Despite having proposed to more than a dozen women, Viscount Frederick remains one of London’s most eligible bachelors. The debutantes simply don’t find him dashing enough for their tastes. His pride stinging from his latest rejection, Freddie leaves London for his country estate.
After six years abroad, Anne Webster has returned to New Biddeford with a child at her side—a child whose unruly red hair and mischievous green eyes leave society gossips quite sure of the identity of his mother. Though five-year-old Ian is really Anne’s nephew, nothing could quiet the scandal or erase the stigma once the ton started talking. Anne’s childhood companion, Viscount Frederick, was the only person to offer friendship—and then, a rapturous love. But how could Anne allow Freddie to destroy his life by marrying a woman with a tarnished reputation such as hers?
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George Harold Arthur Pennington, sixth Viscount Frederick, known to his closest friends as Freddie, clasped Miss Sommersby's dainty gloved hand between his own. Taking a deep breath, he said, "And so, Miss Sommersby, having told you of my admirartion and esteem for you, and daring to hope that you feel the same toward me, I ask your permission to speak with your father to secure his permission for our marriage."
The incomparable Miss Sommersby blinked her celestial blue eyes. "Oh, dear," she said, withdrawing her hand from his. "I never expected this."
There was a sinking feeling in his chest. A less experienced gentleman might have taken her words for maidenly modesty, but after twelve marriage proposals Lord Frederick knew better. "You must have had some inkling of my intentions, if not over these past weeks, then certainly you must have known why I requested a private audience with you," he said, feeling that he deserved at least some explanation. After all, he had squired Miss Sommersby around London for the last two months. And though she had admirers in plenty, Lord Frederick had been her most constant escort, until by now all of London was expecting an announcement.
"Oh, dear," Miss Sommersby repeated. Her porcelain brow wrinkled in thought. "I realize how it must have appeared, but in truth it never occurred to me that your attentions might be serious."
He had been courting the girl for weeks now, and she hadn't even noticed. It was mortifying. He hoped frantically that no one was listening at the door. If word of this got out, he would be a laughingstock.
"You must forgive my presumption," he said, suddenly anxious to leave.
But Miss Sommersby was not prepared to let him escape unscathed. "I do hope you are not terribly devastated," she said. "I am sensible of the great honor you do me, but I can not accept for I have already met my one true soul mate."
"Who?" he asked, curious in spite of himself. He could not recall her paying special attention to any one of her suitors. Indeed she had shown a marked preference for his company. It was this that had led him to hope he had finally found a woman to be his wife.
"Edward Farquhar," she said, with a delicate blush.
"Hmmm. I take it your family does not approve?" He did not blame them. Edward Farquhar was a dirty dish, with a bad habit of courting naive heiresses. His only redeeming grace was that he was always willing to break off his courtships, provided the girl's family paid him handsomely. Indulgent papas took one look at Edward Farquhar and gladly paid to be rid of him. Farquhar would have been drummed out of Society long ago, if not for his cousin the Duke of Aylsworth.
Her features took on a petulant cast. "No, and they are being positively medieval over the matter. They claim that Edward is a rake and a fortune hunter, and have forbidden me to see him."
"Farquhar does have a certain reputation," he said, though from the starry light in her eyes, he knew it was no use warning her.
She waved her hand dismissively. "He has renounced his rakish ways," she declared. "When we first met we knew at once that we were soul mates. Edward said that my love has saved him from his dark side. He has changed, though my parents refuse to accept this. They try to keep us apart, but a love like ours will not be denied."
He looked at her and wondered how he could ever have contemplated marriage to her. Miss Sommersby was so young, so dreadfully young and naive. And there was nothing he could do to save her from herself. She would have to discover Farquhar's perfidy in her own time.
"I wish you every happiness," he said at last. And he truly meant it, despite the blow she had dealt to his pride.
"You are most kind. And please, I hope that the three of us can be friends. I know you will like Edward, and I would hate to lose your friendship. I have always thought of you as the brother I never had."
A brother. He wondered what she would think if he pulled her into his arms and pressed heated kisses onto her shell pink lips. Was that what it would take to make her see him as a man? If so, he would never know, for he had too much honor in him to take advantage of an innocent.
He asked her to convey his regards to her parents, and after assuring her for the tenth time that his heart was not broken, he was finally able to escape with what little remained of his dignity.
His carriage was waiting outside, but he dismissed it, preferring to walk instead. He wanted the time to think. Miss Sommersby had wounded his pride, if not his heart. A brother. The incomparable Miss Sommersby, one of the reigning toasts of the Season, thought of him as a brother.
Her remark had cut to the quick, more so because he had heard it more times than he cared to remember. Over the years he had proposed marriage to thirteen women. The first had been Anne Webster, the daughter of a neighboring family. He had been just seventeen and Anne fifteen when he had proposed. He had been sincere in his offer, but Anne had refused, rightly pointing out that they were both too young. At least she hadn't said that her affection for him was sisterly in nature.
Since then he had proposed marriage a dozen more times. The awkward boyish stammer of his first proposal had given way to the polished addresses of a London gentleman. The results were still the same. Each lady had declined the honor of becoming his wife, and after Anne, each had managed to use the word brother while doing so.
He had pinned his hopes on Miss Sommersby. True, she was young, but at seven and twenty he was not precisely ancient himself. He had enjoyed the time he spent in her company, and would have sworn that she felt the same.
She had seemed such a sensible girl. A trifle young to be a viscountess, but with his mother still in residence at Beechwood Park, there would be time for her to grow into her responsibilities. So he had offered her a marriage based on mutual respect and friendship.
And she had declined, preferring to throw herself away on a loose screw like Edward Farquhar. But women were like that. A worthy gentleman was declared a dull bore, while a rake like Farquhar could have any woman he wanted.
Of course there were plenty of women who would have jumped at the chance to become Viscountess Frederick. Women who looked at him and saw a respectable title and a set of prosperous estates. They would have pursued him had he been an ancient lecher or a mumbling idiot. Was it so wrong of him to want more in a marriage? He no longer sought romantic love, but was it asking too much that he find one woman who could be both friend and wife?
Now he was feeling sorry for himself. And he despised self-pity. Miss Sommersby's rejection was not the end of the world. He was still young. There was plenty of time for him to find a wife. He would just have to go about his search more carefully this time. He scowled down at the sidewalk, wondering how much gossip there would be when it became clear that Miss Sommersby had refused the honor of becoming the next Viscountess Frederick.
"Freddie! Have you gone deaf?"
He turned and saw that his friend Lord Glendale had pulled a curricle alongside.
"Returning home?" Glendale asked.
"I was coming to see you anyway. Climb in, and I will save you the trouble of walking."
He did not feel like company, but he could hardly snub his oldest friend. "Very well," he said.
Glendale moved over, and Freddie climbed up onto the seat beside him.
His friend started the horses with a flick of the whip, weaving them expertly in and out of the confusion that was characteristic of a London morning.
"Why the long face?"
Freddie sighed. "Miss Sommersby."
"I see," Glendale said. As his closest friend, he needed no other explanation. "I am sorry. I know how fond you were of her."
"And she was fond of me as well. As a brother," Freddie said, with a creditable attempt at a laugh.
"I am sorry," Glendale repeated. Mercifully he fell silent. He did not attempt to console Freddie by pointing out all the reasons why Miss Sommersby had been wrong for him. Nor did he reassure Freddie that there were plenty of ladies who would eagerly become his wife. With the rapport that comes from long friendship he seemed to realize that Freddie knew all those things already. Instead he gave Freddie his silence and support.
Freddie shook himself out of his doldrums. "You mentioned you were coming to see me?"
"Yes," Glendale said. He glanced over at Freddie, then seemed to come to a decision. "Jane and I have decided to leave London earlier than planned. We'll be departing for the country on Friday. I know you were set to join us after the Season, but you are more than welcome to travel with us now. And your sister Priscilla as well."
"Priscilla has gone to stay with our sister Elizabeth," Freddie said. "But why the haste? I thought you fixed in London for at least another month." A chance to escape the London gossip seemed heaven-sent. Freddie couldn't help wondering if Glendale had realized this and moved forward the trip to the countryside.
"This is confidential, mind you, but Jane announced this morning that she is expecting our child. And nothing will do for her but to leave London at once and go home to Stonefield." Glendale grinned with obvious pleasure.
"You lucky devil! Congratulations!" Freddie said, thumping his friend on the back. And he meant it. He really did. Despite the stab of envy as he realized that here, too, his friend had surpassed him. Not only had Glendale found a wife who adored him, now he was to start a family of his own.
"But you will want to be alone," Freddie said. "You do not need my company."
"On the contrary," his friend replied. "The boys are in school for another month, but Jane's mother and her sisters are already in residence. I will be veritably outnumbered by the female contingent, and I am counting on you to save my sanity."
"Thank you, but no," Freddie said. If it had been just Jane and Glendale he might have been tempted. But knowing that her five sisters would be there was too much. At least two of her sisters were of marriageable age; still, they had all developed the habit of calling him Uncle Freddie. He had never before minded. Until now.
Glendale urged him to reconsider, but he remained firm. He pleaded urgent business at home that could not be put off. He doubted that Glendale believed the story, but his friend was kind enough not to call him a liar. Instead Glendale insisted that Freddie was welcome to join them whenever his business was concluded, and Freddie promised to do that.
"Are we there yet?" Ian asked, leaning forward on the carriage seat to peer out the window.
"Soon, precious," Anne Webster replied. The carriage swayed as it hit a rut, and reaching over she caught hold of his jacket as he started to fall. "Be a good boy, and sit back on the seat like a proper gentleman. You can still see out the window from here."
"Yes, Mama," Ian promised, but within moments he was leaning forward again, his head stuck out the open window to better see the countryside.
Anne sighed. Ian was a good lad, really he was. But he was also a bundle of energy in the way that only six-year-olds can manage. After weeks of travel, the effort of keeping Ian out of mischief was beginning to show. If only Nurse had been well enough to accompany them. But Mrs. Flinders, good woman that she was, had not been willing to make the long Atlantic voyage.
And the maid Anne had hired had proved a disaster. The girl had shirked her duties for the entire voyage, then had disappeared as soon as the ship docked in England. Rather than trying to find another maid, Anne had decided to simply press on to New Biddeford.
To be honest, it was not simply the strain of travel and of watching over Ian that kept her awake nights. She had taken care of Ian with no help before, and was perfectly capable of seeing to his needs. In truth, it was that she did not want this journey to end. The closer she came to her childhood home, the more she dreaded her arrival. For despite her father's summons, she held little hope that her reception would be anything other than frosty. She wondered for the hundredth time why he had finally decided to send for them after ignoring their existence for all these years.
"Now, remember what I told you? We are here to see my papa, but he is very old and we must make allowances if he seems gruff and unfriendly."
"I promise not to trouble him," Ian said obediently.
"It will only be a short visit," Anne said, trying to comfort herself as well as Ian.
Ian twisted around to look at her. "This was your home, Mama? When you were little?"
"Yes," she said.
"But it is not your home anymore?"
It was too much for her to explain to a child. Especially to Ian, who was an innocent in all this. "My home is with you," she said finally. "We will see my papa, and then we will return to New Halifax, and everything will be as it was before."
Ian nodded gravely, his hazel eyes serious. In that moment he looked far older than his years. "Don't worry, Mama," he said. "If your papa doesn't want you, then I will take care of you."
She felt a stab of guilt. Ian knew far too much about rejection. She vowed furiously that she would protect him, come what may. If her father said one unkind word, she would take Ian and leave at once.
They came upon the village of New Biddeford. Glancing out the window, she was struck by how little had changed in the years she had been absent. The church, the village green, even the shops looked untouched by time. Save for the new sign on the posting house, it might have been only yesterday that she had left.
It was all so familiar, yet at the same time everything seemed older and more imposing than she had remembered. Compared to the raw newness that was so much of Canada, the village had a feel of history, of endless generations. The buildings themselves seemed to remember her. And to judge her. It was a strange thought and she shook her head to banish it.
Two miles past the village they came to a break in the hedgerows, where a lane led to a red brick manor house.
The driver paused. "This be it, ma'am?" he called down.
"Yes, indeed," she replied through the open window. Anne closed her eyes and gathered her strength. She reminded herself that she must remember to be calm, and to remain in control. She would show her father that she was no longer a willful child, but rather a grown woman, someone to be reckoned with.
Ian squirmed on the seat as she smoothed back his unruly red hair and tugged his collar into shape. It was important that he make a good first impression. Satisfied that he looked as well as could be expected, she straightened her bonnet, then drew on her gloves.
"Mama, is it Chrismastide in England?"
"No, it is summer, the same as back home."
"Then why is there a wreath on the door?" Ian asked.
Anne's heart caught in her throat. She looked out the window, but the carriage was turning into the circle before the house. As the house came into view, she saw that the windows were closed and shuttered, despite the early summer heat. On the main doors were matching wreaths, trimmed with black ribbons.
Death had visited here. She clung to the faint hope that the mourning was for someone other than the master of the house.
The carriage drew to a halt. A servant approached from the stables and opened the carriage door.
"Something sad has happened here," Anne explained. "Be a good lad and stay in the carriage while I speak with ... with the staff."
She descended from the carriage and practically ran up the steps, although she knew it was too late for haste. As she reached the top of the stairs, the main door opened before her.
Boswell, the longtime ruler of the servants' hall, stood barring the way within. "We are not receiving visitors," he announced, dismissing her with a mere glance.
"I am not a visitor," Anne said tersely.
The butler gave her a closer look and then recognition dawned. "Miss Anne! I didn't recognize you."
"He went to his reward a fortnight ago. He had been ill for quite some time now." Boswell had always disapproved of her, and now his voice held a note of reproach, as if her father's passing was somehow her fault.
"I did not know."
Boswell gave her a look of disdain. Then he looked past her, and his eyes widened in apparent shock. "Lord have mercy," he exclaimed.
A small hand crept into hers as Ian came to stand at her side. "Ian, this is Mr. Boswell," she said. "He is the butler, the chief of the servants."
Boswell's mouth opened and closed, but no words came out. She knew exactly what he was seeing. With his flaming red hair and green eyes, Ian bore an uncanny resemblance to herself at his age. "And, Mr. Boswell, this is Master Ian."
"Heaven help us all," the butler replied.
Excerpted from "Lord Freddie's First Love"
Copyright © 1999 Patricia Bray.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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