The Earl's Hired Bride
Because an unmarried Earl must be in want of a bride . . .
Every debutante in the ton wants to be the Countess of Hartford—and mistress of Hartsworth Castle. Never mind that Hart has no interest in marrying just yet, the young ladies hunt him as ruthlessly as a pack of hounds after the elusive fox. What he needs is a hired bride—one who will give him some room to breathe, but is guaranteed to call it off at the end of the Season.
Because a girl with no prospects will do what she must to help her family . . .
Miss Emily Spencer must do something. Her mother’s health is failing and the notorious Duke of Danby is growing dangerously close. Why not hide in plain sight and pretend to be the Earl of Hartford’s betrothed? And getting paid for her troubles? It’s just what she needs to make her family comfortable again.
Because love comes when you least expect it . . .
Sparks fly when the two put their plan in motion—and deeper emotions grow. But how can they be together when the path they’ve forged only leads to their inevitable break up?
Light spilled into the street. The theatre was lit up like a beacon. Swinging carriage lamps and torches carried by footmen further brightened the area—as did the sparkle of embroidery and jewels on the ladies and gentlemen moving to ascend the broad steps.
Emily Spencer stepped out of the shadows. “Excuse me, miss. You dropped this from your reticule.”
The grandly dressed young woman raked her with a bored gaze, took in the rough, ill-fitting linen of her dress and the dirty cloth hiding her hair. She looked away. “It’s not mine. You are mistaken.”
Emily did not let rudeness deter her. She stared with admiration at the young woman’s gown, allowed her eyes to wander upward, and gave a happy little gasp. “Oh, my! Are you not Miss Paxton? You are even more beautiful than I have heard!”
The young lady’s head swiveled back, her expression warmer. “Thank you. Yes, I am indeed Miss Paxton.”
“Oh, how wonderful! And your dress! It’s so beautiful. Surely it will be described in the papers.” She focused on the sheer overskirt. “How cunning that garland is, how beautifully embroidered!” Emily deliberately looked up, then. “And it is repeated on your headdress. I’m sure you’ll start a new fashion, Miss Paxton!”
In fact, Emily was more than passing familiar with that particular embroidery. She’d been present for many hours while her own mother labored over it. She’d also been on the premises of one of London’s preeminent modistes, making a delivery, when Miss Paxton had returned the bill for the garment, including a note stating that the dress was unsatisfactory, and not fit to be worn.
“You’ll be dictating fashion when you are a countess, Miss, won’t you? Many congratulations to you on your engagement!” Emily bobbed a curtsy. “The streets are full of talk of your splendid match.”
The ice descended once more. “Thank you.” The young lady turned her back and stepped forward.
“Oh, but wait . . .” Emily allowed a mask of confused dismay to wash over her. “Your betrothed is the Earl of Ardman, so why would you be carrying a gentleman’s handkerchief with these initials?” She ran a finger over the MLH stitched onto the linen.
Emily knew very well why—because Miss Paxton was engaging in some very illicit behavior with Marcus Lionel Holt—the middle-aged earl’s younger cousin.
“Hush, you meddlesome creature.” Miss Paxton had turned back. “That doesn’t belong to me, I told you.” Her eyes narrowed. “But give it to me and get from my sight.”
“Oh, Miss Paxton!” Emily’s voice ranged a bit higher. “Tell me you never stepped out on your betrothed?” She pressed the hanky to her mouth, hoping the linen hid her nerves and allowing the initials to face outward. At least she didn’t worry that it might be unclean. After all, she had purchased and embroidered it herself.
Miss Paxton snatched at the offending piece of linen.
Emily stepped back, out of reach. “You did!” she wailed accusingly. “You played the Earl of Ardman for a fool!”
“Lower your tone, you tiresome troublemaker!” The lady was glancing about now—and beginning to truly worry.
There. That was the look Emily had been waiting for.
“I will.” She dropped the subservient, eager-to-please note completely. “For five pounds.”
Miss Paxton gasped. “Why you grasping little cheat!”
“Katharine, come along!” The stout matron ahead beckoned Miss Paxton. “We do not dawdle in the street!”
“Ten pounds,” Emily said flatly. “Or I start to cry about the poor, mistreated earl. Loudly. In detail.” She steeled her nerves and tilted her head. “I could mention that tryst in Green Park, perhaps? The one in which Mr. Holt tore the sleeve of the rose under-dress you wore beneath a green pelisse?”
“I don’t have ten pounds.” Miss Paxton could barely speak for gritting her teeth. “Ladies do not carry such vulgar amounts of money.”
Emily raised her chin. “Nor do they carry on in such vulgar ways in the shrubbery.” She pursed her lips. “An earring will do—if those diamond chips are real.”
“Of course they are real. As is the ruby!” Miss Paxton’s face had gone red with outrage. “Even one is worth far more than ten pounds!”
“Is it worth more than your betrothal?” Emily asked heartlessly. She hoped she sounded heartless—and convincing. “I won’t get its full worth when I pawn it, in any case.”
Miss Paxton speared her with a deadly glare. Emily gave her credit. She showed more spunk than she had expected—growing angry instead of dissolving into a teary puddle of guilt and fear. Good heavens, she would never have had the spine to stand there emanating hatred and calculation.
Luckily, the reckoning went Emily’s way. Without another word the heiress removed the earring and tossed it at her.
Emily caught it with shaking fingers and tucked it away.
“Give me the kerchief,” her victim hissed.
“No.” Emily turned to go. “I’ll think I will keep it for insurance.”
She walked off into the dark, leaving Miss Paxton fuming behind her—and telling herself that she felt not a smidgen of remorse. Girls like Miss Paxton did not deserve it. She’d been born with everything—health, wealth, a large, warm home, fine clothes, a name that meant something, and a family that cared for and wanted the best for their daughter. So she’d been engaged to an older man? By all accounts the Earl of Ardman was a kind man, a good caretaker of his properties, a fair lord to his servants and tenants. Perhaps the gentleman had lost a few hairs—he also had a ready smile and a good heart and a willingness to lay them all at Miss Paxton’s feet. And she had repaid him with betrayal.
Nothing riled Emily Spencer more than watching a person in possession of a treasure willfully toss it aside.
She stuffed the linen into a pocket as she left the scene. It was still in good shape. She could pick out the initials and use it again—if she could stiffen her backbone enough to try something like this again.
“She’s a stone-cold ‘un, ain’t she?” The boy, several years younger than she, melted out of the darkness to walk at Emily’s side.
“Yes. Be sure to steer clear of her. I don’t want her to catch a glimpse of you and figure out that you had a hand in watching her.”
Jasper shrugged. “I talked to Finch. He’ll open early and said for ye to come to the back door.”
“They looked real sparkly in the street lights,” he said eagerly. “Will we get the month’s rent out of it, d’ye think?”
“First thing, we must give the modiste her share for that gown. It’s only fair, even if she doesn’t know how or where the money came from. But we should cover this month, and next month too, as long as long as Miss Paxton has not played her family as false as she played her betrothed.”
“No fancy mort could be that wicked,” Jasper said cheerfully. “We’ll be on easy street for the next few weeks, Em!”
“I hope so, Jasper.” She thought of her mother’s fingers, lying still in her lap while she rested her head against a window frame. “I hope so.”