Miss Harvey’s Horribly Lovable Fiancé – Cerise DeLand

A t dawn two mornings before her wedding, Miss Esme Harvey vowed she would make her marriage a union of which she would be proud. She would bury her eccentricities of childhood, first among them, her competitive behavior with her old friends. But she would do more. Two things well-born ladies never did…or if they had, they never breathed a word to others about it. With care that no one in the house know of her musings before thirty-two house guests arrived this afternoon, she screwed up her courage for her plan. First, she took one look at her new gown upon the seamstress’s form—a concoction of pale rose silk, ivory sarsnet roses and a dash of Chantilly lace—and declared it too delicate, too anemic, too inappropriate to her wish to project strength. “I will not wear that to the church.” (She’d not wear her breeches, of course. A lady—one soon to be a marchioness and later, a duchess—could not be caught alive or dead wearing them.) Secondly and promptly after her first declaration, she tied up her long brown hair into the best knot possible in light of her haste, pulled on her snug doeskin breeches, man’s shirt, (no stays), old wool vest and hunting jacket. Those last three had been Papa’s, but he’d discarded them last Fall—or so he thought. Esme had acquired them from the bag destined to go to Vicar Charles Compton’s donations for the poor. (Charlie had never known what his parishioners missed.) “Whereas I would cry my eyes out should anyone take them from me.” (And besides, Esme had atoned for her theft by giving three months of her allowance to Charlie to use to pay the wages of the new parish teacher.

) She sniffed. Who else had done that, eh? Few. Right. She pulled on her cotton stockings, didn’t bother with garters and then slid on her own riding boots and tied the laces. She scribbled a note for her maid, Jane. Best not to frighten the girl to death. After all, Jane had been with her only a month. She had no idea who Esme really was. Papa did know her. Perhaps.

Other than that? Not her fiancé. Not well at any rate. And aside from that? Hmmm. Not a matter to ponder at the moment. No indeed. Time to go! She ever-so-carefully opened her bedroom door. (Nonetheless, it squeaked.) She peered up the hall…and down. No one strode the corridor yet. But soon, they would to light fires and such.

Now’s the time, Ezzie! And so she dashed for the far end of the hall and scampered down the servants’ stairs to the garden door. She paused outside on the stoop. The sun crept through a haze over the horizon. When a sharp breeze swept a few curls from her ribbons, she shivered at the unseasonably cold weather and turned up the collar of her father’s old jacket. “Fie on anyone or anything who tries to deter me.” Few did. Ever. Not here at home. And none in her father’s stables either. Why would they? * * * “Now, Miss? I’ll saddle ‘im up.

He finished his nighttime hay so he’s ready to go with you!” “He’s swishing his tail.” She grinned at her father’s fine stallion. Loving the dawn rides as much as she, the horse always showed his eagerness to go with her this way. “Will ye want me with you, Miss?” Samuel was her father’s man, always had been since before she was born. He, as well as all the Courtland stable hands, had seen to it she was an expert rider. As a result, she’d never had an accident. Nonetheless, Samuel always asked if she wished company. “I ride alone today, Samuel.” “Much to think of, eh?” he teased. Though old as Papa, Samuel had more grey hair and wizened lines than his master.

He also understood her as well, often better than her father. The groom had excellent knowledge of horse flesh and her father often took Samuel with him to every race and every auction. Much thanks to Samuel, Papa’s line of thoroughbreds was well known and much sought-after. Her father’s purse was fat from those who had purchased the good stock he was known to breed. Would that Papa had bred as many human children—and as many male offspring—as he had horses. She shook her head. “If he had, I would not be in this quandary.” “Miss?” The old groom stopped as he cinched the straps on Admiral. “What will ye?” “No matter, Samuel. Talking to myself.

” He smiled. But not happily. Samuel had always possessed the uncanny ability to detect if she ran at dawn for renewal—or refection. The latter never thrilled him. He’d oft told her so, too. “Do not worry, Samuel. I promise to be home before Papa appears for his breakfast.” “Aye, Miss. Or I come out to find ye.” He cocked his head, wanting details.

She relented. “To the river’s edge and back. Not far. Three miles today should set me straight.” Give me the peace to decide… She frowned. To decide not only what to wear to her marriage to the inscrutable, irresistible creature who set her heart to pound and her body to burn. But also… She put her hand to her forehead. Yes, that too. To decide if indeed she should give herself away to Giles Wilfred Charles Beauchamp, the Marquess of Northington, the Earl of Down, the Baron Apsleigh, heir to the Duke of Brentford. Twenty-nine years old, a man of the ton.

A man of some repute, most of it suggesting that he had some hand in the settlements at Vienna and others with the new Bourbon King Louis. His saltier reputation was the stuff of gossip that he’d had a few affairs. What man had not, eh? Today, her challenge was to decide if she should focus on marrying him for the way he made her laugh or the way he applauded her desire for freedom or should she… Admit it, Ezzie! Marry him for his titles? And would he—after their solicitors’ interminable negotiations over dowry and land and widow’s portions and rights to inherit Papa’s stud—marry her for her beauty? Or her wit? Or her grace? Which left two other possibilities. Did he want her because he loved her? In fact, he’d never said the words. Or does he simply want my money? She dismounted and threw the reins to Admiral over the fat branch of the ancient oak. Papa’s elegant black stallion nickered in acceptance. He knew her desire on such mornings as this to climb down, seek the far rock and let him graze. A small promontory over the Avon, this position gave her a view that brought her solitude, a rare commodity at her home where her Mama was a magpie and her Papa was a jocular fellow. Usually here, Esme also found peace and soon after that, answers. Today, she needed them.

Quickly, too. Barring a new answer which would kill her dear mother and send her father into early decline, she would marry her fiancé. Of course she would. She just had to think it all through. Rationally. She spread her tidy blanket on the limestone rock, sat, crossed her legs and took her place of contemplation. The sun climbed higher in the sky. So she had perhaps an hour before hell broke loose and her father sent the world looking for her. Northington. Northington.

She’d met her future husband one evening last December at Lady Wimple’s Christmas Ball. Esme had become bored of the vapid creatures she’d danced with. So she had hied herself off to a small (thankfully empty) salon at the end of the main corridor. Having drunk two glasses of bitter ratafia, she absconded with a glass of champagne (generously poured by a sympathetic footman). She sat down before the crackling fire and kicked off her slippers to settle in and enjoy her alcohol. It was then a man, meticulously attired and damn comely too, emerged from the far corner near the piano and surveyed her with large eyes lit by the silvery moon. His manner was louche, his smile genuine but secretive. She liked him instantly though she had no idea who he was nor why she didn’t know him. (She’d been out in society for five seasons and a gel had to know who was available for the picking.) “Wishing for solitude?” he asked, pointing at her with his own snifter of something inebriating.

She raised her glass in salute. “You too, I see.” Then she drank and smiled. My, how she liked the cut of him. Appealingly taller than most men, shoulders handsomely encased in a form-fitting coat, he stepped into more light from the moon. And she caught her breath. Surely she’d never met him. If she had, she would have recalled the cocky brows, the shock of brown curls, the swagger. Yes, that especially. “I am in need of peace, regrettable as it is for my sudden desire to know you better.

” He lifted his glass toward the door. “Would you mind taking your champagne and moving to the library?” “Ah. But wouldn’t a map table serve your purposes better than that tiny settee?” She motioned across the room toward the prim little two-seater. He gave a silent chuckle and took another step closer to her. “You assume the risqué nature of my need.” “Am I wrong?” Please say I am, she pleaded with him silently. Challenging men always was such fun. Papa enjoyed her repartee. Not too many others did, however. The stranger swirled the liquor in his glass and admired her, toes to curls, then focused on her lips.

“Of course not.” She shrugged in that dramatic little way she’d seen older ladies amuse a man. “Quel dommage.” “A shame?” He snorted, surprised. “Pourquoi?” “I should have liked to be that woman.” “I doubt you could be.” She tipped her head. “Why not?” “You don’t look the type.” “Ah, so much for appearance. Well then.

Bon chance, Monsieur.” That was the gayest she could manage because she didn’t know if she were insulted or complimented. So she rose, picked up her glass and made for the door. “Wait!” he called. She spun, longing shooting through her that he’d ask her to stay and talk and do other imaginably delightful acts. He sailed forward, grinning at her with appealingly firm lips and dancing hazel eyes, and lifting her slippers high in the air. “Allow me,” he said as he went to one knee, sought out one of her feet, wrapped his warm fingers around her ankle and slid her shoe on, then did the other. “Cendrillon cannot forget her shoes.” “Merci, Monsieur. Adieu ,” she told him, every fiber of her being conscious of his long fingers still circling her ankles.

“Au revoir.” Hopeful, his goodbye, wasn’t it? After all, she had not met him before. Had no name to put to his face. He was English, clearly from his diction. But she had no additional characteristics to identify him, other than his enticing good looks, his superbly cut clothes and his intriguing nature. She did not see him in the ballroom after that and had no means to ask her friends about him. Therefore, she had no expectations to see him again. But she had. The next night she’d learned his formal name. Marquess of Northington.

By the next, she’d investigated his credentials. Oxford. Friend of Her Grace, Charlotte, Duchess of Richmond. A frequent visitor to the Home Office. By their fourth meeting—another ball—he’d been introduced to her by a mutual friend. As he took her hand to lead her in a quadrille, he revealed that he’d come only because he’d learned she would attend. “I’m complimented,” she said, as a challenge to cover her admission of delight. “Good. Shall I ask you to call me by my given name?” “You could.” “Giles.

Will you use it?” “When it’s suitable.” “You are careful.” He grinned. “I like that about you.” “Evidently not careful enough. When we met, you found me alone in a most unsuitable place.” “As you found me.” She could not help the appeal of his charming mouth. “Did she find you?” “He did.” She rolled her eyes at him.

“You should believe me.” Time to admit the truth. “I want to.” He inhaled, frustration ripe on his brow. “Let me talk to you in the hall.” “Why?” “Esme—I hope I may address you that way. The hall, behind the marble statue of our host, affords more privacy than here.” Hope of being naughty with him made her tingle. “My lord, why would we need privacy?” “Because Esme, I’d like to kiss you.” She licked her lips.

“I see that idea appeals to you.” “Are you always so bold with women?” “Only you.” Caution was a practice she rarely employed. With him, she should apply it. “I think we’ll wait.” “Not long, Esme. Not too damn long,” he whispered as he devoted himself to perfection in the rest of the dance. That evening, she’d learned from her friends that in the past two years, he’d had two lovers, both wealthy widows. Now he was free of both. So when he returned to sit beside her, he murmured, “Esme, darling, look at me.

” She’d given in. With such endearments, who could deny him? His hazel eyes faceted into shades of desire. “I want to become friends.” “We are.” “More than friends, Esme.” She shook her head. She mustn’t lose it. “You’re a marquess.” “True.” “Not considered appropriate for me, a viscount’s daughter.

” Furthermore, his father was an old roué. That man, it was said aloud and in gossip sheets, wanted a glorious match for his only son. Specifically, ‘glorious’ translated into rich as Midas. That criteria she fit. “Will you count me out of your life because of my status?” He joked, appearing amused as well as seriously dismayed. “You’re twenty-nine,” she said in accusation. “I am. You are six years younger. Is there a problem?” “You’ve waited rather a long time to—” Well, why not say the obvious? “A long time to look for a bride.” “I’ve had other occupations.

” She harrumphed. Yes, she knew two of them, too. “Aren’t you getting long in the tooth?” He chuckled, looked about and leaned closer. “Do you think me so doddering that I might be incapable of begetting—?” “No!” She burned with the power of her blush. “No. I do not.” He laughed whole-heartedly. “I am in want of a wife. And I have looked for one for many years.” “With any results?” “None.

Until lately.” So by their fifth meeting (at Lady Elsworth’s tea), they were jovial friends who appeared to one and all to sit and discuss the cartoonist Rowlandson’s ability to portray the ironies of the Royals. “May I call on you, Miss Harvey?” he had asked her when those in the room finally left them alone in their cozy corner. “Why?” she’d been bold enough to inquire. “I find I need your company.” She stared at him and dared not believe it. The way he made her breath hitch just by gazing at her told her that if he pressed his magnificent mouth to hers, if he touched her arm or (please, God) her breast or (yesss) her quivering thigh, she could dissolve into little puddles of goo. And that was no way to maintain one’s reputation, especially if one liked to ride out at dawn or drink three glasses of champagne without comment or censure. “Have dull friends, do you, sir?” She challenged him. Had to.

“Too many.” “What of the lady you met in the small salon at Lady Wimple’s?” She had to know from his lips if he was engaged in a new affair with anyone. She wouldn’t stand for him having mistresses. She couldn’t bear the competition. She was no Diamond, no Incomparable. But she had her assets. Good hair. A straight nose. Abundant breasts. So she’d brook no competition.

Never. If he wished to marry her, he had to be hers, all hers…or not at all. “Esme, listen to me.” In that crowded drawing room with dozens of the ton chatting on and noting every eye that drifted to every heaving bosom, he put a hand to hers and held it tightly. “That was no lady.” Oh, how she wished to believe him. “May I call?” he asked once more, his face full of earnest hope. “Yes.” She wanted him, as she’d wanted no other. “Tomorrow.

” And so he had. For three days in succession. By the fourth day, her Mama (reading the air, Esme supposed) left them alone on some flimsy excuse. He moved to Esme’s side on the settee and took her hands. Into both palms, he’d placed hot little kisses. Her nipples had beaded. Her belly had swelled. And her head had swum as he threaded his fingers into her coiffure and placed his firm lips on her own. And oh, he felt like heaven. “Darling, I want to marry you,” he whispered.

His mouth traveled her cheek and he bit her earlobe. She sank her fingers into his thick soft curls and kissed him back with an ardor that (afterward) frankly shocked her. “That’s yes,” he stated with finality. “I know it is.” He stood up so fast she thought he’d been shot. He left her there, aching to have his hands on her everywhere. But to his credit, he went in search of a footman and asked for her father. Straight away, he asked Papa who gave his immediate approval. And then, quick as you please, Northington had disappeared. The man who had rushed her into courtship, who had teased and bantered and lured her to fantasies of lying abed with him naked, had simply vanished.

Then two weeks ago, he had reappeared at Courtland Hall with a special license in hand. He apologized for his absence, but gave no explanations. Then he had promptly taken her out into her mother’s parterre and had kissed her senseless. “May second, I want us to wed, darling.” Not a question. A statement.

.

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