Wetherby Abbey, Norfolk
Charles Neville Fitzroy, fourth Earl of Hargreave, was not by nature a moderate man. To him, if a thing was worth doing at all, it was worth doing completely, without hesitation or doubt, whether it was urging his hunter over the tallest fence or wagering the deepest stakes at cards.
There was no halfway with Harry—for so he was called by his family and closest acquaintances—not even when it came to love. He was nearly twenty-four, an earl in his own right, and heir to his father’s dukedom as well. As everyone kept reminding him, it was time—past time—for him to marry and sire an heir of his own.
And so, with the same determination that he applied to everything else, he had decided on the most beautiful, most desired, and most perfectly suitable young lady available in Britain: the Honorable Miss Julia Wetherby. She had, of course, been in his orbit for most of the season in London—the beautiful young ladies always were with Harry—and she’d made it charmingly clear that if he chose to pursue her in earnest, she’d agree to be caught.
In the way of such matters, however, he’d only realized how perfect a wife Julia Wetherby would make after she had abandoned London for her father’s distant country house. He had come to this decision yesterday morning over his coffee, and he had left town as soon as his cup was empty and his carriage ready, stopping on the road just long enough to change horses. Julia would be his countess; there was no question or doubt whatsoever in his mind.
All of which explained why he was now here in this benighted corner of Norfolk, and why, too, he was reduced to standing to one side of her father’s drawing room while a small pack of country gentry paraded about before him. He didn’t know any of them, and they didn’t seem to want to know him, either, since it was obvious that he was tired and hungry and not particularly clean. He hadn’t known when he had arrived at the house that there would be some sort of party in progress, in honor of Julia’s older brother, the Honorable Andrew Wetherby, who was leaving soon for a tour of the Continent. While Harry was perfectly happy to wish Wetherby bon voyage, he hadn’t wanted to be part of this boisterous country celebration, and he didn’t want to have to pretend that he did. What he wanted was Julia.
“Where the devil is your sister hiding herself, Wetherby?” Harry said to the brother after the customary good wishes. The two were standing together, relegated to the area near the fireplace with the other unattached gentlemen. “She was told I was here at least a half hour ago.”
The Honorable Andrew Wetherby sighed in sympathy and held his glass out for the passing servant to refill. “Julia will show herself according to her own time, not ours. You’d best become accustomed to that, my lord.”
But Harry was not in such a jocular humor, not after his long ride on deplorable roads. He’d imagined this evening much differently. He’d pictured being welcomed warmly by Julia herself, and that she’d take him someplace where they could be alone together so he could surprise her with his proposal.
“I’d rather thought she’d be glad to see me,” he said, not bothering to hide either his disappointment or his displeasure. Perhaps Julia hadn’t been informed of his arrival; the young servant girl he’d told had been thoroughly flustered, a feminine response that he was so accustomed to inspiring, he hadn’t given it much thought. “I’m nearly of a mind to go upstairs to her rooms and flush her out myself.”
“If you do that, Lord Hargreave, then I can guarantee you will have a hairbrush hurled at your head for your trouble, or perhaps an entire vase of flowers,” Wetherby said with brotherly resignation. “French coquettes may enjoy being interrupted as they dress, but Julia prefers—no, demands—that none should see her until she is in perfect readiness. She’s always been like that, you know.”
Harry didn’t answer, because he didn’t believe it, not of Julia. He’d seen demonstrations of a certain petulance from her, to be sure, but that was to be expected of all great beauties, which Julia most certainly was. Beauties were entitled to imperiousness. But he’d never observed any ill temper to the point of vase-hurling, and he was inclined to believe that this was more her brother’s exaggeration than any worrisome hint for the future.
But Harry did wish she’d show a bit more of the eagerness he himself was feeling, and again he drew his enameled gold watch from his fob to calculate exactly how long he’d been waiting. Poets claimed that absence made the heart grow fonder, but he didn’t want to be kept a minute longer from Julia than he must.
Forty minutes. He clicked the watch shut, tucked it back into his waistcoat pocket, and took a deep breath to calm himself. His sentimental father would call this time well spent, the price he must pay for the sake of love. Harry supposed Father was right, just as he supposed that he was in love with Julia. After all, who else was he supposed to be in love with but the woman he meant to marry?
All he had to do now was propose, if only she’d appear. There was, he supposed, a distant chance that she was no longer interested in him, a niggling, unworthy doubt that he quickly shoved away. Not his Julia, his golden goddess. Still, there was little wonder he was in such a state of perfect misery.
He checked his watch yet again, as if the minutes weren’t dragging by without her.
“Here’s Julia, my lord,” Wetherby said, smiling with more relief than pleasure as two footmen opened the doors for his sister. “She looks exceptionally fine, too.”
Harry looked up and agreed. She did look fine, very fine. The one thing Julia could do supremely well was make an entrance. She seemed to sail into the room, her smile graciously including everyone fortunate enough to be in her presence. She hadn’t powdered her hair, but had left its true color to gleam like spun gold, piled artfully high above a face as lovely as any goddess’s.
What lay below that face belonged to a goddess, too, as long as that goddess was Venus. Only three features of Julia’s gown registered in Harry’s brain: that it was emerald green, fitted her very tightly, and was cut very, very low in front. Not that he objected. She wasn’t his wife yet, and besides, no healthy young English male could gaze upon the bounteous display of her breasts above all that narrow-waisted corseting and wish it otherwise.
Naturally he forgot the long, uncomfortable journey and his impatience, and when she came smiling toward him with her hands outstretched and her breasts quivering, he could think of only one thing. Well, perhaps two things, as she sank into a curtsey, but he wasn’t in a position to act upon one of them, not in her father’s drawing room.
“Good evening, my lord,” she said, her blue eyes sparkling up at him beneath her lashes. “My dear, dear Lord Hargreave! You cannot begin to know how much I’ve missed you!”
“Good evening, Miss Wetherby,” he said, acutely aware that he was grinning like a fool. He kissed her offered hand and used it to draw her closer. “I must speak to you at once, on a most urgent matter.”
She blushed and pulled back. “Not here, Harry, not with everyone watching.”
Ordinarily he loved to tease her and make her blush, but he was too impatient for that now. “Then let us go where they can’t see us.”
“Oh, Harry,” she said, her blush deepening. “You know I cannot do that, not with Father so near. Besides, it’s Andrew’s party, and I must be here for him. You—you should say something more proper to me, such as complimenting my gown.”
“Your gown?” he asked, mystified.
“I’m so honored that you like my gown, my lord,” she said, purposefully raising her voice for the benefit of the others around them, especially her father. She pulled her hand free so she could turn before him, spinning her skirts.
“Isn’t it the most beautiful shade of green?” she continued. “My mantua maker says it’s called le vert de trèfles Irlandais. That’s ‘the green of Irish shamrocks’ in English. Don’t you like it?”
“Yes, yes, it’s nice enough,” Harry said, refusing to be distracted from his purpose by green silk and Irish shamrocks. “But that’s not why I’ve come all this distance.”
She stopped before him, slowly opening her lace-trimmed fan one blade at a time, with a graceful precision that fascinated Harry.
“I suppose not,” she said breathlessly, her eyes sparkling over the top of the fan. “But exactly why are you here, my lord? I only just bid farewell to you in London, not a week ago, and now you appear here, in the middle of Andrew’s farewell dinner.”
“Julia, please,” said her brother Wetherby irritably. “Stop being so willfully dense. His lordship has come a great distance to converse with you, and the least you can do is step aside and listen.”
“You know I can’t do that, Andrew,” she said. “I’m supposed to be Papa’s hostess tonight, for your party. I can hardly vanish from the company.”
Wetherby snorted. “I doubt they’ll notice. You were already an hour late coming downstairs.”
“They would so notice,” Julia insisted, clearly wounded. “And who else would take my place? Gus?”
“Gus has too much sense to attend one of these infernal parties,” Wetherby said. “When I saw her earlier, she hadn’t even dressed for evening, the wise little creature. I wish I’d followed her lead and kept away, too. This whole party was your idea, anyway, not mine.”
“Who’s Gus?” Harry asked. He didn’t particularly care, but he did want Julia to begin talking to him again instead of Wetherby.
“Gus is our sister,” Julia said. “Half sister, to be more accurate. She’s much more . . . practical than I am. She doesn’t like pretty clothes or jewels or company at all, and I vow that she’d rather fuss about with the servants than enjoy the company of genteel people. You’d never know we were related.”
“That’s unkind, Julia,” Wetherby said. “I’m sure there are plenty of days when Gus feels the same about you.”
But Julia only shrugged and took Harry’s arm, purposefully turning them both away from her brother.
“I’m so sorry I can’t listen to you now, my lord,” she said softly. “But I promised my father I’d spend the evening with his guests, and I can’t disappoint him. I didn’t know you’d be here, or else I would never have agreed. But you know how fathers can be.”
“That is true,” he said grudgingly. He did know how her father was: a bluff, blustering John Bull of a viscount that he would not want to cross.
She ran her jeweled fingers lightly along his sleeve, turning in such a way that she brushed those magnificent breasts against the side of his arm, as if by accident. It wasn’t, of course, and they both knew it. It was calculated entirely to tantalize Harry all the more. It worked, too.
“But I will make it up to you, Harry, I promise,” she said, lowering her voice again to a conspiratorial whisper. “Meet me tomorrow morning at the stables, and we shall ride out together, just the two of us.”
He liked the sound of that. It wasn’t quite as good as being able to take her away from the others this instant, but at least in the morning he’d be shaved and washed and fed, and generally more agreeable.
He covered her hand with his own, stilling her restless fingers. “What time shall I meet you?”
“Early,” she said, dipping her chin a fraction in a way that was filled with promise. “Before anyone else is about. Shall we say eight?”
“Eight it shall be.” He raised her hand to kiss the back of it, and she smiled. When Julia smiled like that, he could forget all the dithering country folk around them and think only of tomorrow, when he’d have her to himself at last.
At least he could until she pulled her hand away before his lips reached it, turning to wave merrily at two of her father’s guests.
“Oh, Lady Frances, do come here!” she called. “Please bring Sir John with you as well. I wish to present you both to one of my favorite London acquaintances, His Lordship the Earl of Hargreave.”
With that Harry felt himself toppling into the very depths of country hell, with no chance of escape, and there he remained through the rest of the night. By the time he finally was permitted to crawl into his bed—a bed designated as the house’s “best,” yet still smelling of damp and disuse—he had drunk far too much of the viscount’s indifferent claret for comfort. As a result, his sleep was not restful, and when he rose the next morning for his appointment with Julia, his humor was not nearly as felicitous as it should have been for such an important occasion.
Harry’s manservant, Tewkes, did his best to see that he was shaved and combed and handsomely dressed, and prepared his special restorative with beaten raw eggs. Harry had dutifully swallowed this concoction, swearing mightily at the foul taste—which was part of its potency. He patted his chest to make sure that the plush box with his mother’s betrothal ring was tucked deep into his waistcoat pocket, ready to be produced at the proper moment, and then two minutes later checked again to make sure it was still there. Finally he headed down the stairs through the still-sleeping house and out to the stables, his long-caped greatcoat billowing behind him.
The driving rain that had made yesterday’s journey so unpleasant had stopped in the night, but puddles remained across the graveled stable yard, and water still dripped from the sodden eaves. Worse still, a thick fog had replaced the rain, a chill, wet mist that clung close to the ground, masking the tops of trees and the roofs of buildings.
The fog seemed to echo the thickness in Harry’s head, and if Julia were not waiting as his prize, he would have gladly retreated to his bed. Instead he persevered, his polished boots sloshing through the puddles to the stable.
And there, at last, like a golden fairy in the mists, was Julia—soon to be his Julia—warming her hands before a small brazier that the grooms had lit for that express purpose. She was dressed in a soft gray habit trimmed with a lavish amount of silver lace that sparkled in the light of the hot coals, and a charmingly foolish black cocked hat with a single curling feather. Though the habit covered her to her chin, the soft wool was so closely tailored to her body that her waist looked impossibly small and her breasts high and full, and he thought again of how perfect a wife she would be.
“Good morning, my lord,” she said, making a quick curtsey and deftly managing to keep her skirts from the puddles. The grooms and stablemen faded away, back into the shadows, giving them privacy. “And a fine morn it is, too, isn’t it?”
“It’s wretched,” Harry said, smiling as he held his gloved hands over the brazier to warm them. “Don’t pretend otherwise.”
She laughed, and the warmth of her smile banished the remaining chill of the morning. It was cozy and intimate standing here with her, watching how her breath came out from her lips in little clouds. Her cheeks were rosy, and tiny blond wisps had escaped from beneath the foolish hat to dance around her face.
“You are looking quite handsome this morning, my lord,” she said, eyeing him up and down, and from her smile she clearly approved of what she saw. “How fortunate I am to have such a manly squire to ride with me.”
“I am entirely your servant, Miss Wetherby,” he said, feeling as if the very air between them crackled with desire. If she’d been any other woman, he would have seized this opportunity and kissed her, but because she was going to be his wife, he was determined to be respectful. It wasn’t going to be easy; he was much more accustomed to beautiful women obliging him however and whenever he wished. A future wife was different from a mistress, though, and he would force himself to wait until after she’d accepted his proposal, no matter how powerful a temptation she might be.
Likely she knew it, too, from the seductive way she turned to glance out beyond the dripping eaves.
“The weather’s not so very bad, my lord,” she said. “And it’s a proper morn for Norfolk.”
“That does little to recommend Norfolk to me,” he said, resolving that, once they were wed, they’d never return to Norfolk again. “We don’t have to go riding, you know. I can speak to you just as easily in your father’s drawing room, and we’d both keep dry.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it, my lord,” she said, adjusting her hat to dip a fraction lower over one eye. “You’ve told me yourself that you always begin your day by riding in the park, and I couldn’t possibly disrupt your ordinary morning routine.”
He smiled, liking how she peeked coyly from beneath the hat’s brim. “Today is different, Miss Wetherby. There is nothing ordinary about it, because you are sharing it with me.”
She smiled, too, and glanced over her shoulder to the grooms before she leaned forward over the brazier, lowering her voice to a husky whisper.
“That is exactly why I wish to ride, my lord,” she confessed. “Because if this day is all I pray it shall be, then it must be perfection, and I don’t wish us to be disturbed by Papa, or some busy parlor maid.”
“Not at all,” he murmured. So she did understand why he was here, the dear minx. God knows she should. Hadn’t she been leading him along through an entire London season of well-chaperoned dinners and balls and operas?
Excerpted from A Wicked Pursuit by Isabella Bradford. Copyright © 2014 by Isabella Bradford. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.