Already His



CHAPTER ONE

June 1822, London
 
     "Have you heard the news?”
     Lady Elise Halden shot her dearest friend in the whole world, and temporary house guest, a stern gaze and tightened her lips. Unable to move for fear the pins might come out of place, she hoped her friend would catch her expression and hold her tongue. Lady Beverly Hepplewhite’s eyes widened as she continued into Elise’s bedroom and hopped onto her bed.
     Elise looked down to the stitchers working on the hem of her gown. “A moment, please.” Holding a rose-colored ribbon in place on her sleeve, she stepped off the stool and addressed her maid and the seamstresses. “Bridget, Madame, will you excuse us a few minutes? I’ll ring when I’m ready to continue.”
     Adding a straight pin to the ribbon before leaving, Madame Fuichard and her two assistants quit the room. But not her maid, Bridget. She looked directly at Elise and her friend, and whispered, “You’re due to come out in five days,” said the red-headed maid, just a few years older than Elise. “If you do something foolish now, His Grace’ll banish ye for sure. And because I don’t have a fondness for the Grampians in winter, I won’t be going with ye.”
     Once the door shut behind her maid, Elise lifted her hands, showing Beverly her inability to hold them steady. “I have never in my life been so nervous as I am now. These horrid butterflies are the sole result of the entire ton believing Michael, my Michael, is in need of a bride now, simply because he’s ascended to the title.”
     “You can’t say it took you by surprise. We all knew this day would come as the old earl never married,” Beverly quipped. “The new Earl of Camden now has a responsibility to all the women in his family.”
     “You know this does not help my chances.” Her mind raced at what she could do now to benefit her cause.
     “He’ll be in mourning for three months,” Beverly stated. “He’ll not likely start a bride hunt until after that. That’s when you need to worry about competition.”
     “By then your Papa will be back, won’t he?” She sighed, feeling as though the whole world was conspiring against her. “I won’t have you here to help me think things through.”
     “I won’t be moving to Land’s End, Elise. I’ll only be a few blocks away.”
     She nodded as she caught her reflection in the mirror. “I had so hoped to win him over gradually during this season. Now I shall have to contend with every mother of a marriageable-age daughter, and the daughters themselves, pursuing Michael for his new title and wealth.” Elise studied the dress pinned onto her with a disapproving eye, and sighed with double frustration. “You would think that Michael being my brother’s life-long friend would give me an advantage,” she muttered. “But no. He’ll always remember the girl I was, not the woman I am.”
     She stamped her foot, her complete annoyance giving life to a flourish of unladylike manners. “Damn his uncle for dying last night!”
     Beverly gasped at Elise’s invective. “The man couldn’t very well plan the time of his departure from this world.”
     She sat on her dressing table bench, her shoulders slumping in dejection. “I’m sorry for blurting that out. And I’m sorry for this selfish tirade. The old earl really was a dear man. I’m ashamed of myself.” A pin stuck her in the waist, and she pulled the offensive thing from the dress.
     Beverly nodded, “You know, that dress has turned out better than we thought.” Her friend eyed it closely. “But, something is still missing.” She shook her head. “Perhaps after you have your jewels and your mother’s tiara on, it will complete the effect.”
     Elise contemplated her friend’s words. The as-yet unfinished dress she planned to wear Saturday was completely conventional, and the latest fashion among the young ladies of her set. It made her feel like the lady her brother wanted her to be. She did want to please him and make him proud of her on her special night. The skirt was crushed white silk with rows of narrow rose-colored satin ribbons ringing the skirt up to the knee. The same colored ribbons ringed the puffed white silk sleeves at the edge. The bodice of rose-colored silk ended just below her less than acceptable bust line. It successfully created the desired effect of a more abundant cleavage than God had provided. A wide band of silk rosettes, precisely three shades lighter than the ribbons, intertwined with satin greenery at the hem of the floor-length creation. More of those same rosettes were sewn into the folds of ribbon gathered on the sleeve, and on the same material gathered between her breasts.
     Looking at herself in the mirror with a critical eye, she realized that the dress she once adored, she now hated. The exquisite, one of a kind creation from Madame Fuichard made her look just like all the other girls out on the marriage mart this year. She would be unremarkable among the herd of other chits being paraded about by anxious mamas.
     “What am I going to do Beverly? How ever will I get him to notice me?” She stamped her foot again. “You more than anyone know I have the worst luck where Michael is concerned. And now to be forced to catch his eye while all the other unmarried ladies out there try to do likewise....” Her voice cracked. “I could never compare. I am not as pretty as they are.”
     “You are so,” Beverly added.
     Elise cut her off, “Not to mention that he remembers every misdeed and prank I’ve pulled on him since I was eight.”
     “He doesn’t know about Attila the Horse,” Beverly said with a confident smile.
     Elise remembered seeing Michael at Tattersalls that day three years ago and laughed. “No! He doesn’t know that was us dressed as Haldenwood grooms, and it’s best left that way.” She began to pull pins from the dress, removing all the rosettes as her imagination began to wander. “Attila got the best outcome in that exchange for Michael loves that horse.” She smiled as she pulled a ribbon and tossed it onto the table. “And he has no idea I was the one who trained him.”
     They were silent a moment as Elise continued removing adornments from the unfinished dress. Their eyes met in the mirror, and Beverly asked, “What are you doing?”
     “I’ve been fretting over this for the last few hours.” Elise pointed at the pile of rosettes and the ribbon from the hem she’d just pulled. “There is far too much frippery on this dress. It isn’t what I would normally wear so why pretend I like it?” Their eyes met in the mirror again. “I need a dress that reflects me. The new me. Who I am today.”
     Beverly’s eyes grew wide and she nodded. “What you need is to come up with a plan for making him take notice of you. But nothing like you did when you were fifteen! That little act nearly got you killed and it was years before he returned to Haldenwood again. And when he did it was because you lured him with a horse.”
     “I did not nearly get killed, I was barely scratched.” She dropped her voice to a whisper, and added, “If he hadn’t begun to undress, I never would have fallen off that trellis to begin with.” Elise remembered all too well how fabulous Michael had looked when he’d stripped to the waist, baring that magnificently-muscled chest and back of his. She had stared, mouth agape at the beauty of him, and when he reached for the buttons of his breeches, she’d unknowingly given a little squeal, alerting him to her presence. He’d turned at the sound to see her staring into his bedroom window. Her foot slipped and she fell the twelve or so feet to the ground below, landing flat on her back in the freshly weeded flower beds below.
     “Perhaps it was a little embarrassing for him, but I was duly punished.... after father ascertained I was indeed well and truly alive.” Elise closed her eyes and sighed. “I remember thinking I’d died and gone to heaven.” Meeting her friend’s blue-eyed stare, she added, “That was before I fell!”
     Beverly threw herself back on the mattress. “You must,” her friend emphasized, “I implore you, endeavor to restrain yourself now.”
     “I shall, I promise, but I need your help devising some way to make him notice the new grown-up me, and not remember the irritating little brat I was. I so desperately want him to realize that I am already his, and to remember that he did promise to marry me all those years ago.” Her heart held fast to that long ago vow, and she was ready for him to make good on it now.
     “If I remember correctly, you were eight years old, and being the little imp you were....”
     Elise turned a haughty gaze at her friend, complete with what she hoped was a wicked arched brow.
     “Oh all right.” Beverly heaved an exaggerated sigh. “We both were.... But you asked for his hand in marriage, extorting his promise by holding his favorite horse hostage at the gamekeeper’s cottage!”
     “You reminding me of my childish misdeeds only makes me feel guilty for how I’ve treated him in the past. I only hope he doesn’t remember most of it,” she covered her face with her hands. “But I’m afraid he does. Would that Providence shine down and he doesn’t avoid me like the plague.” She stared at herself in the mirror, wishing she didn’t see the face of the same person who committed all those rash, juvenile stunts hoping to gain Michael’s attention and affection. She wanted to cry but knew it would serve no purpose. “What am I going to do?”
     “What we need is a plan,” Beverly said.
     “Yes, you’ve said that.” Elise stared at her short brown hair in the mirror, now wishing her hair were longer, her face prettier, her features more feminine, and her nearly non-existent bosom, more full and lush. Anything so he would see her as a beautiful, desirable woman. She could do nothing about her actual looks, but what about the clothes? Could the way she dressed help to portray her in a more desirable light?
     But more important than her looks was her behavior, that must be tempered as well. To that end, she vowed to continue to work on curbing that part of her personality. It was a daily task she worked upon, with the hopes that one day he might think her worthy.
     After several minutes of complete silence while both girls contemplated the problem, Beverly leaped from the bed, startling Elise. “I’ve got it! Or at least, I think I do.”
     Eyes closed, Beverly paced the long hand-tied Turkey rug, rubbing the bridge of her delicate nose with the thumb and forefinger of her right hand. “What we want is for Michael to see you for the woman you’ve become, and not as the girl you once were. Right?”
     “Yes, of course. You said as much a few minutes ago.”
     “You know me, everything has to be mapped out, the goal identified and a plan put into motion to accomplish the task at hand.”
     “Yes, yes, you have always been the planner. But what have you come up with?” God, she hoped it wasn’t too unorthodox. With her brother overseeing every move she made, she’d never get away with anything outrageous. If she even attempted anything too far-fetched, Bridget was right, he’d send her to that box of rocks up in Scotland for sure.
     “You must not only behave differently, but look differently as well,” she said. “Stand up.”
     Elise did. Beverly walked around her. “You look just like every other chit at every other ball we’ve been to this past month.”
     Elise resisted rolling her eyes. She knew that. Hadn’t she just been thinking it all morning? Beverly tugged at Elise’s short locks. “Granted, your hair is shorter, but it is very much the trend, now that you and your sister-in-law started the fashion. Why every woman with a backbone is liberating themselves of the nuisance of long hair.”
     Elise smiled at her best friend. “Yes but my layers just sit there, where your hair is fabulous, curling like it does.”
     “Elise, this will become a mutual admiring session if we let it. We simply must stay on task.”
     “Right.”
     “Now, let’s start with this dress. It’s all wrong. It’s a debutante’s dress. What you want is something more... womanly. Less frills and flounce, more daring. Are you following me?”
     “I believe I am,” Elise whispered, staring at the dress in the oval pier glass. “You’re right. That is what has been bothering me since I saw myself in the mirror.”
     “You need something more simple, but not white,” Beverly said as she continued to scrutinize Elise’s figure and dress. “No pastels, either. The only people who wear pastels are little girls and wall flowers.”
     “I don’t think my brother will allow me to make my debut in a scarlet peignoir, Beverly.” Just because she’d been daring in the past, she had to remember her goal–to become someone Michael would desire. She needed to be the kind of woman he would be attracted to, and want to marry.
     “No, I shouldn’t think he would. But he needn’t know what your gown does look like does he? And what about the duchess? Will she be assisting you on Saturday evening?”
     “I suppose I could manage with just Bridget.”
     “Yes you can. Now about your dress....”
     After several more long minutes, in which Elise and Beverly concluded the current dress just would not do, they sketched a design for a new dress. A dress that was sure to catch the eye of every man in attendance. Most hopefully, the new Earl of Camden.
     “What if we’re wrong?” Elise pondered, realizing that this feeling of doubt was new to her. If the stakes weren’t so high, she’d throw caution to the wind and go with her heart. “What if this backfires? We’re placing my entire future in the hands of a modiste.”
     “This will work. There is nothing in this design that is unorthodox. The dress is not immodest in any way. It is simply... simple. Which allows you to shine as the jewel you are. Her friend held up the sketch. “You, in this,” Beverly pointed at their design, “Lord Camden, will appreciate. I promise.”
     Elise pulled her bell cord and Bridget, Madame Fuichard and the seamstresses returned. Elise showed Madame the sketch and Madame looked about to faint, declaring the task, impossible in the few days remaining before her big ball.
     “This is a not a dress fit for a young mademoiselle making her debut to the world. This.... This ‘creation’ is perhaps something fit for a married woman wishing to court scandal.”
     “My lady,” Bridget stated, “One look at ye, when you come down to dinner, and they’ll be sending you right back up here to change into another gown.” The servant shook her red curls while she studied the drawing. “Ye won’t get away with it, I tell you.”
     Elise looked to the modiste. “Could you do both? Just in case that happens?”
     The modiste looked from Bridget to Elise. “My lady, there is not enough time to find the material and sew another new dress.”
     Not about to be discouraged from her latest stratagem, Elise gave a winsome smile to Madame Fuichard, then added, “I have enormous faith in you and your assistants, Madame, but if you say you cannot do it, then I shall see if Madame Robillard can squeeze me into her busy schedule.”
     Madame tapped her pencil on the dresser, studying the sketch closely. “It is a simple design, and I already have your measurements. But I must have two more seamstresses to complete your two dresses in time.... Oui! I will do it. All I need is the fabric selection.”
     “Wonderful! We shall go shopping for new fabric this minute. Unless Madame has something already in her shop that is suitable for this design in a color and shade to complement my complexion?”
     The woman returned Elise’s smile, either because of the opportunity to double her fee, or because she instinctively loved the idea of being known as dressmaker to the duke’s sister. “It just so happens I received the perfect material in my latest shipment from the east. In fact, it is so newly arrived I have not even cut into the bolt. It is a dark ivory silk. The color will be a perfect highlight for your hair, skin and eyes, and because you are so willowy and graceful, you will carry this masterpiece with exceptional flair. There will be none to match you on this night or the rest of the season, Mademoiselle.”
     “I wish to purchase the entire bolt, as I trust your judgment completely, Madame. Now, if you will create this dress,” she held up the sheet of heavy vellum, “for me alone, you will have my gratitude, as well as exclusivity as my dressmaker.”
     This seemed to please Madame immensely, and she assured Elise she would have a dress for her to try on in two days.
     Later, as the women gathered their belongings to leave the chamber, Elise reminded them of the need for secrecy. The last thing she needed was her brother getting wind of her intention and somehow foiling her plan.
     Once she locked the door behind them, she turned to her friend and said, “That went very well, don’t you think?”
     Beverly smiled and nodded. “Absolutely. Michael will not be able to dismiss you once you appear on the landing wearing that dress. His eyes will be riveted on you, the new Lady Elise Halden.”


     Early on Saturday morning, hoping to avoid the amazingly organized chaos that were the preparations for her ball, Elise and Beverly headed out the front door, prepared to go for their usual ride in the park. Unlike other young ladies, Elise and Beverly actually rode to enjoy their horses, not to be seen.
     “Thank you, Niles,” Elise said, as the butler held the door open.
     “Yes, thank you, Niles,” Beverly added right behind her.
     “It would not be remiss of me to remind you ladies of the evening ahead.”
     “How can I forget, dear Niles,” Elise replied, “My stomach is roiling because of nerves as it is. I’m hoping this ride will calm them so I can eat something before tonight.”
     Niles watched over the ladies as they waited for the grooms to come up with their horses. But before they arrived, a familiar dark green carriage bearing the gold-inlaid Camden crest pulled in front of the Upper Brook street home of the Duke of Caversham. The driver hopped down, opened the door, and lowered the steps. Out stepped the man Elise had fantasized about since she was eight years old.
     He had been the only person to pay attention to her when everyone else in her home was focused on their own lives. Her papa had just married Amelia, and her brother was away at University. When he did come home, Ren often brought his friend, Michael. Though Ren never gave a thought to her, much less time, Michael had been nice to her, even being older, he was friendly with her. They had horses in common, and would spend time discussing them.
     Of course when she mentioned how nice his friend was to her brother, he’d said that Michael had eyes for her governess at the time, and he needed Elise to give her good opinion of him to Miss Brody. That crushed her little girl heart, and she decided then she had to get that proposal out of the way. Because a proposal, according to her governess, was a promise made before God and unbreakable.
     So she did what any little girl would do to force an unwilling young man to come up to scratch. She stole his favorite horse.
     Michael removed his hat as he ascended the steps. His dark brown hair was slicked back as though he was fresh from a bath. Those familiar greenish-brown eyes, set wide on his face under a strong brow, held an amused twinkle to them this morning. The grin turning the corners of his well-formed wide lips upward was most contagious. Elise’s fingers just itched to trace his fine features, including the faint cleft in his chin. Even though he had a tiny ‘v’ shaped scar on his cheek from some childhood accident, he was too devastatingly handsome for his own good.
     It also bothered Elise that he knew she thought him handsome. Though she hadn’t told him so recently, she had told him just that in the past. She remembered the day years earlier, when she’d gone into the barn to find an angry Michael waiting on his horse. She told him he was too handsome to go through life scowling. He said nothing to her, just scowled as he took his horse’s reins, and left.
     Today he smiled. Which was irritating to her. Though to his favor, everything was irritating to her today. She knew she really needed to calm her thoughts before getting on her horse. The excitable little mare was doing well, but she really didn’t want to end up on the ground because she couldn’t control her own emotions.
     Michael’s light gray fine wool coat bore a black velvet mourning arm band to match the collar. The fabric stretched across his shoulders as though it was pasted to his broad back. A silver satin waistcoat adorned with onyx buttons hugged his trim waist. She could almost imagine him unbuttoning them, to relax over a game of cards or chess. In her fantasies it was to play with her, though he’d only ever played with her brother or one of their other friends.
     But what she wouldn’t give to have him relax in such a manner with her.
     His buff nankeen breeches looked as though his well-muscled thighs were poured into them, without a wrinkle in sight. She surmised that his fine boots probably took his valet hours to polish to their mirror shine. The man looked every bit the handsome rogue.
     Elise tried to appear bored and disinterested in his presence, even so far as feigning interest in the traffic on the street. But she knew she was not succeeding.
     He came up to them and extended his greeting His smile warm and genuine.
     Beverly curtsied and said, “My condolences on your uncle’s passing, Lord Camden.”
     “Yes,” Elise said when she turned to face him, bobbing a quick curtsy. “My condolences as well. I was fond of your uncle, and shall miss him.” She immediately turned away, as though staring down the street would bring the grooms out of the mews faster.
     “Thank you ladies, I appreciate your kind words.” He nodded to them. “Out for a ride on this fine morning?”
     Elise blurted out the first thing that came to her head. “No. We just thought we’d watch the traffic pass by in our best riding habits.”
     Beverly elbowed her and shot her a warning glare. Turning her full smile back to Michael, she said, “You must forgive her, my lord. Tonight’s festivities have left my friend on tenterhooks. Those she loves most have been the recipients of her stinging comebacks all morning. I am hoping perhaps this outing will bring back the sweet disposition I know Elise to have.”
     Elise just stared, slack-jawed at the excuses for her behavior pouring from her friend’s mouth. She wished it were possible to kick herself, for she would do so twice–once for her words, and again for her actions! Why, oh why, did she always turn her natural sarcasm on the only man she wanted to impress with her changed ways and new maturity?
     “Yes,” Michael replied, giving her a sympathetic smile. “Let’s hope this ride rids Lady Elise of her nerves before the evening’s big event.” Turning to Elise, he smiled. “Just remember to breathe deeply and relax. All will turn out well.”
     “Easy for you to say. It’s not your debut!” She did it again, snapped at him when she wanted to entice him.
     “You’re right, it’s not. But I’m only trying to help, Elise.”
     “In that case, may I have the first waltz, my lord? That is if you are not already spoken for?”
     He quirked an eyebrow, recognizing her brazen invitation, then returned, “Of course you may. The first, and the second too, if you’d like. Beyond that and we’ll set the gossip’s tongues to wagging for days.” Then he appeared to remember something. “You do have permission?”
     “Yes, we got it last year just before....” She stumbled on her reply, suddenly feeling embarrassed.
     “Just before her accident,” Beverly finished for her.
     “That’s right,” he said quickly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bring that up. Though I see all is well as you’re riding again.”
     “I fell down the stairs, not off a horse,” she reminded him.
     She nodded her head as the grooms led the horses forward–mares for Elise and Beverly, and a quiet gelding for the groomsman following as guard. Michael tipped his head and bid them a delightful ride.
     Once mounted and away from the house and the groom, Beverly turned her curly blond head to Elise, her eyes reproachful. “Just once, could you try not to be so shrewish around him? You have to give him a reason to want to be in your presence, or else all is lost.”
     “I know you are right. In my head I go through every possible scenario over and over, and plan how to comport myself in each situation. Inevitably, I never do what I rehearsed because my sarcastic mouth just takes over.” It was times like this when Elise thought she would drown in her despair.
     “Do you remember what Mrs. Pritchard taught us to do in these situations?”
     Elise shook her head. With her brain in the barn her entire life, Elise never paid much attention to their comportment teacher anyway. Which was why she was in this predicament in the first place.
     Beverly went on. “She said to close our eyes and count to three before we reply. First, it will make you appear less like a bounding colt and more the refined lady you should be, and secondly, you’ll appear more intelligent. As though you’d thought your answer through before replying. It’s what we all struggle for, isn’t it?”
     “Not everyone,” Elise replied. “I certainly don’t see those Corrigan girls attempting to appear more intelligent. And look at all the gentlemen circling them each night!”
     “We should be so lucky.”
     Both girls laughed as they turned under the arched entryway of the park. They followed the bridle path, keeping their horses at a walk, preferring to wait until they reached the far side of the lake to race–away from the prying eyes and condemning glances of others taking in the morning sunshine. But Elise’s mind wasn’t on the lovely morning, or even the Corrigan girls and all their beaus.
     “I cannot believe I actually asked him for the first waltz,” Elise said, hiding the excitement as best she could lest the filly beneath her begin to misbehave. God knows she didn’t need her debut postponed another year because of a silly accident.
     Her friend stated flatly, “I can.
     Elise sighed in frustration. She had to change. She had to temper her thoughts, her words and her actions. It was the only way for anyone–most especially Michael–to really believe she was different. Or, just as Beverly said, all would be lost, because the new Lord Camden would marry someone else.
     With a slight flick of the wrist, she gave a light tap of her crop behind the girth of her off-side, which sent her mare bounding forward. And Beverly left staring at her back.

 
     Michael Brightman, the new twelfth Earl of Camden, strode into the dining room at Caversham House, an unusual cheer rising within. Not just because it was a weekend, but because there was nothing needing his attention at his law office until Monday morning. It definitely didn’t have anything to do with seeing the little hellion out front. The fact that she was nervous about the night ahead told him she at least cared enough to present herself in a manner that would make her brother proud. That meant she was growing up.
     The little hellion, all grown up. Shocking thought that. Hopefully it meant no more interest in him.
     His mother’s departing words yesterday, only served to put pressure on him to fulfill his duty now that he had the title. He was, after all, the last and only male in his family of eleven women. She reminded him of the fact that the title would not just go into abeyance, it would, in fact die with him if he didn’t see to finding a wife.
     He knew this was part of the responsibility that came with inheriting the title. Still, Michael smiled, he had a reprieve. He had three months of mourning before he needed to begin his search for a bride. He wondered if this paragon of ladylike virtue, if she even existed, would mind if he continued his tradition of morning breakfast with his friends before work.
     Michael smiled and began his routine greeting to his friends, as he did most mornings, but as he came through the doorway, he tripped, catching himself on the jamb. Grinning sheepishly, he straightened his coat and said, “Good morning Your Grace,” he said to the duchess, “you are looking radiantly beautiful as usual.”
     “I’m sorry about all the disarray, my lord,” Her Grace replied. “I have been assured all the rolled carpets and boxes from the decorations will be out of the hallway before the festivities begin this evening.”
     He turned to his old friend and the current Duke of Caversham, and said, “And you look... just as you always do these days, like you want to strangle someone.” Michael proceeded to pile a plate high with eggs, kippers, and bacon, then took a seat across from the duchess and next to Ren. “So, who is it you want to kill this time?”
     “My sister perhaps? She’s been pain in my backside this past week,” he replied with just a hint of disgust to the tone of his voice.
     “Leave her be, husband,” the duchess said. “Her behavior is to be expected considering tonight is her ball. Since the season began, we’ve attended everyone else’s parties. Tonight is her big night.”
     Michael knew what a strong-willed chit Elise could be when her mind was set on something, so he had to sympathize with his friend on this. Except she was off. Like a slightly lame horse, where you can’t tell exactly where the thing is bothered, she was just... off.
     “She was looking rather piqued just now,” Michael commented. “Hopefully an invigorating ride will settle her some.” He swallowed a mouthful of food. “You can tell she’s nervous. She’s snapping like a shrew, and.... Wait, she’s always like that.” He winked at Ren. Michael actually found the whole discourse refreshing. Elise’s discomposure, while not something he’d laugh at, was out of the ordinary for her. That’s when he realized the stress of the night’s festivities was starting to wear on her.
     The good thing about tonight was, Elise was now on the marriage mart. Soon she would be locked away in the country at some poor fop’s estate, bearing the man’s offspring to continue his lineage. Strangely, the thought didn’t sit well with him. However, Elise was Ren’s problem. Not his.
     “Like I said before,” Ren replied, “I can’t wait to hand her off to some poor, unsuspecting chap, and get her out of my hair. She’s put more gray on my head these past months than I ever gave our father.”
     “Husband!” Her Grace chided.
     “You don’t mean that and you know it,” Michael said. “The gray hairs part might be true, but handing her off to some young, dunder-headed prig? That’s not what she needs. Elise requires someone who will appreciate her spirit and charm.” He lifted a forkful of egg to his mouth. “Not some spineless ninny or someone who will break her to his will like a horse to saddle.”
     Where did that come from? Why was he defending Elise? Looking out for her well-being? The disconcerting, gnawing feeling he’d experienced just now struck a chord in him. An irritating one at that. She wasn’t a girl to feel sorry for. She sat a horse better than he and was almost as good a shot with a pistol as he. Why, she was probably even a decent card and billiard player as well. He already knew she played a fair game of chess and backgammon.
     She was a sporting lady. Not one of those simpering ladies one felt sorry for.
     The chit was, and always had been, a nuisance–fancying herself in love with him since she could walk and talk. So numerous were the times she had placed herself in his path either to annoy him or, as she grew older hoping to catch his eye, that he long ago lost count. Though in all honesty she hadn’t done so in several years. And since Ren married and the Duchess and Elise had become friends, Michael had to admit he hadn’t seen much of her. The Duchess and Lady Beverly Hepplewhite, Elise’s friend and house guest, were both very good influences on her, helping her to mature nicely.
     Yes, she would make some horse-mad fop a decent enough wife, he thought.
     “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were talking about yourself,” Ren stated, matter-of-factly. “But I do know better, don’t I.”
     Michael hid his gaze from his friend. He swallowed the egg and sausage, determined to explore this peculiar feeling later. “Most certainly, Your Grace. I don’t need any added troubles under my roof. Have enough as it is, what with my mother and now my sisters pushing women at me–everything from barely-out-of-the-schoolroom misses to widows older than I. I certainly don’t need your hellion sister sharpening her claws on my fair heart. No, you know the safe route’s always the one for me.”


     The servants would later say amongst themselves that they all heard His Grace choke on the mouthful of food he’d been about to swallow. A footman stood poised to run for the family physician in case his presence became necessary. Thankfully, it was not.