"An Engagement of Convenience" in Summer House Party
June 7, 2016 (Mirror Press)
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Pretty chaperone Kitty Chapworth has foiled five elopements, four proposals of ill intent, and the worst first kiss in history, so she isn't about to believe a gentleman's silken promises. That is, until charming rake Quentin Adair returns to her life. Ten years ago, Kitty was instrumental in causing the poor fellow to be exiled to Jamaica in a tragic case of love gone wrong. When he requests her help to prevent his father's ruin, she cannot refuse, even when helping requires her to pretend she is engaged to the handsome rogue at a summer house party.
Quentin has spent the last ten years becoming the man his father always hoped. Now he will not allow an old enemy to harm his family. Kitty is the perfect conspirator-sharp, witty, fearless. But as danger threatens, Quentin finds that his priorities have changed. Can a reformed rake convince the perfect chaperone to overlook propriety for love?
Chapworth Grange, Somerset, August 1816
Why did they always have to elope at midnight?
Katherine Chapworth smothered a yawn as she waited under a neatly trimmed chestnut tree. Hugging her pink flannel dressing gown to her frame though the summer night was warm, she kept her gaze on the Grecian folly that marked the edge of the lands belonging to Chapworth Grange.
It was always the folly, too. No, wait, Clementia's besotted beau had attempted to scale a ladder to her window. How he had thought to carry her down the wooden rungs, Kitty had never known. In any case, the top of the ladder had broken the glass, and Clementia's scream had been enough to wake the household (and the dead in the churchyard nearby), and Kitty's work had been done.
But Clive Bitterstock was a different sort. He'd been sniffing around her youngest cousin Lucy for the better part of the Season. His family, though not wealthy by any standards, was respectable. He was said to be prudent, thoughtful. Very likely Kitty could convince even Uncle to see the young man as a decent husband for the sixteen-year-old Lucy.
So why elope?
"Circle around the back," she advised Bollers, who was waiting with her, and the tall, strapping footman stalked off to the side of the stone building and began to worm his way through the shrubs that clustered there. Thank goodness, most of the staff heeded her requests with respect and deference, for all she was only at the Grange on her uncle's sufferance. As the chaperone for the Chapworth family for a decade, she'd safeguarded the reputations of all six of her cousins before they'd married. Once Lucy wed, she'd be done.
And she was a little concerned about what happened then.
The breeze brushed an auburn lock past her eyes, and she pushed the errant curl up into the mobcap she wore at night. Nearby, footsteps crunched up the graveled path from the lane to the church. The sound was as loud as gunshots to her listening ears. A shadow darted toward the stairs, running up to the graceful white stone columns. Inside the folly, a light sprang to life to reveal her cousin, dressed for travel, lantern shining in her gloved grip.
Time to put a stop to this. Kitty strode to the bottom of the steps, the lawn of her nightgown flapping about her legs. "That's far enough, Lucy."
Mr. Bitterstock stiffened, but her cousin gasped, clutching the chest of her pretty lavender Reddingote. Everything about Lucy was pretty and delicate, from her pale blond hair to her petite figure. She reminded Kitty of a Dresden shepherdess, fragile, frozen in time.
"Oh, Kitty," she said, hand falling. "You gave me such a fright. I thought you were Father."
"Be thankful I am not," Kitty replied, "or I might have come armed."
Beside her, Mr. Bitterstock began to draw himself up, gathering a head of steam like one of the new locomotives.
Kitty moved to cut him off. "This is an ill-advised venture. Kindly return to the Grange, Lucy. Now."
Lucy blinked big blue eyes. "But Kitty, I love him."
"And I love her," Mr. Bitterstock declared, puffing out the chest of his paisley-patterned waistcoat. She supposed he had to posture somehow. He was not terribly imposing, being of middling height with brown hair combed to one side of a narrow face and sharp blue eyes. But she knew Lucy found his tenor voice delightful.
"How sweet," Kitty told him. "Request her hand in marriage like a proper suitor, and stop making me stay up late." She thought she sounded rather forceful. Wapish, even. Like Mr. Bitterstock, she had to do something to enforce her rule. She wasn't much taller than Lucy, and her brown eyes could look soft and sweet, or so she had been told. Confidence in playing chaperone was key.
But her stern demeanor was not enough to dissuade Mr. Bitterstock. He put his arm about Lucy's waist. "Now, see here," he told Kitty, eyes as cold as the stars that dotted the night sky. "You cannot stop us. You're nothing but an old raisin, shriveled on the vine. The only reason you're interfering is you cannot abide to see other people happy."
The comment cut, but she wasn't about to let him see it. "Oh, stand down, puppy," Kitty returned, wondering what had happened to Bollers. "Raisin I may be, but at least I have the sense God gave me. What of you? You claim to love Lucy, yet you're willing to steal her away from the bosom of her family, risk her safety by driving through the night on roads unknown to you and your team, and deny her the one shining moment of a young woman's life, her wedding day."
Lucy's lower lip trembled. "I did so want a pretty wedding gown, Clive."
"Don't listen to her," Bitterstock warned, tightening his hold on Lucy's waist. "She's trying to trick us."
"If you consider truth trickery," Kitty allowed.
He scowled at her. "You're a bully, madam, but I wager you wouldn't stand so tall before a real threat." He stepped away from Lucy and raised his fist.
Kitty stared at him. He'd strike her? None of the men she'd confronted before had done more than protest. Where was that blasted footman? Bitterstock stomped down the stairs, head lowered like a bull's and mouth set. He expected her to run, to cower.
She would do neither.
She braced herself, feet pressed into the gravel, ready to dodge or throw up her arms to block him if she must. He reared back his fist, and a hand materialized out of the darkness and seized it before the pup could make good on his threat.
She thought surely Bollers had arrived, but the arm attached to that hand and the broad shoulders above it had better lines than the footman's and were clothed in a fine green coat. Where the footman wore a powdered wig, her rescuer had hair the color of darkest chocolate and eyes to match. Besides, she would never forget those handsome features, arranged as if by a sculptor's hand. The sight of the face that had haunted her dreams for a decade rocked Kitty more surely than any blow.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you," he said to Bitterstock. "I have it on good authority that she bites."
Quentin Adair had the singular pleasure of watching Kitty Chapworth wash white. How odd that the first person he should meet on returning to Chapworth Grange was the last person he'd seen before being exiled from it ten years ago.
"Adair," she said, voice a ghost of the one she'd been using on the young man beside him.
"In the flesh," he promised. "And whose elopement are you attempting to ruin this time?"
The young man wrenched his hand from Quentin's grip. "That is none of your concern, sir. You have no right to interfere in my affairs."
Another movement caught Quentin's eye. A tall, imposing footman wrestled his way out of the bushes and tugged down his coat before going to stand self-importantly behind Kitty.
"I believe a gentleman has every right to intervene when a lady might be in danger," Quentin replied to the young upstart in front of him. "Indeed, I think it the duty of every gentleman or lady, wouldn't you agree, Miss Chapworth?"
"Quite," Kitty snapped, and she began to sound more like her usual determined self. The footman standing at attention behind her likely had helped her regain her composure. The fellow would have been more menacing if his black coat hadn't been speckled with leaves and his powdered wig hadn't been askew.
"Although Mr. Bitterstock seems to have forgotten the rules of good Society," Kitty was continuing. "A gentleman courts a lady properly and seeks her family's permission before marrying her."
Was she attempting to remind Quentin of his failings? The little blonde in the folly must have had other ideas, for she hurried down the stairs. "That's true. But we were concerned that Father might refuse if he knew the state of Clive's finances."
Kitty made a sad moue. "Pockets to let? And how exactly were you planning to support your wife?"
"I am persuaded we would survive," Bitterstock grit out.
"Sadly, I am not," Kitty said. "You have two choices that I see, Mr. Bitterstock. You can return to the Grange, speak to my uncle in the morning, or you can leave now before I have the keeper set the hounds on you."
The fellow blanched. "You wouldn't dare."
She tsked. "And a poor judge of character as well. Mr. Adair here can attest to my single-mindedness when it comes to protecting my family."
"Vicious," Quentin agreed. "I'd run now if I were you."
"I shall give you until the count of three," Kitty said. "One, two . . ."
Bitterstock turned and pelted down the lane.
"He left!" the little blonde protested. Quentin thought the footman smothered a laugh.
"Alas, yes," Kitty told her. "I'm terribly sorry, dearest, but he was a fortune hunter. A man who refuses to speak to your father generally has something to hide."
Even after ten years, he felt the comment like a slap to the cheek. He had given his attentions freely, pursuing this woman and that, never raising expectations too far before moving on. When he'd finally thought himself genuinely in love, he'd known he was blighted by circumstances. The black sheep of the neighborhood, the wastrel who preferred horse racing and gaming to duty. Yet he'd dared to love the most beautiful lady in the region, had begun to plan a future together. The woman in front of him had made him realize that future was doomed and changed his life in the process.
"But Kitty," the blonde said, sob hitching her soft voice. "What shall I do?"
Kitty took the lantern from the girl's trembling hand and patted her arm. "You will go on, dearest. Better tears now than a lifetime of regret. Go back to the Grange. It's time we all slept. Tomorrow will be brighter, I promise. Bollers, would you escort Miss Lucy?"
The footman stepped forward. With a sniff, the girl allowed herself to start back toward the house.
He thought Kitty might follow her, but she turned to Quentin. Amazing how sharp those brown eyes could look when leveled on him.
"What are you doing here?" she demanded.
"I came home to see my father," he replied. "I couldn't sleep and decided to take a walk to clear my mind."
"At midnight?" In the golden light of the lantern, her coffee-colored brows rose in question.
He shrugged. He wasn't about to confess that he'd been watching the Grange from the folly for several days now, noticing who came and went. By the number of carriages arriving, it was clear Sir Thomas was hosting a house party. A shame Quentin would never be invited. Nothing would suit him better than to keep an eye on the crafty codger up close.
"As I said, I couldn't sleep. But I'm not sorry I arrived when I did. You were in rare form."
She dropped her gaze and tugged on the sash of her dressing gown with her free hand. The wrapper was plain flannel without a scrap of lace or embroidery to embellish it. Yet it outlined her curves as surely as satin.
"Yes, well," she said, cheeks coloring as if she'd noticed his regard. "Thank you for your help. I imagine you would prefer it if I simply bid you goodnight now."
He ought to prefer that. He had hoped never to lay eyes on her again. She had been witness to the worst moment of his life. He'd been certain she'd have married, left the Grange. She was related to the man who had made himself Quentin's enemy. He ought to have nothing further to do with her.
But there was one question he wanted answered.
Quentin put out a hand to stop her from following the footman. "After all this time, have you nothing to say to me?"
She eyed his hand on her arm, then raised her gaze to his face.
"Yes," she said, eyes tearing. "I am so, so sorry."
See what it's really like to attend a summer house party.