This is the unedited version. All words subject to change.
Near Bartley Green, England, 1821
Bracebridge was almost to the bottom of the stairs when the front door flew open, and Emily Sinclair walked in. He was unprepared for the twist of his heart at seeing her again. His visceral reaction to her beauty was inevitable, but the rest? He’d last seen her over a year ago, and their usual escalation toward unrecoverable disaster had ended with harsh words. He still wished he’d found a gentler way.
While he stood there filled with dread and relief and determination that this time things would be different, Emily turned to the open door to speak to someone he could not see. “Frieda. Come.”
Only then did he notice she was holding the end of a leash in one hand, but in any event, his curiosity was resolved in hair-raising fashion. A low, deep bark momentarily froze him in place. An enormous, gangly dog charged into the entry hall moving past her so fast and with such power that Emily had to let go of the leash or be pulled off her feet. Wisely, she chose the former.
She spun around as the dog bounded toward him. “Frieda! Bad—Oh.”
There was only time to notice the obvious; that Emily Sinclair was as breathtakingly beautiful as ever and that the dog had the worst traits of at least three breeds.
Frieda woofed again, an ungainly adolescent unable to safely negotiate the marble floor. Her front legs splayed and propelled her into a four-footed spin that ended with a crash into the bottom step.
The dog scrambled to her feet and shook herself off, panting and wagging her tail hard enough to move her entire body. Emily leaped for the trailing leash, but the dog galloped up the stairs, heading straight for him. For all her size and that blood-curdling half-bark half-bay, the dog wasn’t snarling or threatening in any way. She wriggled with joy.
Emily just missed regaining the other end of the leash. The dog reached him and went up on her hind legs. He braced himself just in time. Her front paws landed on his chest. She was heavy, strong, and intent on licking his face.
“Good day to you, too, milady.” Bracebridge rubbed the dog’s ears and gently pushed her back to all four paws and down the last of the stairs.
Emily tried for the leash again, but the moment Bracebridge was off the stairs, Frieda reared up to attempt another face-lick. “Honestly, Frieda.” Emily missed the leash yet another time. “Oh, drat. Behave!”
“Down,” he said. The dog did not precisely obey, but she did return to four legs. Upon closer inspection, the redoubtable Frieda was even less attractive than at first glance. Her coat was a wiry, grayish-brindle, she had the floppy ears and jowls of a bloodhound, a mastiff’s size and broad chest, and long legs that reminded him of the mongrel wolfhound that belonged to one of Emily’s elder sisters.
He grabbed the leash near where it was fastened to her collar and pulled the loose end until he had the strap firmly in hand. He was relieved, perhaps not to his credit, by this excuse to delay or defuse what would otherwise inevitably be an uncomfortable and awkward encounter.
“I beg your pardon, my lord,” Emily said.
He didn’t immediately respond to the first words spoken between them since he had so bitterly disappointed her. Yes. Thank goodness for the dog.
“She hasn’t ruined your coat or shirt, has she?”
“Not at all.” He crouched and rubbed Frieda’s ears. The dog pressed the top of her head to the center of his chest and wagged her tail hard enough to move half her body. He glanced up and caught the fading edge of a pained look on Emily’s face, but the expression was gone before he knew what to make of her mood.
“Mary asked me to call,” she said abruptly, her cheeks stained a faint yet tell-tale pink. Mary was Lady Aldreth, wife to Baron Aldreth of Rosefeld, and one of Emily’s three elder sisters. “I did not know you were here,” she said. “I’d have stayed away otherwise.”
Her neutral tone encouraged his hopes that they would both behave as if the past had never been despite knowing, intensely, that it had. His earlier unkindness to her had been necessary, but he regretted having hurt her. “Meeting again was inevitable,” he said carefully because he was still taking the measure of her reaction to him.
For the last year, they had avoided each other at all costs. Notwithstanding that three of the four Sinclair sisters were married to men he called friends, he had declined all invitations likely to bring him into contact with her. He never called on her sisters when he knew she was visiting. Likewise, although Rosefeld and the Sinclair home shared a border, Emily stayed away when he was at Rosefeld.
He stood and returned her smile; not warm, but not unfriendly. All four Sinclair sisters were beautiful, but Emily stole a man’s wits. Blue eyes, golden hair, a sleek and graceful figure, a face of perfect proportions from every angle. Within minutes of her social debut she had been dubbed The Divine Sinclair and a battalion of gentlemen had immediately sworn her their undying devotion.
She stayed where she was, composed and ethereally beautiful. Her burgundy bodice emphasized the blue of her eyes. A matching ribbon circled her torso just below her bosom, and another was threaded through her hair. In all, a careless look shockingly effective in emphasizing her delicacy.
He would not have blamed her if she’d refused to speak to him. Her feelings had become engaged, and he had not returned them. He accepted the blame for that state of affairs because he’d known all along he was incapable of reciprocating what she’d felt. Pray God her feelings had changed.
“Good afternoon, Em.” He immediately regretted his use of the too familiar diminutive. Despite that slip, he was confident no one observing them now would guess they’d once come within inches of unrecoverable scandal.
“My lord.” She curtseyed with the formality due an acquaintance of his status rather than someone she had known since she was a girl. “Are you going out?” A year ago, the tension between them would have destroyed any possibility of either of them walking away unscathed from the encounter. That was the essential problem between them. She did not understand the difference between a man who kissed from pure lust and despair and a man who kissed from higher sentiments. She had assumed the latter, while he’d acted out of the former.
“Yes.” To his ears, he sounded colder than necessary, given her composure. He attempted to amend his misstep with a more moderate tone. “Forgive me. Yes. I am.” He wasn’t convinced he succeeded. “I have an engagement this afternoon.”
“With Miss Glynn?”
His heart thumped once. Yes, with Miss Glynn. Over the last six months he had been regularly calling on the Glynns. Anyone with half a brain would have speculated Clara was the reason. Emily must at least suspect the direction of his interests.
Clara Glynn was Emily’s close friend, a fact that had him hesitating for some time when he’d found himself reflecting how much he liked and admired the young woman. Clara did not constantly remind him of his heartbreak. He was calm when he was with her, and their recent, closer acquaintance had only confirmed his regard.
“Yes,” he said. What a relief to have all this out in the open. “I’m to meet Miss Glynn and her brother.”
“Please give them my regards.” He was grateful for her poise. Beyond grateful. It meant he could offer for Clara with a clear conscience.
“I shall,” he said.
“Frieda. Dear dog, do come here.” She clicked her tongue several times, to no avail. Frieda sat on his feet. She looked at the dog with exasperated fondness. “Be so kind as to give me her leash, would you, my lord? I’ll hold her so you may escape in safety.”
“That seems an odd name for a dog.”
A perfect, cool smile curved her mouth then melted away. “I think the name suits her.”
“Frieda.” He shook his head. “Was it Aldreth or your sister who chose that name? Or one of the children?”
Her smile reappeared, smooth and flawless. God in heaven, she was exquisite. “I chose the name.”
“Frieda is my dog.” She held out her hand for the leash, but he didn’t give it over yet. She wasn’t a girl any longer, there was that improvement. All the same, she was twenty-two compared to his thirty-four. Given that Clara was the same age, he could not in fairness continue to count her youth as a mark against her.
He continued to hold the leash. Should he invite her to accompany them on their walk? Failing to invite her gave too much weight to their estrangement and might heap more unkindness upon the hurt he’d already dealt her. Inviting her might create expectations where there ought to be none. He settled his weight onto one hip and slightly hunched his shoulders to make himself shorter as he so often did with women who were not tall. Clara was a more comfortable height for him.
“She’s a splendid dog,” he said.
“She certainly fancies you.”
He ignored, as she did, the past that lived in that statement. “Mystifying, isn’t it?”
A quick smile appeared, froze in place, then vanished. The distance between them took on a weight he did not entirely understand. “To be sure, my lord.” She clasped her hands behind her back. “As you’ve seen, she’s not well behaved. Yet.”
“No. Not yet.” Best to leave things as they were. He would not invite her to join them. “She’ll never be a beauty, but she’s good natured, and that’s better than beauty any day.”
More color appeared in her cheeks, though nothing changed in her expression. The front door opened again just as he was extending the leash to her. Harry Glynn entered, followed by his sister. Clara stopped a few steps from the door and looked between him and Emily. Clara hadn’t Emily’s spectacular looks, but she was indisputably pretty. He smiled at her, pleased to see her. Clara had her own opinions, sensible, rational ones expressed with decorum and respect. When they disagreed, they debated and discussed their respective positions, rather than argue.
“There you are, Bracebridge,” Glynn said too heartily. “We thought you’d forgot us, but what better reason for delay than a beautiful woman?” He clapped a hand on Bracebridge’s shoulder. “Miss Sinclair,” Glynn said in a softer voice. “You are perfection, as always.”
“Thank you, Mr. Glynn.” Emily only just managed to restrain Freida from her enthusiastic attempt to greet the Glynns. She looked past Glynn to Clara. Her indifference to Glynn was as notorious as Glynn’s infatuation with her. Much more warmly, she said, “It’s good to see you, Clara. It’s been too long.”
Clara bent a knee. “Emily.”
Emily tugged on the leash. The dog did not budge from his feet. “Come, Frieda.”
Glynn patted Frieda on the head in a familiar manner. “You mustn’t leave us to fend for ourselves, Miss Sinclair.” Interestingly, Bracebridge observed, Glynn kept a hand on the dog’s shoulder, which prevented her jumping on him. He grinned. “What a propitious meeting, for here you are, cloak and hat already donned for an outing.”
“I’ve just come in.” Emily’s glance slid to Clara and something passed between the two young women that ended with Clara relaxing. “Bracebridge was on his way out whilst I was on my way in. He was detained by meeting Frieda. You know how she must make a friend of everyone new to her.”
“We aren’t going far,” Glynn said. He snapped his fingers, and Frieda came to attention. Her tail thumped against Glynn’s knee. “You see how she anticipates an excursion.”
“She’s already had a walk from the Cooperage to here. Besides, my sister expects me.”
With the generosity Bracebridge so admired in her, Clara said, “Harry and I haven’t seen you for an age. Join us, won’t you?”
“Come, Miss Sinclair,” Glynn said. “My sister is correct. We’ve not seen you in too long.”
Emily glanced at Clara, and the two came to another silent agreement. “Very well, then. Frieda and I should be delighted.” Emily looped Frieda’s leash several times around her hand then extended her other arm to Glynn. Though Glynn was not as tall as Bracebridge, he laid proper claim to six feet. Emily scarcely reached his shoulder.
Outside, Frieda often pulled Emily several paces ahead until she was well ahead of them. Emily walked briskly, doing her best to control her excitable, gigantic dog. Glynn caught up to the two from time to time but Frieda inevitably broke into a run that separated them again.
At one point when Bracebridge and Clara had caught up, Glynn fell into step with him. Ahead, Emily picked up a stick and waved it just out of Frieda’s reach. “Tell me, my lord, have you ever seen such a sight?”
“Unique among canines, I daresay.” As intended, Glynn laughed at Bracebridge’s deliberate misunderstanding. Clara did, too.
Glynn touched his sister’s shoulder. “Clara, why don’t you join Miss Sinclair? I’d like a word with Bracebridge.”
Once Clara had hurried after Emily, Glynn said, “To answer the question you haven’t asked, the dog was a stray, half-starved, aggressive and, well, you see what she looks like. A monster.”
“I’ve an affinity for the monstrous.” Bracebridge had long ago stopped questioning the appeal of his rough looks. His nose was crooked from having been broken more than once, and he was taller than most men. He remained brutally fit, too. He maintained his fighter’s physique with a rigorous daily regimen of training. There was no shortage of women who liked what he had on offer.
“You see how she refuses to unfasten the leash and let the dog run free.”
“Miss Sinclair has an unreasonable and unshakeable fear that Frieda might run away or become lost. It is a singular conviction of hers.” They walked apace, watching the two young women on the path ahead. Glynn sighed. “Against my better judgment, I remain enthralled.”
“Understandable.” There were more obstacles to Glynn’s hopes than Emily’s lack of encouragement of him, but doubtless Glynn understood that.
“Sinclair has made an art of holding grudges and making enemies.” So had Glynn’s mother, but he could hardly tell Glynn that. “Nevertheless, there is much to recommend you. Have you spoken to her father?”
“I doubt it would do any good.”
Privately, he agreed. Harry Glynn, though a gentleman of fortune and distinguished family, had no title to tempt Emily Sinclair’s father, and there was, as well, decades of enmity between Sinclair and Mrs. Glynn.
With a shake of his head, Glynn said. “The only way I’ll call Sinclair father-in-law is if I whisk his daughter off to Gretna Green.”
Bracebridge put one hand on Glynn’s shoulder and raised his other in an imaginary toast. “To fast horses and dry roads.”
“I’d prefer a proper wedding, but I daresay I could outdrive her father.”
“No rain and a full moon coming,” Bracebridge said, knowing Glynn would understand his reference to propitious conditions for a run to Scotland.
“I’ve tried to come to terms with my failure to win her heart.”
He had no idea how to respond to that. Tell him to persevere when he suspected there was no hope? Tell him that one day she’d get over the effects of his own break with her? Hardly,
Glynn gave him a sideways look. “It’s long been my impression that her affections are otherwise engaged.”
He could not tell anyone, most especially Harry Glynn, how close he and Emily had been to scandal. He slowed and lowered his voice. “If you wish to engage Miss Sinclair’s affections, stop your silent pining and tell her she is beautiful beyond words and that you love her with a mad passion.”
“Sinclair women,” Glynn said softly, “are immune to flattery.”
“Not Miss Sinclair. I assure you, she expects it. Besides, it’s hardly flattery when what you say is true. When you’ve finished telling her how incomparable she is, tell her your affection is true and genuine and that you would do anything to make her happy.”
“Suppose I did. Mark my words, Bracebridge, she loves her scoundrel of a father too well. There’s no love lost between Thomas Sinclair and anyone by the name of Glynn.”
Ahead of them, Emily and Clara had linked arms and had their heads together, fast friends, the two of them. Frieda was, for now, trotting alongside Emily.
“Or Carlisle, for that matter,” Bracebridge said. Before he inherited so unexpectedly, Thomas Sinclair and Mrs. Glynn had been united in one thing only; their disapproval of the life he’d lived when he was merely Mr. Devon Carlisle, a disgraced and all but disowned youngest son. The pair were far from alone in their opinion.
“True,” Glynn said. “Just as Clara loves our mother and does not wish to do anything that displeases her, so Miss Sinclair does not wish to displease her father. We cannot fault them for their respect of their parents.”
“I’ve no plans to make him a relation, if that’s what you’re asking.” Mrs. Glynn and her elevated notions of propriety and respectability were a significant obstacle to his hopes for Clara and his future happiness. He needed Glynn’s support if his offer for Clara was to raise no fatal objection from Mrs. Glynn. “I have never been so inclined, but if I were, I assure you, I’d not have been calling at Withercomb.” He stopped walking. “To the devil with your mother.”
“Thomas Sinclair can rot in hell, too.”
“I shan’t disagree with either sentiment,” Glynn said. “But, you must understand, I want the best for my sister.”
“As do I.”
Glynn raised his hands. “I don’t object to you.” They both knew Glynn meant he did not object to Bracebridge. He did object to Devon Carlisle.
“Notwithstanding my blighted past, even your esteemed mama must call me my lord. Does that count for nothing?”
“I’ve some influence,” Glynn said. “With Mama and Clara.”
He held Glynn’s gaze. “Enough?”
For good or ill, Glynn took that question seriously. “My mother would find fault with the king himself if His Majesty wanted to marry Clara.”
Mrs. Glynn was notoriously high in the instep. Bracebridge watched the two women on the path ahead. “Mr. Devon Carlisle’s misdeeds live on, but I am Bracebridge now.”
“I am well aware of what it would mean should my sister find herself a countess.” Glynn remained serious. “I consider you a friend, but I am not blind to your past nor deaf to the whispers.”
“Must I sell Two Fives?”
Glynn fell thoughtful. “Would you?”
Two Fives was a gaming hell at 55 St. James’s Street, London. He remained, nominally, the principal owner, though his business partner of many years managed the enterprise now. He’d sold his interest in the brothels nearly two years ago and had transferred majority ownership of several other businesses to his partner. Vice was a profitable business and one that had made him rich well before he inherited. “Yes.”
“The pertinent question, my lord, is whether I shall be required to intervene on your behalf.”
He held his breath for a moment. This was not his first interview with a head of household in respect of a young lady. This time, pray God, he hoped for a happier outcome. “I hold your sister in the highest esteem. She is accomplished, generous of spirit, and intelligent. I should be the happiest man in the world if she were to become my wife.” There. He’s said the words and sounded convincing, too. They walked in silence for a concerning time. “What further declarations do you need from me?” he asked.
“She’s done you a good turn, you know.”
He acknowledged that with a nod. Oh, let this be resolved now. He wanted to offer for Clara and be married before summer’s end. “Your sister is a most generous young lady.”
“Truer words were never spoken.” Glynn laughed softly. “However, I meant Miss Sinclair did you a good turn.”
He snorted. “How so?”
“She’s put in a good word for you with Clara.”
Bracebridge did not remark his surprise at that revelation.
“Other than our mother, there’s no one whose opinion my sister respects more than Miss Sinclair’s.” Glynn squinted at the horizon and then looked back to him. “But that, my lord, is not the matter I should like settled.”
“What is?” Bracebridge’s heart lurched. He suspected, correctly, that Glynn intended to ask about Anne, Emily’s eldest sister and the present Duchess of Cynssyr.
“Are you still in love with her?”