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Excerpt for Audacious Charade by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

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By Claudy Conn

Editor: Alicia Carmical

Artist: Dawn Sullivan



CONTENTS

Copyright

Author Note

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Epilogue

About Claudy


Copyright Page

Audacious Charade

By Claudy Conn

http://www.claudyconn.com


Copyright © 2019 by Claudy Conn at Smashwords

Edited by: Alicia Carmical

Cover Artist: Dawn Sullivan

All rights reserved


Published in the United States of America


This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


Names, characters, and events depicted in this book are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, places, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of the author.


No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.




Author’s note


The story about the swan is a true one.

We (Bob and I) had the experience early on in our marriage. My hero was my husband, Bob. We nursed our Cygie until he left us. He did return with a mate and we enjoyed seeing the beautiful couple raise their cygnets in our canal for years.


Dedicated to my alpha bob with so much love!



~ One ~


LADY WAREMONT PICKED UP HER chin as her son, his lordship, Seth Waremont, stepped warily into her morning room. She nearly giggled at his expression.

She watched him, and blue eyes met blue eyes as he approached. Faith, but she couldn’t blame the women for swooning when her son walked into a room. He had height, he had broad shoulders, and he was beyond handsome. She also rather liked the way he slicked his dark hair back and tied it at the nape of his neck.

She knew he had been keeping a watchful eye over her since her husband’s death, four years ago. But she no longer needed him to do that, oh, no, she wanted him to take a bride and give her grandchildren!

She had made an early mistake in this regard.

She had steered him towards lovely young maids most suitable to be his wife, and none of those young women stirred even an interest from him.

On his last visit to her, she had nearly made another mistake and mentioned the young woman she had met when she was in Rye. She was saved by her son’s friend, Sir Leigh, who had blurted out his intention of going to Rye and she caught herself.

Indeed, the fates were working with her. Sir Leigh had just inherited an estate on the outskirts of Rye and wanted her son to accompany him on a trip to inspect his new property.

Perfect!

“You look lovely, Mama. That particular shade of blue suits you, and I like your hair styled in just that way.”

She patted her greying blonde curls and smiled as she got up from the desk and took his hand to lead him to the sofa.

“Thank you for coming so quickly, Seth,” she said as prettily as she could.

He raised a brow.

“Of course, you said you needed me,” he answered.

She sat and pulled him down beside her. She forced herself to speak casually, as though the matter at hand was naught. “I hate to impose,” she said, leaving it in the air.

“You couldn’t, so out with it. What is it you want?”

“Well, I do hope it won’t take you and dear Leigh out of your way…but it would be ever so nice if you could discharge this errand for me.”

“An errand? What errand could you possibly need done in Rye?”

She eyed him and said on a heavy sigh, “I daresay it will only take you out of your way a few miles and only twenty minutes or so, and it will be so much nicer than just posting a thank you note.”

“The Huntlys?” He frowned. “They were the Rye couple who helped you a month or so ago?”

“Helped me? Indeed, I don’t know what I would have done had they not,” she said, and shook her head.

“Well then, so long as you are not asking me to meet with any more giggling debutantes, I should be honored to deliver my thanks to them in person.”

“Such a dear son. I have a note and gift for them,” his mother said. She had purposely not mentioned to him that the Huntlys had a lovely daughter. Besides, she had come to see that the lovely but demure Huntly daughter would not do for her son. No, that wasn’t the match for him. She had quite another in mind.

“Well…as to that, I have quite given up,” she said lightly.

“Liar,” he said, and laughed.

“Well, I have…at least for the time being. I see, what did you call them, giggling debutantes? I see one of those won’t do, so I am momentarily stalled,” she said, and did not meet his eyes.

“Really? No more harping on and on about grandchildren?”

Harp indeed!” His mother sniffed and put her chin in the air. “I am getting on in years and…mentioning that I want grandchildren is not harping.” She raised her fingers accusingly for emphasis. “And you are nearing thirty! Thirty!” She saw he was about to get up and waved him back down with a hurried slap of her hand on the sofa. “Dearest, I have no interest in you…courting a country girl. No, I simply want you to convey my respects and a gift to the Huntlys. Nothing more.”

“Nothing more? Good,” he said suspiciously.

“Nothing more. I have actually noticed that none of the young women I have put in your way would do. You have need of someone quite different.”

“What a relief.” He didn’t see the shift of her eyes, but even so, he found this all difficult to believe.

“No, you may recall that I was in a bit of a bind, as I was told the carriage would take some days to be repaired when we broke down in Rye.”

“Yes, I remember. Mr. Huntly came to your rescue somehow?”

“As it happened, yes. While my coachman was there attempting to make arrangements with the hostelry, a local family—Huntly was the name, overheard my sorry state of affairs. He, Mr. Huntly, was kind enough to fetch me to his home, where I was very nicely received and kept comfortable by his delightful family for more than a week. Charming people, all very kind.”

“Very kind,” he agreed.

“Yes, well, there you are,” his mother said hesitatingly. “You know the whole and since you will soon be in Rye with Kinnaid, I thought you would do this one little favor for me. You needn’t stay more than twenty minutes or so at the Huntly’s. Mrs. Huntly will love the china tea set. I thought it the least I could do to show them my gratitude.”

He eyed his mother thoughtfully. She was a cunning but adorable creature. Just what was she up to? He would do the polite for her, as these people had been kind to her. “Right, then, dearest Mama. You may rest easy. I shall be happy to deliver your gift and both yours and my gratitude to these people when I arrive in Rye.”

“Thank you, my love.” Lady Waremont smiled sweetly, and again avoided her son’s knowing eye!



~ TWO ~


THE INHABITANTS OF HUNTLY GRANGE had no idea that a discussion of this nature had taken place between Lady Waremont and her only son, however, Mrs. Huntly had high hopes.

Mrs. Huntly had been all too aware of the fact that Lady Waremont was an influential and wealthy noblewoman. In fact, she had read that Lady Waremont was considered the very pink of the haute ton, as was her bachelor son! Imagine it…she was acquainted with the mother of such an eligible marriage prize!

Her ladyship’s son was one of London’s famous bachelors. She had read and heard all about his rakish ways, but he was titled, reportedly wealthy beyond imagination, and even handsome. Oh, yes, she knew that the simpering debutants and optimistic maidens had been setting their sights at him for years, but she was certain her Claire, in a quiet country setting, would catch his eye.

She sighed as she thought about what next was to be done to achieve her goals. After all, her daughter’s dowry was certainly adequate, but not at all stunning. Also, though she doted on her daughter, she was abysmally aware that while her sweet Claire was quite pretty, she was not considered a devastating beauty. However, although she was certain someone of his lordship’s stature had dozens of exquisite creatures throwing themselves at him all the time, he would find Claire refreshing. She believed her Claire would be reticent and demure, and these two qualities alone would attract the jaded Lord Waremont.

Her pretty and demure Claire was a darling girl, and if only she could bring her daughter to his lordship’s attention, she was nearly certain he might take an interest.

The problem was her husband. Mr. Huntly had stood steadfast in his decision to deny their daughter a London Season. Somehow, he had it in his head that their Claire would not welcome such an exciting treat. She had talked herself blue, but he said that while they could only just afford one such extravagant season, he was certain Claire wished to stay in Rye, attend the Rye routs and balls of their own country season. Outrageous!

It was then that Mrs. Huntly came up with a notion. She hurriedly penned off a letter to Lady Waremont, telling her ladyship that she hoped she was home safe and sound and in good spirits. Perhaps that might win an invitation for a visit? One never knew. Or it could be her ladyship had liked them well enough to continue the quick friendship that had begun during her stay?

Mr. Huntly entered the morning room rubbing his hands and declaring that the fire needed stoking. As he walked over to the fireplace to do this office, his wife put out a finger and called his attention to herself.

“Darling…do sit.”

“Eh?” He eyed her suspiciously. “Why?”

“I want to talk to you.”

“No, dearest, no talking now. Mean to read my paper,” he said, and prodded the coals before taking a seat near the window and lifting his newspaper.

Mrs. Huntly proceeded to plead with him. “You must find the money to send us to London. You simply must.”

Mr. Huntly was a simple man with simple tastes, as was his precious daughter, Claire. He was certain his daughter had no real wish to stay in London for what he believed was an exorbitantly expensive and exhausting season.

He sighed heavily. What was a man to do to obtain peace? He adored his son, Freddy, and Claire both…but he also knew that Claire was more than satisfied with her country life. Indeed, he knew this as a fact because Claire had sought him out and told him she did not wish to go to London for an entire season. She genuinely believed she would not fit in with the haute ton.

How was he ever going to get his wife to stop hounding him? Why had he ever brought the Lady Waremont home with him? It was that circumstance which had put all sorts of absurd notions into his wife’s head.

He needed to stay firm for Claire’s sake, and for the fact that while his estate was virile, he was not wealthy enough to sustain a depletion of this sort without consequences.

“Claire is not going to London for the season. Now…if you persist in this argument, I shall have no recourse but to leave you to whatever it was you were doing and find another room where I might be comfortable and read my paper.”

“Yes, but…” Mrs. Huntly started.

Mr. Huntly took his paper in hand, and without another glance in her direction, left the morning room in a huff. He adored his wife, had adored her from the moment they first met, but he had learned how to survive her single-mindedness, her tenacious ways, and her ability to cajole him into almost anything. Not this, however, not this.

Mrs. Huntly watched him go in silence, and her eyes narrowed because she knew him very well. She also knew how very much he loved their daughter. Perhaps if Claire were to ask him for a season?

She rushed after him, down the hall and into the library where he had taken a seat, once again by the window.

“Darling, tell me you will at least think about it?”

“No,” he answered.

“How can you be so obstinate when your daughter’s happiness is at stake?”

“I could ask you the same question, my love.” He sighed. “Can’t you see that Claire is happy here in the country—with Rye society? Her friends are here. Her prospects of a match are here. Why, there are any number of young men, most suitable young men, who might show an interest in her right here at home. She has no wish to go to London for a season. In fact, I rather think she has already enjoyed great popularity here. Just look at how many puppies only last week came to call!”

“Nonsense, every young woman wishes to go to London,” she snapped.

“Perhaps for shopping, but our Claire is a country girl at heart. Don’t you know your own child?”

As a matter of fact, Mrs. Huntly did know Claire, and was put out by Claire’s desire to remain in Rye for the season. She was her mother, and told her daughter she knew what was best for her.

She went to sit in her husband’s lap and lowered her lashes in a manner she knew he liked. “Please, darling? It isn’t just Claire I am thinking about. It is Maxine as well. Our dear Max is quite a ravishing beauty…and wasted here in the country. Why, she is forever running about in breeches like a hoyden.”

“Maxine will do,” Huntly said, and then winked at her. “You are a handsome woman, Mrs. Huntly, and I love you with all my heart and soul. That is not to say I can be played the fool. I said no, and now that you have my answer, you may raise those beautiful lashes of yours and allow me to read my paper…unless, of course, you wish to take me by the hand and try and convince me in our bed?” He wiggled his eyebrows at her.

She slapped him and was torn between annoyance that she could not convince him and pleasure at his compliment. She settled for a long and heavy sigh.

She got up from his lap and left him to his paper. As she returned to the morning room to think, she smiled to herself. Huntly had given her a wonderful life here in Rye. She was considered a grande dame among Rye society. They had two darling children together, and even after all these years, she was still very much in love with him.

What then to do? She was certainly satisfied—more than satisfied with her life in Rye, but she did want her daughter to have every opportunity in life. Well, perhaps an invitation from Lady Waremont might just come?

* * * * *

Maxine rushed across the moors, taking a shortcut home. Her day gown of brown muslin hugged her form, and though it was well worn and out of date, it could not shield her exquisite figure.

Her long black hair fell about her shoulders and hung in loose disorderly curls to her trim waist. Short black wisps fringed her forehead and her ears. Her eyes were the color of a deep green lake, large and forever twinkling with mischief.

Stopping, she called to the collie and the young man running full speed ahead of her, “Freddy, you wretch! Your legs are so much longer than mine. Give me time to breathe. And aww, poor old Melody, just look at her. She is panting and certainly tired.” Maxie patted the elderly collie, who plopped down and rolled in the tall grass, whining for a belly rub.

“Good girl.” Maxie rubbed the collie’s belly and laughed at the dog’s antics.

“Come on, enough rest!” Freddy called.

“Ha! You are seventeen, my buck,” Maxie threw back at him. “You are all legs and energy, restless energy.”

She adored Freddy, who was like a young brother to her. She was closer to him than his own sister, Claire, was. Both Maxine and Claire were twenty, but Claire was of a sedate nature and Maxine Tarnover had a bit of a devil driving her. At least that was what Mrs. Huntly was forever telling her.

She supposed it was true.

“Come on, Max. If we aren’t home soon, we shall be in for a terrible lecture and you know it,” Freddy complained good-naturedly.

“Know? What I know beyond argument is that if I don’t catch my breath, here and now, my lad, I shall collapse. Do you want that on your head, Frederick of Huntly?”

He chuckled. “You were wont to pass me, as though you were flying…fact is, that wasn’t so very long ago.”

“Indeed, but I haven’t slowed down. You have sprouted wings!” Maxie reached out and took his long arm. “There now, walk for a bit and Melody can catch her breath as well. We shall do.”

They both looked up at the sky and each pulled a comical face, for it surely appeared as though they were in for a heavy rain.

We hope,” they said in unison, and burst out laughing.

They picked up the speed and Maxie dropped her cousin’s arm. She needed to discuss something with him, but wasn’t sure how to bring it up. It would be a sore subject, and the thing was…she wasn’t sure she was in the ‘right’ of it.

She cleared her throat and said, “Freddy?”

“Hmm?”

“You have been spending a great deal of time down at the quay in Rye, haven’t you?”

“Hmm,” he answered, and then looked at her. “It made the summer passable.”

“You like Captain Toby very much, don’t you?”

“Don’t you?” Freddy returned in some surprise.

They had spent magnificent days with Toby the summer before, and yes, Maxie liked the captain a great deal.

“Freddy, don’t avoid the question with one of your own. I asked first,” she said.

He laughed. “Yes, I like Toby.”

“As do I,” she admitted freely. “He is certainly a charming old rogue, but you should not be spending all of your time with him.”

“I don’t. Spend most of my time with you.” Freddy put up his hands. “Deplorable habit, but there you are.”

Maxie smiled indulgently. “You exaggerate greatly. Let us speak frankly with each other. We always have in the past.”

“Aye, but be careful. I am nearly a man, and there are some things a gentleman does not discuss with a lady.” He grinned wickedly. “Ah, but wait, you are no lady!” He wiggled his dark brows at her.

She smacked him. “A lady is so whether she is wearing rags, britches, or a fancy gown. Now, the subject at hand is your situation with Captain Toby.” She put up her hand and once again faced him. “Freddy, I don’t want to play games with you about this. If you can’t treat me as a friend…or very nearly a sister, then say so.”

“Stop, you know very well you are one of my closest friends. So go ahead, have at me,” he said resignedly.

“I know, as you do, that fishing is not Toby’s main source of income.” She eyed him and then once again linked her arm with his and kept walking, aware that it was getting late.

“Aye, but what Toby does to earn his bread is none of our affair, is it?” Freddy answered carefully.

“Is it not?” Maxie’s green eyes were bright with a challenge.

“No, and has nothing to do with me,” he added.

“Fine, as long as it has nothing to do with you, nothing at all,” Maxine returned pointedly.

“Blister it, girl! Don’t you know that I can draw the line?” he snapped.

“Can you, Freddy?” She wasn’t so sure and had reason to think otherwise, but decided not to push it any further. She knew Freddy was the sort to take their conversation to bed and mull over it. That was good enough for her, at the moment. “I’m glad.”

“Come on then,” he said, letting her hand fall away from the crook of his arm as he sped up the pace. “We have tarried too long and will both be in for it.”

So saying, they broke into a jog with Melody cheerfully taking up a stick for the journey.


~ Three ~


WAREMONT REGARDED KINNAID THOUGHTFULLY AS he relaxed against the squabs of his friend’s luxurious traveling coach.

Their riding horses had been tethered at the boot, and ambled along easily in their wake over the Main Pike. Their progress was slow going, but the weather was inclement and the sky dusky, making swifter travel unadvisable.

Outside, the changing scenery had moved from hills of rolling woods and lush green farmland into sloping downs of wildflowers and deep purple heather. Despite the gloom of the weather, it was a glorious view, and Waremont was able to recall the days of his youth when his father had taken him to Romney Marsh. His father had filled his head with tales of ghosts and smugglers.

It was as though nothing had changed. A vast flat land of marsh met their eyes and excited imagination. Waremont could smell the salt in the air. It made him anxious to quit the coach and take to horse.

Sir Leigh Kinnaid felt his friend’s scrutiny and returned the look warily. “What is it? Why do you have that look in your eye?”

“I was just thinking what a lucky thing it was that ancient cousin of yours decided to pop off at last and leave you with the Romney property. I love this countryside, and damned good sport to be had here.”

“By Jupiter, Seth! That is a damned unfeeling thing to say,” Kinnaid reproved.

“Why? He was confined to his bed, sick, and old, and you hardly knew the fellow. Besides, he had no choice, the estate was entailed to the next in line and that was you. Though, Sir Leigh…bothers my ears,” he bantered. “Your name should have been John or Richard, ah, then the ‘sir’ would have fit nicely.” He eyed his friend’s expression and laughed right out loud and heartily.

“Well and all, it ain’t the thing talking like that,” returned Kinnaid. “And I like the sound of Sir Leigh.”

“By Jove, indeed, Sir Leigh.” Waremont smiled affectionately and nudged his friend.

“I’ll tell you what, Seth. Damned good to get out of London. That little Italian beauty was just about to corner me. I felt it, and her count of a father was pushing for it ever since I inherited the title.”

“It was the money that he wanted. Knew you were as rich as a nabob. The title was just an added bonus,” Waremont said ruefully. “I tell you, though, what you wanted with such as that loud woman, forever clinging to your arm, is more than I can fathom, Leigh. You should have seen the dangers the first time she laughed. Awful sound. What did you think would come of such a romance? You can’t very well bed a gently born maid without offering her marriage, so tell me then, what did you think?”

“Didn’t bed the chit. Didn’t have any intention of bedding her. Flirted with her…just for the fun of it. But I tell you what, she was quite a delectable piece of silly fluff. Very hard to resist.”

Waremont shook his head. “Well, I tell you what, if I hadn’t saved you last night when you were out in the garden with her, you would now be an engaged man.”

“Don’t I know it.” Kinnaid snorted. “But I’m not the only one who was taken in by the girl’s charms. Half the eligible men of the beau monde are in line for one of her tasty kisses. And what of you with that fair prize up in Scotland not so long ago?”

“I wasn’t even dazzled, only attracted to her. Knew what I was doing all along, and besides, she wasn’t a virgin.”

“Aha! So you did have her?” Kinnaid accused.

“No, I did not, but that was because I liked her. I had no intention of leading her to think I would wed her. She was a fine woman, and I rather thought she liked me more than she should.”

“There it is, you are quite noble…yet your reputation says otherwise. Well, I hear the girls of Rye are lovely, every one!”

Waremont laughed. “Well, we shall soon find out.” He called for Kinnaid’s driver to come to a stop and then said, “Up with your lazy bones. Let’s ride for a bit.”

* * * * *

Maxie called out sharply to Freddy, who was a good twenty feet ahead, “Freddy, wait! I can’t run anymore. I’m out of breath.”

“Zounds, girl. We’ll never make it in time for dinner if we don’t keep running.”

“Yes, we will. We can take the shortcut through the Abbey Woods.”

“Isn’t that full of briars?”

“No, I have often gone that way. I know a path. Come on.” Maxie looked for her collie, who had gone off after a rabbit. “Melody…come on, girl!”

A moment later, the three of them were scurrying through the woods. A drizzle had begun and Maxie put a hand to her uncovered head. “Oooh, whatever will your mother say if she sees me come in looking like a rag doll?”

Freddy laughed. “You know very well what she will say. Don’t let her see you ’til you have dried off and changed into a presentable gown. The day gown you are wearing, Max, has seen better days.”

They had reached the open road and Max looked up as she heard the sound of horses. She put up a hand to stop Freddy, but Melody saw yet another rabbit and rushed forward.

Maxie saw the horses swerve even before their riders realized a dog was in the way, but it was too late, poor Melody was caught by a flying hoof and yelped as she fell to one side.

Maxie screeched.

She ran to the collie and fell on her knees beside their dog, Freddy right at her side. Freddy ran his hand over the collie and said, “I don’t think anything is broken, but her right leg here is bruised and cut from the horseshoe catching her.”

“Aww, my girl,” Maxie soothed, “you just rest. We’ll get you home.”

A large man approached and she rounded on him and demanded, “Just look what you have done!”

Melody was already on her feet, shook herself, and although she hobbled just a bit on her sore leg, she presented herself to the stranger for a pet.

The stranger made a soft sound as he bent and patted her head. “Sorry, ole girl.”

Freddy ignored the newcomers and told Maxie, “Never mind. Let’s get her home where we can tend to her wound. At least there is nothing broken, Max, she’ll do.”

“I am terribly sorry…we…I didn’t see here ’til it was too late,” Waremont said, and bent again to pat the collie’s head.

“Too late? What can you have been thinking, charging about in the mist like that?” Maxie demanded, much incensed.

“My dear girl,” Waremont said on the defensive. “We weren’t charging about, but taking a slow canter on an open road. I am very pleased to see that your dog has sustained no serious injury, but I take leave to tell you that if you had not allowed your dog to run onto the road willy-nilly, you would not now have an injured pet.”

“I am not your dear girl!” Maxie snapped. “And I did not allow her to run onto what we here in the country think of as a back road, and where we here in the country are more watchful when it comes to our animals. You should have been more careful!”

“We are very sorry…” cut in the second man, who was off his horse and taking hold of the sleeve of his companion. “As you have pointed out, perhaps we should not have been cantering along. Please accept our sincere apologies.”

“Indeed,” said the tall broad gentleman. “As to that, there is no question that we are sorry your dog sustained an injury, but I still maintain that you should be more careful where you let her run!”

The two men exchanged a glance, though the shorter of the two said, “Ah…our coach is here. May we offer you and your collie a ride home?”

Freddy moved to gratefully accept, but Maxine stalled him with an abrupt, “No, thank you.” So saying, she called Melody to her side, and with a glare at her cousin, petted her collie as she led her home.

Freddy hurriedly followed her, saying out loud, “Well…look, Maxie, she seems to be able to walk quite well, considering. We’ll clean up her wound and all will be right and tight.”

“Indeed, no thanks to that man!” She eyed her cousin. “What would you call those two, Freddy? Pink of the ton?”

“Corinthians. They looked like sporting gentlemen to me. Slap up to the mark,” Freddy answered, and did not hide the admiration from his voice.

“Humph!” returned Maxie.

* * * * *

Five minutes later, the truants entered their home via the kitchen door. Cook waved a ladle at them, saying ominously that her darlings were in for a lecture now.

“Shh, Cookie, we’ll rush and change,” Maxie called in a hushed tone.

“Aye, but mistress was in a tither over yer tardiness.”

Both Maxie and Freddy hugged the robust woman and thanked her for her concern.

Freddy added glibly, “Never you mind, Cookie love, Mama has to learn that Max and I are adults and cannot forever be kept to her apron strings.”

It was at this moment that his sister, Claire, entered the kitchen and clasped her hands. “Thank goodness, you are here. Papa is in the dining room calming Mama, but she is in a rare mood and I fear it is all my fault.”

“Nonsense,” Maxie said, taking Claire’s hand and giving it a squeeze. “Impossible. You are always so good, Claire, and cannot be expected to take the blame for our lateness.”

“Never mind all that now. We must go right away so that dinner can be served without any further delay,” Claire said, and then gasped as she looked her cousin over from head to toe. “Dear Maxie, however did you get so soiled?” She shook her head an added, “Well, I must say, if Mama must dress you like a schoolgirl, she should not then be surprised when you behave like one. What an awful dress. It isn’t right. We must see to your wardrobe immediately. After all, we are to be brought out at the same time. I heard Papa say so.”

Freddy eyed his sister and complained, “Mama has never been very generous to our Max.”

Maxie knew this was because her relation was not through her aunt’s but through her uncle’s side of the family.

“Freddy, how odious of you to say that. I am sure Mama loves our Maxie just as much as we all do.”

Maxie said nothing to this as she rushed out of the kitchen. “Five minutes and I will meet you both in the dining room.”

Claire and Freddy eyed one another, sighed, and followed her out, with Cookie mumbling that mistress shouldn’t be so put out, as they were only a little late, after all.

* * * * *

Mr. Huntly watched his niece glide into the room. He had just asked his wife to be patient and that the hour, even for the country, was still early for dinner.

He smiled as he watched Maxine. She so reminded him of his dear sister, but looking at her now, he realized she was even more beautiful than her mother. Her long black tresses were bright with their shine. Her green eyes were always twinkling with amusement. Her face was just the sort to break hearts.

Indeed, though his wife dressed her like a schoolgirl, Maxine was a beautiful young woman. He understood his wife’s chagrin, for though their Claire was a dear and gentle girl, quite pretty in her own right, he could see that next to Maxie…well, there just was no comparison.

However, Maxie had no idea how stunning she was and didn’t seem to mind the plain clothes she had been given to wear. He supposed it was her rough and tumble ways, for there was no denying she was a hoyden, more comfortable riding a horse or running through the fields than playing a simpering miss in the sitting room.

He was nearly as fond of Maxine as he was of his Claire. Each one drew on his heartstrings in very different ways. Maxie was his only sister’s only child and he had adored his younger sister.

He had stood firm with his wife, telling her both girls must be brought out at the same time, as they were nearly the same age. He would not budge. He insisted because he knew it was his duty to do right by his niece.

He had taken what little funds her poor parents had left to her at the time of their deaths, and he had invested it with some excellent results. She would have if not a large dowry, certainly a respectable one. There was also enough for all the gowns she would need for her upcoming season.

He watched Claire and Maxie interact. The two girls had adored one another from the start. Claire was kindhearted and had immediately mothered and comforted her orphaned cousin. Also, he could not help but notice that the girls seemed to bring out the best in one another. It was a fact that warmed his heart.

The two girls and his son began a lively conversation, but his wife interrupted them, pleased to have everyone finally attend her and said, “Children, children…let us all sit and be comfortable.”

Mr. Huntly sighed with relief. He had half expected his wife to scold them, but instead, she seemed pleased enough to take part in their merry discourse. She was, when all was said and done, his love and a good woman. She had made Maxie welcome from the start and he had never seen her slight his niece. Indeed, in the end, his wife could always be counted on to do the right thing.


~ Four ~


MORNING ARRIVED IN ROMNEY MARSH, dispelling the rains of the evening. A bright September sun welcomed Waremont as he moved to his bedroom window and looked out on the vast gardens of Kinnaid’s newly acquired estate.

A light knocking at his door brought his head around. He smiled to himself and called out, “Come in, ole fellow.”

Kinnaid opened the door and strode inside, looking ready for adventure. “You are up. Good. Come on, then. I mean to inspect m’new land. The ride will do us some good.”

“Aye then, fine.” Waremont moved towards his friend with a smile.

“Shouldn’t take more than a few days to settle up m’business here, though the Jersey said Rye can be most entertaining.”

“The Jersey…enjoys Rye?” Waremont was surprised. “Well, never mind. We can call on the Huntlys, pay our respects, and then get your business over and done with, as you say, in just a few days.”

Kinnaid eyed his friend thoughtfully. “Which reminds me. That is not all the Jersey said. She knew we were traveling together and she asked me if I had ever met the Huntlys on any of my visits to Rye. I told her I hadn’t and asked her why. Thought, at first, your mother somehow had prompted her curiosity, but it wasn’t your mother…at least not directly.”

“What the devil are you talking about?”

“Lady Jersey said Mrs. Huntly wrote to her and mentioned your mother and something about how wonderful it had been to host her. She also mentioned that the family was planning on giving their daughter a London Season and hoped to meet her then.”

Waremont rolled his eyes. “I knew it. That is why my mother wants us to call on the Huntlys—they have a daughter.” He eyed his friend. “Why didn’t you mention this earlier?”

“Only just thought of it.”

“The devil is in it that I don’t have a choice. Well, we’ll pay our respects and leave as soon as we may,” Waremont said irritably.

“Aye then, Wiggens gave me their direction. Splendid fellow, Wiggens, glad to have him.”

Waremont chuckled. “Odd sort for a butler, isn’t he? He looks as though he can barely make it up the staircase. I hope you don’t make him.”

“No, no need for him to do so. The fellow has been here forever. Mean to keep him as long as he wishes, and give him the gatehouse to live in when he retires.” Kinnaid touched his nose. “Knows more than he lets on, I’d wager, and I like him.”

“Now, what in thunder does that mean?”

“Been to the cellar, Seth. The brandy there speaks for itself,” Kinnaid answered with a knowing nod. “Show you later.”

“Blister it, my man, you will show me now,” Waremont said, and grinned.

* * * * *

Maxie played with her fingers as she entered her uncle’s study at his request. The summons had her in a tither of nerves, as she had no idea why she should be called out.

She clasped her hands behind her back as she approached, and eyed him speculatively.

She knew her uncle was fond of her, but he rarely displayed affection or attention. He was a reserved man. Summoning her to his study was highly unusual, and she could not help but feel uneasy about the business. The day had only just begun. She couldn’t already have done something wrong?

Her uncle looked up from his papers and smiled. “What a pretty blue ribbon tying your hair back,” he said, she knew to put her at ease.

She wore a simple blue gown with an old white bibbed collar and thought it comfortable and pretty, so she was surprised when he frowned and then pointed at her gown to complain, “Do you not have anything better to wear, my dear?”

Maxie blushed. “I beg your pardon, Uncle.” To say anything more would be to openly blame her aunt, which she could not, would not do.

Her uncle gave her a look full of understanding and she blushed deeper. She thought her cheeks might burn off and used great willpower to keep her hand away from her face.

“Never mind, child. I am at fault for not having noticed weeks ago that your wardrobe is sadly lacking. I have no intention of allowing this situation to continue. My sister…your mother, was such a fashionable lovely, always beautifully dressed. It would be remiss of me if I did not provide you with a wardrobe that would make her proud. Your present clothes are virtual rags. You will go into town, today, immediately. Take my curricle and order some gowns more in keeping with your age and the fashion.”

Maxine was momentarily overcome. She and Claire often looked through the Casey Fashion Plate Collections and would ooh and aah. Claire liked a simple ‘look’, while Maxie was always drawn to the bolder fashions.

Her uncle’s command surprised her, and she found she couldn’t speak for the moment as she watched him get up from his desk and come toward her.

He put a folded paper in her hands. “You give this to that shop Claire frequents in town. Have them make up a complete wardrobe for you, ball gowns, day gowns, and whatever other things women need. Slippers to match…a riding habit, as you simply cannot go about the countryside in britches any longer.”

Maxie opened her mouth and promptly closed it, too overwhelmed to do more than breathe. She saw the twinkle in his eyes and finally said, “Uncle…you are too good. Thank you.”

“Nonsense. Don’t think I don’t know m’duty, child, and in this case, m’duty gives me great pleasure. I have a fancy to see both m’girls sporting the fancy.” He patted her on the back. “There now, go on.”

Maxie kissed his cheek and hurried off, stopping only at the door to whisper another heartfelt thank you.

Her uncle waved her off and smiled thoughtfully. His wife would not like being excluded from Maxie’s shopping excursion, but exclude her he must, for he feared her choice for Maxie’s new wardrobe would not do.

Indeed, there would be hell to pay at some point, but it was worth it. Conscience will out, so be it!

* * * * *

Riding abreast of one another, Waremont and Kinnaid halted their horses atop a hill of tall grass. “From the old survey my man gave me, that fence line separates me from Huntly Grange,” Kinnaid pointed out.

“Nice little parcel,” Waremont commented. “Damned beautiful country, this.”

“So different from our properties in the Cotswolds. Look there,” Kinnaid stuck out his chin, “there…that sandy patch of road at the bottom of the hill.” The road was shaded by the wide tall oaks that lined the avenue, however, a neat and open gig pulled by a large bay horse could be seen. “Isn’t that the girl whose collie your horse clipped yesterday?”

Waremont had already seen that it was. There was no mistaking the long black hair or the piquant countenance. She looked no more than a schoolgirl, but she was a beauty, and he found it difficult to look away.

She appeared different somehow, a touch older, sitting up straight, in full command of her vehicle and horse. It was then that he noticed something else. There was nothing school-girlish about her figure. Her cloak blew away from her body, displaying full breasts and a trim waist, and for no reason whatsoever, he swallowed before taking in a long breath.

“My horse didn’t clip her collie, her collie got in the way of my horse. Very different,” Waremont said testily. “You know I would rather take a tumble than hit a dog.”

Kinnaid ignored this and said, “I wonder who she is? It appears she is headed for Huntly Grange.”

“Is she?”

“Damnation, Seth! She must be Miss Huntly. You’ve stepped on the Huntlys’ dog!”

“Confound it! Stop saying I stepped on the dog. Neither I nor my horse did any such thing. Besides, it was a blistering accident. Deuced nuisance and I am only glad the collie took no serious injury…sweet little thing.” He shook his head woefully. “Now I’ve got to go do the polite with this hanging over me.”

“Wouldn’t want to be in your shoes, ole boy, that’s for certain,” his friend offered.

Waremont eyed him ruefully. “You have been often enough. Remember that lark that we got embroiled in a few months ago?”

Kinnaid reminisced fondly for a moment and sighed. “Ah, Caroline, the lovely Caroline of Ireland. However, that was very different, and well you know it.”

“How so? You passed yourself off as Lord Waremont, titled and wealthy, and won the lady of your heart,” Waremont said, and then burst out laughing.

“She wasn’t quite the lady of my heart. She was the woman of the moment!”

Cad,” Waremont said, still chuckling.

“Oh, now that is too bad of you!” his friend said with a grimace. “As I recall, it was you who prompted me to present myself off as you. Said the lady hankered after a title, and I hadn’t inherited mine yet. You said all was fair in love and whatever balderdash you gave me.”

“Well, it worked. The lovely went straight to your bed, did she not?”

“Aye, she did, but deuced dangerous that was.” Kinnaid shook his head. “When she returned the next day with that fishwife she had for a mother, they demanded that I marry the girl. They may not have been gentry, and she was no virgin, but, for a moment, I thought I was finished.”

“You were always safe, Leigh. She and her mother were after a title and a fortune, and this was not the first time they had seduced a man. The sum you settled on them seemed to do the trick.”

“Yes, well, learned m’lesson even so. Not masquerading as you to win the ladies ever again.” Kinnaid sighed heavily. “Besides, I’m a bit weary of games. Thinking I should look for love and settle down.”

Waremont choked and then controlled himself. “No, don’t lose your head.”

“Seth, don’t you ever think of taking a wife and having a family?”

“No, I don’t. That notion died in me a long time ago.”

“Seth, not all women are mercenary socialites,” Kinnaid offered.

“All the ones I know are,” Waremont said on a low, sad note. “This was underhanded of my mother. I have a mind to teach her a lesson.”

“Oh, no, she is your mother,” Kinnaid said. “And almost mine. She has been like a mother to me ever since mine died.”

Waremont eyed his friend. They had grown up together, and Leigh had been at his home more than his own.

“Even so, I think we need to play a game…just one more time!”

“No, oh, no!”

“Think how much fun we could have? Think how we shall laugh over it later?”

“No, Seth. It is dastardly to think about engaging in the charade again.”

“Look here, you don’t plan to live here at your Romney Grange, do you?” Waremont asked.

Kinnaid replied, “God help me. I can see the devil in those blue eyes, Seth. Don’t you think ’tis time we grew up and left all of these pranks and schemes behind us?”

Waremont eyed him thoughtfully. “Yes, I do. This will be our last escapade and only because my mother drew me into it for one reason—to throw the Huntly beauty at me!”

“No…oh, no…you can’t mean that we should masquerade as one another for the Huntlys? Seth, they are my neighbors!”

“Still and all…”

“No and no again. Even though I won’t live here, I shall visit from time to time, and it won’t do, I tell you, it won’t do!”

“Leigh, by the time you visit, no one will remember what you looked like,” Waremont offered.

Gammon. Everyone would know.”

“It is just one day. We will switch identities just for one day. No one will know if I am you and you are me. Where is the harm?”

“Aha! Where is the good? Don’t see the sport in this one,” Kinnaid said adamantly.

“Not sport. Leigh, you are my friend. You must save me from being made the object of a marriageable miss. If you do this favor for me, I shall forever be in your debt. We’ll just go over to Huntly, pay my mother’s respects, hand over the gift, say I am sorry that my horse and Miss Huntly’s dog got tangled, and be off.”

“No. If I say I am you, they will fawn over me. Not right.”

“Leigh, just this once. I shall be you, the new owner of Romney. They won’t like me and will have no wish to further our acquaintance, so you will never have to see them again.”

“But…”

“Leigh, listen please. The only reason the mamas are forever doing the fancy for me is because of my title and wealth. They don’t know if you…if Sir Leigh is wealthy, and your title next to mine won’t sway them to look my way. We shall leave Rye in two or three days and the damned thing will be all over.”

“You are mad, absolutely mad,” his friend decided in strong tones.

“It will be fine,” Waremont said, and grinned.

“Seth, this situation is different. We are going to pay your mother’s respects to these people in their own home. Duplicity is no way to repay a kindness.”

“Kindness?” Waremont snorted. “It was no such thing. ’Twas my mother’s name, our family’s reputation, and the fact that we are one of the wealthiest families in all of England that made them kind. Leigh, you of all people know how heartily sick I am of being chased down as a marriage prize.”

“Of course, I quite understand that, but look here, this won’t work, and then there is the dog business…” Kinnaid said but was cut off.

“Absurd fellow. The collie is fine. Come on, Leigh, let them throw their daughter at your feet today. You would like that, wouldn’t you? She is quite a stunning creature, after all.”

“No, by Thunder! I would not like that at all. That little girl we met yesterday, well, she was a spitfire, a termagant, who I should like to stay well away from.”

Waremont sighed, but he was ever tenacious. “You won’t see them for years after today. By the time you return to Rye, their daughter will be married and no one will remember who was who.”

“Don’t see that. People remember us. At least, they always remember you!”

“Come on, Kinnaid. I need you to do this favor for me. I just can’t bear another mama throwing her daughter…especially this daughter at me! Besides, we’ll do, we always manage to.”

Kinnaid eyed his friend. “Well, you are right on that score. We do always seem to brush through our scrapes. It has to do with you being a top sawyer and as rich as a nabob. Still and all, this feels different.” He sighed heavily. “You have worn me down. I shall do it, but I am telling you at the outset, I protest and don’t like it.”

“It will soon be all forgotten as we move on,” Waremont said.

Kinnaid gave him a look. “The trouble with you is you have too much. You have good looks, money, land, position…it will break you in the end if you are always up to some devilry or other.”

Waremont laughed. “You really are looking to settle in and settle down.”

“Aye, I am. So, after this, there will be no more larking and pranking. May God forgive us for what we have already done and are about to do.”

“And protect us, my friend, and God protect us from cunning mamas,” Waremont said, and laughed as he urged his horse faster.


~ Five ~


PELTON, THE HUNTLY BUTLER, MET Maxie at the front door. She stood like an expectant child, her arms full with her packages, and he took the liberty of smiling warmly. Pelton had developed a fondness for Miss Maxie in the six years she had lived at Huntly Grange.

“Well, miss, you have been busy,” he remarked as he took the packages. “Here, allow me.”

“Thank you, Pelton, I have these in hand, but if you will have the remaining boxes in the curricle taken to my room, then John can take the curricle back to the stable and see to the chestnut. Thank you ever so much, Pelton.”

“Yes, miss.” Only the hint of glitter in the elderly man’s faded hazel eyes betrayed the great pleasure he felt. Finally, his darling miss, darling of all the household, had clothes worthy of her station. He went on to call for the footman and the two men exchanged glances of approval as they collected Miss Maxine’s purchases.

As Pelton took up an additional box he asked, “Has Mrs. Huntly said anything?”

“As to that, her maid, Martha, went on about how the money would have been better spent to give Claire a London Season,” the footman said with an accompanying grimace.

“Ha!” Pelton gasped. “Unhandsome of her, and besides, doesn’t she know Claire doesn’t want a London Season? She wants to stay right here in Rye. We all know it.”

“Aye, but Mrs. Huntly has always had grand notions,” the footman said.

They both exchanged a glance of agreement and as they reentered the house, they kept their mouths closed.

Maxie couldn’t get to her room fast enough. Once there, she ripped open the first of the packages. She swooped out a length of forest green material. It would make the prettiest, most wonderful morning gown.

A knock on her door brought Maxie’s head around and she called a welcome.

Claire peeped in and exclaimed sweetly, “Maxie, you left so early this morning…oh! Oh, Maxie, that is beautiful.” She moved to put an arm around her cousin and gave her a squeeze. “’Tis just the shade of green that will look perfect on you, and it matches your eyes!”

“Claire, I want your help deciding the style for it.” She clapped her hands. “Wait ’til you see what else is here and what Madame is making for me for a riding…”

“And the ball, Maxie? What color are you having made for the ball?”

The smile vanished from Maxie’s face. “I…I am not going to the ball.”

“What? Why not?”

“Claire, I was not invited.” Maxie looked away. “It doesn’t matter, so don’t fuss.”

“What do you mean you were not invited? I saw the invitation myself.” Claire shook her head. “You are part of the Huntly family and the invitation was for the family, each of us was listed. Papa says you have a most respectable dowry. You are of age. Laura has been your friend for years, so why would you think you were not invited?”

“But…your mother…she told me that my name was not on the invitation,” Maxie said, and felt a blush rush to her cheeks.

“Mama must have been confused…mistaken.

“Perhaps Laura’s mother did not wish for me to be at the ball?”

“Absurd girl. I tell you I saw the invitation myself and your name was written with ours. Mother has made an awful error. I shall handle this.”

Maxie was surprised. Claire was rarely forceful.

Claire took her cousin’s hands and smiled warmly. “You and I shall return to Madame’s tomorrow and order your ballgown!”

* * * * *

Mrs. Huntly was, at that moment, battering at her husband incessantly. She wanted a London season and was furious that he didn’t even look up at her while she spoke. He read his paper as though it was all there was to consider.

Pelton arrived at the open door of the library and announced, “Lord Waremont and Sir Leigh Kinnaid.”

Mrs. Huntly nearly fell off the sofa as she attempted to smooth over her gown and respond to such unexpected and delightful news.

Kinnaid played the part of Lord Waremont quite well as he strode forward, took Mrs. Huntly’s hand and bent to say, “Mrs. Huntly, what a great pleasure this is to finally meet you.”

“My lord,” Mrs. Huntly responded. “I was just this moment thinking about your lovely mother.” She turned to her husband. “Mr. Huntly and I so enjoyed having her stay with us, though we only had her for one paltry week. Isn’t that right, darling?”

“Yes, yes, fine woman, fine woman, your mother.” Mr. Huntly was on his feet and extending his hand. He then turned to give his lordship’s friend a greeting. “I say, you must be the new owner of Romney Grange. Heard you were on your way.” He chuckled. “Had no notion Waremont here was your friend.”

“Oh, I must send for Claire,” Mrs. Huntly said at once.

Kinnaid and Waremont exchanged glances and the real Waremont grinned broadly.

“Claire is my daughter. She got on so well with your mother that I know she would love to meet you.” She moved to pull the bellrope, chattering all the while.

A moment later, Pelton arrived.

“Where is my daughter, Pelton?”

“She is with Miss Maxine, madam.”

“Have her join us,” Mrs. Huntly ordered.

“Yes, madam.” Pelton inclined his head.

“Both of them,” stuck in Mr. Huntly jovially. He turned to the gentlemen and explained, “Maxine is my niece.”

“Well, of course, both of them,” Mrs. Huntly said, attempting to hide her irritation with a half-smile.

The two gentlemen again exchanged a quick glance, whereas the real Waremont winked at his friend and whispered, “You see, daughters and nieces will be flung at your feet, lucky boy.”

* * * * *

Maxine paraded a ready-made and fine cotton day gown the color of a clear sky in front of her cousin, saying, “Isn’t it grand…too nice for my hoyden ways.”

Both girls giggled over this and then Claire forced Maxie to sit. “Here…look into the mirror.”

“What are you doing?” Maxie asked.

“I want to try something with your hair,” Claire said as she brushed the black tresses.

A knock sounded and Claire called merrily, “Entrée.”

Pelton bowed at the threshold of the bedroom and cleared his throat but did not speak.

Maxie laughed and asked, “Whatever is it, dear Pelton?”

“The master and mistress have visitors. Lord Waremont and Sir Leigh Kinnaid of Romney Grange.”

Maxie started to get up but Claire put a restraining hand on Maxie’s shoulder. “Your hair, ninny…we must see to it.”


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