As much as Miss Jane Featherstone adored her
lovely cousin, Lady Sarah Bertram, she most decidedly disliked
riding in Hyde Park with her on this fine May day. Not because of
any fault of Lady Sarah's but because of Miss Featherstone's own
unpardonable jealousy. Her clandestine envy was positively
illogical (and Miss Jane Featherstone had always prided herself on
her ability to master the principles of logic).
It wasn't as if any of the Most Eligible
Matrimonial Catches would have given a second glance to the
exceedingly drab Miss Featherstone were the dazzling Lady Sarah not
perched beside her.
In the ten minutes since the maidens' open
barouche had passed through the gates into the bustling park, no
less than five young men of title, fine looks, and amiability had
sputtered their horses to a halt in order to make cakes of
themselves over Lady Sarah.
And it was no wonder. Once her cousin was
presented to the ton at tonight's ball, every Eligible
Matrimonial Catch in the entire kingdom would be hurling himself at
the beautiful girl. With hair the colour of wheat sparkling in
sunshine, a face as flawless and smooth as the finest pearl, and a
figure that curved like that of a Roman goddess, Lady Sarah would
effortlessly rise to the top of the pack of this season's
When it was discovered the titled beauty was
possessed of one of the largest fortunes in Britain, there would be
no stopping the stampede to Clegg House in Berkley Square.
Owing to the fact the beautiful heiress had not
yet been presented, the young oglers could not directly start a
conversation with her until Miss Featherstone did them the goodness
of facilitating the introductions.
Therefore, Miss Featherstone was—for the first
time since her own presentation three years previously—the object of
young men's profound felicitations. Once greetings were exchanged,
Miss Featherstone had no choice but to introduce these Eligibles to
her spectacular companion.
And then Miss Featherstone would quietly fade
into the upholstery like gray paint on tin.
Leaving young Lord Averworth worshipfully
watching Lady Sarah continue down the park's broad lane, the beauty
turned to her cousin, her blue eyes flashing with excitement. "All
the young men I've met are exceedingly nice. I cannot wait until
"I daresay you'll be like a queen holding
"You will put me to the blush."
"I assure you, that is not my intent. We
wouldn't want any redness to mar your lovely complexion."
Lady Sarah was too honest to feign maidenly
modesty. Not a day of her life had passed that her remarkable beauty
not been commented upon. "Nor would I. That's why I'm wearing this
hideously wide-brimmed bonnet today."
Miss Featherstone shook her head. "Your bonnet
is not hideous. Everything you wear bespeaks impeccable taste."
Indeed, thought Miss Featherstone, she had never seen a lovelier
bonnet. Where most ladies of her acquaintance changed the trim of
the bonnets to coordinate with their clothing, Lady Sarah's entire
bonnet perfectly matched the pale yellow of her morning gown. Had
she the luxury of a different coloured bonnet for each dress?
"Do you really, truly like the gown I shall
wear tonight?" Lady Sarah asked.
"I do, though I daresay if you wore a horse
blanket you would still be the prettiest girl at the ball."
"You're much too kind, my sweet Jane."
Miss Featherstone sighed. "Would that I could
feel more kindly toward Lavinia." She had prayed to no avail that
she and her brother's abrasive wife would rub along together better.
Lady Sarah's eyes slitted. "That horrid woman
is positively odious! I will never understand how your brother could
ever have chosen to marry her."
"Her generous dowry helped." Unfortunately,
none of the Featherstones had a . . . well, a feather to fly
"Then he probably doesn't love her at all.
That's the problem when one is possessed of fortune. One never knows
if a gentleman is in love with her or her money."
"If he didn't love her when they married, I
believe he does love her now, but you need have no fears of fortune
hunters," Miss Featherstone assured. "Men would fall horribly in
love with you even if you were as poor as . . . well, as poor as
"Your lack of fortune does explain why you've
received no offers, for you are possessed of a great many
Miss Featherstone adjusted the brim of her
bonnet to shield her eyes from the blazing sun. "Pray, my dear
cousin, enlighten me on these attributes."
"You may not be beautiful like me, but you
really are pretty. In a quiet way."
"You obviously have been too much around my
"That has nothing to do with my opinion, I
assure you. I am possessed of good vision. Your face is
pretty. You are terribly clever. And there is nothing offensive in
"If one is given to admiring flagpoles." Miss
Featherstone nodded at a pair of giggling girls who were strolling
by, parasols protecting their fair faces from the sun.
"Many men prefer slender women. Remember, it's
women like me—women with generous endowments—who grow portly with
That was true. But, then, many men preferred
portly women. Look at the Regent himself! Most of the women with
whom he'd been romantically linked tended to be as rotund as he.
As they followed along in the procession of
fine carriages toward a copse of trees, Miss Featherstone gloried in
the sun's warmth, her thoughts snaking around her own abominable
envy. There was no reason to feel in competition with Lady Sarah.
She loved her cousin, and she knew she could never compete with her
in the higher echelons of society.
Miss Featherstone had always understood her own
future would be with an equally plain man of no particular
distinction. The problem was that not even a plain man of no
particular distinction had ever honored Jane Featherstone with an
offer of marriage.
Which was a pity. Papa was nearly seventy, and
when he was gone, Jane would become the burden aunt in her brother
and Lavinia's household—a prospect as unwelcome to Lavinia as it was
When their coach neared the Serpentine, she
thought she recognized Lord Slade riding alone on a striking black
mount. Her back straightened. Her gaze narrowed. And as she realized
he was riding toward them, her heartbeat clanged against the walls
of her chest.
Since the very day Miss Jane Featherstone had
come out of the schoolroom, she had secretly worshipped the man.
Long before he succeeded to his title, she had admired his brilliant
orations in the House of Commons. Her dear Papa was one of Lord
Slade's staunchest allies against the beastly Tories. She had filled
a book with newspaper accounts of his lordship and tucked it in a
drawer beneath her jewel box.
Not only did she vastly admire his intelligence
and political philosophy, but she also thought he was perhaps the
most physically appealing man she had ever seen.
Of course, he likely would not remember someone
as plain as she. Before he moved up to the House of Lords upon his
father's death, he had come to their home often to discuss political
reform with her father and their colleagues in the House of Commons.
Because she served as her father's hostess and
because her father rather indulged his only daughter, Miss
Featherstone had been permitted to join in on those conversations.
As Lord Slade drew nearer, his eyes
appreciatively raked over Lady Sarah, then flicked to Jane, and a
smile of recognition lighted his tanned face. Dear heavens! The man
was going to stop and speak to them. She was quivering so, she
doubted she would be able to summon her voice.
Their scarlet-liveried driver pulled up when he
saw that Lord Slade had stopped.
"Good afternoon, Miss Featherstone. I see
you're also enjoying this fine, sunny day." From his wide shoulders
to the squared planes of his face to his casually tossed deep brown
hair, the man exuded the most ruggedly handsome masculinity she had
He eschewed the trappings of dandies and
dressed in riding clothes with neither shiny top hat nor shiny
boots. His buff-coloured breeches stretched over long, muscled legs,
and his brown boots would have been more appropriate in the country
than here in the middle of London. That he was not a slave to
fashion rather endeared him even more to Miss Featherstone.
"Indeed, my lord," she managed, thankful her
voice had not betrayed the rattling within her.
He nodded, then his flashing black eyes perused
Jane realized he was expecting an introduction
to the Incomparable. "Lord Slade, may I present my cousin, Lady
Lady Sarah bestowed her brilliant smile upon
her latest admirer, and they exchanged greetings.
After saying all that was proper, Lord Slade's
once again directed his attention at Miss Featherstone. "Then you
two are related on your mother's side? Was Lady Mary not sister to
the Earl of Clegg?"
Had Miss Featherstone's departed mother—the
Lady Mary to whom his lordship had just referred—appeared on this
meandering trail, Jane could not have been more stunned. Lord Slade
had remembered her mother was the daughter of an earl. "Yes. The
Earl of Clegg–who's my mother's brother–is Lady Sarah's father."
"Then you're the granddaughter of George
Berkley?" he said to Lady Sarah.
Everyone in the ton knew that George
Berkley's significant banking fortune had been settled on his first
granddaughter, who just happened to be the astonishing creature
sitting there in her father's barouche in Hyde Park.
Lady Sarah smiled. "Indeed he was. Did you know
A pity her cousin's lengthy lashes swept down
upon her cheeks, Jane thought. Could anyone be more beautiful? Pangs
of jealousy spiraled within her. What a beastly pity Jane could
never appear to such advantage to his lordship.
"I did not have that pleasure, but he was
banker to my father—who greatly admired him."
"As did I," said Lady Sarah, her voice lifting
into the sweetest possible tones.
"Tell me, my lady, why is it I have not yet met
"I have not been presented. Well, actually I
was presented to the queen yesterday."
"And she comes out tonight," Jane added. "Will
you attend the ball at Spencer House, my lord?"
His crooked smile returned. "You may be assured
I will." He doffed an invisible cap, favored them with his
infectious smile, and took his leave.
When he was out of earshot, Jane turned to her
cousin. "What did you think of Lord Slade?"
Lady Sarah shrugged. "I didn't think about him
one way or the other. I will own, I was prepared to dislike him
excessively. Papa, you know, detests the man's radical ways in
Parliament. He's always grumbling about Lord Slade."
"Then I daresay Uncle grumbles about Papa, too,
for he and Lord Slade are rather two peas in a pod."
"It's no secret, of course, that Papa and your
father do not agree on matters of government, but your papa is
family, so Papa never maligns him."
"Gentlemen are much nicer than ladies."
How could Lady Sarah not be in awe over his Sublime Lordship? Had
the dust kicking up from hooves clouded her vision?
"You're right. Papa never speaks ill of Lavinia,
and you must own everyone speaks ill of Lavinia."
Jane nodded absently. Incomprehensibly, Lady
Sarah still had displayed no great admiration for Lord Slade. "Did
you not find Lord Slade uncommonly handsome?"
Lady Sarah shrugged again. "He's . . . older
than what I normally find attractive."
"He's not even thirty!"
"And I'm not quite eighteen!"
"Then you're attracted to young men closer to
eighteen?" How very peculiar.
Lady Sarah nodded. "Up to my brother's age."
Lord Harry was two and twenty. "But most men of
that age—unless they've had the good fortune to succeed—are not in a
financial position to offer for a wife- - -" Miss Featherstone
thwacked her forehead. "Such consideration, though, is unnecessary
to a lady of large fortune."
"Indeed. I can wed whomever I choose." She gave
a stupendous smile and pronounced, "I shall be wed by September."
"If that's what you want, I'm certain you will.
Why the hurry?"
"I adore the idea of having my own house.
Wouldn't it be wondrous to marry a man with a family castle? With my
fortune I could decorate it whatever way I choose. And I love
children. I see myself surrounded by beautiful little blond
"What of sons? Or a husband?"
Lady Sarah Bertram scrunched up her perfect
nose. "I suppose my husband will expect me to give him an heir, even
though I'm not overly fond of little boys. Of course, I do long for
"Perhaps you'll meet him tonight."
"I beg that your lordship stand still," Lipton
said to Lord Slade.
With a deep sigh, Slade straightened his neck
and peered into his full-length looking glass. His man labored over
tying the cravat Lipton had spent a goodly amount of time ironing.
It was far more important to Lipton than to Slade that his master
present an admirable appearance.
If Slade were at liberty to please only
himself, he would not be standing there. He would not be going to
the Spencers' ball at all. And he would not be preparing to offer up
himself like the day's catch at Billingsgate fish market.
But the earl was not at liberty to please
himself. He was now head of the household. He must think of the
others. Buying David's colours had nearly cleaned out his limited
funds, and he would have to put off the girls' come-out at least
Since the exchange had decimated his father's
blunt, there simply wasn't enough money despite all his measures to
economize. He'd leased the London house and presently let rooms at a
respectable address. He'd sold the costly carriage and three of the
four horses it necessitated. He and his siblings occupied but one
wing of crumbling Dunvale Castle, which could now be run with a
fourth as many servants as when the old earl had been alive.
His gaze followed Lipton's expert
manipulations, and he frowned deeply. Why had he made that wretched
Vow, the Vow that would irrevocably alter the course of his life?
How much happier he'd been before he succeeded.
Until he saw Miss Featherstone that afternoon, he'd almost forgotten
how greatly he'd enjoyed those lively Whig discussions at dinners
presided over by that extraordinary young woman's father. Why, there
had been more intellect within those modest walls than in all of the
House of Lords.
The door to his dressing room eased open, and
his brother strode in. Slade thought his brother—Captain David St.
John—cut a handsome figure in his Life Guards' uniform. Women would
be sure to swoon over him tonight. They always did.
"I thought Lipton was dicked in the nob when he
told me you were going to the ball at Lord Spencer's tonight." David
looked at Slade as if the elder brother were mentally deficient.
"Didn't know debutantes were your thing."
"Heretofore, they haven't been." Slade's lips
set into a grim line.
David smacked his forehead. "Oh, yes. The Vow."
Lord Slade nodded almost imperceptivity, saw
that Lipton had not left even a speck of lint on his freshly pressed
jacket of fine black worsted, and was satisfied with his appearance.
Nothing too colourful for him. Black and white was just fine.
"Shall we go?" he said to David.