Cecilia Bromwell had visited Broadheath on several occasions, but only once before in the presence of a certain gentleman. Not that he’d been a gentleman five years ago—he’d been a horrid, arrogant, rude scoundrel. She expected he would be precisely the same now.
“You’re certain he’ll be here?” she asked Dinah Gladwin, the Baroness Spetchley. Of average height with chestnut-brown hair and moss-green eyes, Dinah was a white woman the same age as Cecilia.
Dinah was a long-time friend. Indeed, she’d been here on that occasion five years ago, another house party but in the summer, when John Rowley, the Earl of Cosford had been so hideously awful. Awful enough that she’d called him the Menace, and now it was the only way she could think of him.
“Yes, I’m certain,” Dinah said rather breathlessly. “I saw the Menace earlier.”
“Blast!” Cecilia flounced onto a chair in her bedchamber where Dinah had come to see her. “Why didn’t my parents inform me?” She was certain her mother would remember how horribly the Menace had treated her.
“Perhaps they didn’t know?”
“I would be surprised if my mother wasn’t well aware of the entire guest list. She makes it her business to know who will be anywhere, especially a party like this.” How else could she make matches, which the women in her family had been doing for centuries?
Dinah pursed her lips. “She definitely knew. And she didn’t tell you. What does that mean?”
“I don’t know, but I have a terribly anxious feeling.”
Gasping, Dinah sank onto the other chair. “You don’t think she wants to…match the two of you?”
“I bloody well hope not.” Except her mother and father had been disappointed when she hadn’t wed last Season. At twenty, she was more than old enough. She had to consider that was her mother’s intent—to see her betrothed before the end of the party. But to the Menace? “Whom else did you see here?”
“Only Sophia and Priest.” She referred to their friend Sophia, who’d also been at that party five years ago, and her new husband, Michael Priestly.
“Another married couple like you and Spetch,” Cecilia observed. “If there are no other young unmarrieds here, I am doomed.”
“They can’t make you marry him,” Dinah said with fiery defiance, her green eyes sparking.
Cecilia folded her arms over her chest and frowned. “They will try very, very hard. I’d rather marry a snake.”
“Oh!” Dinah laughed. “Of course a snake.”
Because the Menace had put a snake in the boat Cecilia and Dinah had been in on the lake five years ago. Dinah had shrieked in terror as she’d stood up. Her movement had capsized the craft, and they’d had to be rescued. “I can’t believe Spetch remains friendly with him, particularly after he married you.” Cecilia clucked her tongue.
“Spetch thought it was an amusing prank, until we fell into the water. But he didn’t hold a grudge against Cosford. You can’t expect him—or me—to be angry with him for something that happened five years ago.” Dinah rushed to add, “However, I completely understand why you hold him in poor esteem.”
“No, I don’t expect that of you or Spetch,” Cecilia said with a sigh, dropping her hands to her sides.
Dinah stood. “Come, let’s go downstairs. Aren’t you even the slightest bit curious to see Cosford after all this time?”
Cecilia looked up at her. “No.” She brushed at her skirt. “You go ahead.”
“All right.” Dinah hesitated. “Don’t let him ruin your fun. It will be a wonderful party. You’ll see.”
Only if Cecilia managed to stay away from her nemesis.
As Dinah left, Cecilia’s mother came in. Her blonde hair was immaculately styled as usual, and she was garbed in the height of fashion, a rich blue velvet gown with gold bows adorning the bodice. Pearls adorned her neck and swung from her ears. She said a few words to Dinah before closing the door and coming toward Cecilia. “Don’t you want to go downstairs with Dinah?”
“Not yet.” Cecilia stood. She meant to hold her temper, truly, but she just knew her mother was scheming. “With whom are you planning to match me at this party?”
Her mother’s mouth stretched into a tight but brief smile. “Shall we sit?”
“No.” Cecilia crossed her arms again. “It better not be the Me—Cosford.”
Her mother’s eyes flickered with surprise. “Why not?”
“You know how I detest him, how awful he is.”
“Actually, no, I didn’t realize you detest him. He’s not awful. He’s an earl and heir to a dukedom.”
“His titles don’t make him palatable. He’s a menace.” Cecilia lowered her arms and fisted her hands at her sides. “How can you not know how much I loathe him? Have you forgotten what he did to me five years ago at this very estate?”
The baroness frowned and looked beyond Cecilia, as if she could see into the past. “I suppose I have. What did he do?”
Cecilia groaned. “He put that snake in my boat, and we capsized. He ruined my new green-and-pink dress. You were furious.”
“I vaguely remember that,” her mother murmured.
“And then he poured lemonade over my head, ruining my new butter-yellow dress—the one with the embroidered flowers.”
“Oh! That did make me angry,” the baroness said with a slight pout. She shook her head and focused on Cecilia. “Well, that was five years ago, and we must hope his manner has improved.”
Hope? “Or you can find someone else to match me with,” Cecilia said with an overabundance of sweetness so that her mother narrowed one eye at her.
“You haven’t wanted any of the others I’ve proposed.”
“Because I couldn’t love them. You know how I feel about falling in love. It’s absolutely necessary. I couldn’t possibly love Cosford.” Cecilia shuddered at the thought. He was utterly deplorable.
Her mother exhaled, sounding beleaguered. She took Cecilia’s hand. “I know love is important to you, and I’ve explained that to your father. He is less…concerned with that aspect. However, if you find Cosford intolerable, I will find someone else. But you must at least give him a chance.”
“Cosford is aware of this potential match?” It turned Cecilia’s stomach to even think those words: potential match, just as much as it nauseated her to call him by name. She much preferred the name he deserved: the Menace.
“I don’t think so. Promise me that you will delay your judgment until after you spend some time with him—and you must be fair.”
It didn’t take Cecilia long at all to determine if she and a gentleman might suit. So far, only one had passed the initial meeting, and after a handful of encounters, she’d deduced there would never be any passion between them.
“I will try.” Cecilia had no intention of doing so. She would tolerate the Menace for a day or two, then inform her mother that his insufferability had not diminished. Indeed, she imagined it had only swelled over the past five years. She might even need to revise his name to the Insufferable Menace.
“That is all I ask,” her mother said, sounding a bit weary. “Now, let us go downstairs. I see you’ve changed since our arrival. You look fresh and lovely.”
All the better to lure a husband.
Cecilia gritted her teeth and followed her mother toward the door.
Her mother paused with her hand on the latch and turned her head to look back at Cecilia. “I forgot to mention there will be a Yule log hunt tomorrow. You will be paired with Cosford.”
Cecilia was glad she’d stopped too, or she might have tripped. “Why must I be paired with him? Indeed, why must I be paired with anyone?”
“Because that’s what Mrs. Beverley has arranged. And you will not make trouble about it,” her mother added sternly. “I don’t want Mrs. Beverley to think you rude.”
“Of course not.” It wasn’t possible anyway, not when the Menace was in possession of every bit of rudeness available in the world. “Will we be chaperoned?” Cecilia asked.
“Yes, one of your friends will chaperone since all of them are married.” It wasn’t a clear jab, but the subtle insinuation was there—that Cecilia ought to be wed too.
“Still, we’ll be wandering around in a forest. It seems there would be a potential for compromise.” Cecilia frowned. “Are you trying to ensure we are forced to wed?”
The baroness exhaled. “No. I wouldn’t ever force you. Now stop trying to find a way out of this. You’re pairing with him tomorrow, and that’s the end of it.”
Fine, then she’d make him miserable.
Cecilia stifled a smile. Causing him distress would be incredibly diverting. It would also ensure there would be no marriage. She’d remind him of how much they loathed one another—as if he’d forget. Chances were, he wouldn’t want to be paired with her any more than she wanted to be with him.
Still, she could take the opportunity to needle him, at least a bit.
She trailed her mother down the stairs to the ground floor and into the large gathering hall. Tall windows looked out to the courtyard in the center of the house. Cecilia’s bedchamber had a view of the same space.
As soon as she stepped inside, three young ladies came toward her. One was Dinah, and the others were Eleanor Mainwaring and Sophia Priestly. They greeted Cecilia warmly, and she realized she was the only unmarried young lady there. Wait, was that true? She glanced around the room and didn’t see any other unmarried women. Mrs. Beverley’s widowed mother didn’t count.
That meant the only match Cecilia could make at this party was with Cosford. If he didn’t already know that was the intent, he would surely puzzle it out. Unless he was as empty-headed as he was malicious.
Cecilia moved with her friends to the side of the room. “I am relying on all of you to protect me from my mother’s matchmaking. She wants me to consider the Menace, and I refuse.”
“Because of what he did five years ago,” Sophia, a young white woman with pale blonde hair and blue eyes, said with a nod. “I don’t blame you. He’s abhorrent.”
“The Menace is a person?” Eleanor asked, her brow puckered in confusion. A Black woman, she was tall, with nearly black hair and expressive, deep brown eyes.
“Oh, yes,” Cecilia said. “He’s a reprehensible man who ruined two—two!—of my gowns at a house party five years ago.”
Eleanor wrinkled her nose. “He sounds like a menace.”
Sophia tipped her head. “Pity, because he’s incredibly handsome. And wealthy.”
“Not to mention, you’d be a countess and a duchess someday.” Dinah scanned the room. “There he is. With Spetch.”
Cecilia looked toward Dinah’s husband, a white man with light brown hair and a thin face. The white man next to him—the Menace—was taller than she recalled and more…muscular. He wore a stylish green velvet coat. His dark brown hair was pulled back into a queue. He laughed at something Spetch said, his lips spreading to reveal even white teeth and a thoroughly irritating dimple. She didn’t remember that detail at all, but perhaps it was because she only recalled him scowling or smirking.
He turned his head so she could see his face full-on. Dammit, he was handsome. He had long, dark lashes and cheekbones that looked as if they’d been carved by an expert sculptor.
Turning away from him, she took a deep breath. He could be as attractive as the winter was cold and wealthier than the king. That changed nothing. She also didn’t give a fig about his titles. “I’ve no interest in becoming his countess,” she said to her friends. “I’m relying on you to keep me safe from his machinations. Who knows what he has planned?” And they were supposed to go into the forest together tomorrow? Cecilia would be on her guard.
“If he has a scheme, we’ll discover it,” Dinah vowed. “Spetch will tell me everything.”
Cecilia nodded at her. “Good.” In the meantime, Cecilia would concoct her own plan—one that would keep him away from her forever.Return to Yule Be My Duke