Excerpt for A Marriage for the Earl by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

A MARRIAGE FOR THE EARL

BY

MARINA OLIVER



When Peter Stannard inherits a Yorkshire estate from his uncle, he does not expect a proposal of marriage from a lady.

Lady MacDonald's father and Peter's uncle once planned to unite the estates, until Edward Stannard eloped to Gretna with the Rector's daughter.

Now Edward is dead, so is Lady Macdonald's husband.

And her cousin Gabrielle proves to be a serious rival for Peter's affections.

A Marriage for the Earl

Copyright © 2017 Marina Oliver

Smashwords Edition

The moral right of the author has been asserted

Cover Design by Debbie Oliver

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Chapter 1

Peter Stannard, Earl of Priorsdale, opened the note handed to him by Bentley, the elderly butler. The paper gave off a scent of lavender, too heavy for his liking, and he waved it about in an effort to minimise it.

'I will expect you at Glebe Court tomorrow at noon. There is much to discuss. Lady MacDonald.'

The writing was firm, the downstrokes so strong they almost tore through the paper. Not the normal writing of a female he thought, and smiled reminiscently at the memory of various notes from females he had received in the past.

He handed the note to his brother John and finished his coffee. 'Where is Glebe Court, Bentley?'

'Six miles to the east, along the dale, and the estate belonging to it stretches to the coast, my lord.'

'And who is Lady MacDonald?'

Bentley hesitated, then nodded to himself.

'Her family have owned the Court since the estate was divided.'

'What estate?'

'Glebe Court and the Priory. It was one estate for over three centuries.'

'Oh? And when was it divided? And why?'

'When King Henry dissolved the religious houses. I forget the exact date, I'm afraid. He gave the Priory to Sir John Stannard, who was made an earl some time later, and the Court, which was a minor establishment attached to the Priory, to Mr Brotherton. Lady MacDonald is the last of the Brothertons.'

'And married, I suppose, to a MacDonald?'

The butler sighed. 'Yes, now she is. Or was. He died. But when they were children it were arranged, by their fathers, that Miss Jemima and your cousin Edward should be wed, to unite the two estates.'

'And she agreed? From her writing I doubt she'd let anyone dictate to her,' John said, passing the scented missive back to Peter, who laid it on a table beside him. 'A very dominant lady, I suspect.'

Peter surprised a hint of a grin, swiftly banished, on the butler's face.

'Sit down, man. I know almost nothing of the family history, since my revered Papa fell out with his brother and refused to speak of him. I need you to give me a lesson.'

Bentley, after a short hesitation, pulled out a chair and sat on the edge of it. It was clear he did not think it right to sit in the presence of his employer.

'Well, my lord, I've lived in the village all my life, and worked at the Priory since I were twelve years old. There's not many knows more'n I do.'

'And I need your knowledge if I'm to live here.'

Bentley nodded reluctantly. 'I suppose so.' He took a deep breath. 'Well, you see, young Master Edward were always rebellious,' he said slowly. 'I don't like to speak ill of my betters, but he were ever a difficult boy. He refused to marry Miss Jemima, and made a runaway match to Gretna. That were ten years back, in '06. Then he went for the army, and his poor father was never well after that. When he heard Master Edward had been killed at Waterloo he gave up. He dain't care what happened, but he wouldn't send for you. "Let 'im do what he wants when I'm gone" he said. And he were gone within the month.'

'And the countess, Edward's wife? Eleanor, isn't it? Were people surprised at her marriage?'

Bentley shook his head, more in sorrow than denial. 'They was flabbergasted. She were the Rector's daughter, see, and right proper. Folk was more surprised she'd do a thing like that than they was of Master Edward. And when they came back she were even more proper. Right starchy, she were. Worse'n Miss Jemima, who's always bin one ter stand on her dignity.'

'Was she offended? Miss Jemima, that is. Did she love Edward?'

'No, they scarce knew each other. She were only sixteen, and was at a school in York till that year. But she were mad as a wet hen, I heard. Had been preenin' herself at being the mistress of the Priory. Went straight off ter London and came back wed ter Sir Hamish. The families never spoke again.'

'Sir Hamish? What was he like?'

'He's dead these three years. Somewhere in Spain, I think. He were in the army. There's a little daughter, Prudence.'

'And Edward had a daughter too, I understand? Where do she and her mother live? Is there a Dower House here?'

'There is, but it's bin empty fer years. The Countess went off to Harrogate with little Miss Jane, when Master Edward joined the army. Took a house there. Said she couldn't abide it here without him.'

'I see. Well, thank you. Did the messenger wait for an answer?'

'No, my lord, said there were no need.'

He left the room and John began to chuckle. 'Do you mean to obey the summons from the dragon?'

Peter shook his head. 'I planned to ride round the estate tomorrow. How unfortunate. I must see the estate manager and arrange it. What is his name? The imperious Lady MacDonald can wait. I'll send a messenger in my stead tomorrow.'

*

Lady MacDonald looked at the small clock on the mantelpiece. It was gone noon, so where was this new earl? She had specified noon for their meeting and he was late. She began tapping her feet. It really was most inconsiderate of him to be discourteous, after she had opened up the main salon and prepared both Madeira and Canary wine, with some of her best cakes specially baked that morning. Few of her visitors received such gratifying attention, for few of her visitors were of her own station in life. Apart from the Rector and a few retired professional people who had come to live in the dale, most of the inhabitants were farmers or labourers, with a few fishermen down on the coast, and she did not consider even the Rector her social equal. At least he was not the father of that wretched chit who had stolen her intended bridegroom from her, or she would never have spoken to him.

She had ordered the window overlooking the main drive to be opened a crack, for the July day was hot, and she heard the clattering of hooves as a carriage approached. Then she frowned. It was just one horse, not a carriage. Had the man been so lost to politeness as to ride here?

The foot tapping grew faster as she awaited the entrance of her visitor, but none came. She heard the horse galloping away before her butler, Grant, entered the room. The butler, his face impassive, handed her a note which she snatched up and tore open. As she read her cheeks grew red, and she pursed her lips. She screwed up the note in her hands and tried to calm herself.

'Has the messenger left?'

'Yes, my lady, he went as soon as he gave me the note.'

'Very well. Take these refreshments away, but pour me a glass of Madeira first.'

She sat sipping the wine while he obeyed her instructions. When the door closed behind him she permitted herself to utter some of her father's favourite expletives. How dared the man send such an insolent note? She picked up the paper and smoothed it out to read again.

'The Earl of Priorsdale sends his compliments to Lady MacDonald, and regrets matters of some urgency prevent him from accepting her gracious invitation. He hopes they may meet at some time in the near future.'

'Impertinence! Scoundrel! But he will regret this!'

She rang the bell, and the butler appeared with suspicious speed.

'Send for my maid. And have the chaise prepared.'

He bowed and withdrew. Soon a rather flustered maid appeared.

'My lady, you sent for me?'

'Yes, Lizzie. I am driving out. My new carriage gown, and the cloak, and you will accompany me.'

Lizzie nodded and left somewhat hastily. A few minutes later Lady MacDonald followed her, and began to change. Then she paused, looked at Lizzie, and shook her head.

'No, I will take Miss Gabrielle instead. Go and tell her to meet me in the hall in five minutes.'

Lizzie departed. Lady MacDonald studied her reflection in the mirror and nodded. Yes, she looked well. The delicate application of cosmetics earlier that morning, in anticipation of his lordship's visit, had survived and needed no attention. The normally somewhat high colour in her cheeks had been subdued with powder, and her hair needed no attention. She chose a bonnet to go with her cloak, and went down to the hall where Gabrielle awaited her.

'What gown is that?' she demanded, looking at the limp black cotton gown the girl was wearing.

Gabrielle shrugged. 'Do you not recognise it, Cousin? It's the one you gave me, when you and all the servants came out of mourning for Sir Hector. I think it belonged to Cook. It has a certain kitchen perfume on it. You said I should wear it when I am teaching Prudence, despite it being overlarge and rubbed. My own gowns, you said, were too frivolous for me. What you meant was they are too fancy for a servant.'

Lady MacDonald frowned. 'Don't be impertinent. You are not a servant.'

'No,' Gabrielle replied. 'Servants have wages. And I can preserve my frivolous gowns for when I attend the local assemblies, if they have them here.'

'Well, girl, you don't need a wage, if that is what you are hinting. I feed you, you live as one of the family. And I do not attend assemblies with rustics, so don't depend on that.'

'I am grateful, Cousin, but I often wonder if I should have tried to obtain a position before I was sent to you. I was in no state to object at the time.'

She hadn't known what her cousin was like then, and had probably been too young to be a schoolmistress, she thought. But a kitchen maid, and perhaps later on a cook, would have been more interesting. And cooks were paid more than governesses, and had the company of the other servants. She thought of the tasteless, overcooked chicken they had had for dinner the previous day. Perhaps Jemima's cook was not paid as well as she thought.

'Neither was I expecting to have to take you in, but they sent you north without asking me first, so I had to keep you. Well, it will have to do. There is no time to change, but as it is only you that does not matter. Come, be quick.'

Grant just had time to open the front door for her to sweep through, and down the short flight of steps to be helped into the waiting carriage. Gabrielle, plucking a scarlet rose from an arrangement on the table in the hall, and thrusting it into the knot of hair she had pulled back while she was teaching little Prudence, followed, and was barely into the chaise before the door was slammed shut and the coachman set off with a jerk. She almost fell onto her ladyship, but managed to collapse instead onto the facing seat.

'Where are we going, Cousin Jemima?' she asked as she righted herself and straightened the limp skirt of her gown.

'The Priory,' she was told. 'I'm going to see whether that impertinent new man there was telling the truth. He ignored my invitation, said he was too busy to come. We'll see about that.'

'Grant said he only arrived in Yorkshire yesterday,' Gabrielle said. 'Why are you in such haste to meet him?'

Lady MacDonald frowned and plied her fan. It was hot today, but her fury had made her even hotter. 'Because I have business with him that is not anything you need to know about. Yet. And since when have you and Grant been gossiping about my affairs?'

'Then why drag me away from Prudence? You know she doesn't like being left with Nurse. And since when has the earl been your affair?'

'Prudence will do as she's told. As you will. I'll not have you, or Grant, questioning my actions.'

'No, Cousin Jemima. No one ever does, do they?'

Gabrielle pursed her lips and spent the rest of the journey looking out of the window. Since she had been living at Glebe Court during the past two years she had rarely been far from it. Her explorations of the vale had normally been limited by how far six-year-old Prudence could walk.

It was a delightful scene, the river winding its way through the meadows. The sides of the vale rose steeply, and she knew that the land above them was wild and rough, quite different, and more like the scenery she had known in Devon. She sighed. If only she could return, go back to the small cottage in Devon where she and her father had lived until his death two years ago. She sighed again. She should be grateful to her cousin Jemima, who had given her a home when her father's small fortune had all been swallowed up by his debts, but now she wondered whether she would have been happier skivvying for a family in Bristol or Exeter. Her Papa had been a delightful, if feckless man, and she still missed him desperately, for after her mother died and they left Madeira they had been everything to one another.

Her musings were cut short as the chaise turned in through a pair of heavy gates. She caught a glimpse through the trees of a sprawling house built of grey stone, surrounded by a lawn and a wire fence and cropped close by some tame-seeming deer.

'Good, now we will see what urgent business kept his precious lordship so occupied this morning!'

*

Peter and John rode into the stable yard back at the Priory. It had been a busy morning. They had been with Potter, the estate manager, to visit three of the farms belonging to the estate, talking to the tenants and trying to understand how the estate had been run and what was now needed. It was so much larger than his father's estate in Devon which he had inherited two years ago.

'Hello! We appear to have visitors,' Peter said, seeing a chaise in front of the main door. 'Now who is it? Are the locals beginning to make welcoming visits already?

'That's the Glebe carriage,' Potter said, surprised. 'I've not seen it here before.'

Peter smothered a grin. 'Maybe bringing a reply to my note.'

Potter shook his head and looked gloomy. 'No, my lord. They only get out that carriage for her ladyship.'

'Do you mean she's come here herself?' Peter was amused. It was not the sort of behaviour he had expected from the writer of that peremptory note demanding his presence at Glebe Court.

'I think it must be so.'

'Shall we ride quietly away?' John asked, laughing. 'There's a pleasant looking inn in the village.'

Peter shook his head. 'No. We have to meet at some time. But if you want to play the coward, go away.'

John laughed. 'No, I'll support you, brother mine. You may need a rearguard.'

They handed over their horses to the stable lads and went into the Priory through a back door.

'I'm going to change,' Peter said. 'My note no doubt caused offence, and I won't add to it by greeting the lady in all my dirt.'

Some time later they met in the bedroom corridor. Both were impeccably dressed in pale fawn pantaloons, black coats and immaculate Hessians, thanks to their valets, Swallow and Brown. Peter had tied an Oriental cravat, while John had managed, in the short time available, a Mathematical Tie. Grinning at one another they went down the wide staircase side by side then, at the door to the drawing room, where Bentley waited to open it with a flourish and let them in, John drew back.

'Don't be afraid,' he murmured, 'I'm right behind you, invincible support.'

Peter laughed, and stepped into the room. It had been furnished over many decades, and the previous earl had not, it seemed, wanted to change any of the arrangements of his ancestors. Mahogany bureaux, oak tables and rosewood chairs sat uneasily together, and there were none of the more modern styles. The walls were covered with both family portraits and large battle scenes, obscuring much of the dark wallpaper. Peter's first reaction on entering the house was that all of this, furniture and paintings, had to go. His second, on closer inspection, was to give thanks that the pictures at least covered the wallpaper until he had the opportunity to change it.

Seated in a hard upright chair in front of the empty fireplace was a woman he assumed was Lady MacDonald. She was not unhandsome, but her rather florid countenance and the youthful ringlets, as well as the scarlet gown which clashed with her red cheeks, did her no favours. Her bonnet was unexpectedly frivolous, adorned as it was with large flowers and unidentifiable fruit. Her figure, just this side of voluptuous, was rigidly confined in whalebone.

Some three feet behind her, on another upright chair, was a younger woman. A maid, Peter assumed. She was a very pretty maid, though she seemed little more than a schoolgirl, and was dressed in an appallingly drab black gown that did not appear to fit her, hanging loosely from the shoulders, and a plain mob cap. Her hair, a glossy dark brown, was pulled rigidly back, though she had stuck a rose into what was visible under the cap. She clearly possessed a spark of originality. He grinned at her, and to his delighted surprise she grinned back, then winked. He almost laughed, but had little time to look at her, for Lady MacDonald had begun to speak the moment he entered the room.

'So, my lord, your matters of extreme urgency have not taken you from home, I see.'

Peter bowed. 'Lady MacDonald, I presume. I am Peter Stannard and this is my brother John. My lady, I have just returned home,' he added, and watched with secret amusement the very deep bow his brother produced, just short of parody. Then he looked at her companion. Lady MacDonald, it seemed, had no intention of introducing the girl. She must be a maid brought for convention's sake. 'I'm sure my butler must have informed you I was not here. I trust you have not been waiting long and have been suitably entertained.'

He nodded to the tray on the small table beside her. It contained a plate of biscuits and two tea cups both of which, he saw with inward amusement, were still full. Had the lady refused to accept his refreshments? Or had she been too incensed to want them? The frown on her face, her pursed lips, and cheeks which may have been reddened by more than cosmetics, indicated she was not in the best of tempers. Her foot was tapping and her hands were clenched.

She shook her head and took a deep breath. 'I came to talk with you, my lord, since you did not see fit to accept my invitation.'

He pulled up a chair facing her and sat down. John took another, and seated himself some way behind Peter.

'Invitation?' he asked mildly. 'I rather thought it an order. So, as you are here, my lady, perhaps you will tell me what is so urgent that it needs discussion the moment I arrive at the Priory.'

'You may not be aware, my lord, of the intentions of my own father and the late earl.'

Peter raised his eyebrows. What did the woman mean by this reference to past history?

'As you probably are aware, the late earl's family and my own father never met, nor did they correspond. Some former disagreement, I always understood.'

'Some nonsense, no doubt. But that is irrelevant. Our fathers wished to reunite the estates through a marriage between myself and Edward. Then Edward made that disastrous runaway match. But he is dead, so is my husband, and you are now the earl and have no wife. We can still unite the estates.'

*

Peter could hardly believe what he had heard. John stifled a snort of laughter and Peter could hear him chuckling quietly just behind him. He glanced at the girl, who was trying to suppress her giggles.

'Are you proposing marriage to me?' he at length managed to ask.

Lady MacDonald smiled and Peter had to force himself not to draw back in alarm. It was such a complacent smile, that of a woman rarely thwarted.

'It seems the best way to manage the intentions of our fathers,' she said complacently. 'And we could have a son to inherit all.'

Suppressing a shudder Peter gathered together his wits and shook his head. 'Not my father, ma'am. It was my uncle, a man I never met, who wanted this arrangement. With his son, not me.'

'A mere bagatelle, sir. Uniting the estates would have many advantages.'

'Really? Such as?'

'Of course, sir. I do understand that you have only just come to Yorkshire, so may not be fully cognisant of the situation here, but the owners of an estate such as ours, united, would be could have much greater power and influence than we have separately.'

'Indeed? Why do you need more power and influence?'

'Doesn't everyone? I will prove that to you. I fully understand that my suggestion has been a surprise, so I do not expect an immediate answer. You must come to dine with me, and later I will introduce you to some of our more agreeable residents. The day after tomorrow, let us say. And of course your brother is invited too.'

She bestowed a gracious smile on John, who rose to his feet and bowed his head to hide his grin.

Without waiting for a reply she started towards the door. 'Come, Gabrielle.'

Peter could think of no adequate response, and went to ring the bell. Bentley appeared with suspicious promptness. He held open the door for the visitors and Peter managed to murmur some sort of farewell.

Lady MacDonald stalked past him, her nose in the air. Gabrielle, her expression demure, followed.

The ladies had scarcely left the room before John burst out into laughter. 'Did you see her? Exactly the same attitude, the same gait. I wonder who she is?'

'A very impertinent servant,' Peter said, grinning as he hastily shut the door and turned to his brother. 'Hell's bells! I've never had a woman propose marriage to me before!'

He sank back onto the chair and began to mop his brow.

'And what a woman!' John managed between spurts of laughter. 'I can just see you, decidedly under the cat's foot. Cousin Edward clearly did the right thing.'

'Well, I'm not about to flee to Gretna to escape her. I can hardly blame him now I've seen her. I wonder if she was the same years ago?'

'Leopards don't change their spots.'

' A cross between that and a man-eating tiger, perhaps.'

'Are we going to dine with her?'

Peter sighed. 'I suppose we must. It would be an intolerable insult to refuse a second invitation. But I am, you must understand, betrothed to a young lady – in Devon, I think. No, even that's not far enough. She may have correspondents there. Shall we say a Spanish lady? I met her when I was in the Peninsula with Wellington.'

'So why have you not wed her? That was years ago.'

'Let me see. Family bereavements in Spain, I think, they always seem to suffer plenty, and my own father's death, of course.'

'And once you have dealt with matters here, you will, naturally, be going to Spain to see her.'

'Of course. And there will be another sad bereavement to delay the wedding again. Such a pity Spaniards have such large and close families. But I will leave you here to look after the estate.'

'No, indeed you won't! It would be worse than Waterloo. I think a long visit to Paris is indicated. For both of us.'

'Are you afraid she might turn her attention to you, perhaps hoping I will meet my end before I've had a chance to beget a son?'

John laughed. 'No, but I don't relish having to make your excuses all the time.'

'I'll send you letters, frequently, to inform you of other reasons for delaying my Spanish wedding. Now, what name shall my intended bride have? Maria, of course. And de Pereira Mendoza, I think. It has a nice ring.'

*

Gabrielle was looking out of the nursery window, dreaming, taking no notice of little Prudence who was frowning at the words on her slate. The Stannard brothers were very pleasant, and both were remarkably handsome. It had given her a frisson when she had first seen them.

There had been handsome men down in Devon, but none of them had affected her in such a way. She sighed. Back then, before her father died, she had thought little about marriage. Her father would arrange one, she'd assumed, in the normal way. Now, Cousin Jemima would never even think of it. She was far too useful as an unpaid nursemaid for Prudence. And even if she did think of it, what sort of man would she choose? The best Gabrielle might hope for could be a tenant farmer's son. She didn't think her cousin would tolerate her being wed to a servant. That would reflect badly on her. She could never aspire to anyone such as the new earl. She grinned suddenly. If Jemima had any inkling of such a thing she would die of mortification. For her to consider marriage with a young, handsome, titled man was perfectly acceptable, even if the young handsome titled man did not appear gratified by her attention. Gabrielle laughed. His expression, and his brother's barely concealed amusement, had made up for Jemima's insistence of her having to wear the old black gown.

She thought of her few pretty gowns she had delighted in wearing in Devon. There hadn't been many, they had little money to spare, and here in Yorkshire she was careful not to wear them too frequently. They would, she was well aware, have to last, for Jemima was unlikely to provide her with more. But somehow, one day when she was likely to meet the earl again, she might contrive to wear one of them.

Why had she immediately thought of the earl? His brother was, if anything, even more good looking. He was slightly taller, and had a merry smile, but somehow didn't affect her in the same way. She sighed again, a deep sigh that had Prudence glancing up at her and frowning.

'Are you feeling sick?' the child asked, and Gabrielle shook her head.

'No, pet. Just thinking.' And wondering what would become of her when, perhaps, her usefulness at Prudence's nurse or governess came to an end. Jemima would not keep her without making use of her, she was well aware. But that might be years in the future, and there was nothing she could do about it. She made a big effort, smiled at the little girl, and took the slate from her.

'How many of these words do you know? What's this one, now?'

*

Chapter 2

'You must eat with us.'

Gabrielle shook her head. 'And what am I supposed to wear, Cousin Jemima? I have no evening gowns amongst those you wish me to keep apart. Papa and I did not entertain when we lived in Devon.'

Jemima frowned, then nodded to herself. 'You may have one of my old ones. I'll send Lizzie with one.'

Since Jemima was several inches shorter than she was, and considerably larger, her gowns would hardly fit, and there was little time to make any alterations. She must, however, accept, for Gabrielle wished to meet again those two attractive brothers who had, she felt sure, been laughing at Jemima on that excruciating visit to the Priory. Their presence promised to enliven life at Glebe Court, especially if Jemima tried to entice the elder into marriage. From the look of horror on the man's face she foresaw some interesting developments. She thought he would be strong enough to resist, and wondered how Jemima would take rejection when here in her home she was a despot.

For a moment she hesitated. If they saw her in such an unsuitable gown they would be laughing at her. Then her sense of humour took over, as well as her desire to see Peter Stannard again. But what did it matter? It had been bad enough having to wear the cook's black one which Jemima insisted she wore when she was teaching little Prudence. They had clearly taken her for a maid, which had allowed her to stay in the background. To be introduced as Jemima's cousin at a dinner table, and expected to participate in conversation, was a different matter. It could be amusing to watch their reactions.

She supposed she ought to be grateful to her cousin for giving her a home, even though she had to earn it by teaching little Prudence. If, after poor Papa died two years ago, she had been able to take a teaching post in the Bath academy she had herself attended until three years before, she would at least have had some wages. But she had been too young, and totally devastated by her father's sudden death. She had been unable to think and when the legal men dealing with Papa's affairs had sent her to Yorkshire she had been too bewildered to do aught but obey. Now, here at Glebe Court she was dependent on Cousin Jemima for everything. Papa had not been rich, and after he died his debts had swallowed the small inheritance from his own godfather that they had been living on. This situation had to change, but for now she could think of no sensible way of contriving it.

Gabrielle went to her room on the schoolroom floor and tried not to look ungrateful when Lizzie brought her the promised gown.

'It's not one of her best, an' she ain't wore it fer years,' the maid said, and displayed a drab gown in a shade between the deep brown of coffee and the paler fawn of bread. 'At least it dain't 'ave frills, so yer can let down hem.'

Gabrielle smiled. 'Thank you, Lizzie. I don't have time to make a neat job, but it will have to do.'

'I'd like ter stay an' help, Miss, but her ladyship needs me. The gown she wants ter wear needs takin' out in bodice.'

She eats too many sweetmeats, Gabrielle thought, and turned her attention to Prudence. The child was shy, and not yet able to read the simplest horn books, despite being six years old. Jemima, of course, blamed her, but when Gabrielle suggested that if she believed she was not doing her best she should hire a governess, Jemima simply shrugged and said she must try harder.

'For I am providing you with a home and all you need, which I have no obligation to do. Your father was feckless, and just because he was my mother's brother does not mean you have any claim on me.'

Gabrielle forced her thoughts away from Jemima and set Prudence to copying letters on her slate, while she attempted to lengthen the evening gown. She had to hurry. There was no time to try it on and attempt to make the hem level. She consoled herself with the thought that the Stannard brothers would have little interest in a poor relation, so it mattered not a whit how she looked. Nevertheless she managed to abstract a few flowers from the arrangements Jemima had overseen, form a coronet and a posy she could poke through a slight hole in the bodice of the old gown. She would never, she sighed, be in a position to marry such a man. The best she might hope for, lacking a dowry, was a villager, and none she had met so far attracted her as had the earl.

The new earl and his brother arrived on time. Glancing out of the nursery window Gabrielle saw a smart curricle drawn by two elegant matched greys. She could see nothing of the visitors except the tops of their heads. She ought to be down in the drawing room, but she could not leave Prudence alone. At last Nurse appeared and Gabrielle was able to go to her own room, wash quickly and scramble into the altered evening gown. She had just one pair of slippers, but as they were blue they clashed horridly with the gown. They would have to do. She brushed out her hair and let it lie loose, the natural ringlets framing her face and the coronet giving her an air of frivolity. Then she fastened her one piece of jewellery, a string of pearls that had been her mother's, given her by Gabrielle's father on the occasion of their wedding, about her neck.

She ran swiftly down the stairs and was somewhat breathless when she entered the drawing room. The brothers, who had been seated close together, rose to their feet. Jemima, glaring at her from behind their backs, turned her glare into a smile as she introduced Gabrielle.

'My young cousin, Gabrielle Ferneyhough, who lives here with me.'

Gabrielle noticed the surprise on the earl's face, and smiled ruefully, but he recovered swiftly and bent over her hand.

'We were not introduced when you and your cousin visited the Priory,' he said smoothly.

'No, my lord. It was not convenient. And I am not important.'

Jemima emitted what Gabrielle thought was a snort. Then she laughed.

'Do excuse Gabrielle's rough manners. It's her Madeiran inheritance, I'm afraid. She lived there as a child.'

He raised his eyebrows and then smiled. He had a fascinating, slow smile.


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