ALSO BY MARY BALOGH
A Precious Jewel
The Ideal Wife
Seducing an Angel
At Last Comes Love
Then Comes Seduction
First Comes Marriage
A Summer to Remember
One Night For Love
The Secret Pearl
The Devil’s Web
Web of Love
The Gilded Web
To Maria Carvainis, my agent,
and to June Renschler, Jerome Murphy,
and Alex Slater, her assistants,
who are all and always in my corner.
Reginald Mason crossed one elegantly clad leg over the other and contemplated the gold tassel swinging from one of his white-topped Hessian boots. The boots had been just one of many recent extravagances, but what was one to do when fashions shifted almost daily and one had been taught from the cradle onward that keeping up appearances was of the utmost importance?
What one could do, of course, was ignore the almost daily vagaries of fashion and instead aim for basic good grooming, and that was what he had always done—until the past year, when, for reasons of his own, he had chosen to pursue the path of high fashion.
It was his father who had drummed the lesson of keeping up appearances into him. Bernard Mason was not a gentleman by birth but rather a self-made man who had spent lavishly of his enormous wealth on all the trappings of gentility, including the very best education for his only son and a large country estate in Wiltshire. He was, by his own estimation, lord of all he surveyed—except the world of the beau monde, which looked down upon him along its collective nose as a very inferior being and an upstart to boot. As a consequence, he heartily despised the ton—and dreamed incessantly of finding a way into its hallowed ranks. His son was his greatest hope for accomplishing that dream.
All of these facts made it illogical that he was so furiously angry now, that he had been angry all too often during the past several months. For Reggie had been behaving exactly as a young gentleman of ton was expected to behave in order to demonstrate his superiority over the mass of ordinary mortals who must perforce be more intent upon earning money than spending it. He had been as extravagant and reckless and idle as the best of his would-be peers.
His father was sitting a short distance from Reggie, though the wide expanse of the solid oak desk in his study stood between them and set them symbolically much farther apart. The wildly successful and prudent businessman confronted his wildly expensive, aimless, and profligate son with thunderous displeasure. He had just finished delivering an eloquent lecture on the theme of worthless cubs—not for the first time. Reggie had been told, loudly enough to imply that he must be deaf as well as daft, that a man who aspired to be accepted as a gentleman must give all the appearance of gentility, good breeding, and wealth without dabbling in any of its attendant vices.
And Reginald had done more than dabble.
Was it a vice to buy the very best and most fashionable of boots? Reggie jiggled his foot slightly and watched the tassel sway into motion again. It glinted in the sunlight beaming through the window.
He sat half-slouched in his hard wooden chair as a visual sign of his apparent unconcern. He did consider yawning, but that would be going too far.
“Anyone would think, lad,” his father said after a few moments of exasperated silence, “that you were out to beggar me.”
His use of the word lad was not, in this instance, an endearment. It was his father’s way of speaking. Whereas Reggie’s expensive education had polished his speech until it was indistinguishable from that of the beau monde, his father still spoke with a broad and unabashed North country accent.
It would take far more than his recent extravagances to beggar his father, Reggie knew. A little excessive and expensive attention to his wardrobe and a little unlucky gambling would put scarcely a dent in his father’s fortune, nor even a fair amount of unlucky gambling, which was probably a more accurate and only slightly understated description of his recent losses.
Reggie swallowed the uneasy sense of guilt that rose into his throat like bile.
“That there curricle, now,” his father began, stabbing the desk top with the tip of one broad finger, as though the offending vehicle were cowering beneath it.
Reggie cut him off. He risked a bored cadence to his voice.
“Any self-respecting gentleman below the age of thirty-five,” he said, “must have a racing curricle as well as one for simply tooling about town, sir. And you do wish me to be a gentleman, do you not?”
His father’s face took on a slightly purple hue.
“And a matched pair of grays to go with it?” he said, still poking at the desk. “The chestnuts you purchased last month would not do the job?”
Reggie shuddered elegantly.
“They do not match the paintwork,” he said, his voice pained. “Besides, they are all prancing show, perfect for impressing the ladies in Hyde Park, but quite useless if I should decide to race the new curricle to Brighton. You would wish me to win, would you not?”
“And serve you right if you were to break your neck in the attempt,” his father said brusquely. “I am going to have to lease more stable room.”
Reggie simply shrugged.
“And these . . . debts,” his father said, picking up a sheaf of papers from one side of the desk in his large fist and waving them in the direction of his son’s nose. “You expect me to pay them, I suppose?”
They were large. Most of them were gaming debts. Reggie never left the card tables or the races until he had lost. Whenever he surprised himself by winning, he always stayed until he had lost all the money again and sent plenty more in chase of it.
“If you please, sir,” he said with a weary sigh.
His father’s bushy eyebrows collided above his nose.
“If I please?” he barked wrathfully, and he squeezed the bills in his hand and dropped them onto the desk. They fanned out into an alarmingly large heap. “Was it for this that I brought you into the world, Reginald, and spent a king’s ransom to have you educated as a gentleman? Was it not rather that I might see and enjoy the fruits of my labors in my old age? I will never be accepted by all the high and mighty gentlemen of this realm. I will always reek of coal in their pampered, perfumed noses. And that is just grand as far as I am concerned. I have no interest in rubbing shoulders with popinjays. I despise the lot of them. But you . . . you could have the best of it all. You could be my son and a gentleman.”
Reggie shrugged and refrained from pointing out the lack of logic in his father’s attitude toward the beau monde.
“I am accepted well enough by all the gentlemen I know,” he said. “I went to school with half of them. As for the ladies, well, who needs them? There are plenty of women who are far more, ah, interesting.” He made a careless, dismissive gesture with one well-manicured hand.
His father’s large hand slammed down flat on the desk.
“If you were to settle down with a good woman, lad,” he said, “you would be less trouble to me and more of a gentleman to boot.”
“Time enough to think of that,” Reggie said hastily, “when I am thirty-five or so. I have at least ten years of good living to do before settling down.”
He would have been better advised to keep his mouth shut. His father’s eyes narrowed in a familiar look. His mind had latched onto a subject and was giving it shrewd consideration. And that subject—Reggie knew it even before his father spoke again—was matrimony. Specifically as it concerned his son.
“You will marry into gentility, Reginald,” he said. “Even into nobility. You are handsome enough, God knows, having had the good fortune to take after your mother’s side of the family instead of mine. And you are rich enough—or will be if I do not cut you off without a penny.”
As well as standing to inherit the whole of his father’s vast fortune, Reggie was the sort-of owner of Willows End, a sizable home and estate in Hampshire, a sort-of gift on his twenty-first birthday four years ago. Exclusive ownership was to pass to him on his thirtieth birthday or on his wedding day, whichever came first. Or the gift could simply be withdrawn if he was deemed unworthy of it before either of those dates hove into sight. The threat had never been made—until now.
“No one in the upper echelons will have me,” Reggie pointed out, rubbing one finger over what might have been a small smudge on the inside of his boot. “Not for a husband.”
“Someone will,” his father said viciously. “All we have to do is keep our eyes and ears open and wait for the right opportunity.”
“But not for the next ten years or so,” Reggie said firmly. “There is no hurry. I am perfectly happy as I am for now.”
It was the wrong thing to say again. His father impaled him with a ferocious glare.
“But I am not,” he said. “I am not at all happy, Reginald. I do not know what has happened to you of late. I used to think myself the most fortunate of fathers. I used to think you the very best of sons,” he sighed. “I shall start looking for a bride for you without any further delay. And I shall look high. I will not waste you on some obscure gentleman’s daughter.”
“No!” Reginald said firmly, uncrossing his legs and straightening out of his slouch. “I will not marry simply to please you, sir. Not even if you were able to persuade one of the royal princesses to have me.”
His father’s heavy eyebrows soared halfway up his forehead.
“To please me?” he said. “You do not please me at all, Reginald. You have not pleased me—or your mother—for some time now. She pleads your case by telling me that you are merely sowing your wild oats. If that is so, you have sown far too many of them for long enough. You will marry, lad, as soon as I have found you a suit - able bride, and you will settle down and live a respectable life.”
“I beg your pardon,” Reggie said, a thread of steel in his voice now even though he spoke politely enough, “but you cannot force me, sir.”
“You are right,” his father said, his voice dipping ominously in volume. “I cannot. But I can cut off your funds, Reginald, and that would be like cutting off the air you breathe. I can and I will do it if you refuse to offer marriage to the first lady I find for you.”
Reggie leaned back in his chair and stared at his father’s angry, implacable face. The threat was explicit now.
“You ought to be thankful,” he said, “that I have never done anything actually to disgrace you, sir, as some members of the nobility have done to their fathers. Ladies as well as gentlemen. You have heard about Lady Annabelle Ashton, I suppose?”
Lady Annabelle was the daughter of the Earl of Havercroft, whose country estate adjoined the Mason property in Wiltshire. And if there was one member of the ton whom Reggie’s father hated more than any other, it was Havercroft. Bernard Mason had bought his property thirty years ago when his fortune had been made and had moved there with high hopes of moving also into a different world. He had extended the hand of friendship to his neighbor only to find that hand left dangling in the cold, empty air. The earl had chosen not only to snub him for his presumption, but also to ignore his very existence. He had instructed his family and all who were dependent upon him to do likewise. Mason, not to be outdone, had first denounced Havercroft as a conceited fop and then ordered his family and servants never so much as to look in his direction or that of his wife and daughter.
The best families in the neighborhood trod the tightrope of maintaining civil relations with both of their powerful neighbors without alienating either. But their loyalties leaned toward the earl. They paid him open homage whenever he was in residence—which was mercifully infrequently—and were quietly polite to the Masons without actually including them in their social life. They would mingle with him at local assemblies only because the earl never attended them.
It had not been a comfortable thirty years. Reggie had grown up in that atmosphere of mutual hatred and scorn. He had actually come to derive some amusement from Sunday mornings at church whenever both families were in residence. Masons and Ashcrofts occupied front pews on either side of the aisle and acted as if the other family did not exist—except that, for the two men, the whole thing was ostentatious, the earl haughtily contemptuous of the family that did not exist, and Reggie’s father loudly hearty as he greeted everyone except the family that did not exist. And his north country accent was always broader than usual on Sunday mornings.
“Eh?” his father said now. “What about her?”
“She ran off with Havercroft’s new coachman a few nights ago,” he said. “A handsome devil, by all accounts. They did not get more than a dozen miles on their way to the Scottish border, though, before being caught and hauled back to town. At least, she was hauled back. The coachman, coward as he was, made his escape from a window at the inn where they were apprehended, and since his mashed remains were not discovered under it, it was assumed that he made his escape. Unfortunately, the two of them were seen by half the world before they were overtaken, and by now most of the other half of the world knows all about it too—with embellishments, I do not doubt. She is disgraced. Ruined. Illingsworth has withdrawn his suit, as one might expect, and no other man is stepping up to take his place. She will be fortunate if she can find a chimney sweep to marry her.”
He flicked a spot of lint off the sleeve of his coat.
His father was staring at him, slack-jawed.
“Illingsworth has withdrawn?” he said. “He is as rich as Croesus, or rather his father the duke is, anyway. How is Havercroft going to manage now?”
It was widely known that the Earl of Havercroft had made some rash investments a few years ago and that, in anticipation of making a huge profit from them, he had undertaken extensive and exorbitantly expensive renovations to his country home last year. And then his investments had collapsed. All Season he had been single-mindedly courting Illingsworth for his daughter, his one remaining asset if he was to escape from dire financial straits.
“Ruined, is she?” Reggie’s father said softly, and he smiled unseeingly into the middle distance.
Reggie became suddenly alert. His hand stilled over his sleeve.
“I am not,” he said, standing up abruptly and setting both hands flat on the desk, “going to marry a woman who ran off with a servant, for the love of God. Even if she is a lady. With a title. And even if you are visualizing marvelous revenge on your mortal enemy. If that is what you are contemplating, sir, you may forget it without further ado. I will not do it. Your quarrel with Havercroft is not mine.”
His father slapped one hand on the desk.
“Ruined is she?” he said again just as if he had not even heard his son’s alarmed protest.
Reggie watched in tense silence as his father’s mind worked over these salacious new facts concerning his neighbor—facts that suddenly gave him the power he had always craved. He was still smiling. It was not a pleasant sight.
“Ruined, is she?” he said once more, and he got to his feet and faced his son almost nose to nose across the desk. He was broad of frame and thick of waist—in contrast to Reggie’s slim elegance. But they were of a height with each other. “Ee, lad, now we will see a thing or two. Now we will see who is high and mighty and who is decent enough to condescend to save him. Now we will see if a neighbor’s hand of sympathy and friendship is not shaken after all.”
Reggie spoke through lips stiff with apprehension. He could feel a prickle of perspiration trickling down his back beneath his shirt. He could actually hear his heartbeat.