Excerpt: Reforming Harriet

Excerpt: Reforming Harriet

Book 4 ~ Love in Disguise

“You cannot go to his house!” Monica looked horrified.

“I must.” Harriet picked up her reticule and walked past Horace, who had finally abandoned his effort to appear uninterested in matters involving his employer and Lord Westwood. “I cannot allow him to think I threw myself at Mr. Hunt.”

“Mr. Hunt has apologized — quite prettily, I thought.” Monica had rather enjoyed the spectacle of the proud Mr. Hunt groveling before them in the parlor this morning.

“Perhaps he will even muster the courage to apologize to Lord Westwood, although I doubt it,” Harriet said. “Mr. Hunt seems to have little in the way of honor, so I do not expect he would apologize to the man he believes is my fiancé.”

Resolved, Harriet swept out the door. Determination gave her courage, but truth be told, she was as nervous as a cat. Lord Westwood had not responded to her note. He had not come round to escort her to the party they had been engaged to attend last night. Harriet could not abide his silence. Disapproval, perhaps. Even his anger. But not his silence.

Silence meant that she did not exist.

She and her late husband had had too much silence between them, and it had created an even greater gulf. Had she broached the subject, Freddy might have been surprised to learn that marriage left her feeling solitary and isolated. Harriet was certain that Freddy had never felt isolated or alone. He led an unencumbered life, and emotions were not part of it. Diversion, not reflection, was his way.

Sometimes Harriet wondered whether her dissatisfaction with their marriage signaled there was something wrong with her. After all, most women seemed to enjoy the married state, and the duty of every unmarried miss was to find a husband.

Harriet had prided herself on being neither a cloying nor a demanding wife. And though she knew little of marriage, she had assumed that she and Freddy would find their own way. But something was missing. Harriet had not known how to articulate what that was. The longer she and Freddy lived as two islands in the same household, the more confused she had become. And though he allowed her all the freedom she could want, marriage to a man incapable of fidelity proved a trap: Always, she hoped that things between them would improve, but each day presented new opportunities for realizing that they had not.

Her disappointment had turned inward, making her doubt her worth. But if she had learned anything from her time with Freddy, it was that silence did not erase problems; it only made them worse. Perhaps if she had found her voice, Freddy would not have strayed.

Lord Westwood was not Freddy. He was not even her fiancé; their betrothal was only a charade. But his silence wounded her in a way that was profoundly disturbing. And she meant to deal with it forthrightly. She had resolved to be silent no more.

Harriet had never visited a gentleman at his house. It was not done, even by independent women, unless one wished to be taken for a lightskirt. Harriet did not care about her reputation. She only knew she was finished with silence.

Eustace, who had apparently adopted Lord Westwood as his new hero, said the earl was often home in the afternoons. Eustace had been very helpful since that night. He readily believed her assertion that she had sent no missive to Mr. Hunt. She did not know what Lord Westwood believed, but his silence led her to suspect the worst.

Harriet stood nervously on Lord Westwood’s front steps. It occurred to her that for form’s sake she should have asked Eustace to accompany her here, or even Monica. But it was too late now. Besides, her errand was too personal, too private to be witnessed by a third party.

The manservant who answered Harriet’s knock possessed all the warmth of an iceberg. He disappeared, and after what seemed like an eternity, returned with word that Lord Westwood was available for a few minutes. Harriet did not know what to make of that dismissive statement, but she followed the man through a long corridor. She spied a pair of muddy boots large enough to be Lord Westwood’s and a gardening shovel and trowel propped near an exterior door at the far end of the corridor. Other than that, there were few clues about the man who resided here. 

Indeed, the house itself looked only occasionally lived in. Harriet knew that Lord Westwood spent extensive time in the West Indies, but surely someone could have set out a vase or two of flowers when he was in residence. Much of the furniture was draped in Holland covers, adding to the air of disuse. Only the study into which Harriet was ushered lacked that stale, uninhabited atmosphere. A fire blazed in the hearth, and a blue and brown mosaic-patterned carpet covered the floor.

Lord Westwood presided at a massive oak desk, his hands resting lightly on a sheaf of papers. An open ledger book lay off to the side. His slightly distracted expression vanished the moment she crossed the threshold, to be replaced by something infinitely more wooden. Harriet smiled brightly, but received no answering smile.

“How may I assist you?” His tone was cool.

Harriet told herself not to be daunted. Her visit was out of the ordinary; he was bound to think it strange. She did not sit, but faced him, standing before his desk.

“I wish you to understand about the other night,” she said. “About Mr. Hunt, that is. I fear you formed a misimpression.”

He offered no response.

“Mr. Hunt indicated he wished to speak to me, so I met him out onto the terrace,” she continued.

Lord Westwood merely regarded her, his expression unreadable.

“You see, Mr. Hunt thought I had sent him a letter suggesting that I had formed a particular affection for him.” Harriet told herself not to be intimidated by his forbidding demeanor. “But I did not send him a letter, nor do I hold him in any particular regard.”

She paused, giving him an opportunity to respond, willing him to say something, at least.

He eyed her for a long moment. “You insist, I suppose, that the two of you were not engaged in any untoward behavior,” he said at last.

“I insist only on the truth,” Harriet said. “And the truth is not what Mr. Hunt spoke but what you know of me and my character, regardless of what you think you saw.”

Skepticism was written on his features. “I fear I know little of you, madam, after all. And you less of me. Indeed, I fail to see the point of this conversation. What is it you wish me to do?”

“I wish for no more silence,” she said firmly. “And you have been nothing but silent since you left my house. What am I to make of the fact that you did not escort me to Lady Newcomb’s party last night? You sent no word.”

“Perhaps I had nothing to say.”

“That may be. But if there is one thing I have learned about you, Lord Westwood, it is that you are a man who takes his obligations seriously. And you had an obligation to escort me, in your role as my fiancé.”

She thought he winced. He took a deep breath. “You are correct. It will not happen again.”

Harriet stared at him. “Is that is all you care to say? No word of explanation?”

“Yes.”

“That is disappointing. Perhaps it will interest you to know that Mr. Hunt paid me a call this morning. He apologized for his behavior and said he had only acted after receiving my letter — which I did not write, as I have said.” She leaned forward and placed her hands on the desk. “I believe him. So you see, someone tricked us both.”

He looked dubious. “Who?”

“I do not know. Nor do I know why. But I will not have you think the worst of me, my lord. I will not.”

Lord Westwood regarded her for a long moment. “Does it matter what I think?”

“Yes,” she said. “Deeply so. I am not sure why.”

“Deeply, you say?” He studied her.

Harriet flushed. To her great dismay, she felt her eyes grow moist.

He rose, then, and Harriet steeled herself. She could hardly blame him if he did think the worst of her. To her surprise, he came around the desk. They stood facing each other. His expression softened slightly. “I have the devil’s own temper, Harriet. Sometimes it is best that I do not share that with the world.”

Harriet. He had used her given name. A little thrill shot through her. Still, she held to her resolve. “I am not the ‘world,’ my lord,” she said. “I am your fiancée.” 

“No,” he corrected. “You are not. Or have I missed something?”

That is when Harriet remembered. She opened her reticule. “Here,” she said. “I brought this for you. It is not as fresh as it was two days ago, when I made it.” She held out the Napoleon, which she had wrapped in a linen handkerchief.

His gaze flicked over it, then returned to her. “Orange blossoms,” he murmured.

She was surprised that his excellent sense of smell had failed him. “No, I used only cream and caster sugar, egg whites, and a few shavings from a vanilla bean.”

“I was not referring to the pastry.”

Harriet’s eyes widened with understanding. “I did splash on a bit of orange water today. But that is hardly —”

“No primrose oil?”

“I…I thought the orange a pleasant change.”

“I prefer primrose. Perhaps you will wear that in the future.” He took the Napoleon and placed it on the desk, all the while regarding her steadily. “I could not abide the notion that you were so free with your favors.”

Harriet’s face flamed. “I am not, sir.”  

“And yet, on our drive two days ago…” His voice trailed off, but his gaze remained locked with hers.

Harriet cleared her throat. “I am not normally given to such displays, my lord. I believe I was carried away by the, er, moment.”

“Ah,” he murmured. “The moment.” 

Harriet felt something hovering in the air between them, something thick with possibilities. He gestured to the chair behind her. “Sit, please.” 

She sank into the chair. Lord Westwood leaned back against the desk and regarded her from a hooded gaze. “This is a lark to you, is it not?”

“What?” She frowned.

“This ‘betrothal.’ It is a game, an adventure, an amusement.”

Harriet shook her head. “It is no game, my lord. There is much I must learn.”

“And yet, I cannot think of an area in which you need instruction,” he said. “You are a skilled hostess, an excellent cook, a deflector of revolutionaries, a devotee of aging reformers. There is seemingly no area that can be improved upon. I have been thinking about that this past day and more. And now I put it to you: What is it you attempt to gain by this false liaison?”

“I have explained my reasons at great cost, sir, to my own dignity,” Harriet said with asperity. “It is cruel of you to make me explain again why I seek to protect myself from unwise associations and…desires.”

“So do we all, madam,” he growled. “So do we all.”

“I do not understand.”

He opened a drawer in the desk, took out what appeared to be a newspaper, and handed it to her. “My exploits are greatly exaggerated,” he said. “The rest, however, may be of interest.”

Harriet looked at the paper. It was a page from the Times:

The Prince Regent, the Dukes of Clarence and Kent, the Duchess of York, and Lord Castlereagh were among those assembled for the solemnization of the wedding vows between the Honorable Zephyr Payne, daughter of Lord Ellwood Payne and Lady Clarissa Payne, and the celebrated war hero, Lord Elias Westwood. Indeed, it was the year’s most anticipated wedding, joining Miss Payne’s exalted lineage and Lord Westwood’s widely admired bravery.

Harriet looked at the date — four years ago — then at the earl, whose features now appeared made of stone.

Lord Westwood, of course, is celebrated for his daring service at Salamanca, when Wellington sent him behind French lines to gain intelligence, even as the Duke was forced to withdraw as superior French numbers threatened his supply line. Wellington reversed his decision after learning that Marmont had erred by separating his left flank from the main army, intelligence brought to him by Lord Westwood under the direst of conditions that left the earl with a severe chest wound. 

The entire ton had assembled at St. Paul’s to witness the union of Lord Payne’s daughter and the earl. But it became clear, after an especially lengthy performance by the cathedral orchestra, that something was amiss. At last, Lord Payne was seen speaking urgently with Lord Westwood, and shortly thereafter, Lord Payne announced to the congregation that no wedding would occur this day. Later, it was revealed that Miss Payne had eloped with Lord Marcus Pembroke.

As for Lord Westwood, he was observed to walk calmly out of the church without any word of explanation or regard. Indeed, no response to such a situation can be imagined.

Harriet looked up at him, aghast. “How very dreadful for you.”

“On the contrary. I was well-served by Miss Payne’s decision to elope with Marcus. She spared me the parson’s noose, for which I have no talent or inclination. I am eternally grateful. Marriage is not for me.”

“But you must have loved her,” Harriet said.

“Love? ’Tis an illusion created to make people feel better about signing their lives over to the institution of marriage,” he said. “I distrust the state myself. After your own  marriage, I suspect you might as well.”

But Harriet was focused on the yellowed page. “When I cry off at the end of our bargain,” she said slowly, “it will be seen as history repeating itself. It will be a public embarrassment for you.”

The earl shrugged. “Irrelevant. I agreed to the terms of our contract and will abide by them.”

“If it is irrelevant, why did you wish me to know about it?” Harriet asked.

“To show you that actions have consequences. That pretense leaves no one unscathed. That one must be honest before it is too late. And so I put it to you thus: Am I anything to you other than Freddy’s business partner, the man you have ensnared in this humbling masquerade? Is it, in fact, all a masquerade?”

Harriet’s heart was thundering in her chest. “I — I do not know how to respond.”

“That is honesty in itself, I suppose.” He returned the newspaper to its drawer. “And now I find I must be honest with you.”

Did he mean to terminate their agreement? Trepidation filled her as Lord Westwood crossed his arms and regarded her from eyes dark with purpose.

“Let us stipulate that you have better taste than to willingly cavort with Oliver Hunt in the shrubbery,” he said.

He believed her, Harriet realized. But her relief faded at his next words. 

“Nevertheless, I have discovered something this week that affects our agreement.”

Harriet’s heart sank. “What, my lord? Tell me — please.”

“It’s this: This is no lark for me. I warn you now that if we continue this masquerade, this pretend courtship, I cannot answer for the consequences. I have forged a strong will and even stronger defenses over the years — thanks, in part, to the madness with Zephyr — but I have acquired precious little nobility in the process.”

“Nobility?” Harriet frowned. “I do not understand.”

He sighed. “How can you be so innocent? And yet, I sense that you have not the least idea of what you have done.”

“What have I done, my lord?” Harriet eyed him in alarm. “Tell me and I will make it right. I did not intend for our arrangement to be a burden.”

“You cannot make this right,” he growled. “It has gone too far.”

His gaze slammed into hers, and Harriet nearly recoiled from the darkness there. “What I am saying, madam, is that you are not safe with me,” he said in a low, silken voice. “I cannot promise to escort you to routs and parties and then take my leave on your doorstep. I cannot pledge to drive with you into the country and refrain from kissing you, or touching you, or making you mine.”

He took a step toward her. “It is no longer pretend for me. I warned you once about toying with desire. You have opened a Pandora’s box that will not be sealed. I want you, Harriet. And if you give me the slightest opportunity, I will have you.”

Harriet stared at him as he closed the space between them and pulled her to her feet.

“Even now,” he said, lowering his mouth to hers, “I fear you are in very grave danger.”