“Clearly, you have lost your bloody mind.”
When every member present in the reading room of St. George’s Club turned to look at Edwin Barlow, Earl of Blakeborough, he realized how loudly he’d spoken.
With a quelling glance that sent them scrambling to mind their own business, Edwin returned his attention to Warren Corry, the Marquess of Knightford. “This plan of yours can’t possibly work.”
Warren was Edwin’s closest friend. Really, his only friend, aside from his sister’s new husband Jeremy Keane. Edwin didn’t make friends easily, probably because he didn’t suffer fools easily. And society was full of fools.
That was precisely why Edwin, Jeremy, and Warren had started this club—so they could separate the fools from the fine men. So they could protect the women in their lives from fortune-hunters, gamblers, rakehells, and every other variety of scoundrel in London.
Warren was clearly taking that mission very seriously. Perhaps too seriously.
“Clarissa will never agree,” Edwin said.
“She has no choice.”
Edwin narrowed his gaze on Warren. “You actually believe you can convince your sharp-tongued ward to let me squire her about town during the season.”
“Only until I return. And why not?” Warren said, though he took a long swig of brandy as if to fortify himself for the fight. “It isn’t as if she hates you.”
“No, indeed,” Edwin said sarcastically. “She only challenges my every remark, ignores any advice I offer, and tweaks my nose incessantly. The last time I saw her, she called me the Blakeborough Bear and said I belonged in the Tower of London menagerie where ordinary people could be spared my growls. ”
Warren burst into laughter. When Edwin lifted an eyebrow at him, Warren’s laugh petered out into a cough. “Er, sorry, old boy. But you have to admit that’s amusing.”
“Not nearly as amusing as it will be to watch you try to talk her into this,” Edwin drawled as he settled back in his chair. “She’s not going to agree.”
“Don’t be too sure. You mustn’t take her pokes at you as anything more than her usual mischief-making. You let her exaggerations get under your skin, which only tempts her to tease you more. You should just ignore her when she starts plaguing you.”
Ignore Clarissa? Impossible. He’d spent half his life trying unsuccessfully to unwrap the mystery that was Lady Clarissa Lindsey. Her barbed wit fired his temper, her provocative smile inflamed him, and her shadowed eyes haunted his sleep. He could no more ignore her than he could ignore a rainbowed sunset . . . or a savage storm.
For three months now, she’d been isolated at Warren’s estate, Hatton Hall, and Edwin had felt every second of her absence. That was why the very notion of spending time with her sent his blood pumping.
Not with anticipation. Certainly not. Couldn’t be.
“What do you say, old boy?” Warren held Edwin’s gaze. “I need you. She needs you.”
Edwin ignored the leap in his pulse. Clarissa didn’t need anyone, least of all him. Thanks to the fortune left to her by her late father, the Earl of Margrave, she didn’t have to marry for love or anything else. She’d reportedly refused dozens of marriage proposals since her debut seven years ago.
But it wasn’t her fortune that had men falling all over themselves trying to catch her eye. It was her quick wit. Her effervescent personality. Her astonishing beauty. She was the fair-haired, green-eyed, porcelain-skinned darling of society, and she almost certainly knew it.
Which was why he rather enjoyed the idea of watching Warren attempt to convince her that she should go about town with a gruff curmudgeon like himself. “Assuming that she and I both agree to this insanity—how long would I have her on my hands?”
“It shouldn’t be more than a few weeks,” Warren said. “However long it takes me to deal with her brother in Portugal. I can’t leave Niall stranded on the Continent with all the unrest there right now.”
“I assume she knows that’s the reason for your trip.”
“Actually, no. She doesn’t yet even know about his letter, which was waiting for me when we arrived from Shropshire for the Season. I wanted to be sure you would agree to keep an eye on her before I told her. But once she learns that this involves Niall, she’ll want me to go after him, and she’ll realize I won’t do that unless I’m sure she’s safe.”
“Safe from this Durand fellow.” The reason for this charade Warren was proposing.
Warren’s jaw hardened. “Count Geraud Durand, yes.”
Settling back into his chair, Edwin drummed his fingers on his thigh. “If I’m to do this, you’d better tell me everything you know about this Frenchman.”
“He’s the French ambassador’s first secretary. And because the ambassador had to return to France right after Christmas, Durand is now running the embassy as the charge d’affaires. The position gives him a great deal of power.”
“And what the devil does he want with Clarissa?”
“A wife. He asked her to marry him in Bath some months ago.”
That stunned Edwin. Men in the field of diplomacy generally preferred wives who were not inclined to speak their minds.
“She turned him down,” Warren went on. “That’s why we had to return to London. Unfortunately, he followed us here. He seemed to have made it his mission to gain her no matter what. He was at every public event we attended after our return from Bath. Twice, he tried to accost her on the street.”
His lips thinned into a grim line. “The bastard frightened her enough that she started avoiding going out in public, and you know that’s not like her. So after we spent Christmas at your brother-in-law’s, I whisked her and her mother off to Shropshire where I knew he dared not follow, since he had to serve as charge d’affaires here. I’d hoped our absence would give his ardor time to cool.”
“And has it?”
“I don’t know. We’ve only just returned, so I’ve not had time to assess the situation. But I’m not taking any chances. She has to be protected while I’m trying to sort out her brother’s situation. He can’t continue abroad like this indefinitely. And I can’t continue to manage my properties and his, even with Clarissa’s help.”
Edwin snorted. “Clarissa helps?”
“There’s more to her than you realize.”
Ah, but Edwin did realize it. Granted, he wouldn’t have expected her to have any skill at estate management, but despite her outrageous manner, he sometimes glimpsed a seriousness in her that reminded him of his own.
Or perhaps she just had dyspepsia. Hard to know with Clarissa. She was entirely unpredictable. Which was why she always threw him out of sorts.
Warren waved over a servant and ordered another brandy. “Honestly, accompanying her won’t be as trying as you think. Don’t you need to go out into society this season anyway? Aren’t you bent on marrying?”
“Yes.” Well, he was bent on siring an heir, anyway, which required wedding someone. Though God only knew who that might be.
“You see? It’s perfect. You have to go on the marriage mart. Clarissa wants to enjoy the season, and I want her to find a husband. It’s an ideal situation.”
“If you say so.” How he could successfully court anyone with Clarissa hanging about was anyone’s guess, but he supposed it might improve his stern reputation if he had a beautiful woman on his arm at the usual balls. Assuming she would even agree to take his arm. That was by no means certain with Clarissa.
Warren eyed him closely. “You were still recovering from the loss of Jane last season, so this will be your first real attempt to secure a wife since Jane jilted you. Do you have any particular lady in mind?”
“No. I know what I want. But God only knows if I can find a who to go with it.”
“And what exactly are your requirements for a wife? Other than that she be of breeding age, I suppose.”
“I would prefer a woman who’s responsible and uncomplicated. One who’s quiet and sensible.”
“In other words, someone you can keep under your thumb. The way your father kept your mother under his thumb.”
A swell of painful memories made acid burn his throat. “Father didn’t keep her under his thumb; he ignored her. I will never do that to my wife.”
“You will if she’s as dull as what you describe.” Warren leaned back in his chair. “When I get around to choosing a wife, I want a lively wench who will keep me well entertained.” He winked. “If you know what I mean.”
Edwin rolled his eyes. “Remind me again why we asked you to join St. George’s? You’re as bad as the men we’re guarding our women against.”
“Ah, but I don’t prey on innocents. Any woman who lands in my bed jumped there of her own accord. And I dare say that’s true of any number of fellows here.”
It probably was. Even Edwin had taken a mistress in his twenties when his loneliness had grown too acute to endure. That hadn’t, however, been a very satisfying experience. Knowing that a woman was with you only for your rank and money was somehow more lonely than not having a woman with you at all.
Although with his sister Yvette now married and out of the house, he’d started to feel the disadvantages of a solitary way of life. So once more he’d be looking for a wife, always a singularly awkward experience.
Especially since he didn’t know how to please a woman. Or even how to talk civilly to one. He couldn’t spin a clever yarn, or hide an opinion beneath a facile compliment. Sadly, most women seemed to prefer facile compliments to blunt truths. Hence, his difficulty finding a suitable wife. “When will you broach this with Clarissa?”
He looked at his pocket watch. “At dinner, in about half an hour. I was hoping you’d come.”
“Why not? Might as well get it over with, eh? And I am leaving for Portugal in the morning.”
Devil take it. Edwin would have liked more time to prepare. He was not the spontaneous sort. “Planning to have us join forces against her, are you?”
“That wasn’t my intention initially, no.” Warren gulped some brandy. “When we left Hatton Hall for London, I’d hoped that by now Yvette and Jeremy would have returned from America. And you know that Yvette can talk Clarissa into just about anything.”
Edwin smiled. His sister could talk anyone into just about anything, even him.
“But I gather they’re still abroad,” Warren continued.
“It may be a few more weeks before they return. Sorry.”
“Well, it can’t be helped. At least my aunt will be there to help persuade her.”
Edwin suppressed a snort. Lady Margrave, Clarissa’s mother, was a flighty female who rarely offered sound advice, so Clarissa rarely heeded her. He doubted that this time would be any different.
Warren rose. “I’m truly sorry that I have to run off. So, are you coming or not?” The casual words were belied by his tight expression.
They both knew that Edwin hadn’t yet agreed to the plan. And why not? Because the thought of spending weeks in Clarissa’s company put him on edge as nothing else could.
But it didn’t matter. Warren was his friend, and wouldn’t hesitate to help if the shoe was on the other foot. So neither would Edwin.
He stood. “I’m coming.”
* * *
Clarissa’s mother turned to her in a panic. “I cannot believe your cousin did this! Warren knows better than to invite a man for dinner with no warning. What was he thinking?”
Clarissa raised an eyebrow at her mother’s reflection in the bedchamber’s looking glass. “He was thinking that it’s just Edwin, whom we’ve known for ages. And who comes regularly to dine.”
“I don’t know if pigeon pie is quite suitable for guests,” Mama said as if Clarissa hadn’t spoken. “Oh, and Madeira! Edwin loves his Madeira, you know, and we are fresh out!”
“And the pickled onions were too sour the last time we ate them. I was hoping to use them up tonight, but if Edwin is coming—”
“Mama, calm down! It’s not as if we’re expecting the Tsar of Russia, you know.” She smiled into the mirror. “Although Edwin would make a fine tsar. All he’d have to do is be his usual autocratic and dictatorial self.”
Thankfully that observation broke her mother out of her fretting. “And he would look quite the part, too, wouldn’t he? All that dark hair and that chiseled jaw.”
And broad shoulders and regal bearing and slate-gray eyes as coldly beautiful as a Russian night spangled with stars.
Clarissa scowled at herself. She must be addled to be thinking of Edwin like that. Though he was sinfully handsome. In a sort of stand-offish way.
“Why, I can almost imagine him in an ermine cape and one of those tall, furry hats,” Mama said.
Clarissa laughed. “Edwin would only wear such a pretentious thing to a coronation, and then only because he had to.”
His manner of dress was always correct, but terribly sober.
Unlike hers. She examined her gown in the mirror and smiled. Edwin would probably look sternly upon the confection of lace and lavender bows. But she would never change her gown for him. Let him give her one of his ruthlessly critical glances; she would not be cowed by them.
Indeed, it was merely force of habit that had her pinching her cheeks until they glowed nicely pink. It was not because she wanted to look pretty for Edwin. No, indeed.
“You know, my girl,” Mama said, “if you were a bit nicer to that man, you could probably have him wrapped about your finger in a matter of weeks.”
“Oh, I doubt that. Edwin is far too inflexible to be wrapped about anything. More’s the pity.” Clarissa would dearly love to see the woman who could manage that.
But it wouldn’t be her. Edwin, of all people, would never accept her as she was, especially once he knew the full extent of her youthful mistakes. And she wasn’t bending to anyone’s demands of what a wife should be—not his, not Mama’s, not Warren’s. She’d allowed a man to bully her once, and it had shattered her life.
Pasting a brilliant smile to her lips, she whirled to face her mother. “Shall we go down?”
“Not yet, my angel. The servant said the gentlemen are already here. So we should keep them waiting. You must never let a man be too sure of you.”
“It’s Edwin, Mama,” she said tightly. “He’s sure of everything and everyone, no matter what I do.” She offered her arm to her mother with her usual coaxing smile. “Come now, I know you’re positively dying for a glass of wine. I certainly am.”
“Oh, all right.” Leaning on Clarissa’s arm, Mama let herself be led to the door. “But you must promise to give him a compliment first thing. Men like that.”
“Right,” Clarissa said noncommittally.
“And don’t contradict him all the time. Men despise fractious women.”
“And do not spout your witticisms incessantly. It’s very mannish. Not to mention . . .”
As they made their slow way down the stairs, Clarissa let her mother drone on, only half-listening to the usual recitation of little tricks designed to hook a man and reel him in. Those might have enabled her mere cit of a mother to snag an earl, but they smacked of deception to Clarissa.
If a man couldn’t like her as she was, what was the point? Clarissa could barely hide her true opinions from Mama. How was she to do it with a husband?
Not that she ever intended to have a husband. At the very thought of taking a man into her bed, her hands grew clammy and her throat closed up.
No. Marriage was not for her.
“. . . and do be sure to save the biggest slice of cake for him,” Mama was saying as they reached the bottom of the stairs.
“Nonsense. I’m not saving anything for Edwin.”
“That’s only fair,” drawled Edwin from somewhere in the shadows to the right of the staircase. “I’m not saving anything for you, either.”
Striving to hide her surprise, she halted as he came into the light.
“Edwin!” Mama cried. “My dear boy!” She held out her hand.
Dutifully, he came forward to take it. “You’re looking well, Lady Margrave,” he murmured as he bent to brush a kiss over Mama’s cheek.
“You’re looking rather fine yourself,” Mama chirped as she drew back to survey him.
And Lord, he was, in his tailcoat of dark blue wool and his waistcoat and trousers of plain white poplin. Even his cravat was simply tied, which only accentuated the masculine lines of his jaw and sharp planes of his features, so starkly handsome.
How had he managed to grow only more attractive in a mere three months? And why on earth was she gawking at him? This was Edwin, for pity’s sake. It would swell his head even more if he knew what she was thinking.
Instead, she teased him. “Don’t tell me—you were so impatient for us to come down that you’ve been pacing the foyer in anticipation.”
The idea was ludicrous, of course. Impatient wasn’t even in Edwin’s vocabulary. If ever a man believed that slow and steady won the race, it was him.
And he clearly recognized the irony, for he flashed her one of his rare smiles. “Actually, I was fetching this from the library. Warren told me he was done with it.” His eyes gleamed in the lamplight as he held out a book. “Of course, if you wish to read it yourself . . .”
“Doubtful,” she said. “If it’s a book you loaned him, then it’s deadly dull.”
“Clarissa,” Mama chided beneath her breath.
But Edwin merely laughed, as she’d hoped he would. She took great pride in the fact that she could sometimes make him laugh. No other woman seemed able to. No other woman dared try.
“Well, it is about mechanical engineering, which I would imagine isn’t your favorite subject,” he said. “However did you guess?”
“Because I know you so well, Lord Blakeborough.”
He sobered, his gaze turning oddly intense even for him. “Do you? I’m not so sure.”
The words hung in the air a moment in frozen silence before that was shattered by her cousin’s approach.
“I found another book you might enjoy, old boy,” Warren said as he bent to kiss first his aunt, then Clarissa. “It’s about automatons.”
As Warren handed him the book, keen interest leapt in Edwin’s eyes. “I haven’t read this title. Thank you. I’ll get it back to you as soon as I’m done.”
“No hurry.” Warren shot Clarissa a veiled glance. “As you well know, I won’t need it anytime soon.”
Whatever was that about?
Before she could ponder it, Warren offered Mama his arm. “Come, Aunt, let’s get you off your feet while we have our wine before dinner.”
“Thank you, my lad,” she cooed and let him lead her to the breakfast room. “That is ever so thoughtful of you! But then you always were a dear. Why, I remember when . . .”
As Mama prattled on, Edwin was left to come behind with Clarissa. “So,” he murmured, “exactly what were you refusing to save for me?”
It took her a moment to remember that he’d overheard her earlier. “The biggest slice of cake.”
“I don’t like cake.”
“I know. That’s why I’m not wasting it on you. You won’t appreciate it, and you’d probably eat it just to be polite.”
He slanted a serious glance at her. “Perhaps I’d give it to you, instead.”
“I doubt that, but we’ll never know, shall we?” she said lightly. “I’m saving it for myself, regardless.”
“So I heard.”
“Because you were eavesdropping.” Mischief seized her. “How rude of you.”
They passed into the breakfast room, and he shrugged. “If you don’t want people hearing your pronouncements, you shouldn’t talk as loud as a dockworker.”
Mama paused while settling onto the settee. “A dockworker! For shame, Edwin—what a thing to say to a lady! Have you no pretty compliments to offer?”
When he stood blatantly unrepentant, Clarissa said, “If Edwin knew how to compliment ladies, Mama, he would be too popular in society to settle for having dinner with the mere likes of us.”
“There’s no settling involved, I assure you,” he said irritably.
She was still congratulating herself on getting beneath his cool reserve again when Warren stepped in. “Play nice now, cousin. We need him.”
“For what?” Clarissa asked.
Instead of answering, her guardian gestured to the settee. “You’d better sit down. I’ve got something to tell you and your mother.”