Chapter One

Not even half the night gone and already Lord George Holbrooke found himself damnably bored. He had arrived at Brooks two hours ago with Chubby—the Earl of Cumberford to all but those closest to him—since the earl was recently returned to Town and their friendship was of long standing. It had not been his intention to be bored with Chubby's company, really it had not, but he had not come out with the intention of watching one of his oldest friends drown himself in a bottle of brandy all night either.

"And the Lord only knows why I'm still here," he grumbled between yawns.

"S'Thursday," came Chubby's swift reply, "always make a night of it on Thursday."

This much was true. At Oxford, and before he ever wore a uniform, he and Chubby were used to throw themselves into every scrape and riotous mess they could think up. As they grew older and responsibilities changed, Thursday became the only day the two busy men found free to call their own.

Today they owned more years than either cared to think on—Lord George having lived a lifetime with the army in Portugal and Spain, and Chubby and London remaining much as they ever were—and yet the Thursday night meetings continued as though war and separation never intervened.

The subject of these meetings, he grimly conceded, had changed exponentially over the years.

"Mother don't like that I'm settled back in Town," Chubby said now. "Though why she persists with meddling in my affairs I cannot guess. She has the freedom of Stonely Park when I'm not there. Father left her generous settlements in his will and the period for our mourning is over. Thought she'd have better things to do with her time than cut up my peace. No such luck. All she thinks about is marriage. More to the point, all she thinks about is my marriage, like inheriting the title is some right of passage and automatically qualifies me to become boring and middle-aged."

He looked dismally into the bottom of his glass. "Worse and worse, when there are droves of eligible young women about to descend on us for the London Season what does she do but single out Phoebe above them all. Phoebe, I ask you! I've told her a dozen times that it won't answer but do you think she cares? No, not a straw, and never mind that I've known Phoebe all my life. Care for the girl and want the best for her future, of course I do, but what's that to say to anything? I care for my Spaniel bitch Fossy but I ain't going to marry her."

Lord George slid a palm down his face. Oh yes, he really ought to have gone home as soon as he understood the reason for his friend's maudlin mood.

"Besides, as fond as I am of Phoebe, there's no denying she's a regular Plain Jane. Her manners are not quite those of a gently reared young woman either. It's hard to explain, for she can come the grand lady easily enough when she's in a miff—sometimes there's more starch in her backbone than I have my shirt points, aye, and her tongue's sharper too—but at others it's like she's had no genteel female education at all."

"Nonsense, Chubby, there is nothing in the world sharper than your shirt points. Send them to the War Office and let Old Hookey issue them as bayonets on the frontline."

"Oh go ahead and laugh if you will, George, but you ain't heard the worst of it. There's the reading. Good gad, the reading! Never see Phoebe without a book, and I'm not talking about those gothic novels the debutantes are so fond of either. No, all she reads are agricultural pamphlets, crop statistics and cattle reports, and… bloody hell… I really don't want a bailiff for a wife!"

Noting the desperation on Chubby's face, Lord George hid his amusement, stretched and gave up on escaping the subject entirely. "Oh come now, do not look so grim. You cannot deny that we have reached an age where settling down and starting a family must be spoken of. I'm sure Lady Cumberford only wants the best for you. Do I know the girl? She's not one of Dembeigh's sisters is she?"

A rallying speech that, and easily given by a man who had absolutely no intention of settling down and starting a family of his own. Silently, he congratulated himself on having a parent who liked the company of respectable women not at all.

"No, you're thinking of the youngest. She's a Penelope not a Phoebe. Phoebe's m'cousin, either second or something removed, never quite sure how it works. Her father was old Gilbourne's second son—a connection on m'mother's side. Do you know them?"

Lord George shook his head.

"Understandable. Only minor nobility and although perfectly respectable, not quite up to snuff, if you know what I mean. Phoebe's just inherited a fortune—see what mother's about here?—and since I'm the head of the family I'm supposed to hold a house party in her honour. Oh God! You simply must come to Cheshire to help me out." He took a sharp swallow of his drink. "Won't be able to survive the ordeal without you."

Lord George considered this plea. Undoubtedly he was grateful to the earl for years of unwavering friendship. Truly, he did not mind putting himself out to accommodate the man as far as he was able, but this affection did not stretch, for the love of God, to attending a house party. "Sorry, Chubby, but you know that I'm fixed in Town all Season. I have no reason to go, and no," he held up a hand, "I do not consider thwarting your mother's plans or saving you from marrying this girl sufficient reason."

"But I'm desperate. Surely you can spare me a week or two."

"Not even a day or two. I have commitments in Town. Commitments I cannot break."

"Commitments you choose not to break," grumbled his friend, with the first piece of perspicacity he had shown all night. "That is what you really mean, so why not just come out and say it. Not that I intend to give up so easily. I will change your mind eventually, you know I always do, so you may as well just give in and be done with it. I may not be the brightest star in the night's sky, don't think I don't know it, but you cannot deny that I am damnably persistent."

"Yes, I'll give you that."

"Good, so here we have it. One thousand pounds." Chubby patted the purse at his waist. It clinked invitingly. "I am prepared to give you one thousand pounds if you come with me to Stonely Park for the duration of the house party. How's that?"

"You carry a thousand pounds on you in coins?" Lord George asked, struggling to keep his lips from twitching. "My dear boy, are you even aware that you are in London?"

Chubby made a rude noise. "Of course I don't carry that kind of blunt on me." He leaned forwards as though to speak in greater confidence, splashing the last of his brandy across the table as he did so. "The purse is metapho… metaph… the purse is…"


"Aye, that's the one; and think hard on what I'm saying. I know you have your eye on Haversley's hunting box. Really, I'm not accustomed to bribing my friends into folly, give me some credit, but neither am I accustomed to being quite so desperate."

"And I suppose you would not be quite so generous if you were not quite so drunk." Lord George rubbed his temples. "And taking your lack of sobriety into account, I cannot think you serious."

It was tempting though. Unlike Chubby, Lord George's father lived still, and although his older brother, Gerald, had died three years ago—making him heir—the Duke of Humberside was disinclined to support Lord George in any productive way. The old man obstinately refused to teach him about the family estates, which would one day be his, or even grant him an independent allowance. This Lord George found the most difficult to reconcile, for his father had been the one to compel him to resign his army commission and return to England in the first place.

No, all the duke required of his oldest living son was that he cut a dash in Town. To this effect his clothes, his horse, his house, even his servants, were all chosen by the duke.

Chubby's offer of a thousand pounds was the first of its kind since his return from Portugal just under three years ago. Added to his other money it offered him freedom and land. More importantly, it offered him un-entailed land. Land the duke had no right to deny him. One short trip to the country and he could be free of his father's interference for once and for all.

"Of course I'm bloody serious," Chubby said, snapping his fingers and ordering another bottle. "And you know I'm good for it, so here's the plan. Mother wants me married more than ever now I'm an earl, only she's got some maggot in her head as how I need a babysitter more than I do a wife. Seen us together… seen Phoebe give me the right-about too many times to doubt her mettle. All she minds is that Phoebe will be as overbearing as she is when it comes to managing my life." He saluted with his empty glass. "That's why you must help me."

Lord George lifted an eyebrow.

"What I mean to say is that I need you to be there to deflect attention away from me. Set Phoebe up as your flirt. There'll be no talk about my marrying her if you show an interest. Just roll out that blasted charm you're so renowned for and I'll take myself off; walking, fishing, shooting… anything to keep myself away from my mother and the speculation. If I'm safe by the end of the fortnight, the money's yours. Two weeks. That's all I ask."

"And what am I to do with the speculation when you are nowhere to be found? No, I'm in no mood to launch this fright into fashion, not if it means I'm the one kicking and screaming my way down the aisle at the end of the Season."

Chubby snorted. "Well that's not likely, is it? Not with your father to contend with. No, it's flirtation you're good at, flirtation you are famed for. Everyone's agog to see which young lady you'll pick this year and why not Phoebe? I tell you, the blunt exchanging hands when you escorted Lady Francesca to the theatre last week could have supported Prinny for a year. By-the-by, all bets are off if you're seen with her at the Richmond's musicale tomorrow tonight, so make to sprain an ankle or develop a head-cold between now and then, Holbrooke, or I lose a monkey.

"Oh, you know how it works. She gets a boost to her consequence by capturing the notice of a nonpareil. You get to keep your name firmly in the bachelor books for another year. If I thought I had a chance of setting it up without my mother getting the banns read the following week, I'd do the thing without you, but as it is..." He flung his arms wide.

This was an argument Lord George could not disclaim. One of his true joys in this constrained life was flirting with the pretty young debutants when they came new upon the Town. Matrimonial expectations long stopped hindering his progress within the ton, and it was a matter of some pride to him now that he had a freedom among the womenfolk of which few single gentlemen could boast.

It did not signify.

"I'm sorry, Chubby, really I am—and I thank you for the offer of a thousand pounds, for I cannot deny that it is a grossly generous and tempting one—but you know I cannot accept it. You have not considered what Humberside would do if he found out you planned to give me money. He hates to be thwarted. Why do you think no one is willing to play cards or even speculate with me? They are too scared of his influence; and you ought to be too. The old man will find some way to take his revenge out on you, of that you may be certain. I do not want you to be involved in our family squabbles."

"Pah." Chubby belched volubly into a monogrammed handkerchief. "Think I care what your father does or doesn't command now I'm earl? What power has he to say nay to me? Oh, his title outranks mine and he owns more land—although the estate in France may never be recovered, I suppose—but his consequence is dwindling with his age and the longer he stays in the north. I'm not afraid of him."

"You should be."

"Oh, forget about the old rip for once. Let us agree on this." Chubby held out his hand. "Come to Cheshire with me and scupper m'mother's plans. Humberside cannot stop me making a present to you. Really, it's all very straight forward."

"Hold fast, old friend, we have agreed on nothing."

Chubby's hand fell away. "Then tell me what I need to do to get you there. I'm desperate enough to offer you anything. Is it the money? I'll raise it to fifteen hundred instead of a thousand. Surely you cannot say no to that."

Which was true, for Lord George was choking and could say nothing at all.

"Yes, fifteen hundred and I'll throw in my father's young hunter. No use for it now. Never was a good horseman. Not like you, eh? You'll need something to take to your new estate when you go. Yes, I'll give you Thunder, by god, and if that don't clinch it I don't know what will!"

Lord George groaned. Owning the late earl's horse was almost as tempting as the money. "Chubby, in your own words this girl—Miss Gilbourne did you say her name was?—is an unattractive misfit. How the devil am I supposed to get people to accept she is any flirt of mine? Have you failed to look at the young debutantes I take under my wing? Diamonds, each and every one of them. I do have a reputation to uphold. I cannot be seen taking up with some obscure country cousin who has never looked in a mirror for fear she might break it. You ask the impossible."

"Alright, alright… won't ask you to make the girl an incomparable. There's no turning brass into gold, I grant you that, but can't you make her your flirt for a short while? At the very least you could convince everyone at Stonely Park you find her interesting. Anyway, it's only two weeks and everyone'll know you're there for my sake. Once the job's done you'll be free to return to Town. Take up with whoever you want afterwards. It's no concern of mine."

The dratted thing of it was that Lord George could not deny that he was intrigued by the idea of transforming a dowdy country cousin into someone worth knowing, but even he, alas, did possess something of a conscience. The young ladies of Town knew precisely what they were getting involved in when they agreed to be his flirt. Miss Gilbourne did not; and that was an end to it.

"Sorry, Chubby, I really cannot do it; but I'm glad we've had this conversation, even if you do ask the impossible. Now I am free to wish you joy in avoiding the match. I am sure you will find a better solution if you think longer on it."

Chubby bowed his head. "How about as a friend then?" he said with a defeated sigh. "Not sure my prides worth tuppence if I'm married to Phoebe. As a friend, I beg you, help a fellow out."

Lord George leapt to his feet. Thursday night or no, he was going home. "Goodnight Chubby."

The earl called after him, but the louder Chubby called, the faster Lord George's legs moved. He was not, however, to leave the club unmolested. On arriving at the front door and waiting for his gloves and hat to be brought forward, a messenger arrived.

"A letter for Lord George Holbrooke from His Grace of Humberside," said the panting young man. "Said I'd earn an extra yellow boy if his lordship got the message tonight."

"Did he indeed," grumbled Lord George, "funny how he might think I have any left to spare." Then louder. "Yes, yes, I am Lord George. Pass me the letter and you will be appropriately rewarded."

He flipped the man a guinea and impatiently tore at the seal. Receiving letters from his father was a hell of a business. They never contained anything good, and indeed the contents of this particular letter were even worse than usual. They were, in fact, enough to make Lord George swear very loudly and retreat back inside the club to find Chubby's table once more, for he needed a thousand pounds—damn it all to hell!—and he needed it now.