The Baron’s Dangerous Contract – Kate Archer

MİSS PENNY DARLİNGTON folded the letter she’d just received from Lady Ashworth, née Lily Farnsworth. Her friend sounded as delirious with happiness as she had been on the night of her engagement at Lady Hathaway’s Tudor ball. She and her new husband had recently crossed the Jura mountains and made their way to Geneva, where they were merrily making ruinous bets. At least, ruinous for those who dared lay down a pack of cards in front of them. Penny leaned back on the sofa and sighed, remembering that very strange ball at Lady Hathaway’s house. It had all begun exceedingly jolly. In honor of the Tudor theme, they had danced the pavane. Lord Cabot led her and proved to be a competent student to Lord and Lady Lockwood’s instruction of the dance. Lord Cabot then claimed the dance before supper—he’d made a habit of doing so, as he liked to talk to her of horses. At least, he would claim that was the reason for his rather persistent attentions. Penny had been certain there was something more between them. She had been mistaken. First had come Lord Ashworth, carrying Lily down the corridor. Then, the news that they were engaged spreading like a flame over dry kindling. Regardless of the engagement, some were shocked —one was not accustomed to seeing a lord carrying a lady about at a ball.

Lady Montague, in particular, had let all and sundry know she considered the behavior outrageous. Of all that was said on the subject, Lady Montague’s outrage probably worked the most in the couple’s favor—she was feared, but so very disliked. The couple themselves had not seemed to give a toss for anybody’s opinion. Lord Ashworth and Lily had gone into supper and had eyes only for each other. Their other dinner partners were left to sit alone, staring straight ahead with vague smiles on their faces. That was the moment all of Penny’s ideas had begun to crumble. Amidst the Tudor table spread with spit-turned mutton, spiced jellies, and stewed conger eel, she’d glanced at the happy couple and said, “Now you see, Lord Cabot, there is another of your friends to fall to the Dukes’ Pact. That is only three of you left and all ridiculously living as schoolboys in a house together.” She had been in the habit of teasing Lord Cabot, but on reflection, she supposed calling him a schoolboy had been a step too far. No man wished to be reminded that he had once been a child.

Or worse, to imply he might be as a child still. That it was true that the Lords Cabot and Grayson were currently camped in Lord Dalton’s house on account of their funds being halved was a fact that might have been better left unmentioned. Lord Cabot had stared determinedly at the roasted peacock centerpiece, the poor bird’s feathers having been put back on after cooking, and said, “Ashworth is a fool and will live to rue the day.” Penny had expected him to laugh at his current circumstances. But instead, he’d condemned the idea of marriage so derisively! He did not even say it with his usual good humor—there was a seriousness to his tone that could not be ignored. All along she’d looked upon the Dukes’ Pact as some silly game. The fathers would pressure their sons to marry and the sons would just as vociferously claim they would not do it. But, surely, they all would do it when they met the right lady. Had not Hampton, Lockwood, and Ashworth proved just that? How foolish she had been to imagine she might be the right lady for Lord Cabot. As the supper wore on, it had been talk of horses, finally, that would take them to an even darker corner.

After Penny had thought the lord had thrown off his ill-humor and she had even begun to believe he’d not meant what he’d said, a great debate had sprung up between them. She’d claimed the Arabian was built for speed because of its larger windpipe, and if one could discover the breeding mechanism, one might gain the attribute for any sort of horse. Lord Cabot countered that it was the Arabian’s lighter weight that accounted for its speed. It had begun as one of their usual lively sparrings. The sort they’d had so often. The sort that made dinners fly by and made turning to one’s opposite partner a chore. It had not ended so. The conversation had grown heated enough to attract attention. Then, in front of all who were nearby, Lord Cabot said, “Miss Darlington, while you may drive a phaeton and have picked up bits of knowledge from your father, do not delude yourself into imagining any real expertise in horse breeding.” It had been a slap.

A hard and public slap. She would never forgive him for it. Nor might she ever forgive herself. She had not seen it coming. She’d not had time to gird herself against it. How could she have? It was not just an offhand comment. It was a refutation of everything she’d thought he considered her. He’d spent two seasons pretending to respect her opinions, and in one brief moment, he showed her that he never had. It had been so unexpected that the sting had leapt into her eyes and she’d had to excuse herself before she wept in front of all. She’d been so mortified that she’d rushed to the ladies’ retiring room.

She’d sent a maid to retrieve her aunt and then claimed an illness. Mrs. Wellburton had made their excuses and the carriage was called. Penny had donned her cloak and hurried across the hall to the front doors, refusing to look toward the dining room. She had been humiliated. Publicly humiliated. She had told her aunt nothing of it, and only insisted that she had developed a terrible headache. She had held back her tears until she was in her bedchamber and then allowed herself to give vent to her feelings. She had cried for hours while her maid, Dora, fussed over her. Dear Dora had started life as a housemaid and had been consoling Penny over various hurts for as long as she could remember.

Where once she would have brought Penny warmed milk to soothe, that night she’d been so alarmed she’d brought brandy borrowed from her father’s decanter in the library. Penny was not ignorant of why she had cried so many hours into the night. Though she presented a gay façade to the world, the truth was her feelings had always been easily stung. Very easily stung. She’d grown up surrounded by those who loved her, and yet had spent half her childhood weeping over some imagined slight. As she grew older, she grew more adept at hiding that awful flaw. Oh, how she’d worked to mask it! It would not do for one as cheerful as Miss Darlington, it would not do for one bold enough to drive her own Hooper High Flyer. Her worst fear had occurred—she had been unable to mask her hurt while in public. Then, there was her humiliation at being so wrong about Lord Cabot! She had really thought he favored her. As it was, he only saw her as a vague amusement at supper, until she was no longer amusing and he thought to put her in her place.

He had embarrassed her in so many ways with one curt sentence. All along he’d pretended to admire her knowledge of horses, but it seemed he’d just been indulging her. Further, his ongoing attentions over the course of two seasons could not have failed to stir up talk of something developing. Now, all would understand it had only been a game, with her the gullible mark. Since that weepy night, she had dried her eyes and those feelings, once so bruised, had become encased in a hardened shell. Hurt had flown off and brought back antipathy to roost. Many had witnessed her mortification that night. They would never do so again. As she had done so often since that night, she was just now staring at the pianoforte and mulling over what scathing thing she might say when she saw Lord Cabot for the first time since that awful dinner. The drawing room, where she was no doubt meant to be sewing, had become the scene of an imaginary theater of reprisal and retribution.

Her father, Lord Mendbridge, interrupted her thoughts. “There you are, Penny,” he said in his usual hail fellow, well met cheer. “I suppose my sister has got the packing well in hand?” Penny nodded. They were to set off for Mendbridge Cottage on the morrow in preparation for the races at Newmarket. “You know she has, Papa,” Penny said, working hard to sound cheerful. “My aunt is not one to leave things to the last minute. She has been harassing Montrose for a week over the arrangements.” “Very good. Excellent,” the lord said. “By the by, we are to have a houseguest this year.

I suppose that will not surprise, as we tend to have at least one every year.” “Yes, I know all about it,” she said, laughing. Penny could not help but to laugh. Her father was so taken up with horses that he often could not recall what had been told him or who had told him it. It had been arranged for months that her childhood friend, Kitty Dell, would come to them. “You do recall, Papa, that I invited the lady myself,” Penny said. “A lady is to come? What lady?” the viscount asked, looking as confused as he generally did when the arrangement did not involve the stable. “Kitty,” Penny said. “Remember? Kitty Dell is to come to us.” “Oh, yes, Miss Dell.

Charming girl,” the lord said. “Not who I meant, however. I’ve got to know a young man who’s rather keen, seems to know what he’s talking about. Refreshing, actually.” Penny waited for her father to name the gentleman. She was certain it was some young buck who’d taken to following her father around and asking questions. It was likely Mr. Preston, a gentleman just past his callow youth who had made it a point to know and revere the famed Lord Mendbridge. Her dear papa was forever taking on somebody green and attempting to season them up. “Pleasant fellow.

You’ll know him, in any case,” the viscount said. “Lord Cabot.” * HENRY ROLAND, VİSCOUNT Cabot and son of the Duke of Wentworth, surveyed Lord Dalton’s library. Along with Lord Grayson, he’d been a houseguest in that particular residence ever since his funds had been cut in half. His friend’s library, never very orderly, had become a bedlam of books, empty glasses, discarded neckcloths and kicked off boots. Dalton’s butler, Bellamy, tried to tidy it from time to time, but with three lords in the house, Henry knew it was a hopeless operation. How was the man to know to whom a particular neckcloth belonged? Henry had once walked into the room, only to come upon the scene of three valets debating who owned what. Grayson’s valet, a French fellow named LaRue, appeared ready to come to blows over the suggestion that a particular cloth belonged to his master. Between a string of French oaths and threats of violence, he pronounced the material “largement inféreiur.” For days, Henry had been thinking carefully on how to broach a subject that he knew would not find favor with his friends.

In truth, when he thought of communicating the idea, he also thought of being near the door—lest Dalton have some idea of locking him up. Both Grayson and Dalton had been complaining, yet again, about Ashworth. Out of the six of them, three had gone off and got married. Ashworth, they said, was particularly egregious. He had not even been supposed to like the lady! That idea rankled them the most. None of them could understand how it had happened. “Do you suppose he married her just because she’s so good at cards?” Grayson asked, examining his cuffs. “I do not see why he should,” Dalton said. “He was good enough at cards on his own.” “And then, I still cannot fathom what she saw in him,” Grayson said.

“That is only because she saw nothing in you,” Dalton said drily. “As to that, it is no matter,” Grayson said cheerfully. “I am entirely recovered from my infatuation with Miss Farnsworth. I’ve set my sights on Miss Danworth, she of the remarkable blond curls.” Dalton snorted. “Miss Danworth is as cold as ice.” “Do not say so!” Grayson cried. “She laughs charmingly at all my jokes.” “Underneath the laughter is a deep freeze,” Dalton said, finishing a letter and sanding it. Henry had been silent for the past half hour.

His friends turned to him. “Why are you so quiet?” Dalton asked him. “Oh, no reason,” Henry said hurriedly. “I am only thinking of my filly. I ordered my groom to give her extra oats before I take her up to Newmarket.” “When do you go?” Grayson asked. “Wednesday, I think,” Lord Cabot said. “Wednesday? Why so early?” Lord Dalton asked. “Grayson and I do not go up until Saturday.” “You do not have a horse in the race,” Cabot pointed out.

Lord Dalton shrugged. “As you prefer. We’ll see you at the club.” Cabot had only nodded. Though he’d had every intention of telling his friends he would not stay at the club, he had not quite got the idea out. His rooms there would be empty, while he would be ensconced in Lord Mendbridge’s house a quarter mile away. He knew his friends were deeply suspicious of Miss Darlington, though they had been momentarily soothed after hearing of his contretemps with the lady at the Hathaways’ Tudor ball. In any case, he had very mixed feelings about the whole thing. On the one hand, he both dreaded and looked eagerly forward to seeing Miss Darlington again. He had been rather brutish at their last meeting.

He did not even know why! She had teased him, and it had rankled. Then she’d challenged his knowledge of a horse’s physiology and it had rankled even more. He had offered a set down. Too much of a set down, as it turned out. The lady had left in near tears and all had witnessed it. He had been given a cool reception by everybody that had overheard him after the lady had departed. Even Lady Hathaway had shaken her head sadly at him as he left the house. The very next day, he’d run into Lord Mendbridge at White’s. He’d approached the lord with trepidation, but Mendbridge had been as friendly as ever. They’d had a lively debate concerning the talent likely to turn up at the upcoming races.

They’d had many such conversations before, as they were both equally keen on horses. The lord had suddenly offered Cabot hospitality while he was in Newmarket. It was a singular honor—everybody wished to ensconce themselves in the lord’s comfortable house and have access to his vast knowledge. For all that, Cabot had almost declined. But then, what was he to say? My lord, thank you, but I best not as I have recently insulted your daughter at supper? Of course he could not say such a thing. He could not break with Lord Mendbridge. It was Mendbridge, for God’s sake. The man knew horses like he knew the back of his hand. So, he must face Miss Darlington. In her own house.

He could not say what his reception would be. Might they laugh it off? He was hopeful of it. Miss Darlington was exceedingly good-humored. And if she did not laugh it off? Well, he supposed he’d clear that fence when he got to it. But surely, she must laugh it off. He had not been himself on that blasted evening. It had been such a shock to see Ashworth carrying Miss Farnsworth into the ballroom. Ashworth had positively disliked the lady. How was it that he would choose to marry a lady he disliked, when he did not even wish to marry at all? The spectacle of it, and how bewitched Ashworth had looked at supper, had begun to give Henry the feeling that women were as his uncle had always said. He claimed they were full of trickery and witchcraft.

If they meant to wind you round in circles like a sailor’s rope on a ship’s deck, he’d said, they could do it in a blinking of an eye. He’d vaguely wondered if Miss Farnsworth had done that to Ashworth, and if Miss Darlington were not doing that to himself. After all, what reason had he to think of her when she was not before him? What else could account for his visions of her jauntily making her way down an avenue, expertly driving her phaeton? Or her upturned face at dinner? Or her copper curls, the like of which he’d never seen? Or that these same curls had a different hue in daylight versus candlelight? For that matter, what compelled him to seek her out so often at a ball, when another lady would do perfectly well? Somehow, from those ideas, had come an urgent need to prove she had no effect upon him whatsoever. Her charms would not defeat him. He had done so—spectacularly, rudely, and even ungentlemanly. He’d since seen the nonsense of such flights of fancy. For one, he did not believe in any supernatural forces. For another, if women could wind all men round their finger, they would have far more power in the world than they had. And for another, his uncle was married to a shrew and so had very particular ideas on how that had befallen him. Whatever the cause of Ashworth’s marriage, Henry had no doubt he’d get the whole story from his friend when he returned from his wedding trip.

He suspected it would be the most commonplace explanation in the world and have not a thing to do with being bewitched. Meanwhile, in his sulk, or whatever it had been, he’d acted cruel. And to Miss Darlington, of all people! He had been stupid to deride her expertise in horses, as he very well knew she was educated beyond most men. She might even be more educated than himself. He’d often learned something in their conversations, though he’d be loath to admit it publicly. For all he knew, she was entirely correct about the Arabian’s wider windpipe. Over the course of two seasons, he’d found he did not like to have any other as a dinner partner—other ladies generally understood so little. Just the evening before, he’d suffered through an interminable supper with Miss Juniper. She’d not had the least interest in horses and claimed she almost trembled when even finding herself in a carriage pulled by the beasts. He supposed he was meant to be struck by the lady’s delicacy.

He also supposed he ought not have said, I presume, then, that you do not get out much. She had given him rather short shrift after that particular comment. What was wrong with him? Why should he care that Ashworth had tied himself? It had no consequence to himself. And why should he take out that irritation on Miss Darlington? Well, he would just trust to her good nature to carry them past the scuffle. In any case, he ought not to be dwelling on it. He had a far bigger problem at hand. He’d entered his filly into the thousand guinea stakes, though he did not currently have the stake. He’d have to borrow it from somebody, and likely somebodies were beginning to run thin on the ground. Dalton and Grayson had none to spare and Hampton had not even answered his letter. Burke claimed he’d lost too heavily at hazard these past weeks.

Ashworth would have been a likely source. The fellow always had money lying around from his gambling and he was remarkably free with loans. But that was not to be. Just now, Ashworth and his bride would be sliding down an Alp or singing folk songs in a Spanish taberna or whatever one did on the continent. Despite the difficulties, the money must be found. All of his efforts must be concentrated on that. To turn up at Newmarket, in full view of Mendbridge, and be found lacking the stake would ruin his reputation forever.

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