Once Upon a Townsbridge Story – Sophie Barnes

As much as she wished to, Margaret Hollyoak could not ignore the rogue who lounged on the sofa across from her. He was simply too large. To not see him would require closing her eyes, and she was far too well-bred to even contemplate any such thing. Instead she sipped her tea and willed the seconds of this horrendous meeting to hurry by so they could both move on to something more pleasant. Eight days. That was how long she was trapped here. She glanced at the chaperone – a firm-faced maid her hosts had provided before heading out for a walk with Margaret’s parents. If only they’d thought to warn her of their intentions so she’d have been better prepared. At least then, she might have feigned a headache upon her arrival so she could escape upstairs to the bedchamber where she’d be staying. Instead, she’d been left in the company of a man she did not trust in what could only be described as a very transparent attempt at matchmaking. “Since we are meant to become acquainted, perhaps it would help if we spoke,” said the rogue. He was better known as Mr. George Townsbridge, Viscount Roxley’s heir. And now he was smiling with humor in his eyes, which had the magical effect of turning the brown a dazzling shade of bronze. It really wasn’t fair.

“After all,” he added, “the last time we met, you had your hair in plaits and enjoyed making daisy chains. A lot has happened since then, it would seem. You appear to have grown up.” Of course he’d noticed. It would have been strange if he hadn’t. Margaret sighed. “Nothing you say would ever compel me to marry you, Mr. Townsbridge.” He did not look the least bit affronted. “Our parents seem to have other plans.

” An inconvenience brought on by their fathers’ life-long friendship. Somehow both men had gotten it into their heads that she, a proper young lady who never made one wrong move, would agree to tie herself to a well-renowned flirt, gambler, libertine – a rake of the highest order – for the rest of her natural life. Well, it wasn’t going to happen. She had her sights set on someone else. “Nevertheless,” she told him firmly, “I will not be your wife. And please don’t pretend you’re eager to head for the altar.” “I am approaching an age where it would seem odd if I didn’t.” “Another note in your disfavor.” “How so?” His smile had turned into a smug sort of grin. There was a teasing element to it that rattled her brain and made her want to hit him.

If only he’d give her a glare. Defending herself against that would be simpler. “You are eleven years my senior, which makes you at least six years too old.” A bark of laughter exploded from his throat, the sound so unexpected it caught Margaret completely off guard. To her dismay, she instinctively smiled. And then forced her mouth into a tighter line and added a frown for good measure before he could note her amusement. “I’m hardly a doddering octogenarian. In fact, I’d say I’m in fairly good shape. My knees don’t creak much when I move and I can still eat solid food.” This time, Margaret’s lips quirked before she had a chance to stop the smile that threatened.

He saw – of course he did – and offered a wry grin in return. “You’re a rake,” she said, intent on stating the most damning fact. He merely shrugged and took a sip of his tea. His eyes never left her for one second, creating a most disconcerting swirl in the pit of her stomach. “What do you wish to imply, exactly?” Margaret’s mouth dropped open. She actually sputtered. Surely he could not mean for her to explain the nature of being a rake. It wasn’t proper. He set his teacup aside and, casting a swift glance at the chaperone, leaned forward and spoke to Margaret in a near whisper. “I am one and thirty years old, Miss Hollyoak.

Do you really expect me to be as innocent as you?” “I…um…don’t suppose…” He chuckled, the sound low and somehow incredibly wicked. Its effect on her was shocking, the blush she could feel creeping into her cheeks humiliating to say the least. “There have been courtesans by the dozen,” he said with a lazy wave of his hand, “countless buxom widows, a lovely French girl with very loose morals and—” “Heavens. You’re just as bad as I thought. Worse, if you really must know.” Mischief flared in his shimmering gaze. Margaret took a sharp breath. And exhaled. She set her jaw. “You’re funning me, Mr.

Townsbridge.” His grin confirmed this. It made her want to both pummel him and encourage more banter, which was rather confusing. Yet there was something about him – a jovial manner she could not dislike as much as she wished to. In fact, if she’d allow herself to relax in his presence, she had a sneaking feeling she might enjoy his company. “My past aside,” he said, a little more seriously, “what matters most, in my opinion, is what a man chooses to do after he marries. Will he be faithful to his wife? Or will he make a farce of his vows?” He paused for a moment, holding her gaze until her insides began to melt. “I may be illreputed due to my various escapades, but I intend to take my vows most seriously, Miss Hollyoak.” “Why?” Margaret blurted the question before she could pause to think. All traces of levity faded from his eyes and for a moment he looked almost angry.

But then he smiled and it was as if she’d imagined the shift in his deeper emotions. “What are your hobbies?” Margaret straightened. She wasn’t daft enough not to notice he’d neatly ignored her question or chosen to change the subject completely. For a moment, she thought to press him, then changed her mind. Something had clearly bothered him and she could not bring herself to force the issue. To her consternation, she’d disliked his serious mien, however brief it had been. Even so, she still had no intention of forging a bond with him. Best, then, to make an attempt at dissuading him from any ideas he might have of turning her into his wife. “I like to dig in the garden. Earthworms, grubs, and insects have always fascinated me tremendously.

” He narrowed his gaze. “Is that so?” “Oh yes. The slimier the better. In fact, I’m generally a mess with dirt beneath my fingernails and smudges on my face. Most of my dresses have stains on them. I drive the maids mad more times than not with all the laundry and mending they have to do on my behalf. And since our London property is of a limited size, I usually like to do my hobby in the park. Hyde Park, to be exact. I dug up several flowerbeds there not long ago – the Duchess of Farthingdale was outraged when she saw the state I was in and what I’d done.” Margaret paused for a moment to gauge his reaction and sensed a need for additional detail – for something so awful there would be no chance of Mr.

Townsbridge considering her. Inspiration struck. She tilted her chin and affected a pensive tone as she added, “For some peculiar reason, Her Grace didn’t like it at all when I ate the grasshopper I’d just found, though I’ve no idea why. From what I hear, they’re something of a delicacy in certain parts of the world. Of course I had to try it. Wouldn’t you agree?” “Hmm…” He didn’t look thrilled. In fact, he was frowning. Margaret congratulated herself on her effort. Surely she’d just proved much too difficult and disgusting for him to consider as a life partner. “In fact, I’m sure this is why my parents are eager to pass me off on you.

I’m an uncivilized nuisance for them to get rid of.” “I must confess, I’m grateful to you for admitting to having such flaws. Your honesty is commendable since I believe most women in your position would have tried to hide it.” He tilted his head while studying her. “Since you’re so keen on saving me from the terrible fate I would indeed suffer if we were to wed, I can only deduce that you’ve set your cap elsewhere. On a fellow grub enthusiast, perhaps?” “As a matter of fact…” Margaret stopped herself and frowned at him. She could no longer tell if he was being serious or sarcastic. Having schooled his features, he gave nothing away at the moment. She set her jaw and drew back her shoulders. “If you must know, I’ve decided to let the Earl of Shrewsberry court me.

” “Interesting choice.” Mr. Townsbridge said nothing further. He merely picked up his cup and drank some more tea. “What do you mean?” Interesting was an odd word to use. She wanted him to expand on it. Not that she cared for his opinion. But why on earth would he think Lord Shrewsberry an interesting choice when she considered him to be the very finest? For some absurd reason, she needed to know. “Come, Miss Hollyoak.” Mr.

Townsbridge stood and offered his hand to help her rise. Once again, he’d ignored her question. Margaret glanced up at the man she was meant to be getting to know. The Season would be starting soon but before it did, she was here, visiting the Townsbridges in her parents’ hope she and Mr. George Townsbridge would form an attachment. They would not. But she placed her palm in his nonetheless. The pleasure she found in his firm hold was as undeniable as the heat creeping into her cheeks. Her heart beat a fraction faster and she instinctively sucked in a breath as she rose. “Thank you.

” He tucked her hand in the crook of his arm and guided her from the room. Dipping his head, he told her in a buoyant tone, “There’s nothing wrong with admitting you like me.” Her lips twitched with amusement. “Of all the arrogant and presumptuous things to say.” He laughed, and she finally surrendered to the smile she’d been holding back for several minutes. It was unavoidable really. There was just something about him that made it impossible for her to keep up her guard. But even though she might be starting to like him more than she’d ever expected, she wasn’t about to admit it. Not after that horrendous lie she’d just told him. “In fact,” he murmured, “I’ll gladly admit to liking you too.

” “What?” “Now, let’s go and find some slugs and earthworms, shall we?” When all she could do was gape at him in astonished horror, he gave her an innocent smile and said, “After all, it is your favorite hobby.” LORD HELP ME, George thought while he guided Miss Hollyoak out to the garden. He could scarcely recall the last time he’d had this much fun. The lady was delightful. Completely determined to rid herself of him, but vastly amusing and creative in her attempt. He was far too intrigued to take offense and much too keen to learn how far she intended to go before she confessed to her lie. Slugs, grubs, worms, and insects indeed. Ha! The lady had looked as though she’d been taking a bite from a lemon with each invertebrate she’d mentioned, never mind the grasshopper. Keeping a straight face had been a chore, but well worth her stricken expression when she discovered the consequence. “I’m not sure the weather is the best for this sort of thing,” she hedged when they stepped down onto the grass.

It was spring so all the colors were crisp and vibrant. A bright blue, cloudless sky stretched overhead, and the sound of chicks calling from nearby nests in the trees created a natural symphony. “I actually know of the perfect spot down by the lake. It’s nice and moist. If we’re lucky we’ll catch some frogs too.” “Oh God,” she murmured. “What was that?” She gave him a bright and sunny smile. “Nothing, Mr. Townsbridge. By all means, lead the way.

” A chuckle rippled through his chest. The lady’s tenacity was exceptional. He could not deny his admiration any less than the pang of attraction he’d felt the moment he’d seen her alight from her carriage. A good head shorter than he, she was slim of build with alabaster skin. Her face held a pair of deep blue eyes fringed by thick black lashes. A wide mouth with a full bottom lip made for kissing had filled his head with all manner of improper thoughts. Her high cheekbones accentuated her delicate appearance. But it was her hair – chestnut-colored with hints of red – that completely undid him. He wanted to know what it felt like between his fingers and how it would look falling over her shoulders. Even now as they walked, his fingers itched to reach up and touch it.

He let out a slow breath to calm the urge and dropped a glance in her direction. It would be a shame if she married Shrewsberry. The man might be a skilled charmer and perfect gentleman whenever he stepped out into society, but George knew that behind closed doors, he was a womanizing drunkard. Ironically, this was most likely the exact sort of person Miss Hollyoak took George to be. But she was wrong. Not about his various escapades. He’d had plenty of those. But what he’d not wished to confess before they became better acquainted was that he yearned for a marriage based on honesty and trust. He wanted friendship and love – a life partner whose company he enjoyed. In other words, the exact opposite of what his parents had.

They were a happily married couple in public, but in private they lived separate lives and neither had ever seemed especially happy. Growing up, George had seen them as a perfect example of what to avoid in a marriage. Which prompted him to ask Miss Hollyoak, “Is happiness important to you?” “Of course.” She spoke without hesitation. “I would imagine it would be to most people.” “One does wonder.” He met her gaze. “I believe few matches are made with happiness in mind.” “Ours certainly wouldn’t be,” she muttered as they passed through an opening between a copse of trees and made their way toward the lake. “Surely it’s too soon to tell.

” “As I’ve already mentioned, your reputation has allowed me to form an opinion.” “Clearly.” He gave her a dry look and watched in quiet amusement while her cheeks turned a soft shade of pink. Clearing his throat, he drew her to a halt at the edge of the lake and said, “Let’s suppose you fell madly in love with me.” She snorted. “Highly unlikely.” “Just pretend for a moment, Miss Hollyoak.” He turned her toward him. When she sighed and gave a nod of agreement he asked, “Would it then matter to you if there were no title or fortune for me to inherit, or would you marry me anyway?” She knit her brow. “I’m not sure my parents would allow me to marry you if there weren’t.

After all, something terrible would have had to occur in order for you to lose your right to the Roxley title, so I suppose it would depend on whether or not it was tied to something you’d done. For instance, if I were to learn you were a traitor or a murderer, my feelings for you would most likely change.” “Right. Of course. As well they should, I suppose.” “But if we were to pretend that we lived in a world where I loved you to distraction and where titles and fortunes could be denied on a whim, and where I was free to do as I please without my parents’ interference, then it shouldn’t matter if you lost your title and fortune since neither can possibly be a reflection of who you are as a person. As such, I would like to think I would marry you anyway. Although to be fair, this is so hypothetical it is beginning to stretch the limits of my imagination.” George smiled. “Your answer still gives me hope.

” “Of what, exactly?” “That you care more for what is behind the facade than for how things appear at first glance.” When she frowned he grabbed her hand. “Come on. Let’s find those grubs you’re so excited about.” She squeaked and he grinned as he pulled her along, circling the lake until they reached a shady spot where moss, fallen tree-bark, and branches littered the ground. Drawing her into a crouched position, he let go her hand and lifted one of the larger branches so he could move it aside. “Dear me,” Miss Hollyoak said with a whisper of breath. George’s grin widened. The branch had settled in the moist soil, creating an indentation in which there appeared to be an abundance of life. He reached out and snatched up the fattest grub he could find.

Turning slightly, he held it up for Miss Hollyoak’s inspection. “Magnificent, wouldn’t you say?” Her expression was tight, her lips pressed into a firm line that seemed to convey a struggle for resolve. She stared at the grub as it moved about in the palm of his hand. “An excellent specimen, Mr. Townsbridge. Congratulations.” “Why thank you, Miss Hollyoak. Would you not like to hold it?” “Oh no. That one is yours. I couldn’t possibly—” “Of course you can,” George told her jovially.

He reached for her hand, then took the grub and began to lower it onto her palm. She swallowed. Her jaw tightened. The grub almost touched her before she jerked back so violently she landed on her bottom. “I can’t!” George tilted his head. “Can’t what?” Exasperation puckered her lips. “I don’t like grubs or worms or slugs or anything else related to such disgusting creatures.” “I thought not.” He tossed the grub aside, brushed his hand on his trousers, and offered it to her. She glared at it as if it were soiled.

George chuckled. “You wanted me to dislike you so you decided to turn yourself into the sort of strange woman you thought I’d lose interest in right away.” She hesitated a second before accepting his hand. Contrition was evident in her eyes when her gaze met his once more. “I’m sorry.” He pulled her to her feet. “No matter, although to be honest, your little farce has had the opposite effect from the one you desired.” “What?” “You’re amusing and intriguing.” She stared at him as if in baffled confusion. “I lied.

” “Let’s call it a fib, shall we? Besides, we still don’t know each other well, so you owe me no loyalty, though I would like to know what your real interests are.” “So you can get to know me properly?” “Naturally.” “I fail to see the point.” “For one thing, you’re stuck here for the next few days. Would it not be more enjoyable if we tried to get along?” “Maybe,” she agreed after an infernally long pause. “So then?” She rolled her eyes. “Fine. If you must know, I love gardening. I’m actually cultivating a new species of roses at the moment.” “What about embroidery?” She scrunched her nose.

“I’d rather read.” “I’m relieved to hear it.” “Are you really?”

.

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