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His Lady Deceived excerpt

Chapter 1

 Lady Sarah Milton was quite certain her mother would not be sitting here in Lady Landis’s parlor, paying a morning call and for all the world appearing to be on the best of terms with the odious woman if said woman were not the mother of a Most Eligible Matrimonial Prospect. Indeed, Sarah herself could not remember a time when that son, Alfred Wickham, had not been responsible for a prodigious fluttering in her own chest on the rare occasions when she beheld his tall, handsome presence at Almack’s.

On each of these occurrences, she had prayed he would take notice of her and do her the goodness of asking her to stand up with him. But Alfred Wickham was not attracted to the debutantes at Almack’s. Only the obligation of dancing with his sister or his cousin, now the Duchess of Radcliff, had forced him to those assembly rooms. The indulged only son and heir of the wealthy Viscount Landis not only had no interest in respectable young ladies, it was said he dallied with women of the worst sort—when he wasn’t thoroughly absorbed with sporting pursuits of every manner.

Alfred Wickham attended the race meetings at Newmarket. He engaged in high-stakes play at White’s. And Lady Landis’s son was sure to be at the center of any gathering of cheering men wagering on an outcome, whether it be pugilists engaged in fisticuffs or a pair of cocks tearing into each other, blood-tinged feathers flying. The newspapers were full of Alfred Wickham’s exploits.

“My dear Lady Landis,” Sarah’s mother said, “it must be nearing your daughter’s time. Your first grandchild, is it not?”

A satisfied smile swept over their hostess’s face. “Yes. Any day now. The earl is, quite naturally, hoping for an heir.”

Lady Babington nodded. “But as you and I know, daughters can be most dear and such a comfort.”

“Indeed. I will be with my dear Em at Christmas. We might even have a Christmas babe!”

She flicked a gaze at Sarah, then looked back at that young woman’s mother. “I am so gratified you and your beautiful daughter have honored me today, Lady Babington.” Lady Landis handed her a delicate porcelain cup resting on an eggshell-thin saucer. Then her gaze settled on Sarah.

Lady Landis must have been a beauty when she was a young woman. She was still lovely. Alfred had gotten his height from his statuesque mother, but he did not inherit her auburn hair. His dark hair had come from his father. Sarah had never before considered Lady Landis’s beauty, likely because of the woman’s abrasive personality. Lady Landis dismissed anyone who wasn’t titled. Because Sarah’s father was an earl, Lady Landis had always groveled in her mother’s presence and had been exceedingly solicitous of Sarah.

“Since you came out, my dear Lady Sarah,” their hostess said, pausing and lowering her brows. “How many years ago was that now?”

Most young women who had been out as long as Sarah without attracting a husband would be embarrassed to admit how long it was, but Sarah was not. She had received many offers of marriage, but none of the men had appealed to her in that special way. As she sat here in Alfred Wickham’s home she found herself wondering if she would have looked favorably upon an offer from him. It was difficult to say since she had never spoken to him. But the very notion sent her heartbeat thumping. “I was seventeen when I was presented. I am two-and-twenty now.”

Mama’s face screwed up with distaste. “My daughter is very discriminating. Too discriminating. She’s turned down countless offers—one from a marquess even. I keep telling her if she continues being so particular she’ll find herself a hopeless spinster who’s lost her beauty.”

Lady Landis shook her head. “I cannot image the lovely Lady Sarah ever losing her beauty.” Her gaze returned to Sarah. “As I was saying, from the day you came out, I told myself, that’s the girl for my Alfred.”

Sarah felt as if the breath were trapped in her chest. If she were called upon to respond, she was not sure she could summon her voice. Alfred Wickham and her? Just putting voice to such a dream set her heartbeat racing. Lady Landis suddenly became Sarah’s ally.

“Of course, at that time my dear boy was not interested in settling down, but it’s time Alfred began thinking about . . . well, it’s time he grow up. He’s thirty now, you know. One cannot live one’s life solely for sport.”

Did his mother not know about the opera dancers? Her Alfred was not a little boy any more.

Lady Landis continued smiling at Sarah. Was Sarah supposed to respond? Oh, dear. She cleared her throat. “I’m greatly flattered, my lady. I do believe, though, your son might wish to weigh in on a topic so close to his own future. You see, we don’t know each other. I don’t believe we’ve ever been introduced, and I’m quite certain we’ve never spoken.”

“Oh, but our families are close. I’ve always known that when the time came, you would be the perfect wife for Alfred. The Babingtons are the best kind of people, and quite frankly, only a beauty would do for someone as handsome as my boy. You’re the prettiest of all the peers’ daughters. And I have the perfect plan to acquaint you and my dear boy.”

Wife. Sarah’s heart raced. Her brows shot up.

Lady Babington’s brows lowered.

Both ladies watched Lady Landis with their breaths held.

Lady Landis’s coy smile fanned from Lady Babington to her daughter. “Our whole family—including my daughter, the Countess of Dunsford—will be spending Christmas with our dear niece, the Duchess of Radcliff, at their country home, and the duchess has extended the invitation to your family. Oh, do say you’ll come. It will be smashing fun. The duke’s great friend Mr. Twickingham will be there, too, and he’s terribly amusing.”

Sarah’s gaze swung to her mother. To her astonishment—since she knew her mother did not admire Lady Landis—her mother said, “What a wonderful Christmas it would be! Our own country house is undergoing renovations, and I was so dreading spending Christmas in London. I’ve heard that the Duke of Radcliff’s Hedley Hall is magnificent.” Mama eyed Sarah. “Of course, if Sarah is opposed to the idea, we need not go.”

Sarah did not answer for a moment. “I am not opposed to spending Christmas at Hedley Hall.” Though she could not bring herself to say it, she was not opposed to an alliance between herself and the handsome Alfred Wickham, either.

Lady Landis clapped her bejeweled hands and smiled gleefully. “Wonderful.”

“But,” Sarah added, “I will have no part in entrapping your son into matrimony.”

“Oh, but my dear Lady Sarah,” Alfred’s mother said, “leave that to me. You need only be your beautiful self. I feel it in my bones. When Alfred is removed from all those wicked sporting influences and sees your loveliness, he will be snared by Cupid’s arrow.” The lady’s face went solemn. Her eyes narrowed. “I do hope you’re not offended by this whole idea. Could you be attracted to my boy?”

Lady Landis was no fool. She knew very well how attractive Alfred was to females of five to fifty.

“If your boy were attracted to me, I daresay I could find him  . . . most promising.”

* * *

Lord Hugh Pottinger looked up from White’s faro table at his best friend. “I say,Wick, why in devil have you not taken off your coat and muffler? You’re getting snowflakes everywhere.”

His friend effected an angry face. “Because I’m not staying. Come, Potts. I need you.”

Pottinger sighed. It went against his placid nature to defy his friend. It had been that way ever since they’d been together at Eton. Always, he’d done Alfred’s bidding, and for that, Alfred deeply valued this man’s friendship. It was really beastly the way he took advantage of Potts’s unwavering loyalty, but there was nothing he wouldn’t do for Potts.

Frowning, Potts got up from the gaming table. “What’s so bloody urgent?”

“I need you. My coach is waiting. I’ll explain there.”

Pottinger gathered up his coat, hat, and muffler and bundled up against the December chill before leaving their club. Alfred directed his coachman to take them to Pottinger House on Piccadilly.

“Why are we going to my house? The night’s young.”

“Because you’re going to be packing. Or you’re going to instruct your man to pack.”

“Pack for what?”

“I need you to come with me to Radcliff’s Hedley Hall for Christmas.”

“But I don’t precisely know Radcliff. Why should I spend Christmas at his house?”

“Because I’m going to be there. I don’t want you to be all alone at Christmas.”

Potts pursed his lips. “Since when did it matter to you how I spend my Christmas?”

“Ever since your father died, I’ve been greatly concerned about you being alone at Christmas—what with your brothers off fighting in the Peninsula and in the Royal Navy and your sisters living in the Great Beyond.”

“Now see here, Wick. If you’re so adamant that I come, there’s got to be a compelling reason, a reason that benefits Alfred Wickham. Now spill it, dear friend.”

“First and foremost, I cannot tolerate two weeks at a country home filled with couples wallowing in marital bliss.”

Potts shuddered. “Know how much you dislike the notion of marital anything.”

His friend did most thoroughly understand him. “That’s why I need you there with me.”

“Well, since you put it that way. Might as well.” Potts shrugged. “No fun spending Christmas in the city all by one’s self.”

“There is one other matter. . .”

Potts drew a deep breath. “I knew it!”

“It’s just a small thing. You see, my mother’s got a bee in her bonnet about marrying me off.”

Potts’s eyes grew large, then he burst into laughter. Loud, explosive laughter.

“It’s not remotely funny.”

As the coach stopped in front of the Pottinger baronial mansion, Potts finally managed to curtail his merriment, turn to his friend, and ask. “Does your mother not understand your extreme aversion to parson’s mousetrap?”

Alfred frowned. “I think it’s Papa. He’s devilishly angry about my gambling losses. He says if I were a responsible married man, I wouldn’t keep acting like a youth just down from Oxford. Then when he goes off on one of his tangents like that, Mama pops up with her praise of some earl’s daughter. Says she’s known for years this is THE very girl for me.”

“Pray, who is she?”

“Name’s Lady Sarah Milton. Can’t say that I’ve ever met her—though there was a Milton fellow with us at Eton . . .”

“Yes. A Year ahead of us, Lord John Milton. I believe he’s been serving in the Peninsula for some time now.”

“Me either, though I’ve heard the name.”

The coachman opened the door, and Potts disembarked first.

Just as Alfred was stepping down, Potts whirled around. “Now that I think about it, I remember something else about Lady Sarah Milton!”

“Pray tell, why?”

“That’s the girl who broke poor Fox’s heart. Remember how he kept praising her beauty?”

“That’s the one?”

Potts nodded. “Fox was determined to marry her, but she turned him down, along with his sixty thousand a year and the chance to be a marchioness.”

“Then it may be my good fortune that the lady must be holding out for a duke.”

“But I’ll lay you ten to one she’s a great beauty. Maybe you will fall in love with her.”

Now it was Alfred who laughed heartily. “Have you ever known me to be enamored of a well-bred lady?”

“Can’t say that I have.”

A footman in turquoise livery opened the door for the two men.

“If I recall, it’s been at least four years since Fox was smitten,” Alfred said. “If the lady’s still unmarried, I cannot believe she’s any worthy prize.”

“There is that,” Lord Pottinger conceded.

“And even if she were a great beauty, you know I don’t want to be trapped in marriage. Not until I’m much older.”

Potts sighed. “Remember when we used to think thirty was ancient?”

Alfred smiled. “And now I think of it as the prime of life. Think of how many more opera dancers and actresses there are out there.”

“Not to mention Italian contessas.” Potts had recently had an affaire de coeur with a beautiful Italian widow.

One thing both men had in common: neither had ever fancied himself in love with a respectable young Englishwoman.

As they climbed the stairs to Potts’s bedchamber, Potts turned back. “Has it occurred to you the lady might fall in love with you? You know, most woman do seem to be affected by you in that way.”

“That’s why you’re coming with me.”

“I don’t understand.”

They had reached the second-flood landing and turned toward the baron’s bedchamber.

“You have to convince her that an alliance with me would be disastrous.”

“Why would that be?”

“You will need to make the lady aware of all my wretched habits.”

“Tell her about your long-running losing streak in the betting book at White’s?”

“Yes.”

“And about how you’ll just take off to Newmarket whenever the mood strikes, even if there’s an important vote in Parliament?’

“Yes, that too.”

As they entered Potts’s bedchamber, Alfred’s brows lowered. “I thought you were going to redecorate this chamber after your father died. With all this crimson and gilt, it looks like a bloody brothel.”

Potts shrugged. “I kept meaning to, but you know I’m hopeless with things like that. What colour would you suggest?”

“You ask me about colour when my very freedom’s at stake? How should I know about colour? It’s not exactly in my line of expertise. There are, though, men at White’s who are noted tastemakers. I daresay you should consult one of them.”

“That’s the very thing! I shall.” Potts tossed his hat and gloves on a silk settee of faded red. “Now as to those wretched habits you wish me to apprise Lady Sarah of .  .  . do you want me to tell her how you fence at Angelo’s without a mask so she’ll be aware that your handsome face could become mutilated—or you could be blinded when your eyes are gouged out?”

“Of course. That should thoroughly repulse the lady.”

“What else?”

“You could tell her I have an understanding with a beautiful actress on the London stage.”

Potts’s brows hiked. “I thought I knew everything about you! How could you keep something like this from me? What’s her name?”

“Whose name?

“The actress with whom you have an understanding.”

“Don’t be such a fool. I have no understanding with any woman, nor do I plan to have an understanding with any woman.”
 

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