Leonie’s life is controlled by her scheming Aunt. But when her suitor’s dark secret is exposed, her true Savior is nowhere near!
Leonie Trowbridge is a beautiful young debutante who’s enjoying the glittering social season in London. Everything changes when her beloved brother requests her return to Colorado for the birth of his child.
Jem McClary seems now like the typical cowboy. Trying to win back her heart, he will take on an impossible task: to become one of Leonie’s romance-novel heroes, before she falls for Neal, a rich Englishman that has his hooks all over her!
Disaster strikes as Neal will tell lies and eventually succeeds in driving Jem away from Circle T Ranch and Leonie.
With Jem being out of the way when Neal’s dark secret is exposed, Leonie’s true Saviour will be nowhere near.
How can Leonie see past the glamour the true meaning of life?
“All I can say is I certainly admire your generosity, Edwina. And your fortitude,” the dry voice commented. “I don’t know if I’d have the energy to take on an 18-year-old girl at my time of life. Or the inclination.” There was a sound like the soft clink of china.
A second voice answered briskly: “The girl is my great-niece, after all. One has an obligation to family.”
“Yes, but America,” the first voice laughed. “And she wasn’t even living in New York or Boston. Some forsaken place called Indian Rock, out on the frontier! You’ve certainly had your work cut out, my dear.”
“Oh, it isn’t quite that desperate,” the second voice replied. “She’s a beautiful girl, thankfully. And she only lived in the wilderness for a few years. She was raised in Devonshire, at Barkeley House.”
“Oh yes, the country estate.”
“Their parents died young,” the second voice sighed. “Such a pity. Her elder brother had to raise her, and of course, he was completely ignorant of how to prepare a young girl for the London social season. That much at least wasn’t his fault. No man would know those things.” There was another soft clink.
“But then one of their American relatives died, and left them a ranch, and her brother Nate dragged Leonie over there. He had some ambition to be a cattle baron, I think.”
“And got tangled up with the most appalling woman while he was there.” Her voice lowered to a whisper and then resumed, “That was when I put my foot down. It’s one thing for Nate to throw away his own life, but I won’t stand by and watch him ruin Leonie’s chances as well. He should never have taken her to America in the first place, and so I told him!”
“He didn’t try to fight me, thank heaven. I think he realizes that he’s to blame for her―reduced chances. But I mean to give her my best effort.”
“You’re an angel, Edwina.”
“I owe it to Carlotta, God rest her,” the second voice sighed, “their grandmother. She’d be turning in her grave if she could see them now!”
Leonie Trowbridge frowned and pressed her brow against the staircase railing. She knew it wasn’t ladylike for her to hide at the top of the stairs and eavesdrop on her great-aunt while she entertained her guest in the drawing room far below, but a longstanding habit was hard to break―especially when you were curious.
Leonie pulled her mouth to one side. It was plain that her great-aunt and her elderly friend thought that she was a very unpolished girl, and Leonie wasn’t sure she liked the way they were talking about her brother Nate.
Or the way they were talking about his new wife, Molly. Because Leonie was fairly sure that the whispered part had been about Molly.
She had tried to explain her brother’s star-crossed romance with Molly Clanahan, and how fate had ordained it, and that it had been beautiful and wonderful, but her great-aunt had simply stared at her with that awful, heavy silence of hers.
Her Great-Aunt Edwina had simply not understood that Nate and Molly had been meant for one another.
And when she’d told her aunt that she wished she could have a romance like Nate and Molly’s, and quoted the inspired author, Mrs Willifred Smythe-Thompson, as saying that true love was all that mattered―her aunt had snorted like a horse and replied tartly:
“Perhaps you should apply to Mrs Willifred Smythe-Thompson to help you find a chimney sweep who will truly love you, rather than to me. I’m only trying to get you a paltry earl!”
She hadn’t known what to say to that. And when she stopped to think about it, even Mrs Willifred Smythe-Thompson’s romances had been about true love with dukes and earls, and never about true love with chimney sweeps.
So maybe her great-aunt had a point.
“How is her training coming along?” the dry voice asked, and Leonie pressed her ear against the banisters again.
“Fairly well,” her great-aunt replied. “She has a natural aptitude for music and dancing and loves to dance. She’s already learned all the forms. She also knows the basics of etiquette, but I’ve had to refresh her quite a bit. She’s lost a great deal of that, in the last few years.”
“I can imagine,” the dry voice drawled.
“She has no experience of men, thank heaven, so I’m working with a clean slate.” There was a long pause, and then her great-aunt sighed, “But I’m having to teach her the most basic lessons. Her mother died young, as I said, so she was utterly without instruction.”
“It must be very trying for you.”
There was silence again. “No, not trying,” her great-aunt said at last. “I’m really quite fond of Leonie. She’s a sweet girl, very easy to love. It’s just a matter of educating her. Dispelling some of the ridiculous notions that have gotten into her head. When it comes to a potential husband, for example, she sees no difference between a duke and a grocer. If the grocer had a more pleasing face, I fear she’d prefer him.”
“Oh, Edwina,” the dry voice chuckled, and her great-aunt joined her guest in a sputtering laugh.
“Yes. I blame it on her time in America. She certainly never got that from anyone in our family.”
Leonie sighed and returned to her own rooms. She closed the door behind her and drifted despondently to the big mullioned windows that overlooked the wide lawns of her great-aunt’s estate.
The dowager baroness lived in a house even more grand and beautiful than the house where Leonie had grown up, but her years on her brother’s American ranch had given Leonie a new perspective. After the sweeping vistas, clean air, and bright skies of Colorado, the near-constant rain and chilly temperatures of England now seemed almost gloomy to her.
Leonie sank into the window seat and pressed her brow against the glass. Her great-aunt’s words had reminded Leonie of how much she missed Nate and Molly.
She hadn’t really wanted to come to England. The thing had been cooked up between her Great-Aunt Edwina and Nate. Mostly because Edwina had written Nate a lot of letters.
Nate had never shown her the letters, but Leonie gathered that their great-aunt had scolded Nate severely for hurting her chances in society. And so Nate had agreed to send her back home to England to live with Edwina, who would prepare her for her first London season.
“You see it, don’t you, Leonie?” Nate had asked gently. “Edwina is being very kind to us. She’s going to teach you all the things that a young girl needs to know to be ready for her debut.
“She’s going to do for you what Mother would have done, had she lived. She’s going to give you all the things you need that I can’t give you.”
She had pulled her mouth down. “But what if I’m happy here?” she asked him, and picked at her sleeve.
Nate had smiled at her. “I’m glad you’re happy here, Leonie. But there aren’t many young men in Indian Rock. And you’re a beautiful young woman who wants to meet eligible young men. Don’t you?”
She had looked up at him. “Oh, yes!”
“Well then, there you are,” he had replied softly. “Edwina will introduce you to the young men you would have met, had I―had we not come to Colorado.”
Nate had seemed so convinced that it was a good thing, that she’d agreed to go to England, but parting from Nate and Molly had been hard.
Leonie sighed. Molly at least hadn’t been happy with Edwina’s intervention. She had overheard Molly complain about it to Nate, once.
“Why do you answer her letters?” Molly had asked. “That old woman is just trying to break us up. She’s trying to make you feel bad for marrying me!”
“It’s not that, darling,” Nate had reassured her. “It’s just that―I don’t want to rob Leonie of her birthright. She would have had her debut, and a London season if we had stayed in England. If I take that away, she may resent me for it one day.”
“Leonie hasn’t asked to go back,” Molly had countered. “She’s a sweet, beautiful girl, and she doesn’t need any help to find a husband. She can find a good man right here in Colorado!”
Nate hadn’t answered, and there had been sounds like whispering. Molly had flashed out with an objection now and then, but the whispering went on, and at last, she murmured, “Oh, all right, Nate. If it means that much to you.”
And so the decision had been made.
It had been hard for her to leave Nate and Molly, even though Nate had accompanied her all the way to London.
At the train depot in Cheyenne, both she and Molly had broken down in tears. “Write to me,” she had begged, and Molly had wiped her eyes and nodded.
That parting had been hard enough, but when they had arrived at Edwina’s house, and a week later Nate had returned to New York, she had been devastated.
She had followed him all the way to the front door and had miserably failed to be strong.
“Oh, Nate!” she’d blubbered and had thrown her arms around him, and Nate’s dark eyes had sparkled. But he hugged her and smiled and took her chin in his hand. “You’re going to be the toast of London, my dear,” he told her fondly, and kissed her cheek.
And then he smiled again and was gone.
Almost a year ago, now.
Leonie picked up a slender little book. It had been Nate’s parting gift to her, and she often read it.
It was the book of Proverbs, and Nate had scrawled a message on the flyleaf.
I can’t teach you how to be a woman like Edwina can. But I can give you a book that will teach you how to be a lady.
You don’t become a lady just because you were born into the peerage. It has nothing to do with a title.
You become a true lady when you choose to be wise and kind.
You’re already kind, Leonie. If you do what this book teaches, you will also be wise.
Leonie brushed her hand across the cover softly. She had read the little book but had to admit that she didn’t understand it very well. Most of its advice sounded very awkward to her.
She riffled through its pages and let her eyes light on a random passage.
As a jewel of gold in a swine’s snout, so is a fair woman which is without discretion.
Leonie sighed and closed the little book. That was what Great-Aunt Edwina was always telling her, in a more roundabout way, and it made her very uncomfortable.
But Leonie was never downcast for very long, and when she spied a shiny carriage tooling up the long drive, she dimpled and abandoned the window seat and the little book.
Because the shiny carriage meant that one of her many admirers had come to visit her.
Leonie sat in a velvet chair beside the drawing room window and folded her hands in her lap. Her aunt’s butler opened the door, walked across the carpet soundlessly, and handed his mistress a silver tray. She picked up the card on it and read aloud:
“Mr Neal Carhardt.”
Her aunt’s friend―a woman Leonie guessed to be ninety―turned to her and murmured, in a congratulatory tone:
“Oh, my dear.”
“Show him in, Withers,” Edwina murmured. She gave Leonie a meaningful glance, and Leonie straightened up and cast her eyes down modestly.
The door opened again, and Edwina smiled. “Good afternoon, Neal.”
Leonie watched from under her lashes as Neal Carhardt crossed the room, took the hand her great-aunt extended, and kissed it gallantly. He was a very handsome young man in his mid-twenties. He had grey eyes, dark hair, and an athletic physique. He was as severely groomed as her brother Nate―not a hair out of place, perfectly tailored jacket, perfectly tailored trousers, and boots that were shiny as any mirror.
“Afternoon, ma’am! Lady Wellington. Miss Trowbridge.”
Leonie nodded, smiled primly, and returned her eyes to the floor.
“Sit down beside me, Neal,” her great-aunt instructed, “and tell me how your grandmother is doing these days. I hardly ever see her anymore.”
Leonie swallowed a sigh. She had often heard Nate praise Queen Victoria as a strong monarch, but for her part, Leonie wished that the queen had exerted a less stringent influence on English courtship.
After the freedom of Indian Rock, Leonie felt smothered by the endless Victorian rules for young women like herself. Her aunt had made it very clear that:
She could never talk to a man alone.
She could never hold hands with any man not her fiancé.
She could never ride in a closed carriage with any man who was not a relative.
The only time a male companion could extend his hand to her, outside of a ballroom, was if she was in danger of falling.
Leonie raised her eyes to Neal’s face forlornly. She could also never have a male visitor at her home unless one of her relatives―preferably an elderly relative―was also in close attendance.
Leonie stifled the impulse to chew her lip. She felt sure that Mrs Willifred Smythe-Thompson would oppose these barriers to an even routine acquaintance―never mind true love.
“Don’t you agree, Miss Trowbridge?”
Leonie looked up in surprise. Neal had apparently asked her a question.
She closed her mouth primly and turned her eyes down. Her aunt had told her that as a general rule she should defer to others in conversation, and especially to a potential suitor.
Leonie stole a little glance at Neal’s face and found that his eyes were on her. She dimpled and won an answering smile before the sound of her aunt clearing her throat made her look down again.
But she couldn’t help wondering how any girl ever found herself engaged, with so many rules that seemed specially designed to keep that from happening.
It was the complete opposite of Indian Rock. Leonie suddenly remembered a fish story her brother’s young foreman, Jem McClary, had once told to frighten her. It was about a big, ugly miner who got himself a wife by kidnapping a young woman from a wagon train.
Jem’s eyes had gone as big as dinner plates, and he’d curled his fingers and lifted them high over her head.
“That ugly old thing lay in wait for her in the bushes, and when she walked by, he jumped out and said Boogedy-boogedy-boogedy!”
Jem had jumped at her, and she screamed and fled, but he had doubled up with laughter and called after her:
“Better check under the bed tonight, Leonie, to make sure that woolly booger ain’t hiding under there!”
Leonie giggled a bit at the memory and realized too late that she’d done it out loud. She raised her eyes, and to her embarrassment, the others were staring at her.
So she cleared her throat and cast her eyes down again.
It was considered rude for a young man to visit a young woman’s home for an extended time, and so Neal Carhardt departed precisely thirty minutes after he arrived. And in spite of his good looks and charm, Leonie was heartily glad to see him go because her great-aunt had forced him to answer questions about his grandfather’s gout the entire time.
But to Leonie’s delight, just as he stood to leave, Neal turned to her and asked, “May we expect the pleasure of Miss Trowbridge’s attendance at the ball my parents are hosting next week?”
Leonie’s eyes darted to her great-aunt’s face, and Edwina murmured, “Leonie and I will attend, yes.”
Neal bowed and took Edwina’s hand again in parting. “I shall look forward to seeing you ladies there.”
He turned and smiled at her directly then, and Leonie smiled back, and she watched Neal’s straight back and precise haircut as they disappeared through the doorway.
When the carriage was rolling away down the drive, Lady Wellington turned to Edwina and smiled.
“A future viscount!”
“And he’s not her only suitor,” Edwina nodded proudly. “Leonie is a beautiful girl. She’s only just come out, and already I foresee a brilliant season.”
She turned her eyes to Leonie in approval, and Leonie felt herself going pink. She smiled and―once again―lowered her eyes.
“Now remember what I told you,” Edwina murmured as their carriage pulled up into the drive of the Carhardt’s country house. “A gentleman must be formally introduced to you before he may ask for a dance. You must not dance with any gentleman more than three times.”
Leonie dimpled and glanced out of the carriage window. The Carhardt’s huge marble mansion was ablaze with golden lights, and servants in livery were bustling everywhere to move the elegantly dressed guests out of their carriages and up the stairs to the entrance.
Leonie folded her fan and smoothed her skirts nervously. Her great-aunt had spared no expense on her wardrobe, and the gown she was wearing that night was one of her favourites. It was a pale peach Italian silk trimmed in light green satin. Her bright blonde hair was piled on top of her head and adorned with a pair of exquisite―and extremely expensive―antique combs made of coral, jade, and pearls.
Edwina gave her an approving glance. “You’re as fresh as spring, Leonie,” she sighed. “What I wouldn’t give to be your age again and to have your beauty, my dear! Enjoy yourself tonight, but remember―you must never lapse into any American familiarities, however innocent. Your behaviour must be becoming of an English peeress if you hope to find a high-born husband.”
“I’ll be careful,” Leonie promised, and Edwina smiled.
A servant opened the door, and Leonie climbed gingerly out of the carriage. Guests were streaming into the house, and the dim sound of an orchestra wafted out through the front doors, but Leonie waited dutifully for her great-aunt to be helped out of the carriage and to make her slow way up the steps.
They followed the crowd to the reception room, where their hosts, Lord and Lady Carhardt, greeted them. Neal was also there and bowed in greeting.
“May I escort you ladies to the ballroom?” he asked, and Edwina smiled and rapped his arm with her fan.
“You may,” she said, and they followed him to the grand ballroom.
Leonie looked around her in fascination as they swam through the crowd of silk and velvet-clad guests. It was like being inside one of Mrs Willifred Smythe-Thompson’s wonderful romances, and Leonie wasn’t entirely sure that it was real. Diamonds flashed from elaborate tiaras, necklaces, and earrings; dyed ostrich feathers bobbed in the air, and soft laughter swirled around them as they entered the ballroom.
According to the strict rules of etiquette, a lady’s escort asked for the first dance, and as soon as her great-aunt was duly settled into a seat, Neal led Leonie out onto the floor to join the other dancers in a quadrille.
Leonie dimpled and curtseyed, and Neal bowed low, and they began the gentle, but constantly changing patterns of the quadrille. And as they danced, Leonie noticed that Neal never took his eyes from her face, and that he smiled whenever she met his glance.
He really was very handsome, in his elegant black tuxedo, and once, when their hands clasped, Neal squeezed her fingers ever so slightly. She looked up at him in surprise, and to her amazement, he winked at her.
Leonie lowered her eyes because she was tempted to laugh and was conscious of her aunt’s warnings, but when she looked up at Neal the second time, his expression was as sober as that of any judge, and she was left to wonder if she’d just imagined it.
When the first dance was over, Neal escorted her back to her aunt’s side and no sooner had she arrived than the master of ceremonies brought another young gentleman over to meet them. He was blond and fair, with large green eyes, and Leonie thought him very good-looking, too.
“Miss Leonie Trowbridge, may I introduce Mr Charles Etheridge.”
Mr Etheridge bowed, and Leonie replied, “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, sir.”
“May I have this dance, Miss Trowbridge?”
Leonie dimpled at him. “You may, sir.”
They joined a set and faced each other for the quadrille, and to Leonie’s amusement, the handsome Mr Charles Etheridge was a trifle uncertain of the steps, but she found his confusion appealing. He met her eyes and shrugged slightly and smiled, and she found herself fighting the temptation to giggle.
When Mr Etheridge escorted her back to her seat, Leonie found herself the recipient of a third introduction to a new gentleman, and soon her dance card had quite filled up for the evening.
Leonie was having such a good time that she was sure she could have danced until the sun came up, but when the ball ended, she had danced with no fewer than six very eligible young men, and by the time they all retired to dinner, her great-aunt pronounced the evening a triumph.
“You’re the belle of the ball, my dear,” Edwina whispered to her, as they walked to the dining room. “A half dozen dance partners, and all of them young lords! In six months’ time, I’ll see you married to no less a man than an earl!”
Leonie glanced at her great-aunt in surprise, and the older woman squeezed her hand in an uncharacteristic display of elation.
“Your morning mail, Miss Trowbridge.”
Leonie glanced up into Withers’ expressionless face and removed a thick sheaf of letters from the silver tray he extended.
“Thank you, Withers.”
She was alone in her aunt’s downstairs saloon, mostly because Leonie considered it the most cheerful room in the sprawling house, with its bright, ceiling-high windows that opened out onto the formal gardens.
Leonie opened the first letter and read:
My dear Miss Trowbridge:
May I call you Leonie? Please do not think this an idle familiarity. I could not restrain myself from writing to you. My heart was captured from the first moment I saw your lovely face.
Leonie dimpled in pleasure and read on:
You appeared at last night’s ball like an angel alighted down from heaven, and I would be more than human not to be transfixed by your beauty. May I call on you? I know it is shockingly bold to ask, on such a slight acquaintance as I can boast, but my heart will not let me rest until I see you again.
With warm anticipation,
Leonie folded the letter up. It had been written by that charming young man she’d met at the ball―the blond boy who couldn’t dance.
Leonie wasn’t quite sure what she should write in reply, but she was delighted by the letter. It sounded just like one of her romance books!
She quickly opened the next letter.
My dear Miss Trowbridge,
The time I spent dancing with you last night felt like a dream to me. Surely such a beautiful young woman could only exist in my imagination! To this hour, I am unsure whether my dance partner was real, or a lovely fantasy.
But it is my fond and perhaps foolish hope that you are a real lady, to whose affections I may aspire.
Please end my suspense and tell me if I may hope that you will look favourably on my suit?
Only say the word, and I will fly to your side.
In undying hope,
Leonie thought back to the ball. Edward had been the tall man with the dark red hair and thick moustache. At the time, he seemed very reserved.
She read the letter again and came to the conclusion that Mr McAndrews must have hidden facets to his personality.
Leonie worked through the sheaf of envelopes and was astonished to find no fewer than five love letters. She hugged the letters to her chest in delight. It was very flattering to have so many handsome young men―by their own admission―head over ears in love with her.
Leonie was tempted to ask her aunt’s advice but decided to keep the letters to herself. They were very private, and she couldn’t bring herself to betray the sacred trust her suitors had placed in her.
Then, too, Leonie was afraid that if she showed the letters to her aunt, Edwina might sort them by rank.
At the bottom of the pile of letters was one last envelope. Leonie opened it and saw, with glee, that it too was from a hopeful young man.
And not just any hopeful young man. From Neal Carhardt, the handsome young man whose family had hosted last night’s ball.
When she unfolded the letter, a paper card fell out. To Leonie’s delight, it was a beautiful pink and red paper valentine, with frilly lace and birds and flowers. The message read:
Back and forth my hopes do fly;
Who dost love, dear? Is it I?
Cupid’s fiery dart has nicked me,
Tell me, love, that you have picked me.
Until them, I sigh and moan.
’Til you join me, I’m alone;
Every other pleasure’s missed me,
’Til you’ve soundly, roundly kist me.
Leonie felt her face going pink with both surprise and guilty excitement. None of her other suitors had dared to mention any kind of physical closeness. Even engaged couples weren’t supposed to kiss each other―or at least, not in public.
It was a scandalous request, but Leonie bit her lip, and a sneaking smile curled up one corner of her mouth.
Because it was an exciting one, too.
She picked up the valentine, and to her surprise, a slip of rice paper fell out of a little pocket in the centre. When she unfolded it, there was a message written neatly across it in red ink.
I’ll be in your aunt’s garden at midnight. Meet me by the willow tree.
In hope, Neal.
Leonie gasped and crumpled the paper up in her hand. She glanced back over her shoulder, just to make certain there was no one else standing there to see.
She wouldn’t dream of doing such a dangerous thing! If they were seen, they’d both be the talk of the town, and both Neal’s reputation and her beautiful London season would wither instantly in the fires of scandal.
But on the other hand―how exciting, to meet a suitor by moonlight, risking everything for love! And the longer Leonie considered it, the more tempted she was by the boldness of the request.
She liked a man to be daring.
The sound of her aunt’s voice in the doorway made Leonie jump. She rolled stricken eyes to Edwina’s.
“What are you doing in here all alone, child?” Edwina asked. “I’ve been looking for you.”
“Nothing,” Leonie stammered and hurried to gather up the letters. She stuffed them into the pockets of her gown before Edwina could see them.
“Well, come along. I want to drive out to the park this afternoon. I want you to wear that pale yellow gown, the one trimmed in black.”
Leonie nodded in mute assent and hurried out of the room. Her aunt gave her face a searching look and a puzzled frown as she passed.
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