Authors: April Kihlstrom
THE COUNTERFEIT BETROTHAL
A more incompatible couple than Lord Jeremy Barnett and Miss Emmaline Delwyn could not be found in the realm.
Jeremy was the most scandalously successful rake in London. His escapades were infamous, his conquests legion, and his conscience totally lacking.
Emmaline was a well brought up young lady who had devoted herself to caring for her infirm father far from society’s pleasures and temptations.
But now their respective parents had decreed that the two must wed—and both the libertine lord and the perfectly proper miss agreed to defeat this plan ... if only Jeremy could keep his pledge to resist Emmaline’s untouched beauty ... and if Emmaline could hold fast to her vow not to yield to love...
Barnett stood at the window of his richly appointed library, his hands clasped behind his back as he watched with ill-concealed agitation for his son’s carriage to appear. That the boy had been sent a summons meant little, he feared, unless Jeremy chose, for reasons of his own, to acknowledge it. This somber reflection led the baron to sigh and wish, not for the first time, that his wife had lived. Or that he had had the resolution to remarry at some point in the past twenty-eight years so that someone might have taken Jeremy in hand and exerted a calming influence upon the boy.
Gilbert Barnett was sufficiently vain to feel that he would have had no difficulty in finding someone suitable to become the second Lady Barnett. In this case vanity coincided with reality. Even now, at fifty-two, Barnett was a remarkably handsome man. He was, moreover, in excellent health and had the prospect of a good many years ahead of him if family tradition held true. Indeed, Barnett’s own physician had once jokingly suggested that the Barnetts obviously had access to the
As if an aristocratic heritage and a prepossessing appearance were not enough, Gilbert also was the owner of an extremely large estate. The Barnetts had combined financial prudence with advantageous marriages to produce an ever-increasing family fortune. There had never been a rake in the family. At least not until Jeremy, Lord Barnett’s son. Previous Barnetts had been content with quiet existences in the countryside except for the occasional ventures to London, particularly for the purpose of finding a wife, and Gilbert had even managed to avoid that, marrying his childhood sweetheart from one of the neighboring estates.
Jeremy, on the other hand, had, at his own request been sent off to school at an early age to be educated and then, upon leaving Eton and being cashiered from Cambridge, gone straight to London, returning only when expressly summoned by his father. It was an arrangement that seemed to suit both men perfectly. Or had until now. Disquieting rumors about his son’s activities were reaching Lord Barnett and in response he had issued his current command.
As he watched, Barnett saw his son’s curricle come down the drive and he hastily moved away from the window. On no account did he wish Jeremy to know he had been watching for him. Instead he rang for the footman and gave orders—for perhaps the tenth time—concerning his son’s arrival.
Jeremy Barnett found the occasion no less disquieting than Lord Barnett. He had long since ceased to look for affection from his father but he had not yet lost all hope of a grudging acceptance.
Some might have argued that the life he led was quite certain to ensure the direct opposite but logic was not what drove Jeremy Barnett. What drove him was a lifetime of alternating inattention and blame from his father for having been born on the precise day that his mother had died. At eight and twenty Jeremy Barnett appeared every inch the hardened rake, particularly when he stood, as now, on ancestral ground.
Hargraves, who opened the door to him, was delighted to see young Barnett. “Master Jeremy,” he said in a tone of intense gratification, “how pleasant to see you, sir. And may I say that you look very fine in that coat?”
Jeremy smiled unabashedly as he handed over the coat with its capes to Hargraves, not minding in the least the liberty taken by this old family retainer. The servants at Barnett Hall had always seemed more his family than his own father. “How are you, Hargraves?” he demanded. “You look as healthy as ever! And how is Mrs. Hargraves?”
“Anxious to see you again, sir,” the butler answered with a smile of his own. “As is his lordship. P’rhaps I’d best take you to the library straight away.”
“In the devil of a mood, is he?” Jeremy asked lightly.
Hargraves coughed. “As to that, I believe more than I have ever known him to be. I should step warily, Master Jeremy. He has been looking like thunder itself these past two weeks.”
Those words abruptly enlightened young Barnett. “Heard about the incident at Covent Gardens, has he?” Jeremy said, more to himself than to anyone else. He managed, nevertheless, to clap Hargraves on the shoulder and reassure him lightly, “I shall come about, Hargraves, I always do.”
Jeremy paused at the doorway. He had always hated this room, with its dark furniture and bookcases and heavy blue velvet curtains. It was too much his father’s room for him to ever feel at ease there, though he dearly loved to read. Unconsciously Jeremy squared his shoulders and reminded himself that he had never yet failed somehow to placate his father. Upon entering the library, however, and seeing his father’s face, Jeremy found he was no longer so certain that he would be able to do so this time. Both men stood looking at one another. They were in such marked contrast in their dress that had the family features not been stamped so prominently upon both faces one might have wondered if they were strangers.
Each eyed the other with something akin to distaste. Lord Barnett wore the comfortable clothes of a country gentlemen. Jeremy wore yellow pantaloons that might have been molded to his figure at the same time as the brown coat of superfine. The boots were polished and the neckcloth tied with the skill of one who had spent many hours in practice. And his hair was curled and scented while a
quizzing glass dangled from a velvet ribbon around his neck. Gilbert snorted in disgust.
Jeremy bowed ironically. “How distressed I am, Father, that my attire is not to your liking. I am desolate.”
Angrily Gilbert waved his son to a chair. “Have done with your nonsense,” he said. “I’ve no mind for it today. You only confirm me in my decision.”
“And what decision is that, pray tell, Father?” Jeremy asked in a mincing voice that would have gone unrecognized by any of his London acquaintances.
“That you must be married at once,” the elder Barnett retorted.
For a moment there was absolute silence in the room. When Jeremy spoke again, his voice was dangerously quiet as he said, “Have I mistaken you, Father, or did you say that you have decided I must be married at once?”
“You heard me, right enough,” Gilbert replied briskly. “I had not meant to come to the point so bluntly but as I have, I shall not back down.”
“And have you, er, chosen my bride as well?” Jeremy asked, looking at his impeccably manicured nails.
“I have. But I am perfectly willing to listen should you wish to propose some other young lady instead. Provided, of course, that she is of good family and good reputation,” Lord Barnett said generously.
Jeremy’s gaze became fixed upon his boots. In a thoughtful voice he said, “Odd, I had not realized I was breeding, or that any female of my most intimate acquaintance was in the family way. Nor have I compromised any gently bred ladies of late. Therefore I fail to see why I
be married immediately.”
“This is not a matter for jesting!” Gilbert thundered as his fist slammed the desk before him.
“I did not think it was,” Jeremy replied curtly. “I repeat, I fail to see why I must be married at once.”
“Because if not, I shall cut you off without a penny,” Lord Barnett replied, speaking each word quite distinctly.
Jeremy’s eyebrows rose but his voice was steady as he said, “Disinherit me, Father? I had not thought the estate allowed it.”
Barnett’s lips twitched. “No, you know very well I cannot disinherit you,” he said more calmly. “But my death is most likely a good many years away. At least I intend to take care to see that it is. No, I mean that should you refuse to obey my wishes in this matter I shall cut off your very generous allowance completely and you shall be cast upon your own resources until the day that I die. And since you have already run through the inheritance left by your mother, I think you shall not find that a very comfortable existence. Particularly as I shall also send word to the moneylenders of London that I shall be most angry if they lend you funds and shall pursue every legal possibility to tie up the estate so that you will be unable to repay them.”
Now Jeremy did go very still. When he spoke, it was as though he was feeling his way. “What you propose amounts to either starvation or the despicable existence of depending upon charitable friends for every need until your existence is ended. Unless you have an alternative proposal such as buying me colors and allowing me to enter the military,” he added. “Of course, I may be considered a trifle old for that but—”
Barnett shook his head. “That I shall never do. So I promised your mother before she died and so I shall keep my promise.”
“Just because her brother died—”
“That is quite enough!” Barnett thundered. “The matter is not open to discussion. I shall keep my promise. What is open to discussion is your marriage. I have had reports of you from London that quite convince me I can no longer allow you free rein. Nor, it seems, can I control you myself. But perhaps a sensible marriage will serve to steady your nature, and at the very least it may provide an heir for the estate in the likely event you bring about your own demise in the very near future.”
“I see. Covent Gardens?” Jeremy hazarded.
“Covent Gardens,” Gilbert confirmed. “Though that is merely the latest in a long string of outrages. Well? I await your answer.”
Parrying for time, Jeremy asked with a lightness he did not feel, “Am I permitted to ask who is this estimable female you have chosen for my bride-to-be?”
“Certainly,” Lord Barnett replied, his normal color beginning to return. “I have in mind Emmaline Delwyn. Her family has known ours for years, and you have known her almost since her birth. The Delwyns are an excellent family and Emmaline herself a sensible, dutiful child. One cannot ask for better qualities in a wife.”
Jeremy tried to summon up an image of the girl and could not. Although he had once known her well, that was some years ago and he could only recall that she seemed very young and very pert and something of a nuisance. It was her father he had usually gone to see. “How old is she now?” he asked mildly.
“Twenty?” Jeremy sat up abruptly. “Good God, is she such an antidote that an excellent family and reasonable portion have not been sufficient to send her off?”
“Nothing of the sort,” Barnett retorted angrily. “While I do not say she is a beauty, she is certainly not disagreeable in her appearance. You would have nothing to be ashamed of in that respect. She has not been properly launched because she has spent the last several years nursing her father, who is ill. As you very well know. In any event, there has been no one to do it, as both her sisters married some years ago and her mother died of the ague shortly after that.”
“I see. How comforting to be reassured as to her estimable qualities,” Jeremy said sarcastically. “So I am to call upon this paragon of virtue and become betrothed to her in what length of time? A week? A month? Six months?”
“Not betrothed, married,” the elder Barnett replied. “Her father is upon his deathbed and I should not like his death to come before you can be married. It would delay matters far too long.”
“Of course,” Jeremy agreed mockingly.
“You need not sneer,” Gilbert said angrily. “I have not said you must marry Emmaline Delwyn. I am quite prepared to listen if you have any other names to put forward.”
Jeremy waved a hand. “No, no, I’ve no one else to suggest. I do, however, have a question, Father. You have the means to compel me, or so you believe, to marry Miss Delwyn, but what in God’s name makes you believe she will marry me?”
“She is a good girl and will do as her father tells her,” Barnett said gruffly. “Sir Osbert is as anxious as I am to see his child settled, and he knows I can be counted upon to look after her if the two of you should marry.”
Jeremy’s eyes widened in astonishment. “Do you mean to say, sir, that you have already discussed this with Sir Osbert?”
Barnett answered testily, “I have just said so, haven’t I? Sir Osbert and I are old friends. It is he who mentioned his concern about Emmaline’s future. Naturally it came to mind when I reached my decision that you must marry. We have not, however, spoken to the girl herself; that is up to you.”
“How kind,” Jeremy murmured.
“Now that is just what I will not tolerate!” Lord Barnett thundered. “If you do decide to offer for the girl you will do so with dignity and courtesy not with mocking humor. She is not to know the reason for the marriage and you are to be a proper husband to her.”
“I am to pledge undying love, I suppose?” Jeremy countered.
“Of course not,” Barnett replied. “That would be neither called for nor expected. Emmaline Delwyn is not some foolish chit who will expect nonsensical declarations of love. It is enough that she should suppose you wish to marry her because you have decided that she will make a suitable wife.”
“I repeat, what if she will not have me?” Jeremy asked blandly.
“Should you decide to ask her,” Barnett said
, “you will see to it that she does accept you. That should not be difficult if I am to credit half the tales of your charm with the ladies. But it is up to you. Marriage, to Emmaline Delwyn or any other young lady who meets with my approval, or you are cut off without a penny while I live. Which is it to be?”
“Since you stipulate that the young woman must meet with your approval, I have no alternative suggestion,” Jeremy replied lazily. “Emmaline Delwyn I suppose it must be since I choose neither to starve nor to throw myself upon the mercy of my friends.”
“What friends?” Lord Barnett snorted under his breath.
Jeremy ignored the interruption and went on, “I shall call upon Miss Delwyn the next time I am home. Right now I must be returning to London. I have pledged myself to be at a certain party tonight and—”
“And you are going nowhere,” Lord Barnett cut short his son’s excuses. “When you leave here, it is either as a married man or as a pauper. Until then you stay.”
Jeremy Barnett fell back into the chair he had half risen from. “I see,” he said grimly. “I shall give you my answer tomorrow after I have seen this vision of virtue you insist upon casting my way.”