Chapter One

Honour - and the ultimate cost of said honour - was the furthest thought from the fashionably dressed gentleman's mind strolling down St James Street. Having just arrived in London for the Season, he was looking forward to reacquainting himself with various friends he had not seen for quite some time. His club was his first stop. The second would be to his mistress, having not sampled her practised charms since he was last in Town. Although, the only reason he kept one was because every other gentleman did.

As far as he was concerned, there was only one drawback to this time of year and that was the dreaded Marriage Mart. The deplorable institution where debutantes and their hopeful mama's descend on the nation's capital in hope of making an advantageous match. The higher the title and the heavier the purse, the better. Unfortunately, Dukes and Marquesses were a little thin on the ground, so they considered Peter, Viscount Markham, the catch of the season.

If being heir to the Earl of Ashington was not enough, his two estates he inherited from a maternal uncle with their independent income would cause Society matrons to pursue him relentlessly. Even his carefully cultivated reputation as a rake – false of course – would not curb their single-minded pursuit. Many of his misdeeds occurred when he came down from Oxford, but that did not stop the London tabbies from repeating them during innocuous drawing-room conversation. Thus his reputation as a lecherous rogue was secure, allowing him to pursue his other passions. Such as his charity he had founded, which no one but his family knew about. He was very much a silent partner. Not even his best friend, Nicholas, Marquess of Rutherford knew.

Lord Markham chuckled to himself as he sprang up the stairs to White's, ducking through the door that appeared to open by itself. He handed his black hat, dark grey greatcoat and amber handled cane to the porter and sauntered into the reading room. Oblivious to the ill-bred stares and whispers accompanying his entry, his emerald-green eyes scanned the room until they settled on the last person he wanted to see. Clarence Fulham. His usual good humour vanished into a puff of smoke.

Lord Markham's usually pleasant countenance twisted into a scowl, which only deepened when he noticed Mr Fulham mincing toward him.

Mr Fulham was quite beyond Lord Markham's considerable tolerance. Slender and of medium height, he had white blonde hair, pale blue eyes, and a long face, but few observers noticed those details, for his outlandish dress usually outshone all else. Pushing the bounds of even foppish attire, he wore a silver-blue tailcoat with lapels that extended well beyond his excessively padded shoulders, and buttons as large as his palm. Rose satin breeches clung to padded thighs. His waistcoat was embroidered with pink, blue and yellow butterflies. A matching posy of hothouse flowers covered one lapel below shirt points so high and a foot-long cravat so stiff he could barely move his head.

Another explanation for Mr Fulham's colourful appearance could be because he had an acid tongue, and took great delight in repeating every piece of gossip that happened to pass his notice. Whether it held a grain of truth or not. Perhaps he thought that by dressing to the extreme, it would detract from his less endearing qualities. One thing Lord Markham could not abide was the spreading of malicious gossip and judging by the expression on Mr Fulham's countenance, he had in his possession a juicy on-dit he wished to share. Just why he wished to share it with Lord Markham was quite beyond his understanding.

"Lord Markham, tho good to thee you back in London," he lisped, his affectations causing Lord Markham to grind his teeth. "I must thay I am thurprithed it took tho long. Ith'nt your thithster making her bowth thith year?"

"Yes, she is, but I had some pressing matters to attend to at my estate," Lord Markham explained. Although, he did not want to. Really, he did not want to speak to the man at all, but merely thinking the man annoying would not justify a cut. "Why do we not sit down. It would be more comfortable than conversing in the doorway."

After seating themselves in a matching pair of leather wing-back chairs, Lord Markham sat back, crossed his ankles, and contemplated the toe of his gleaming Hessians. He waited, wondering how long he had to sit there before he could safely excuse himself.

"I never really thought about it, but I athume bearing the cotht of a theason is expenthive," Mr Fulham mused, leaning back in his chair and crossing his legs. He asked quite innocently, but his eyes gleamed with malice.

"Yes, it is, but if my sister wishes to make a good match we must not quibble about the cost." Lord Markham frowned at Mr Fulham, not liking the talk about money in the slightest. It just showed how ill-bred the fellow actually was.

Mr Fulham ignored him. "My cousin made hers six years ago, but didn't take. Needless to say, Papa was livid. Wanted to marry her off as soon as possible," he sighed. He was now so intent on weaving his malicious web, he forgot to lisp. Lord Markham did not miss it.

"Don't think I have met your cousin, Fulham. Why didn't she take? Couldn't be that bad," Lord Markham replied. He knew he made a mistake in asking when Mr Fulham leaned forward eagerly in a conspirational manner.

"An antidote, don't you know. Didn't have the looks or the personality to bring anyone up to scratch. Don't say I blame them really. Probably leave her rusticating in the country while they continued their own lives in Town." Mr Fulham gave a bark of laughter that sounded suspiciously hollow.

Lord Markham's frown turned into scowl. His opinion of the fellow sunk even lower than it was already at Mr Fulham's callous assessment of his own flesh and blood. Any further and it would sink without a trace. He might wish to think it, but to say it to someone he barely knew went beyond the pale. "Well surely if she is given another chance she might make a match now that she is older. She just must have been shy." He signalled a passing footman and obtained a glass of wine. If he had to sit through this conversation, he would need fortification.

"Papa has it well in hand. She'll be wed soon." A sly smile curled Mr Fulham's thin lips.

"Well, I wish you good luck." Lord Markham took a sip of wine, barely disguising his distaste in the conversation.

Mr Fulham glanced at his pocket watch with feigned surprise. "Oh dear, is that the time? I really must dash. I am sure we shall meet again quite soon." With that parting comment, he left, content with the seed he had planted.

Lord Markham frowned after him. That had to be the strangest conversation he had ever participated in, he thought to himself. What was his purpose? Whatever it was, it could not be good. Mr Fulham did not just have harmless conversations. There had to be a reason and it had something to do with him. It was as if Mr Fulham had sought him deliberately.

Lord Markham was still deep in thought when he heard someone calling his name. Looking up from his wine glass, his face split into a charming grin.

"Well well, finally come to brave the current crop of marriageable females have you, Markham?" Nicholas, Marquess of Rutherford laughed as he sat down in the seat vacated by Mr Fulham.

"Demme, you can joke now, Rutherford, but it was not too long ago you were in my position," Lord Markham snorted. "Now, that you're married, I feel like a hunted animal and I only arrived this afternoon. I got accosted in the street as I left the Albany to come here."

Lord Rutherford laughed again. "Married life is wonderful. If I would have known how wonderful it was, I would have done it years ago."

"Ah, but you wouldn't have met Grace then, would you?" Lord Markham retorted. "And speaking of your lovely wife, how is she?"

Lord Rutherford smiled gently. "Completely recovered after Henry's birth," he said. "By the by, she asked if I saw you to invite you to dinner next week. It will be just the family. Mother and Barrington are in Town as well. They wanted to meet their grandson."

"Of course I shall come, but don't change the subject. Should she even be here so soon after her confinement? The babe is only a couple of months old, is he not?"

Lord Rutherford's gentle smile turned into a pleased grin. "Yes, he is, but Grace could not wait for you to meet your Godson. Besides, she wanted to experience her first Season, I did not have the heart to say no. You will do it, will you not?"

Lord Markham felt touched and honoured. "Of course I will." He grinned. "I can just imagine how that conversation would go if you dared to forbid her."

Nicholas chuckled. "Quite right. But what about you? When I came in you looked puzzled. Not at all the thing, my friend. One is supposed to look bored when in society," Lord Rutherford said. He directed a narrow gaze at his friend.

Lord Markham sobered immediately. "I had the strangest conversation with Clarence Fulham. I could swear he was waiting for me. Although, he wouldn't know I would arrive today."

Lord Rutherford frowned. "He has been practically living here since -" His mouth clamped shut.

"Since what?" Lord Markham prompted.

"Perhaps you should talk to your father," Lord Rutherford hedged.

"My father. What has my father got to do with anything? We never even mentioned him."

Lord Rutherford shifted uneasily in his chair. "There is a rumour being bandied about regarding your father and Sir George Fulham. Perhaps you should go to Ashington House, you really should hear it from him. It is not my place to say."

Lord Markham sighed. "You are right. That would explain the stares and whispers I encountered when I first arrived. If it is only rumour, there may not be any truth to it."

"Let me know if there is any thing I can to do help, regardless of the outcome," Lord Rutherford said sombrely. He stood up to accompany him from the reading room.

"Thank you, Rutherford. Oh, you're coming too?" Lord Markham asked, raising his eyebrow.

Lord Rutherford smiled. "I do not like to leave Grace on her own for too long. Even though she probably has a houseful of callers. It's her at home today."

"Goodness, fatherhood has turned you nauseatingly responsible," Lord Markham said.

Lord Rutherford laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. "That is not the reason, or at least that is what I tell myself. Ever since we arrived, Grace has worried about living up to the role of marchioness and that cannot be good for her. I have told her not to worry as a marchioness can commit any number of faux pas with impunity. No one would dare censure her for it. Actually, it was Grace that practically pushed me out the door. She said I was fussing too much."

"I do not doubt that, but your mother is here so she will show her how to go on," Lord Markham said, grinning. "Give her my love. I'll call on you tomorrow."

Lord Markham arrived at Ashington House to scenes of uproar. The usually fastidious butler that answered the door looked dishevelled and haggard. Trunks littered the black and white marble tiled hallway. Sturdy footmen hauled even more trunks down the ornate mahogany stairs. The sound of doors slamming emanated from the upper stories. Maids scurried past as unobtrusively as they could. By appearances the family was packing to leave, and were none too happy about it. Just why, he was yet to find out.

"Is the household planning on going somewhere, Crawford?" Lord Markham asked the butler, raising his eyebrows so high they disappeared into his hairline.

A grimace flashed briefly across Crawford's face before his usual impassive mask was put back in place. "I believe Lord Ashington is in the Library, my lord. I am persuaded he can explain better than I," Crawford replied, bowing low after he accepted Lord Markham's hat, greatcoat and cane.

Lord Markham suppressed a smile at the butlers tact as he walked up the stairs. Trust Crawford to never tell tales out of turn. He must be the only butler in Town who did not supply their masters with juicy on-dits to relate during morning calls.

The sight that greeted him on entering the library, shocked him to his core. His usually proud father sat bent and broken behind his desk, his hands supporting his head, silver-grey hair tousled in disarray. Dark blue waistcoat, white frilled shirt and white cravat so crumpled his stiff-necked valet would have an apoplectic fit when he saw.

Lord Markham cleared his throat. "Father, would you care to tell me why the house is at sixes and sevens?" he asked quietly.

Lord Ashington raised his head, his eyes bloodshot as though he had not slept for days. "I have made a real muddle of things, Peter. Your mother and Emily will never forgive me."

Lord Markham seated himself in a nearby wing-back chair. "Why don't you tell me what it is and maybe I can help. Things cannot be as terrible as they seem."

Lord Ashington sighed and shook his head. "I have lost everything, son."

"How did this happen?" Lord Markham asked, his throat painfully constricting so he could barely utter the words.

"I gambled with Sir George Fulham," Lord Ashington replied, hanging his head in shame. "He now has vowels from me to the amount of 40,000 pounds, but that is not all. I visited my man of business the following day and found out that he bought all the mortgages on the estates."

Lord Markham stared. "The man is a professional cardsharp, Father. How could you bring yourself to gamble with him."

"I do not understand it, I won every hand for the first two hours. Then I started to lose, but thought my luck would change and I could recoup my losses."

"You know that never works," Lord Markham said, shaking his head in despair. "My income would not even begin to cover your losses. This is a debt of honour, it must be paid. Is there no income from other sources you could use?"

Lord Ashington shifted uneasily in his chair. "He has given me an alternative. All I have to do is agree and he will hand back the mortgages and the vowels."

"Well, why don't you agree? Emily can continue with her come-out and mother will forgive you."

"It is not that simple, son. The mortgages and the vowels will come back in a marriage settlement. For his niece and yourself. I will not sacrifice your happiness for my own stupidity," Lord Ashington said. "No, the only course open to me is to flee the country. I trust you to look after your mother and sister."

Lord Markham sat back in his chair. Stunned. His mind whirled under the enormity of his father's predicament. So that explained the unusual conversation he had with Clarence Fulham. "Clever fellow, he can rid himself of an unwanted niece and not have to part with any of his blunt in the process. What have you heard about his niece?"

"Not much, but I do know this. Her father died when she was quite young, leaving Sir George as her guardian. Sir George was the second son. It was only because Sophie was a girl that kept him in the succession. You are not considering it are you?" Lord Ashington asked, aghast.

"I do not think fleeing the country will stop tongues from wagging, Father. Mother's credit would diminish and Emily's reputation will be ruined. Emily will never contract a suitable marriage. Of course, I will look after them; I love them too much to turn my back on them. I will have to think about marrying Miss Fulham. But, I cannot see any other alternative that satisfies everyone involved."

"That solution will satisfy everyone but you, son," Lord Ashington said wearily. "It is too big a sacrifice to make."

"Tell the servants to stop packing, I will meet the girl, and then I shall let you know my decision. Do you even know what her name is?"

"Sophie, I think. As far as I know, he left for his estate to fetch her a couple of days ago."

Miss Sophie Fulham sat quietly mending a tablecloth in the drawing-room at Cloverfield, Sir George Fulham's country estate. She remained blissfully unaware of the impending change in her circumstances. If she did have an inkling she would not be so serene.

The three months her uncle and cousin spent in London for the Season were the happiest she knew throughout the year. She had freedom. Freedom to do as she pleased, without censure from her uncle. If one did not count her dragon of an aunt, of course. That lady adhered to her husband's strictures to the letter, if she did not, she would find herself punished. But, Sophie could not begrudge Aunt Harriet for her treatment. As far as she was concerned, Aunt Harriet was in the same position as Sophie herself was. Reliant on Sir George for a roof over her head and food in her stomach. Never mind that he was richer than Midas and could afford much more than he provided. It was not uncommon for Sophie to wear gowns that even servants would turn their noses up at wearing. He never failed to inform her how much she was costing him to keep her.

Sir George had never felt any affection for his niece. His animosity became even worse after her disastrous season six years ago, when she returned to Cloverfield without a suitable offer of marriage. By suitable, he had meant from a Peer of the Realm, or at least an heir of a peer. He had hoped to raise his own consequence with an advantageous marriage, and he had roared his displeasure when he found out that the small fortune he had spent on a season was for nought. On this occasion, he had to spend the money, otherwise, he would look like the nipcheese he was. Appearances mattered, it would seem.

Sophie sighed as she kept the needle moving swiftly through the fabric.

Aunt Harriet glanced up at Sophie from the novel she was reading. "If you are bored, Sophie, I am sure I can find you something else to do," she said sharply. "Something far worse than mending. Like emptying chamber pots, for instance."

"No, Aunt Harriet, I am quite content as I am," Sophie replied sweetly. "In fact, I am nearly finished with my mending. Would it be presumptuous to ask whether I could take a walk when I finish? I assure you I shan't be long."

Aunt Harriet frowned. Really, the chit was beyond annoying. She would be glad to attend the Season every year with her husband when they finally got rid of Sophie like he promised. "Fine, but no longer than half an hour. There will be other work waiting for you when you return." Aunt Harriet waved her hand in dismissal and returned her attention to her novel. Some peace and quiet would be most welcome.

Sophie gladly escaped the house and headed for the stables. Her sanctuary. She often hid herself in the loft after one of her uncle's blistering tirades.

After settling down in the corner of the loft, Sophie lost herself in A midsummer night's dream. A half an hour with Shakespeare should restore her equilibrium. She had only started reading when a soft whistle caught her attention. Thinking nothing of it, she ignored it. The whistle grew louder and more insistent. She poked her head over the side of the loft and noticed the head groom gazing up at her.

"Miss Sophie, I think you should go back to the house. I am afraid Sir George has returned. His coach pulled up about five minutes ago," the groom said.

"Th-thankyou, Jem," Sophie replied. She began to tremble. A reaction that always occurred when she had to meet with her uncle.

Why had he returned in the middle of the Season? He was not due back for another two months. She scampered down the ladder, shook out her skirts, picked off the stray pieces of hay that clung and set off for the house at a run. To avoid seeing him before she was ready; she entered through the kitchens. It was not until she reached the entrance hall did she see Sir George.

"Sophie," Sir George bellowed. "Come here, NOW."

Her trembling increased as she went to stand in front of her uncle. Her head bent and her hands clasped tightly in front of her. "You wanted to see me, Uncle?" she asked softly.

"Yes. Pack your things, we are going to London," he said, his thin lips curled up into a sneer. "I have found you a husband."

"A-a husband?" she asked weakly.

"Yes, a husband. Viscount Markham. You would enjoy marriage to a confirmed rake, would you not?"

All around them, an unnatural amount of servants gathered, all with varying degrees of horror on their faces.

Sophie blinked back tears. "No," she cried in anguish.

Sir George exploded. "Ungrateful child," he yelled. "I see I failed to teach you humility and respect. But it is no longer my problem. Pack your trunks, we leave in an hour."

Sophie turned and fled up the stairs to her room.