Read A Not So Respectable Gentleman? Online

Authors: Diane Gaston

Tags: #Romance, #Historical Romance

A Not So Respectable Gentleman?

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Welbourne Manor’s prodigal son returns

Since Leo Fitzmanning returned to London, he’s kept his seat
at the card table warm, his pockets full of winnings and his mind off a certain
raven-haired heiress.

Until whispers at the gaming hell reveal that Miss Mariel
Covendale is being forced into marriage with an unscrupulous fortune hunter!

Leo must re-enter the society he detests to help her, before
returning to his clandestine existence. But he hasn’t counted on Mariel having
grown even more achingly beautiful than he remembers. Soon Leo realizes that
there’s
nothing
respectable about his reasons for
stopping Mariel’s marriage!

Mariel's throat constricted as they reached the corner of Hereford Street. She dreaded entering the house, facing her mother's unabashed joy at her impending marriage and her father's palpable relief.

Her spirits sank lower and lower as she and Penny neared the end of the road.

When they were within steps of the town house, its door opened and a man emerged.

He turned toward them and the sun illuminated his face. “Mariel?”

She froze.

This man was the one person she thought never to see again, never wished to see again. He was the man to whom she'd been secretly betrothed, the man who had inhabited her thoughts.

The man who had deserted her.

Leo Fitzmanning.

* * *

A Not So Respectable Gentleman?
Harlequin® Historical #1101—August 2012

Author Note

One of the delights of my writing career was collaborating with Amanda McCabe and Deb Marlowe on
The Diamonds of Welbourne Manor
anthology. We’d known each other and been friends even before our Harlequin days. In fact, we went on a Regency tour of England together, visiting Mayfair and Brighton and Bath, seeing all the Regency-era houses and museums. One of our highlights was a venture on our own through Hyde Park.

It was such a great thrill to be invited to do the anthology together. We were given carte blanche to create it any way we wished.

The three of us gathered for a weekend of history and brainstorming at Historic Williamsburg, Virginia, where we created The Fitzmanning Miscellany, the group of siblings and half siblings who became the heroes and heroines of our novellas and the connected books.

These characters just leaped from our imaginations that day, as if they were real people waiting for us to knock on their door and interview them.
A Not So Respectable Gentleman?
is Leo’s story and, sadly, the last of the Welbourne Manor series. It has been such a pleasure.

The Welbourne Manor books:

The Diamonds of Welbourne Manor
anthology
Snowbound and Seduced
by Amanda McCabe
The Shy Duchess
by Amanda McCabe
How to Marry A Rake
by Deb Marlowe
A Not So Respectable Gentleman?
by Diane Gaston

Diane Gaston

A Not So Respectable Gentleman?

Available from Harlequin®
Historical and DIANE GASTON

The Mysterious Miss M
#777
The Wagering Widow
#788
A
Reputable Rake #
800
Mistletoe Kisses
#823: “A Twelfth Night Tale”
Innocence and
Impropriety
#840
The Vanishing Viscountess
#879
Scandalizing the Ton
#916
The Diamonds of Welbourne Manor
#943:
“Justine and the Noble Viscount”
*
Gallant Officer, Forbidden
Lady
#972
*
Chivalrous Captain, Rebel Mistress
#1009
*
Valiant Soldier, Beautiful Enemy
#1057
A Not So Respectable Gentleman?
#1101

Did you know that some of these novels are
also available as ebooks? Visit
www.Harlequin.com
.

And in Harlequin Historical
Undone!
ebooks

The Unlacing of Miss Leigh
The Liberation of Miss
Finch

*
Three Soldiers

To Amanda McCabe and Deb Marlowe,
my fellow creators of
The Diamonds of Welbourne Manor
and its heroes and heroines, the Fitzmanning Miscellany

Prologue

Spring 1826

F
lames.

White hot, blinding red and orange and blue. Flames roaring like a dragon, weaving through the stable, crawling up the walls, devouring everything in its path.

Leo Fitzmanning still saw the flames, felt their heat, heard the screams of his horses, as he entered the mahogany-shelved library of a London town house. The scent of smoke lingered in his nostrils and his muscles ached from battling the fire for nearly two days.

One moment of inattention, one second of carelessness, had cost him his stable and two outbuildings. He'd failed to notice the peg holding the lantern had become loose. The lantern fell, spreading flames in an instant.

He blinked the vision away and faced the man he'd waited nearly a month to see.

Mr Cecil Covendale rose from the chair and extended his hand across the paper-cluttered desk. ‘Good day, Fitzmanning.' His manner seemed affable. That was a good sign. ‘How are you faring since the fire? You appear uninjured.'

News apparently travelled swiftly the ten miles between Welbourne Manor, on the outskirts of Richmond, and Mayfair.

‘Only minor burns, sir.' He accepted the older man's handshake.

The stables, his horses and two outbuildings would cost a great deal to replace, a fact of which Covendale was, no doubt, aware.

‘Word is you almost lost the house.' Covendale's expression showed only concern, not the disdain Leo expected in response to his failed enterprise. ‘What a pity that would have been.'

Not for those who would rejoice at seeing Welbourne Manor destroyed.
Recompense for its scandalous past,
they would say, although Leo aspired to revise its reputation. To Leo and his siblings, Welbourne Manor was a beloved place. He would never have forgiven himself if he'd lost their safe haven, the house where they spent their unconventional childhood.

‘The house is untouched.' Leo shrugged. ‘The rest can be rebuilt.'

If one had the money, that is. Would Covendale guess nearly all Leo's funds had been invested in the stud farm, now nothing but ashes?

His mind reeled with all the tasks he'd left undone by keeping this appointment. Finding stables for the few surviving horses. Making arrangements for his stable workers, who had suddenly lost the roof over their heads and all their worldly possessions. He'd left them at the Manor, raking through the ashes, making certain that no glowing embers hid beneath the debris, hungry for more destruction. He ought to be working beside them, preparing to rebuild.

But nothing would have kept him from this appointment with Covendale. The man had already put him off for weeks. Some matters were even more important than Welbourne Manor.

‘I presume you know why I wished to speak with you,' Leo began.

The smile faded from Covendale's face. ‘I do indeed.'

Hairs rose on the back of Leo's neck. Why the change in expression? ‘Your daughter told you?'

‘She did.' Covendale lowered himself into his chair. He did not ask Leo to sit.

Leo's muscles stiffened. ‘Then you know I have come to ask your permission to marry her.'

‘I do.' Covendale sighed and shook his head as if in dismay. ‘How do I proceed?'

Leo heard the fire's roar again. ‘I assure you, the loss of my stable is only a minor setback. Your daughter will want for nothing.'

Leo would recoup his losses, he vowed. He'd borrow the money from his brother if he had to. Rebuild his stables to be grander. Make his stud farm even more prosperous, more respected.

‘Perhaps.' Covendale winced. ‘But—'

Leo cut him off. ‘Are you concerned about her inheritance? I have no need of her inheritance.'

Mariel's great-aunt had bequeathed her a considerable fortune, to be bestowed upon her at age twenty-five if she remained unmarried, sooner if she married with her father's approval. If her marriage did not meet her father's approval, however, the fortune would be forfeited to some obscure and frivolous charity.

Leo pressed on. ‘I ask your approval of our marriage only because I will not have Mariel give up her money for me.'

Leo and Mariel had discussed this. She'd insisted her father would never approve of Leo. They'd considered running off to Scotland, but even though Mariel did not care about the money she stood to lose by eloping, she did care about the scandal it would cause her family, especially her younger sisters. Leo also had no wish for scandal. He planned to gain society's respect by producing the finest horses in England, even finer than his brother Stephen's horses. Furthermore, Leo would not take a penny of Mariel's money. It would always remain under her control.

He gave Covendale a steady look. ‘I assure you, the money will remain in Mariel's hands. I will sign papers to that effect. We can make the arrangement before the marriage, if you like.'

Covendale raised a hand. ‘Enough, Fitzmanning. This matter between you and my daughter has come as a complete surprise to me. I knew nothing of this—this—courtship before Mariel informed me why you sought an appointment.'

Leo had no defence for the secrecy, except that Mariel had desired it. ‘Mariel and I have known each other since childhood, as you well know. She and my sisters have remained friends. We became reacquainted while she visited with them.'

In January, amidst Charlotte's wailing children and her barking pugs, Leo had found Mariel again. No longer was she the annoying girl with plaited hair who'd joined his sisters in trailing after him. Mariel had transformed into a woman so lovely that, for that first moment of glimpsing her again, he'd forgotten how to breathe. They met again at Charlotte's house and eventually contrived further meetings in secret. No one knew of their attachment, of the strong bond that quickly grew between them. No one knew that Mariel was the reason Leo left his brother's employ to establish his own stud farm. To make a loving, respectable home for her at Welbourne Manor.

Covendale waved a hand. ‘Never mind that. When did you last speak with my daughter?'

It had been the day they'd discussed setting up this meeting. ‘About a month ago.'

Since then there had been no opportunity to contact her. He'd thrown himself into setting up his farm to keep from missing her and to make the time fly.

Covendale glanced away, seeming to mull over something. He rubbed his face and turned back to Leo. ‘A month can be a long time. Much can happen.'

Leo sprang towards the desk and came within inches of Covendale's nose. ‘Has something happened to Mariel? I demand you tell me. Is she ill? Is she hurt?'

‘Neither!' The man recoiled. ‘She is betrothed!'

Leo stepped back. His brow knit in confusion. ‘Betrothed? Yes. She is betrothed to me.'

‘Not to you.' Covendale glanced away. ‘She is betrothed to Lord Ashworth.'

Ashworth?

Edward Ashworth?

Ashworth had been a schoolmate of Leo's, an affable boy who'd grown into a decent man. He was titled, wealthy and well liked by everyone, the epitome of an ideal husband.

Covendale handed Leo a sheet of paper. ‘It is all arranged. Here is the special licence. I could show you the marriage settlement papers....'

Mariel's and Ashworth's names were written legibly on the sheet of paper that allowed couples to marry elsewhere than a church and which waived the reading of the banns. The paper was signed by the Archbishop.

Leo shoved the paper back to Covendale. ‘Does Mariel know of this?'

Covendale coughed. ‘Of course she knows of it.'

‘I would speak with her, sir. Send for her.' Mariel would never do this. Not without telling him.

‘She is not here.' Her father raised his shoulders. ‘She and her mother are in Herefordshire at Ashworth's estate.'

At Ashworth's estate?

Leo forced himself to meet and hold Covendale's gaze. Inside, his emotions flamed like the stable's burning rafters.

Why would she go there, if not...?

Covendale went on. ‘Ashworth is a fine man, from a decent family. His is an old title. Mariel is not a foolish girl. She knows this is an excellent match for her. A real step up.' He made a mollifying gesture. ‘You must look at this situation from my point of view. Do I approve your suit or the suit of a young man who possesses a title? Who will be better for my daughter?'

Leo glared at him. ‘You cannot force Mariel to marry. She is of age.'

‘I am not forcing her,' the man insisted. ‘Her age is of issue, of course. That cannot be ignored. At twenty-one she's practically on the shelf. Her mother and I despaired of her ever making a good match. I believe she herself was becoming somewhat desperate—but, then, perhaps that is why she considered marrying you.'

Leo ignored that put-down. ‘No. We pledged our devotion to each other.' Mariel's love was genuine. He would wager everything he possessed upon it.

Although most of what he possessed was now mere ashes.

Covendale clucked. ‘Devotion? My poor, poor fellow. Devotion is fleeting. Whatever pretty words passed between you and my daughter are no match for what really matters.'

‘And that is?' The fire again roared in Leo's ears.

Covendale shifted in his chair. ‘A good name. Connections. Status in society.' He leaned closer. ‘That is what my daughter desires and deserves. She will not have that if she marries you.'

So that was it? Good name? Status? Leo intended to build those things for himself. And he was not without connections. His father and King George had been fast friends, for God's sake.

Covendale smiled. ‘Like all young women, she wishes to marry respectably.'

Leo's fists tightened. ‘Have I ever conducted myself in any way that was not respectable?'

‘Not that I've heard.' The man wagged his finger at Leo. ‘With the exception of courting my daughter in secret.'

Leo burned as if the flames continued to surround him.

Covendale made another mollifying gesture. ‘You must look at this situation rationally. Given a choice, Mariel cannot debase herself with—with a man of your birth.'

A bastard, he meant.

‘Your father, for all his titles and high friends, flouted the manners of proper society. What is more, he and your equally scandalous mother reared you in a most amoral atmosphere....'

Was this explanation necessary? Leo had always lived with knowledge of his origins.

His father, the Duke of Manning, left his wife to set up housekeeping at Welbourne Manor with the equally married Countess of Linwall. They lived together for twenty years in unmarried, free-spirited bliss, producing Leo and his two sisters from their unsanctified union. His father's two legitimate sons, Nicholas, now the duke, and Stephen, a successful horse-breeder, spent nearly as much of their childhood at Welbourne Manor as Leo did. Also reared there was Justine, Leo's half-sister by a French woman his father bedded before meeting his mother.

Society called the lot of them The Fitzmanning Miscellany. But not to Leo's face, not if they wished to avoid broken bones.

Leo's hand curled into a fist. ‘My brothers were reared at Welbourne Manor.' Except Brenner, his mother's legitimate son, the current Earl of Linwall. Leo and his siblings had not known Brenner until after their parents died. ‘Do you consider them scandalous?'

‘Of course I do!' Covendale exclaimed. ‘But they are legitimate. Society accepts them for that reason alone. You, however, would not be accepted anywhere if not for the fact that your father was a duke. It was the only reason I ever allowed Mariel to befriend your sisters.'

Leo damned well knew society merely tolerated him. And his sisters. The difference between being the legitimate son and being the bastard had always been made crystal clear to him.

Truth be told, even his brothers treated him differently, albeit out of love for him. Nicholas and Stephen were forever trying to shield him from the consequences of his birth, to make it up to him for the shabby treatment by others. Their efforts were almost as painful as the barbs he'd endured as a schoolboy. Or the cuts, as an adult.

Society expected him to become a libertine like his father, but he was determined to prove society wrong. From the time he'd been a mere lad, he'd made certain his behaviour was unblemished.

A man should be judged by his own character. And by his achievements. Leo intended to reach the pinnacle in both.

Mariel understood that. She'd supported him. Admired his drive. It had never mattered to her that his father had not been married to his mother. She'd loved
him.

Leo faced Covendale and looked directly into his eyes. ‘I do not believe any of this. This daughter you speak of is not the Mariel I know. She would not marry merely for a title. It is impossible.'

The older man pursed his lips. ‘Well, there is also your financial situation. A stud farm is nothing to Ashworth's fortune. And now, with the fire, you have several buildings to replace, not to mention livestock. Even if we could ignore the vast inequality between your birth and that of Ashworth, you presently have nothing to offer my daughter.'

The fire. For all Leo's grand thoughts about achieving the pinnacle of respect, the ashes of his former dream revealed his failure.

Covendale turned all sympathy. ‘I realise this is difficult for you. It is difficult for me that she left it to me to inform you, but I assure you, Ashworth came courting her and it has resulted in this.' He picked up the special licence.

Leo shook his head. ‘She would have contacted me. Told me herself if her sentiments had changed.'

Her father held up a finger. ‘It almost slipped my mind. Mariel did leave word for you. She wrote you a note.' Covendale opened a drawer and withdrew a sealed, folded sheet.

Leo took the paper from the man's hand and broke the seal.

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