The Angel and the Aristocrat by Merry Farmer
Lady Angeline O’Shea was used to being afraid. She’d spent most of her life in a state of one kind of fear or another. Sometimes, it had been the fear that it would rain when she wanted to meet her wild cousins, Shannon, Marie, Colleen, and Chloe, and have a go on one of their new bicycles—and it always rained, because she lived in Ireland. Sometimes it had been the fear that her beloved father would succumb to his lengthy illness—and he had succumbed just six months before. And sometimes, it had simply been the fear that she would lose her embroidery needle in the cushions—and she usually did loose her needles, because needles were so small and slippery. Angeline always tried to put the best face on things, in spite of her fears, and so far, she considered herself an expert at smiling when her heart trembled.
But walking up to the grand front door of Fangfoss Manor to join her old friends from finishing school at a lengthy house party instilled an entirely new kind of fear in Angeline that she wasn’t certain she was ready for.
“What if they don’t recognize me?” she whispered to her older brother, Lord Avery O’Shea, the new Earl of Carnlough, as he helped her down from the carriage the Countess of Fangfoss—who was formerly Miss Julia Twittingham, owner of the Twittingham Academy finishing school in London, where Angeline had spent two of the happiest years of her life—had sent to bring them to Fangfoss Manor from the train station in York.
Avery laughed good naturedly. “Of course, they’ll recognize you, Angel. You haven’t changed that much in five years.”
“I feel as though I have,” Angeline said under her breath. She waited on the gravel drive as Avery stepped around the carriage to speak with his valet, Mr. Crymble, who had made the trip with them, to make certain their traveling bags and the trunk of gowns Angeline had brought so that she could be ready for any social occasion were taken down by the driver and handed off to Miss Julia’s—that was, the Countess of Fangfoss—oh, Angeline would never get used to calling Miss Julia anything but “Miss Julia”—footmen. “What if they are angry with me for not writing frequently enough?” she asked on.
“Haven’t you been sending them each a letter a month for the past five years?” Avery asked over his shoulder, then gave a final instruction to Mr. Crymble before peeling away from the carriage. He offered his arm to Angeline to escort her up the terraced stairs to the front door, where the butler stood, ready to show them inside.
“Yes, but only one a month,” Angeline said, as though it were a severe problem. “I should have sent them each a letter every week.”
Avery sent her an indulgent smile—which was very Avery-like. He was as protective and affectionate as an older brother could be. “You were close with five of the other girls, weren’t you?” he asked.
“Yes,” Angeline said hesitantly. “Though I was especially friends with Lady Clementine Hammond and Miss Olive L’arbre.”
“You would have spent all of your free time writing letters if you’d written to each of them every week,” Avery argued. “And you had far more pressing matters to attend to.”
“You are right on that score,” Angeline said with a sigh.
In fact, nearly from the moment she’d left finishing school, after a very short season, during which she’d had a few prospects for husbands, but none that excited her, she’d been called back to Ireland when her father’s health began to decline. She loved her father and had been more than happy to tend to him, she just hadn’t expected that process to last for four, long years. In that time, she’d hardly had any society at all, let alone anything like the grand house party that Miss Julia had invited her and the others to attend. The entire purpose of the party was for each of them to find husbands, and frankly, Angeline was more than ready.
But, as with everything else, she was also frightened.
“What if none of the gentlemen Miss Julia has invited like me at all?” she asked Avery in a hushed voice as they stepped into the grand front hallway of Fangfoss Manor. “Or worse, what if the only ones who like me are gnarled and lascivious old men who are only interested in me as a brood mare.”
“Angel!” Avery exclaimed. “How on earth do you know about such things?”
Angeline sent her brother a flat look as they waited where the butler told them to while he went to fetch their hostess. “Avery, we are no longer living in the Dark Ages, where women were held captive in towers to protect their virtue until such a time as their brother could marry them off to a man, sight unseen.”
Avery looked horrified at the prospect. “You aren’t telling me that you—” he gulped, “—have personal experience with…such things.”
Angeline burst into laughter. She hated her laugh. It was too high and too exuberant. But she couldn’t help it. “A lady does not need to be ruined to know about such things these days. I lived in London for two years, Avery. London. At a finishing school populated entirely by restless and marginally wicked young ladies. We shared our secrets and our knowledge. You can’t expect me to have come out of a situation like that without at least some forbidden knowledge.”
“I never understood why Mama sent you there in the first place,” Avery said, looking rather sick.
Angeline giggled. “Because she wanted me to learn refinement and to catch the eye of a titled man of means.”
“And instead, you learned all about such things.” Avery shook his head.
“You’re making it out to be much worse than it is,” Angeline continued to giggle.
Blessedly, the conversation was interrupted as Miss Julia swept into the front hall with a bright smile of excitement. “Lady Angeline, how good to see you here at last,” she said, drawing Angeline into a polite but warm hug. “I was beginning to worry.”
“My apologies for delivering my sister late,” Avery said, greeting Miss Julia with a gallant kiss of her hand. “We had some trouble with the passage from Ireland.”
“I was so afraid that we wouldn’t make it at all,” Angeline said.
“Well, you’re here now.” Miss Julia squeezed Angeline’s hand. “If your brother doesn’t mind handling arrangements for your rooms and seeing to it that your things are delivered there, I can take you to the hyacinth parlor. Your friends are waiting for you there.”
“Thank you so much, Miss Julia,” Angeline said, her heart leaping with excitement. “I’ve been so anxious to see them again.”
“It’s Lady Fangfoss now, my dear,” Miss Julia said with just a hint of impatience. “And your friends have been anxious for word of you as well.”
They started down one of the halls that branched off from the entry hall. Angeline waved to Avery—who seemed pleased to see Angeline so happy—then nearly skipped her way at Miss Julia’s side as they headed toward whatever the hyacinth parlor was.
“I’m certain your friends will be eager to tell you all about the opportunities and entertainments I’ve provided for you all this summer,” Miss Julia explained. “I’ve spared no expense—well, my dear husband, Hubert, Lord Fangfoss, has spared no expense—to provide you ladies with everything you could possibly need to keep yourselves occupied. All of the diversions are designed to facilitate interactions with the gentlemen, of course. We have archery, badminton, and croquet perpetually available in the gardens, picnics and outings planned, and every Friday evening, we hold a dance of some sort, whether it is a ball or simply dancing in the conservatory. I trust you are prepared for tonight’s dance?”
Angeline had almost forgotten it was Friday. “Yes, of course. I will be—oh!”
Her answer was cut short as she turned a corner into a parlor that was decorated all in shades of purple and pink, with paintings of hyacinths on the walls and bowls of hyacinths on the tables, even though it was out of season for them. But that was nothing to the sight of her two dearest friends, Clementine and Olive.
“Angel!” Clementine rose from the settee where she’d been drinking tea and conversing with Olive to rush across the room to her. “Look at you,” she said, sweeping Angeline with a wide-eyed look from head to toe. “You look so grown up and elegant.”
Angeline laughed with pure joy and hugged Clementine back. “I don’t feel particularly grown up or elegant.” She switched to hugging Olive, giddier than she ever thought she’d be. “I feel as though I am Sleeping Beauty, awakened after sleeping for a hundred years, with no idea what has been going on in the world without me.
“Plenty has been going on,” Clementine said, leading Angeline back to the settee where she and Olive had been taking their tea. “I’ve managed to find myself betrothed, for one.”
And I’ve been busy with my research, for another,” Olive said. “I completed my paper on rooflines and eaves in the Roman era, and Clementine and Charity and the others are trying to convince me to submit it to the Society of Archaeology journal.”
“Trying? We have convinced her,” Clementine said. “She’s submitting the paper with the next post! But we want to hear how you’ve been doing, Angeline.” She reached for Angeline’s hand. “I was so sorry to hear about your father’s death.”
“Yes, how have you been, dear?” Olive asked, holding Angeline’s other hand.
“I’ve been about as well as could be expected,” Angeline sighed. “To be honest, after so many years of declining health, it was almost a blessing when Father died. He is in a much happier place now.”
“But what about you?” Clementine asked. “Are you in a happier place.”
“I am now,” Angeline said, smiling at both of her friends. “I’ve missed you both so much. I’ve missed all of our group. And I’ve missed attending balls and musical events and pretty much anything where men are present.”
“They’re most certainly present here,” Clementine said, a hint of mischief in her eyes.
“They are,” Olive said, a bit warier. “I’m trying to avoid them.”
“Oh, but why?” Angeline blinked innocently. “I simply cannot wait to meet the man for me and to fall in love.”
Olive laughed. “You’ve been reading too many romantic novels, then.”
“Haven’t you?” Angeline asked.
“No, Olive has been busy reading books about the Ancient Romans and longing to go on archeological expeditions instead,” Clementine said.
“Which reminds me,” Angeline said, standing suddenly. “I brought that book from my father’s library that you requested. I packed it near the top of my trunk. If I hurry, I can intercept Avery and the footmen before they carry it upstairs, and I can give it to you immediately.”
“Angel, you don’t have to do that,” Olive called after her as Angeline darted toward the hallway. “I’d rather sit and visit with you first.”
Angeline sped into the hall, turning to make a gesture to Olive indicating that it wouldn’t take any time at all for her to fetch the book. The result was that she wasn’t watching where she was going, though, and the gesture was large enough that as she turned to face forward again, her hand knocked against a tall vase of flowers placed on a table in the hallway. The vase was unbalanced to begin with, and as Angeline knocked it, the entire thing spilled right off the table, smashing on the marble floor.
Worst of all, the hallway wasn’t empty. As the vase shattered, it spilled water, petals, and pollen all over the fine shoes and trousers of a man who was walking past the table. Angeline gasped and glanced up at the man—or rather, dragged her eyes slowly up his form, from his ruined shoes to his soaked trousers, his trim waist, broad chest, powerful arms, and glowering expression. He had beautiful, dark eyes that smoldered with anger, and thick, dark hair swept rakishly to one side. His lips were pressed in a firm line, and his strong jaw appeared to be clenched in frustration.
“Oh, dear,” Angeline gasped, uncertain whether the words were for her clumsiness or the fact that she found the man devilishly handsome.
Lord Rafe McAllister,Marquess of Rothbury, hated house parties. He hated socializing in general, after all the trouble it had gotten him into in the last few months. He hated being away from home—either in the country or in London—and he hated sleeping in a strange bed. While he was at it, he decided that he hated Yorkshire, frivolity, and, oh, why not the entire female sex while he was at it?
“You cannot go on grousing like this about every tiny thing indefinitely,” Hubert, Lord Fangfoss—who was a distant cousin of some sort that he’d forgotten about until the invitation to the blasted house party arrived—laughed as he took his shot at the billiard table, where several of the gentlemen were idling away their morning. “You’re in the country, my lovely bride has provided you with a bevy of beautiful and accomplished young women to engage yourself to, and the weather has been uncommonly good for this time of year.”
“That’s true,” the Marquess of Dorset said with a look that Rafe found entirely too teasing. “The weather has been uncommonly good.” He shared a teasing glance with Mr. Phineas Prince, which Rafe could tell was entirely at his expense.
He knew Dorset in passing and Prince from all of his exploits printed in journals. Most gentlemen with a title or land who were within a decade of each other’s age knew each other at least by name or from the House of Lords or previous house parties. Rafe had hoped that no one who knew him at all would be at the blasted house party. Not after the indignities he’d had to endure of late.
As if his thoughts were on display for all to see, one of the other gentlemen in the room, Viscount Wilton, sent him a sympathetic look and said, “Go easy on Rothbury. His reputation has just been dragged through the mud and back again.” He addressed the end of his comment to an impish, tow-headed boy who couldn’t have been more than five, with whom he was playing some sort of string game that involved his fingers.
The others perked up. Fangfoss went so far as to straighten from where he’d been about to take a shot with his cue. “What’s this about a muddy reputation?” He chuckled. “My bride didn’t invite a rake into our house, did she?”
“No,” Rafe said definitively, utterly out of sorts that the entire thing had come up at all.
“He was just thrown over by Lady Farrah Beauregard,” Wilton said, smiling at the boy as he pulled the string off his fingers and slipped off the chair beside him.
The boy dashed toward the billiard table with a giggle, grabbed one of the balls, then darted out of the room before anyone could stop him.
“Oh, I say!” Fangfoss exclaimed, blinking in bafflement.
“Is he your son?” Rafe asked Wilton.
Wilton looked as confused as Fangfoss. “No, I assumed he belonged to Dorset.”
Dorset was as perplexed as anyone else. “He’s not mine. I thought he belonged to one of the servants of the house, perhaps.”
“Certainly not.” Fangfoss stood straighter. “We do not allow that sort of thing among our staff.”
“Then whose is he?” Wilton asked.
None of them had answers. Rafe was more than happy for them to continue to discuss the matter, as it meant he could keep himself to himself, but that wasn’t meant to be.
“What is this about you being thrown over by Lady Farrah Beauregard?” Fangfoss asked, leaning against the side of the billiard table, since the game was over.
Rafe sighed and rubbed a hand over his face. “It’s a long and sordid story,” he grumbled. He didn’t feel as though he owed the entire story to his present company, but he didn’t want to alienate himself entirely from his host and the other men he would have to spend the summer with, particularly not Wilton. “Lady Farrah and I became engaged at Christmas, as per the wishes of her family. I thought things were going well. I had yet to form any particular attachment to the lady, though I liked her well enough. At first.”
“That doesn’t sound particularly auspicious,” Wilton said as he stood and moved to examine play at the billiard table.
“No,” Rafe said in a dark tone. “The long and the short of it is that Lady Farrah decided she would rather canoodle with a barrister by the name of James Farrow than stay true to her vow to me.”
“Bad luck, man,” Prince said, focused on the billiard table.
“Yes, well, if only that had been the end of it.” Rafe sighed. He was loath to explain, but too many expectant pairs of eyes were on him. “Word that Lady Farrah was compromised got out. Except, instead of the truth making the rounds, her family circulated the story that I was the one who besmirched her honor. Their reasoning was that Lady Farrah would be forced to abandon her lover to marry me in order to prevent a scandal.”
“Which didn’t happen?” Fangfoss asked.
“Quite the contrary,” Rafe sighed. “Lady Farrah refused me, opting to spread the rumor that I had ruined her, then thrown her over. Now my reputation is suffering the consequences, and I’ve been snubbed and treated like a villain at every turn.”
“My lovely bride must not have heard those stories,” Fangfoss said. “We’ve been quite sheltered in our honeymoon bliss,” he added with a self-satisfied laugh.
Rafe would have rolled his eyes, if he hadn’t known how rude it would be.
“Begging your pardon, but why didn’t you just demand to marry this Lady Farrah to spare everyone further scandal?” Wilton asked.
Rafe tried not to glower at the man. “Because she vanished, the chit. She and her lover.”
“Have you thought to hire an investigator to go after her?” Dorset asked. “I know this man, a Mr. Arthur Gleason, who is devilishly good at finding people who have been misplaced.”
“No, I have not thought to hire an investigator,” Rafe said, trying desperately to keep his temper in check.
“Perhaps her family knows where she is?” Prince asked.
“They do not,” Rafe snapped. He winced, instantly regretting his rudeness, but he’d been given every suggestion possible to remedy the situation already, and nothing had worked. “I beg your pardon, gentlemen. I’m afraid I am not in a fit mood for company.” He nodded sharply, then turned to leave the room.
It was horrifically ungentlemanly of him, but Rafe knew that if he continued to attempt any kind of sociality whatsoever, he would likely make more enemies than friends. The situation with Lady Farrah was embarrassing at best and crippling at worst. Ladies were not the only ones who needed to be mindful of their reputations. Troubles arose for gentlemen who were deemed rakes or reprobates as well. And even though he had soured on the entire female sex, he did need to marry and produce an heir or two. The house party was as good a place as any to find a replacement bride, and if he was lucky, he could find a young woman of breeding who wouldn’t—
His thoughts were cut short as a diminutive woman with strawberry-blonde hair dashed into the hall from one of the parlors, slammed her arm into a vase of flowers, and sent the whole thing, water and all, crashing to the floor in front of him. Water, pottery, and flowers spilled everywhere, including all over his new shoes and trousers. It was the very last straw, as far as Rafe was concerned, and he held his breath, clenching his jaw and fists, searching for exactly the right scathing reply to make to the careless woman.
At least, until she turned her bright green eyes and porcelain-perfect face up to him. She was far and away the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. For a moment, he couldn’t breathe for a reason other than anger. But the magic of the moment was marred by the sudden pinch of terror that lit the woman’s eyes.
“Oh, dear,” she gulped, her beautiful face flushing. “Oh, I’m so sorry, so terribly sorry.”
“It’s…it’s quite all right,” Rafe mumbled, his voice not sounding like his own for some reason.
“No, no it isn’t.” The beautiful creature bit her lip and glanced around anxiously. She lunged forward, dropping to a crouch, and started to gather up the spilled flowers and some of the bits of the vase. “Silly me. I’m so clumsy sometimes. I should have been watching where I was going. And to think, I’ve only just arrived and already I’m causing problems.”
She was Irish. Her voice had that unmistakable, musical lilt.
“Really, there’s no need to fuss,” Rafe said, gazing down at her.
“I think there is.” She paused her frantic movements to glance up at him.
For a moment, Rafe’s mind conjured the extremely wicked and inappropriate image of other things a woman as beautiful as this one could do from her current position on her knees in front of him. He was only human, after all, but his salacious thoughts were so much at odds with the woman’s effusions of innocence that he cursed himself internally and crouched on the floor with her to help gather up the mess she’d made.
“It was a simple mistake,” he said, pushing wet flowers to one side. The Fangfoss staff would be far better equipped to clean up than they were. “I’m certain you didn’t mean it.”
“I didn’t,” she said, blinking at him.
Rafe offered his hand to help her stand. It was the least he could do. Part of him wanted to smile at her to reassure her, but smiling seemed as far away as India to him at the moment. “Allow me to introduce myself,” he said. “Lord Rafe McAllister, Marquess of Rothbury, at your service.”
“Lady Angeline O’Shea,” she replied with a smile so sweet and unfettered that he feared he would never be able to match it.
“Oh, my gracious, what has happened here?” They were interrupted by their hostess, Lady Fangfoss. “Oh, heavens. Reinhold! Come clean this up at once,” she hollered, as though a footman would appear out of thin air. “Lady Angeline, Lord Rothbury, I’m so sorry. Let me fetch something to help you clean up.”
“I am quite all right,” Rafe said, backing away. He had the feeling if he didn’t retreat immediately, he’d be drawn into some sort of social engagement that he didn’t want to be a part of.
“What’s happening out here?” a young lady asked, poking her head around the corner, followed by a second young lady.
“I was clumsy,” Lady Angeline laughed. The sound was as beautiful and free as the hymns of angels, and Rafe found his heart—and his trousers—tightening. “But don’t worry, I’ll sort it out.”
“You’d better leave me to sorting things out,” Lady Fangfoss said. “You ladies go out and enjoy the sunshine. And perhaps Lord Rothbury will join you later?” she asked with a mischievous lift of her brow.
“What?” Rafe snapped. “Um, er, no thank you.”
He turned and marched down the hall, fleeing from the tangle of ruined flowers, crushed pottery, and feelings of bliss that he’d nearly been mired in. He’d accepted the invitation to Fangfoss Manor as a way to hide from the scandal Lady Farrah had created and to, perhaps, dispassionately pick her replacement. He reached the corner and turned to steal a last, lingering look at Lady Angeline. He had not come to fall in love like a fool.