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“It basically restored my faith in Historical Romance.”
—The Book Smugglers
He thought her money was the end of his problems…but it was just the beginning.
Young Lord Nevinstoke enjoys every second of his deep-gaming, hard-drinking, womanizing life. Then his father is killed in a drunken duel, and Nev inherits a mountain of debts and responsibility. He vows to leave his wild friends and his mistress behind, start acting respectable—and marry a rich girl.
Penelope Brown, a manufacturing heiress, seems the perfect choice. She’s pretty, rational, ladylike, and looking for a marriage based on companionship and mutual esteem. In fact, the only rash thing she’s ever done in her life is accept Nev’s proposal.
But when they actually get to Nev’s family estate, they find that all the respectability and reason in the world aren’t enough to deal with half-starved, angry tenants, a menacing neighbor, and Nev’s family’s propensity for scandal. In way over their heads, Nev and Penelope have no one to turn to but each other—but to their surprise, that just might be enough.
“Thirkell, you know what happened the last time we went to one of the Ambersleighs’ do’s.” Lord Nevinstoke winced at the sound of a badly tuned piano from inside the town house. How had he let Thirkell talk him into this? “Can’t we go to Amy’s instead? She’s laid in some lovely French brandy, just for us.”
Thirkell rolled his eyes and shoved Nev up the steps. “After you’ve danced with my cousin, lent her some countenance, then we can go to Amy’s and get as drunk as you like.”
“But, Thirkell,” Percy said, “I don’t think we have any countenance to lend Harriet. We’re disreputable, remember? And as Nev has so accurately reminded us, the last time we attended one of Lady Ambersleigh’s little gatherings, the orchestra fled in hysterics.”
“Well, if she wouldn’t hire such bloody incompetent musicians,” Nev grumbled, “I wouldn’t have had to—”
“I’m sure she’s forgotten about that by now! Besides, Nev, your father’s an earl, and Percy here is—” Thirkell broke off.
“Yes?” Percy inquired poisonously. “What am I?”
“A very good dancer?” Nev suggested.
Thirkell shot him a grateful look. “Exactly what I was going to say. And we’re all bachelors. Lady Ambersleigh will be delighted.”
Lady Ambersleigh did not look delighted when the three young men were announced. Nev tried to avoid the eye of a young matron on whose new settee he had accidentally upended a punch bowl the month before, and that of an earl from whose son Percy had won almost two hundred pounds at piquet the week before, and that of a lady whom—oh, hell, he tried not to meet anyone’s eye.
“There.” Thirkell pointed to a mousy girl in the corner. “That’s my cousin Harriet. Come on, I’ll introduce you.”
A few minutes later, Thirkell was dancing with his cousin, and Percy and Nev had engaged her for the following two sets.
“What say we investigate the buffet table?” Nev asked Percy. “I think I might have seen blackberry tarts.”
“You didn’t. Where would anyone get blackberries this early in the summer? Oh, look, it’s Louisa.”
The two young men were standing next to a line of wallflowers. Nev’s sister Louisa was not one of those unfortunate girls. Despite her undistinguished brown hair and blue eyes, so similar to his own coloring, she was laughing and flirting with six gentlemen at once on the other side of the room.
Nev was struck by a sudden troubling recollection. “Oh, seven hells! My mother isn’t here, is she? I was supposed to dine in Berkeley Square tonight.”
“I don’t see her anywhere,” Percy said, and abandoned his friend to his own devices. Nev was unsurprised to see him leading Louisa out onto the floor a minute or two later. After all, none of the other gentlemen present had made Louisa her first wooden sword. Besides, Louisa was a minx; it was like her to use an old friend to make her beaux jealous.
A violin screeched painfully. Behind him, someone groaned. Nev turned. A slender, dark-haired young lady tricked out in orange silk was grimacing and whispering in an older lady’s ear.
He liked orange, he liked slender girls, and he liked people who disliked bad music. Of course, it was improper to approach her without an introduction; and the older lady, swathed in appallingly purple satin, looked a bit of a mushroom. Nev didn’t let that stop him. Unused to worrying overmuch about the niceties at the best of times, the bottle of claret he had shared with his friends before coming to the ball made him even less worried now.
“Good evening,” he said to the girl. “It’s awful, isn’t it? I won’t ask you to dance to this, but perhaps you might take a turn about the room with me? The hors d’oeuvres looked lovely.”
Dark eyebrows arched. “Excuse me, sir, but I don’t believe we have been properly introduced.”
“How rude of me. I ought to have said straight off. Nathaniel Arthur Delaval Ambrey, Viscount Nevinstoke, at your service.” He seized the hand that was not resting on her mama’s waist and bowed over it with a flourish that usually made girls giggle.
She didn’t giggle, but a corner of her mouth quirked up. “I said properly introduced.”
“Oh, Penny, don’t be so stuffy,” her mama said. He was taken aback for a moment by her accent; it was pure Cockney.
It must have shown on his face, because Penny stiffened. “I’m not being stuffy, Mama. I’m merely trying to avoid complete impropriety. I’m sorry, my lord, but I’m afraid I must decline your offer.”
“Don’t listen to ‘er, my lord. I’m Mrs. Brown, and this is my daughter, Miss Brown. We’re very pleased to make your acquaintance, I’m sure.”
“Mama!” Miss Brown hissed.
Mrs. Brown’s eyes twinkled. “Bring me some lobster salad when you come back, love.”
Miss Brown’s jaw set, but she put one kid-gloved hand on Nev’s arm. “Well, my lord, shall we walk?”
They walked for a minute or two without speaking. Nev was surprised when Miss Brown broke the silence. “You wouldn’t, by any chance, be the same Lord Nevinstoke who broke into Almack’s at midnight last month?”
“The very same. I can’t take all the credit, though—Percy and Thirkell were with me. And it was Percy’s idea to wear trousers. Were you there?”
Her mouth twisted. “I have not received vouchers.”
“It’s overrated. Your father’s a Cit, I suppose.”
She didn’t answer.
Nev repeated the last few sentences in his head and panicked a little. “Oh, the devil—I mean, the deuce—I mean—” He collected himself. “I’m awfully sorry, I really shouldn’t have said that. I’ve had a bit of claret, you know. Please forgive me.”
For the first time, she smiled at him. “It’s all right. I know it’s obvious I’m not old money.”
“Doesn’t matter. I think it’s terribly clever, you know, making money. My father only knows how to spend it.” He paused, considering. “And gamble with it, of course.”
Miss Brown didn’t answer, but she took his arm a little more tightly.
Nev decided to be daring, and covered her hand with his. She looked at him and quirked a brow, but she didn’t take her hand away. It was small and warm under his, and she was really very pretty, with fine dark eyes, a straight little nose, and a girlish mouth, thin and expressive. Her complexion, framed by straight dark hair, was almost translucent. He suspected she would freckle in the sun.
“Would you like to step out on the terrace?” he asked hopefully.
She laughed outright. “I hope I’m not such a green girl as that. But I will allow you to select some hors d’oeuvres for me.”
“A task! My lady has set me a task! But first I beg a token of your favor.”
“I’m afraid my red sleeve embroidered with great pearls is pinned to my other evening gown, my lord,” she said with ironic courtesy.
His eyes lit up. “You like Malory!”
She flushed, as if it were something to be ashamed of. “I’ve always been fond of the Morte d’Arthur. I hope my taste in modern literature is rather more elevated.”
Nev grinned. “Says you! I’ll wager a pony you’re hiding The Mysteries of Udolpho in your reticule even as we speak!”
She wrinkled her nose at him, and Nev wished very much that she were not a young lady, or that he were not a gentleman. He turned hastily to the buffet table. “Well, I shall now perform the momentous task of choosing your hors d’oeuvres. Hmm, this one seems a little lopsided, doesn’t it? And this one’s rather too brown. Aha! Here we have a perfect specimen!”
“Nev!” Percy gasped behind him.
Nev nearly dropped the plate on Miss Brown’s skirts. “What is it, Percy?”
“Retreat, man, retreat! Your mother’s got Thirkell!”
Nev started, and turned. Sure enough, Lady Bedlow had poor Thirkell at bay, her gilded curls bobbing indignantly as she shook her vinaigrette at him. Thirkell was sending Nev pleading stares in a manner that would soon betray his location. Then would follow recriminations, accusations of heartlessness, and probably some pointed jabs at poor Percy, who, Lady Bedlow was convinced, was Low Company and also Leading Her Precious Boy Astray.
“Where did she spring from?” Nev railed inwardly against the unfairness of the universe. Turning to Miss Brown, he shoved the plate at her. “Terribly sorry, I must be off.” He met Thirkell’s eyes and jerked his head at the door.
Thirkell took off for the exit, Percy and Nev close on his heels. At the door, Nev glanced back once. He caught a glimpse of Miss Brown loading some lobster salad onto her plate and shrugging ruefully across the room at her mother. Then he was out the door and under the stars, running down South Audley Street with his friends.
“Shhhh!” Nev hissed. “I’m trying to listen!”
Thirkell cheerily ignored him—and the soprano singing her heart out across the clearing. “Pass the ham.”
“Oh, yes, will you serve me some too?” Amy asked.
“If I buy you rapacious eaters another ham, will you hush?” Nev speared a few slices of paper-thin Vauxhall ham as the plate went by.
“I should very much doubt it,” Percy said. “Hand of piquet, Thirkell?”
“Not bloody likely. Not after watching how masterfully you fleeced Salksbury last night.”
Percy smiled. “I’m wounded. You know I never fleece my friends.”
“What are the stakes, then?” Thirkell asked.
“No stakes; I play for practice. My sister’s sweet on the apothecary and if I’m to dower her before the Season ends and all my partners remove to the country, I need to be at the top of my game.”
“Well, that’s no fun. Penny points?”
“Oh, do be quiet and listen to the concert.” Amy gave Thirkell a friendly shove. “You know how fond Nev is of Arne.”
Nev raised his head to thank her, and his attention was wrenched away from Arne’s aria by the sight of a slender, dark-haired girl in the box opposite, clearly shushing her companions. She looked across at the same moment, and their eyes met. The champagne seemed to go to Nev’s head all at once.
“I say, who’s Nev staring at?”
As if she could hear Thirkell, Miss Brown turned her attention firmly back to the orchestra.
Percy glanced across the lawn. “It’s that girl he was talking to at the Ambersleighs’ last week.”
“Miss Brown,” Nev supplied. “She likes music.”
Amy leaned out to peer across. The movement knocked a yellow curl out from behind her ear to fall distractingly over her cheek. “She’s pretty. Just your type too.”
Nev felt a rush of affection for Amy. She really was a great gun, and never jealous. He tucked the lock back behind her ear. “Mmm. Too bad she’s respectable.”
She swatted his arm. “She’s a deal more than respectable, you nodcock! She’s rich as the Golden Ball!”
“What?” Nev glanced back at the box opposite. Miss Brown, her eyes closed, looked to be entirely focused on Arne; but somehow his fingertips burned where they still touched Amy’s shoulder.
“Her dowry’s a hundred and seventy-five thousand pounds.” Amy was always better informed about these sorts of things than he was. “If you think she’s taken a fancy to you, you’d best snap her up before someone gets in ahead of you.”
“You don’t say,” Percy said. “What’s her father do?”
“He’s a brewer. Mrs. Brown used to be a friend of my mother’s, back when they were girls.” Amy sounded wistful, suddenly. “Wouldn’t me mum have liked to lord it in a fine house in Russell Square!”
Nev put an arm around her waist. “But then we would all be deprived of your note-perfect performance in Twelfth Night.”
Amy laughed, but she nestled closer. “Oh, you just like seeing me in breeches!”
“We all like seeing you in breeches,” Percy said, “but I think Nev here actually listens to the words.”
“You only listen to the words when no one else can understand them,” Thirkell grumbled. “Remember when he dragged us to Reading Hall for that ancient Greek stuff? It was bizarre.”
“It was authentic,” Percy said. “My trick, Thirkell.”
“It’s always your trick.”
Miss Brown was forgotten; Nev called for another bottle of champagne and another ham; and what with one thing and another, it was six in the morning before they left Vauxhall and stumbled back to Amy’s, singing a naughty ballad that had been popular during their schooldays at Trinity.
One of his mother’s footmen was waiting on the steps. Nev took one look at his face and had an abrupt, chilling suspicion that he was far too drunk to deal with whatever was about to happen. “What is it, Tom?”
“It’s James, my lord,” the footman corrected distractedly. “I’ve been waiting—I’ve got bad news—I’m that sorry, your lordship—”
“For God’s sake, out with it before you scare him to death!” Amy snapped.
James looked as if he would rather be anywhere than where he was. Nev felt pretty much the same.
“It’s your father, my lord. He’s dead.”
“Georgette Heyer watch out! With believable characters and a keen eye for period detail, Rose Lerner serves up a sprightly and splendid take on the classic marriage of convenience plot.” —New York Times bestselling author Lauren Willig
“[A] charming and original Regency that will make you wish a man like Nev would stroll through your front door.” —Eloisa James, BarnesandNobleReview.com
“It basically restored my faith in Historical Romance…I loved this novel so much and can’t wait to read more from Rose Lerner—I welcome the author to the genre with open arms. More please!” —The Book Smugglers
“A delightful, thought-provoking and detailed historical romance that defies the pervasive notions…that Fantasy trumps Narrative, Realistic Problems are Boring, and that Life is Perfect when you’re in Love.”—AnimeJune, Gossamer Obsessions
“Sometimes…I pick up a book and after only a page or 2, I heave a happy sigh—in dual relief and anticipated delight because I know, I just KNOW that I have found a book which will please me from start to finish and I can just settle in to enjoy the experience. This, for me, was one of those books.”—Kaetrin’s Musings
“[A] terrific portrait of a marriage of convenience turning slowly into love amid real-life problems like being short of money and having to cope with new and difficult situations.” —Caz at Romantic Historical Reviews