About the book
“Oh, what a tangled web we weave...when first we practice to deceive.”
If there is one thing Miss Penelope Chapman is known for, that's the number of suitors she has turned down.
When her uncle and legal guardian announces that her little sister is to marry a man of ill repute, Penelope does the one thing she can think of to spare her: she poses as Edith and takes her place.
Recently returned to England after a long absence to open his father's will, Benjamin Gray, Earl of Newhorn, is in for an unpleasant surprise: in order to gain full access to his inheritance, he must find a suitable wife. He sees his chance in the face one Miss Edith Chapman...or not.
As Benjamin challenges everything she has ever heard about him, the weight of her feelings for him coupled with her guilt push Penelope to her breaking point.
With the inescapable truth of Penelope's identity looming over them like a bad omen, Benjamin's greatest mistake returns to haunt him: his sister's death. Penelope is not the only one who has been lying. And some lies are deadlier than others…
“Penny! Penny!” Edith called softly.
Penelope roused herself from the book she was reading. “Oh, Edie. Back from shopping so soon?”
“Yes. Lola found a breadth of silk and some lace. But, Penny, I hope you will intercede with Uncle for me.”
“Intercede? Of course. But why?”
Edith sank down on the carpet beside Penelope, and opened her shopping basket. A scrawny, miserable-looking black kitten poked its head up. Baby blue eyes looked around in terror, and it tried to bolt.
Penelope nipped the speedy little creature around its middle with one hand and held it up, taking care not to be ravaged by the tiny claws. She suppressed a sigh. It was not the first starveling stray Edith had brought home. “Oh, Edie. You know what he said last time. But I will do my best. Poor little mite! What a brave little thing to fight as it is. Come on! We’ll pop down to the kitchen and get some milk for it.”
“Penny, you are the best sister in the world. Maybe we can persuade the hound master to help hide her, or maybe the stable master.”
“I’m more likely to get help from Stella. But we need to be careful. If we implicate her in our machinations, we could get her turned off. Then, I have no idea what we would do, for she has been with us forever.”
“I know, Penny. But some mean boys were tormenting her. Lola thwacked them with her umbrella while I caught the kitten.”
“Good for Lola! I’m glad she was with you.”
“Oh, so was I! I was so upset by the way they were treating the poor thing, but I would never have felt bold enough to do anything about it.”
Penelope made a mental note to thank Lola, the daughter of one of their mama’s friends from before their parents’ death.
“I should never have let you go to market without me,” she declared.
“Oh, Penny! You were enjoying your book. I am always fine with Lola. But what shall we do about this poor little one?”
“Feed it, dry it off, and I’ll have Stella help me smuggle it into my room. We’ll need to devise an earth box for it. My dressing room has a sound enough door that we will be able to keep it hidden until it is old enough to catch mice in the stable or something.”
Penelope sat up, pulled a large lace doily off the arm of the sofa, and wrapped it around the kitten who had increased its struggles while they talked. She was barely able to move her thumb out of reach as the kitten tried to set its tiny teeth in the ball of it. “On second thought, let’s pop it back in the basket and take it to my room. I’ll send Stella down for a tea tray and request extra milk to go with it.”
“Thank you, Penny,” Edith said. “My dressing room door doesn’t fit tightly enough to keep her in.”
“I know. Let’s go on up to our rooms, and enlist Stella’s help.”
Stella, a tall, raw-boned woman with sandy hair and a distinct Orkney accent chuckled when she was given a glimpse of the little problem. “Well, now if that don’t beat all. An’ there was lads beatin’ up on the puir wee thing? You’ll need a bit more than milk to feed the scrawny little mite. I’ll see what kind of scraps the cook has on hand.”
When Stella returned from her errand, she was trailed by James, a footman who was a particular friend of Penelope’s and a kind protector to both girls. He, like Stella, had been hired while their parents were still alive.
James carried a shallow wooden box, half filled with sand, an old vegetable basket, and some worn towels. “Sally, the scullery girl, found these for the little ‘un,” he said. “Mr. Vonter said that he was too busy to be messin’ about with findin’ food and gear for an animal, but he gave us some ground up meat scraps all the same.”
“And he made up a nice tea for both of you, as well as for the kitty,” Stella added, setting a tray down on the small table that served as both worktable and tea table for the girls. Their withdrawing room was small, but nicely furnished. Each girl had her own bedroom and dressing room that adjoined the withdrawing room, making a pleasant suite for the sisters.
“Let’s go set everything out in my dressing room and get the kitten settled before we have our tea,” Penelope said. “Otherwise, she will be leaping about and knocking things over.”
“Oh, dear, I do hope she doesn’t damage anything!” Edith said.
“It will be fine. My things are either in drawers or hung up in my wardrobe. She won’t be able to get to them. Come in, let’s lay out her food and drink, and then let her out of the basket.”
Smelling the ground meat, the kitten leaped out of the basket like a shot out of a musket, grabbed a large gobbet and dragged it under the dressing table, where she crouched over it, growling ferociously in a tiny, squeaky kitten growl.
“Go on out, Edith, and I’ll back out after you. Let’s give her a chance to settle down.”
Once they were both outside the dressing room and door safely closed to keep the kitten from escaping, they quickly commenced having their own tea. They were just finished when there came a tap on their door.
When Stella opened it, Marpole the butler stood there. “Miss Penelope, Miss Edith, Lord Castlemount would like to speak with you.”
The sisters glanced at each other guiltily. Surely he had not found out about the kitten already. Penelope felt her stomach drop. Uncle Horace granted them almost anything, but Edith’s strays sometimes surpassed his patience, especially since cats made his eyes water and his nose run.
Penelope wiped her fingers on her napkin, and stood up. “We’ll be right there, Marpole. Tell Uncle Horace we shall be down momentarily.”
“Of course, Miss Penelope. I shall tell him straightaway.” Marpole withdrew.
“He can’t have found out about the kitten so quickly,” Edith whispered, wringing her napkin in her hands.
“Surely not. It will be something else. We can expect perhaps a surprise. I know! We might be going to the seashore.”
“Only what would we do with the kitten, then? Oh, Penny, I can’t bear it if something were to happen to the poor little thing.”
Penelope was rapidly beginning to form a different feeling about the little cat, but she could not bear to upset her sister. Ever since their parents’ death, Edith had been extremely shy and retiring. It was fortunate that Lola was willing to go about with her because otherwise she would not stir from the house without Penelope.
“Oh, Edie, you know Uncle Horace. I’m sure it is something pleasant to surprise us. Come on, don’t act like a goose. It will be fine.”
“I’m sorry to be so missish, Penny.” Edith stood up, shook out her skirts. “I’ll be good, truly I will.”
“Dearest sister, you are always good. Come on, it won’t do to keep him waiting.”
The sisters hurried from their suite, down a short hall and then down the great staircase to the main floor where the library and their uncle’s office was located. Horace Chapman, Viscount of Castlemount, beamed affably upon his nieces. “There you are my dears! I had begun to believe that you were still out. Now, sit down, my girls. I have amazing news for you!”
Penelope and Edith looked at each other. Uncle Horace had been assiduous of late in his efforts to discover suitable alliances for them, much to Penelope’s dismay. As the eldest, and having recently had her twentieth birthday, their uncle had made it clear that he was beginning to despair of finding anyone who would meet her fastidious expectations for a husband.
“Perhaps you have heard of Benjamin Gray, the Earl of Newhorn? He has but recently returned from the continent where he was taking the tour. His father has passed, and having recently come into his title, he is in need of a wife to assist him with setting up his household. His townhouse is not far from here, and I have given him leave to come pay court to Edith.”
Edith turned ashen white and Penelope sucked in a breath.
“Come, come, now my dears,” their uncle went on, “Since Penelope seems determined to be an old maid, I must get at least one of you suitably wed. I am not a young man, and I will not live forever, you know.”
“Oh, Uncle,” Penelope protested, “You are the very picture of health. And anyway, if we have our own households, who will take care of you?”
“Never you mind about that,” the Earl of Castlemount said, “I shall do very well for myself, I am sure. But I am determined to find at least one of you a husband before the year is out. That way, should I fall, the married sister can take care of the other. No doubt, this will work very well in the long run, since Penny has been the caretaker these last several years.”
“But Uncle,” Penelope said, “What do we know of this young man? Since he has been abroad, and not at court, we are not acquainted with him. What if he turns out to be a wastrel or to have a bad temper? Surely, we should look into his background.”
“Although I do not know the young man particularly, I did know his parents. They were both very fine folk, so I am sure the young Earl will be a fine fellow also. Do not fret on that score either. Just be prepared for him to call upon Edith tomorrow. I will be out. Duty calls elsewhere, but Marpole will stand as chaperone for you.”
“Heavens, Uncle!” Penelope exclaimed. “You will not even be there to introduce us?”
“I am so very sorry, my dears,” Lord Castlemount said, “It really cannot be helped. The Earl is doing us a favor by calling so soon as it is. He has urgent business in the city which must be seen to, and tomorrow morning will be his only opportunity for several days to come. Truly, this is an unexpected opportunity and I do not wish for Edith to miss it.”
“Very well, Uncle,” Penelope said. “I will see to it that Edith is turned out in her best furbelows and prepared to do her duty when the gentleman comes calling.”
“Thank you, my dear. I knew I could count on you,” their uncle said. Then he went away, leaving the girls to look at each other in consternation.
“Oh, Penelope!” Edith breathed when their uncle was out of hearing, “A complete stranger! I do not think I can bear it.”
“Don’t worry,” Penelope said, “Let’s go visit the kitten. I’ll think of something.”
Just what I am going to think of, I have no idea. I am capable of turning off unsuitable suitors, but Edie is a babe when it comes to managing people. She’ll say yes just because he looks sad and lonely. She looks ready to bolt. Whatever shall I do?
Benjamin stared morosely into his drink. It was a perfectly fine drink, a nice red wine that had an excellent bouquet and faint overtones of rose and violet. Ordinarily, it was his favorite, but tonight it might as well have been vinegar for all the pleasure he was taking in it.
Marriage! For years he had been able to avoid it, ever since that ill-fated duel over a lovely dancer the year he had turned twenty-one. Granted that the relationship would never have resulted in marriage, but it had been his one and only serious venture into romantic love. And it had ended disastrously.
Nine years in exile, waiting for a pardon for wounding a peer. Nine years, seeing his parents only when they came to the continent for holidays or on business. Nine years away from the estates that he had loved as a boy, mourning for his beloved sister. Now, to be summoned back to take up his title only because his parents were dead was an insult to their memory and an excruciating mortification to his pride.
Benjamin held up his drink so that the fading daylight coming in through the window caught the ruby liquid. Damn! It would serve them all right if he went back to the continent and left Prinny and all his cohorts to fight over the estates. But that would likely get all the residents, who had looked to his parents for support and a place to live, scattered to the winds. Prinny was not well known for taking care of the little people.
Even had he not gone, things would not have been the same. His sister had met with her fatal accident only hours before he was exiled. Poor dear Florence! They had gone riding the day before the duel. Florence always rode neck or nothing, and that day had been no exception. Her horse had refused a gate at the last minute and she was thrown over it.
Florence was dead within minutes of hitting the ground. He would never forget the horrible angle of her neck or the opaque, fixed stare of her eyes. He had never seen a dead body before that day, although he had seen plenty of them since on the continent.
Benjamin sighed and sipped at his drink. The faint aftertaste of roses and violets lingered on his tongue. The flavor always reminded him of his mother. She had always worn attar of rose perfume and frequently pinned a bunch of violets to her collar How often they had sat in this very room and shared a glass of this very wine with Florence while waiting for their father so they could all go in to dinner.
If only I had let the slight against my dancer go, ignored Steelfrost’s insinuations about my sister’s death, I could have had more time with my parents. There was surely another way to protect Cynthia’s reputation, and I knew very well there was nothing to his accusations that I should have done more for Florence.
He sipped at his wine again, letting the light alcoholic haze dull the edges of the pain that was both old and extremely fresh in his mind.
How could my father not have told me of this condition that he had placed in his will? Marry, and produce an heir before being recognized as fully inheriting the title. Damnation! What happens if the wife is barren? What might have happened if I had been injured in a way that I could not get children?
When they had last visited, the late Earl had mentioned something that he needed to discuss, but somehow the time had never been quite right. The holidays had been a steady round of parties and general merriment. Probably his father had not wanted to dim their enjoyment, since it was so seldom possible.
Morosely, Benjamin took another sip of wine. He would like to believe that had been his father’s motivation, but he knew the man too well. Father had wanted to spare himself the trouble of explaining it all, probably hoping that Benjamin would find someone suitable well before necessity brought the inheritance to him.
And why not? Father was a hale, hearty man at Christmastide. But no one could predict the weather or the behavior of horses. A heavy ice storm, a horse spooked by some imagined boggart, an overturned sleigh at the edge of a swollen stream, and that was that.
Now, Benjamin must marry. And here was the Viscount of Castlemount with not one, but two marriageable nieces. The fellow had suggested the younger one. Why? Who knew? Perhaps the elder had a hare lip, a wandering eye, or a squint, and the younger was the more personable of the twain. That probably meant that he would be expected to take care of the elder. What an imposition!
Abruptly, Benjamin stood up and flung the glass, still half filled with wine, into the fireplace. Thundering damnation! How had he come to such a pass?
His butler looked in. “Lord Newhorn? Are you well? Do you require a fresh glass?”
“Dammit, Grantham. You’ve known me since I was old enough to need a pointer as to which fork to use at table. Must you address me so formally?”
Grantham let his butler mask drop for just a moment. “My Lord, I could wish for those days as well. But you are no longer young ‘Master Benjamin.’ I deeply regret that there is little I can do to point out the ‘right fork’ for this turning in the road. Just as I am no longer a footman and now take up my duties as butler, so must you assume your duties as head of the household.”
Benjamin laughed a little ruefully, and scuffed the toe of his boot at one of the shards of glass that lay on the hearth. I have now created a mess for the servants to clean up. A fine master I am. “Right you are, Grantham. And it is unfair of me to take out my ill temper on you. I fear I’ve made a devil of a mess here, just as I made a mess of my life.”
Grantham blinked once or twice, and turned his face aside for a moment. “We all missed you, My Lord. The old place wasn’t the same after you left. T’was in no way fair that you should have been banished when we all knew your opponent was a blackguard and a scoundrel. Nay, nay, say nothing to deny it. There were those of us who knew that you also did your best to protect the girl and set her up safely.”
“And no way to check on her when I was gone, for my father would not hear of it. I don’t suppose you would happen to know how that turned out?”
“Amazingly well, Lord Newhorn. The chit was an intelligent woman. While your father might have told you nothing, he sent his man of business to assist her rather than cutting her adrift with the money you insisted be settled on her. She now runs a boarding school, teaching both gentry and indigent children. Your mother continued as benefactress and confided in me that over the last eight quarters, the school turned a tidy profit.”
“She did? Grantham, that is a weight off my mind.”
“Do you desire to look her up, my lord?”
“No, no. That ship has long sailed. The affair had already begun to sour when Wilde accused her of soliciting information and selling it when she turned him away. Even though we were soon no longer to be an item, I knew her for a loyal citizen. Beyond that, she had nothing kind to say for those who used their wiles to obtain information from officers and gentlemen.”
“I am relieved to hear it, My Lord, for I fear she would be a most unsuitable mistress for Newhorn.”
Now Benjamin did laugh. His mirth might have had an edge of hysteria, but it was genuine for all that. “Oh, quite so! Quite so, Grantham. Which makes the duel all the more foolish. But I am glad to hear that Cynthia Linguere is doing well and that I managed to do at least one thing right. For I am sure that the duel quite put an end to her career as an entertainer.”
“I am glad to put your mind at ease,” Grantham said. “By all accounts, she is running an excellent school and has most recently added an employment agency as a service to her students. We have two maids from the agency, and both are demure, well-spoken young women who give excellent service and know their place.”
“Is that so?” Benjamin looked at him in surprise.
“Indeed, it is. It became your father’s policy to support her agency by hiring from it. We have never regretted it.”
“I shall have to keep that in mind. So long as I do not have to interview her myself, I see no reason not to continue the practice.”
“It shall be as you say, then, My Lord. It is unlikely that we would need to bring hiring staff to your attention in any case, unless some problem should arise. I, or Mrs. Higgins in her capacity as Housekeeper, have always taken on that burden.”
“Thank you for letting me know, Grantham. I find myself woefully ignorant on many fronts.”
“Ignorance is easily corrected, My Lord. I am glad to continue giving such pointers as I may, even though you have long since ceased to require your pickle fork to be pointed out.”
“Thank you, Grantham. And now, perhaps I should simply have a brandy and go to bed.”
Grantham frowned for a moment.
Benjamin sighed. “What is it?”
“With all due respect, My Lord, if you have a brandy atop the wine you have drunk, you are likely to have a most dreadful headache in the morning. Perhaps I could bring a nice cup of chamomile tea instead?”
“I did say that you could point out errors. It would be churlish of me to ignore such sage advice, especially when I know that you are right.”
“Shall I bring the tea to your chambers, My Lord, where you can enjoy it in comfort?”
“Yes, Grantham, you may. And thank you. I am sure Simmons has been waiting for me this hour past.”
So here I am, set about by the people who care for me and for whom I am responsible. Because they are my responsibility, I must find a wife posthaste.
Benjamin stumped off to his rooms and the solicitous hands of his valet. He deeply dreaded what the morrow might bring.
Penelope awoke to find the kitten sitting on her chest staring at her. “How did you get out here?” she asked the scrap of feline dignity that focused two round blue eyes on her.
“Hungry are you? Goodness! It isn’t even daylight yet. Don’t worry, I’ll ring for something.”
“I already did,” Edith said. “She was meowing and clawing at the door. She seems to like you. Isn’t she the most charming thing? Surely Uncle will let us keep her.”
Penelope was by no means certain of that. “We must get ready for this gentleman caller,” she said. “He arrives at nine. Perhaps we should name the little black monster ‘Alarm Clock.’ She certainly seems to be a good one.”
A tap came at the door of their sitting room. With a marvelous degree of presence of mind, Penelope distracted the kitten from the opening door by trailing one of her braids in front of the little beast. In true tiny predator fashion, she pounced on the braid and worried the ribbon bow ferociously.
When Penelope heard the outer door close, she pushed back the covers and sat up. She drew on her dressing gown and found Stella putting down a mat and placing a bowl of milk and a bowl of scrambled egg for the kitten.
The kitten hurtled across the floor like a meteor, landing face first in the dish of egg. She then began devouring it, growling ferociously all the while.
With the kitten occupied, the girls sat down to their own breakfast, while watching their foundling inhaling a full serving of egg before beginning to lap the dish of milk with equal enthusiasm.
When the kitten had licked the very last drops of milk from the bowl, she began to prowl about the room. Stella, who was used to the stray kittens, puppies, and other creatures that the kind-hearted Edith frequently brought home, scooped the little creature up and deposited her in her earth box. Apparently that was exactly what the baby needed, for she used it and carefully covered up the results.
“What a clever little thing!” Edith crowed. “Oh, there has never been such a smart kitten.”
Penelope had to admit that the kitten looked much better this morning. Its fur was dry and clean, well fluffed out. It had a tiny bell of white under its chin, and two white toes. It daintily shook all four paws one at a time after leaving the earth box, and then scampered back to the girls. It hopped onto the sofa between them, and began to groom.
“Penelope,” Edith said softly, “I don’t think I can meet this gentleman. I just can’t. It is all so very sudden. How can I even think about marrying someone I’ve never even met before?”
I expected this. Well, I shall simply have to develop a plan. Edie shall not be subjected to unwanted suitors. I will take care of her.
“Then you don’t have to, Edith. I’ll think of something. We do have to entertain him. Uncle Horace expects it. But I’ll see if there isn’t a way out of this.”
“I don’t mind entertaining him. I just don’t want to discuss courtship or anything even approaching it. How can I know if I like him? Anyway, I don’t want to be married for years and years yet.”
“One of us will need to marry him. Uncle Horace clearly expects it, and so does the gentleman.” Penelope stroked the kitten along its back. The little black scrap of mischief began to purr loudly. It was amazing how much sound came out of such a small creature.
“If only Uncle Horace had not set Marpole to be our chaperone,” Penelope said thoughtfully, “I could simply introduce myself as you, and you as me.”
“You would do that for me?” Edith clasped her hands beneath her chin, and rested it on them. “Oh, Penny! Really, I can’t ask it of you.”
“You aren’t and you didn’t. But we must meet with him. This way, you won’t have to talk much. You can even claim to feel ill, if you wish, and hide out in Stella’s room, if that is what you want to do.”
Stella shook her head at both of them. “You two. I declare, it sounds as if you are planning to be old maids.”
“I’m not sure I would mind,” Penelope said. “That way we could be together forever and ever.”
“Your uncle is trying to secure a future for you,” Stella said, with the forwardness only possible from an old family retainer who had watched two little girls grow into young ladies. “Not many orphans have such a kindly guardian. And here you are sneaking in kittens, which you know he has forbidden, and you are trying to get out of an advantageous marriage that he is trying to arrange.”
“But you see, Stella, that is just the thing,” Penelope explained. “Is it really all that advantageous? We don’t know anything about this gentleman other than that he recently came into his title and he seems to be looking for a wife. I’d really like to know more about him before handing over to him my very dearest baby sister.”
“I’m your only sister,” Edith pointed out.
“Very true, which makes you a rare and excellent person in my eyes,” Penelope said.
“But how can we do this under Marpole’s eyes?” Edith asked. “You know he will give the show away.”
“We need something to distract him, or call him away from the house for just long enough that we can do this.”
“We still need a chaperone,” Edith pointed out.
“At least you have that much sense,” Stella observed. “As for Mr. Marpole, I can perhaps organize a distraction that will keep him away just long enough. I’ll send James up to act as your gooseberry.”
With that decided, the girls prepared to carry out their plan. Penelope left her long dark hair loose, fastening it back with a comb on each side of her face to make her look younger. They pinned Edith’s soft, blond hair up to make her look a little older. For a few minutes before they went downstairs, Edith practiced looking extremely prim and severe. Since they had agreed that she would not talk very much, Penelope hoped that it would work.
The sisters went down to the formal parlor. Penelope picked up the morning paper and began to read, while Edith pulled the embroidery frame to her and continued working on a tapestry. They were scarcely settled to their tasks when James, the footman who was their particular friend, tapped at the door.
James had once been a racehorse jockey, and was very unusual for a footman. He was a small, wizened man, with a slightly bow-legged walk. Not only was he the girls’ particular footman, he also rode out with them as their groom, ran their errands, and answered worldly questions they did not dare ask their uncle.
Clearly, Stella had filled him in on the plan, for he tipped them a wink before gravely announcing, “Lord Newhorn to see you, Miss Edith, Miss Penelope.”
“Thank you, James,” Penelope said. Standing up and drawing near the door, she whispered, “Remember!”
“Why, of course, Miss Edith,” James said, with a wide grin, “Not a word about the little bronze monkey.”
Behind her, Edith made a sort of sputtering gasp, which was clearly a smothered laugh. The bronze monkey was a creature they had rescued from a hurdy-gurdy man. The creature had to be donated to a local zoological society for it had turned out to be far too much trouble to keep. It had become their code phrase for secrets that should not be shared outside their personal circle.
James ushered in a man who was the epitome of the phrase “tall, dark, and handsome.” He was broad shouldered, with military bearing and impeccably dressed. His dark curls were brushed into perfect Byronesque disarray. Dark eyes beneath elegantly shaped eyebrows seemed to quickly take in every detail of the room. His sensitive mouth was set in a firm, masculine line above a chin that suggested he was accustomed to winning arguments.
“The Right Honorable Benjamin Gray, Earl of Newhorn,” James announced, pretentiously.
Penelope curtsied gracefully and presented her hand, “I am Edith Chapman,” she announced, “and my sister, Miss Penelope Chapman, is seated there by the embroidery frame.”
“I am pleased to make your acquaintance,” Lord Newhorn bent over her hand, politely kissing the air above it. “I hope this day finds you doing well.”
“Quite well, Lord Newhorn. Pray, come in and sit down. James, perhaps you could ring for some tea?”
“I will try, Miss Edith,” James said with a perfectly straight countenance, “but the housekeeper and the butler are dealing with a crisis in the kitchen. Tea might be delayed.”
“Oh, dear.” Penelope clicked her tongue. “Really, it is so hard to find good help these days. My Lord, it seems I will have difficulty offering refreshment. I hope you do not mind.”
“No, no, it is no matter,” Lord Newhorn said. “I did not call to be offered tea. I came to make your acquaintance, Miss Chapman. Did your uncle explain to you my situation?”
“He said something about an inheritance and a condition set upon your assuming your place?”
“Sadly, yes. But I would not force myself upon you. Rather, I beg leave to ask you to go walking with me in the park that we might become better acquainted.”
“But your ultimate goal is matrimony?”
“It is. Sadly, I need to be wed and rather soon. The will was read yesterday, and I must be leg-shackled . . . ahem…that is, married before a year elapses from the date of the reading.”
“I understand the cant term ‘leg-shackled’, My Lord, and that many gentlemen find the idea of being married repugnant. Do you find the concept repellant?”
“Not if it is with the right lady, Miss Chapman. Which is the point of asking if we might go walking together. Walking frequently includes talking. Talking is an excellent way to get to know each other.”
“Pardon my bluntness,” Penelope said, “but why me? Why apply to my uncle?”
“In truth, I did but mention to Lord Castlemount that I might be obliged to post about the countryside in search of a wife, since the season is over. He was most sympathetic to my plight and noted that he had two marriageable nieces who were still in the city and on whom I might call before going to such a great deal of trouble. One of them, he said, seemed not to be terribly interested in marriage, but that the other was fresh out of the school room and of an age to seek a desirable union.”
Edith made a harsh, choking sound. Placing a handkerchief over her mouth and nose, she murmured something that sounded like “Pray, excuse me,” and precipitously left the room.
“Is your sister all right?” Lord Newhorn asked. “She seems . . . agitated.”
“As my uncle mentioned, she is not in favor of either of us getting married. I believe that Penelope would like to see us become spinsters together in our own establishment.”
“Will your fortune sustain such an arrangement?”
“Sadly, no. If my uncle does not marry, the title, the lands, and the income all go to a distant cousin. We will not inherit.”
“That is harsh,” Lord Newhorn said with sympathy. “And I thought my conditions of inheritance rather bleak. At least I do have some control over the situation. It would seem that you have none at all.”
“This is too frequently the case, Lord Newhorn. Ladies are given little choice as to their disposition. We are, as you probably well know, unable to legally manage our own monetary affairs, to own land or do business in our own name.”
“I am aware that this is the sad case, Miss Chapman. My own sister, rest her sweet soul, was often wont to remark upon it.”
“Your sister has passed away?”
“A hunting accident. Her horse refused a fence and she was killed instantly.”
“I am sorry to hear that. She sounds like someone I would enjoy meeting.”
Lord Newhorn chuckled. “You know, I believe you would have hit it off very well. She was a neck or nothing rider and delighted in hunting. She was newly betrothed at the time of the accident.”
“My sincere condolences,” Penelope said.
Lord Newhorn shrugged. “It was more than nine years ago. I remember her fondly, but the immediate grief has long worn thin. But that is enough about me. Tell me a little about yourself.”
Penelope focused on her fingers. What would Edith have said of herself in this situation? Frankly, she would have fled the room, as she had already done. “Truly, there is very little to tell. My eighteenth birthday was a little over a month ago. My uncle did not want to send us to boarding school, so my sister and I had a governess and tutors. English is my native language. I speak a little French, enough to get by on in a pinch. I can read Latin and some Greek. I embroider, but cannot abide knitting or crocheting.”
“Tell me,” Lord Newhorn said, leaning forward, “Why is embroidery more interesting than knitting?”
“Oh, a combination of factors. Embroidery silks are much more pleasant to touch than woolen yarn, and it is enjoyable to watch the pictures take shape. My sister does it very well, as you can see from the work she is doing over there.”
“I do see. Yet it looks to me as if you were reading the paper when I came in?”
Oops! Totally out of character for Edith. Well, he does not know that.
“Indeed I was. A newspaper also has interesting stories. I like keeping up on things.”
James tapped lightly on the door frame. Penelope turned her head, acknowledging him.
“Miss Chapman, your sister requests you,” he said.
Since this was the signal they had arranged for when Marpole was no longer able to be distracted, Penelope nodded to James.
Rising, she said, “My sister is somewhat unwell this morning. Perhaps we could continue our conversation at a later time? I like to go walking out at the local park in the afternoons. I would not take it amiss for you to join me there.”
“Of course,” said Lord Newhorn. “I would be delighted.”
Penelope fled the room before Marpole could appear and give the show away.
Oh, dear, oh, dear! Whatever have I done? I’ve just agreed to pretend to be my sister and walk in the park with the gentleman my uncle wishes her to marry!
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