An Arranged BetrothalWith a Rogue
Honoria Aberdene stood in the corner of the Enford Estates ballroom, watching the couples dance. The corners of ballrooms were where she spent most of her time at London season balls and parties. With her plain appearance and advancing age, it was rare that she was ever asked for a dance. She didn’t mind being left to her own thoughts. But part of her was wistful, even though she enjoyed her own company.
As she watched her sister, Anna, and her brother-in-law, Harry Peregrine, dancing with one another as though nothing else in the world existed, she grew more wistful still. There was a rule about not dancing with one’s spouse at such a ball, but the marquess and marchioness of Enford were so in love that they didn’t care. Honoria envied such a love.
She was thrilled that her beloved older sister had found such a wonderful, happy love. But even though she was practically a spinster, part of her still hoped that she, too, could find a love like theirs. Despite the odds, she was counting on her third season being better than her first two. She still believed that she could find a good man that she truly loved. Even if others didn’t have the same faith in her hopes.
I must believe in finding love, she thought, even as she thought back on her failed seasons. They weren’t just unsuccessful, however. She hadn’t had one single gentleman take an interest in her. The few who had danced with her over two and a half seasons had only done so out of pity or social obligation. And she wasn’t the only one who had noticed her failure to attract a man’s affections.
Her father, the Baron Alswood, had taken notice. His eldest daughter had had little trouble marrying, and thus had gotten his blessing to marry the man she chose. But now, with Honoria three months away from turning twenty, her father was growing impatient. He had made it clear that he expected her to find a suitor that season. Honoria feared that, if she could not, he would make a match for her.
She shuddered as she thought about that possibility. There were many gentlemen in the ton who were unwed and seeking brides. They were all men of more advanced ages, some of whom were older than her own father, and many of them were roguish, at best. She knew she would never find love with such a man. Those types of men only wanted one thing. Heirs. She couldn’t allow herself to become mere breeding stock for an elderly man.
Her sister came rushing up to her, interrupting her thoughts. She embraced Honoria, her light brown hair hanging down in her sparkling, hazel eyes. Anna shared the same hair color as Honoria, and her eyes were only a shade less green than Honoria’s. And yet, her facial features were far more exquisite than her younger sister’s were, making her far more beautiful. Even with a fair complexion and a slender build, Honoria was nowhere as lovely as her older sister.
“How are you, darling?” Anna asked, kissing her younger sister’s cheek.
Honoria gave her a brave smile.
“This is a wonderful party,” she said.
“That is quite an observation from this hidden cranny,” she said. She was gently teasing her sister, but her eyes were filled with concern. “Don’t you see any man you like here?”
“It isn’t me who doesn’t like them, Sister,” she said.
Anna gave her a sympathetic look.
“Don’t fret, dear,” she said, kissing her sister again. “You are very intelligent and kind, and you are just as pretty as I am. You’ll meet someone this season. I just know it.”
Honoria smiled again. She was grateful to her sister for her kind words. But she knew, deep down, that Anna was wrong about her looks. Her plainness was as unappealing to gentlemen as a woman who enjoyed spending some of her free time reading, rather than shopping. And that, she did. Either of those traits alone could condemn a young ton lady to life as a spinster. But both of them sealed such a fate.
“You and Harry look so happy,” she said, changing the subject.
Anna looked over her shoulder at her husband, who was approaching the women, with a doting smile.
“I’ve never been happier,” she said dreamily. “And you will be, too. Trust me, Sister. You’ll see.”
Honoria nodded, but again, she knew her sister was wrong. She curtseyed to Harry’s bow, waving to her sister as her husband whisked her off to the dance floor again. She watched them with another longing sigh. Her sister’s word always renewed her hopes for her future. But the weight of reality threatened to snuff it out. What if she never found the kind of match her sister had found?
Careful to avoid being noticed, Honoria made her way to the refreshment table. There were many delicious smelling wines and champagnes at the party, and she decided to try some. She chose a glass of claret wine and sipped it heartily. But there was a lull between dances as the orchestra prepared for the next song and gentlemen found their respective ladies with whom to share the next dance.
More people were migrating toward the refreshment table where she now stood, so she took another glass, this one a small flute of champagne, and took her drinks back to her corner. She prayed that her parents didn’t see her. She didn’t want them to think that she was worsening her chances of making a match by keeping herself scarce in the ballroom. Truthfully, she just wanted to believe that she wasn’t dancing by choice, not because she was never chosen.
She finished her champagne rather quickly, then slowly sipped her wine as she looked around the ballroom. From her vantage point, she could see everything but the ballroom door and the corner to the right of it. The decorations were shades of the brightest reds and purples, and the silver candelabras and chandelier sparkled like new.
The refreshment tables looked like a royal feast table, with velvet purple tablecloths and gold dishes. Her sister had impeccable taste when it came to hosting parties. She hoped that, when she did marry, her taste would be half as good. I hope that I’m half as happy, as well, she thought, catching a glimpse of Anna and Harry talking to some of their friends and looking at one another affectionately.
When Honoria saw a couple of young gentlemen looking in her direction, her hopes rose. One of them seemed to be looking right into her eyes, and she dared to give a small smile. A second later, the other man started heading towards her. She took a deep breath, her heart racing in her chest. But he didn’t so much as spare her a glance, moving right past her as though she wasn’t even there.
When she looked at the man who had looked at her, he was craning to see around her, and her cheeks flared with heat. And when he noticed that she was looking at him, he recoiled and looked away quickly. She wanted to crawl under the table. At least then, she could be spared the embarrassment of being avoided. How could the evening get any worse?
She finished her wine quickly, debating on getting more. She knew she shouldn’t, and she rarely drank in such a fashion. But she would have done anything to escape the misery she was feeling in that moment. Yet before she could take another glass, a gentleman did approach her. Only this time, she wished he had kept walking past her, like the young gentleman had.
“Good evening, Miss Aberdene,” Archibald Monroe, Earl of Mondale, bowed stiffly as he reached her. “This is a lovely party, is it not?”
Honoria mustered a tight smile as she curtseyed. She wasn’t good with small talk in any situation. Least of all with an earl who was twice her age and looking at her like had more than talking on his mind. He was one of the older gentlemen who was unwed. And Honoria knew that he was also desperate for an heir, as well, as he and her father were friends.
“Good evening, my lord,” she said softly. “And yes, it is very nice.”
The earl nodded, extending his hand. She knew what he was going to say before he asked.
“You look quite lovely this evening,” he said. “Would you do me the honour of sharing your next dance set?”
Honoria quickly tried to think up of some excuse. Perhaps, she could tell him that she had promised her next dance set to her brother-in-law. Or, maybe, she could feign a megrim. But that would be very impolite. She couldn’t reject a request for a dance. Especially if the reason she gave was a lie.
“Of course, my lord,” she said, reluctantly putting her hand in his. He led her onto the dance floor, to her chagrin, right in the midst of the other dancers. Everyone stared at them, and she wished that the heavens would open up and pluck her from that ballroom. What happened instead was the orchestra began the song, and she was swept up in the earl’s dance leading.
If his sagging, wrinkled jowls and dark-circled gray eyes didn’t give away his age, his dance steps did. He danced with rehearsed skill, but it was clear that his legs were stiff and tired. He held his thin body stiffly, as though turning or moving was painful for him. And the candlelight reflected off his balding head, making the remaining silver hair look like tiny gold flames danced on it.
“You do look beautiful, Miss Aberdene,” he said again.
Honoria thought he had forgotten himself and repeated his compliment accidentally. But then, she realized that he was looking for a kind word returned. She swallowed, knowing well that she could never lie to him.
“That is a sharp suit,” she said quickly. “You look very distinguished.”
The earl grinned, and she saw his long, coffee-stained teeth and shivered.
“That’s too kind of you,” he said. “And my, what a graceful dancer you are.”
She nodded, trying to will the song to end so she could escape him.
“My mother taught me,” she said.
The earl nodded.
“Then, what a teacher she must be,” he said.
Honoria nodded again, hoping she looked less miserable than she felt. Would he at least stop with the awkward attempts at conversation?
When he finally fell silent, Honoria first felt relief. She thought she’d get the chance to close her eyes and pretend she was dancing with a young, handsome man. But the way the earl looked at her in the quiet made her uncomfortable. It wasn’t a lewd leer, but there was a hunger in his eyes. It was like he had found a lifesaving drink of water as he was dying of thirst. In a way, that made her more uncomfortable than if it had been a leer.
She was flooded with relief once more when the song came to an end. The earl slowly escorted her off the dance floor. She couldn’t curtsey and then disappear into the crowd fast enough. She wove through the crowd, moving first one direction and then another, until she felt sure she had lost him. Then, she circled back around, heading for the refreshment table once again.
She picked up another flute of champagne and then ducked behind a decorated pillar. She leaned against it, appreciating the cool stone on her back. She drank her champagne and tried to shake the feeling from her miserable dance. She hoped that she wouldn’t see Lord Mondale again for the rest of the season.
“And I win again,” Edward James said, placing his cards on the table with a wide grin and flourish. “Perhaps, whist isn’t your game, old chap.”
Clayton, the Viscount Durant, rolled his eyes.
“You will brag one too many times one day,” he said, reaching into his coin purse and fishing out twenty shillings.
Edward collected his winnings and widened his grin.
“Such a graceful winner,” he said. “Better luck next time, Viscount.”
Clayton froze, his mind instantly transporting him back to his days in the war. There was not one day when men weren’t falling down around him, many of whom never returned home after the war was over. There wasn’t a single day where Clayton didn’t believe that he would eventually be one of those who didn’t come home. But on one day in particular, he watched a young soldier fall, right at his feet, and die right in front of him.
He had knelt down to try to render aid. But he knew when he saw the wound in the man’s chest that it was too late for him. He started to rise when he saw that the man had a coin on a necklace that was now tangled up in his dog tags. In his shocked state, he hadn’t thought twice about lifting up the coin out of the pool of blood quickly forming beneath the dead soldier. It was meant to be a trinket to bring him luck.
Look where luck got that poor guy, Clayton thought. He was of a mind to believe that the only luck in the world was bad luck. Those who were fortunate were so because of skill, wealth or power. Those things had nothing to do with luck. Losing those things, though, had everything to do with bad luck. Bad luck led to bad decision, on someone’s part. And bad decisions led to more bad luck. And as such, he wanted nothing to do with luck.
“Clay?” Edward asked, sounding like he was speaking from the other end of a water drain. “Are you all right?”
Clayton blinked, staring at his friend until his mind returned to the present. He realized he had been lost in a flashback, and he swallowed hard. He couldn’t tell his friend what had happened to him. He wouldn’t begrudge his closest friend a good afternoon, just because his own memories haunted him. He shouldn’t begrudge himself of it, either. The nighttime hours were hard enough. He should at least enjoy the days.
Slowly, he nodded, grabbing the cards and shuffling them to deal another hand of whist without saying a word. He hoped that he could just banish such thoughts for the rest of the evening. But just as he was preparing to deal the cards, Edward reached out and put his hand over Clayton’s.
“Why don’t we go play a couple rounds of billiards, instead?” he asked, giving Clayton a warm smile.
Clayton returned the smile and nodded. That was one reason why he and Edward were so close. His friend never pressed him when he was feeling down, and it seemed that Edward had become proficient at noticing when Clayton was having a flashback episode. Instead of trying to make Clayton talk, he would simply suggest something that Clayton loved or was good at. And billiards was something at which he had always been very skilled.
“Does that mean a chance to win back all my money?” he asked, his dark mood dissolving.
“If you think you can,” he said.
Clayton followed his friend to an available billiards table, where they both ordered fresh drinks. Clayton finished his and ordered another in the time it took Edward to rack up the game. But his friend asked no questions when he saw Clayton’s new drink arrive. He simply gave him a nod, before smirking in his usually cocky fashion.
“Are you ready to lose at this, too?” he asked.
Clayton shook his head.
“You should be,” he said. He and Edward both knew he never lost at billiards. But their fun banter was something Clayton relished. Edward was the least competitive person Clayton knew, and he only ever seriously boasted expertise at a craft if he truly possessed it. Clayton didn’t know what he would have done without Edward when he returned injured from the war. Or in the year since his older half brother had died and left him the heir to the viscount title.
As a second son to a titled man, Edward understood Clayton on a personal level. Before Andrew, Clayton’s older half-brother and child to his father’s first wife, had died, Clayton and Edward had spent many an evening discussing life as second sons. In many ways, it was a relief to be a non-heir child. So long as they could provide for themselves and had reasonable business acumen, their fathers paid little attention to them. Incidentally, that meant that they were rarely shown pride or favor from their parents. And both men grew up longing for the praise of their parents.
After Clayton suffered his gunshot to his left shoulder, he returned home and, after he recovered, became quite the rogue. He became more involved with the seedier parts of London after Andrew died, as he knew what that meant. That was where he and Edward stopped having so much in common. Because after that, Clayton became viscount, and would one day become the earl. The situation was one in which Edward would likely never find himself. At least, Clayton hoped not. Inheriting a title he wasn’t born to inherit had been bad enough. Losing his brother had been far worse.
“All right, Captain,” Edward said, saluting Clayton in a warm and playful way after addressing him by his final rank in the military. “The game is ready when you are.”
Clayton smiled, straightening his posture, and rolling his injured shoulder as he stepped up to the table.
“I hope you are, too,” he said, wagging his eyebrows.
It was half past midnight when Clayton bid his friend a drunken farewell. He had, indeed, beaten Edward at all eight rounds of billiards they had played. Edward had paid much of Clayton’s spoils in drinks, so he was well into the sauce by the time he left. Still, he wasn’t ready to go home. So, he decided to call on his mistress.
He stumbled aboard his carriage, giving the orders to take him to the townhouse belonging to Lady Jane Swanson, spinster daughter of the Baron Swaland. He opened the coach window to let the cool night breeze hit his face and sober him up, if only a little. She didn’t shame him for drinking, like everyone else in the ton. But being too drunk to stand would hardly serve him when he arrived there.
He walked up to the door, taking deep breaths of the air as he straightened his jacket and knocked on the door. He was met by her butler, who gave him a disdainful look.
“Good evening, Lord Durant,” he said. “You came looking for Lady Jane, I presume?”
“No need to escort me to her,” he said. “I believe that I can find her.”
The man sneered.
“I’m sure,” he said. “But she has gone out for the evening, I’m afraid.”
Clayton couldn’t help the wave of disappointment he felt. It had been over a week since he had visited her, and he could use her company right then. But he just bowed slowly, watching the world spin as he did so.
“Please, inform her that I called in,” he said.
The butler huffed, slamming the door in his face. Clayton made a face at the door as he turned to go back to the carriage. He thought he might have a few more drinks when he got home. Might as well not waste a perfectly good evening, he thought.
But when he got back to his home, he didn’t make it any further than the parlor. He sat down with his scotch, ready to pour himself a drink. But before he could, he slipped into a restless sleep, where the only thing that awaited him was gunfire and blood, and the loss of so many lives.
“Clayton,” said a familiar voice. “Clayton, wake up.”
It took Clayton a minute to pull himself from the barrage of nightmares that had plagued him all night. Through the liquor haze, it felt like he was pulling his mind through molasses. But eventually, his mind followed the sound of the voice, until it was clearer and right there with him, not coming from the other end of a long, echoing hallway. He cracked his eyes open, looking right into the face of the person who was speaking.
“Mother,” he said, surprised. He sat up, instantly regretting it. The room spun, the light was too bright, and an invisible vice started gripping his head and sending pain sparks all through his brain. But he forced himself to smile and try to not let on how horrible he felt. “What are you doing here?”
His mother looked him over, and the look of disappointment told him that he’d failed to be convincing.
“I had hoped to not find you in this state,” she said, sighing heavily. She looked almost afraid, and Clayton wondered why.
“Edward and I just got a little carried away last night at Boodle’s,” he said, trying to sound nonchalant. “I’ll be right in just a little while.”
His mother shook her head.
“You and I both know this isn’t a one-time occurrence,” she said. “Which is why I came to speak to you. Your father will be returning from the Far East. He will be back in London any day. If he sees you in this state…”
“He’ll give me a tongue lashing and storm away angry?” Clayton said, giving up on trying to tough out the headache and pouring himself a drink.
His mother looked sadly at the bottle in his hands. He wanted to ignore the disappointment in her eyes, but he couldn’t. He poured the liquor back in the bottle and sank back in the couch, rubbing his temples.
“If you don’t clean up your act, and he does find you this way, I fear he will enforce consequences.”
Clayton chuckled, wincing against the pain it caused.
“I don’t care, Mother,” he said. “I don’t need Father, or his title, and least of all, his fortune. I made some good investments with the money I made as a captain. What can he do to me that I can’t handle?”
Once again, the countess looked fearful. He wondered if she knew something he didn’t about his father’s plans for consequences.
“You might not need the title, but it needs you,” she said. “You have a duty to fulfill as your father’s sole remaining heir. Not just to him, but to our family and our bloodline.”
Clayton exhaled, puffing out his cheeks. He regretted not having that drink. He would have stopped at one, just enough to take the edge off his sickness. But that would have to wait until his mother left. He knew she was right. It wasn’t just his father who was counting on him. But that was the whole problem. Why did everyone expect him to take up such a large mantle that was never supposed to be his in the first place?
“I never asked for any of this,” he said. “If Andrew were still here…”
“But he’s not, darling,” his mother said. “And you are. And your father will not allow you destroy our family’s reputation.”
Clayton had to bite his tongue. It was hardly Andrew’s fault for suddenly falling ill and dying. And he knew it was the custom for the next in line to inherit the titles and fortune. But that didn’t mean he wanted anything to do with any of it. He said as much to his mother.
“I know, darling,” she said with another sigh. “And were there any other options, I know your father would never ask so much of you.”
Clayton snorted. He expected too much of everyone, and anyone who didn’t comply got, as his mother had said, consequences enforced, to one degree or another.
“Surely, he could find other options,” he said. “You came here to tell me that my behaviour upsets and bothers him. Surely, he could find a way to keep the embarrassing, renegade son from inheriting everything he loves so dearly.”
His mother shook her head again slowly. She bit her lip, and it looked like there was something else on her mind. But she soon rose to her feet, leaning down and putting her hand on his shin.
“Please, just give what I’ve said some thought,” she said.
Clayton started to stand to see her out, but she rushed from the room before he could. He understood that he had disappointed her, and that was worse than all his father’s wrath at once. He sank back down on the sofa and groaned. He had already given what his mother said some thought. And what he thought was that he didn’t care one bit what his father liked. What was the worst the earl could do?
Honoria went to join her parents the following morning for breakfast in the drawing room. She had been happy to leave the evening past behind her and start a brand-new day. She was meeting Anna for tea that afternoon at Gunter’s, the tea house, and she was excited. She hoped that she and her sister could take a stroll through the park before they went back to their respective homes. Her time spent with her sister was the highlight of Honoria’s days.
“Good morning, Mother,” Honoria said, curtseying as she entered the room. “Good morning, Father.”
Her mother rose and kissed her cheek. Her father, however, mumbled a greeting from behind the newspaper. Honoria fetched a plate and helped herself to the breakfast bar. Then, she took her seat across from her mother and began eating.
“Did you have a good time last night, dear?” her mother asked.
Honoria raised an eyebrow. Her mother didn’t usually ask her about enjoying balls and parties. Even though the baroness encouraged her to be social and have a good time, she knew that Honoria didn’t like such events. Still, Honoria glanced toward her father. Even though he was still looking at his paper, she wouldn’t let on that she had been unhappy.
“It was a lovely evening, Mother,” she said. “Anna always hosts the best parties.”
Her mother nodded. But when she cast a glance at the baron, Honoria became suspicious. She tilted her head questioningly at her mother, who suddenly looked down at her plate and took a bite of her food. There was silence for a minute before her mother spoke again.
“Did anything special happen?” she asked.
Honoria sat back in her chair and looked her mother in the eye. Her mother had never been good at being slick when she had something on her mind. When her daughters were young, she used to try to get them to confess when they had done something naughty by dropping what the baroness considered to be hints. Yet both Anna and Honoria both always knew exactly what she was talking about. This time, however, Honoria had no clue.
“I can’t say that it did,” she said. “Why do you ask?”
“Is that so?” the baron chimed in from behind his newspaper. Honoria was surprised, guessing that he hadn’t been truly reading it if he had been keeping up with their conversation. “I saw you dancing with the earl of Mondale last night. From where I stood, you seemed to rather be enjoying yourself.”
Honoria looked at her mother with wide eyes. She wanted her mother to give her some indication of what was going on. But the baroness returned to shuffling her food around on her plate. For some reason, a pit began to form in Honoria’s stomach. She took a sip of water to soothe her drying throat before replying.
“I danced with him,” she said. “He was a good dancer.” Even that was barely true. His age had showed as he led her around the dance floor. But Honoria couldn’t tell her father that she was repulsed by the earl. It was disrespectful and inappropriate to say, and her father would surely be disappointed in her.
The baron finally lowered his newspaper, smiling.
“I’m very glad to hear you say that, dear,” he said. “I happen to think that the earl would make a fine husband for you.”
Honoria’s stomach twisted, the dread swelling around the knots forming there. She looked at her mother again, who barely spared her a sheepish glance.
“What?” she asked. “I mean, he is not married?”
The baron chuckled and shook his head. Honoria was relieved that he hadn’t noticed her horror, and that he believed she thought the elderly baron was married. But that offered little comfort for the horror she felt at the idea of having him for a husband.
“No, Daughter,” he said. “The earl is not married. He is, however, very wealthy, and marrying him would ensure you the title of countess. Really, it would be an ideal situation.”
Honoria barely kept her breathing from running wild. She couldn’t believe that her father could even suggest that she marry a gentleman more than twice her age. She picked her water up again with trembling hands, turning her face so that her father wouldn’t see how they splashed water onto the table. There was no way she would agree to marry that man. But nor could she argue with her father in any direct way.
“Surely, he would be happier with an older bride,” she asked as calmly as she could manage.
Her father shook his head.
“Heirs, darling,” he said, seemingly completely clueless to his daughter’s rising panic. “Only a young bride could be guaranteed to produce him heirs. And rumour has it that he is very much in need of an heir.”
Honoria blinked, praying to open her eyes and find herself still lying in bed, dreaming up the incredulous conversation she was having with her father. But she only saw her father’s face, looking at her as though he had accomplished something worthy of great pride.
“I don’t know what to say,” she said truthfully. She didn’t know what she could say that wouldn’t be a vehement rejection of her father’s wild suggestion.
The baron grinned, folding the paper, and setting it aside as he picked up his cutlery.
“Well, then, allow me,” he said, turning to his wife with the same smile. “Darling, I would like for you to invite Archibald to have dinner with us tomorrow evening. And then, take Honoria into town to buy a new dress, if you like.”
Honoria looked at her mother with pleading eyes. There was no way she could sit through dinner with the elderly earl. And her mother was her only hope of not having to do just that.
“Oh, sweetheart,” the baroness said with an apologetic tone. “Honoria and I just went shopping the day before the ball. She had plenty of new dresses.”
Honoria waited for her mother to say something more, something about not being able to invite the earl for one reason or another. But when she didn’t, Honoria sank into her chair again, shaking her head numbly.
“Very good,” the baron said, retrieving the news paper again. “Then I shall expect you to look your best tomorrow night, Daughter.”
Honoria rose, quietly excusing herself from the table. She couldn’t look at her mother, and she didn’t want to look at her father. She locked herself in her chambers, where she stayed until it was time to meet Anna for tea.
She was still distressed when she arrived at Gunter’s. She was glad to see that her sister was already inside, waving her over to her table as soon as she entered. She hurried over and embraced Anna, who pulled away and looked at her with concern.
“Sister, dear, what’s wrong?” she asked.
Honoria told her everything about Lord Mondale, and what her father was planning. Anna looked horrified, reaching across the table, and taking both her hands in her own.
“Oh, darling,” she said. “Father would never do something so terrible as to marry you off to a gentleman so much older than you. Don’t worry, Sister. I’m sure he just thought perhaps you had taken an interest in him, since you danced with him.”
“I worry that the rest of the ton will think the same,” she said. “I will never get a proper suitor if everyone thinks I’m interested in Lord Mondale.”
Anna gave her a reassuring smile. But before she could say anything else, their conversation was interrupted by the sound of hushed murmuring. Honoria watched her sister’s face contort into a look of pure disdain.
“What is it?” she asked.
Anna looked at her but kept casting glances of distaste toward the door of the teahouse.
“Viscount Durant,” she said, gesturing with her head. “That’s what it is.”
Honoria thought for a moment.
“He has a reputation for being rather roguish, doesn’t’ he?” she asked, lowering her voice.
Anna nodded vigorously.
“One of the worst rogues in all of London these days,” she said. “You should hear the things people say about him.”
Honoria bit her lip. She had heard what people said. She never participated in ton gossip, but she heard plenty of it. And if even a fraction of what people said was true, then Anna wasn’t wrong. But Honoria couldn’t just take the word of a bunch of gossips in the ton. Perhaps, they had some of the facts right. But it was just as likely that they were adding a bunch of tall tales that weren’t true.
“I think that people shouldn’t be so quick to believe everything they hear,” she said.
Anna raised an eyebrow.
“Are you saying that everyone is making up these stories about him?” she asked.
“Not all of them,” she admitted. “Sure, the ton gets things right sometimes. But come now, do you really think he could get away with beating up people, especially women, and still not be rotting away in a cell?”
Anna looked flustered for a minute, and Honoria knew her sister realized how ludicrous an accusation that was.
“Maybe not,” she said indignantly. “But he’s still very much a bad seed. Many people have seen him leaving the pubs in the seedy parts of London at all hours of the night, and others have seen him sneaking into and out of women’s houses.”
Honoria shrugged again.
“I don’t doubt that,” she said. “But what business is it of anyone’s, so long as he isn’t hurting anyone? And besides, do you know how many gentlemen keep mistresses in London?”
Anna looked at Honoria as though she had lost her mind.
“Are you defending him?” she asked.
Honoria shook her head.
“I just think that no one deserves to be judged on what they do with their lives,” she said. “It should be about how they treat other people.”
Anna shook her head again.
“He treats people like the rogue he is,” she said. “Rogues care about nothing but themselves.”
Honoria shook her head then.
“I think I would rather be forced to marry a rogue than to marry a man like Lord Mondale,” she said.
Anna gasped and stared at her sister in shock.
“You don’t mean that,” she said, shuddering. “Rogues can never be trusted to be faithful.”
Honoria shrugged again.
“They can, if they fall in love,” she said.
Anna scoffed. But a second later, she looked down hurriedly and took a slow sip of her tea. Honoria felt eyes boring into her, and she slowly shifted her posture so she could see behind her. Her eyes were met by the piercing, intelligent blue ones belonging to the rogue in question. Lord Durant was looking right at her, and her heart skipped a beat. All she could think about was what she had just said to her sister about preferring to marry a rogue to Lord Mondale. And if it was a rogue who looked like Lord Durant, she knew she meant those words wholeheartedly.
He was, without a doubt, the most handsome man she had ever seen. He was clean-shaven, with his dark brown hair pulled back in a short ponytail. And his eyes seemed to sparkle brighter as he stared back at Honoria. She had no idea how long they looked at one another, but she was sure it was far too long to be deemed appropriate.
The lingering gaze was broken the second the rogue viscount winked at her, however. Her face flushed the deepest shade of red, and she turned her head away quickly. She couldn’t bear to look up at her sister, but she thought that Anna was still giving the viscount nasty looks. But now, her heart was racing like a horse at the tracks, and it was all she could do to keep from trembling.
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