked stubbornly down at the table before him, but his friends were not going to let up that easily.

“I would say . . . three months,” opined Nicholas, and looked round at Anthony to see whether he would match his bet. “Three months is more than enough time to make use of a woman and then still get rid of her with some of her honour intact.”

“Some?” Percival shook his head as he too matched the raise set down by Nicholas. “No, if you really like her enough for her to be able to marry again, it’s got to be within the week. If you leave it any longer, it’s clear that her honour has been taken, and that’s an end to it.”

It’s Juliana, Rufus realised as he let the debate wash over him. They weren’t talking about – they were speaking of Juliana. Of when he would divorce her, if he did marry her at Michaelmas.

Shame, hot and red and nothing like the anger that he had felt before now coursed through him, flooding his lungs with regret at even breathing a thought of accepting this wager. What on earth had he done? They were right: once she was married to him, no other man would touch her, even if they divorced the very next day. The very mention of divorce in society would send any sensible man running in the opposite direction. Once he married her and then divorced her with little ceremony, she would become a societal outcast.

But then – his friends assumed that he would be divorcing her: collecting the money from Nicholas Wingrave, and then forcing her to go her separate way. That had been the last thing on his mind. He had enjoyed her company too well to consider quitting it, and he had found the twist of her mouth as she smiled and the way she seemed completely incapable of self-censure to be the most refreshing trait he had ever seen in a person.

“And I will see your cards no matter what it takes, Anthony!” Nicholas was teetering close to the edge of his temper, and Anthony’s giggles were not helping. Silver poured onto the table from three directions.

Rufus was still lost in his thoughts. These feelings, they were painful with hints of pleasure, and they did him no good. He’d not felt uncomfortable about this wager until now – not when it seemed to go along so happily with his own emotions. He liked Juliana, he . . . well, there was something stronger than like there, though he cared not to examine it too closely.

A wager? A wager towards marriage? What was he thinking? He, Rufus Lovell, was the not the man to do anything like this. He was not a man to even think about a wager of this nature. He did not grow up in this rich world of wagers, and parties, and cigar-smoked cards. He was just a man.

“I say you are a cheat, and I mean it!” Nicholas had finally lost his temper: cards and money and wine and smoking cigar ends were strewn onto the floor as the table was upturned, Anthony laughing uncontrollably as he held on tightly to a straight flush. Nicholas rushed at him and brought him down to the ground, pummelling at him.

Ignoring the smouldering cigar ends which soon burst into small flames, igniting the carpet in three or four places, Percival immediately rose from his chair to get a better view of the fight, laughing himself, and throwing silver and copper coins down onto the sparring pair, betting on who was going to hit the next punch, betting on who was going to bleed first, betting on who was to win in the end.

And Rufus just sat there, in his chair, numb. What had he got himself into? And more importantly, were these the sorts of friends that Hubert had made before his descent into the gutter?

CHAPTER SIX

“Are you quite sure that you know what you are doing?”

Juliana looked up to see the disapproving and slightly concerned expression on her cousin’s face, and she sighed. “I am going to a charitable dinner with a gentleman – a dinner, moreover, hosted by one of the finest ladies of society whom all know and admire. What else do I need to know?”

“That ‘gentleman’ of which you speak is no such thing, and you know it!” Audrey threw a cushion down onto the bed, and stared at Juliana who was placing two different coloured earbobs by her lobes, trying to decide which to wear. “Rufus Lovell is simply not the sort of man that you want to become . . . well, attached to!”

Deciding on the pearls, Juliana gently placed them on her ears, gazed at her reflection quickly in the looking glass, and turned resolutely to her companion. “Audrey, this is not your decision to make. And anyway, I have already made it. I cannot simply withdraw my agreement to attend now, that would be most unjust.”

Audrey looked astounded at her friend, and had to jump up when Juliana slipped through the door to descend the stairs.

“I don’t think you’ve thought this through at all, and you’re making a big – oh, Mr Lovell. You are early.”

Juliana smiled gently as her cousin tried to pretend she had not been galloping down the stairs three at a time, and she returned Mr Lovell’s bow with a courtesy. “My cousin, Lady Audrey, was just talking about you,” she said, smile widening.

Mr Lovell returned the smile, and his eyes sparkled as he said, “Goodness, Lady Audrey, you flatter me with your notice.”

Juliana could hear the muffled irritation of her cousin behind her, but she couldn’t stop looking at Rufus – Mr Lovell. She had never noticed his height before, but as he stood in the drawing room he seemed to dwarf her. The sharp line of his jaw seemed to make his smile even broader, and the way that the bright June light soared through the window and through his hair . . .

“ – or we shall be late.”

Juliana blinked. There was a silence in the room that she had not noticed before, and both Audrey and Mr Lovell were staring at her. This was clearly the moment for her to speak, but she had not been attending to the conversation.

“I beg your pardon,” she said with an apologetic smile. “I did not hear – I missed that last . . . ”

Her voice trailed off as she looked into Mr Lovell’s smile. It was broad, and it was sincere, and it was for her. What was happening, and why did she feel so hot? July it may be tomorrow, but this was no heat of the day, surely?

“Come now, Miss Honeyfield, or we shall be late.” Mr Lovell held out an arm, and Juliana took it gratefully.

“And I shall see you this evening,” added Audrey. “I shall stay up, if necessary.”

She gave a pointed look to her cousin, and Juliana had the good grace to blush slightly. “That will not be necessary, Audrey, I shall be home directly after the dinner.”

Mr Lovell’s arm was warm under hers, and Juliana flushed to feel the strength in his forearm, but it was but moments from leaving her home until they stepped into his curricle.

“I thought we would never leave,” revealed Mr Lovell as he settled her beside him. “I have wanted to do this as soon as I saw you.”

Leaning forward, he slipped one hand onto her waist and drew her slightly closer, and then closer still, and his mouth moved to hers, and Juliana could not help but close her eyes, intoxicated by his very presence, unwilling and unable to move, waiting for his lips to meet hers –

“You forgot your shawl.”

Mr Lovell jumped away from her as though he had been stabbed with a hatpin. Audrey was standing outside the curricle on the pavement with a shawl in her arms and a disapproving smile on her face.

Opening the door, she placed the forgotten shawl on her cousin’s lap, and leaned in to whisper in her ear so that Mr Lovell could not hear. “At least wait until the carriage has pulled away from the house, Juliana.”

Blushing furiously Juliana thanked her cousin for the shawl, and leaned back in the curricle, face hot and fingers fiddling with the shawl.

“I shall see you later then,” were the last words from her cousin that she heard, as Mr Lovell prompted the driver to start the carriage moving.

Juliana could barely bring herself to look at Mr Lovell. To be caught in the act by her cousin – the act of doing something that only an engaged couple would dare to do, in broad daylight! What on earth would Audrey think of her, and what would she assume her understanding with Rufus – with Mr Lovell – to be?

“I can only apologise,” said her companion gruffly, moving slightly away from her in the carriage. “I should have controlled myself. If you were not so beautiful, I may have been able to.”

Blushing all the more, Juliana replied, “Please do not apologise, Mr Lovell, I was quite a willing participant. You cannot bear all of the blame.”

“Rufus.”

She looked up, and saw a smile on his face as the carriage jolted them along.

“I would like it very much, when we are alone, when it is just the two of us, if you would call me Rufus.” He looked serious now, and in such earnest that Juliana felt a flush across her cheeks once more.

She swallowed. “And you may call me Juliana – but only when we are alone, you understand?”

Rufus laughed, and nodded. “Fear not, Juliana, I intend for us to be alone a lot more frequently than we are to be in company – and yet my plans are foiled before I know it. We have arrived.”

The carriage slowed to a halt, and Juliana sighed with disappointment. “I was so hoping to have more time with you, just the two of us.”

Rufus raised an eyebrow. “I am glad to see that I am not the only one of us that feels this way; and yet, some of the best company of London will be attending tonight, so the conversation should be riveting. You will not be bored, and unfortunately the night will undoubtedly be over before we know it.”

Rufus had never known himself to be so mistaken.

“But of course, as the tariffs continue to change, we too must alter our approach to regulation,” an elderly man droned on his left. “To ignore the changing of the market would be to greatly underestimate the power that an individual has to shift the tide of the pound – ”

“Ah, but who amongst us would willingly wield that power?” interrupted an equally elderly companion who sat on Rufus’ right. “To be sure of the market one must act cautiously, never doing too much to upset the balance.”

“Balance, balance,” returned the original speaker as Rufus attempted to cover his face as he yawned. “Tis balance indeed that will see us through the many vagaries . . .”

Surely the dinner must be over now? Rufus felt as though he had suffered through seventeen courses, but just one look down at his plate told him that they were only just finishing the fish. Of course their hostess had placed himself and Juliana apart at the table, though not too far away; on the opposite side of the table, and three people down. It would not do for them to be seated together, proprietary must have its way – but to be so situated at the table, between two such doddering old men?

“I find her equitable to all others, save Lady Audrey,” stated a young man of Rufus’ vague acquaintance, who sat opposite him. “And yet I would not tup her for all the tea in China, have you seen her mother?”

“If you truly fear that Sophia will grow to become such a beast then I would advise you to cut your losses now and run, before your honour becomes entangled,” was the laughing response of his friend, Dickens or Daniel, Rufus could not remember. “What think you, Lovell?”

Rufus shook his head, so bored of the conversation that he almost could not bring himself to speak. “Do what you will, I suppose.”

“What I will? Tis not what I will, but what my parents will!” The first gentleman who Rufus was almost sure was Bernard, but could have been Benjamin, looked disgruntled around him. “For who is it but our parents that make the real matches? No, marriage is not even a game any more, but merely a place where mamas and papas can make their alliances.”

“And so it should be!” The elderly gentleman on Rufus’ left slapped his fist down on the table, and most of the chatter around the thirty strong table came to a halt. “Marriage is not for the young to find a pretty face, it is for two families to make an agreement that benefits both sides.”

“So you would rob our generation of any hope of happiness?”

Rufus swallowed. He wasn’t completely sure, but he was almost certain that he had spoken those last words. The rest of the diners were certainly staring at him in a very strange way.

He looked up to the one person at the table whose opinion mattered to him, and saw that Juliana had a slight smile on her face.

There was a cough to his left, and Rufus turned to look at the gentleman who had slammed his fist on the table. “Your generation, my generation, any generation: marriage is a tool, and nothing else. You find yourself a woman that you can build an empire with, and you build it!”

“And yet that removes any of the sanctity of marriage,” Rufus found himself saying to an almost silent room. “It is holy and sacred! Marriage created by God for the benefit of both individuals, no family to be taken into account, no financial agreements to be drawn up, and no resources to be pooled. Surely the happiest of marriages are between two individuals who . . . who love each other?”

He could see by the raised eyebrows and the gentle murmuring that he had gone too far, but it was Juliana’s response that was the only one that really mattered, and she looked – more confused than anything.

“I . . .” His throat was dry now, but he had to finish what he had started. “I think marriage a noble institution, when accompanied by love. When two people come together, the right two people, with the right understanding. Then I think marriage is a truly remarkable thing.”

Rufus tried not to let his discomfort show. He had said too much, and the strange looks that he was receiving from up and down the table proved that. This was not the time nor the place to display your feelings, he told himself, and undoubtedly not in front of the woman who you are trying to marry before Michaelmas!

Eyelashes down, Juliana did not notice the awkwardness on Rufus Lovell’s face. She was too busy trying to digest his comments, her meal left forgotten on her plate. She had never heard anyone, let alone a man, say such things about marriage, about love. For all his laughter, Rufus Lovell was a man who felt deeply.

The scrape of a chair made Juliana look up, and she was astonished to see that it was Rufus who had decided to leave the table early.

“I am afraid that I must take Miss Honeyfield home,” he said to the table, and Juliana tried to look as though she had expected this, rather than let her mouth fall open. “Her father will be waiting for her return.”

The hostess tried to speak but Rufus was clearly not in a listening mood: he strode out of the room without looking back, and the entire party turned to look at Juliana. Colouring, she in turn rose, curtseyed to the hostess, and stepped as gently as she could out of the room.

In the hallway, Rufus was pacing.

“I’m sorry,” he said abruptly, “but I had to get out of there, the heat was unbearable. Are you happy to walk back – it is only ten minutes, perhaps a few more, but I would appreciate the coolness of the night air. My man can come back for the carriage tomorrow.”

Juliana nodded her assent, unable to speak. What on earth was going on with Rufus Lovell? He was pacing like a caged animal, and as they walked down the steps to the street he seemed incapable of thinking, determined just to walk in the fresh air.

Drawing her shawl around her shoulders, she found a natural rhythm beside him, and glorified in his presence. This was a man who clearly had no need to hide his feelings, however complex they were. Here was a man she could . . . love.

“I must apologise,” Rufus said quietly as they turned a corner, and he slipped his hand over hers. “I have not spoken so out of turn in public before – well, not in my memory. It is rare for company to find a topic on which I can speak so fervently.”

“I had not realised that marriage was – I mean, matrimony is not often – I am told that men do not think on such things.” Juliana blushed, completely unable to construct a sentence now that Rufus’ warm and strong hand was encircling hers.

Rufus laughed, and Juliana could not help but smile in response. His laugh was like a brook running over smooth stones. “I suppose not, but then there are very few gentlemen of my years who have had cause to consider marriage in any amount of seriousness.”

Her breath caught in her throat, and Juliana almost had to cough to clear it. Could he be – surely he could not be suggesting what she thought?

“My parents were very unhappy for a very long time,” Rufus said with a deep sigh, “and it was their own parents who had encouraged them into a match that brought neither of them a modicum of happiness.”

Juliana let out the breath that she had not realised she had been holding. Of course, she scolded herself, of course he is not about to propose to you. What could have given you that idea?

“They put up a front, naturally. No one could know that the Lovells were miserable, but we knew – Hubert and I. It was impossible not to live in that house and to be unaware of the bile and hatred that my parents felt for one another.”

Juliana looked up at him. “That such an unequal marriage should bring such misery to four people; it does not sound fair.”

Rufus shrugged. “It was not, but it was a marriage of alliance, and it was intended to bring great power to my father. He was in trade, and my mother’s dowry set him up for life – sets me up for life, now that they are both gone, along with my brother. And yet I would that he had chosen wiser. Chosen with his heart.”

Her own was beating far faster than was normal, and she could feel her pulse racing through her palm that touched his own.

“I will never settle,” said Rufus vehemently. “I will never settle for someone that I can just like, or tolerate, in my marriage.”

“Love,” she found herself saying. “Love is all that matters.”

She did not receive the reply that she had expected, but it was nonetheless just as welcome; Rufus drew her into his arms, and planted his response gently on her lips. In that moment, enclosed in his arms and completely lost in his kiss, Juliana felt the answer, even if she did not hear it. That jaw that captivated her gaze so often grazed past her cheek as his lips enraptured her own, demanding more and more and yet no more than she was comfortable to give. This was passion, this was desire, this was . . . love.

CHAPTER SEVEN

“He’ll be here any moment Father, do you really have to wear that?”

Juliana looked at the Reverend Honeyfield in despair. Despite the heat of the July sun, her father was wearing his full liturgical regalia. He must have been boiling, but there was nothing but quiet joy on his face.

“This? My child, this is the cloth, and it is Sunday.”

“It is Sunday afternoon, Father, service is over,” Juliana said. “See, I myself am dressed in a muslin gown, light and airy so I will not overheat in the sun.”

“And I too, Uncle,” joined Audrey. They were standing in the hallway by the front door, and she looked sternly at her uncle. “I would not wish for you to become overly warm. My own father finds that black is too much often for these summer months.”

“And your father is not a clergyman.” The Reverend Honeyfield spoke with a finality that told both women that the conversation was over. “And regardless, there is surely not enough time to change before young Mr Lovell arrives. It was one o’clock that you agreed with him, was it not Juliana?”

Juliana nodded, and attempted to keep her cheeks from blushing. “It has been just over a week since I have seen Mr Lovell who had been called back to Maplebridge for business, but before he left he asked for a walk with myself, and with you father, today at one o’clock – but he is meeting us at the Palace end of St. James’ Park so we must leave within the next ten minutes. Plenty of time,” she said sternly, “for you to change.”

But the Reverend Honeyfield was far more stubborn than his daughter. “If the cloth is sufficient for my parishioners, then it is sufficient for strangers and acquaintances that we see this afternoon. Now; shall we?”

Juliana sighed, but nodded. The last thing that she wanted was to be late seeing Rufus. It seemed an age since she had last seen him, and she had not missed anyone like this since the time that Audrey and she had been separated for over a year – and still, this was different.

“Let’s go,” she said decisively, and opened the door – to see Rufus Lovell standing outside. “Rufus! I mean, Mr Lovell,” she said hastily, casting a glance back to her father. Thankfully, the Reverend Honeyfield did not seem to have noticed. “I had thought that we were meeting – ”

“I could not wait.” Rufus had tried to keep calmness in his voice, but his eagerness was plain to see, and even the Reverend Honeyfield noticed it now.

“My word, Mr Lovell, you must have doubled your journey to meet us here!”

Rufus threw open his arms. “But what a lovely afternoon, Reverend Honeyfield! I simply could not wait indoors this morning, and so I took a slightly longer route to enjoy the air, and found that my footsteps led me here.”

Juliana smiled to see the man that she was rapidly falling in love with, standing there tall and beaming, willing to take a walk with herself and her father. Not that the Reverend Honeyfield was a difficult man, of course; just a man rather determined not to bow to the currents of popular opinion. It had led him well these last twenty years, but it was not something that her friends had often understood – and as for male acquaintances . . .

“Walk with me, young Lovell,” said her father as they stepped out of their hallway and into the sunshine. “My, this July sun is really coming down! So, Mr Lovell, which church are you a parishioner of?”

Juliana could not help but smile as she stepped behind them, and watched Rufus attempt to respond to her father’s gentle prodding. What was he expecting, she thought? As soon as you ask a man for a chaperoned walk with his daughter, you’ve made your intentions clear.

But Rufus was in his element. “Well, sir, when I am staying here in London I find that I frequent St Martin in the Fields the most often – but when at home in Maplebridge, I of course worship at our parish church. You may indeed know our vicar there, a Stephen Markham?”

“Reverend Markham, I do indeed!” was the happy response from the Reverend Honeyfield as they rounded the corner and entered St James’ Park. “How is my old friend, I knew him from Oxford!”

“Absolutely blossoming sir,” replied Rufus, throwing a smile back to Juliana who beamed back at him. Who would not want the man that they love who raised them and the man that they were falling in love with to converse so happily?

“Yes, we mentored many young men between us during our time there,” reminisced the Reverend Honeyfield. “One of them, Leonard Tyndale, is making his own mark now in India of course. There was no stopping him, despite the fact that he is a very talented teacher in his own right. We receive letters, but it not quite the same as seeing him in the flesh.”

The park was busy; Sunday afternoon was, after all, the time to see and be seen, and many groups were promenading around the paths, nodding and bowing to acquaintances and friends, staring interestedly at those who they did not know.

At times the path would narrow so much so that Rufus would be obliged to step back and allow young ladies to pass them, and these were the moments when he would take Juliana’s hand and squeeze it. She would stare at him in almost amazement; was this what happened to other women?

“Although I must say you were right, Juliana,” said the Reverend Honeyfield, looking back at his daughter. “It is most humid today. I think that I shall repose for a few minutes here on this bench under the trees.”

“Are you well, sir?” Rufus was quick and attentive, but he was waved away.

“Quite well, just a little hot,” said the Reverend Honeyfield. “But please, I do not wish to detract from your walk. Why do you two not take some time to walk around, and I shall sit here and watch you both.”

Juliana bit her lip. “Are you sure, Father? We are quite happy to go back home so that you can enjoy the cool of the parlour.”

But the Reverend Honeyfield was not to be questioned. “Do not fuss over me, child; go and enjoy Mr Lovell’s company, and I shall be right here waiting for you.”

Rufus could see that Juliana was concerned, but he could not help but take this chance to speak to her alone. If he had the courage to do what he wanted, if he was only able to get her alone . . .

“We shall not be long,” Juliana was saying to her father. “Will we, Mr Lovell?”

Rufus swallowed. “Not long at all, sir.”

He felt as though he were a king when Juliana placed her hand on his arm, and they slowly made their way from the bench, with Juliana throwing back her head every few steps to look back at her father.

“He will be quite well, Juliana,” Rufus said gently.

Juliana laughed. “Quite well, I think; he’s already fallen asleep in the shade.”

Joining in with her laughter, Rufus looked back to see the Reverend Honeyfield with his mouth slightly open, sitting comfortably on the bench. “I must say, without giving any offence, I am most surprised to find that your father is not . . . well, boring! I had always assumed that anyone of the Church would be – ”

“Unbearable?” Juliana interrupted, and she laughed. “You would not be the first person to say such a thing to me. In fact, I think that all of my friends have made a remark of that nature at one time or another.”

They passed another group of people, Rufus bowing as they walked to one of them, and then continued on their way.

“I think your father is just set in his ways,” said Rufus slowly, “and he reminds me that it is possible to have a father that is interested in the world, and in his child. It is not a role model that I was afforded.”

Juliana’s heart broke for him. “Ever since our previous conversation,” she admitted quietly, “I have not been able to stop thinking about what you said, regarding your parents. It must have been a very lonely time, for you, and for your brother, and for your parents.”

Rufus laughed drily. “Loneliness does not quite cut it, I’m afraid. Although I suppose I should be glad for the lessons that such a start in life has taught me. I’m now blessed with the talent of being able to converse quite happily with almost anyone. Anyone is better than no one.”

His arm was warm, but it did not cloy; it was the reassuring warmth and strength that Juliana found had been missing all her life. The love that her parents had given her simply wasn’t the same.

“I . . .” started Rufus, who then swallowed. “Juliana, I am glad that your father has given the two of us some time alone. I must admit that – ”

“Wait,” interrupted Juliana. “Come, let us sit down here, underneath the oak trees.”

A little away from the path, and a little hidden from general view, Juliana found that her heart was beating so much that she did not feel completely able to continue walking in polite society without someone guessing that she was about to declare exactly how she felt for this man beside her. Self control, she reminded herself. You need to control yourself.

She dropped down to the grass below their feet, and as Rufus sat down beside her his hand grazed her cheek slightly. It burned as though he had put a branding iron to it, and she put her hand to it, shocked at her body’s response. There was something about this man that made her hot, hotter than even the July sun.

“Juliana,” Rufus started again, speaking so low that she leaned forward, towards him like she was unable to stay away. “I have more feelings for you than I thought possible, and two months ago I did not even know you.”

Juliana smiled. “I have found myself more distracted by your absence than the presence of anyone else since I last saw you,” she said quietly, “and I am beginning to think that no one else will have such an effect on me, no matter how long I live.”

She knew what was coming, knew before it even happened, knew that despite the fact that they were in public, with people able to walk up and down the path mere feet from them, knew that Rufus Lovell was about to kiss her. And she was glad; she wanted his kiss, wanted the feel of him close to her, wanted to feel his lips on hers.

Rufus had tried to stop himself but his heart refused to take no for an answer; the scent of Juliana Honeyfield was so intoxicating that there was nothing that he could to do to prevent himself from leaning forward and crushing her lips with his own. The intake of breath that she made was enough for him to pull her close, and if someone hadn’t coughed as they passed then there was a very real chance that he would have completely lost control.

Not for the first time, Rufus and Juliana leapt apart at being caught.

“I certainly need to find better places to kiss you,” murmured Rufus quietly, his hand still on Juliana’s waist.

Juliana blushed, but the blush was accompanied by a smile. “Perhaps I should find somewhere better for us next time? You can leave the subterfuge up to me.”

Rufus stared in amazement at this woman who was never afraid to speak her mind, and laughed as he shook his head. “Juliana you – there really is no one quite like you, is there?”

And here she could not help but smile. “I hope not. And if I am not very much mistaken, that is my father beckoning to us.”

Rufus whirled round, and immediately released his hand from Juliana as he saw the Reverend Honeyfield waving at them across the park.

Juliana sighed. “I suppose that we must go back to him.”

“Not before I ask you – I mean, if there is time, then I would like to – ”

“We can’t leave him shouting,” said Juliana, rising to her feet and brushing off the grass from her gown. Then her mind caught up with her, and she stared down scarlet at Rufus. “What did you say?”

Rufus swallowed. Perhaps not here. Perhaps he could wait another day. Standing up, he stood closer to her than he was sure was wise, considering that her father’s eyes were clearly on them.

“Juliana Honeyfield, I would greatly appreciate it if I could call on you tomorrow afternoon, and ask,” and here he had to swallow again. “And ask you an important question.”

Juliana stared up into the eyes of the man who she was going to spend the rest of her life with.

“Well?” Rufus was not expecting to be so nervous. “May I attend you tomorrow?”

“Juliana!” Her father’s voice was now audible, so he must be getting closer. She had not realised that he was walking towards them.

“Juliana, what is your answer?” Rufus whispered, reaching out his hands almost unconsciously and clasping hers to his chest. “I must know.”

“Yes.”

CHAPTER EIGHT

The sunlight that poured through the gap in the curtains did not wake Juliana Honeyfield up. She had barely slept, and by the time that she had heard the hour of five chimed on the clocks throughout the house, her eyes had barely closed.

Today. Who could possibly have known that it would be the eighth of July? Who could have known that it would have happened at all?

There were no guarantees in life, but Juliana was quietly confident. As she lay in her bed, staring up at the ceiling that she had known intimately for years, she suddenly thought that she was not always going to be staring up at it. Soon, sooner perhaps than she could have predicted, she would be looking up at a completely different ceiling. And she would not be alone in observing it.

A flush moved across her cheeks. To even think such things, before she was engaged to be married! But surely it would be mere hours before that happened; what else could Rufus Lovell be about to ask her?

Unable to stay in bed a moment longer, Juliana swung her legs over the side of the bed, and after throwing her knitted shawl over her shoulders, wandered downstairs. There was a moment of stillness that was to be savoured before the rest of the household woke up – and she wasn’t quite ready yet to share with Audrey, close as they were, what she knew was going to occur that afternoon.

The house was still, silent, stifling. She threw open a window in the breakfast room and took in a deep breath. This was to be the last morning that she would be unattached, and she was going to relish it.

As she settled down into her favourite chair with a good book, the clock on the mantelpiece chimed six times. It was still at least two hours before either her father or her cousin would emerge from their respective bedrooms, so there was plenty of time for Juliana to read, and then would come breakfast, and then luncheon, and then . . .

A loud knock on the front door was the only sound that Juliana could hear, but it disturbed her thoughts like a gunshot. A knock? At this time? Who on earth could even be thinking of being abroad at this hour?

Juliana nestled under her shawl happily, and waited for Charlotte to answer the door, but it was not the sound of the door opening that next reached her ears, but another knock. And then a third.

Whoever it was seemed insistent of being admitted, and Juliana sighed. Book cast aside, she stood up and her bare feet patted across the hallway to the front door.

In hindsight, Juliana should have known that no good news could come to anyone’s door before respectable hours. She should have known that opening the door to anyone in her nightdress with naught but a shawl covering her was a mistake. She should have known that Charlotte was the best person to answer the door.

But hindsight is a wonderful thing, and not a gift that Juliana had. The door was opened, and it revealed a very beautiful, rather bedraggled, and irate looking woman standing outside.

“About time!” She said in a huff. “I didn’t think he would keep you up so, but here you are, finally. Is he awake?”

Juliana blinked slightly at the brightness of the day, and tried to take in all that the woman had said. “I am afraid that my father is still asleep, Miss . . ?”

The woman laughed. “I highly doubt he’s your father, missy, or else you are a lot younger than you look! Come on now, there’s no shame between us women. I know what you’ve been up to, and I bear you no ill will for it – but I was there first, and by rights he’s mine, and you know it.”

Nothing that the woman seemed to be saying made sense, and Juliana clutched at what she knew was the correct order of a conversation.

“I am sorry,” she said abruptly, “but I do not know your name. I am Juliana Honeyfield, and I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”

The woman raised an eyebrow. “Oh are you, indeed? Well, with a fancy name like that I’m sure you can afford to be. I’m Mabel, but of course you’ve heard of me.”

She smiled, pride in her voice and arrogance in her eyes, but Juliana just stared. “Mabel?”

The pride faltered. “He hasn’t mentioned me?”

Juliana shook her head slightly, pulling her shawl around her more closely as a feeling of self-consciousness started to creep over her. “My father has many friends, I must apologise if I do not recall his mentioning you. However, he should be up soon if – ”

“Lord woman, haven’t I told you that I don’t want your father?” Mabel snapped. “I told you, I’m here for my man. I’m his mistress, not you, and I’m here to claim my place once more.”

A feeling of relief washed over Juliana. “Oh, I see. I am ever so sorry, Mabel, but you have come to the wrong house. No other man lives here save my father, so as you can see, there has been a mistake.”

“Mistake?” Mabel shook her head, and Juliana noticed the tired grey rings that encircled her eyes for the first time. “No mistake, miss. I’ve been in France since . . . well, just before Christmas perhaps? I told him, I said I would be back by Easter, and I’m not offended that he’s taken up with you in my absence, but I’m back now, and I’m here for my rights.”

Juliana flushed. To be mistaken for – well, for what Mabel was, a mistress! It was not to be borne, but she supposed that if she had knocked on a door to find it opened by a woman in her nightclothes, she may have made assumptions too.

“Now I know he’s here,” Mabel continued, unaware of or ignoring the look of shock and embarrassment on Juliana’s face. “I asked at his club, see, and I was told that he comes here most regular like. I’ll go away now, if you want, if you need to settle accounts with him and all, but if you could give him my address I would be much obliged. I went to his rooms, but they’re all closed up.”

“No, no you don’t understand,” said Juliana, trying to get a hold of the conversation which was rapidly running away from her. “I’m not a man’s – I’m not anyone’s lover, Mabel. I don’t know who you are talking about, but he hasn’t been here.”

Mabel sniffed. “You can try it as much as you like, Miss Juliana, if that is your real name. I know that my man has been here, and I know that he’s only been paying you whatever attentions he has because he’s been bored. He’s been waiting for me, hasn’t he? You just tell your Mr Lovell that Mabel is back in town.”

It was as though the very heart that usually beat quite happily in her chest had been ripped out and cast onto the floor, so deep was the pain that wrenched through Juliana’s body and soul. She blinked, and each time her eyes opened once more she seemed to be blinded by light. This wasn’t happening. This wasn’t possible. This wasn’t real.

“I see by your face that you do know Mr Lovell,” said Mabel, a bitter and mean merriment in her voice. “And I see that he has not mentioned me at all. Well, that’s as how he is, I suppose. Happy to talk about his parents, willing to talk about his brother even, but never one to whisper secrets about the mistress that he takes to his bed.”

Juliana’s mouth opened, but no words came out. How could she have been so stupid? What had she thought Rufus had seen in her? Of course it was all too good to be true, how could she have been so blind?

There was a cough, and her eyes focused on Mabel.

“I’m happy to wait here for him,” said the woman who had just ruined all her hopes and happiness in five minutes. “I know he’ll be glad to see me, and you may find it easier to say goodbye to him if you see him leave with a woman who makes him truly happy.”

“You may leave now,” said Juliana, her voice rediscovered and with a flinty harshness that it had never contained before. “And I would appreciate it, Mabel, if you see Mr Lovell would you give him a message from me?”

Mabel shrugged. “No skin off my back.”

Juliana had kept her eyes dry up until this point, but with each passing moment it was getting more and more difficult. “Tell him . . . tell him that I am sorry I ever confused him with an honourable man.”

Mabel was almost certainly going to reply, but Juliana did not give her the time. She had already taken a step backwards, and slammed the door between them.

Do not cry, she told herself as she stood, stunned, in the hallway. Do not give him the satisfaction of making you feel this way. But it did not seem possible to turn off her soul, was not possible to remove all of her thoughts and feelings. She was a woman with a heart, one that she had been about to happily hand over to him – and he had broken it, even without being in her presence.

Juliana had probably been standing for around ten minutes before there was another knock on the door. Or was it the memory of the knock that had already happened?

Another knock. A third. A fourth. There was definitely someone at the door again, but if Juliana had to open it to Mabel, or worse, another woman like her, then she would lose all control and weep out the hurt and pain that was burning up her stomach.

Another knock at the door. It was quite clear that the individual on the other side of it, whoever they were, were not going to leave until that same door was opened.

She took a deep breath, and opened the door. Expecting and dreading to see Mabel, Juliana was confused to see that instead there was a gentleman outside; a gentleman in full coat and hat, with a smile on his face that made her feel like a rabbit about to be taken by a dog.

“Yes?” She managed, heart still pounding. “Can I help you?”

“Miss Honeyfield,” he said with a bow, “I was hoping that it would be you to open the door. It makes things so much simpler.”

There must be something wrong with her, Juliana decided. Surely there must be something wrong with her, or the day itself. What was happening?

“I am sorry,” she found herself saying, “but I do not believe that we are acquainted.”

“My apologies,” said the man, taking off his hat and holding it with an easy air. “You have undoubtedly heard of me, of course, but you probably cannot put the face to the name. I am Nicholas Wingrave.”

He paused, waiting for a dawning of understanding to dazzle across Juliana’s face. It did not.

“I’m sorry, but I do not recognise the name,” said Juliana slowly. “Ought I?”

Nicholas Wingrave’s smile faltered slightly, but it did not completely disappear. “Well no, I suppose – it is perhaps an irrelevant detail to the story, but I had assumed that it had been passed on nonetheless. You cannot be at a loss to know why I am here, Miss Honeyfield, and so I shall get straight to it: I am willing to not only match Lovell’s offer, but exceed it. What do you say to that?”

Juliana stared open mouthed. “Match his offer – exceed it?” Was the man mad? Rufus Lovell had not even proposed marriage to her yet, and there was already another man on her front doorstep before the hour of seven in the morning ready to try and exceed it? What madness was this?

“I know, it seems a lot,” said Mr Wingrave with a smile, “but really, it is not that much to me, and I would gain far more pleasure out of it than young Lovell. After all, it’s been a lot of work for the two of you, and I feel as though it would be far more beneficial to cut to the chase.”

That’s it, thought Juliana. There is no sense in the world left.

“So what do you say?”

Juliana swallowed. “Mr Wingrave, I don’t even know you!”

“Goodness me girl, you don’t have to know someone!” Nicholas Wingrave snorted. “This isn’t the 1790s anymore, society has moved on! If you can’t accept the money from me, of course, that’s your own business, but I rather thought that it would be more difficult to say no . . . to fifteen guineas!”

He said this last part with a sense of triumph that was completely lost on Juliana. “Fifteen guineas?” she repeated. “Mr Wingrave, are you sure that you have the right house?”

“Right house?” Mr Wingrave looked confused. “Don’t care about the house, it’s you I need to talk to. Look, I know that old Lovell has probably told you all the details about our wager, and I can tell you, it wasn’t made lightly. I really will have to pay him the full twenty guineas if he marries you before Michaelmas! He’s probably told you that he’ll split the full amount with you, giving you ten guineas – but I’ll give you fifteen to throw him and leave him unmarried by September 29th, saving me money, costing him the full twenty, and leaving you free to marry whoever you want.” He stared at her as though seeing her for the first time, and a smile moved slowly over his lips as he took in her state of undress. “Although if you’ve bedded him already, perhaps you’d rather get married and keep yourself honest.”

“Bedded – wager – Michaelmas?” Juliana spluttered. Her cheeks were burning and though her shawl had dropped from one shoulder, she was too outraged by his words to notice. “You mean to tell me that Rufus – that Mr Lovell and you have a wager on, and that it concerns me?”

Nicholas Wingrave laughed. “You can dissemble all you like, Miss Honeyfield, you must know all about it. How else could it all be going so well? Lovell is a nice boy, but he’s a Lovell: no one, no woman would be seriously considering him as a suitor unless there was something else for them to gain!”

Juliana felt as though the world had stopped moving under her feet, and was instead falling downwards, so quickly and so violently that she thought she was going to be sick. Rufus Lovell had been wagered twenty guineas to marry her by Michaelmas. Why was she not surprised? Perhaps she may have been before this morning, but one conversation with Mabel seemed to reveal far more of Rufus Lovell’s personality than the weeks that she had spent supposedly getting to know him.

“Now I usually play fair,” Nicholas Wingrave was still talking, “but it’s a matter of principle; Lovell shouldn’t really win a wager that difficult, not at first. We’ve got to break him in gently into the group, you see? Soon we’ll have him eating out of the palms of our hands, and that’s when he can win a few. As long as he keeps losing, what do we care? So fifteen guineas, in your hands, by the end of the day. Are we agreed?”

Juliana stood in shock, and for a moment she was convinced that she had answered.

“Miss Honeyfield?”

“Leave now.” The words were only said in a whisper, but the anger behind them was more than enough for Nicholas Wingrave to pick up on them. “And take your filthy money with you. I don’t need to be bribed to refuse a man who respects me so little.”

And for the second time that morning, Juliana Honeyfield stood back from the door, and slammed it. And then the tears that had been kept at bay for so long finally overwhelmed her, and she fell to the floor sobbing, each tear a burning reminder of the betrayal that she had just endured.

CHAPTER NINE

Nothing that her father nor Audrey could say was able to force Juliana to divulge what had happened that morning.

“Something has happened, my child, so why do you not tell us?”

Juliana sat, not stony faced but rather stony hearted, in the dining room over luncheon, unwilling to respond to her father’s entreaties. The Reverend Honeyfield looked helplessly at his niece, and Audrey took over the attack.

“We do not pry for gossip’s sake,” she said gently, as Juliana lifted played with a strawberry on her plate. “You know us far better than that. We are simply concerned, that is all, and would do much to relieve you from this melancholy.”

The strawberry sat on the plate alone and untouched, but no conversation followed.

Sharing another worried glance, Audrey murmured to her uncle, “At least Mr Lovell will be here at any moment. Surely he will be able to talk some sense into her – or pull the truth out of her!”

Juliana heard the name, but it was as though it were from a place very far off. What did it matter that Rufus Lovell was coming here, after all? He was not the Rufus Lovell whom she had fallen in love with; that man was dead, and he had not existed in the first place, and it was confusing and painful. This man, whoever he was, could pay a call this afternoon. Why not? He was a stranger to her, and she was always vaguely polite to strangers, it came with being a clergyman’s daughter. He could give his pleasantries, and then he could leave.

And she would never see him again.

“At least she’s eating,” the Reverend Honeyfield was saying to Audrey, in a voice that Juliana could tell he was purposefully keeping calm and measured. “As long as she is still taking in sustenance, I do not think that there can be too much ill.”

Juliana’s hand fell listlessly by her side now that her plate was empty, and Audrey shook her head – but was prevented from speaking by the opening of the door. Charlotte was there, and behind her stood the shape of a very tall man with a strong jaw.

“Mr Rufus Lovell, sir, come to see Miss Honeyfield,” bobbed Charlotte.

Before his introduction had been fully made, Rufus strode out behind her, anticipation and excitment dripping from every limb. This was the moment, and he was ready for it.

“It has taken all of my self control to wait this long before coming to visit,” he confessed in an easy air, completely oblivious to the worried expressions on two of the three faces around him. “But I have indeed waited until the afternoon, as I said I would, and I would now crave your permission, Reverend Honeyfield, to speak with your daughter. Alone. Just for a moment.”

Nerves and excitement milled about on his face, and Rufus Lovell was almost beside himself with excitement. This was it! He had done it, and better than that, he had won this Michaelmas wager in the best way possible: with his heart. Never could he have imagined the impact that this Miss Juliana Honeyfield would have on him, but by God, he never wanted to imagine himself without her.

Audrey stood, and then hesitated. “Juliana, I can stay if you so wish.”

Rufus stared at her and then his eyes flashed to Juliana. No, she did not look as though she was displeased to see him; but then, as he looked closer, he could see that she did not look particularly pleased either. She did not look . . . well, anything. There was no strong emotion on that face save apathy.

“I, too, my dear,” said the Reverend Honeyfield slowly, not rising from his seat. “I am sure that Mr Lovell will be happy to say anything to you with us present. Will you not, Mr Lovell?”

This was not going exactly how Rufus had expected. Propose – in front of not only the lady’s cousin, but before her father?

“Well, I . . .” Rufus coughed, unsure of his footing. Was this the typical approach when proposing marriage to a clergyman’s daughter? “The words I have to speak . . . the question that I would, erm, put to Miss Honeyfield is really intended for . . . well, her ears only at this point . . .”

Audrey’s eyes widened slightly as comprehension dawned. “Uncle, I think perhaps I heard someone knocking.”

The Reverend Honeyfield blinked. “Knocking?”

“Knocking.” Audrey spoke firmly, but not as firmly as the hand with which she raised her uncle from his seat and pulled him towards the door. “I think it vital that we check it, you know that Charlotte is much occupied at this time of day, and after all the visitor is undoubtedly for you, who else would call this early? And it will give you a chance to explain to me . . .”

Her voice faded as she and the Reverend Honeyfield moved through the house, away from the happy couple. Although Rufus was not entirely sure that they were the happy couple any more. All the joy between them that seemed to be seeping out, beyond their control, in full view of the world because they couldn’t help it, seemed to be gone. There was a frostiness now, and a lack of welcome that he had never experienced with Juliana before.

Perhaps this was normal. She must know that this is coming, after all, reasoned Rufus silently as he stared at Juliana. Perhaps this is nerves, or excitement, or an unwillingness to reveal all to her family before I have arrived. All I have to do is step across this room, and ask her to be my bride, and all shall be restored.

“Juli – Miss Honeyfield.” Rufus corrected himself as he moved across the room, circling the chairs that had been left. “I have come here today with no expectations, just hopes. I . . .”

Here his throat stuck, as he came to stand before her. She had turned away from the table but remained seated, and her cheeks were flushed, eyes bright. Rufus’ heart felt as though it was being squeezed from the inside out as he looked at her. To think that they first met through a silly gamble, and now here they were.

Rufus swallowed, and started again. He lowered himself onto one knee. “Miss Honeyfield. These last few months have been some of the happiest of my life – the happiest, actually. You have made me believe in marriage once more and I thought that was an impossible task. You would make me the happiest man on God’s green earth if you agreed to my proposal and became my wife.”

The stillness that Rufus had expected lasted quite a bit longer than he thought. And then longer still. His eyes never left Juliana’s face, but hers never seemed to rest on him; they flittered, first one way, and then another.

Rufus coughed. “Juliana, what is your answer?”

Finally those deep eyes met his own, but he had to concentrate to catch her response, it was so quiet. “And what day would you have us marry?”

Not the response that he was expecting, Rufus rallied and replied, still on bended knee, “I hadn’t given it much thought, actually. We would want a few weeks to organise . . . perhaps September? No later than the 28th, I think, to enjoy the last of the summer.”

It was as though Juliana had been waiting for this, and nothing else, for with his final words she sprung into life. Rising from her chair in a fury she pushed him over onto the floor and moved restlessly around the room.

“Juliana! What – ”

“I cannot believe that I fell in love with you!” were the words hurled at him from across the room. “I cannot believe that I trusted you – my father trusted you!”

Shocked and head ringing slightly from the knock to the floor, Rufus righted himself and stood up, staring at the wild thing that Juliana had become. “Of course you can trust me, what’s come over you?”

Juliana laughed, but it was dry and bitter and cold and Rufus hated it. “Come over me? Why not ask your mistress?”

“Mistress?” Completely thrown now, Rufus shook his head slowly. “Juliana I have never had any mistress, never – ”

“That’s strange,” said Juliana, cutting across him, “because I met her this morning!”

His forehead creased as Rufus attempted to make sense of this last statement. “Met . . . that is impossible, Juliana, there is no such person!”

“And yet she knows you!” Juliana laughed bitterly as she glared at the man to whom she had been going to give her heart completely and utterly. “And she bids you to call upon her at the soonest opportunity. It seems that she has missed you far more than you have missed her – but then you’ve had me to distract you!”

“Yes – no!” Every word that Rufus uttered seemed to be falling into a trap, and he tried to move forward towards Juliana – surely if he could hold her, could tell her how much she meant to him . . .

But Juliana did not look as though she wanted to be held; in fact, the last place that she wanted to be was in his arms. Her anger radiated out of her like she was her own sun.

“Your other women are no concern of mine, of course,” she said, sarcastically, “I’m only the woman who you just attempted to engage for marriage, why be honest with me!”

“But I am being honest!” Rufus spluttered. “I swear before God that I have had no mistresses, not ever!”

Juliana shook her head. “How dare you – how dare you perjure yourself in my father’s house!”

“This is all wrong,” said Rufus helplessly, sinking into a chair at the dining table. It had become clear that Juliana was not going to allow him near her, and rather than play a child’s game of racing around the table, it just seemed easier to collapse into the nearest seat. “I came here to propose marriage, and you are rejecting me because of a mistress that I have never had! There is no other woman, Juliana, never has been and never will be: you are the only – ”

“Ohhh, if you say that I am the only woman for you I shall scream.” Juliana’s voice was low now, and the vehemence pouring out of her eyes were truly frightening. “You cannot convince me that there is no such woman, for I met her this morning.”

“I deny it!” Rufus exploded, temper fraying.

“Like you deny the wager?”

The air seemed to solidify around them, and the words uttered by Juliana in haste and in anger resonated around them like a bell. Juliana had her hands on the table and she was leaning towards him, her hair slightly askew, eyes bright and angry, her lips pushed together in anger.

Rufus felt as though he had been shot.

He could lie. Of course he could lie, there was no evidence that she could bring out that refuted his word. But . . . lying to Juliana? That was not the foundation on which he wanted to build on the love that he felt, and it would not do to even think about it now.

“How . . .” Rufus swallowed. His throat was dry, and he did not seem to be able to moisten his tongue. “Who . . ?”

Juliana stepped back from the table. “You don’t even try to deny it.”

All of the anger had left her voice now. There was naught but disappointment and sadness, and it wrenched at Rufus’ heart to hear her so forlorn.

“I will never lie to you,” said Rufus quietly, “and the wager – ”

“You think you can explain this away?”

“I want to tell you the truth! No, Juliana,” and Rufus rose as Juliana moved towards the door as if to leave. “I have so much to explain, please, I beg you, stay to hear me!”

Juliana stopped at the door, but her hand nevertheless rested on its handle. “Why should I?” Her voice was quiet. “What could you possibly say to make this forgivable?”

Rufus walked around the table slowly, inching himself towards her, as he spoke. “Only this; that I took the wager not knowing you, and not knowing how deeply I would care for you.” Another step closer. “That I do not think, had I not liked you so very much, that I would have continued on with the charade, but left you in peace.” Another two steps. “That from the moment we began conversing, I have been dazzled by your wit, and your bluntness, and your sarcasm, and enjoyed your company far more than any other.” Another step, now he was just two steps away from her. “That I could never have predicted feeling like this, and feelings like those rushing through my heart and mind every moment that I am with you – or the pain that I feel when I am not with you.”

She was but a step away from him now, and she stared at him, unmoved both physically and emotionally. There was no kindness in those eyes anymore.

Rufus took one more step, and found himself a mere inch from her. Those clear eyes stared up at him, deep and clear and pained, and regret poured through his veins.

“This wager – this Michaelmas wager,” he whispered, “has been long forgotten in my heart. How could it remain when I had such beauty of character and of soul before me?”

Reaching down without even looking, his left hand found her right hand. She did not struggle, and she did not move away. Slowly, Rufus took her other hand in his. All he needed to do was pull her the smallest amount, and Juliana Honeyfield would fall into his arms.

“I love you.” The statement was simple, but for Rufus it was heartfelt. “I cannot change the past, I know that – but I want our future to be together, not apart.”

The tiniest of movements, and Juliana leaned towards him, and Rufus captured her lips with his own.

Juliana trembled, and she tried to remember, she tried to keep a hold of herself. This was the man who had betrayed her, betrayed her before he had even offered himself to her – but the power of the attraction between them was impossible to deny and she lost herself in the kiss, unable to deny her feelings for one moment.

And then the moment was over. She tilted her head back, and looked up into the eyes of Rufus Lovell. A smile danced across his face.

“I love you, Juliana Honeyfield.” he repeated softly.

Juliana smiled bitterly, and removed her hands from his. “And I could never love someone who plays with my emotions like you have done, Rufus Lovell.”

CHAPTER TEN

“And to the winner, the spoils!” Nicholas Wingrave was flushed with wine and the heat of the room, but he was still competently in charge of his faculties enough to put out his hand, ready and waiting for the twenty guineas that Rufus Lovell silently placed there.

“Congratulations, old thing!” Percival Quinn was quick to praise the winner, ignoring Rufus who quietly stood, looking around the party that they were attending.

Nicholas Wingrave smiled mockingly. “And to think, Lovell, we could have been attending your wedding today! It is Michaelmas, after all, and here you are without your bride.”

The men around Rufus all laughed, and though he tried to join in, his own laughter did not have the same ring of truth about it.

“Sad as that is,” Rufus said quietly, “I think it has taught me the lesson that I was too proud to learn in the first place – no more wagers for me.”

“Oh, dear boy, no!” Anthony Griffiths, this time the one amongst them the most worse for wear, clutched at Rufus partly for show, partly to keep him upright. “You must not give up, old chap, the next one is yours for sure!”

The others laughed, but Rufus couldn’t bring himself to join in. He had agreed to meet them at this Michaelmas party, mainly because he was the only one who knew the host to any real degree, but he regretted it now. These were not friends, they were just people that he knew. No friends would have asked him to do what he had done; and no friends would find joy in it now.

“Now then, Rufus, no hard feelings.” Nicholas spoke with such an air of superiority that Rufus found it difficult not to want to punch him very hard on the nose. “It is not everyone who can beat me at my own game, you know, and you fought valiantly. You know, I think that you may almost have done it, you know, if Mabel hadn’t got involved!”

Rufus blinked. “Mabel?”

Anthony belched slightly, and then nodded. “Mabel Edwards. You know, Mabel.”

There seemed to be an understanding between the three of them that Rufus simply didn’t share. “Mabel?” he repeated.

A smile, rather dark, appeared on Percival Quinn’s face. “You mean . . . you mean you don’t know? My word, Rufus, and you were that close to wedding Miss Honeyfield and all – I can’t believe you don’t even know your own downfall!”

“And you can’t have Mabel,” said Nicholas swiftly. “She’s mine now, and I don’t like to share.”

Percival laughed and muttered something about sharing not working out the last time, and Nicholas gently – or not so gently, Rufus could hardly tell – punched Percival on the arm.

“I’m sorry: Mabel?”

Anthony gave a sympathetic look to Rufus. “Mabel. Mabel Edwards. She went to Miss Honeyfield’s house looking for you, that day you went to propose.”

Confusion wrinkled Rufus’ forehead. “But I don’t know a Miss Edwards, Mabel or otherwise!”

Swiftly picking a champagne flute from a servant who was passing – proving that he was far more in control than any of them had given him credit for – Anthony smiled. “Your mistress.”

“My – my what? Lord’s sake man, you don’t believe that rubbish too?”

Percival Quinn laughed at Rufus’ words. “No no, ignore old Anthony there, he’s too deep in his cups to make any sense. Mabel Edwards was your brother’s mistress, don’t you remember her? I think she turned up at your place once, looking for money because he had not supplied her with sufficient to see out the month.”

Dawning, horrible dawning and realisation appeared across Rufus Lovell’s face. “Are you telling me that . . . you’re telling me that Mabel Edwards, my brother’s mistress, turned up at Juli – at Miss Honeyfield’s house, and told her that she was my mistress?”

Nicholas Wingrave shrugged. “From the sound of it, she just intimated that she was Mr Lovell’s mistress, and let young Honeyfield work out the rest. But I say again, Rufus, she’s mine now, I’ve been looking for a woman like her for a while, so don’t think that you’ve inherited her along with your brother’s money!”

Elation and nausea seemed to be fighting within Rufus’ chest as he tried to digest this news. It was all a mistake – a genuine mistake! All he had to do was find Juliana, and he would be able to explain . . .

“Now, don’t bother looking for another young lady,” said Anthony, grabbing Rufus’ arm in a misunderstanding about where he was going. “We’ll find you one, and this one won’t run off at the first sign of trouble.”

“And anyway, we need you to be the judge for our next wager!” interrupted Nicholas to the loud laughter of the other men. “So don’t look over your shoulder for more marriage material, Rufus!”

Rufus sighed, turned back to the men he had once called friends, and tried to follow the rules of this new and complex wager.

If he had looked over his shoulder, of course, he would have seen something greatly to his advantage: a young woman with her cousin had just walked into the room, spotted him, baulked, and quickly rushed out.

“You promised me!” Juliana hissed, tugging at her cousin’s arm as they left the room. “You promised me that he would not be here!”

“Do I have sole control over the guest list?” Audrey returned, wrenching her arm out of her cousin’s reach and rubbing at it. “Do I look like the Queen of Sheba? I had asked Jonathan Brodie not to invite him, I can do no more! My godbrother is not my servant, and this is his party – he can invite who he chooses!”

“I’m leaving.” Juliana picked up her skirts and started back towards where they had come in, but Audrey quickly caught up with her.

“Juliana – stop, you can’t go.”

“Try and stop me!” Juliana shook her head sadly as she strode towards the door. “I should have known, I should have known that any social occasion on today of all days – Michaelmas party, I ask you! I should have stayed at home, where I knew it would be safe!”

Audrey stopped her finally in her tracks, and smiled sadly. “If I could prevent you from ever seeing him again, I would. If I could force him to move to another place, I would. If I could take you with me this Christmas to Scotchmore Castle where I do have ultimate control over the guest list, I would. But I cannot do any of those things.”

Juliana bit her lip, and tried not to let the stares of those around them impinge on her. “I just can’t see him, Audrey.”

Her voice was soft, and it was not hard for anyone around them to see the hurt in her eyes.

“I know,” said Audrey quietly. “And I’m not promising that this is going to be easy, or fun, or even a one off. I just need you to attend with me – for an hour. No longer. Then we shall go. I promise you.”

Juliana looked around. It was a relatively large gathering, and there were diversions in every room; a whist table in one, a piano with guests entertaining each other in a second, and dancing across the hall. There was no need to see him. No need at all, if she were careful.

She sighed. “One hour. As soon as the sixty minutes are over, we are leaving.”

“Yes, Cinderella,” smiled Audrey, and she linked arms with her cousin. “Now; dancing, or cards, or music?”

Juliana thought quickly. Where had she seen him? In the card room.

“Music,” she said decidedly. “I can’t bear the thought of having to dance with a man that I don’t know; let’s listen to some pianoforte.”

And yet, despite their best efforts to avoid him, Rufus Lovell seemed to be ready and waiting for them in the music room. Juliana, spotting him as soon as she reached the doorway, tried to back out immediately and stood heavily on Audrey’s foot.

Her yelp of pain gained the attention of the entire room, and Rufus stared. As if by simply wishing for her, there she was, standing in front of him.

“Juliana,” he whispered, and unconsciously took a step towards her.

“Juliana, what on earth – ” Audrey started to say, but her question didn’t need an answer as soon as she espied Rufus Lovell in the room. “Come now, we’ll away.”

They turned, going to leave the room, but they had been spotted nonetheless.

“Miss Honeyfield!” Rufus found his voice now, and the means to control his steps, and he strode towards them, following them into the hall until he shouted out once more: “Miss Honeyfield!”

The shout brought the dancing to a halt. Juliana froze.

“This is absolutely the last thing that I wanted!” she whispered furiously to Audrey. “This cannot be happening! We need to leave – ”

“Stuff and nonsense!” was her cousin’s reply. “You really think you can disappear in a crowd now? Everyone is staring at us!”

Juliana swallowed, and looked around her. Audrey was right; they had gained the attention of the entire party, and even Jonathan Brodie was looking at her strangely. There was no way to avoid this confrontation, but she could always attempt to move it somewhere . . . well, private.

“Miss Honeyfield, thank goodness.” Rufus Lovell had caught up with them, and he was smiling in a way that made Juliana bristle. How dare he look so happy – hadn’t she thrown him off? Hadn’t she avoided him, and anywhere that he could be, for weeks now?

“I am leaving,” she found herself saying, coldly. “I do not feel well, and neither does Audrey.”

“Lady Audrey,” said Rufus, bowing to her companion. “I cannot tell you how glad I am to see you, Miss Honeyfield, I tried coming to your house but – ”

“I did not wish to see you,” cut in Juliana quietly, hoping beyond hope that their entire conversation was not being noted down for the gossip column, “much as I do not wish to see you now. Good day to you, sir.”

She turned on her heels, desperate to escape from this place where Rufus Lovell was, but he did not let her go. Rufus had reached out and taken her hand, softly at first, but then with a firm grip so that she could not escape him.

“I need to talk to you,” he said, and there was a hesitancy in his voice as he said, “about Mabel.”

Juliana stiffened. “This is not the time nor the place to speak to me about your mistress,” she hissed.

“And if you try to,” interjected Audrey glaring at him, “I shall have you arrested.”

Both Juliana and Rufus turned to stare at Audrey, who shrugged. “I’m a Lady,” she smiled mischievously. “The Bow Street Runners will believe anything I say.”

Juliana rolled her eyes – of course Audrey could barely contain herself to be serious, even in this situation!

She swallowed, all too aware of the burning feeling on her arm where Rufus was touching her. “I have no wish to confront you, sir,” she said, looking into his eyes and trying not to fall even more in love with him again. “I simply wish to leave.”

“And never see you again,” added Audrey. “You can’t forget that bit, Juliana, that’s very important.”

Juliana used her free hand to pry away Rufus Lovell’s fingers, despite his attempts to intertwine them with hers, and turned away from him. It hurt to see him so, and she desperately wanted him to offer an explanation, any explanation that was credible – but she had the truth, and that was all that mattered.

She stepped away, and then she heard the words that stopped her in her tracks.

“She isn’t my mistress – she never was! She was . . . she was my brother’s.”

Juliana could hear her own breathing as though it was a rushing waterfall. She could barely hear anything else, and yet she was sure that she had heard Rufus say . . .

She turned around. “Your . . . your brother?”

Rufus took a step forward. “My brother, Hubert Lovell, the one that all of you,” and here he turned to the watching crowd, who had the decency to look slightly ashamed, “whisper about, and malign, and tie me to as an example of bad behaviour.”

Looking at Juliana, he smiled nervously. “My brother. Another Mr Lovell, and one who had a mistress called Mabel Edwards. I met her but once, when she came to my lodgings looking for money, and I was so accustomed to paying off my brother’s various debts that I did not even think to ask why.”

Juliana’s heart was beating rapidly, and she was struggling to remember to breathe. Had Mabel mentioned Rufus by name – or had she just asked for Mr Lovell? Her memories were hazy, hazy with pain and confusion, but she was almost sure –

“I love you, and I would not lie to you,” said Rufus gently. “You know me better than that, and you know that I would only ask for your hand in marriage because I believe that we can make each other very happy!”

Juliana’s heart beat once, and then again, and then she turned away, and started to walk towards the door once more.

Nicholas Wingrave guffawed. Rufus’ old friends had also stepped out of the music room, and were standing behind him. “You can lead a horse to water, Lovell, but you can’t force that delightful woman to think well of you, it’s simply not possible!”

The friends chuckled, and Percival Quinn added, “You’re a fool, Lovell.”

Rufus swallowed, and then he smiled. “I know I am. I’ve been a fool to allow you four to befriend me, and I was a fool to allow you to manipulate me with that stupid wager. And now I’m a fool for love – I’m a fool for you!” And then he turned and sought out Juliana’s eyes in the crowd. She stood there, beside her cousin, surrounded by the rest of the party. “I’m a fool for you, Juliana, and I love you!”

Rufus waited, heart in mouth, desperate to cut into the silence but knowing that he couldn’t force this. He couldn’t force her. Juliana Honeyfield was a force herself to be reckoned with, and he couldn’t rush her.

Juliana smiled. It was an unbidden smile, but to hear him say those words – the words she had felt herself deep in her heart, but had been terrified would never be returned.

She left Lady Audrey’s side and started walking towards him – and then her skirts were flying and she was running towards him. Moving at full pelt she threw herself into his arms, and Rufus was ready and waiting for her, ready to throw his arms around her and pull her towards him to satisfy the longing that he had had from the moment that he had seen her.

The kiss seemed to last forever, and at the same time it simply wasn’t long enough. But it wasn’t the wolf whistles, or the shocked murmurs, that eventually made Rufus and Juliana part. It was just right; their timing was their own.

“So,” whispered Rufus softly, with a grin on his face that he simply could not hide. “Does this mean that you’ll marry me, Juliana Honeyfield?”

“Marry you?” Juliana looked him up and down as she luxuriated in the feeling of being in his arms. “You may not have won your wager, Rufus Lovell, but you have certainly won my heart.”

If you want to meet Lady Audrey, Isaac Quinn, Leonard Tyndale, and Jonathan Brodie again, then read on: each have their own book in the series. On the next page is the first chapter of [_ A Christmas Surprise_] in which Lady Audrey is the leading star.

[_ A Christmas Surprise – to continue Lady Audrey’s story_]

[_ A Valentine Secret – to continue Jonathan Brodie’s story_]

[_ A June Wedding – to follow Isaac Quinn’s story_]

[_ A Harvest Passion – to follow Leonard Tyndale’s story_]

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A CHRISTMAS SURPRISE

CHAPTER ONE

“Utterly preposterous!”

Lord Robert, the Viscount of Marchwood was not happy, and he wanted all to know it. The fact that it was only himself and his valet in the room had not occurred to him.

“Indeed,” said his valet smoothly, holding out an array of cravats for his lordship to choose. “Most preposterous.”

“At my time of life!” Marchwood fumed. “To think that I am incapable of organising my own affairs – little though they are – and to instruct me on proper etiquette! It should not be borne, Thomas, and I will not stand for it!”

Thomas knew better than to offer any words of advice, or any words at all for that manner. The Viscount was often fractious in winter, and this winter had been one of the coldest and more miserable in living memory. Even the thought of the Marchwood Christmas Ball had not been sufficient to raise his spirits.

“Thirty years!” The Viscount of Marchwood boomed. “Thirty years Thomas, that I have celebrated Christmas in this fashion, and yet I am still considered a babe in arms!”

“I am sure that is not the case.” Thomas handed over the blue cravat that Marchwood had gestured towards, speaking in the pause that his lordship had left. “The butler here …”

“The butler here knows nothing,” Marchwood said petulantly, trying unsuccessfully to tie his own cravat, and trapping his finger in the process. “If I had known that such an ingrate idiot was running Scotchmore Castle, I would never have chosen it as our Christmas Ball location.”

Thomas said nothing, but reached over and released Marchwood’s finger, which was starting to turn the same shade of blue as the cravat. His lordship grunted his thanks, and Thomas bowed slightly.

In all of the five years that Thomas had been the fourth Viscount of Marchwood’s valet, he had never seen him in such a state. Of course, if the rumours that were currently circulating were true, then Marchwood had much bigger problems than a simple festive party.

Scotchmore Castle, nestled in the centre of the Scottish Highlands, was large and dominated the landscape in which it sat. A dramatic looking castle, nestled between two large mountains and surrounded by a loch it had two tall towers were pinched together in the north, and the high crenellations were peppered with statues of gargoyles and grotesque goblins. And yet, somehow, in the thin and weak winter light, Scotchmore Castle still seemed to be a haven of safety and of warmth in the barren Highlands landscape.

It had been in a warm, summerly light admittedly that Marchwood had first seen Scotchmore Castle. He had been visiting his sister, who lived nearby, and on a ride on a blustery June day had happened upon the place. It had seemed then like a fairy tale castle, hidden just out of sight of the ordinary visitor. Marchwood had felt as though he had disturbed a dream. When he had returned home to London, it had not been difficult for him to discover the name of the inhabitants, and from there to contact them, anonymous at first, naturally.

The current owners were celebrating the joys of the season in Bath, and had let out their seat to the Viscount – though they had insisted on payment before he took possession for the month, considering the news that they had recently heard about his finances. Nothing was certain, of course, and no one would dream of saying aloud in company that the Viscount of Marchwood was in dire straits and short of more than a little money … and yet in every coffee house and every private home in the land, such unmentionable things were, quietly, mentioned.

“My lord,” Thomas said gently. “If the funds to host such a lavish festive ball are not … immediately to hand, then perhaps –”

“Immediately to hand?” Marchwood repeated, eyes wide. “I have not the faintest clue what you are referring to, my lad.”

Thomas ignored the term ‘my lad’ – it had not been true for over a decade, but then, at the age of twenty six, he was barely his master’s peer either. Evidently any mention of financial circumstances were simply not to be borne. Instead, he cast a discerning eye over his lordship’s current attire. Although Marchwood clung slightly to the older ways of dressing – lace poking out of the cuffs of his sleeves, and much looser fitting breeches – Thomas had managed to bring him back to modernity in small, subtle ways. His pantaloons were cropped, as were those of all fashionable men in society, and his leather boots had been polished to reflect the candlelight. The silk shirt had been perfectly cut by the Viscount’s tailor to match the coat’s lapels – though it could be midnight before Thomas managed to get him into it.

Thomas coughed. “’Tis still a week before Christmas, my lord; I am sure that McGerald –”

“It takes more than a week to train a butler, Thomas, you of all people should know how much training it takes to work well,” Marchwood interrupted. Three different blue silk waistcoats were lying on the bed, and he spoke absentmindedly as he perused them. “You would think that I pay these people enough to offer myself and my guests true service.”

Smiling, Thomas stepped forward and ignored his master. “The dark blue waistcoat I think, my lord. Anything lighter would remove the attention from one’s face.”

Marchwood nodded, his long grey hair becoming more and more unkempt as he rushed around the room. “I need this Christmas ball to be perfect, Thomas, absolutely perfect. For Audrey’s sake, it must be perfect.”

Thomas was just finishing the Viscount’s toilette, and as Marchwood spoke those particular words, he was holding a large bottle of scent – which he dropped. He was fortunate, though: the large Aubusson rug was soft, and caught the glass bottle safely, with no part spilled.

“Careful, Thomas!” Marchwood was not cross, but was too worked up about his disagreement with the Scotchmore Castle’s butler to moderate his tone.

Cheeks flaming red, Thomas picked up the bottle, muttering apologies. He put the glass bottle back onto the side table, and caught a glance of his reflection in the giltwood mirror. His blush deepened.

The Lady Audrey, as Thomas knew her, had just turned eighteen. The Christmas ball was her first introduction to society, and it was well known by all that this was probably her first, best, and only chance of securing a husband – before the Marchwood money coffers ran completely dry.

Every young lady of her age had a coming out ball, or an event hosted by her family to formally introduce her to society. In attendance would be all the normal people – family, godparents, friends of the family, people that she really did not need to be ‘introduced’ to – and then those who were important, and influential. A good report of a young girl’s first society ball could dramatically increase her chances of attracting the most promising of suitors.

Clearing his throat, Thomas lifted the dark blue waistcoat, unbuttoned it, and helped his lordship into it.

“Her ladyship’s entrance into society will certainly be a success, my lord,” Thomas said, and he was proud to hear that there was no tremble in his voice. “You know from many sources that she has been a great triumph in the small gatherings where she has appeared over the last twelvemonth; indeed, I have heard from many other valets of my acquaintance that there have been countless people desirous that her coming out into society had occurred more than a year previous.”

Marchwood raised an eyebrow. “Indeed, Thomas?” His voice sounded hopeful, and he seemed to have forgotten about his momentary quarrel with the new staff that he was to use for his sojourn in Scotchmore Castle.

Thomas nodded. “It can be no surprise to you, my lord, as she takes after you in all the best ways. You should be,” and here there was only the smallest catch in his voice, “should be very proud of her. She is a real credit to you.”

The Viscount was not impervious to compliment and charm. “Well, Thomas, I thank you for your words, they are kindly received. I will admit, raising that poor child as a widower was certainly not the way that I thought I would see the end of the family name. It has not been without its problems.”

Carefully folding and hanging various elements of clothing that Marchwood had rejected for that evening, Thomas could not help but smile. The Lady Audrey was certainly a strong character – and yet she had a softness about her that only those who lived within her home would ever see.

“She will make a good match,” Marchwood had continued talking. “It will do my bones good to see her go to a good home, and become a mother herself.”

Thomas clenched the silk cravats that were in his hands, and thanked God that he had his back to his master. The thought of Lady Audrey leaving her father’s house was one that had crossed his mind, every now and again, but it had always been a far off moment, a time that would never be reached by mortals. And now that time was at hand.

“And it must be perfect,” fretted the Viscount. “Perfect, I tell you Thomas!”

“I can see no reason why perfection cannot be attained, my lord,” he said smoothly, “and you have a full week, as I have said, in order to demonstrate your high and exacting standards to McGerald, and the rest of the staff here.”

Marchwood looked at him hesitantly. The years had not been kind to the Viscount; the early loss of his wife, the main culprit. His grey eyes peered out from a deeply wrinkled brow, and his whiskers had been grown long.

“You truly believe so, Thomas?”

“I know so,” the valet said comfortingly, placing the thick velvet black jacket over his master’s shoulders. “Each Marchwood Christmas ball is a triumph, and I see no reason why this should be any different.”

Marchwood nodded slowly, slightly falling, slightly sitting into a silver gilt and silk embroidered chair. The remaining set of five were placed around the room, with the rug forming the centre piece of the room, perfectly reflected in the painted ceiling, a myriad of colours and geometric patterns. Not, perhaps, the most modern interpretation of household décor, but considering the age of the castle, it was a miracle that it was still intact.

It was, in fact, the second best chamber that Scotchmore Castle had to offer. The first, naturally, had gone to the lady of the house.

Before either of them could cry out or exclaim in shock, the double doors to the chamber that opened out into the corridor were thrown open with such force and violence that they both smacked into the walls. Thomas could see a large dent in the wooden panelling on the left hand side, and winced. The Viscount would have to find the money to pay for that.

A woman stood in the doorway, cast into shadow by the lack of candles that Marchwood had instructed for all corridors in the castle whilst he was its occupant. As she took a step forward, she moved into the light. She was not as old as she had immediately appeared; her hair was blonde and neatly tamed; her features slight and delicate; her frame petite – and yet there was a fire burning in her eyes that Thomas had seen many a time.

“Audrey,” her father said in delighted tones.

“Father.” She spoke angrily. “I find you at last.”

HISTORICAL NOTE

I always strive for accuracy with my historical books, as a historian myself, and I have done my best to make my research pertinent and accurate. Any mistakes that have slipped in must be forgiven, as I am but a lover of the Regency era, not an expert.

Women were often considered the playthings of rich young men during the Regency period, and it was fun to explore just how their games and rituals could affect real women. You’ll be able to follow Lady Audrey, Jonathan Brodie, Isaac Quinn, and Leonard Tyndale in the rest of the Seasons of Love series.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Emily Murdoch is a medieval historian and writer. Throughout her career so far she has examined a codex and transcribed medieval sermons at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, designed part of an exhibition for the Yorkshire Museum, worked as a researcher for a BBC documentary presented by Ian Hislop, and worked at Polesden Lacey with the National Trust. She has a degree in History and English, and a Masters in Medieval Studies, both from the University of York. Emily has a medieval series and a Regency novella series published, and is currently working on several new projects.

You can follow her on twitter and instagram @emilyekmurdoch, find her on facebook at www.facebook.com/theemilyekmurdoch, and read her blog at www.emilyekmurdoch.com


A Michaelmas Wager

How much would you gamble for love? Rufus Lovell has been thrust unexpectedly into riches, and gained a new set of friends who delight in wagers and bets, with nothing too small or too big to gamble on – even marriage. So when a tipsy party joke becomes a wager on Rufus’ marriage, he knows he should said no. But Juliana Honeyfield, the unwitting and unknowing focus of the gamble, is not the simple and malleable young woman that Rufus’ friends take her for. She demands a lot more from her acquaintances, and the challenge of understanding this intriguing woman and keeping the truth of the wager from her starts to wear thin on Rufus. Especially when his belief in marriage has already been so greatly rocked, and his family history is sunk in crime, alcoholism, and prison. Will it be possible for Rufus to charm the winning Juliana? Does he owe her the truth about his initial interest in her? And who will eventually win the Michaelmas wager? A Michaelmas Wager is a charming Regency romance novella about the unlikely consequences of spur of the moment decisions.

  • ISBN: 9781370234493
  • Author: Emily Murdoch
  • Published: 2017-02-04 11:05:13
  • Words: 31473
A Michaelmas Wager A Michaelmas Wager