"The one woman in London who doesn’t want to marry him is now his fiancée.
William Atherton, Earl of Norwood, is as shocked as the rest of London to discover his betrothal via an announcement in the morning paper. Furious at what appears to be a shrewd marriage trap, William tracks down his alleged fiancée before her plans can affect his campaign for a coveted political post. But then William realizes an engagement, however fake, may benefit them both . . .
Miss Charlotte Hurst may be a wallflower, but she’s no shrinking violet. She would never attempt such an underhanded scheme, especially not with a man as haughty or sought-after as Norwood. Yet his suggestion to play along with the betrothal has its merits . . . and the longer they pretend, the more undeniably real their feelings become. But when the true culprit behind their engagement is revealed, can their newfound happiness survive the scandal?"
The morning began tranquilly enough. Finished with her breakfast, Miss Charlotte Hurst reached for the neatly stacked pile of correspondence beside her plate, when the doors to the dining room unexpectedly flew open and the butler entered, his normally impassive face flushed, his mouth pinched into an uncharacteristic frown.
Standing just inside the doorway, Hopkins turned toward Charlotte’s brother, Phillip Hurst. “My lord, there’s a man who insists he must see you. I explained you don’t receive visitors before breakfast, but he said he couldn’t wait, that the matter was urgent.”
“Did he now?” Phillip cut a bite of ham before spearing it with his fork. “Did this man give you his name? Or explain the nature of this urgent business?”
“He gave his name, sir. He said it was—”
A tall, dark-haired gentleman strode into the room, finishing the butler’s sentence in a commanding, lord-of-the-manor voice.
Startled, Charlotte dropped her correspondence, scattering the pages in an untidy disarray upon the table. Drat the man and his unheralded appearance.
“Don’t blame your servant, Hurst,” the gentleman said, coming to a halt beside Phillip’s chair. “He made it quite clear you don’t take visitors during meals. However, this cannot wait.”
Phillip laid down his fork. “You may go, Hopkins. I’ll attend to this.”
“Very well, sir.” With a nod, the butler departed.
“I can scarcely imagine any business between us that couldn’t wait, Norwood,” Phillip said.
“Can you not?” The man slapped a newspaper down on the table in front of Phillip. “Then read this. Perhaps it will jog your memory.”
Charlotte blinked, her interest sharpened. So this was the Earl of Norwood. She’d certainly heard of him, although they’d never been introduced. His social set and hers didn’t have much in common. Her brother knew him, since they were both peers in the House of Lords, but this hadn’t led to any sort of acquaintance between Charlotte and the earl.
Still, all of London knew Lord Norwood was a rising star in the world of English politics, and that among his greatest political assets, aside from his impressive family and social connections, were his poise and unflappability, though he seemed to have only a tenuous grip on those traits this morning. He was angry, that much was clear. Less obvious was how it concerned Phillip.
Her brother ignored the earl’s command. “Since Hopkins is usually allowed to usher in our guests, I must presume you have a singular reason for interrupting our meal in this irregular way.”
“I do.” If Lord Norwood noticed the hint of censure in Phillip’s voice, he gave no sign of it.
Phillip glanced at his unfinished breakfast, then picked up the paper and began to read. The earl’s gloved hand slapped softly against his thigh, producing a rhythmic tap, tap, tap that sounded unnaturally loud in the otherwise quiet room.
Since Charlotte remained an invisible entity—Lord Norwood had not yet spared a glance in her direction—she took the opportunity to study him. His manners left a great deal to be desired, but she couldn’t say the same for his looks. He was undeniably handsome with dark brown hair that showed a tendency to curl, and well-appointed features. His lips were firm and finely molded, his nose straight and patrician, and his slate-blue eyes, framed by dark lashes, had faint laugh lines at the corners. However, no hint of humor showed on his face at the moment. Instead, his gaze was stern and unwaveringly fastened on Phillip as he bent over the newspaper.
After a moment, Phillip pushed the paper aside. “I’m as mystified as you are. I’ve no idea how that came to be published.”
Lord Norwood gave her brother a hard, assessing stare. “Then perhaps she does,” the earl said tightly. His gaze swung for the first time to Charlotte, with a look so scorching she had to stifle the impulse to place more distance between them.
“If you think that, you’re barking up the wrong tree.” For some reason, Phillip looked amused rather than affronted by the earl’s angry insinuations. “However, Charlotte can speak for herself.” He slid the newspaper across the table to her. “Have a look at this.”
She hesitated, wishing the earl’s attention hadn’t shifted away from her brother. Lord Norwood glared at her as if she were an annoying insect he’d like to squash. For one defiant moment, she considered refusing, if for no other reason than she didn’t care for his rude, high-handed manner, but her curiosity surpassed this rebellious urge.
“If I must,” she said, deliberately keeping her tone cool and disinterested. She moved her neglected correspondence out of the way, then unhurriedly reached for the paper and drew it over, aware that her lack of haste was fanning the flames of the man’s wrath, and yet unable to behave otherwise. Her dislike of him had overruled any spirit of cooperation.
She read through the offending item, then once more, slowly this time, to make sure she hadn’t misunderstood. Cold tendrils of apprehension swirled through her, settling in a tight band around her chest as the implications of the brief paragraphs sank in. No wonder the man was so angry.
It was the announcement of her betrothal to the Earl of Norwood.
Shocked, she looked back at the earl, blinking stupidly. How had it come to be in the newspaper? It was false and utterly ridiculous. For heaven’s sake, she wasn’t even acquainted with the man. But true or false—it hardly mattered. This announcement could still ignite a firestorm of gossip that would upend her quiet, well-ordered life.
“Well?” Lord Norwood demanded.
The blood pounded in her ears at his accusatory tone. Her actions required no defense. On the contrary, if anyone had behaved indefensibly, it was the earl. Even now, apparently convinced of her guilt, he looked as if he’d like to leap over the table and shake a confession out of her.
“If by ‘well’ you mean to imply I have any knowledge of who published this”—she gestured toward the paper with a dismissive flick of her wrist—“disabuse yourself of the notion right now. I didn’t have anything to do with this, and I welcome it no more than you.”
A look of utter incredulity crossed Lord Norwood’s handsome face. “Forgive me if I sound conceited, Miss Hurst, but there are any number of young ladies who would more than welcome the chance to align themselves with my fortune and title, and—”
“And I assure you I’m not one of them,” she cut in coolly.
His lips pinched together for a second. “Furthermore, this wouldn’t be the first time a lady tried to entrap a gentleman by dubious methods.” He leaned forward and placed both hands on the table, his face so close to hers she could see the darker band that rimmed his blue eyes and smell the spicy scent of his shaving soap. “But make no mistake, I’ve not offered for you, nor shall I feel bound to honor a nonexistent engagement just because our betrothal announcement appeared in the Morning Post. It seems to me the only party who would benefit is you.”
They remained nearly nose-to-nose, Charlotte smarting from the sting of his last words. She searched her mind for a suitably scathing reply, but the perfect set-down eluded her. She settled for meeting his angry gaze with a defiant one of her own.
At last, he straightened and crossed his arms. “So, Miss Hurst? Do you still deny you had anything to do with this?”
It was his impossibly haughty expression, coupled with that presumptive I-know-you’re-guilty tone that loosened her tongue at last.
“I’ve already denied it,” she replied, “but you, with your colossal arrogance, have determined I must be guilty because of your faulty assumption that I’d welcome an alliance with you.” She paused and took a deep breath, determined to maintain control of her temper, especially since he seemed to have such a fragile grip on his. “However, nothing could be further from the truth. Most of society may put a premium on a man’s fortune and title when weighing his worthiness as a prospective husband, but I do not. I’m much more interested in the content of a man’s character than the contents of his purse.”
Her verbal slap hit the mark. The color rose on his face as he drew in a sharp breath.
“To put it plainly,” she continued. “I may not know you very well, but I’m completely sure you’re the last man I’d want to marry.” She shook her head. “No, not even the last man, because that implies a circumstance in which I’d agree to marry you, and I can say with great certainty you’re not a man I would ever choose to marry.”
He scowled at her in disbelief for a long, thunderous moment. Charlotte watched with a certain fascination as he struggled to control his emotions. A vein throbbed at his temple, his jaw tightened like a vise, and the muscles in his throat worked furiously, though no words slipped through his tightly clamped lips.
Once more she resisted the urge to put more space between them. Her rational side insisted his gentlemanly instincts would prevail over any murderous impulses he might presently harbor. And if not, surely Phillip’s phlegmatic nature wouldn’t prevent him from leaping to her defense if necessary.
After several seconds of glaring at her in strained silence, something in the depths of Lord Norwood’s stormy gaze shifted and the rigid lines of his shoulders relaxed ever so slightly. He’d become, once again, the unflappable aristocrat.
Kate Pembrooke is a lifelong reader whose path to becoming an author of Regency romance was forged when she first read Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Kate lives with her family in the Midwest. She loves puttering amongst her flowerbeds, taking beach vacations, and adding to her already extensive collection of cookbooks.