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An Heiress at Heart
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A committed clergyman, Geoffrey Somerville’s world is upended when he suddenly inherits the title of Lord Somerville. Now he’s invited to every ball and sought after by the matchmaking mothers of London society. Yet the only woman to capture his heart is the one he cannot have: his brother’s young widow, Ria. Duty demands he deny his feelings, but his heart longs for the mysterious beauty. With both their futures at stake, will Lizzie be able to keep up her façade? Or will she find the strength to share her secret and put her faith in true love?
Table of Contents
A Preview of A Lady Most Lovely
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London, June 1851
If you've killed her, Geoffrey, we will never hear the end of it from Lady Thornborough."
Geoffrey Somerville threw a sharp glance at his companion. The man's flippancy annoyed him, but he knew James Simpson was never one to take any problem too seriously. Not even the problem of what to do with the young woman they had just accidentally struck down with his carriage.
The girl had been weaving her way across the street, seemingly unaware of their rapid approach until it was too late. The driver had barely succeeded in steering the horses sharply to one side to keep from trampling her under their massive hooves. However, there had not been enough time or space for him to avoid the girl completely, and the front wheel had tossed her onto the walkway as easily as a mislaid wicker basket.
Geoffrey knelt down and raised the woman's head gently, smoothing the hair from her forehead. Blood flowed freely from a wound at her left temple, marring her fair features and leaving ugly red streaks in her pale yellow hair.
Her eyes were closed, but Geoffrey saw with relief that she was still breathing. Her chest rose and fell in ragged but unmistakable movements. "She's not dead," he said. "But she is badly hurt. We must get help immediately."
James bounded up the steps and rapped at the door with his cane. "First we have to get her inside. People are beginning to gather, and you know how much my aunt hates a scandal."
Geoffrey noted that a few people had indeed stopped to stare, although no one offered to help. One richly dressed young lady turned her head and hurried her escort down the street, as though fearful the poor woman bleeding on the pavement had brought the plague to this fashionable Mayfair neighborhood. At one time Geoffrey might have wondered at the lack of Good Samaritans here. But during the six months he'd been in London, he'd seen similar reactions to human suffering every day. Although it was no longer surprising, it still saddened and sickened him.
Only the coachman seemed to show real concern. He stood holding the horses and watching Geoffrey, his face wrinkled with worry. Or perhaps, Geoffrey realized, it was merely guilt. "I never even seen her, my lord," he said. "She come from out of nowhere."
"It's not your fault," Geoffrey assured him. He pulled out a handkerchief and began to dab the blood that was seeping from the woman's wound. "Go as quickly as you can to Harley Street and fetch Dr. Layton."
"Yes, my lord." The coachman's relief was evident. He scrambled up to the driver's seat and grabbed the reins. "I'm halfway there already."
Geoffrey continued to cautiously check the woman for other injuries. He slowly ran his hands along her delicate neck and shoulders and down her slender arms. He tested only as much as he dared of her torso and legs, torn between concern for her well-being and the need for propriety. Thankfully, nothing appeared to be broken.
James rapped once more on the imposing black door. It finally opened, and the gaunt face of Lady Thornborough's butler peered out.
"Clear the way, Harding," James said. "There has been an accident."
Harding's eyes widened at the sight of a woman bleeding on his mistress's immaculate steps. He quickly sized up the situation and opened the door wide.
Geoffrey lifted the unconscious girl into his arms. She was far too thin, and he was not surprised to find she was light as a feather. Her golden hair contrasted vividly with his black coat. Where was her hat? Geoffrey scanned the area and noted with chagrin the remains of a straw bonnet lying crushed in the street. Something tugged at his heart as her head fell against his chest. Compassion, he supposed it was. But it was curiously profound.
"She is bleeding profusely," James pointed out. "Have one of the servants carry her in, or you will ruin your coat."
"It's no matter," Geoffrey replied. He felt oddly protective of the woman in his arms, although he had no idea who she was. His carriage had struck her, after all, even if her own carelessness had brought about the calamity. He was not about to relinquish her, not for any consideration.
He stepped grimly over the red smears her blood had left on the white marble steps and carried her into the front hall, where James was again addressing the butler. "Is Lady Thornborough at home, Harding?"
"No, sir. But we expect her anytime."
Geoffrey knew from long acquaintance with the Thornborough family that Harding was a practical man who remained calm even in wildly unusual circumstances. The childhood escapades of Lady Thornborough's granddaughter, Victoria, had developed this ability in him; James's exploits as an adult had honed it to a fine art.
Sure enough, Harding motioned toward the stairs with cool equanimity, as though it were an everyday occurrence for an injured and unknown woman to be brought into the house. "Might I suggest the sofa in the Rose Parlor, sir?"
"Excellent," said James.
As they ascended the stairs, Harding called down to a young parlor maid who was still standing in the front hall. "Mary, fetch us some water and a towel. And tell Jane to clean the front steps immediately." Mary nodded and scurried away.
Another maid met them at the top of the stairs. At Harding's instructions, she quickly found a blanket to spread out on the sofa to shield the expensive fabric.
Geoffrey set his fragile burden down with care. He seated himself on a low stool next to the woman and once again pressed his handkerchief to the gash below her hairline. The flesh around the wound was beginning to turn purple—she had been struck very hard. Alarm assailed him. "What the devil possessed her to step in front of a moving carriage?"
He was not aware that he had spoken aloud until James answered him. "Language, Geoffrey," he said with mock prudishness. "There is a lady present."
Geoffrey looked down at the unconscious woman. "I don't think she can hear me just now." He studied her with interest. Her plain black dress fit her too loosely, and the cuffs appeared to have been turned back more than once. Her sturdy leather shoes were of good quality, but showed signs of heavy wear. Was she a servant, wearing her mistress's cast-off clothing? Or was she a lady in mourning? Was she already sorrowing for the loss of a loved one, only to have this accident add to her woes? "If she is a lady, she has fallen on hard times," Geoffrey said, feeling once again that curious pull at his heart. He knew only too well the wretchedness of having one's life waylaid by one tragedy after another.
A parlor maid entered the room, carrying the items Harding had requested. She set the basin on a nearby table. After dipping the cloth in the water, she timidly approached and gave Geoffrey a small curtsy. "With your permission, my lord."
Something in the way the maid spoke these words chafed at him. He had been entitled to the address of "my lord" for several months, but he could not accustom himself to it. There were plenty who would congratulate him on his recent elevation to the peerage, but for Geoffrey it was a constant reminder of what he had lost. Surely nothing in this world was worth the loss of two brothers. Nor did any position, no matter how lofty, absolve a man from helping another if he could. He held out his hand for the cloth. "Give it to me. I will do it."
The maid hesitated.
"Do you think that is wise?" James asked. "Surely this is a task for one of the servants."
"I do have experience in this. I often attended to the ill in my parish."
"But you were only a clergyman then. Now you are a baron."
Geoffrey hated the position he had been placed in by the loss of his two elder brothers. But he would use it to his advantage if he had to. And he had every intention of tending to this woman. "Since I am a baron," he said curtly, motioning again for the cloth, "you must all do as I command."
James laughed and gave him a small bow. "Touché, my lord."
The maid put the towel into Geoffrey's hand and gave him another small curtsy. She retreated a few steps, but kept her eyes fastened on him. Geoffrey suspected that her diligence stemmed more from his new social position than from the present circumstances. It had not escaped him that he'd become the recipient of all kinds of extra attention—from parlor maids to duchesses—since he'd become a baron. The years he'd spent as a clergyman in a poor village, extending all his efforts to help others who struggled every day just to eke out a meager living, had apparently not been worth anyone's notice.
Geoffrey laid a hand to the woman's forehead. It was too warm against his cool palm. "I'm afraid she may have a fever in addition to her head injury."
James made a show of pulling out his handkerchief and half covering his nose and mouth. "Oh dear, I do hope she has not brought anything catching into the house. That would be terribly inconvenient."
Harding entered the room, carrying a dust-covered carpetbag. He held it in front of him, careful not to let it touch any part of his pristine coat. "We found this near the steps outside. I believe it belongs to"—he threw a disparaging look toward the prostrate figure on the sofa—"the lady."
"Thank you, Harding," James said. He glanced at the worn object with equal distaste, then motioned to the far side of the room. "Set it there for now."
That bag might be all the woman had in the world, Geoffrey thought, and yet James was so casually dismissive of it. The man had a long way to go when it came to finding compassion for those less fortunate.
He turned back to the woman. She stirred and moaned softly. "Easy," Geoffrey murmured, unable to resist the urge to comfort her, although he doubted she could hear him. "You're safe now."
James watched from the other side of the sofa as Geoffrey cleaned the blood from her hair and face. "What a specimen she is," he remarked as her features came into view. He leaned in to scrutinize her. "Look at those high cheekbones. And the delicate arch of her brow. And those full lips—"
"This is a woman, James," Geoffrey remonstrated. "Not some creature in a zoo."
"Well, it's clear she's a woman," James returned lightly, unruffled by Geoffrey's tone. "I'm glad you noticed. Sometimes I wonder if you are aware of these things."
Geoffrey was aware. At the moment, he was too aware. He could not deny that, like James, he had been taken by her beauty. Except her lips were too pale, chapped from dryness. He had a wild urge to reach out and gently brush over them with cool water…
"Good heavens," James said, abruptly bringing Geoffrey back to his senses. He dropped his handkerchief from his face. "This is Ria."
Geoffrey froze. "What did you say?"
"I said, the young lady bleeding all over Auntie's sofa is Victoria Thornborough."
No. Surely that was impossible. There were occasions, Geoffrey thought, when James seemed determined to try him to the absolute limit. "James, this is not the time for one of your childish pranks."
James shook his head. "I am absolutely in earnest."
"But that's preposterous."
"I think I should know my own cousin. Even if it has been ten years." He bent closer as the woman mumbled something incoherent. "You see? She heard me. She recognizes her name."
The room suddenly became quite still. Even the servants who had been hovering nearby stopped their tasks. All eyes turned toward the sofa.
Was this really Ria? Geoffrey had to take James's word on it for now; he had never met her. He had been in Europe during her brief, clandestine courtship with his brother. This woman, to whom he had been so curiously drawn—for some reason he could easily believe her to be a lady, despite her dirty clothes and bruises. He had no trouble believing Edward could have fallen in love with her—had he not been taken with her himself? No, he told himself again. It had been mere compassion he'd been feeling. And it was utterly incomprehensible that his sister-in-law should appear like this out of nowhere.
"If this is Ria," Geoffrey said, "then surely Edward would be with her?"
"So one would expect," James replied. "I agree that the situation is most unusual."
"Unusual," Geoffrey repeated drily. The word might describe everything about what had happened between Ria and his brother. Their elopement had taken everyone by surprise, causing a scandal that was bad enough without the embarrassing fact that Ria had been engaged to his other brother, William, at the time.
"At least we can surmise that they were not aboard the ill-fated Sea Venture," James said. "Where did they go, I wonder?"
"That is only one of the many things I'd like to know," Geoffrey said. He'd exhausted himself with searches and inquiries after Edward and Ria had disappeared without a trace. The best they could discover was that the couple may have booked passage on a ship that had sunk on its way to America. And yet all was conjecture; there had never been answers.
Geoffrey took hold of the woman's left hand and began to remove a worn glove that was upon it. He heard the maid behind him gasp, but he was beyond worrying about the possible impropriety of his actions. If this was Ria, he wanted evidence that Edward had made an honest woman of her. He did not think his brother would deliberately trifle with a woman's affections, but he also knew Edward was prone to rash whims and irresponsible actions. Anything might have kept him from carrying out his plans.
With one last gentle tug from Geoffrey, the glove came off, revealing a hand that was rough and calloused. It was a hand that had done plenty of manual labor. Though she was not wearing a wedding band, she was wearing a gold and onyx ring that Geoffrey recognized as having once belonged to Edward. The sight of it nearly devastated him. He could think of only one reason she would be wearing it instead of his brother.
"Why?" Geoffrey asked roughly, as his concern melted into consternation. "If they were in dire straits, why did they stay away? Why did they not ask us for help?"
"If you were in their shoes," James answered, "would you have wanted to face William's wrath? Or Lady Thornborough's?" He looked at the woman thoughtfully. "Perhaps they were not always so destitute. Look at her, Geoffrey. Look at what she is wearing."
Geoffrey allowed his gaze to travel once more over the slender figure in the plain black dress that seemed to declare her in mourning. "No!" Geoffrey said sharply. How could she have survived, but not Edward?
Geoffrey rose and gave the towel and the glove to the maid. He walked to the window and peered through the lace curtains to the street below. It was filled with carriages moving swiftly in both directions, but he could see no sign of either his coach or the doctor's. He knew it was too soon to expect their return, but he could not quell the anxiety rising in him.
Which was worse: the continual pain of not knowing what had become of his brother, or the final blow of discovering he really was dead? If anyone had asked him that question before this moment, he might have given an entirely different response.
He had to get Ria well again. And he had to get answers.
She was dimly aware of voices speaking above her, of a soft, cool cloth against her burning face.
A sweet scent of roses kept urging her to inhale deeply, trying to lure her back to consciousness. But a piercing pain shot through her side with every breath, and the pounding behind her right temple kept forcing her back into a gauzy daze, unable to open her eyes.
The murmuring paused, seemingly stilled by a rustle of skirts and a quick tread upon the floor. A woman's sharp voice said, "Have you done nothing to bring her around?"
"We have sent for Dr. Layton," a man replied.
"Tut, tut. You are as useless as your father was."
"My dear aunt, I must protest. I am sure I am a good deal more useless than he was."
Another disapproving noise, then a curt order. "Quick, Mary. Bring my smelling salts."
More rustling, followed by the assault of an acrid smell under her nose. She sneezed hard, wincing as a bolt of pain surged through her head.
Gradually her eyes focused on an elderly lady dressed in a heavy silk gown of very dark green. The woman was looking down at her with a mixture of shock and astonishment.
And then she remembered.
She had been standing across the street from Lady Thornborough's house, trying to make up her mind whether or not to approach it. Even now, after coming so far, she had hesitated. Could she carry out her plan? Would they believe her story?
It had to be done. She had made a promise to a dying woman, and she would keep it. Both fever and chills had plagued her during the long walk up from the docks, compelling her to keep moving lest she faint dead away on the pavement.
"You must go," Ria's voice had echoed in her ear. "I am counting on you."
Gathering her courage, she had stepped into the street. Her aching head had blurred the multitude of sounds on the busy thoroughfare, and the glare of the late afternoon sun had hidden the approach of a swiftly moving carriage.
Now, Lizzie Poole lay motionless as she returned the gaze of the lady standing before her. The woman's gray eyes matched the color of her hair, which was pulled back in a tight bun. Her regal manner indicated she was the lady of the house. This must be Lady Thornborough—the stern, implacable woman who had raised Ria.
Would Lady Thornborough believe she was now looking at the granddaughter whom she had last seen ten years ago, when the girl was just seventeen? Or would she instantly recognize Lizzie as an imposter? Not entirely an imposter, she corrected herself. Ria had convinced her they were half sisters and told her where she could find proof. This made Lizzie a granddaughter of Lady Thornborough, too, although the old woman did not know it.
And if Lizzie pretended to be Ria, what of it? Ria was dead now. Her relationship with Lady Thornborough had been a stormy one, and Ria had begged Lizzie to help her make amends. What better way to do this than to become Ria—to be the dutiful granddaughter Lady Thornborough had always wished for? As an illegitimate granddaughter, Lizzie could do nothing; as Ria, she could claim everything. Ria had given her blessing to the scheme; in fact, it had been her idea.
For several long, agonizing moments Lizzie watched as Lady Thornborough's face remained stern and inscrutable. Then she frowned and shook her head.
Lizzie closed her eyes. I have failed, she thought. She knows I am not Ria. She fought a surge of disappointment. Ria had so thoroughly described the family, the house, and the servants that Lizzie believed she could walk through the door and take up the life her half sister had left behind. Now she was seized with fear that they would toss her into the street before she even had a chance to explain.
At last, Lady Thornborough spoke. "Ria, where have you been?"
Her words were crisp, but not unkind—and sweet to Lizzie's ears. Relief washed over her, for one blessed moment stemming the pain that wracked her body. Lady Thornborough believed her to be Ria. She could stay. She reached for the cloth on her temple and sat up, despite the fresh round of pain this set off in her throbbing head. So many things she had planned to say, yet all she could do was answer Lady Thornborough's question: Where have you been? "Why, Australia, of course…," she murmured, her voice trailing off.
"Australia?" Lady Thornborough repeated in mortified surprise. She sat down and put her arms around Lizzie. "Oh, my dear girl."
This was not at all what Lizzie had been expecting, but she accepted it gratefully. She relaxed into the woman's comforting embrace, thankful for the way the cool silk of Lady Thornborough's dress soothed her burning cheek. Soft whispers of guilt stirred within her, awareness that this plan could hurt the woman whose love and respect Ria had so longed for. But Lizzie was ill and exhausted, and her body ached everywhere. She had set her course, and she would stick with it. And in any case, she had nowhere else to go.
Slowly she became aware of a man sitting on a nearby footstool. He leaned his chin on a gold-handled cane and examined her with curiosity.
"You have changed, Ria," he said. "I don't remember your eyes tending so much to the violet. You are certainly much thinner, and your skin is brown as a farm girl's. But you remember me, don't you, my girl?"
He gave her an encouraging smile. Lizzie studied him carefully. He was a slender man of about thirty, with curly brown hair and cornflower blue eyes. And well dressed. He wore a fine gold vest and white shirt under a tailored blue coat that showed off his square shoulders to their best advantage. A cravat of the same color as his waistcoat was tied in an expert knot at the base of his crisp shirt collar. The only thing marring his handsome features was the tiniest bump on his nose—a souvenir, Ria had called it, of a day long ago when he had fallen out of a tree.
The man must be James Simpson. He met every one of Ria's descriptions of her favorite cousin. His clothing proclaimed that he was still a dandy, and Lizzie wondered if he was also, as Ria had said, "a wastrel and a wild one, the sort who was always getting into the kind of trouble that requires 'hushing up.' "
Certain as she was, Lizzie was still anxious as she answered him, hoping fervently that her instincts were correct. "It appears you have not changed, James."
"That's a girl!" He laughed and slapped his knee. "You see, Geoffrey, it is Ria."
This last remark was addressed to a man standing on the opposite side of the parlor. Lizzie could just see him beyond the large round table in the center of the room, upon which sat a brightly painted vase of yellow roses.
The only "Geoffrey" that Ria had ever spoken of was her husband's younger brother. Ria had never met Geoffrey, but Edward had once described him as staid and scholarly, destined for a life in the church. Given this description, Lizzie had envisioned a short and nondescript man, perhaps wearing spectacles, shabbily dressed, and stooped from too much studying.
The man watching her from the fireplace was nothing like that. He stood tall and straight. His fine brown hair was clean and expertly cut; his short side whiskers trimmed a face that was pleasantly intriguing, if not classically handsome. His dark eyes, unguarded by spectacles, watched her intently. His black suit was far more understated than the royal blue coat James was wearing, but it was new and fit him well.
No, this could not be Ria's brother-in-law. And yet James had called him by his Christian name. Was there someone else in the family by that name? Was Lizzie not as well prepared as she thought she was?
She tried not to panic, telling herself he was probably not a family member. Ria had said that James had a wide circle of acquaintances. Given his easy and irreverent manner, he might well refer to his close friends so familiarly. But this thought did not reassure her. How many of James's social set might Ria have known? How many would Lizzie be expected to "remember"?
Lady Thornborough gently moved the hair back from Lizzie's face. "Ria, I have worried myself sick," she said. "I have no doubt you've taken some ten years off my life."
"Years off your life, Aunt?" James repeated. "I doubt it. You'll live to be a hundred; that's my wager."
Lady Thornborough gave him a disapproving look. "Do not speak of betting in this house. I will not have that shameful language used here."
James tilted his chin in acquiescence. Once his aunt had turned her attention back to Lizzie, he gave Geoffrey a smile and a wink.
The man by the fireplace did not respond to James's playful gesture. He was studying Lizzie—taking in every inch of her with an expression that hovered somewhere between curiosity and contempt.
Who was he?
Lizzie's face burned—whether from the fever or the man's unwavering scrutiny, she could not tell. She found herself riveted to his dark eyes as she tried unsuccessfully to regulate her breathing. Suddenly the room seemed quite close.
Lady Thornborough's cool hand on her forehead provided some relief. She inspected Lizzie's wound. "And now James has managed to run over you as though you were a dog in the street."
"It was not I," James protested.
Lady Thornborough ignored him. "Why were you alone and on foot, like a common servant? And why, in all these years, did you never contact us? Do you realize what agonies we have been through on account of you?"
"I will explain everything, Grandmamma," Lizzie said, trying out the word for the first time. It came off her tongue easily enough. Surely this was a good sign. She was Ria now, and she would soon discover what secrets this family was hiding. The Thornboroughs held the keys to her own history, one she had never dreamed of until the day she met Ria.
Kind, sweet, silly Ria. Given to impulsive actions, yet resolute once she'd made up her mind on something. Yes, they had shared those traits as well as their looks. When Lizzie had agreed to this plan so far away in Australia, she had thought it was a good one. Now that she was here, the magnitude of what she was doing washed over her with more force than her fever.
Lizzie fought to keep her mind in the present, here in this room. One misstep could be disastrous. But she was so hot. Her head was pounding and the room was beginning to spin again. She sank back heavily on the sofa.
"Ria!" Lady Thornborough cried.
"I'm terribly sorry… I did not plan to arrive this way…"
She was assailed by a rush of heat from her fever, followed by a rising tide of nausea. She closed her eyes, willing her stomach to stay put. Her plan was going well, she thought. Except for the fact that she had nearly gotten herself killed on the way in. And except for the man staring at her whom she could not identify.
The room was once again spinning dangerously out of control…
Geoffrey crossed the room and knelt beside her, his eyes fierce. "Please forgive me—I can see you are not well, but I must ask you. I have to know. I have waited ten years with no news. What is this talk of Australia? Where is my brother?"
Lizzie pulled together a few remaining threads of thought. "You are my brother-in-law?" she asked dazedly. How tall he was. How striking. How different from what she expected. And yet… how like Edward. She could see it now, see vestiges of Edward's confident bearing and the way he looked at people—really observed them—when he was talking to them. How odd, she realized now, to think it could have been anyone else.
"But where is he?" Geoffrey demanded, as though he wanted to drag the information out of her. "What has happened to him?"
"He…" She shut her eyes. Now that she saw the resemblance, it was too painful to look at him. Too many memories. Her mind was drifting, she knew. All she could say was, "He… described you… quite differently."
She had just enough time to see his look of frustration and anger before the darkness enveloped her.
- "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
- On Sale
- Oct 30, 2012
- Page Count
- 384 pages