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Authors: Leigh Michaels

Just One Season in London

BOOK: Just One Season in London
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Copyright

Copyright © 2011 by Leigh Michaels

Cover and internal design © 2011 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Cover photography and illustration by Dana France

Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.

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For my mom
You taught me to reach for the dream
One

The town assemblies were too small to have much of an orchestra, so the music was most often provided by Miss Minchin at the piano. But this was all the young people had ever known, so they didn't miss the elegance of a London ballroom. Most of them would never have a London Season.

Including, Miranda thought with a wisp of sadness, the belle of tonight's ball.

Miranda's gaze rested on her daughter. Sophie's dark gold hair was a striking spot of color as she moved through the steps of the country dance. Miranda admitted she was partial to her own daughter. Still, everyone else faded into the background when compared to Sophie.

If only it was possible to get her to London… Even there, among the assembled lovelies of the nation, Miranda was certain that Sophie would stand out.

Sophie smiled up at her partner. It was a truly breathtaking smile, and Miranda wasn't surprised when the young man looked dazed, turned red, and missed a step.

Next to Miranda, Lord Ryecroft shifted his broad shoulders against a pillar. “I see my sister is at it again, Mama. That will make three young popinjays whose pretensions I'll have depressed this month alone.”

“It's only a dance. That doesn't mean he'll come to ask your permission to call on Sophie.”

Rye looked down at her, one eyebrow raised. “If not, it will be because his father saw that smile too and put his foot down. You know as well as I do that Newstead wants someone with more of a dowry than our Sophie has when it's time to marry off his younger son.”

“I wish…” Miranda bit her tongue, too late.

But it didn't matter, for the same thought was obviously already in Rye's head. “You can't wish it any more than I do, Mama. Get Sophie to London and she'd take the town by storm, marry a Croesus, and save us all.”

He was joking, of course, Miranda knew. At least, he was mostly joking. But there was truth in what he said. Not that she wanted Sophie to choose a husband based only on wealth. But rich men fell in love too—and a young woman with Sophie's warm heart could surely find a wealthy man she could care about.

If only I could get her to London…

Rye smiled down at his mother—but though his expression was reminiscent of his sister's brilliance, she could see the shadow in his eyes. “I haven't the blunt to lay out for a London Season,” he said, “and with the best intentions in the world, I can't find it this year.”

“I know you can't, my dear.”
But perhaps I can
, Miranda thought.

It would take sacrifice, and she would have to be careful not to let Rye and Sophie know. But for the sake of her children, Miranda would do anything.

***

Rye bowed to his mother and moved toward the refreshment room, where he helped an elderly lady to a glass of punch. She sipped the watery concoction and looked at him speculatively over the rim of her glass, her black eyes beady. “You're Viscount Ryecroft, aren't you?”

Rye admitted, warily, that he was.

She didn't favor him with her name. Instead she looked him up and down and asked, “Why isn't a young buck like you in the assembly room flirting with the young ladies? Not lack of interest from the chits, I'll be bound. Is there no one here tonight with enough juice to be worth your while to court?”

The comment stung Rye's pride—the more so because, in part at least, it was true. What sense was there in raising hopes among the young ladies at this assembly by dancing and flirting when he would never be able to form an attachment to one of them? Even worse, what if he were to meet a woman he
could
care about, but could not afford to marry her? Better to stay on the fringes.

What was true of his sister was equally true of him. If anything, his case was even more desperate—for Sophie needed only to marry a man who had enough money to support her. Rye needed to marry a woman who had enough money to support his estate and all the responsibilities that came along with it—including the tenant farmers, the servants, the retainers, his mother… In short, he needed an heiress of great magnitude—and generosity. Someone he was not likely to meet at this rural assembly.

Only in London…

Not that it was any sure thing, even if he somehow got to the city with enough brass in his pockets to make an impression during the Season. Sophie's beauty would draw the attention of any man, making her a bargain well worth having, despite her lack of a dowry—if only she could be brought to their attention. But Rye possessed nothing more than ordinary looks, along with a ticklish sense of humor. Neither attribute was likely to win over the sort of young woman who had a large enough fortune to take her pick of the Marriage Market. And he was still quite young for a man to be settling down—so the chits might not even take him seriously.

Not that he was about to discuss his situation with some elderly… lady.

As if the old woman had read his mind, she reminded him, “You have a title.”

“So do many other men, ma'am.”

“And many a woman covets one and is willing to pay for it.” Her beady eyes rested on him for an uncomfortably long time, and then she said, “I like the look of you, Ryecroft.” She dug into her reticule and handed him a pasteboard rectangle. “If you get to London, look me up in Grosvenor Square. I'd like to see more of you.”

Rye's hand closed convulsively on the visiting card. Surely she didn't mean—surely she
couldn't
mean that
she
was one of those women who coveted a title and was willing to pay for it. She was older—far older—than his mother was, by Jove!

Her laugh sounded rusty. “No need to leap into the boughs, my boy. I know an heiress or two. That's all I meant. Come and see me, and I'll introduce you.”

She set down the punch cup and walked away. She was spry for her age, Rye noted—though in fact, she might be anywhere from sixty to eighty, for he was no judge of such things. If she'd been a horse, now, then he'd have had a pretty fair guess.

He looked down at the card.
Lady Stone,
it said in neatly engraved type.
Tuesdays.

So she already had a title, and her address on Grosvenor Square was in the most fashionable section of London—and she was at home to callers on Tuesdays. And she knew an heiress or two and would present him. That might improve his odds.

Not that he was foolish enough to count his chickens. It would take a fortune of massive proportions to rescue Ryecroft Manor, and there weren't many of those lying around for the choosing, even in London. But it was worth a try.

Perhaps he should make a trip to the city—for if he
could
catch an heiress, then next year Sophie could have her come-out and her chance at happiness. And he would be able to fix up the dower house for his mother so she could stop fretting about the concerns of running a large household on meager rations and enjoy her remaining years in peace. Then she would not have to deal day to day with the frustrations of living with a new Lady Ryecroft—one who might feel that since her money was paying the piper, she should be the one who called the tune. Of course, Rye would have to live with the as-yet nameless, faceless heiress…

It would take sacrifice for the rest of his life. But for the sake of his mother and his sister, Rye would do anything.

***

They turned through the old-fashioned figures of the dance—bowing and curtsying, parading and wheeling. The sheer exhilaration of movement made Sophie smile up at her partner in delight. Instantly, however, she regretted it—for James Newstead's face went slack and then turned bright red. His hand tightened on hers, and he fumbled the next step of the dance.

Oh, fiddle
, Sophie thought.
I hope Rye didn't see that.

She looked past her partner's shoulder and saw her brother's face, just as he shook his head at her and shifted restlessly against the pillar.

Clearly, she was in for another scolding—and a scolding it would be, even though Rye wouldn't yell at her. He never did…

Well, Sophie thought with a reminiscent twitch of the lips, that wasn't absolutely true. There had been that time she'd taken his favorite hunter out for a gallop without permission, and the time she'd been trying to walk along the handrail of the bridge and had lost her balance and fallen into the creek.

But as a rule, Rye didn't yell. She almost wished he would; it would be so much easier if he were angry than when he seemed to be wounded by her behavior. As if it were her fault, for instance, that James Newstead didn't know the difference between a friendly smile and an encouraging one!

Sophie understood why Rye looked so sad these days. He really was the best of brothers, despite his many flaws. She knew that he would give anything in his power to be able to offer her a London Season and a chance to find a husband who was—as Rye would put it—worthy of her.

Which meant rich, of course. At least rich enough to provide her with the luxuries Rye thought she deserved.

It was all a bunch of twaddle, Sophie thought. Or at least, it would have been if not for Mama and Rye. It had been a long time since she'd seen Mama without that small worry line between her brows. And now Rye had come fully into his inheritance and realized just how bad things had gotten at Ryecroft Manor in the years since their father died…

Neither of them talked to Sophie about their worries. In that way, they obviously still thought of her as a child, even though she would be nineteen before long and Rye wasn't all that much older. She would have gone to London last year if Rye's trustees hadn't tightened the purse strings—and this year, it was clear, could be no different. Though she hadn't been told the details, only a dolt would fail to recognize that there simply wasn't money to rent a town house for a few months or buy a new wardrobe or purchase vouchers for Almack's. And without those things, as well as a reasonable dowry, no well-born English girl stood a chance of making a respectable match to a man with enough blunt to provide for her mother, and perhaps even to give her brother a helping hand in bringing his land back up to snuff.

Well then, what about a nonrespectable match?
a little voice in the back of her mind inquired.

Sophie finished the dance with a curtsy to her partner and fanned herself as she waited for the next set to begin.

But the idea stayed in her head. Perhaps there were other ways to go to London.

She wasn't much of a hand at charades and such, so Sophie had no illusions about her chances of making a career as an actress. But she could sing, so perhaps she could be a chorus girl. And she was fond of dancing. Weren't there plays that needed dancers?

Of course, those weren't exactly respectable occupations. But what good was it to have a pure reputation and a sterling name if all she could do was stay at home at Ryecroft Manor, growing old while still a spinster?

At the least, if she went off to make her own way, Rye would be relieved of the expense of taking care of her. And if she were fortunate, Sophie might meet a gentleman—or even a wealthy tradesman—who would be intrigued enough to make her an offer.

Though probably not an offer of marriage.

She sighed. Perhaps it wasn't the best idea she'd ever had, but at least it was an idea. And if it came to that, she'd figure out how to convince Mama that she was happy. After all, Mama always said that the only thing she really cared about was for Sophie and Rye to be happy.

It would take sacrifice, of course, to pull it off. But for the sake of her mother and her brother, Sophie would do anything.

BOOK: Just One Season in London
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