A Proposal To Risk Their Friendship

Melissa Taverner has literary ambitions and the fixed determination to remain an independent spinster. Why, she might even take a lover…

Lord Henry Cary, fourth son of a duke, appears to be a conventional diplomat – until Melissa realises that he is not at all what he seems. Before she knows what is happening she is not only friends with the really rather decorative gentleman, but she is embroiled in his hazardous secret world.

Even so, she sees no reason why she cannot continue in her independent way of life, even in the face of scandal. And then Melissa finds herself asking the last question she ever imagined would pass her lips…

Book 5 of The Liberated Ladies series.

Excerpt

10 April 1816. London.

Lord Henry Cary leant on the balustrade above the lower terrace of Lady Pernell’s garden and contemplated the strange whims of London’s society hostesses. Not content with holding one of the first balls of the Season, she had decided to throw open the doors onto the gardens, despite a fall of snow that was still lying on the hills around Highgate.

He had recently returned from Vienna, so was not finding the temperature particularly chilly, but then he was not one of the female guests, clad in flimsy silks and muslins. Very few people were braving the night air, despite braziers set out on the terrace and lanterns dotted all along the pathways to make a relatively modest garden resemble Vauxhall en fête.

But some guests were out and he watched the path five feet below him, feigning a casual interest.

‘I’m freezing. You coming in, old chap?’ Reggie Pomfret sent the glowing end of his cigarillo arching across the path and into the shrubbery beyond.

‘In a moment. I will see you inside, no doubt.’

And here came his target, strolling towards him on the lower level, as Reggie walked away briskly on the upper. Graf Klaus von Arten was deep in conversation with one of the attachés from the French embassy. Pierre Laverne, if he was not mistaken. How very, very interesting.

It might be that Graf Klaus was exactly what he said he was. Certainly, according to Almanach de Gotha, a Thuringian nobleman with that title did exist. But in the absence of any Thuringians to confirm it, who could tell? The man had drifted around at the Congress, amiably present at every social occasion and without any apparent reason for being there.

He had attracted the vague interest of Henry’s superiors as an unsolved puzzle, but when he appeared in England that attention sharpened. The Congress was over, the final treaties signed. France, its colonies, client kingdoms and possessions had been organised and distributed in the aftermath of the collapse of Napoleon’s empire – and now here was the amiable Count in intimate discussion with a junior French diplomat. It could be nothing, but it might be the first ripple of water over a hidden reef, waiting to hole the freshly-constructed structure of treaty and alliance that was holding a new Europe together after years of war.

The Frenchman stopped, bowed abruptly and vanished into the shrubbery that filled the centre of the garden, leaving von Alten to walk on towards the ballroom alone. He slowed, hesitated and Henry glanced left to see what had attracted his attention. An elegant blond man was strolling along, a young woman on his arm. The Graf speeded up and passed them with a nod, just before they reached Henry’s look-out.

Henry almost turned away to follow Reggie, but something about the couple below gave him pause.

‘I am cold.’ The young woman sounded more than chilled, she sounded thoroughly uncomfortable, her voice a little shrill.

‘There is a delightful little summerhouse just inside the shrubbery,’ the man said. ‘We can converse in comfort there.’

‘But I should not be alone with you. I should go back.’ Her voice had an edge of panic now and she pulled back against the very firm grip that the man seemed to have on her arm. ‘Ow! You are hurting me.’

‘Don’t be a little goose.’ His voice was caressing, teasing, but Henry saw something else in the set of his shoulders, the way he was forcing her towards the darkness of the shrubs.

He put one hand on the balustrade and vaulted over, landing solidly on both feet on the gravel path below.

‘What the – ’

As the blond man took a step back, another young woman, tall and dark-haired, emerged from one of the paths through the bushes.

‘Oh, there you are, Belinda darling,’ she said brightly. ‘I thought we had lost you. You must be frozen and the dancing is about to begin again.’ She shot Henry a questioning look as she took the other woman’s free arm, as though to link it through hers.

‘Miss Forrest is with me,’ the man said, his smile tight with anger.

‘Goodness, that would be silly of her, wouldn’t it?’ the tall woman said. ‘One step into the shrubbery would be so bad for dear Belinda’s reputation, don’t you think, Mr Harlby?’

She gave Miss Forrest’s arm a little tug. Harlby stood his ground.

Henry sauntered up, put one arm companionably around the other man’s shoulders and beamed at him, the very picture of slightly tipsy amiability. ‘Come on, old man, back to the dancing, eh?’ His thumb and forefinger closed together at the angle where Harlby’s collarbone and shoulder-joint met and tightened suddenly.

Harlby gave a gasp of pain and released Miss Forrest. ‘You bast—’

The tall woman turned so rapidly they might have choreographed the move. She linked arms with Miss Forrest and set off back towards the ballroom. Her voice, clear and assertive, drifted back. ‘Such a good orchestra, don’t you think?’

Henry kept his arm where it was and steered Harlby in their wake. ‘Got cramp, old man? A stiff brandy will sort you out.’ He kept his hand poised, waiting for retaliation, but the other man came meekly enough until half a dozen steps from the glass doors onto the terrace.

Harlby twisted away. ‘I’ll not forget you, you interfering devil.’ He pushed through the door and vanished into the ballroom.

Henry followed. ‘I won’t forget you either, friend,’ he murmured, looking round for Miss Forrest and her rescuer. They were on the far side of the room and the dark woman was talking animatedly to – of all people – the Duke of Aylsham, otherwise known as the Perfect Duke. As Henry watched he smiled at her warmly, bowed to Miss Forrest and led her on to the dance floor.

The rescuer moved along to a group that included two men he didn’t recognise and one that he most certainly did – The East End Aristocrat, the Privateer Marquis – otherwise known as the Marquis of Cranford. All three men smiled, glanced to where the Duke was turning Miss Forrest in the midst of a complex country dance, and nodded.

Clever. She was placing the young woman with two powerful men, and possibly others. Harlby would think twice before accosting Miss Forrest again. The dark woman had an air of authority and he wondered who she was. The wife of one of the men he did not know? Or Cranford, possibly. He had heard that the scarred Marquis had married recently.

Driven by sheer curiosity, Henry began to move around the edge of the ballroom to intercept her.