Of the three Brady sisters, Lady Marcia has always seemed the girl most likely to lead a perfectly charmed life. But after a handsome cad breaks her heart, she swears off love and devotes her life to teaching girls at a private school. In spite of her family’s wish for a London debut, Marcia is happy where she is—until terrible news sends her back to the Brady clan…and into the arms of an unexpected suitor.
ON THE SUBJECT OF LOVE
A dark and dashing earl who knows Marcia’s past, Duncan Lattimore is surprised by what a fascinating and independent woman she’s become. Marcia, too, is surprised—by the fiery attraction she feels for Duncan. But why—why—must he be the brother of the scoundrel who broke her heart? Why must Marcia’s rival at school forbid her from seeing him? How can this lady possibly resist this fellow—when they know that it’s much more than a hunch…?
Some minutes later, after another carriage ride, Janice and Cynthia grabbed Marcia’s hands and pulled her into the interior of Gunter’s, where she immediately came face-to-face with one of Mama’s friends.
“Why, it’s Marcia Sherwood!” the lady crowed in delight. She was with two other stylishly dressed matrons, all of whom let loose with a barrage of questions:
“Where have you been, Lady Marcia?”
“Are you here for good at last?”
“You’ll not sit out any dance, I’m sure, my dear. Are you going to the Livingstons’ ball?”
She did her best to answer, but then she caught a glimpse of Lysandra, of all people, and her stomach seemed to fall through the floor. All those terrible feelings she’d had last night threatened to come back, full-force.
She wasn’t ready to see the widow so soon.
Lysandra sat at a corner table with two elegant women and gazed at Marcia with ill-concealed disdain. Her face instantly heated as she remembered the horrible things the viscountess had said about her yesterday.
But she couldn’t afford to indulge in despising Lysandra, could she?
She needed to win her over. How to do so was the unanswerable question at the moment, one that she would delay pondering until later.
“Will you be there?” one of Mama’s friends asked her in pointed fashion.
Oh, dear. She’d been caught off guard. “Yes. I think so…what was the question?”
The tallest matron pursed her lips. “We all want to know how long you’ll be in town and whether you’ll be at the Livingstons’ ball.”
“Oh.” Marcia threw the trio an embarrassed grin. “Sorry. I’m not exactly sure. Yet….” She trailed off, feeling foolish.
“My goodness,” said one of the women, her chin drawn in.
“I see,” said another one faintly.
Janice linked her arm through Marcia’s and squeezed. “We’re so happy to have her back. She hasn’t had an ice this age. And she’s absolutely exhausted from her journey. We really must sit.”
The ladies took the hint well, moved to the door, and wished the two older girls–especially the recent weary arrival–a glorious remainder of the Season.
“I’ll send my Norbert over to call on you before you leave—or don’t leave,” one of them promised Marcia. “He’s got ginger hair and no eyelashes to speak of, but he tells a good joke.”
“And don’t forget my cousin Frank,” said another. “He’s this close to inheriting an earldom.” She pinched a thumb and index finger together.
The ladies laughed—it meant Frank’s distant cousin was soon to die, of course.
Marcia sent them off with a demure wave. “I’d forgotten how absurd high society can be,” she whispered to Janice when they’d gone.
“Indeed,” her sister said back with a grin. “Welcome to my world.”
“Mine, too,” Cynthia remarked over her shoulder before making a beeline for the counter displaying the ices. Several of her good friends were there, so she immediately got involved in conversation.
Marcia and Janice exchanged amused glances.
“She hears everything,” Janice said. “And hates being left out. You’ll have to remember that, now that you’re back.”
Marcia squeezed her arm. “You’ve been a huge help already. Thank you.”
“Really?” Janice beamed.
“I mean it,” said Marcia.
And she did. She was ashamed to admit that she’d nearly forgotten over the past four years that she wasn’t alone, that the other members of the House of Brady were ready and able to support her.
“I’ve missed you, Janice,” she said amid the low buzz of conversation all around them. “Seeing you in the summer at Ballybrook when there’s nothing stressful going on isn’t the same as being together here in London amidst all this.”
She glanced about the shop, skimming quickly over Lysandra’s table. Gunter’s was filled with the crème de la crème of the ton, and many of them were eyeing her with ill-disguised interest.
“Then no more pretending,” Janice urged her. “Tell me right here in Gunter’s exactly what was said between you and Lady Ennis and what you plan to do about your situation. Cynthia is happily occupied for the next few minutes. We can sit at a table and wait for her.”
“Very well.” For the next few minutes, Marcia quietly told her sister every detail of her conversation with Lady Ennis, including the fact that she longed for her position back at Oak Hall.
“Of course, I knew that.” Janice smiled a bit sadly and pressed her hand on top of Marcia’s. “I understand why you want to go back, and I want to support you. I need to give up my own selfish desire to have you with me all the time.”
“Do you really?” Her admission touched Marcia deeply.
“Of course.” Janice chuckled. “Yes, I occasionally wonder how any man will notice me with you in the room, but I love you. You’re my sister. And there are enough men in the world for the both of us.”
Marcia raised an amused brow. “I’ve already told Mama I’m not interested in any man—not as long as I can have a career at Oak Hall.” A vivid memory of Lord Chadwick came to her, and a sensation of warmth, quickly followed by indignation, flooded her whole body. She forced herself to brush it off. “I’m going to predict, with tremendous optimism, that I’ll be a busy headmistress while you continue to take London by storm. And no more suggesting I attract more men than you.” Marcia’s admonishment was gentle and affectionate. “It’s simply not true.”
“But you’re beautiful,” Janice said, her face flushing.
“Every woman has her own type of beauty,” Marcia said with conviction. “Yours is much more interesting than mine.”
Janice’s expression showed some hope. “Do you think—do you really think I might be…attractive?”
“Yes,” Marcia said firmly. “You most certainly are. And you need to believe it.” A heavy dose of guilt assuaged her. “I’ve been the worst support to you, Janice. I didn’t even come up to town to attend your come-out.”
“Don’t be silly.” Her sister’s tone was brisk. “You couldn’t leave the school in the middle of the term, especially as Mama said one entire room of girls came down with a stomach illness that same week.”
“True,” Marcia conceded. “It was awful.” She gave her sister a wistful smile. “I do wish I’d been at your debut. But at least I’m here now.”
“Yes, and I’m thrilled you’re here to stay,” Janice said. “At least until you wrangle your post back, which I know you’ll do.”
Now it was Marcia’s turn to hope. “Do you think I will?”
Two friends of Janice’s tapped her on the shoulder. When she turned around to acknowledge them, Marcia slipped away and walked up to the ice counter.
She felt terribly conflicted. She’d only been in London one day, and already she could see that her family needed her—and she needed them. She’d allowed her summers at Ballybrook to become briefer and briefer each year. There were always responsibilities beckoning her back to Oak Hall.
But there was such a splendid, unnamable feeling she got when she was at the school. Her favorite moments were outside, when she’d look out over the grounds and see a crowd of girls playing games, a few girls gathering flowers, others walking horses in the practice ring, and still others sitting in a circle with their teacher, discussing ancient philosophy….
If only I could be two places at one time, she thought as she listened to Cynthia say goodbye to her friends and finally order her lemon ice. Janice walked up then and ordered hers, as well. Over in her corner, Lysandra didn’t show a sign of budging. In fact, the widowed viscountess narrowed her eyes at Marcia when they locked gazes.
But thanks to Janice, Marcia had recovered something of her aplomb, and so she acknowledged Lysandra with a slight tilt to her head and a polite smile. She refused to let her former classmate and employer ruin her morning. Even more, she wanted to prove to her that she was stalwart. Headmistresses should always be such.
She selected her ice flavor—peppermint–and made sure that she and her sisters didn’t hide in a corner. She chose a new table right by the door, where anyone else of her acquaintance in the Upper Ten Thousand could see her and say hello.
Mama had predicted yesterday that she’d attract a great deal of notice, and she’d been right. Visitors came to their table in a steady stream, much to the delight of Janice and Cynthia, who adored company, especially of the young male variety. Marcia, however, having had her romantic illusions destroyed early, was sure her extreme elusiveness accounted for her popularity with the gentlemen.
Not that she cared one jot—
Except for the fact that Lysandra was taking discreet glances at her, and her expression was quite sour.
“The soon-to-be spinster and ex-headmistress can show some sparkle, after all,” Janice whispered in her ear during a brief respite from the deluge of company. “Lady Ennis looks rather jealous of you.”
“She does, doesn’t she?” Marcia murmured into the din. She felt a silly satisfaction.
“What are you two talking about?” Cynthia asked them. “What’s sparkling?”
“The ice, in the sunlight from the window,” Janice explained.
“Yes, and with all the hubbub, I’ve neglected mine,” Marcia told her, and was about to scoop up the last bit of her peppermint confection when a shadow fell across the table.
She looked up, and a tiny voice in her head said, Let it melt.
Because Finn stood before her. Her Finn. The one who was supposed to be living in America.
Seeing the face of her first love—her first lover–after all this time caused her heart to pound painfully against her rib cage. Neither could she breathe at all well.
Perhaps, she thought, the social game isn’t so banal, after all.
“Marcia.” His golden voice, the timbre deeper now, sounded incredulous. “Lady Marcia. Is it really you? I was walking by and saw you through the window.”
Through the window? What was it with the Lattimore brothers and their eagle-eyed vision?
Another picture of Lord Chadwick assailed her: the persistent, ever demanding earl, finding her in the dressmaker’s shop, then pursuing her down the street, asking her if she’d found her perfect life–only a half hour before her new life at Oak Hall had fallen apart.
She held her spoon in mid-air. “H-hello, Mr. Lattimore.”
He was more beautiful than ever. His sun-bronzed skin and hair were testament to his long absence from English soil. And he’d added heft to his youthful form. He looked stronger, harder, older–a real man now.
No longer a boy. And she—she was no longer that young, impressionable girl.
He grinned, and her mouth went dry. “It is you.”
“You remember my sisters, Lady Janice and Lady Cynthia, don’t you?” she managed to say.
“Of course.” He bestowed a charming smile upon each of them but then turned back to her with obvious eagerness. “I’m meeting my brother in five minutes to look at a horse at Tattersall’s. I’m back in Town permanently, you know.”
“No, I didn’t.” She was shocked to find that for a split second, she was vastly annoyed. How could she concentrate on getting her job back when Finn was in town?
But that split second disappeared quickly. She couldn’t help noticing his lips, the lips that had kissed her so well. She wouldn’t dare look at the rest of him…she simply remembered, with a pang near her heart, how perfect life had felt when she’d been cradled in his arms.
It was better than any feeling you’ve ever had as a headmistress, a horribly wicked voice in her head whispered to her.
“But I must know before I go,” he said hoarsely, with a hint of hope, “will you be at the Livingstons’ ball tonight?”
She could see her sisters watching her and prayed neither would kick her under the table.
“No. I’m afraid not.” It was the hardest no she’d ever delivered, but if there was one thing she’d learned at Oak Hall, it was that no was a powerful word. And she’d said it whenever the security of her students, her teachers, and her school was at stake.
And now her thoughts were completely rebellious. Her body was mutinying, too. All because of the man standing before her now.
In less than a minute, he’d breached every bit of her defenses.
So for her own sake, she must say no to balls. No to reliving the past. And no to staring deeply into his eyes, gorgeous amber ones though they were.
She was a headmistress, by God. A dismissed one, but a headmistress all the same. Life at the school was going on without her at this very minute, an almost unbearable state of affairs. The girls, teachers, and staff at Oak Hall needed her to say no.
Finn’s face fell. An audible sigh came from Janice. Cynthia put a huge spoonful of ice in her mouth and stared raptly at Marcia.
And then Marcia couldn’t help herself. “But I will be at Lord and Lady Davis’s card party.”
Oh, God. She was an idiot. But one little card party wouldn’t hurt anyone, would it? She’d say no all night long there if she had to.
Finn grinned again at that, but then he frowned. “The dull Davises or the delightful ones? As I recall, there are two sets of them.”
“I-I believe the dull ones,” she said. “Not that they can help it, of course. I believe both Lord and Lady Davis are hard of hearing.”
Headmistresses and teachers tended to see the best in almost everybody.
Interfering earls were the exception, of course, no matter how friendly they were upon approaching one on the street.
Finn looked pensive, and then he rallied, his captivating grin back again. “I’ll look into getting myself an invitation. I hope to see you there.”
“That would be…nice.” Marcia reminded herself to breathe. She hoped her eyes no longer appeared red-rimmed, and she was grateful for the gown she’d borrowed from Janice. It was in the first stare of fashion, unlike Marcia’s more serviceable clothes, which should arrive at the Brady mansion any minute now from Surrey.
At this point, with Finn hovering so close, she didn’t give a fig about Lysandra and whether she and her cohorts were looking at her. She’d lost track of her strategy there. All she could focus on was the one dimple in his cheek. It was perilously close to his firm, masculine mouth.
Perhaps she should burn those clothes from Surrey when they arrived.
“Goodbye for now,” he said, and made an adorable bow to all three of them before he departed.
Marcia exchanged silent glances with her sisters.
“He’s beautiful,” Janice finally whispered.
“Like a god,” said Cynthia.
“And he’s here,” said Janice. “For good.”
Marcia bit her lip. It was the best and the worst news possible. Yes, he’d left her at her most vulnerable, but it had been his brother’s fault, not his. He’d been so young…too young to fight back against a person as focused and overwhelming as Lord Chadwick.
“He never would have left if it hadn’t been for his brother,” Marcia said as she watched Finn’s gorgeous profile go by the shop window. “Lord Chadwick forced him to go to America at the exact time—“
She couldn’t finish. Suddenly, she needed water, but there was none to be had at the table. She made a desperate attempt to scoop up some melted peppermint ice.
“As the exact time…as what?” Cynthia asked.
Janice grabbed Marcia’s arm and squeezed it. “I remember now. I was caught up with my old friends at that wedding. But you and Finn spent most of your time together. I-I was too young to notice, really. He was a beau of yours, wasn’t he? He was sent away when you were—“
“Falling in love,” Cynthia said in awe.
Marcia didn’t deny it.
Her two sisters shared knowing looks.
Cynthia giggled. “I can tell you’re still in love with him.”
“No, I’m not,” Marcia protested. “He was a beau for a very short time. A matter of weeks. So he really didn’t count.”
But he had counted. Very much.
“Well, he should.” Cynthia’s eyes danced. “I’m in love with him already myself. It’s a pity I’m too young for him.”
“Yes, you are.” Marcia sent her a stern look, meant to be teasing, but part of her wasn’t teasing at all. Cynthia was perilously close to the age she’d been when—
She couldn’t think of that night and the whirlwind weeks that had led up to it.
There was a happy gleam in Janice’s eyes. “I’m glad you’re going out tonight, even if it is a dull card party. I was tempted to kick you under the table when you said you weren’t going to the ball, but thankfully, you didn’t completely put him off.”
“I did try to kick you but missed,” said Cynthia.
She was so shameless, all three of them laughed.
“Surely,” Janice said, “if he can’t get an invitation, you’ll see him about town the rest of the Season.”
That was Marcia’s dilemma. If she ran into Finn, she’d likely run into Lord Chadwick, too. She especially didn’t want to do that. Perhaps she could simply ignore him again. It was petty of her, she knew, but part of her was sorely tempted.
“I suppose I will see him.” She already regretted saying she’d go to the card party. She’d enough drama in her life, although she was doing her best to be level-headed about her untenable employment situation.
But now she was over-the-top, neglecting to act like a headmistress. Around Finn, she couldn’t think clearly. She thought in single words like love, passion, and forever.
Cynthia sighed and rested her chin on her hand. “You’re lucky. I want to hear all the details when you come home from the card party. I’ll wait up for you.”
“He might not be able to get an invitation, so don’t bother,” said Marcia, feeling embarrassed and shy.
“But I will,” Cynthia insisted. “And I have a feeling everyone in London will be talking about you and Finn after this evening, too. I can see already that you’d make a perfect couple.”
Out of the mouths of babes…
Marcia looked around and saw all the occupants of Gunter’s still staring avidly at her. Would they never get back to their ices?
They, too, must have noticed that Finn had eyes only for her. She couldn’t help wondering if her youngest sister was right, and if so–
Good God, what had she gotten herself into?”
FEATURED AUTHOR: Kieran Kramer
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