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Design for Love

Design for Love by Nina Coombs Pykare
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Fiona Byrne received an offer from the Earl of Dreyford, whom she scarcely knew. But she eventually accepted his offer, to escape from her odious Cousin Charles. Both Fiona and Robert guard their secrets from the past—desires that they thought could never be fulfilled. But true love has a way of winning out in the end.

Regency Romance by Nina Coombs Pykare writing as Nina Porter; originally published by Jove

Belgrave House; November 1990
ISBN 9780515104424
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Title: Design for Love
Author: Nina Coombs Pykare

Spring had come to England. Hedgerows were fragrant with bloom and the meadows seemed to have greened overnight. In the backland groves little leaf buds slowly unfolded and crowds of un­seen daffodils thrust golden trumpets toward the sky.

But Robert, Earl of Dreyford, was not impressed by spring. Nor by the undoubtedly ex­pensive garden in the formal style of Capability Brown that lay before his jaded gaze.

The earl had just driven cross-country. His closed curricle was of the newest and most com­fortable design, so he wasn’t tired. But he was ex­ceedingly irked. The fact that the whole debacle was due to his own lack of foresight did nothing to mitigate his anger. And he was further irritated by the knowledge that he had made such a trip at the whim of a fat mushroom.

Dreyford took a calming pinch of snuff, auto­matically nicking his wrist in the proper manner. With graceful ease he replaced the snuffbox in his paislied ivory waistcoat and adjusted his coat of superfine. He was well aware that his tall, lean form was shown to advantage by his fawn inexpressibles and still gleaming Hessians. He was also pleasantly aware that though Charles Hinckley’s clothing had obviously cost plenty of blunt, they only served to make the merchant look fatter and greasier.

The earl sniffed, perhaps a little louder than was necessary, and his green eyes grew icy. The Dreyfords disliked being trifled with. The present earl had only deigned to undertake this journey because of a particular piece of Irish land that had long eluded him.

But he was not the sort to marry for land. He was not the sort to marry at all. The earl’s face darkened and the thrust of his chin and his hawk-­like nose grew more pronounced. His eyes rested on the formal greenery outside the window, but it was her he was seeing.

The laughing green eyes, the mop of curling red hair, the freckles on her pert nose. He had felt for Katie Howard all the passion of a boy fast becom­ing a man. And his love had been returned, in all innocence, until that day long ago when death had snatched her away.

The earl straightened the broad shoulders under his well-fitted coat. Any hope of his mar­rying had died with Katie Howard, as many a hopeful mother had since learned to her disap­pointment. For him, as for his long-dead parents, marriage meant love. And there would never be another Katie.

It was not that he disliked women. Au contraire. In his three and thirty years he had known many women. And he had used them well. But, as he would be the first to admit, use was the appropri­ate word.

To none of these women had he vouchsafed even a glimpse of his soul. For none of them had he felt even a start of tenderness. He treated them well because he was a man of honor. But he did not love. He had learned early that love meant too much pain.

He turned to face Hinckley, noting again how the beady eyes sunk in the corpulent cheeks gave the man the look of a fat boar. A small smile tugged at the earl’s thin lips. Hogarth could have made quite a caricature of the merchant. Stuck on a spit, with an apple in his mouth, turning over a slow fire. in his present mood, the earl found such a picture very gratifying.

“So, milord. What do you think?”

Hinckley’s oily voice irritated Dreyford only slightly less than the merchant’s annoying habit of rubbing his fat hands across his even fatter middle.

“I think you have bungled this matter badly,” the earl said. He narrowed his gaze and Hinck­ley’s pink face paled. “Any person in London could have told you that I do not take kindly to tricks.”

“Tricks, milord?” Hinckley seemed genuinely surprised. “There are no tricks here. This is a mat­ter of business, pure and simple.”

Dreyford’s expression darkened and Hinckley took a step backward. Tales of the legendary Dreyford temper had evidently reached his ears.

“You brought me here under false pretenses,” said the earl, in a tone that even his peers feared. “You offered me a piece of land that is not yours to dispose of.”

“Indeed, milord,” replied the distraught Hinckley. “That is not . . . exactly right. That is, I am Cousin Fiona’s guardian. And as such I am enti­tled to choose her husband.”

Dreyford felt a twinge of regret for the un­known girl. With Hinckley as guardian she was devoutly to be pitied. “That may be so. But that man will not be me.”

“Now, now, milord.” Hinckley was all aflutter. “Just give the matter a little thought.”

“I don’t need . . .”

But the merchant had already bustled to the bellpull. “I’ll just call the girl in, milord. Give you a look at her. After all, you’ve come this far.”

Common sense and breeding kept Dreyford from voicing the string of curses that rose to his lips. It was abominable that for all his power as a peer he couldn’t enact a law to rid England of such parasites. But he enjoined himself to a little more patience. No amount of distaste should cause him to descend to Hinckley’s level.

Out in the garden, the object of their conversa­tion sat unsuspecting. Fiona Byrne glanced at her charge, sitting beneath the budding linden tree. She should have insisted on a parasol for the fair-skinned Constance. Freckles were easily induced by too much exposure, and with Constance’s wedding scheduled for the day after tomorrow, she must take care.

Fiona pushed back a tendril of gleaming auburn hair that had escaped its severe knot. For herself, she relished the sun’s warmth. Darkened skin and freckles across her nose meant little to a poor rela­tion. A sigh rose to her throat, but she swallowed it silently. Constance was young for marriage. But Cousin Charles would not thank his poor relation for saying so. Of course, she would never have been so unwise as to voice an opinion.

Still, though Constance was young, perhaps this wedding was the best thing for her. The Vis­count Garston was a good man—a trifle dull to Fiona’s way of thinking, but essentially good. And he cared for Constance. That single fact did a great deal to elevate him in Fiona’s opinion.

Cousin Charles was an avid social climber. Fiona was convinced that, had it been possible, he would cheerfully have sold his daughter to the highest bidder. Fortunately for her, Constance was not a raving beauty. Her features and her character were both too bland for even her father to have conceived of her capturing the ton’s admiration. Garson, however, seemed captivated by her. And he had money and a title, thus satisfying Cousin Charles.

Fiona sighed. She was glad for Constance’s happiness, but it did not bode well for her own future. Fear quickened in her breast and her hands nervously clutched the material of her plain brown gown. Lately Cousin Charles had been making ominous remarks about her lack of usefulness after Constance’s departure. She had so few alternatives. Without references she could not hope for another position as governess-companion. Yet little else was open to a young woman of principle. If only . . .

Her thoughts flew back in memory to the brief golden days of happiness when Lonigan had first come into her life. Dear fair-haired Lonigan had the lilt of the Emerald Isle on his tongue and the fire of love in his bright blue eyes. At sixteen she’d been unable to resist such a cheerful, loving man, whose kisses held her spellbound and whose promises of a golden future had raised hope in a heart long buried under despair.

So strong had been his hold on her, that mad wild Irishman, that even now, some seven years later, she could remember the feel of his hot kisses and his strong arms. The rest she had tried hard to forget. To recall those long nights of joy after their runaway marriage was too agonizing. Or the torment of his disappearance and the long days of searching and not finding, of watching her sup­ply of coins grow ever smaller until it had dwin­dled to nothing.

With her money gone she’d had but two op­tions: become a woman of the streets or return to Cousin Charles in abject humility. She had cho­sen the latter course. The life of a prostitute, though appalling, would perhaps have been easier to bear. But in the beginning she had fortified herself with the thought that Lonigan would know where to find her when he returned. And by the time that hope had faded she had become inured to Charles’s sneers at her “sham” marriage.

But the lascivious gleam in his eyes was an­other matter. Though the death of his wife had given Fiona some fearful moments, she had come to see that as long as his daughter was in the house, she could hold herself reasonably safe. But now, with Constance married off, there would be no one to stand between her and the gross bulk of her cousin and guardian.

Though the sun still shone brightly, Fiona felt her skin prickle with gooseflesh. London’s streets looked ever better. But how would she accom­plish the journey, stranded as she was without a copper to call her own?

“Fiona! You’re not listening to me.”

Fiona forced a smile. “Yes, my dear. I fear I was doing a bit of woolgathering.” Her glance went to Constance’s white forehead, now puckered. “Don’t frown,” she cautioned automatically. “It causes wrinkles.”

Constance dutifully relaxed the muscles of her face. But the moment she began to talk, the wrin­kles returned. “I can’t help it, Fiona. I don’t know why Papa wouldn’t listen to me. I do so want you at my wedding.”

“No doubt he felt it was not proper,” Fiona said, trying to soothe the girl. She never criticized Charles to his daughter. Her private opinion was that he was too pinchpenny to buy her a new gown and too vain to allow her to appear without one. This was also a convenient way to remind her, if such a thing should be necessary, of how dependent she was on his charity. Added to that was the fact that a new gown might be sold if she chose to run away, a prospect that she considered with increasing favor as the day of the wedding drew closer.

She was fully aware that running away would put her in a precarious situation, but she found that just about anything would be preferable to Cousin Charles.

“But I want you to be there,” Constance replied petulantly, her pale face growing even paler. “I know I shall do something absolutely stupid, like falling over my gown.”

“Nonsense.” Fiona’s smile was affectionate. “You know how much the viscount loves you. The rest doesn’t matter.”

“But if I pull some bird-brained stunt and dis­grace Papa, he will be so angry.” Constance’s lips quivered at the thought of her father’s wrath.

“Constance, my dear.” Fiona was used to soothing her charge. She did it almost without thinking. “You are forgetting. After the ceremony your father will no longer have charge of you. You will have a husband then.”

Constance brightened and the hands she had been wringing relaxed. “Oh, Fiona, that’s right! You are such a blessing to me. If only Papa had seen fit to let you come with us. Everything would be top-of-the-trees then.”

Fiona kept a smile on her face, though her stomach clenched. She knew why Charles had re­fused to let her go. And the viscount, no matter how he might wish to please his bride, could not be expected to intercede in this matter. “Those newly wed are best left to themselves,” she said softly, aware that the excuse was flimsy, that there would still be a house full of other servants. “They need time alone.”

“Yes, Fiona, but—” Constance’s rejoinder was interrupted by the butler’s appearance.

“Yes, Yates?”

“Mr. Hinckley wants you in the library, Miss Fiona. Immediately.” The old butler’s eyes were sympathetic. He most probably had some inkling of the unpleasantness that lay in store for her.

“Thank you, Yates.” She turned to Constance. “Perhaps you had better go in, too, my dear. Too much sun is not good for your complexion.”

She left her charge inside the door and made her way toward the library. As an impressionable child she had thought this big house full of stat­ues and paintings a marvel of beauty. Now she was old enough to recognize ostentation. This was the house of a nouveau riche cit, a mush­room, as the aristocracy would say. But, ostenta­tious or not, Cousin Charles thought it perfect. And in her present situation Fiona had best ap­pear to think so too.

Outside the library door Fiona pushed back the tendrils of hair that insisted on curling around her face. She paused only to lick her dry lips and square her shoulders. There was little point in de­laying the inevitable.

Cousin Charles sat behind the great desk of polished oak, his corpulency exaggerated by the tight fashionable clothes he affected. “Come in, my dear,” he purred.

“Yates said you wished to see me.” Fiona hesi­tated a few paces inside the door. Her cousin’s friendly greeting halted her more effectively than did his usual scowl.

“Quite right,” said Cousin Charles with false cordiality. “Come in, Fiona, and take a chair.”

Never in the long years that she had suffered under his care had she been invited to take a chair in this room. This was where she stood on trem­bling limbs, waiting for punishment to come. It was punishment she expected now, though she had no idea for what. Tentatively she looked around for a chair further removed from his desk. It was then she saw the stranger.

He stood near the window, somewhat back and to the side, which was why she had not seen him on entering. He was taller than Charles, whose height was considerable. But this man had no need for creaking stays to conceal unconcealable rolls of fat. The stranger was a lean man, wiry and spare. Broad shoulders and narrow hips gave him the look of a sportsman, and his elegantly clad frame spoke of strength as well as substance. A hawk-like nose presided over a wide mouth grimly shut above a determined chin. His hair was black as polished jet and black brows bushed below it like fierce little hedgerows.

But it was his eyes that held her mesmerized. Green they were, like her own. And yet unlike. For she had looked in the glass often enough to know that her own were flecked with warm brown. But this man’s were hard and cold as win­ter ice.

Though he maintained his outward calm, Dreyford’s heart was pounding. She had the same bright hair, the same green eyes, the same freckles on the bridge of her nose.

He experienced the strangest sensation, as though Gentleman Jim Jackson had penetrated his defenses and dealt him a punishing blow to the solar plexus.

She was not Katie, of course. His mind knew that almost as soon as it registered the resem­blance and it stopped him before he could move toward her. But he had suffered a severe shock to his nervous system.

This was not Katie. This was Hinckley’s poor relation. She was clad in a gown of cheap bombazine that had obviously seen better days, many of them. Her rich auburn hair had been confined in a severe knot at the back of her head. That could not, however, hide its deep sheen, nor the beauty of a heart-shaped face that held jade-green eyes.

With a moue of annoyance, the earl recalled propriety and bowed his head slightly in greeting.

Fiona managed to acknowledge this with a nod of her own, but her teeth bit sharply into her bot­tom lip as she fought the sensation that this man was looking into her very soul. She swallowed the exclamation that rose in her throat, but she could not stop the flush that spread upward to her cheeks.

“Fiona, Sit down.” Cousin Charles’s voice fi­nally penetrated her thoughts.

Startled, she tore her gaze from the stranger and advanced to the chair her cousin had indicated. She did not realize that she had automatically straightened her shoulders and thrown out her chin. The stranger, however, did. A slight smile touched his lips as he folded his long length into a chair.

Fiona, stiffly erect, fought to keep from looking at the man sitting so nonchalantly beside her. He stretched an elegant leg and lounged comfortably in his chair. It was as though he were the only genuine article in the room. And in a certain sense he was.

“Fiona,” said Cousin Charles. “This is Robert, Earl of Dreyford.”

Turning stiffly, Fiona nodded. “Milord.” Try as she might she could not avoid the pull of those hard green eyes. Why did he look at her like that? A little shiver of hope surfaced within her. Could His Lordship be seeking a governess? Would Charles actually let her go to a new position?

“Good day, Miss Byrne.” The earl’s expression remained distantly polite. “Fiona, I believe, is your Christian name.”

“Yes, milord.”

“An Irish name. But I detect little brogue.”

“I . . . My mother was Irish.” Fiona felt the words being pulled out of her. “But I’ve never seen my homeplace.” In spite of herself a wistful note crept into her voice.

“And why not?”

“My mother’s father disowned her because she ran off with an Englishman.” She repeated the old story in a monotone. “Papa was a commoner, and poor. He grew even poorer. Mama sickened. We went from lodging house to lodging house. Until—” She swallowed quickly. “Until she died. I was ten then. Papa didn’t want to go on. So he left me with Cousin Charles. And then Papa was gone too.”

His expression did not change as he listened to her. To block out the painful memories, she con­sidered this strange lord. His face could not be called handsome. His nose was too hawkish for that. But he was quite striking. And powerful. She could tell that just by looking at him.

“I see. And you have never contacted your ma­ternal grandfather?”

Fiona’s lips drew together firmly and her chin lifted. “I do not beg, milord. He knows naught of me. And if he did, he would not care.”

A furrow appeared between His Lordship’s black brows and Fiona wondered if she had some­how angered him. Habit made her drop her glance and so she missed the way His Lordship’s dark eyes went to her cousin’s face.

But it was not her words that caused the bunching of his bushy black brows. Thought­fully, the earl considered his peculiar reactions to this young woman. The sight of her seemed to have addled his wits, causing him to consider pos­sibilities that under other conditions would never have crossed his mind.

Take for example, the gleam in Hinckley’s little black eyes as they rested on her. The earl was no stranger to that look, having encountered it in such diverse places as White’s celebrated Bow Window and Harriette Wilson’s equally cele­brated house of ill repute.

Certainly, he had never found it particularly disturbing before. The nature of things decreed that many young women should be left defense­less, lambs for the shearing. But the thought of this particular young woman being shorn of her innocence made him want to deal the fat Hinckley a facer or, better yet, run a rapier through his abundant middle.

As the earl watched, Hinckley’s greedy eyes went once more to his cousin, and the tip of his wet pink tongue slid out.

Dreyford leaped to his feet and almost planted the imagined facer then and there. He was pre­vented from this unseemly behavior only by the restraining habits of many years.

“Hinckley,” he said tersely, “a word with you. Over here.”

“Of course, of course.”

Hinckley’s beady eyes gleamed and the earl tightened the reins on his self-control. He would not give in to the Dreyford temper. But he was quite sure that in his entire lifetime he had never encountered a more pitiful excuse for a man than this fat toad who now beamed at him.

“I’ve changed my mind,” whispered the earl, his frown darkening. “I’ll take the chit. But we must marry as soon as possible.”

“Yes, yes, milord. I thought you might. She has a certain beauty.”

Hinckley extended a fat paw, perhaps to guide the earl back to his seat. But a slight stiffening in His Lordship’s posture made the merchant con­tent himself with a gesture.

They returned to their respective chairs and the earl, settling into his once more, cast another glance at the young woman who had just caused him to discard a hard-held tenet of some nineteen years. Her resemblance to Katie was not as pro­nounced as he had first thought. But that mat­tered little now.

It was not precisely clear to him why he should feel so strongly about this young woman. She was not, after all, Katie Howard. But for some extraor­dinary reason that had become immaterial. He felt that he had cheated the devil, who in this case bore an amazing resemblance to Charles Hinckley. And in spite of the fact that he had just given his consent to being shackled for life, he was im­mensely and inordinately pleased.

“My dear,” said Cousin Charles, and Fiona raised her eyes. In spite of his soothing tone, she expected trouble.

“I know this will come as something of a shock to you. But it is certainly a pleasant one. The earl has asked for your hand.”

For one wild moment the room tilted. Fiona clung to the arms of her chair and closed her eyes. What a cruel joke. She had no doubt Charles would find such a thing amusing; but somehow His Lordship did not seem the type to stoop so low.

She opened her eyes to find a dark face close to her own. His green eyes searched hers. “Are you all right, Miss Byrne? I fear your cousin was rather abrupt in his announcement.”

Fiona fought to regain control of her tongue. “I . . . Yes, thank you, milord. I’m afraid it was a little unexpected.” She sought for truth in the eyes so close to her own. “Is it . . . I mean . . . You really have come to ask for my hand?”

“Really.” The earl straightened and resumed his seat.

“I do not understand.” Fiona forced her fea­tures into a mask of composure she was far from feeling.

His Lordship’s tone became crisp. “I should think the matter is sufficiently clear. I wish to make you my wife, the Countess of Dreyford.”

“The Countess of Dreyford?” Fiona repeated. She knew she sounded stupid. But this was all some kind of dream. Cousin Charles beamed pa­ternally and the stranger surveyed her from hooded eyes.

“I presume you have no objections to becoming a countess,” Dreyford observed.

“Of course not.” Bewilderment sharpened Fiona’s tone. A marriage that would remove her from Cousin Charles’s purview. A respectable marriage. Nay, more than respectable. It hardly seemed possible.

“I trust you have no insurmountable aversion to my person,” His Lordship continued, in the tone of one confident of his own worth.

“If I had, I should be considered a real pea-head,” she returned with a spark of humor.

“Then I fail to see what else can stand in the way of our speedy nuptials.”

“But, milord,” Fiona protested, “I have never laid eyes on you till today. And, as far as I know, you have not seen me. Why should you offer me marriage?”

Dreyford’s eyes once again swept over her in that look of intimacy that brought the blood to her cheeks. “Though you’re brown as a gypsy and your clothing is nothing less than abominable, you have a beautiful face. And that hair, properly dressed, will do much for you.”

His eyes traveled the length of her body and again she felt herself brought to the blush. “As for the rest of you . . .” He shrugged nonchalantly. “Your endowments are quite adequate. In the hands of the proper dressmaker you should make a credible countess.”

Fiona’s doubts were not resolved. A man like this did not just make an offer for a woman such as she. But with those eyes regarding her sternly, she could not protest again.

“I’m sure that Fiona is overjoyed, milord,” Charles interjected. “As she says, it has all been quite sudden.”

Fiona’s thoughts raced in mad confusion. Per­haps marriage to the earl would not be so bad. At least he inspired respect. Something that to her cousin’s dying day he would never achieve. Any­thing would be better than . . . Her mind rebelled at the thought.

His Lordship helped himself to a pinch of snuff from an elegantly enameled box, expertly flicking his wrist. Then he stretched his long, well-muscled legs and sighed. “May I suggest to you that my time is rather a valuable commodity. I should like your answer.”

“It’s yes, of course, milord,” Charles said quickly, only to be silenced by a ferocious frown.

“Let the girl speak for herself,” said Dreyford. “She has plenty of understanding.” He turned his eyes on Fiona.

He was not Lonigan, she thought. But she could respect him. Surely that was a sound basis . . . Dear God, Lonigan! Was she still married to Loni­gan? Had their union been legal or not? She moistened her lips. “I am greatly honored, milord. But surely you wish to know more about me. There are things . . .”

The sound of Cousin Charles clearing his throat was a direct warning. Much as she wanted it to move, Fiona’s tongue cleaved to the roof of her mouth.

“His Lordship knows everything important,” her cousin said.

The meaning of this was clear: Lonigan was not to be mentioned. Fiona shivered. Her pleading eyes sought those of the earl. “Please, milord, may I speak to you in private?”

His Lordship cut off her cousin’s protest with a gesture of his hand. “Run along, Hinckley. I wish to be alone with my betrothed.”

The expression on her cousin’s face was not lost on Fiona. For his own reasons Charles wanted this match. If she bungled it, it would go badly for her.

The door closed with a sharp thud and Fiona was left alone with His Lordship. Nervously she got to her feet and, courteously, he did so too. For several moments he stood silent, watching her obvious agitation.

Finally he spoke. “I must admit to some per­plexity.” He spoke in formal tones, though the stern lips quivered slightly as though suppressing a smile. “I did not expect to find hesitation on your part.” Stretching to his full height, he preened a little. “In London I have been for many seasons considered a prime article—‘best heart, best hand, best leg,’ as they say.”

Fiona was torn between admiration for the man’s confidence and irritation at his arrogance. “No doubt,” she replied somewhat dryly. “But you must realize, milord, that this is my first glimpse of you. And I, when I used to think on marriage, wished to marry for love.”

The earl’s fine features twisted in a moue of distaste. Something within him roared rebellion at the thought that Hinckley might touch her, that she might be forced to submit to him. But it was pity, not love, that had prompted him to take this woman to wife. “I trust you have long put such nursery notions behind you,” he contin­ued. “Had I desired a flighty, romantic young woman, London is full of pretty faces with empty heads behind them. I wish my countess to have some measure of understanding.”

She met his gaze. “I have been so long out of the nursery, milord, that it is no more than a vague and pleasant memory. And the life of a poor relation is not conducive to ideas of ro­mance.”

Something flickered in her eyes. He recognized pain. He should; he was no stranger to it.

But she went on. “Nevertheless, I do believe that love exists. And I have not given up wanting to experience it.”

He shook his head and advanced toward her. “Are you afraid of me, Fiona?” he asked, a trifle surprised to discover that he felt actual concern. “Don’t be. I assure you, I shall make a passable husband.” Perhaps even more than passable, he told himself, aware that for the first time since he had reached manhood he was considering the in­stitution of marriage with something less than complete antipathy.

“I do not doubt that, milord.” Clearly he was experienced in the ways of women. Clearly he had had his share of inamoratas. She would be foolish not to realize that. And foolish to let it bother her.

“Then perhaps you are afraid you will not make me a good wife.” He had moved until scant inches separated them.

“I . . .” Fiona began, but she could say no more. Those eyes of his had grown suddenly bright and warm. She felt them reaching deep within her. His fingers closed around her arms, pulling her against his waistcoat.

“Never mind,” he whispered, his mouth above her ear. “I know enough for two.”

Here was another opportunity. She must tell him about Lonigan. Whatever Cousin Charles said, whatever escaping from him had made her consider doing, she was still Lonigan’s wife. In the eyes of God, if not in the eyes of man. But her tongue refused to move. Her mind filled with the impressions of her heightened senses.

“Don’t worry, my dear,” said the earl, tilting back her chin so that her eyes were forced to meet his. “We shall deal together famously, I’ve no doubt. And now for a little pledge to seal our troth.” And he bent his lips to hers.

His kiss was soft and surprisingly tender. Something began to happen to her and she pulled back, frightened by the rioting of her senses. The earl seemed not to notice.

“Now, my bride-to-be,” he said, looking at her in a way she could not fathom, “I shall leave you to your preparations. Which, judging from the look of you, will not be very time-consuming. Pack only those possessions you treasure. A small trunk should do. Perhaps even a bandbox. I’ll send round a gown and the rest of what you need for our nuptials. We’ll procure a new wardrobe when we reach the city.”

He moved toward the door. “Oh, yes, we will exchange our vows day after next. Immediately after Constance’s ceremony. I expect she will want you in attendance. Then we shall be away to London.”

His lips curled in amusement. “I must beg of you, Fiona, my dear, to close your mouth. It ill behooves a future countess to gape like that. Surely you have heard of a special license? Until our wedding day.” And, bowing slightly, he de­parted.

As Dreyford strode toward his carriage, he smiled. Thank goodness he had prevailed. But why had the chit hesitated? He had never consid­ered that, after he had come to the point of making an offer, the woman would balk at accepting it. His smile widened, became soft and tender, causing his groom to blink in surprise.

But the earl’s thoughts were otherwise occu­pied. He must find a gown and acquire a special license. He would not rest entirely easy until Fiona Byrne was out of reach of her fat cousin.