The Wicked Earl

By: Margaret McPhee

\Chapter One

London—February 1814

‘S it up straight, Madeline. And can you not at least attempt to look as if you’re enjoying the play?’

‘Yes, Mama.’ Madeline Langley straightened her back. ‘The actors are very good, and the play is indeed interesting. It’s just Lord Farquharson…’ She dropped her voice to an even lower whisper. ‘He keeps leaning too close and—’

‘The noise in here is fit to raise the roof. It’s little wonder that Lord Farquharson is having trouble hearing what you have to say,’ said Mrs Langley.

‘But, Mama, it is not his hearing that is at fault.’ Madeline looked at her mama. ‘He makes me feel uncomfortable.’

Mrs Langley wrinkled her nose. ‘Do not be so tiresome, child. Lord Farquharson is expressing an interest in you and we must encourage him as best we can. He will never offer for you if you keep casting him such black looks. Look at Angelina—can you not try to be a little more like her? No scowls mar her face.’ Mrs Langley bestowed upon her younger, and by far prettier, daughter, a radiant smile.

Angelina threw her sister a long-suffering expression.

‘That is because Angelina does not have to sit beside Lord Farquharson,’ muttered Madeline beneath her breath.

Angelina gave a giggle.

Fortunately Mrs Langley did not hear Madeline’s comment. ‘Shh, girls, he’s coming back,’ she whispered excitedly. Amelia Langley straightened and smiled most encouragingly at the gentleman who was entering the theatre box with a tray containing three drinks glasses balanced between his hands.

‘Oh, Lord Farquharson, how very kind you are to think of my girls.’ She fluttered her eyelashes unbecomingly.

‘And of you too, of course, my dear Mrs Langley.’ He passed her a glass of lemonade. ‘I wouldn’t want you, or your lovely daughters, becoming thirsty, and it is so very hot in here.’

Mrs Langley tittered. ‘La, Lord Farquharson. It could never be too hot in such a superior and well-positioned theatre box. How thoughtful of you to invite us here. My girls do so love the theatre. They have such an appreciation of the arts, you know, just like their mama.’

Lord Farquharson revealed his teeth to Miss Angelina Langley in the vestige of a smile. ‘I’m sure that’s not the only attribute that they share with their mama.’ The smile intensified as he pressed the glass into Angelina’s hand.

‘So good of you, my lord, to fight your way through the crowd to fetch us our lemonades,’ Mrs Langley cooed.

‘For such fair damsels I would face much worse,’ said Lord Farquharson in a heroic tone.

Mrs Langley simpered at his words.

Madeline and Angelina exchanged a look.

Lord Farquharson’s fingers stumbled over Madeline’s in the act of transferring the lemonade. The glass was smooth and cool beneath her touch. Lord Farquharson’s skin was warm and moist. ‘Last, but certainly not least,’ he said and gazed meaningfully into Madeline’s eyes.

Madeline suppressed a shudder. ‘Thank you, my lord,’ she said and practically wrenched her hand free from his.

Lord Farquharson smiled at her response and sat down.

Madeline turned to face the stage again and tried to ignore Cyril Farquharson’s presence by her side. It was not an easy matter, especially as he leaned in close to enquire, ‘Is the lemonade to your taste, Miss Langley?’

‘It is delicious, thank you, my lord.’ The brandy on his breath vied with the strange, heavy, spicy smell that hung about him. He was so close that she could feel heat emanating from his lithe frame.

‘Delicious,’ he said, and it seemed to Madeline that a slight hiss hung about the word as he touched her hand again in an overly familiar manner.

Madeline suddenly discovered that drinking lemonade was a rather tricky task and required both of her hands to be engaged in the process.

Thankfully the lights dimmed and the music set up again to announce the resumption of Coriolanus. Mr Kemble returned to the stage to uproarious applause and shouts from the pit.

‘He’s a splendid actor, is he not?’ said Lord Farquharson in a silky tone to Mrs Langley. ‘They say that Friday is to see his last performance.’

‘Oh, indeed, Lord Farquharson. It will be such a loss. I’ve always been a staunch admirer of Mr Kemble’s work.’

Madeline slid a glance in her mother’s direction. Only that afternoon Mrs Langley had made her feelings regarding John Philip Kemble known, and admiration was not the underlying sentiment.

The second half of the play had not long started when Lord Farquharson proclaimed he was suffering with a cramp in his left leg and proceeded to manoeuvre his chair. ‘It’s a souvenir from Salamanca. I took a blade in the leg,’ he said to Mrs Langley. ‘I’m afraid it plays up a bit from time to time.’ He grimaced, and then stretched out his leg so that it brushed against Madeline’s skirts.

Quite how her mother failed to notice Lord Farquharson’s blatant action, especially given that she was seated on her elder daughter’s left-hand side, while his lordship was situated a few feet away on Madeline’s right, Madeline did not know. She threw her mother a look of desperation.

Mrs Langley affected not to notice. ‘Such bravery, Lord Farquharson.’

Lord Farquharson smiled and touched his foot against Madeline’s slipper.

‘Mama.’ Madeline sought to catch her mother’s eye.

‘Yes, dear?’ said Mrs Langley, never taking her eyes from the stage.

‘Mama,’ said Madeline a little more forcefully.

Lord Farquharson leered down at her, a knowing look upon his face. ‘Is something wrong, Miss Langley?’

‘I’m feeling a little unwell. It is, as you have already observed, a trifle hot in here.’ She fanned herself with increasing vigour.

‘My dear Miss Langley,’ said Lord Farquharson, mock-concern dripping from every word as he attempted to squeeze her hand.

Madeline pulled back. ‘A little air and I shall be fine.’ She rose and made for the back of the box.

Mrs Langley could scarcely keep the look of utter exasperation from her face. ‘Can you not wait a little? Angelina and I are enjoying the play. Oh dear, it really is too bad.’

Lord Farquharson saw opportunity loom before his eyes. ‘It seems such a shame for all three of you charming ladies to miss the play, and just when Coriolanus is about to deliver his soliloquy.’

Mrs Langley made a show of sighing and shaking her head.

‘I do not mind,’ said Angelina. But no one heeded her words.

‘What if…?’ Lord Farquharson looked at Mrs Langley hopefully, and then tapped his fingers across his mouth. ‘Perhaps it is an impertinence to even suggest.’

‘No, no, my lord. You impertinent? Never. A more trustworthy, considerate gentleman I’ve yet to meet.’

Madeline’s shoulders drooped. She had an awful suspicion of just what Lord Farquharson was about to suggest. ‘Mama—’

‘Madeline,’ said Mrs Langley, ‘it is rude to interrupt when his lordship is about to speak.’

‘But, Mama—’

‘Madeline!’ her mother said a trifle too loudly, then had the audacity to peer accusingly at Madeline when a sea of nearby faces turned with curiosity.

So Madeline gave up trying and let Lord Farquharson ask what she knew he would.

‘Dear Mrs Langley,’ said his lordship, ‘if I were to accompany Miss Langley out into the lobby, then both your good self and Miss Angelina could continue to watch the play uninterrupted. I give you my word that I shall guard Miss Langley with my very life.’ He placed a hand dramatically over his heart, the diamond rings adorning his fingers glinting even in the little light that reached up from the stage. ‘You know, of course, that I hold your daughter in great affection.’ A slit of a smile stretched across his face.

‘I would be happy to accompany Madeline,’ said Angelina, and received a glare from her mother for her pains.

‘And miss Mr Kemble’s performance when it is unnecessary for you to do so?’ said Lord Farquharson. ‘For have I not already said that I will take care of Miss Langley?’

Mrs Langley clutched her gloved fingers together in maternal concern. ‘I’m not sure…She is very precious to me,’ said Mrs Langley.

‘And rightly so,’ said Lord Farquharson. ‘She would make a man a worthy wife.’

Mrs Langley could not disguise the hope that blossomed on her face. ‘Oh, indeed she would,’ she agreed.

‘Then I have your permission?’ he coaxed, knowing full well what the answer would be.

‘Very well,’ said Mrs Langley.

Madeline looked from her mother to Lord Farquharson and back again. ‘I would not wish to spoil his lordship’s evening. Indeed, it would be most selfish of me to do so. I must insist that he stay to enjoy the rest of the play. I shall visit the retiring room for a little while and then return when I feel better.’

‘Miss Langley, I cannot allow a young lady such as yourself to wander about the Theatre Royal unguarded. It is more than my honour will permit.’ Lord Farquharson was at Madeline’s side in an instant, his fingers pressed firm upon her arm.

She could feel the imprint of his hand through her sleeve. ‘There really is no need,’ she insisted and made to pull away.

‘Madeline!’ Her mother turned a steely eye upon her. ‘I will not have you wandering about this theatre on your own. Whatever would your papa say? You will accept Lord Farquharson’s polite offer to accompany you with gratitude.’

Mother and daughter locked gazes. It did not take long for Madeline to capitulate. She knew full well what would await her at home if she did not. She lowered her eyes and said in Lord Farquharson’s direction, ‘Thank you, my lord. You are most kind.’

‘Come along, my dear.’ Lord Farquharson steered her out of the theatre box and across the landing to the staircase, and all the while Madeline could feel his tight possessive grip around her arm.

Earl Tregellas’s gaze drifted between Mr Kemble’s dramatic delivery upon the stage and the goings-on in Lord Farquharson’s box. He watched Farquharson with an attention that belied his relaxed manner and apparent interest in the progression of Coriolanus, just as he had watched and waited for the past years. Sooner or later Farquharson would slip, and when he did Lucien Tregellas would be waiting, ready to strike.

It was not the first time that Mrs Langley and her daughters had accompanied Lord Farquharson. He had taken them up in his carriage around Hyde Park, and also to the Frost Fair with its merry-go-rounds, swings, dancing and stalls. On the last occasion, at least Mr Langley had been present. Indeed, Mrs Langley seemed to be positively encouraging the scoundrel’s interest in her daughters; more accurately, in one daughter, if Lucien was being honest. And not the pretty little miss with the golden ringlets framing her peaches-and-cream complexion, as might be expected. No. She had been seated safely away from Farquharson. It was the elder and plainer of the sisters that seemed to be dangled before him. Lord Tregellas momentarily pondered as to the reason behind Farquharson’s interest. Surely the younger Miss Langley was more to his taste?

Tregellas restrained the urge to curl his upper lip with disgust. Who more than he knew exactly what Farquharson’s taste stretched to? He saw Farquharson move his chair closer to the Langley chit. Too close. He watched the brief touch of his hand to her arm, her hand, even her shoulder. Miss Langley, the elder, sat rigidly in position, but he could tell by the slight aversion of her face from Farquharson that she did not welcome the man’s attention. Mrs Langley’s headpiece was a huge feathered concoction, and obviously hid Lord Farquharson’s transgressions from the lady’s sight, for she raised no comment upon the gentleman’s behaviour.

Miss Langley’s attention was focused in a most deliberate manner upon the stage. Tregellas’s gaze dropped to take in the pale plain shawl wound around her shoulders that all but hid her dress, and the fact that she seemed not to wear the trinkets of jewellery favoured by other young women. She did not have her sister’s dancing curls of gold. Indeed, her hair was scraped back harshly and hidden in a tightly pinned bun at the nape of her neck. Her head was naked, unadorned by ribbons or feathers or prettily arranged flowers. It struck Lucien that, unlike most women, Miss Langley preferred the safety of blending with the background in an unnoticeable sort of way.

Lord Tregellas watched as Miss Langley rose suddenly from her seat and edged away towards the back of the box. He was still watching when Lord Farquharson moved to accompany the girl. He saw Mrs Langley’s feathers nod their encouragement. Farquharson and the girl disappeared. Silently Lucien Tregellas slipped from his seat and exited his own theatre box.

‘Lord Farquharson, I feel so much better now. We should rejoin Mama and Angelina. I wouldn’t want you to miss any more of the play.’ Madeline could see that he was leading her in a direction far from the auditorium. A tremor of fear rippled down her spine.

Lord Farquharson’s grip tightened until she could feel the press of his fingers hard against her forearm. ‘How considerate you are of my feelings, Miss Langley,’ he said, drawing his face into a smile. ‘But there’s no need. I know the play well. I’ll relay the ending if you would like. Following his exile, Coriolanus offers his services to Aufidius, who then gives him command of half the Volscian army. Together they march against Rome, but Coriolanus is persuaded by his family to spare the city. Aufidius accuses him of treachery and the Volscian general’s men murder Coriolanus. Aufidius is overcome with sorrow and determines that Coriolanus shall have a “noble memory”. So, Miss Langley, now that you know the ending, there is nothing for which to rush back.’

Madeline felt a glimmer of panic as he steered her around a corner. A narrow corridor stretched ahead. ‘Lord Farquharson.’ She stopped dead in her tracks, or at least attempted to. ‘I thank you for your synopsis, but I would rather see the play for myself. Please return me to my mother immediately, my lord.’

Lord Farquharson’s smile stretched. ‘Tut, tut, Miss Langley…’ he bent his head to her ear ‘…or may I call you Madeline?’

‘No, you may not,’ snapped Madeline, pulling away from him with every ounce of her strength.

But for all that Lord Farquharson was a slimly built man, he was surprisingly strong and showed no sign of releasing her. Indeed, there seemed to be an excitement about him that had not been there before. He stretched an arm around her back and, when she was fully within his grasp, marched her along the length of the passageway. Not even his slight limp deterred their progress.

Madeline’s heart had kicked to a frenzied thudding. Blood pounded at her temples. Her throat constricted, tight and dry. But still she resisted each dragging step. ‘What are you doing? This is madness!’

His fingers bit harder. ‘Have a care what you are saying, Madeline. And stop causing such a fuss. I only wish to speak to you in some privacy, that is all.’

‘Come to Climington Street tomorrow. We can speak privately then.’ If only she could buy some time, some space in which to evade him. Thoughts rushed through her head. Surely Mama would notice that they were gone too long and come to seek her? Wouldn’t she? But Madeline knew deep in the pit of her stomach that her mother would do no such thing. The chance of marrying her offspring to an aristocrat, and a rich one at that, had driven the last vestige of common sense from her mother’s head.

‘Please, Lord Farquharson, release me, you’re hurting me!’ She saw him smile at her words and felt the bump of his hip against her as he dragged her onwards.

And then suddenly they stopped and he steered her into a small dimly lit alcove at the side.

‘This shall do nicely,’ he announced and pulled her round to face him, his fingers biting hard against her shoulders.

Madeline’s breaths were short and fast. She struggled to control the panic that threatened to erupt. Sweat trickled down her back, dampening her shift, and her heart skittered fast and furious. She forced herself to some semblance of calm, and looked up at him. ‘What do you want?’

‘Why, you, of course, my dear.’ Excitement had caused the hint of a flush in his cheeks that contrasted starkly with the smooth pale skin of the rest of his face. The suggestion of sweat beaded his brow and upper lip. His dark red hair had been swept dramatically back to best show the bones of his cheeks. It was a face that some thought handsome. Madeline did not. The skin around his eyes seemed tight and fragile, tinged with a shadow of the palest blue. It served only to emphasise the hard glitter of his smoky grey eyes. His gaze fixed firmly on her.

Madeline gritted her teeth hard to stop the tremble in her lips. ‘You are a gentleman and a man of honour, Lord Farquharson.’ His actions rendered this description far from the truth, but she hoped that the reminder would prompt him to abandon his scheme, whatever it may be. ‘Surely you do not mean to compromise me?’

Farquharson’s mouth twisted. His hands were rough against her shoulders. Nothing sounded. Not a hint of music or laughter or applause. No footsteps. No voices. Not even the closing of a door. He looked at her a moment longer, and she had the sensation that not only did he know precisely the extent of her fear, but that it pleased him.

Madeline’s teeth clenched harder.

‘As if I would do such a thing,’ he said and lowered his face to scarcely an inch above hers.

Alcoholic breath enveloped her. Icy fingers of fear clawed at her until her limbs felt numb and useless. She looked up into his eyes, his hard, cold, glassy eyes, and saw in them her doom.

‘Just one kiss, that’s all I ask. One little kiss.’ His gaze dropped to caress her lips.

Madeline struggled, thrusting all of her weight against him in an attempt to overbalance him.

‘You cannot escape me, Madeline,’ he said softly and lowered his lips slowly towards hers…

‘Ah, there you are, Miss Langley,’ a deep voice drawled.

Lord Farquharson practically catapulted her against the wall in his hurry to remove his hands from her. He spun to face the intruder with fists curled ready by his side. ‘You!’ he growled.

Madeline’s eyes widened at the sight of her timely saviour. He was a tall gentleman with a smart appearance, long of limb and muscular of build. His hair was slightly dishevelled and black as a raven’s wing, and he was dressed in black breeches with a neatly fitted and exquisitely cut tail-coat to match. The man was certainly no one of her acquaintance, although he seemed to be of a somewhat different opinion.

‘I wondered where you had got to,’ he said in the same lazy drawl and stepped closer to where Madeline and Lord Farquharson stood.

Madeline stared at him, unable to believe quite what was happening.

‘I trust that Lord Farquharson has been behaving with the utmost decorum?’

His was a harsh face, angular and stark, a bold nose and square-edged jaw, and clear pale blue eyes that brushed over hers.

‘He…’ Madeline faltered. If she told this stranger the truth, her reputation would be well and truly ruined. No one would believe that he had dragged her down here against her will, in the middle of a performance of one of the season’s most successful plays. Lord Farquharson was a rich man, an aristocrat. Madeline Langley was a nobody. Willing or not, she knew what people would say. She bit at her lip and dropped her gaze. ‘I must return to my family. They’ll be worried about me.’ She hoped.

The stranger smiled, but the smile did not touch his eyes. Casually he turned his face to Lord Farquharson. The Baron blanched. ‘Lord Farquharson—’ a chill entered his voice as he uttered the name ‘—will escort you back to your mother. Immediately.’

Lord Farquharson stared in sullen resentment, but said not one word.

‘And I need not mention that he will, of course, be the perfect gentleman in doing so.’

It seemed to Madeline that there was some kind of unspoken battle of wills between the two men. Lord Farquharson was looking at the stranger as if he would gladly run him through with the sharpest of swords. The stranger, on the other hand, was smiling at Lord Farquharson, but it was a smile that would have cleaved a lesser man in two.

Lord Farquharson grudgingly took her arm. This time he seemed most disinclined to make contact with her sleeve, touching her as if she were a fragile piece of porcelain. ‘Miss Langley,’ he ground out from between gritted teeth, ‘this way, if you please.’ He then proceeded to lead her briskly back down the corridor, retracing the path along which he had dragged her not so many minutes before.

Although Madeline could not see him, she knew that the dark-haired stranger stalked their every step. His presence was her only protection from the fiend by her side. She wanted to shout her thanks to him. But she could not. She did not even dare to turn her head back. They moved in silence, their progress accompanied only by the muffled steps of their shoes upon the carpet. It was not until they reached the landing leading to Lord Farquharson’s box that the man spoke again.

‘I trust you’ll enjoy what is left of the play, Miss Langley.’ He executed a small bow in her direction before turning his attention once more to Farquharson. ‘Lord Farquharson,’ he said, ‘perhaps you have not noticed quite how clear and unimpeded the view is from these boxes.’ He looked meaningfully at Lord Farquharson and waited for them to step through the curtain that led into the Baron’s box.

‘There the two of you are,’ said her mother. ‘I hope that a little turn with Lord Farquharson has you feeling better, my dear.’ Mrs Langley did not notice that her daughter failed to answer.

Angelina eyed her sister with concern.

Madeline sat down in the chair, taking care to make herself as narrow as possible lest Lord Farquharson’s hands or feet should happen to stray in her direction. But he made no move to speak to her, let alone touch her. The air was still ripe with the spicy smell of him. She stared down at the stage, seeing nothing of Mr Kemble’s performance, hearing nothing of that actor’s fine and resonant voice. Her mind was filled with the image of a dark-haired man and how he had arrived from nowhere at the very hour of her most desperate need: a tall, dark defender.

She could not allow herself to think of what would have happened had the stranger not appeared. Whatever her mother thought, Lord Farquharson was no gentleman, and Madeline meant to speak the truth of him in full as soon as they were home. But who was he, the dark-haired stranger? Certainly his was a face she would not forget. Classically handsome. Striking. Forged in her mind for ever. A shiver rippled down her spine. Something, she would never know what, made her glance across to the boxes on the opposite side of the theatre. There, in one of the best boxes in the house, was her dark defender, looking right back at her. He inclined his head by the smallest degree in acknowledgement. Madeline’s breath caught in her throat and a tingling crept up her neck to spread across her scalp. Before anyone could notice, she averted her gaze. But, try as she might, she could not rid herself of the foolish notion that her life had just changed for ever.

‘What on earth did you think you were doing?’ said Mrs Langley to her elder daughter. ‘Trying your hardest to undo all of my good work!’

‘Mama, he is not the man you think,’ replied Madeline with asperity.

‘Never was a mother so tried and tested by a daughter.’

Madeline controlled her temper and spoke as quietly and as calmly as she could manage. ‘I’m trying to tell you that Lord Farquharson came close to compromising me at the theatre tonight. He is no gentleman, no matter what he would have you believe.’

‘What on earth do you mean, child?’ Mrs Langley clutched dramatically at her chest.

‘He tried to kiss me tonight, Mama.’

‘Kiss you? Kiss you?’ Mrs Langley almost choked. ‘Lord Farquharson tried to kiss you?’ Her cheeks grew suddenly flushed.

‘Yes, indeed, Mama,’ replied Madeline with a sense of relief that her mother would at last understand the truth about Lord Farquharson.

‘Lord, oh Lord!’ exclaimed her mother. ‘Are you certain, Madeline?’

‘Yes, Mama.’

Mrs Langley stood closer to Madeline. ‘Why did you not speak of this before?’

‘He frightens me. I tried to tell you that I disliked him.’

Her mother stared at her. ‘Dislike? What has “dislike” to do with it? Now, my dear…’ she took Madeline’s hand in her own ‘…you must tell me the whole of it.’

Madeline detected excitement in her mother’s voice. ‘I’ve told you what happened. He tried to kiss me.’

‘Yes, yes, Madeline, so you say,’ said Mrs Langley with undisguised impatience. ‘But did he do so? Did Lord Farquharson kiss you?’

Madeline bit at her lip. ‘Well, not exactly.’

‘Not exactly!’ echoed her mother. ‘Either he kissed you or he did not. Now, what is it to be?’

‘He did not.’

Mrs Langley pursed her lips and squeezed Madeline’s hand. ‘Think very carefully, Madeline. Are you sure?’

‘Yes.’

Mrs Langley gave what could almost have been a sigh of disappointment. ‘Then, what stopped him?’

Madeline found herself strangely reticent to reveal the dark-haired stranger’s part in the affair. It seemed somehow traitorous to speak of him. And her mother was sure to misunderstand the whole episode. Surely there was nothing so very wrong with a little white lie? ‘He…he changed his mind.’

‘Gentlemen do not just change their minds over such matters, Madeline. If he did not kiss you, it’s likely that he never intended to do so.’

‘Mama, he most certainly meant to kiss me,’ insisted Madeline.

A speculative gleam returned to Mrs Langley’s eye. ‘Did he, indeed?’ she said. ‘You do understand, of course, that were his lordship to compromise you in any such way then, as a man of honour, he would be obliged to offer for you.’

‘Mama! How could you even think such a thing?’

‘Come now, Madeline,’ her mother cajoled. ‘He is a baron and worth ten thousand a year.’

‘I would not care if he were the King himself!’ Madeline drew herself up, anger and outrage welling in her breast.

Mrs Langley sucked in her cheeks and affected an expression of mortification. ‘Please afford me some little measure of respect. I’m only your mother, after all, trying my best to catch a good husband for a troublesome daughter who refuses the best of her mother’s advice.’

Madeline knew what was coming next. She had heard its like a thousand times. It was pointless to interrupt. She allowed her mother to continue her diatribe.

‘You care nothing for your poor mama’s nerves or the shame of her having a stubborn plain daughter upon her hands for evermore.’ Fortunately a sofa was close enough for Mrs Langley to collapse on to. ‘Whatever will your papa say when we are left with you as an old spinster?’ She dabbed a tiny piece of lacy material to the corner of her eye. ‘I’ve tried so hard, but it seems that my best just is not good enough.’ Her voice cracked with heavy emotion.

‘Mama…’ Madeline moved to kneel at her mother’s side. ‘You know that isn’t true.’

‘And now she has taken against Lord Farquharson, with whom I have tried so hard to secure her interest.’ Her mother gave a sob.

‘Forgive me,’ said Madeline almost wearily. ‘I do not mean to disappoint you. I know you wish to make a good match for me.’

Mrs Langley sniffed into her handkerchief before stroking a hand over Madeline’s head. ‘Not only a good match, but the best. Can’t you see, Madeline, that I only want what’s best for you, so that I can rest easy in my old age, knowing that you’re happy.’

‘I know, Mama. I’m sorry.’

Her mother’s hand moved in soothing reassuring strokes. ‘It is not your fault that you have the looks of the Langleys and are not half so handsome as Angelina.’ The stroking intensified.

Madeline knew full well what a disappointment she was to her mother. She also knew that it was unlikely she would ever fulfil her mother’s ambition of making a favourable marriage match.

‘That is why I have sought to encourage Lord Farquharson.’

Madeline stiffened.

Mrs Langley felt the subtle change beneath her fingers. ‘Oh, don’t be like that, Madeline.’ She removed her hand from Madeline’s hair. ‘He’s a baron. He has a fine house here in London and a country seat in Kent. Were you to marry him, you would want for nothing. He would take care of your every need.’

Madeline looked with growing disbelief at her mother.

‘My daughter would be Lady Farquharson. Lady Farquharson! Imagine the faces of my sewing group’s ladies if I could tell them that. No more embarrassment. No more making excuses for you.’

‘Mama,’ said Madeline, ‘it is not marriage that Lord Farquharson has in mind for me.’

Mrs Langley laughed. ‘Tush! Don’t be so silly, girl. If we but handle him properly, I’m sure that we can catch him for you.’

Madeline placed her hands over her mother’s. ‘Mama, I do not wish to catch him,’ she said as gently as she could.

Amelia Langley’s eyes widened in exasperation. She snatched her hands from beneath her daughter’s and narrowed her lips. ‘But you’ll have him all the same. Such stuff and nonsense as I’ve ever heard. Madeline Langley turning her nose up at a baron! I’ll bring Lord Farquharson to make you an offer if it’s the last thing I do, so help me God. And you, miss, will do as you are told for once in your life!’

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