Oliver York returns from war tofind his father dead, his finances in arrears,and himself the new Earl of Carlisle. If hedoesn'tmarryanheiress—and fast!—heandhis tenants are going to be pitching tentsdownbytheThames.Hedefinitelyshouldn'tbetradingkisseswithapennilessdebutante...nomatterhowcaptivatingsheis!
Miss Grace Halton is in Englandjust long enough to satisfy the terms of herdowry. But a marriage of convenience isn’taseasyasshe’dhoped.BackinAmerica,herailing mother needs medicine only Grace’s
dowrycanafford.Whichmeans thedashingearl she can't getoutofhermind is theonemanshecan'tletintoherheart.
Itcouldbeworse,LordOliverYorkremindedhimselfashetrainedhisnarrowedeyes on this newest battlefield. It had beenthreeyearssincehe’dsetfootinaballroom.The styles had changed and the faces hadaged,butLondonsoiréeswereastreacherousasever.Hetriedtorelax.Atleastnoonewasshootingathim.
When he’d left home, he’d been
plain Mr. Oliver York, heir apparent to asilentdictatorwhomhe’dbeencertainwouldlive forever. Full of ennui and patriotism,he’ddefiedhisfatherandskippedofftofightthe French with his three best friends.Because, what was the worst that couldhappen?
He’d lost all three of his bestfriends. Edmund had been felled by anenemyrifle.Xavierhadn’tspokenawordinmonths.AndBartholomew…Oliverhadlostthat friend when he’d had the bad grace tosavetheman’slife.
Not that Oliver could blame him.BarthadmadeitbacktoEnglandwithouthisleft legorhisbrother.Hewouldratherhave
diedthanletgoofhisdyingtwin.Hewouldhavesucceeded in thatendeavor,hadOlivernotheftedhismangledbodyinhisarmsandspeared his way through the bloodybattlefield to the last surviving sawbones. Itwas a miracle the man survived. An evenbigger miracle that he hadn’t picked up thefirst blade he’d chanced upon and driven itbetweenOliver’sribs.
Heroes, all of them. Heroes andmurderers.
They each had blood on theirhands. Scars in their hearts. One couldn’tslice a bayonet through someone’s neck tosaveone’sown,andthenpickrightbackupin London with carriage races and drunkenwagers.
Drunken,yes.Hewasverygoodatdrunken. Alcohol was the only thing thatdulledtheanger.Andtheguilt.
Therehadbeennopostalserviceonthefrontlines,sohe’dactuallymadeitalltheway to his front door before the rest of thenewshadreachedhim.
His father—per the subsequentscandal sheets—had come to his untimelyendinthebedofhislatestmistress,whenhercook, unaware of his seafood allergy, hadsent a tray of salad tossed with lime andprawntothelovers’boudoir.
Death by salad.And just like that,
He didn’t know a button aboutbeing earl, of course. His father had rarelyevenspoken tohim; thereforeOliverwas inno position to replace him. It would takemonths just to go through the journals andcorrespondence.
Norwasheinthemarketforawife.Hecouldscarcelyberesponsibleforone.Hewas having a hard enough time wranglingthis beast of an earldom without adding adependent to the mix. Not with his futureuncertain,hispastanightmare.
Men of his class didn’t marry forlove. Men with his past shouldn’t marry atall.
Warhad taughthim that therewasno vulnerability like being helpless to savesomeone he cared about. Like his bestfriends.
Xavierstillhadachancetorecover.At the moment, he was propped up in thelibrarylikeagreatsilentdoll,butOliverhadfaithhislistlessfriendwouldcomeoutofhisfugue.ThatbeliefwaspreciselywhyOliver,savior of all peoplewho did notwish to besaved, had shoved his friend into a carriageand forced them both into an environmentalivewithlightsandcolor.Hemightbedeadinside, but he refused to allow the same tohappentoXavier.
CaptainXavierGreyhadoncebeenthe jolliest rattle of them all. Now, he was
Surgeons were at a loss. He wasmoredead thanalive,but therewasnothingvisibly wrong with him. Perhaps all heneeded was some re-assimilation. Wine.Women.Dancing.Areminderofwhatthey’dfought for, and what was still worth livingfor.
So Oliver had sent for his friendand an army of tailors. The two of themcould out-dandy Brummel himself. Xavierhad been easy enough to shepherd along,since he was mute and pliant as waxwork.Perhapsasmidgenmorelifeless.
And now theywere at a ball.Onelook at Oliver’s face ensured no onewoulddeny them entrance.Butwhatwas he to do
withXavier?HehadfallenoffhischairwhenOliver had attempted to seat him in theballroom with the spinsters, so Oliver hadbeen forced to settlehim in the library, in awingback chairwith plenty of pillows.Thathad worked. Somewhat. The man hadn’tchanged position in the past two hours, andwouldlikelysittherelikealumpofclayrightthroughArmageddon.
Oliver trudged from the libraryback to the ballroom. He clearly wasn’tcuringXaviertonight.Maybetheonemostinneed of wine, women, and dancing wasOliverhimself.
Except the ratafia was warm, thewine bitter, the music off-pace. Thedebutantes were only attracted to his
ignominiously gained title. The men onlyapproached him to hear gore-splattered warstories Oliver had no inclination to retell,muchlessrelive.
BallroomWaterloo.The deafeningorchestra, thecloyingperfume, theswirlsofsatinand lace—itwasasmuchahell as thebattlefieldhe’descaped.
Anybodywhofantasizedaboutwarwas an imbecile. Anyone who fantasizedabout inheriting a title was an even biggerimbecile.Thiswholeballroomwaschockfullof imbeciles, and Oliver was the biggest ofthemallforthinkingXavierwasasoldierhecould save, this soirée a skirmish he couldwin.He didn’t know these people anymore.He wasn’t certain he even wished to. He
Lookatthemplanningtheirattacks.Sharpening their rapier wits. All of them,pawnsinthesamewar,playingthepartstheywere born to play. He could no more haveescaped inheriting his earldom than awallflowercouldavoidbeinglabeleda—
Therewasagirl.Across the room.Pressedintothewallpaper.Aprettygirlwhodidn’tknowherpart.
Not a wallflower, this youngwoman, despite her back-to-the-wall stance.Truewallflowers dressed in drab colors and
didtheirbesttoblendwiththeshadows.Thisoneworeagownwithenoughsilkandlacetobefit an empress. The colors could blind apeacock. Her cleavage would tempt thePrinceofWaleshimself.
Andyet,somethingabouthergavethe impression that her come-hither bodiceand opulent trappings were nothing morethan costuming.The true her—whoever thatmight be—was hidden from the naked eye.Oliver narrowed his own. Something in thesetofher jaw, the stiffness inher spine, thesoftnessofthoseripe,fulllips…
Even as he watched, she trappedherplumplowerlipbeneatharowofstraightwhiteteeth.Darkhair.Paleskin.Voluptuouscurves.Heshiftedhisweight.
This Snow White belonged to adifferent type of bedtime story. What manwouldn’t want those soft red lips on everypartofhisbody?Shemust’veinfatuatedhalfof London by now. The virginal lace at herbosom, the way those thick black lashesblinked a few more times than strictlynecessary…
Oliver’s intrigued half-smile diedon his face as he realized the truth. Thiswasn’tcoquetry.Hisenticingwallflowerwasuncomfortable. Nervous. His fingers curledinto fists. Where the devil was herchaperone? Her friends? Hell, her suitors?She was utterly alone. Someone thisbeautiful, with skin that fair and hair thatdarkcouldn’thaveanydifficultyattractinga
“Got your eye on the new one,Carlisle?” came a sly whisper from behindOliver’s shoulder. “Better dip your wicknow, before all the others have their way.Miss Macaroni won’t be looking half asnubileonceshe’shadamouthfulof—”
“Macaroni?” Oliver interrupted,barelymanagingtotampdownhisimpulsetoplug his fist into the speaker’s face, sightunseen. He wouldn’t be able to resist thetemptationforlong.Wardidthattoaman.
The voice chuckled. “Eh, she’s aYank.Best thing foranyone todo iskeepahand over her mouth, because you can’tunderstandasinglewordcomingoutofit.”
Oh, mother-loving shite. That wasPhineas Mapleton talking. The ton’s worstgossip.
“Not that anyone’d want her forconversation anyway,” Mapleton continued.“Every female worth her salt has alreadygiven her the cut direct. The only creaturesputting themselves in her path now are thedesperate hostesses and the profligatesplanning to give her a tumble or two.Dirtymoney, dirty gel. Notmuch else a chit likethatcanhopefor.OldmanJarvisalreadyputhisnamedown inWhite’sasbeing the firsttotupher.Gotfiftyquidonit,myself.Wanttoaddyournametothepot?”
Oliver’s temple began to throb ashe forced his fists to unclench. This was adifferent type of combat, he remindedhimself. Theworst thing to dowould be tomake a scene with Mapleton. The scandalwouldbehorrific.
Yet he couldn’t walk away. Notwhen the wallflower needed rescuing. Hisgoddamn Achilles’ heel, no matter howdisastrous the outcome tended to be. Hewishedhisheroicswouldworkoutforonce.
He kept his eyes trained on thepretty black-haired American, every muscletensed for action.An eternity ticked by.No
oneapproachedher.Shehadnoonetodancewith, to talk to. She looked… lost.Hauntinglylonely.Frightenedanddefiantallatthesametime.
’Twouldbebetter for themboth ifhe turned around right now. Never met hereye.Neverexchangedasingleword.Lefthertoherfateandhimtohis.
The plan had seemed so simplewhen Grace Halton’s mother had firstproposed it. Sail from Pennsylvania toEngland, meet her long-lost grandparents,and use their modest dowry to attract ahusband capable and willing to provide forbothGraceandherailingmother.
First catastrophe: the ocean.Gracehadspenttheentiretransatlanticjourneywith
her face in her chamber pot, more thanwilling to trade the endless waves anddeadeninghorizonfortheflimsy,landlockedshackshe’dsharedwithhermother.
Second disaster: her grandparents.They’d been aghast at Grace’s uncannyresemblancetotheirblack-haired,green-eyeddaughter. Almost every word out of theirmouthssincehadbeenacriticismofGrace’sbearingorpersonorupbringingoreducation.Or reiterating that her dowrymoney hingedupon her finding the groom of whom theyapproved.
All of which made step three—Operation Husband—that much moredifficult. She didn’t just need a beau.Attracting a suitor was a brainless, simple
goal every debutante in this ballroomexpected to accomplish by the end of theSeason.Gracedidn’thavethatlong.Notwithhermothersosick.Sheneededsomeonewhocouldbebroughttoscratch—andtothealtar—inamatterofdays.
But the invitations hergrandparents’ money attracted weren’t forvenues like Almack’s. These were smallersoirées, in private homes. The “MarriageMart”wasquiteoutofGrace’s reach.Whatshe had were a handful of hostesses forwhomthenoveltyofanAmericanguestwasworth an invitation to dinner. If shemade agood impression on the right people, theremight be more invitations to occasionaldinnerpartiesinherfuture.
But she didn’t have a future. Shehadrightnow.Andtimewasrunningout.
Grace shook off her despondencyand straightened her spine. There was onlyone path forward. She needed a wealthy,controllable, kindhearted, grandparent-approved, banns-read-and-bells-runghusband,andsheneededhimRight.Now.Ifshedidn’treturnin thenextfewweekswithenough coin to save her mother and theirhome,therewouldn’tbeamotherorahometocomebackto.
It seemed insurmountable. If agentleman was remotely moneyed andkindheartedandmarriage-minded,he’dbeensnappeduplongbeforeGrace’sspindlylegshadtrembledashore.
Her accent had taken care of therest.
She’d set sail believing in hermother’sbedtimetalesofglitteringballroomsand bejeweled gowns befitting a princess,promisingGrace she’d be likely to have theton at her feet and her hand on the altarbefore the first week was through. But theonly Brits willing to look down their noseslongenoughtospeaktoherwerethefopssodesperate for attention that even a gaucheAmericanwould suffice, or the decrepit oldlibertinessoentrancedbyprettyyoungfleshthat they didn’t much care what her accentsounded like. After all, they didn’t plan tospeakwithher.
Even the lady’s maid her
grandparents kept sending along as achaperone consistently disappeared withinsecondsofarrival.IfapaidservanthadbetterthingstodothanbeseenpubliclyinGrace’sorbit, what hope was there for finding ahusband?
The most exalted of the Englishroses would have naught to do with her.Grace was not only a penniless American;her grandparents’ small dowry carried thefilthytaintoftrade.Andworse.
Grace’sgrandfatherhadinvestedinsome sort of fabric processing plant duringtheAmericanRevolution,andthenpurchaseda handful of sword and bayonet armament
factoriesjustasNapoleonrosetopower.Therecent battle of Waterloo had put paid toNapoleon’s rule, but Grace’s grandparentshadbecomerichoffthespilledbloodoftheircountrymen.Sheshiveredatthethought.Nowondershewasapariah.
“Cold,chérie?”Arichbuttoothlessroué grinned down at her over the curve ofhisgold-platedcane,marriage—orrather,themarriage bed—obviously on his mind. “Aturn with me in one of the balconies mightwarmthosebareshoulders,eh?”
Grace leaped to her feet and outfrom under his calculated gaze. She’dthought herself invisible among the sea ofspinsters and chaperones along the farwall,but the come-hither cut of her fashion-plate
gownhadundoubtedlygivenheraway.Threeweeks of seasickness had whittled theplumpnessfromherbody,givingherawaspwaistandactualcheekbonesforthefirsttimeinherlife.
Such a diet was not one Gracecouldrecommend.Especiallysinceitseemedto go hand in glove with attracting thelecherous eye of men older than hergrandfather.
“Sorry,” she blurted in a tone thatindicated shewas anything but. “This set isalreadypromised.”
She all but flew out of his palsiedgrasp, sidestepping the matrons to squeezeagainst the shadowed wainscoting at theopposite end of the ballroom. This corner
wastooclosetotheorchestratohearoneselfthink, too far from the food and drink toengender even idle conversation. The icydraftfromasecond-floorbalconykeptawayanyonewhosebloodwasstillcirculating,andthe wax spitting from the last taper in thechandelier overhead marked this squaremeterasuninhabitable.
She crossed her goose-pimpledarmsoverherruchedbodice,mindlessofthethickmouldingdiggingintothesmallofherbackortheclumpsofwaxstickingtohersilkslippers.Hergazedartedabouttheballroom.Elegant couples began a lively country-dance.Gracehuggedherselftighter.Shehadneverfeltlesslikedancing.
Her jaw clenched. She hadn’t anyidea how to accomplish any of her goals.Without her grandparents’ money, shecouldn’t return to her homeland. Without ahusband, she couldn’t get her grandparents’money.Without a noble birth and a Britishaccent, she couldn’t attract aman interestedin something other than her dowry or hervirginity.Shegroundherteeth.
Back home in Pennsylvania, she’dhadfriendsofbothsexes,wholovedherforherselfandnotforsomethingtheymighttakefrom her. Back home in Pennsylvania, theywould’ve had a right belly laugh to seeGracie Halton trussed up in finery andmincing about a suffocating ballroom.Backhome in Pennsylvania, her mother— her
Grace’sbreathcaughtandhereyesblurred. Oh, who knew what was going onback home in Pennsylvania? She’d writtenhermotherandherneighborseverydaysinceshe’d stepped off the boat, and had yet toreceive a single word of response. Feargripped her. Was her mother still in thethreadbare bed Grace had last seen her in?Wassheevenstillalive?Wastherestilltime?Or had Grace flung herself headlong into afool’s mission that only ensured she wouldnot be present in her mother’s last hours,whensheneededherdaughtermost?
A firm hand caught her about thewaist as strong fingers captured her wrists.She blinked the sting of unshed tears fromhereyestofindherselfentanglednotwithanoak,butwithamanpossessedofdarkbrownhair and dangerous golden brown eyes. Awry smile curved his lips as the orchestrabegantheopeningstrainsofawaltz.
Thehotmusclesbeneathherpalmswere hard and firm—no need for a tailor’stouchtoimprovethissculptedbody.Hewasimpossiblytallanduncomfortablyclose.Butunlike the other trussed turkeys swelteringinsidethebreezelessroom,hisclothesdidn’treek of day-old perfume. His eyes weren’tbloodshotorblasé,butratherclearandwarm
Everythingabouthimwasrawheatand restrained power. The exact opposite ofwhat shewas looking for. If aman like thistookawife,hewouldneverletherslipaway.
She forced her starving lungs tobreathe. She was making a cake of herself.She’dalmostmowndownthisexquisitehulkof aman, like theunsophisticatedAmericanthey all believed her to be. He was simplyprotecting theherdbyputtinghimself in thepathoftherampagingbull.
Heat flooded her cheeks as shebrokeeyecontact.She’dneverfeltsofoolishandunculturedinherlife.
Her breath hitched, but she forcedherself to meet his eyes. A warm, honeybrown.Someonethisgorgeousdefinitelyhadsomewhere better to be. She tugged at herwrists, signaling he was free to go. Only afoolwouldtrytokeephim.
He dropped one of his hands, butdid not immediately hurry away, as she hadanticipated. He seemed even larger thanbefore.
Just likethat,her legscouldbarelyhold her steady. She tilted into his touch,conscious that he must be able to feel herbodytremblebeneathhisfingers.Whywouldhewishtodancewithher?Hewastooyoung
tobearoué,toogentlemanlytobearake,toowell-heeled to be desperate for money, toosmolderingly attractive to be in want offemalecompanionship.
She narrowed her eyes and forcedhermindbackonhermission.Sheneededahusband with money. “Are your pockets tolet?”
Itwasn’tuntilthedark-hairedvixenwas already in his arms thatOliver realizedjust how badly he’d bollocksed the rescuemission. He’d swept the incomparablewallflowerintoawaltzbeforeallandsundry,and he didn’t even know her name. Hisshoulders tensed.Hecertainlyput theerr inknighterrant.
gentlemen not even address an unknownmaiden until they had been properlyintroduced, lest he publicly embarrass themboth.
Yet it was already done. Theslenderfingersofherrighthandnestledinhisleft, and his right palm was pressed flushagainst thedelicatesilkcoveringherequallydelicate back. Her lips were even moretemptingnowthattheywerecloseenoughtotaste. She smelled like honey andwildflowers.Hetriednottonotice.
“What’syourname?”hewhisperedurgently. Soft black eyelashes framedcaptivatingly green eyes. He couldn’t lookaway.
She lifted a brow. “What do the
Thearchlookonherfaceindicatedshe already knew the answer. He grimaced.Certainlyshecouldnotexpecthimtorepeatthehorribleappellationaloud.
She stared back at him withoutblinking. The seconds ticked closer tominutes.
Sowouldhe.Hetookanothersniff.Hispulseracedashefoughttheurgetotwirlherrightoutoftheballroom.Eitherthescentor the woman—or likely a combination ofboth—had infiltrated his brain with imageshe reallyoughtnot tobehavingaboutMissHaltoninnothingbutwarmwaterandafewjasmine-scented bubbles. His throatconvulsed.
Heneededtosteerthisconversationback to safety. Such as completing thebloody introductions. Unless she hadn’taskedbecausehis titlehadalreadyprecededhim?
“Is it? Imuch preferred beingMr.OliverYork,”hefoundhimselfadmitting.Henearly stumbled as his words sank in.Whyon earth would he say something thathereticaltoatotalstranger,whenhewouldn’tconfessittohisbestfriends?
PerhapsbecauseMissHaltonwasatotal stranger, he realized. An ostracizedAmericanwhonotonlyheldlittle interest inEnglishpropriety,but alsohadanutter lackof ears to gossip to, should the inclinationevercrosshermind.
“I should have preferred that as
Heblinkedinshock.Shemightnotcare about British nobility, but there wasnothing abhorrent about being an earl, forshite’s sake. Before he could reply, herrosebudlipswereonceagainparting.
a grin. Had she really just set him in hisplace?Thecornersofhismouthtwitched.Heseemedfarmoreinneedofrescuingthanthesharp-tongued Miss Halton. Being titledcertainlyhadn’t impressedher.For someonecast into the lot of social pariah for nothingmore than an accident of geography, sheseemed to delight in acting the role oftermagant.
Hewas appalled to find it a bit…refreshing.
After escaping the dark cloudaroundhisusual companions, itwasa reliefto converse with a disinterested third party.Someone who didn’t want something hecould never give. Someone who had neverseen the ravages of war. Someone with
Someone with knowing eyes andpoutinglipsandaslenderwaist.
He forced himself to loosen hisgrip.“Whatshallwesaywhenpeopleaskushow we met? It needs to be somethingrespectable.Andbelievable.”
“There’s nothing more believablethan the truth. We’ll simply say I wasstrolling about, minding my own business,when you appeared out of nowhere anddraggedmebodilytothedancefloor.”
Henoddedonce.“I’veabetteridea.Let’s make up something completelyuntruthful.”
“Aha. We’ll say I was in my nightrail,brushingmyhair inpeaceful solitude,whenyouclimbeduptomybalconyand—”
She pursed her lips. “You’re notinviteduponit,regardless.”
“Somewomenmightbeconvincedto let you try.” Her teasing gaze heated hisskin.
“Let’s start over,” he suggested,ratherthanconsiderwhatthefictionalOlivermight do after climbing up her balcony.Answer:everything.
“These parties are supposed to beboring?”Sheliftedaneyebrow.
Hegaveherasternnod,wellawarehis eyes betrayed his humor. “Precisely.You’re meant to remark upon the weather,andIupon…theteacakes…”
“Goodheavens,thatisboring,”sherepliedwithmockhorror.“Howdoesanyonefind a match with conversations as dull asthose? I should think marriage requires anunderstanding built upon something moresubstantialthanweatherandteacakes.”
His fingers tightened possessively.Hetriedtorelaxthem.Shewasfreetodoasshepleased.“Soyouareonthehunt?”
“It’s complicated,” she admitted.“And, as you may have noticed, not goingverywell.”
He lowered his voiceconspiratorially. “I think everyone hasnoticed.”
“My grandparents hired a tutorwhenIarrivedinLondon.”
Grandparents! His lungs expandedwith pleasure. He should not feel sovictorious at having teased another personaldetailfromthatrosymouthbut,well,thereitwas.Although,cometothinkofit,hehadn’t
learned much. If there was no dancing inAmerica, whywould her grandparents havehired an instructor?And if her grandparentswere British, what had she been doing inAmerica?“Wheredo—”
“York!” came a familiar voice atOliver’sbackas the last strainsof thewaltzfadedaway.“Introducemetoyourfriend.”
TheownerofthedeepvoicehadtoknowthatMissHaltonhadnotyetmadeanyfriends.OliverturnedtoflashacoldsmileattheDukeofRavenwood.Hewasnotafriendeither. Not anymore. The war had changedthem both for different reasons, and neitherof them much liked who the other hadbecome.
“It’s Carlisle now,” Oliver
Ravenwoodflinched,asiftheslighthadbeenaccidentalratherthanpremeditated.“That’s right. I was very sorry to hear thenews.Thetwoofyouweren’tclose,but…Afatherisafather.”
Oliver glared at him in silence.Anything said now would be disastrous tothemboth.
Ravenwoodturnedhisgazetowardthe siren Oliver still hadn’t relinquished.“Does this delightful young lady have aname?”
OliverreleasedMissHalton’shand.Their moment was clearly over. “MissHalton, this is His Grace, the Duke of
Ravenwood lifted Miss Halton’sglovedhandtohispartedlips.“Thehonor—and utter delight—aremost assuredlymine,my dear lady. May I have the pleasure ofyourcompanyduringthenextset?”
Oliver kept his fists at his sides.The giant stick upRavenwood’s arsewouldkeep him from puttingMissHalton’s honorin any danger.And itwas time to slip backintothelibraryandcheckonXavier.Perhapshewouldfinallycomearound.
Miss Halton, for her part, wasgazing at Ravenwood, her eyes filled withsuspicion, not seduction. Very wise. She’dgone from no dances at all, to being on the
arm of both an earl and a duke in quicksuccession.
Thegaggleofnervousyoungbuckslining up behind them for a chance to addtheirnamestoherdancecard?AlsoOliver’sfault. When he’d sought to save MissHalton’s precarious reputation from the evilof wagging tongues, he’d acted as OliverYork, rescuer of people who wished he’dleavethemalone.Intheheatofthemoment,he’d forgotten that he was now the Earl ofCarlisle, as well as a decorated war herowhom these dandified imeciles had beenemulating from the moment Oliver strodebackashore.
HavingwonbothRavenwood’sandOliver’s attentions, Miss Halton would no
Ravenwood passed Miss Halton’sdancecard to thenext addlepate in line,butwas not so quick to release her hand.“HoweverdidyoumeetanoldcaterpillarlikeCarlisle?”
Oliver’s smile froze as he flashedMissHalton awarning look. He knew theyshould’ve gotten their stories straight whenthey’dhadthechance.
She blinked up at Ravenwoodinnocently. “Didn’t he tell you? We’veknowneachotherashockinglengthoftime.Ifyoucancreditit,LordCarlisleiseventhefirstmanIeverdancedwith.”
atOliver,whowasstrugglingnottosmileatMiss Halton’s clever response. Every wordwas true, yet gave the impression they’dknowneachotherforages.Which,giventhatheandRavenwoodhadknowneachotheralltheir lives, would mean Oliver had beenkeeping her a secret for decades. Splendididea,that.Hewishedshewerehissecret.Hefoundhimselfquitedisinclinedtoshare.
HegrinnedatMissHaltonuntilthebutterflies in his stomach churned intonausea. Hewas sinking fast.With a gallantbow, he broke free of her web and forcedhimself towalkawayfromthoseenchantinggreeneyes.Far,faraway.
The next morning, after giving upon deciphering the cramped handwriting inhis father’s innumerable estate journals,OlivertiedhishorsesonThreadneedleStreetfor a meeting with his father’s banker. Hehad returned home in mid-December buthadn’t been able to secure an appointmentuntilafterChristmastide. Itwas justaswell,he supposed. He’d needed those fewweeksto adjust to the loss of his father and thedisorientationofbeingbackinEnglandafterthreelongyearsatwar.
Whenhe’dbeencleaningweaponsorchargingacrossbattlefields,he’ddreamedoftheidlecarelessnessofhisoldlife.Boxingmatches at Gentleman Jackson’s. Quickafternoon visits to Tattersall’s to bid on thelatest horseflesh. Lazy evenings at thepleasuregardensorinbedwithhismistress.
Buthehadn’tcomehometoanyofthosethings.Hadn’teventhoughtaboutthemsincethemomentheheldhisfather’scoronetin his knife-scarred hands. Leading troopswas so much simpler than managing anearldom.Soldiersweretrained.Heirswere…accidental.
HehadcometoLondondeterminedtomakethebestofit.Beingbackinthecitymeant Oliver finally had a chance to find
someone capable of explaining the earldomtohimin theKing’sEnglish.Orat theveryleast, make sense of the charts of accounts.HestrodeintotheBankofEnglandwithhisshouldersbackandhisheadheldhigh.
Unfortunately, the portly Mr.Brown couldn’t seem to make sense ofOliver’spresenceinhisoffice.
“Young… Master… York?” hegasped, sounding as if he’d perhapsswallowedapheasant.
“It’s Carlisle now,” Oliver foundhimself explaining for the second time in asmany days. “I’m sure the bank receivednoticeofmyfather’sunfortunatepassing?”
“Yes… Yes… Of course we have
done…” Mr. Brown’s feeble reply fadedaway, but his eyes remained round ascannonballs.
“Did the accounts not transfer tome, then? Are there forms I need to sign,evidencetoprovide?”
“No… Everything is yours, ofcourse.Suchthat it is.Ofcourse.I’mjust…It’ssuchasurprisethatyou’rehere,that’sall.Suchasurprise.Whatwiththeprobatereport,youknow.”
Oliver shifted in his suddenlyuncomfortable chair. It didn’t seem like agood surprise. Nor had he encountered anyreports. His father’s financials were adisaster. “You were not expecting to meetwithme?”
“Er, no. Obviously we were not.Meetaboutwhat?Insituationslikethese,thatis.”
“In situations like what?” Oliverdemanded, his muscles clenched as tight ashisjaw.“Situationsinwhichanheirinheritshis father’s holdings? My schedule for thenext fewweeks is filledwith appointments.I’m meeting with everyone in charge ofeverything. Why wouldn’t I meet with thebank?”
“B…because there are noholdings,” Mr. Brown stammered. “Yourfatherclosedhisaccountwithusafterhesoldthelastoftheunentailedproperties.Allthat’sleft is the principle seat. I’ve no idea howyourfatherwaspayinghisretainersorcaring
forhistenantstheselastmonths.”Mr.Brownnarrowed his eyes. “Unless there’s anotheraccountatanotherbank?”
Another bank? The buzzing inOliver’s ears increased to a roar as his fiststightened painfully. One of the few phraseshe’dmanaged tomakeout on the first pageofeachjournalwas“BankofEngland.”Thiscouldmeanonlyonething.
Mr. Brown nodded jerkily, thengave a what-can-you-do lift to his hands.“I’msorrytohearthat,mylord.Ifthat’sthecase,there’snomoney.Unlessyou’vefundsofyourowntoinvest…?”
Oliver shookhis head.Or tried to.His shoulders were too tight, his neck toocorded. He gritted his teeth. Lovely. Hisfather had left the son he’d never wantedalone and penniless. His lips flattened.Checkmatefrombeyondthegrave.
Allsoldiersleftthearmywithcoinin their pockets when they sold theircommissions, but Oliver had already spenthis on the town house he had rented inMayfair.Therewasnoneleftoverforsalariesor tenantsor—goodlord, thetailor!Thebillhe’daccumulatedwhenoutfittingXavierandhimself in the first stare of fashion wouldrival the rents he had paid for his Londontownhouse.Hegrippedthearmsofhischairasifhemightexplodeatanymoment.
Now what? He couldn’t undo allthatlabor,ormakegoodonanyofhisdebts.Thefood—wherewasthefoodcomingfrom?The tenants, most likely. No wonder hisfather’s liquor supply had dwindled. Oliverhad thought the menservants were judginghim for going from the battle to the bottle,buttherewassimplynomoneylefttospend.Hisbreathcaught.
The staff! How long would theyremain in his employ, once they discoveredhe could ill afford to keep them? Had theyimagined excuses forwhy theirwageswerelate,expectingthenewheirtosettleaccountswiththematanymoment?
His heart raced. He wasn’tprotecting his tenants, he was stealing from
them. And using his servants as free laboruntil they wised up enough to takethemselves to the street. Penniless. Just likehim.
He slammed his fist onto thebanker’stable.Untenable.Butwhatcouldhedo?Hedidn’thavetuppencetowagerwithatthegaminghells,ormuchhopeofmarryinginto the kind of fortune he’d need just tobreak even with debts of this size. Anearldom! The Carlisle estate didn’t need anheiress, it needed a royal princess. And amagiclantern,justtobesafe.
Mr. Brown shook his head. “Thesituation didn’t become desperate until thefinal weeks of your father’s life. Theearldom’s lack of funds may not yet becommon knowledge, but… Your fathercouldn’t continue to pay his last mistress.Nowthathe’sgone,whoknowswhatpillowtalk she’ll have with her next protector? Ifyou’llpardonmybluntness.”
Shite on a shingle. Mr. Brown’sbluntnesswastheleastofOliver’sproblems.
His father had died in his finalmistress’s bed, the infamy of which hadvaulted her to the pinnacle of thedemimonde. Oliver doubted she’d waited
five minutes before sharing every salaciousdetailwithherdemimondainefriends,whointurnwoulddothesamewiththeiruppercrustclients, and the next thing you knew, all ofLondon will have heard that Oliver’s papadidn’t just die of prawn salad. He’d diedpoor. Leaving Oliver the least eligiblebachelorinEngland.
Are your pockets to let? thedelectableMiss Halton had asked the nightbefore.Wasthataninnocentquestion,orwasthetruthbecomingknown?
No,heremindedhimself.Hehadn’tintroducedhimselfyet, so therewasnowayMiss Halton had matched his face to anyrumors.
Oliver pushed himself up on stifflegs and blindly made his way out of thebank and onto the street. He had wastedenoughofMr.Brown’stime.Andhisown.
Thepastfewmonthshadbeenonenightmareafteranother.He’dlosthisfather,his best friends. So much death in so littletime.
At least he had no dependents tocarefor.Thefoursoldiershadmarchedoffasfreemenand returnedhomeavowed to staythat way. Except for Edmund, who hadn’treturned at all. Thank God the man hadn’tmarried his childhood sweetheart beforeheadingintobattle.SarahFairfaxwasfartooyoung to be a widow. Not that anythinglessenedthepain.
Come to think of it, Oliver hadn’tseen Miss Fairfax even once since he’dreturned to Town. His heart twisted.Although a fiancée wasn’t expected to donwidow’s weeds for a full year like a wifewould, he wouldn’t be surprised to learnSarahFairfaxhaddone.Oliverhimselfwouldprobablyneverremovehisblackarmband.
He crossed his arms and shiveredagainsttheJanuarycold.Hecouldpayheracall, check in. A friendly face would bewelcome right about now, and they couldboth use a break from their misery. Hecouldn’t recover an earldom in one day.Spending the afternoon with someone whodidn’t expect him to be anyone but himself
As he swung up into his carriage,he decided his second errand after MissFairfax’s town house ought to be finding astabletotakehisbaroucheandhisprizedpairofgraysoffhishands.Werethereanyotherhorses or carriages to sell, or had his fatheralreadyridhimselfofthelot?Hisarmsbrokeout in gooseflesh. Perhaps even the greyswould not bring in enough blunt to staunchtheflow.
HowmanyservantscouldOliverletgowithout thehouse fallingdownabouthisears? His cheeks burned at what they mustthink. Some of the staff had been with hisfamily for generations. Their great-grandparents had shined boots and curled
hair for Oliver’s great-grandparents. Hewould write glorious letters ofrecommendation for all of them, but howcouldheeverrepaythemforstayingaslongastheyhadwithnopay?Bytossingthemtothe gutters with nothing more than a sparepair of clothes and a note of commendationintheirpockets?
Berkeley Square, at last! Oliverleaptfromhiscarriage.HehadneverbeensohappytoseeSarahFairfax’sgatedgardeninhis life. He needed something, anything, totakehismindoffofhisimpossiblesituation,evenforafewhours.
He made good use of the brassknocker. Within seconds the door crackedopen, revealing an inch and a half of theFairfaxbutler’sfamiliarface.Hedidnotmisstheflashofpaininthebutler’seyes.
Oliver frowned.Primblehadneverhesitated to throw the door wide for any ofthefivefriends.Yethecontinuedtoblocktheway.Oliverrubbedthebaseofhisneckashewaited for an invitation that was obviouslynotforthcoming.
“What is it? Is Miss Fairfaxunwell?”Histhroatwentdry.Hepushedpastthe butler, despite any risk of contagion tohimself. A humorless smile curled his lips.What risk? He’d already planned not tocontinue the family line. A timely demisewas probably the best he could do for theCarlisle estate. “Sarah? Are you ill? It’sOliver.Whereareyou?”
Hesitant shuffles sounded frombehind a tri-paneled embroidered screen.
He staredat the topofherhead indawning horror. Pregnant. No wonder hehadn’t seen her about Town. She couldn’tleave her home. This was a hundred timesworsethansimplemourning.Thiswas—
“Edmund’s baby,” she choked outbrokenly, looking up at him with hugebloodshoteyesabovepuffyblackcircles.Sheprobablyhadn’tsleptsinceshegotthenews.Eitherpieceofnews.
“Bruges,” she supplied, smilingthroughher tears. “Hehadonedayof leaveshortlybeforeyouwereallsenttoWaterloo,so Imet him inBruges. It’s supposed to bethe Venice of Belgium, and it’s ever solovely.EdmundandI…EdmundandI…Wewere to be married!” She wrenched herselffromOliver’s arms and thumpeddownontothe closest chair, her sobs in her throat andher face inherhands. “Iwasmeant tohavehimforever,andnowallthatI’lleverhaveishisbastardbaby!”
“Don’t—” talk like that, he hadbeenabout tosay.Butshewasright.Damn.Hethoughtback.They’dgonetoWaterlooinearly June, and it was now early January.Sevenmonths.SarahFairfaxwasunwedand
pregnantbyadeadman.Attwo-and-twenty,her lifewasover.Oliver sank into the chairopposite her and reached for her hands.“Whoknows?”
“The servants, of course. Myparents. And now you.” She glanced up athimwithawrysmile.“Why?Areyougoingtooffer forme?AnothercouplemonthsandI’llhaveonepipofadowry.”
Oliver groaned. The only thingkeeping him from doing exactly that—rescuing his best friend’s pregnant bride bywhiskinghertotheclosestaltar—wasthathecouldn’t be assured of a roof over his ownheadintwomonths’time,muchlessbeableto provide for a grieving widow and anewborn child. He released Miss Fairfax’s
He wasn’t like Ravenwood, whobelieved marriage was only for couples inlove. Balderdash. Oliver had neverexperienced love of any sort. He wellunderstood that life demanded one bemorepragmatic than idealistic. So did MissFairfax,orshewouldn’thavemadeher jest-that-wasn’t-wholly-a-jest. She’d knownOliverherwholelife.Rushingintosaveherwasexactlythesortofthinghewaspronetodo.Thistime,however,hishandsweretied.
Wait a minute. His foot began tobounce in excitement. Ravenwood was theanswer!
That stick-in-the-mud was flushwith blunt. He probably stuffed his
mattresses with pound notes. RavenwoodmightnotgiveOliverthetimeofday,buthecould be trusted to keep a secret. With asmall loan, Miss Fairfax could take anunplanned holiday in the countryside. Sarahwas too proud to accept charity but onceRavenwoodagreedtohelp,Oliverwoulddohis damnedest to convince her. If she gavethe baby away somewhere far in the north,Londonwouldneverbethewiser.
His blood rang with excitement.Perfect! Ifhecouldconvinceher to take themoney—and Ravenwood to offer it—Sarahcouldhaveheroldlifebackbythistimenextyear. Oliver tilted his head toward her, butsomethingstilledhistongue.
She had stopped crying. Her eyes
and cheeks were still red and every part ofherbodyswollen,butherbreathsquietedasherfingerscurvedoverherroundstomach.
The morning after Grace haddancedwiththeDukeofRavenwoodandtheEarl of Carlisle—whose offhand confessionthat he’d preferred being plain Mr. OliverYork had sounded surprisingly sincere—flowersbegantofill theparlor.But theonlybouquetshe’dclutchedtoherthumpingheartwasalsothesimplest,andtheonlybloomstoarrive without an accompanying note. Shedidn’t need a signature to knowwhom theywerefrom.
Jasmine. Same as her bath soap.She buried her face in the blossoms andsmiled.
Lord Carlisle was off her list ofpotentialhusbands,ofcourse.Wrongforherat every turn. Titled. Ex-soldier. Shewouldn’tbeabletotrickhimintolettinghergo,normanipulatehimintothinkingitwasagood idea. He was too smart for that. Toostrong. Too sure of himself. She smileddespite herself. He had every reason to bearrogant. He was handsome. Clever. KingTriton,surroundedbyaseaofguppies.
Worse, she liked him. He lookedintohereyesandsawmorethanshewantedhimtosee.Shemightnotwant to letamanlikethatgo,andshedefinitelywouldn’twish
No, her plans had not changed. Ifanything, her resolve had doubled. Sheneeded a malleable, forgettable, not-too-brightsuitor,whowouldn’tmindwakingupwithout his bride. From the dozens of vasespepperingtheparlor,she’devenmanagedtopluckanumberofpossibilities.
The next step was seeing howquicklyshecouldbringoneofhermaybesuptoscratch.Oneweek?Two?
She hated being this desperate. Ifhergrandparentshadhalfaheart,theywouldsend for their sick daughter themselves,ratherthanwasteprecioustimeforcingGraceto dangle from their strings. All they eversaid was, if your mother wants our
forgiveness, shecancomebeg for itherself.How?Mamawassosickshecouldn’tmakeapotofcoffee,muchlesssailacrosstheocean!ButGrace’spleasfellondeafears.
Notforthefirsttime,sheferventlywished her father were still alive. For hermother’s sake, and for her own. Grace hadjust started to toddle when he’d beenviolently stolen from them. She’d been soyoung that she couldn’t recall his face, hissmell,hislaugh.Itwasn’tfair.Nothinginlifewas fair.All she could dowas getmarried,get themoney,and take the firstboathome.Backtoaplacewherenobodylaughedathermanners or her accent. Back to her friends,herlife,andhermother.
At thenext soirée,Gracespent the
first half hour conspicuously sipping aglassofpunchinstrategiclocationsthroughoutthegathering, giving her targets plenty ofopportunity to solicit a spot on her dancecard. Not that she planned to do muchdancing.Shedidn’thavetimetofritterawayonactualfun.
Therewas noway to knowwhichsuitor was the most viable withoutconversingwith each of them. She intendedtospendeachsettakingturnsaboutthefrigidgardenuntilshefrozesolid.
Taking strolls about the ballroomwould be warmer, but much less private.Chaperonagewasfine—welcome,actually—but she didn’t need the gossips overhearingher nosy questions about the state of each
gentleman’spocketbook,orhowquicklytheycould envision themselves at the altar, or ifthewife couldbepresumed to givehim thefreedomofhisownpursuitsthereafter.
After an hour and a half ofwrackingshiversandchattering teeth,Gracecouldnolongerfeelhertoes.Orherfingers.Or her nose. She was forced to spend thefourth set indoors. It was a country-dance,whichwouldwasteaninterviewopportunitybut at least let her stamp a bit of sensationback into her frozen feet. She rubbed herarms and took her place next to Mr. IsaacDowning, who she hoped might become asuitor.
Anotherwallflower,abluestockingnamed Jane Downing, had invited Grace to
teathedaybefore.Uponhearingtheywouldboth be attending the same soirée, MissDowning’selderbrotherhadpolitelyaskedifshe might save him a dance. This wasGrace’schancetoseeifhisinterestwasmorethanmerely polite, without probing so hardthatshealienatedhersolepotentialfriendintheentirecountry.
Due to the interchangingnature ofthe swirling pairs upon the dance floor, shewouldonlybeable tospeak tohiminhastysnatches before the steps required him tobrieflypartnerthefemaleofthepairoppositethem.
Which was distracting enoughwithout the corresponding male being theEarlofCarlisle.
“So it is.” She kept her practicedsmile in place despite the thumping of herheart. Ifhe smelled the scentofher jasminesoapuponherskin,wouldheknowshehadthoughtofnothingbuthimduringherbath?
“Very astute.” Her breathquickened as his hand tightened around herwaist.Hecouldn’tpossiblybe jealous. Ifhehadanyideahowmuchshewishedhisnameweretheonlyoneonherdancecard…
“Tell me, Miss Halton. Have you
“What?” Grace’s feet stumbled inher confusion. She’d thought Lord Carlisleconsumed with envy, when who he’d trulywishedtoseewastheDukeofRavenwood?
LordCarlisle lifted herwrist for abetter view of her dance card. “Is the rotteronyourlistornot?”
“No, I…” She meant to pull herwrist away, truly she did. But the heat inLord Carlisle’s eyes when he learned shewouldnotbeinLordRavenwood’sarmsheldhercaptive.“Ihaven’tseenhim.”
“If he crosses your path, tell himI’mlookingforhim.”
But the pairs were alreadyswitching in time with the music, and nowshe was back to her original partner. Mr.Downing had seemed handsome enoughwhen they’d first crossedpaths, but dancingwithhimafterhavingbeeninLordCarlisle’sarmswaslikecomparingavividoilpaintingtoaninsipidwatercolor.
Not that it mattered. Grace washunting marriage, not passion. And so far,thiswasherbestlead.
The unblinking heat in LordCarlisle’s eyes had made Grace forget therestoftheworldaltogether,butnowthatshewas free of those strong arms, the chill of
January once again sank into her bones. “Ifinditcold,actually.Aren’tmyfingersicy?”
“Cold, but not drizzly,” Mr.Downing continued after a brief pause. Hisforehead had lined disapprovingly at thementionofherfingers,butquicklysmoothedback into proper blandness. “The sun isalwaysablessing.”
“There is no sun,” Grace couldn’tstop herself from pointing out. “It’s aftermidnight.”
“The moon and stars are alsoblessings, although nighttime can carry achill.” His voice turned contemplative. “Inevergoanywherewithoutathickscarf.”
She stared at Mr. Downing in
disbelief. Conversations about the weatherwere as dull as she’d imagined, and Mr.Downingevendullerthanshe’dfeared.Well,itdidn’tsignify.AllsheneededtoknowwasifMr.Downingmightjoinheratthealtar.
Thewickedpromiseinhiseyessenta flutter of heat straight to her belly. Sheshouldnotencouragehim.Aflirtationcouldlead nowhere. Worse, any hint of scandalcould ruin any hope of finding a malleablehusband.“Theweather—”
“—is boring. Did you like myflowers?”
She dipped her head, then forcedherselftolookupathim.“Ilovedthem.”
This time she had the pleasure ofleaving him the one without a reply as thecountry-dance spun her back to Mr.
Downing.It tookheramoment torecallherlist of questions to mind. She reaffixed herplacidsmile.
Excellent. A dearth of relativeswouldhelp to keephis expenses low, and asister meant he did not lack forcompanionship. “You both enjoy theSeason?”
“Jane and I are not enthusiasts ofdrink or dance, but we try to leave ourlibrariesnowandagain.”
Not being one for drink put Mr.Downing head and shoulders above the
others. Grace had hated alcohol ever sinceherfather’sdeath,buttheton’sbloodseemedtorunonportandbrandy.Hadsheanyplanstostaybeyondthewedding,notdancingwithher husband would’ve been adisappointment. As it stood, Mr. Downingwasawonderfulcandidate.
But themusicreturnedher toLordCarlisle.Hepinnedherwithhisgaze.
“Yoursmilesdon’treachyoureyestonight. Is something amiss?”The cornerofhismouth lifted. “Besidesmy lackof socialgraces?”
She frownedup at him.He shouldnot be able to read her thiswell. She couldscarcelyadmitherintentiontomarryandfleehome,sogavehimpartof the truth.“I’llbe
goingbacktoAmericabeforetoolong.Iwasjust thinking about the voyage home. Threeweeks ina tiny sharedcabinonapassengership.”
He pulled a face. “I don’t mindcramped spaces, but sailing to and from theContinent very nearly killed me. I’ll neveragain cross so much as a river in anythingless than a sturdy carriage on a nice solidbridge.”
“Seasickness?” she asked withsympathy.
Hisshudderdidnotappearfeigned.“There’sseasickness,andthere’sseasickness.If I were Catholic, they would haveadministeredthelastrites.Iwaslessafraidofenemyfirethanofundertakingthereturntrip
toEngland.”Hiseyeswerewarmbutserious.He gave her hand a quick squeeze. “Youmadeithere.Youcanmakeithome.”
Grace thought back to those longweeksatsea.Hershouldersrelaxed.Hewasright. She had been ill, but not deathly so.Onceshehadherdowrymoneyinhand,shewould have no problem getting back to hermother.Thingsweregoingtoworkout.
“Thankyou.”Shesmiledupathim.“Talking to you has made me feel muchbetter.”
He affected a haughty accent. “Agentleman cannot accept thanks for simplybeingagentleman.”
He wiggled his eyebrows. “Icertainly do not have to be. If the ladyprefers,Iwillhappilyacceptgratitudeintheformofkissingmesenseless.”
Shewould’vekickedhimsenselessif they weren’t in the middle of the dancefloor. Or perhaps kissed him. If he keptincitinghertoviolentpassions,shecouldnotbe held accountable for her reactions.Especiallywhen he always seemed to knowjust what to say. Her eyes focused on hismouth. He was a gentleman. If theirsituationshadbeendifferent,shewouldhaveliked very much to have those sensual lipspressagainsthers…
Mr. Downing beamed at herhappily. “What authors are you currentlyreading?”
Her eyes widened, but the music
savedherfromhavingtoinventnames.Inthespace of a heartbeat, her hand was back inLordCarlisle’s.
“Yes, I disagree with yourassessment.” By the set of his jaw, he wasdispleased he’d evenmentioned it.But nowthat he had, he wouldn’t back down. “Wewouldobviouslysuit.”
Her breath caught in her throat.Yes!No.Thatis—
“But I can’t marry you.” Heglanced away, and put a more respectabledistancebetweenthem.“I’msorry.”
much too loudly. Informingherself asmuchashim.Hisrejectionstung.Whocaredwhathis reasons were? She had reasons of herown.Therewasnothingtofeeldisappointedabout.Noreasonatallfortheemptyfeelingin her stomach or the urge to burrow backintohisarms.
His next words were so soft shealmostmissedthem.
HeflungherbacktoMr.Downingbefore she could do something foolish likeshredherentiredancecardinordertospendthe rest of the evening with Lord Carlisle.January or not, she had no doubt he wouldensureeverypartofherbodystayedwarmasthey strolled the garden. More importantly,
The country set ended withoutgiving her another opportunity to return toLordCarlisle’sarms.Shemighthaverushedto his side, hadMr.Downing not saved herfromherself.Everproper,hedidnotabandonheruntilMr.Leviston,thenextsuitoronhercard,cametotakeherarm.
As they headed out to the garden,Grace meant to run through every questionon her potential suitor list—truly, she did—but found herself asking about the Earl ofCarlisleinstead.
Mr. Leviston’s brow creased.“Carlisle?Stayawayfromthatone.Heneedsmorebluntthananempireoftextilefactories
could provide.Hear he’s on the lookout foranheiress.”
LordCarlisle had lied to her? Shehuggedherself.“Howdoyouknow?”
“Poormugjustfoundouthisfatherspent the family fortune on whor—oneveningentertainment.He’sneartoblownupatPointNonplus,astheysay.Justyesterday,Carlisle sold all but the scrawniest of hishorses andmost of his carriages.Wanted togetmyhandsonhismatchedgrays,butsomeblackguardbeatmetoit.”
Gracecouldn’thidehershock.Herreliefatnothavingbeenliedtopalednexttothe horror of Lord Carlisle finding himselfpenniless because his father had wasted hisfuture on whores. And yet Lord Carlisle
made no complaint. Instead, he’d noted herunhappiness, regardless of her being toowrappedupinherselftonotehisown.
Despite being desperate enough tounload his remaining possessions onacquaintances that would obviously gossip,hestillputherpeaceofmindbeforehisownworries.
She swallowed hard. She wishedshecouldmarryhim.But ifhewas reducedtosellingoffhorses,heneededfarmorethanherdowrycouldprovide.Evenifshewereinthe position to let him have it all, onethousand pounds was nowhere near enoughtosaveadestituteearldom.
“Gotbetson thatatWhite’s.Mostobvious thing would be to get rid of theBlackPrince,butsomeonewouldhavetoprythat portrait out of Carlisle’s cold deadhands.”
“Oh, right.You’reAmerican.”Mr.Levistontappedhischinasheconsideredhisexplanation. “The Black Prince is morerightfully known as Edward of Woodstock,Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall, andPrince of Aquitaine. King Edward III madehim the first duke in England, almost fivehundredyearsago.”
“Why would Lord Carlisle careaboutthat?”
“They’re cousins. Or so the storygoes.His father—oldCarlisle—used todragevery personwho crossed his threshold intothe family Hall of Portraits. Had the BlackPrince hanging right there where his son’sfaceought tobe.Onlypainting in theentiregallery framed ingold, although itwouldn’treally matter. Canvas like that would bevaluablenomatterwhat.”
Sherecoiledat theinjustice.“Whyonearthwasn’titthefirstthingLordCarlislegot rid of? It soundshorrid. I can’t imaginehangingontosomethinglikethat.”
“Thenyou’renotas sentimentalasCarlisle. His land is entailed, and thatpainting might as well be.” At her blankexpression, Mr. Leviston shook his head.
“American, right. Entailedmeans he legallycan’tgetridofhisland,becauseitbelongstothe title, not to the person. Carlisle wouldneversellthatportrait.It’shunginthefamilygalleryever since thepaint firstdried.Trustme,IheardthestoryfromCarlisle’sfatherathousand times. Can’t blame the BlackPrince. Not his fault old Carlisle was aterriblefather.”
“I’m glad he’s dead,” she blurted.“Let him go be with his Black Prince if helovedhimsomuch.”
Howtrue.Grace’sshoulderscavedinward. She couldn’t even pick the husbandshewanted.
“Higher, if you please,mademoiselle.”
Grace lifted her arms into the air.She forced herself to smile at hergrandmother over the top of the latestmodiste’s head. It was not their fault thatGrace wasn’t enjoying being pinned andmeasured and fitted. She didn’t feel like astory princess at all. In the beginning, shecouldn’thelpbutbedazzledbythesweepinggownsandcandlelitballrooms,butshewould
trade it in a heartbeat for the money to gorescuehermother.
Trade it all. Hermouth twisted. Ifonly she could. But everything within sightbelonged to her grandparents. Even if theygifted her this trousseau, it wouldn’t help.There were exclusive venues throughoutLondon dedicated to the sale and resale ofdiamondsorracinghorses,butnotforgowns.They might be expensive to design andcustom fit, but were hardly a premiumcommodity.WhowouldGrace sell herusedclothes to, even if she could? Her lady’smaid?
GrandmotherMayer nodded at themodiste approvingly. “She’s going to looksplendid. Just asbeautiful ashermotherdid
Somehow,Gracekeptadeterminedsmile fixed on her face. She didn’t want tolook splendid. She wanted to be halfwaybacktoAmerica.Butsinceshehadtomarryin order to achieve that goal, she wasdetermined not to ruin her grandmother’sexcitement any more than she had to. Thewoman was under no legal obligation toclothe and feed her, much less provide adowry. Grace was quite conscious of hertenuousfortune.
Although they had been completestrangerswhensheappearedontheMayers’doorstep a little over a week ago, hergrandparents had welcomed her into their
homes… and had been furious that hermother had stayed behind. No matter howmanytimesGraceexplainedthathermotherwas back in Pennsylvania because she wasliterally too ill to even rise from bed, hergrandparents wouldn’t believe a word of it.They were convinced that Grace’s presencewasnothingmorethanaschemetorunbackto America with a portion of the Mayers’money.
Becausehergrandparentsrefusedtobe taken advantage of in such a nefariousmanner, they gave her no pinmoney of herownandneverleftheralonewithsomuchasapieceofcutlery.
Gracedidn’tevenhavetherighttobe offended. She was here because she
wanted money, and she absolutely intendedtoabscondwithitatthefirstopportunity.Hergrandparents were wrong about Grace’sreasons,butrighttobesuspicious.Shehadn’tdiminished their misgivings by remindingthemthatsheonlyintendedtotakeadvantageofherfuturehusband.
That was another score on whichtheyfailedtoseeeye-to-eye.
Grace needed to marry someonewho didn’t need her. Someonewith enoughmoney and mistresses that they wouldn’tmiss her or the dowry once she was gone.Sheintendedtoreturn,ofcourse.Shewoulddishonor neither holy matrimony nor herhusband by disappearing for good. Herstomachtwistedatthethoughtofabandoning
But that was why she needed tomarrysomeonewhowouldn’ttroublehimselfover a brief separation. Her mother neededher,andMamacamefirst.
Grandmother Mayer, on the otherhand, wanted Grace to become the toast ofthe ton. She saidGrace’s striking looks andunconventional backgroundwouldmake heran Original, and put her on the path tobecoming a duchess, or perhaps evencatchingtheeyeofsomeforeignprince.
The flowers accumulating in thefront parlor only exacerbated hergrandmother’s mania. She was determinedGracewouldmarrywell.NotjustbecauseofGrandmotherMayer’sblatantfrustrationthat
her own upward mobility had peaked, nomatterhowmuchmoneysheandherhusbandamassed.NotevenbecauseshesawinGracethe opportunity to make the sort of matchshe’dalwaysdreamedofforherownchild.
Worse. Grandmother Mayer trulybelieved that Grace and a besotted suitorjoininghands at the altarwouldbe theonlyenticement capable of inducing hercoldhearted, money-hungry, not-remotely-sick mother into hopping onto a boat andcrossingtheAtlanticOcean.
Upon which, what precisely wassupposed to happen? Mama andGrandmotherMayerwouldfalltearfullyintoeach other’s arms? Duel at dawn? Attackeachotherwithparasols?Gracehadnoidea,
andshedoubtedhergrandmotherdid,either.She spoke of her daughterwith disdain andcontemptandbitterness,andyetwishedmorethananythingforherreturn.
GrandmotherMayerdidn’tloveherunexpected granddaughter, or evenparticularly like her. She didn’t even botherto try to get to know her. Grace wasn’tfamily, but rather a means to an end. Shecertainly wasn’t interested in Grace’simpassioned pleas of sickness and urgency.She was too busy scheming about how shemightgetGraceintoAlmack’s.
Grace bit back a sigh. Sincearriving,shehadn’tbeenallowedtoleavetheMayers’residenceunlessshewasenroutetoalocationhergrandmotherchose,dressedasher grandmother wished, seen by those hergrandmother sought to impress. Every othermoment was spent with dance instructors,etiquette tutors, fashion plates… anythingthatmight help a gaucheAmerican becomemore attractive to those who mattered.PerhapstheDukeofRavenwoodortheDukeof Lambley, her grandmother suggestedoften.SometimesthepressurewasmorethanGracecouldstand.
a friendly face. Somewhere far from hergrandmother’swatchfuleye.Somewhereshewouldn’tbeexpectedtoflirtorsimper.
Of course, saying something likethataloudwasthequickestwaytogetstuffedbackintoherroomuntilCandlemas.Shehadtotryadifferenttack.
“The ladiespromenade thereeveryafternoon,andthegentlemanridebyontheircurricles. Miss Downing says it’s the bestplacetoseeandbeseen.”
Her grandmother frowned. So far,Gracehadonlybeenpermittedtoattendballsand soirees. Locations where music anddancing might help ensnare the heart of aCorinthian.Hergrandmother’sskepticallookindicatedthispatternwasunlikelytochange.
“BothCarlisleandRavenwoodwillbe there,”Grace rushed to add. “Andmanyotherdukesandearls.”Shehadnoideaifthiswas true, but if they did not show,GrandmotherMayercouldhardlyblametheirabsence onGrace. “Perhaps one of thehauttonwillbecomehopelesslyenamored.”
This, at last, proved too muchtemptation. “Very well. Take your maid. Iwon’t have you damaging your reputation.I’veworkedhardtobringrespectabilitybackto theMayer name.”Grandmother frowned.“I do want you to succeed, Grace. Yourtriumph is my triumph. Seeing you well-matched may not undo the mistakes of thepast,butitwillimproveourfutures.Icannotmanipulate the ton for you.To do that, you
must take care to stay on your very bestbehavior.”
Gracenodded.Tomost of society,one’s reputation was even more importantthanone’sdowry.The last thingsheneededwastomakeithardertosnareahusband.Shealreadyhadherdowryspent.
The smallest piece of the pie wasthe return ticket home. Two more ticketswouldbe required to returnwithMama,butfirstwaswhateverdoctorsandmedicinessheneeded togetwell. If it looked like itmighttakemonths for hermother to return to fullhealth,shewouldhavetofortifytheirhome.Therewereahundred repairs tobemade tothe little shack, not to mention clothes todarn,foodtoeat…Athousand-pounddowry
seemed a princely sum when she had firstlearned of it, but she nowworried it wouldbarelygethermotherbackonherfeet.
“C’est tout,” announced themodiste, plucking a pin from Grace’s hem.“Youarefinished,mademoiselle.”
Grace lowered her aching armswithagratefulsmile.“Thankyou.”
GrandmotherMayer’sgaveabrisknod.“Youmaysendyourbill toMr.Mayeronce you’ve completed all the new gowns.We’llneedthefirstwithinaweek.”
The modiste nodded quickly. “Asyouplease.Ithankyoufor—”
Before the modiste could finishspeaking, Grandmother Mayer was out of
The modiste dipped an awkwardcurtsey inGrace’s direction and hurried outintothehallafterherpatroness.
Grace turned to her lady’s maid,who was picking stray pins from the floor.“Will you accompany me to Hyde Park,Peggy?”
The girl glanced up from her taskonly long enough to cut a flat-eyed stare inGrace’sdirectionbeforereturninghergazetothecarpet.“Ifyouwish.”
Grace sighed. Normally, the upperclass would inform, rather than invite, theirservants. But Grace had been part of thatworld for less than twoweeks, and she still
wasn’tused tootherpeopledoing things forher.Herhesitancyshowed.
Peggy, for her part, only did thebare minimum required. She ensured Gracewas dressed and untangled the occasionalknotfromherhair,buttheycertainlyweren’tforming any sort of bond. Perhaps it wasGrandmother Mayer’s tendency to speak ofGrace like an object—or not at all. Orperhapsitwassimplytheignominyofbeingforcedtowaituponsomeonewithabsolutelynoclaimtoaristocracy.Orevenmoney.
Unlike Grace, Peggy was used toliving in a grand house and wearing prettydressesandeatingdeliciousmeals. Itwasn’tthat the maid thought herself above herstation.Itwasthatshedidn’tbelieveGraceto
Problem was, Peggy was right.Grace didn’t belong in high society. Or inEngland.ShemissedthesimplicityofherlifebackinPennsylvania,andshedeeplymissedher mother. But the only way to get hermother back was to continue with thischaradeandshackleherselftothefirstsuitorwith enough coin that he wouldn’t missGrace’smodestdowry.
She pulled a spencer from herwardrobe and shoved her arms into thesleeves. Someone might give her a secondglance. Perhaps todaywould be the day shemanagedtoturnanadmirerintoasuitor.
Peggy followed at a respectable, iflackluster distance as Grace hurried
downstairs to have one of her grandparentssummon a carriage. She found them in asittingroom,enjoyinganafternoontea.
Her grandfather glanced up first,andsmiled.“Offtogetabeau,areyou?Well,youlookprettyenough.Ishan’tbesurprisedif you summon a passel of proposals bynightfall.”
“Bettersomeoneelse’smoneythanours,” Grandmother Mayer added withoutlooking up from her biscuit. “Your newgownsarecostingmetwiceasmuchasyourdowry.Until you get a suitor, don’t askmeformorecharity.”
“I thought you said you wanted afewhundredquid,”GrandmotherMayersaidaround her biscuit. “For your ‘sick’mother,ofcourse.”
“Yes!Notforpersonalgain,butformy mother. She is sick. Deathly sick. Shecoulduseyourhelp.”
“Oh, for the love of…”Grandmother Mayer stabbed a fork inGrace’s direction. “Your mother isn’t sick.She’scrafty.Clarasentyousoshecouldgether hands on our money. I know it. Youknowit.Whencanwestopplayacting?”
“Ipostedaboat ticket themorning
you arrived,” her grandfather said casually.Bothsheandhergrandmotherturnedtostareathim.
“Youwhat?” Grandmother Mayerdemanded,slammingherforkontothetable.“Why bother? Clara swore she’d never stepfootbackinEngland.”
“Herdaughter’shere,”GrandfatherMayer said simply. “Didn’t you say shemightreturnifGracegetsmarried?Shecan’tswim across the Atlantic. She needs a boatticket.Justincaseshetrulyistoobeggaredtobuy her own, I went ahead and sent herpassage.IgottheaddressfromGrace’sletterhome.Iexpecttoseeherbeforetoolong.”
Grace rubbed her temples. “Youdidn’tsendmoney?”
He shook his head. “No. I sent aticket.ForthebestshipIcouldfind.”
Grandmother Mayer harrumphed.“More than she deserves. Some of usworkforourmoney.Shehadherchancetomakeagoodmatchandshesquanderedit.”
“Don’t be so hard on the girls,”GrandfatherMayer interrupted.“Clarachoseloveovermoneybecauseofheryouth.Graceisn’t silly enough to make that mistake.WhenClara comes home, I don’t want youbrowbeating her with ancient quarrels. Notwhenwe’resoclosetobeingafamilyagain.”
Grace’s legs trembled. “None ofthatmatters.HowisMamasupposedtogettotheportandonaboatwhenshe’stoosicktogetoutofbed?”
Grace’s fingernails bit into herpalms.“Ihadnootherchoice!”
“Clara is fine. She’s always fine.This is just another scheme.” GrandmotherMayertossedapointedlookatherhusband.“Don’t you see?Grace is just asmuch of aliarashermotherwas.Idon’tfeelbadatallaboutreadingthoseletters.”
Grace’s blood ran cold. “Whatletters?”
“Thelettersyourmotherwroteyou.If I had any doubt about your perfidy, her
Grace’s mouth fell open. “Mymother wrote to me? What did she say?Wherearetheletters?”
ran off the moment our backs were turned,and you’ve already said that nomatter howmany gowns and opportunities our moneyaffordsyou,youfullyintendtodothesame.Veryprettymanners.Howdoyouexpectmetoreact?”
Grace’sstomachtwisted.“Iknowitmakesme a horrible person for leavingmyhusbandassoonasIhavemydowry,butI’llbe back as soon asMama’s well enough tocomewithmeandthenyou’llsee—”
Grandmother Mayer gurgled withlaughter.“See?That’spreciselyhowIknowyou’relying.Yourmotherwouldneverhavesuggestedaplanthatfoolish.Clarawasbornhere. She knows how matrimony works. Ican’t believe she’d puff you full of empty
He shook his head. “Your dowryisn’t for you, child. It’s for your husband.Andhe’snotrequiredtogiveyouapennyofit—noworever.”
GrandmotherMayer lifted her cupofteainmocksalute.“Openyoureyes,child.You’renevergoingbacktoAmerica.Iwon’tbuy you a ticket to that godforsaken placeandneitherwillyourfuturehusband.”
BythetimeGracealightedinHydePark, she was in no mood to engage inmindless flirtations. Unfortunately, herfeelingsdidn’t enter into the equation.Evenif therehadbeenno reason to rushhome toAmerica, shecouldn’tbear to liveunder thesame roof as her grandparents for even amomentlonger.
So she opened her parasol at ajaunty angle, pasted a brittle smile on herface, and stepped in time beside Miss Jane
Downing. Hooves clopped merrily by ascarriages ambled down Rotten Row. MissDowningkeptupasteadycommentaryabouteveryonetheypassed.TheGrenvillesiblingsinvitedGracetotheirnextball.LadyMatildaKingsleyinvitedhertotea.
She kept a relentlessly pleasantsmileplasteredonherfaceandtriedtokeepherspiritsup.Shewasgoingtomarryoneofthesebluebloodsifitkilledher.
glance at the driver. Golden brown eyestwinkleddownatherfromthenarrow,opencarriage.Herhearttumbled.LordCarlisle.
She swallowed. Of course shewanted to, despite him being all wrong forher. Earls were disinclined to send theircountesses to other continents, never mindthat he wouldn’t be able to spare a penny.But being seen with him was stilladvantageous. Itmade her look desirable tothe masses. More importantly, being withhim made her feel better. He was the onlyother person she’d come to think of as afriend.
Still, her grandmother’s words of
warning rang in her ears. There was barelyenoughspaceforasecondpersoninsideLordCarlisle’scarriage,much less roomforMissDowning and both of their maids. “Thankyou for your offer, but I mustn’t leave myfriend.”
“What?Go.”MissDowningmadeashooingmotion. “Themaids and I will stillbe on the path when you make it backaround.”
“What have you to fear? It’s acurricle,” Miss Downing pointed out dryly.“Everyone can see both of you, from everyangle. Don’t be so missish. I should thinkthreehundredchaperoneswouldbeplenty.”
Well.Thatwastrueenough.Withasmile, Grace accepted Lord Carlisle’s handandclimbedupintothecarriage.
After traveling a few yards insilence, he turned to her, his face serious.“Tellmewhat’stroublingyou.”
Sheletoutalong,shakybreath,nolonger surprised at how well he could readher.“Mymother.I’mworriedabouther.ShewasillwhenIlefthome,andIhaven’tbeenincontactwithhersince.”
He frowned. “You phrased thatverycarefully.Bythelevelofyourconcern,Iassumeyouhave attempted tomake contactseveral times.Areyouafraidyourmother istoosicktoanswer?”
Hedidn’tknowthehalfofit.Furylicked through her veins and her fingersshook. “Today I found out that mygrandparents have been burning our letters.They disowned my mother years ago whenshe first left for America. All ourcorrespondence has gone straight into thefire.ShemustbeassickwithworryasIam.”
“Use my address,” Lord Carlisleordered without hesitation. “Bring yourletterstome.Iwillfrankthem.Instructyourmother to direct her replies to my home.Yourgrandparentscannottoucheitherofyouthere.”
For a moment, her throat was tooprickly to allowproper speech.Shenodded,blinkingfast, thentouchedherfingers tohis
“Anything you need,” he saidgruffly.
Her smile turned wistful. Shereturnedherfingerstoherlapandinterlockedthem tight. It would not do to develop aninfatuation.Andifitwerealreadytoolate,itdefinitelywouldnotdototouchhisarmandcastsighinggazesathimwhentheycouldn’tbelesssuitedforeachother.
“What brings you to Hyde Parktoday?”sheasked.
“Scaring up money,” he admitted.“I hope to entice some young blade intobuyingthiscurricle.It’soneofthelastofmypossessionswithanyvalue.”
“WhatabouttheBlackPrince?”sheblurted.Hercheeksflushedattheimpertinentquestion. It was one thing to be aware hehadn’t a penny to his name. It was anotherthing altogether to have obviously beenlistening to gossip. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’thave—”
“Someday,Imayhavetosellhim.”Lord Carlisle’s gaze unfocused toward thehorizon. “’Tis the last thing I wish to do.He’sbeenpartofmyfamilyforgenerations.”
She stared at his shuttered profile.He plainly hated to sell the painting. He’devenreferredtotheportraitashe,ratherthanit.Shebither lip.Whata toughsituation. Ifshehadthesparecoin,she’dbuyitherselftomakecertainhecouldgetitback.
“How about you?” he asked, hiseyes sharp. “Just out for a stroll withfriends?”
Shetookadeepbreath.Ifhecouldbe painfully honest, so could she. “Notexactly. I’m trying to tempt a rich bachelorinto offering for my hand. Perhaps I canmarket myself to whoever is interested inyourcarriage.Buyacoach,getabride.Whatdoyouthink?”
Her heart fluttered. “Well, they’llbe foolish if they takeme. I’m only gettingmarried because I’m after my own dowrymoney.” She sighed. “Although my
grandparents inform me that any futurehusbandisunlikelytohanditover.”
Lord Carlisle tilted his head. “Idon’t know. Technically, the dowry goes tothehusband,not thebride.But ifyoumarrysomeone with deep enough pockets, hewouldn’t miss it. Your pin money alonemight bemore than adequate.What do youneeditfor?”
“To fetch my mother,” sheanswered immediately. “Well, first to nurseher back to health, and then to bring her toEngland.”
Hiseyescrinkledsardonically.“Tolive with the lucky gentleman whom youmarriedforhismoney?”
Her spine slumped against thecarriage.“Despicableplan,isn’tit?”
He shrugged. “Seems to be myplan, too. Marrying money, I mean. NotsailingofftoAmerica.Evenwithanheiress,I’munlikely to have somuch as aweekendholiday from my estate for many, manyyears.There’s toomuchwork tobedone toensure the solvencyand futureof the estate.Beforeitcrumbles.”
She narrowed her eyes.Hiswordswereflippant,buthisvoice…Hehatedthis,all of it. Of course he did. Inheriting adestitute earldom. Selling the Black Prince.Marryinganunknownheiress.
HerstomachtwistedattheimageofLord Carlisle’s arms about some horrid
princess. Blast. She was beyond infatuated.Shehatedtothinkofhimbuildingalifewithsomeoneelse.Butwhatwas thealternative?Offer to split her small dowry with him ifhe’djustsettleforherinstead?
“How much money do you need?For your earldom, I mean.” This time, shedidn’tblushat theimpertinentquestion.Sheneededtoknowtheanswer.
“Tenthousandwouldbeastart,”hesaidwearily.“With that, Icouldsettledebtsandensureallmy tenantswouldsurvive thewinter. Another ten or twenty thousand tomake needed repairs and provide for futureemergencies.I’dstillliveonanemptymanorwithfewservantsandtwoancienthorses,butat least I wouldn’t feel like I had a noose
Somuchmoney,justtogetstarted.Sheswallowedhard.Offeringhimhalfofhermeager thousand would be ensuring histenantswouldn’tmakeitthroughthewinter.
Oh, if only shewerewealthy! Shecould save her mother and Lord Carlisle.Whocared if they livedonanemptymanorwith few servants and two ancient horses?She neither wanted nor needed riches. Shewasusedtomanagingasmallhouseholdwithno staff and limited resources. He waspossibly the only gentleman of the ton forwhomshe’dactuallymakeadecentbride.
Except for the smallmatter of herneedingtosailtoAmericatosavehermotherand him needing thirty thousand pounds to
She snuck another glance at himfrombeneathherlashes.Hedeservedabetterlife. If that meant that he was destined tomarry an heiress, then she should dowhatevershecouldtoensurehemethisgoal.Shemighthavenoconnectionsor sphereofinfluence, but if she found herself amongwealthyyoung ladies looking to landa title,she could truthfully put him forth as one ofthe most caring, worthy people of heracquaintance. Perhaps in some small way,shecouldhelphimsecureabride.
Erica Ridley learned to read whenshe was three, which was about the sametime she decided to be an author when shegrewup.
Now, she's a USA Today best-selling author of historical romance novels.Herlatestseries,TheDukesofWar, featuresroguish peers and dashing war heroes whoreturn from battle only to be thrust into thesplendorandmadnessofRegencyEngland.
When not reading or writingromances, Erica can be found riding camelsin Africa, zip-lining through rainforests inCentralAmerica,orgettinghopelesslylostinthemiddleofBudapest.
For more information, please visitericaridley.com.
Asalways,Icouldnothavewrittenthis book without the invaluable support ofmy critique partners.Huge thanks go out toEmma Locke, Darcy Burke, JaniceGoodfellow, and Erica Monroe for theiradviceandencouragement.
Ialsowanttothankthe(awesome!)Dukes of War facebook group. Yourenthusiasm makes the romance happen.Thankyousomuch!!
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