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A Lady Most Lovely
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After amassing a fortune in the gold fields of Australia and surviving a harrowing shipwreck, Tom Poole is the toast of London society. Yet despite his newfound fame, he’s never forgotten his own humble beginnings. When he learns of Margaret’s plight, he offers her financial assistance-but his interest is not strictly business. Taken with her beauty and grace, the rugged adventurer wants nothing more than to win Margaret’s heart. But can he convince the proper, refined lady that, despite their social differences, they are a match made in heaven?
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London, August 1852
Aren't you the man who rode a horse twenty miles to shore after a shipwreck?"
Tom Poole grimaced in irritation. This had to be the twentieth time tonight that he'd been forced to answer some inane question. He turned to see who had addressed him.
The man looked about the same age as Tom, but he was much shorter and a good deal more rotund. His weak, watery eyes were focused on Tom with complete fascination. Apparently everyone in London had heard his story—or some wild, exaggerated version of it. Tom had been answering questions like this all evening, trying to set the record straight for dozens of questioners who had been buzzing around him like mosquitoes. "It was only seven miles," Tom told him pointedly. "And I didn't ride the horse."
With a vain hope that this would satisfy his inquisitor, Tom turned away. He no longer cared if his answers were too brusque. He'd done more than his share of socializing tonight, and in any case his real attention was elsewhere—held captive by the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen.
She was breathtaking—tall and stately, with every feature that Tom had always found desirous in a woman: gleaming dark brown hair, high cheekbones, and a full, sensuous mouth. A generous portion of her smooth, ivory skin was displayed to great advantage by the low-cut neckline of her emerald-green gown. Tom had spotted her the moment he'd come in. Although he'd been introduced to just about every other person in this overcrowded ballroom, somehow she had remained far away—unreachable, like a star or a distant planet.
Since no introductions had been forthcoming, Tom had decided to ask James Simpson who she was. James, who was the cousin of Tom's half sister Lizzie, was an affable roué who seemed to know everyone in London. Tom had been just about to ask him about the woman when they'd been interrupted.
James now looked askance at the man. "Carter, hasn't anyone told you to obtain an introduction before butting into a conversation?"
"Oh, I beg your pardon," Carter returned in an exaggerated tone, not looking the least bit contrite. He gave Tom a showy bow. "Bartholomew Carter, at your service."
Tom replied with a brief nod. Carter's lack of protocol revealed he was just like so many men Tom had met at this party: self-indulgent, self-important gentlemen who would not have given him the time of day before he'd left England. Now that good fortune in the Australian gold fields had elevated Tom from a poor farmhand to a wealthy man, he was suddenly on everyone's list of people worth knowing.
His sister Lizzie's social status had also risen dramatically. Last year she'd married a baron, and now she was Lady Somerville, a member of London's elite social circle. For her sake Tom had done his best to endure the lessons on deportment and all these irritating interactions that passed for conversation with the upper classes. He knew it was an unavoidable duty, given his new station in life, but his patience was growing short. Especially tonight. Tonight he wanted only to meet the woman who had kept him spellbound.
Once more Tom's gaze strayed in her direction. She'd spent much of the past hour speaking with a very slender, rather shy-looking young lady—one who might have been pretty, but whose features seemed to fade into her pale, peach-colored gown. On the surface these two women could not have appeared more different, yet they were chatting with the air of close friends. For some reason Tom found this intriguing. He'd seen plenty of so-called friendships that were nothing but two people pretending to like each other in order to gain some social advantage. Tom wondered if perhaps this one was genuine.
"You mean, you didn't ride to shore on a wild stallion?"
Wild stallion? With great effort, Tom turned back to Carter. "It's a Thoroughbred. A champion racehorse. Took first place three times at Homebush."
"That's not the way I heard it," Carter persisted. "I heard he could barely be contained in his stall during the voyage to England."
Tom frowned. "The horse is, understandably, leery of ships."
That wasn't the half of it, of course. It was a wonder the creature had survived the voyage at all, given its constant restlessness that verged on panic whenever the seas were rough. But now that the stallion was on dry land, it was easily controlled by any competent rider. But this information would be lost on Carter. No doubt the only time he got near a horse was when he placed his generous rump into a finely appointed carriage.
Irresistibly, Tom glanced at the woman again. She looked so poised, so cool and collected, as though she didn't realize that the horde of people in the room had sucked all the air out of it.
It was hot, and Tom's collar chafed. Every part of his attire, from his elaborately knotted cravat to his trim-fitting coat and trousers, was too confining. He was still adjusting to the sheer volume of clothing that custom dictated for gentlemen. In his humbler days he'd rarely needed more than a simple shirt and trousers. He tugged at his cravat in an attempt to loosen it, even though he could imagine the look of disapproval this would bring from his new valet. Stephens was not just a servant but a mentor. He was teaching Tom how to dress and how to allow others to do dozens of things for him that any man should be able to do for himself. Being waited on hand and foot chafed Tom even more than the cravat. He would never forget that hard work alone brought his success. He would never become like the buffoon who was still questioning him.
"What was it like to be captured by savages?" Carter prompted.
"The Aborigines didn't capture me," Tom said sharply. "They found me washed up on the beach, half dead. They took me to their camp and helped me recover."
This drew a look of disbelief from Carter. He evidently preferred to visualize Tom pinned down by the point of a spear. That alone illustrated the vast difference between them. Tom had lived for weeks among the Aborigines, but it was only now he'd returned to England that he found himself among a truly different race. He had been excited about returning to London—he'd always loved the energy of its noisy, foggy, bustling streets. But he was seeing a new side of the city now. He'd been dirtpoor when he'd left for Australia seven years ago. He had lived in parts of London that nobody in this room was aware even existed. Or at least, they did not acknowledge it if they did. He'd only seen these grand homes from the outside, only observed their inhabitants from a distance. Now he was one of them. Well, not exactly one of them. Perhaps among them would be a better way to describe it.
Despite his joy at being reunited with his sister, Tom had begun to question whether coming back had been a good idea. Only now, as he watched the statuesque brunette gracing the room with her sweeping gaze, did he think all his pains had been worth it. It had been a very long time since a woman had taken such complete hold of his attention. Longer than he could remember. He had to get James to introduce him. "James," he said, "who is that woman?"
James looked toward the place where Tom was indicating, but Carter cut him off before he could answer. "Tell me, Poole, is it true the Aborigine women walk around all day without a stitch of clothing?" His mouth widened into an ugly leer. "I should like to see that."
This remark swept away the last shred of Tom's patience. He took hold of Carter's coat, bringing the smug idiot close enough to sense his anger. "Do you think they are no better than animals? There are far worse savages in England, I assure you."
Carter's mouth actually fell open in shock. But then he collected himself and shook free of Tom's grasp, sputtering, "How dare you handle me like that, sir!" His right arm came up, as though he was foolishly considering taking Tom on—something that Tom, God help him, would have relished. His fists clenched, and he might actually have taken a swing if James had not stepped in and smoothly steered the man several steps away.
"Carter, you've plied Tom with quite enough questions," he admonished. "Why don't you go find the billiard room or something."
Carter straightened his coat. After throwing an icy glare at Tom, he turned and stalked off.
"Thank you for rescuing me from that fool," Tom said.
"I had the impression I was rescuing Carter from you," James countered with a smirk. "I could see you were ready to throttle him. Not that I would have blamed you. He is an insufferable bore."
Tom waved away James's well-meaning words. "No. It was my fault. I should not have allowed him to anger me. I should not have used force against him." He shook his head ruefully. "I keep forgetting all those things Lizzie has been trying to teach me. Not to mention—" He cut himself short.
James lifted an eyebrow. "Not to mention what?"
Again, Tom waved him off. "Never mind." There was no point trying to explain; James probably would not understand. Despite the multitude of resolutions Tom had made over the past year, there were still far too many times when he lost his temper. Why was it so hard for him to act with the patience he was supposed to have if he was truly a Christian?
"Forget about Carter," James said. "As far as I'm concerned, you acted admirably. I'm sure everyone else thinks so, too."
Startled, Tom looked around and realized what James was referring to. The gentlemen and ladies who had been standing nearby had apparently noticed his little run-in with Carter. Many were still staring at Tom, their expressions ranging from alarm to undisguised amusement. He had made a spectacle of himself.
Had she seen it? What would she think of him?
Tom looked quickly over to her. She may have been watching him, but it was impossible to tell. Her attention seemed to be focused on an old man with enormous whiskers who was kissing her hand. "James," he said, though his eyes never left the woman, "who is she?"
"I see you are determined to meet her," James said with an exaggerated sigh of resignation. "Well, come on then." He dove into the crowd, and Tom quickly fell in step with him. All around them, people moved aside and pretended to go back to their own conversations, although Tom still sensed that they were watching him.
"I'm surprised you should be interested in her," James remarked as they went.
"Really? Why shouldn't I?"
"Well, don't misunderstand me… Miss Cardington is a very respectable young lady to be sure, but she's a bit… bland. Sad to say, she's probably on a direct route to spinsterhood."
"Are you daft?" Tom exclaimed. "She's the most beautiful woman in the room!"
James paused, looked at Tom, and then followed his gaze back to the two women. "Oh, I beg your pardon. Were you referring to the lady in green?"
"Of course!" Tom replied, amazed that someone as astute as James could have misunderstood.
"Ah," said James. "Of course." He shook his head and gave an odd little smile, as though amused by some private joke. He started forward once more. "I told you about her before we arrived," James said as they skirted a small group of boisterous men who were on their way to the card room. "Miss Margaret Vaughn is the reason we're at this gathering. Well, half the reason. She's engaged to Paul Denault. Our host, the Duke of Edgerton, is Denault's uncle. He's throwing this party in their honor."
"Engaged?" Tom repeated.
The word came out as a gasp, and James gave him a curious glance. "She's quite beautiful, as you have noticed. She's also the wealthiest heiress in London. Inherited mountains of money when her father died two years ago. Denault is one happy man."
"Who is this Denault?" Tom demanded. "Surely not that old man!" he added in dismay, pointing to the old man with the prodigious whiskers who was still speaking with her.
"Oh, dear Lord, no," James said with a laugh. "Although he wishes he was her fiancé, I'm sure. That's Mr. Plimpton—a pillar of London society, and he'll be the first to tell you so."
"Where is Denault, then?" Tom said impatiently. During the past hour, he'd seen Miss Vaughn chat with scores of people, including those he pegged as would-be suitors. But he could have sworn she had not bestowed particular attention on any one man.
"Let me see…" James scanned the room. "He's usually in the smoking rooms chatting up the barons of industry, unless he's entertaining the—ah! There he is." He pointed to a tall, sandy-haired man, impeccably dressed, who had a cohort of young ladies clustered around him.
"He has many admirers," Tom said drily.
"Oh, yes," James agreed. "Both Denault and the ladies agree that he is a very handsome man indeed."
But why wasn't he with Miss Vaughn? How could he possibly find other ladies more appealing? Remembering James's remark that she was an heiress he said, "Denault's marrying her for her money, then."
James shrugged. "I doubt it. He has plenty of his own."
"Inherited?" Tom figured that as the nephew of a duke, Denault was in that privileged class whose money was handed to them at birth. Tom was beginning to loathe that sort of man, for the simple fact that they all now loathed him.
"Not at all," James said, surprising him. "Denault's branch of the family is well connected, but not as wealthy as it once was. He made his fortune on investments in America. He is, as the Americans would say, 'a self-made man.' I suppose that's something you two have in common."
At that moment, Denault finally deigned to send a glance in Miss Vaughn's direction. As their eyes met, Denault gave her a smile and a look that seemed to say, All the world knows that I am yours—and you are mine. When Miss Vaughn serenely returned her fiancé's smile, an irrational jealousy wrapped itself around Tom's heart. He and Denault shared something much greater than business sense, that was certain.
"Do you still wish to meet her?" James asked.
"Yes," Tom said resolutely. Even knowing she was engaged could not curb his desire to speak to her.
She had taken note of their approach. Tom was sure of it. He could tell by a subtle shift in her posture, an extra alertness in his direction, even as she kept her eyes fixed on Plimpton. He felt a surge of excitement at this realization. Suddenly he was far too conscious of his tight collar, his heavily starched shirt, and his overpolished boots. In fact, everything he had on was foreign to him. He told himself this must be the reason why he felt as though he were moving through heavy sand.
They were stopped by Denault, who broke away from his little group of admirers and strode over to intercept them. "Simpson!" he said warmly, holding out his hand.
While James returned the greeting, Tom watched as Miss Vaughn excused herself from Miss Cardington and Mr. Plimpton and came to join her fiancé. Now that she was so close, Tom found he could hardly breathe. He marveled at her flawless features. Her eyes were deep green—nearly the same shade as her gown—and rimmed in the center with yellow gold. They studied him with cool interest.
"I'd like to introduce you to my cousin," James said. "This is Mr. Thomas Poole."
"Tom," he corrected. "Just Tom."
One of Miss Vaughn's delicate eyebrows lifted a fraction, but she said nothing.
"Tom Poole?" Denault repeated. "The man who made a fortune in the gold mines?"
News traveled fast among London's elite. Faster than the wildfires in Victoria. "You've heard of me."
"Heard?" Denault echoed. "You might buy and sell the Crown now; that's what I've heard. You're a lucky man."
There was admiration in his eyes—and avarice as well. Tom had seen it in plenty of people, from the poor ex-convict gold miners in Australia to the highborn folk in England. That look always put Tom on his guard. He'd seen how dangerous men could be when driven by greed. He also knew what hypocrisy it bred. The upper classes might abuse him behind his back for his lowly origins, but to his face they could only compliment him for having so much money. "It was a lot of work," Tom pointed out. "The gold don't mine itself."
"Of course," Denault said, waving off Tom's remarks. He turned to his fiancée. "Miss Margaret Vaughn, may I present—"
She cut him off as she extended her hand and said, "How do you do, just Tom?"
Tom didn't miss the hint of derision in her words. Most everyone he'd met tonight had approached him either with awe or as some kind of phenomenon to be marveled at. Yet the woman he'd been admiring all evening was actually speaking to him with condescension! It was a challenge he could not ignore. Calling him as she did by his Christian name, even in jest, she might have been speaking to an errand boy or a servant. This thought, ironically, cued something his sister had taught him to say during introductions. He grasped her hand and said with gentlemanly dignity, "Your servant, madam."
Her hand was cool but it sent a curious warmth through him. Her stunning eyes widened, as though she, too, were startled at the sensation. Tom's lessons in etiquette completely left him and he forgot what he was supposed to do with her hand. So he continued to hold it, savoring the opportunity it gave him to be close to this woman. He was fascinated by the strength and fire in her gaze.
"Will you be in London long, Just Tom?" She sounded a bit breathless.
"I…" he faltered like an idiot. Suddenly he felt as unsteady as if he were back on the stormy seas. Keep your wits about you, man, he told himself, and released her hand. "I will be in England for the indefinite future."
"How wonderful." Her gaze held his. "We shall be glad to get to know you better."
"Indeed we shall," Denault broke in briskly. "Mr. Poole, perhaps you would like to be my guest for lunch tomorrow at my club? I've a business proposition for you."
Denault's offer jerked Tom back to his senses. He should have expected this, even from a man as rich as Denault. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to discuss business ventures with him. So far, he'd deflected or turned down all such proposals. He could have found some reason to avoid Denault, too, but he found himself agreeing to the appointment instead. He had an unreasonable urge to find out what kind of man Miss Vaughn had agreed to marry. "Will Miss Vaughn be joining us as well?" he asked.
Denault threw a condescending look at his bride-to-be. "Heavens, no," he said with a laugh. "Women aren't allowed at the club. And in any case, she has no head for business, poor thing."
Something like annoyance or anger flashed across Miss Vaughn's face. It was brief, and she quickly suppressed it, but it did not escape Tom. As an heiress in her own right, surely she was capable of handling business affairs. Why didn't she correct him? Tom was aware of the adage that when a man and woman were married they became "one person, and that person is the husband." Even so, he could not imagine Miss Vaughn in the role of a meek wife.
"I could not possibly join you in any case," she said lightly. "I am far too busy. The wedding is days away, and there are a thousand details to arrange."
At the mention of their wedding, Miss Vaughn and Denault exchanged a look so amorous that Tom wondered if he'd been mistaken about her apparent irritation. She must love Denault. Once more Tom felt himself awash in jealousy, even though he had not the slightest right to be. Miss Vaughn was betrothed to another man, and it was evidently a propitious match. Certainly there was nothing he could do about it.
She turned her attention back to Tom. "Will you also marry soon, Mr. Poole?"
Steeped as he was in thoughts of Miss Vaughn, this question took Tom utterly by surprise. He could only look at her blankly.
"I thought perhaps you were searching for a wife," she said. "I saw how intently you were studying each lady in the room."
So she had been watching him, just as he had been watching her. Tom found this knowledge incredibly intoxicating. He would gladly have explored this mutual attraction, if not for the unwelcome fact that she was already taken.
No, he was not considering marriage to any of the other ladies he'd met tonight. They seemed too vacant, too pliable. Tom wanted a woman who was spirited and strong. He wanted what the Bible called a helpmeet—a true companion, not a mere accessory. He'd thought Miss Vaughn might possess those qualities, but now that he'd seen her with Denault he wasn't so sure. He shook his head in answer to her question. "I might have to return to Australia for that. The ladies there have more backbone."
Her eyes narrowed. "Do they?" She rose up a little taller, and her gaze swept over him from head to foot. He gladly withstood her scrutiny, pleased to have drawn a spark from her again. "Everyone in Australia seems quite… resourceful," she said. "Including you. I should like to hear more about your famous shipwreck. It seems a fantastical tale."
For the first time this evening, the mention of the shipwreck did not annoy Tom. He did not try to analyze why. "I'd be more than happy to tell you about it. At times I have trouble believing it myself."
"Paul, dear," Miss Vaughn said without even looking at her fiancé, "I am dying of thirst." She thrust her empty champagne glass in Denault's direction.
Denault looked at it in surprise, clearly taken off guard.
"That's an excellent idea," James interposed. "Don't worry, Denault. We'll entertain Miss Vaughn while you're gone."
Denault looked mistrustfully from his fiancée to Tom. Could he possibly feel threatened by him? The thought was more than a little appealing.
"I have a better idea," Denault said. "I am sure you are famished, Margaret. Why don't we both go to the supper room?" He took hold of her elbow, as if to lead her away. With a nod to Tom and James he added, "If you gentlemen will excuse us."
Miss Vaughn gently extricated herself from his grip. "I only asked for something to drink," she said, her voice edged with irritation.
"Yes, my darling, but you've eaten nothing this evening. We cannot have you fainting away from lack of food." His annoyed tone left no doubt this was an order rather than an expression of concern. She answered him with a frosty look.
Yes, there was trouble beneath those apparently smooth waters. Miss Vaughn and Denault were not as madly in love as they wished to portray. Of course, being in love was no requirement for marriage, certainly not among the upper classes. Even a commoner like Tom knew that. Why, then, should they pretend?
He could see her wavering, undecided. If he were a betting man, Tom would have wagered half his gold that Miss Vaughn did not have it in her nature to be docile. He'd just as gladly give away the other half just to find out what was going on in that head of hers. He was hoping for a good display of fireworks.
To his disappointment, Miss Vaughn relented. She gave Denault a crisp nod of assent before turning back to Tom. "I do hope we shall meet again, Just Tom."
Something flickered in her eyes that gave Tom the wild hope that her words were more than mere formality. Tom kept his gaze fastened on hers. "I should like that very, very much."
Her lips parted in surprise, and he knew his meaning had reached her. She swallowed and looked away. Denault took her elbow again, and this time she did not demur.
As Tom watched her retreating form, he was captivated by a stray curl that had made its way down the back of her long, elegant neck.
And he knew with dangerous certainty that he must see her again.
Margaret kept her hand on Paul's arm as they made their way to the corner where the refreshment table was located. They nodded to acquaintances as they passed, but Margaret was glad that Paul seemed as unwilling as she to stop and make conversation. She thought it wise to put as much distance between herself and Tom Poole as possible. She could feel his gaze on her back. That he had been watching her for so much of the evening had not surprised her. Since her arrival in London a few short months ago, she had found it easy to attract men's attention.
What had surprised her was her reaction to him. Her behavior had bordered on rudeness.
Why had she felt compelled to challenge him? Even now she was at a loss to explain it. She was proud, yes, but she had never thought unkindness to be among her faults. Perhaps the story of his sudden rise to wealth—which had been the topic of conversation everywhere these days—had stirred some trace of resentment. Or perhaps it had been the shocking way he'd roughed up Mr. Carter right here in the duke's grand ballroom. He'd proven that his pose as a "gentleman" was just a veneer; there was a rougher man hidden—though not very well—beneath that well-dressed surface.
Then he had the audacity to imply that Margaret did not have as much strength and pluck as the women in Australia. She wanted to laugh out loud. He didn't know the half of it. She might never have hauled her own firewood or cleared brush or whatever it was they did in that wild country, but her survival had required just as much stamina and a lot more intellect.
She was nobody's fool.
Tonight the duke's mansion was filled with an astonishing assembly of London's elite—and they were all gathered in her honor. They were here to celebrate her forthcoming nuptials with the highborn, handsome, and very rich Paul Denault. She had made the catch of the season.
Many of her rivals had been as pretty as she was, and most were younger. Margaret herself was nearing the ripe old age of five and twenty. She'd been delayed from entering the marriage market by a father who had been unwilling to let her into society, and then by two years of mourning after his death. But with her age had come wisdom. She knew how to play the game more efficaciously than they did. She had succeeded where they had failed. What those ladies would never know—nor would anyone else, including Tom Poole—was that Margaret had not been merely playing the marriage game. She'd been secretly fighting for her survival, and it had taken every ounce of her intelligence and cunning.
She was publicly acknowledged as one of the wealthiest heiresses in England. When her father had died unexpectedly, the grand estate held by the Vaughns for generations had passed to her as well. What the public did not
- "Engrossing and heartbreaking. An Heiress at Heart is poignant, profound and lovely."—USA Today's HEA blog
"This sweet and charming romance will touch your heart."
—Sabrina Jeffries, New York Times Bestselling Author
"Jennifer Delamere sets a new standard in Victorian romance, with characters who shine and a plot that will keep you guessing."
—Abby Gaines, author of The Earl's Mistaken Bride
"A sweetly rendered tale of discovery and forgiveness with a refreshing touch of innocence."
—Cindy Holby, Bestselling author of Angel's End Cindy Holby, Bestselling author of Angel's End
- On Sale
- Sep 24, 2013
- Page Count
- 384 pages