The day was filled with a soft, misty rain as Lady Arabella Walford stepped out of the carriage onto the main shopping street in the small town of Lockham in Dorset. Carefully, she put up the hood on her blue velvet cloak, protecting herself from the weather.
“We should not tarry, Arabella,” said her mother tartly, gazing up at the sky as if the weather was a personal affront. “We still have twenty minutes before your dress fitting with Mrs March. Since the weather is so inclement, perhaps we should settle down for a pot of tea at the Nightingale until then?”
Arabella suppressed a smile. The weather was hardly inclement; it was barely raining. But Mama always did have a habit of overdramatising everything. And the thought of a pot of fresh, hot tea was rather appealing, when all was said and done. Better than wandering the street window shopping, at any rate.
“Of course, Mama,” she replied, following her mother in the direction of the Nightingale Tearooms, which were only halfway down the village street. Her mother walked briskly, her back ramrod straight. Lady Walford cut a formidable figure, indeed. Other shoppers greeted her with their usual deference as they scurried past. The Walfords were one of the first families in the district, and everyone knew it.
The tearoom was almost empty when they entered, pulling off their hoods. Arabella cast her gaze around. There was old Miss Grave, a local spinster, seated by herself in a corner, sipping her tea, a faraway look in her eyes. Arabella knew it was the old lady’s habit to come here every day, rain, hail, or shine. In the opposite corner sat timid Miss Laura Banfield and her mother, polishing off a plate of scones. They greeted them with slight nods of their heads, before taking a table near the back, placing their order.
“I do hope Mrs March is not running behind schedule,” muttered Lady Walford, pursing her lips. “That lady does tend to book too many young ladies for fittings. We had to wait half an hour the last time we went to her shop.” She paused, gazing at her daughter. “And we want that blue silk ready for the ball this weekend. I shall be most insistent.”
“Do not fret, Mama,” sighed Arabella, only just stopping herself from rolling her eyes. “I am sure Mrs March will be most accommodating. Besides, even if the blue silk is not ready for the Townshend ball, it will not be the end of the world. I have a dozen other gowns which would be suitable for the occasion.”
Lady Walford looked shocked. “Arabella, the whole district has seen you wear them before,” she said, shaking her head. “We might get away with it if you were attending an event in London or somewhere else, but not here. One must always make an impression. And you need to dazzle an eligible young gentleman or two. You are not getting any younger, my dear.”
Arabella turned her face away, hiding her smile. Her mother spoke as if she were two and thirty, rather than two and twenty.
“I am hardly in danger of turning into poor Miss Grave yet, Mama,” she said in a loud whisper. “Please, you must stop fretting about it. When the time comes, I am sure I shall make a dazzling match to appease you and Papa.”
“Arabella,” scolded her mother, frowning. “That lady is only a few tables away from us! Where are your manners?” She was silent for a moment as their tea arrived. Once the cups were poured, she turned to her daughter once more. “Your reluctance on this matter baffles your father and I, Arabella. It is almost as if you do not want to be admired or courted. It is most distressing.”
Arabella sipped her tea without replying. What was the point of it? It wasn’t as if she could ever tell her mother the truth anyway. Lady Walford didn’t even know what had happened two years ago. She would be shocked to learn that not only had her daughter once had a serious suitor but that she had been badly let down by him. And that was the reason Arabella was reluctant to allow anyone to court her.
She simply did not trust men. It was as simple as that.
She took another sip of her tea. She knew she must move on from it—it had been years, after all. But every time she started to relax and flirt back with a gentleman, forgetting about it for a brief moment, it would return with a vengeance. Her mind would become so consumed by it that she would mumble excuses and flee. The thought of one of them actually getting close enough to her to propose filled her with numb terror.
Her best friend, Miss Phoebe Bastable, was the only one who understood. The only one Arabella could talk about it with. But Phoebe only sympathised to a certain point. Her best friend was a hopeless romantic and kept telling Arabella that she must look past her broken heart and try again. That the gentleman of her dreams might be around the next corner, and how would Arabella find him if she was so mired in the past? It was a thought that Arabella agreed with, in theory. But she still could not find the courage to put her heart on the line again.
Perhaps she would end up an old maid like Miss Grave. Perhaps it might even be her destiny.
Arabella was so distracted with her reverie, she didn’t even notice the shop door was opening until the figures were standing in the centre of the room. Suddenly, they came into sharp focus. Two gentlemen, one dark and one fair. And she knew both of them.
Her heart seized. There was simply no escape. She could hardly grab her mother and drag her out of the tearoom without paying, could she?
Please, do not let them see us! Please, let them just walk to a table near the window!
But it was too late. Already, the tall figure with the dark hair was slowly turning, gazing around the room in an idle fashion. And then his eyes stopped as he registered the two ladies sitting at the back table.
Arabella’s breath caught in her throat. Her heart was hammering in her chest. She felt like she was going to be sick.
She was staring into the face of Lord James Fernside. The gentleman who had broken her heart all those years ago. It was as if she had conjured him out of the air, summoning him from her very thoughts.
It was the first time she had seen him in over a year. And it still felt like yesterday.
Lord James Fernside cursed underneath his breath as he stared at the lady, her teacup poised in her hand. Of all the places his good friend, Mr Peter Mowbray, could have dragged him into, he had chosen this one. Nightingale’s Tearooms on Main Street. He hadn’t even wanted to come here. He didn’t even feel like tea.
It was Lady Arabella Walford. And she looked almost exactly the same as the last time he had seen her.
Desperately, his eyes darted around the room, seeking an escape. But there wasn’t any. Apart from turning around and marching out of the tearooms entirely, they were caught, like flies in a spiderweb. Damn Peter. Damn everything in the world.
Suddenly, Peter saw the ladies. He smiled cautiously.
“Fernside,” he whispered. “We must go and say hello to them. It would appear intolerably rude not to. It is Lady Walford, after all. I am sorry, old chap.”
James nodded. His friend was right, of course. There was no avoiding it. Lady Walford, Arabella’s mother, was a society doyenne of the district. She was the local queen bee. One never ignored her. Not if one did not want to become a social pariah, that is. It was just how things worked in this corner of Dorset.
He grimaced. The irony of it wasn’t lost upon him. He hadn’t been back here in so long, and this visit was a whirlwind affair. He had been back only a week. He had been living in London for over a year and rarely came home. But his father had been ailing, and his mother had appealed to him to come home, and what was a chap to do? To add insult to injury, this was only the second time he had stepped out of Temple Hall, his ancestral home, since his return.
And who did he run into? A ghost from his past. One that he would rather forget. Of course. It was just his luck.
I should have stayed indoors for the duration, he thought dismally. I should have not left the damn house at all.
His eyes swept over her. She was just as beautiful as ever, of course. Her honey-gold hair was in curls around her face, in the fashionable style. Her blue eyes were still the colour of forget-me-nots. Her oval face still had the wide, sweeping cheekbones he remembered, and her complexion was still peaches and cream. She was dressed elegantly, in a white muslin and lace morning gown, suitable for a shopping trip.
Lady Arabella Walford. A lady who utterly despised him.
He took a deep breath. “Well, here goes nothing,” he muttered to Peter. “You are taking me to the club in Gillridge after this, my friend. I think I will need a stiff drink or two to recover from the tongue lashing which awaits me.”
He walked over to the table, forcing a smile onto his face. It rather felt like it might crack entirely. Peter was just behind him.
“Ladies,” he said, bowing. “What an unexpected pleasure. And how are you faring, Lady Walford?”
Arabella glared at him, her lip curled in distaste. Suddenly, she put down her teacup with a loud clatter. Her mother gazed at her in surprise but quickly recovered, turning back to the two gentlemen standing next to their table.
“Lord Fernside,” she said, smiling brightly. “And Mr Mowbray. It is an unexpected pleasure, indeed.” Her gaze was razor-sharp, fixed upon James. “What brings you back into the district, pray tell? I heard that you are now a resident of London. Grosvenor Square.”
James nodded, feeling sweat dripping down his neck. “Indeed, ma’am. I live in my family’s townhouse in London for much of the year.” He took a deep breath. “I am only back for a quick visit. My father has been poorly, and my mother needs my assistance.”
“Yes, I did hear that the Marquis is ill,” said Lady Walford, shaking her head. “Please, send my regards to your good parents. I hope that it is not serious?”
James shook his head. “He is still running the estate from his chambers. And bright spirited enough to find fault with everything that is being done.” He forced himself to laugh, trying to avoid looking at Arabella. “He shall be back on his feet in no time.”
Lady Walford nodded, turning to Peter. “And you and your family are well, Mr Mowbray?”
Peter nodded, smiling. “Yes, indeed, Lady Walford. We are all in good health, I thank you.” He paused. “And how is your husband? I have not seen him in a while.”
Lady Walford pursed her lips. “Lord Walford spends most of his time holed up in his study with his newspapers and his political tomes, but he is well enough, despite that.” She laughed mirthlessly. “Are you both attending the Townshend ball this coming Saturday, perchance?”
James glanced at Peter. “Is this the ball you were telling me about, Peter? The one you are intent on dragging me to?”
“The very one,” laughed Peter. “Yes, we shall be attending, Lady Walford.” He looked hesitantly at Arabella, who still hadn’t uttered a word. “Are you going, Lady Arabella?”
Arabella smiled sourly. “My dear mama is quite insistent that I must.” She glared at James. “So, the warning is there. Heed it if you will.”
There was an awkward silence.
Peter looked uncomfortable. “Jolly good, then!” He turned to James, a slightly desperate look in his eyes. “We should probably take a seat and order, old chap, if we want to get to the tailors on time.”
James winced. There was no way he was going to sit in this tearoom with Arabella Walford glaring at him like a spiteful cat the whole time. He would probably choke on his tea.
“Actually, I just recalled a previous appointment,” he said quickly. “We do not have time for tea at all, my friend.” He took a deep breath, turning to the ladies. “Well, it was marvellous running into you both! Please give my regards to Lord Walford. Peter, shall we?”
His friend looked surprised but didn’t argue with him. They both quickly bowed to the ladies and exited the tearooms. It was only when they were halfway down the street that he finally let out the breath he had been holding.
“There is no previous appointment, is there?” asked Peter sardonically. “Honestly, James, you acted as if you had just been scalded with a hot iron.” His friend gazed at him curiously. “It has been years. Why is there still such rancour between you and Arabella?”
James felt his mouth set into a thin line. He kept walking briskly. The more distance he could put between him and Lady Arabella Walford, the better. It was crazy that there was still such ugly emotion between them after all this time, but it was obviously still there. He hadn’t seen her in a year or more, and she still gazed upon him as if he was something unsavoury she had just spotted on the bottom of her shoe.
A wave of guilt assailed him. He knew why Arabella looked at him that way and why she would barely speak to him. It was all his fault. He knew that. He had been the one who had ended things between them. And the worst of it was he couldn’t even really recall the reason he had done it now.
He took a deep breath, trying to push the ugly emotion away. He supposed he had just been young and foolish. He had barely been three and twenty when they had secretly courted. He had been swept away with passion for the beautiful and charismatic Lady Arabella, but he hadn’t wanted to marry. Not at that point in his life. There was still too much to do.
Arabella had never forgiven him for it. She had only been twenty, and he supposed she believed he was going to propose to her. When he had discerned how serious she was about him, he had panicked. And had set about sabotaging their relationship entirely.
He took another deep breath. It was all ancient history now. He barely thought about her anymore. He had a new, exciting life in London. There were many beautiful, fashionable ladies there to occupy his mind. He had been dallying with them like he was selecting morsels from a plate. He had ended things only a month ago with Lady Louisa Stanhope, his most recent flame. That was just what London was like—there was always something more exciting and interesting just around the corner.
He turned to his friend now. “How should I know?” he said quickly, his lip curling. “If Arabella wants to hang onto that animosity, then so be it. I have tried to let bygones be bygones. We did not have to greet them then, did we? And yet we did.” He exhaled slowly. “Let us forget all about them, my friend. Gillridge it is. Let us head to the club and call it a day.”
Peter raised his eyebrows. “James, it is still only morning. It might be the fashion to while away the day at gentleman’s clubs in London, but this is the country. I doubt it shall even be open yet, my friend.”
James sighed irritably. He simply couldn’t wait to get back to London. The sooner that his father was on his feet, the better. It truly could not come a moment too soon for him.
Arabella’s hand trembled slightly as she held the teacup. The encounter with James Fernside and his friend, Mr Peter Mowbray, had left a very bad taste in her mouth.
“Arabella, you were insufferably rude to those gentlemen,” scolded her mother, rounding on her like a spitting cat. “You did not utter a word for the longest time, and then when you did, strange gibberish emerged. What were you referring to, when you told the poor man to take heed?”
Arabella’s mouth tightened. “I do not like either of those gentlemen, Mama. And I do not wish to go to this ball if they are going to be there.”
“Fiddlesticks,” said her mother tartly. “You are going to the ball whether you like it or not. You have a dress fitting, and we are spending good coin on a new gown for you.” She gazed at Arabella curiously. “Why have you taken such a dislike to those gentlemen? Lord Fernside is from a very highly placed family indeed. His father is a marquis and dripping in wealth. You could do far worse than him!”
Arabella felt her control snap. “Really, Mama? Even if he is a feckless, impulsive man who treats ladies as if they are just decorations placed in front of him for his amusement? You would truly have me take such a man seriously, even if he is dripping in wealth, as you so tastefully put it?”
Her mother looked shocked, reeling back as if she had been slapped. Arabella was instantly ashamed of herself. Her mother meant well, and she had no idea of the history between Lord James Fernside and herself. Thank the Lord.
“I am sorry, Mama,” she muttered, reaching out a placating hand. “Do not take any notice of me.” She paused. “Shall we finish this tea and be on our way to Mrs March’s? We do not want to be late for the fitting, as you have reminded me.”
Her mother looked mollified, nodding and finishing her tea. Within minutes they had paid and were out the door, heading towards the dressmaker’s shop.
It was still drizzling as they walked down the street. Arabella stared up at the sky mournfully. In some way, the weather was matching her current mood exactly. Grey, dark and foreboding.
She took a deep breath. Seeing James Fernside again had rattled her, there was no doubt about it. And yet, she could not for the life of her fathom why. It was over and done with—years had passed. Her heart should be well healed by now.
Carefully, she probed her feelings. It wasn’t as if she still had any left for him, not at all. Too much time had passed, and there was too much water under the bridge. So why did she react in such a violent way when she saw him?
He was still a handsome man, she thought sardonically. Even more handsome than when they had courted. It seemed that Lord James Fernside grew better with age. At least physically. She had no idea what his character was like now, whether he had matured, or whether he was still the feckless cad he had always been.
As she walked into the dressmaker’s shop, she trembled at the thought of seeing him again at this ball. But that was just something she would have to deal with if it happened. Firmly, she cast him out of her mind entirely. James Fernside was not worth dwelling upon. She had learnt that the hard way.
James stumbled just a little, squinting into the sky. His head was spinning slightly. How had it become daylight? He was sure that it had still been dark when he had entered the Bellevue Club. He must have been in there for hours. The place must never close.
He glanced at the gentleman walking alongside him, who was leaning a little too heavily on a walking stick. James knew that Mr Lewis Hann didn’t really need the thing—it was just an affectation, a current fashionable item. Lewis had always been a bit of a dandy, after all. But something told him that the gentleman might be as worse for wear from an evening at the club in Gillridge as he was.
James stopped abruptly. “My carriage,” he whispered, pointing across the street. “There it is. I suppose I should get into it and head home. My dear mother will be having an apoplexy wondering where I am.”
Lewis Hann laughed, a tad too loudly, for whatever time it was in the morning. “Still tied to the old girl’s apron strings, Fernside? You disappoint me. I thought you were a sophisticated man-about-town now. At least that is what I have heard.”
James scowled at him. “You are insufferable, Hann.”
The gentleman laughed harder. “That I am. Let us go for a little walk before we end the evening’s revelries entirely. I find it freshens the mind after an evening of debauchery at the card table.”
James shrugged. What did it matter if he was back at Temple Hall within the hour or the next? And besides, Lewis was right. It would refresh him.
They set off down the road, weaving a little. Lewis twirled his walking stick theatrically, causing two older matrons to raise their eyebrows at the pair as they passed by. James barely stifled a laugh. He had forgotten how staid and parochial it was in these towns and villages. He was rather too used to London.
He eyed his companion myopically. He had known Lewis Hann for years, but they had never been particularly good friends. But when he had spied him in the club, he couldn’t resist challenging him to a game of whist for a rather large amount of coin. Lewis was an eager gambler, always ready to jump in and place a wager. They had played game after game together, all the while slowly drinking their way through a decanter of the club’s finest whiskey.
They kept walking, rounding a corner. It was busier here. James suddenly realised they had stumbled onto one of Gillridge’s fashionable shopping areas. There were ladies dressed in their morning gowns and frilly bonnets peering into shop windows and gentlemen talking quietly in groups. The sight of such morning respectability was altogether far too much for him.
He gripped Lewis’s arm. “We cannot go down this street!” Quickly, he looked around. There was a park across the street, beside a winding river. “Let us go to that park, Hann. We can lay by the riverbank and feed the ducks or some such thing.”
Lewis laughed, lurching slightly to the left. James thought he might be in danger of toppling over like a felled tree.
“Jolly good!” he proclaimed loudly, causing a group of fashionable Gillridge residents to gape at him. James thought there may have even been a vicar in the group. “Off we go!”
He lurched onto the street, narrowly missing a passing carriage. Cursing underneath his breath, James caught up with him, pulling him back. Carefully, they made their way across the street, managing to get to the park in one piece.
He breathed a sigh of relief. It was much quieter here. There were a few people promenading but not as many as were on that street. The river looked serene and welcoming, too. There were ducks and swans and a myriad of other birdlife. Just what he needed in his frazzled state.
They fell onto the grass by the riverbank, gazing over the water. Lewis fell onto his back, staring up at the sky. James thought he might be in danger of passing out entirely.
“So, how has London been treating you?” asked Lewis, his eyes closed.
“I am enjoying it immensely,” he replied, gazing back down the path. “There is always something to do. The theatre, or musical recitals, or the clubs along Bond Street.” He paused. “I find Lockham and even Gillridge quite dull by comparison.”
“How long are you in the area for?” asked Lewis, hauling himself upright.
James shrugged. “Until I am no longer needed. My father has been ill, on and off, and my mother requested some assistance with the running of the estate, even though he has a perfectly adequate man of affairs.” He shrugged again. “I think perhaps she just wants some support. I cannot wait to get back to London, my friend.”
His mind drifted to Lady Arabella and their unpleasant encounter at the tearooms in Lockham two days ago. He was inclined to skip this upcoming ball at the Townshends country estate entirely to avoid seeing her again. He had mentioned it to Peter, but his friend had seemed disappointed. But there was still time to work on him.
He stared at the river dolefully. That was one of the main problems in coming back to Dorset. There seemed to be ghosts around every corner. And it was most unpleasant dealing with it. It made him uncomfortable that he was despised so utterly in certain quarters. Although if truth were told, it was only Arabella.
Lewis hiccupped delicately. “I am thinking of relocating permanently to London myself. A man needs to stretch his wings a little. Perhaps you could introduce me to some of your acquaintances when I get there, Fernside.”
James was just about to answer him when his blood froze. For walking down the path by the river just ahead of them was a small party of ladies, their parasols high above their heads. They were talking amongst themselves. He was almost certain they hadn’t seen the two gentlemen laying on the riverbank yet.
He cursed underneath his breath. It was none other than Lady Arabella and her mother, accompanied by her good friend, Miss Phoebe Bastable.
He jumped to his feet, dragging Lewis by the arm. “Come with me,” he hissed. “Now.”
Lewis looked surprised but didn’t say anything. The two men stumbled down the path in the opposite direction. When they were far enough away, he spied a rotunda, quickly veering towards it. As soon as they climbed the steps up to it, he crouched low, forcing Lewis to do the same.
“My dear chap,” whispered Lewis, gazing at him in amazement. “This is all very cloak and dagger! Pray tell, why are we hiding like fugitives in this smelly old rotunda? Is it something to do with that group of ladies by any chance?”
James’s mouth tightened. He thought that Lewis hadn’t seen the group of ladies. But even in his cups, Lewis Hann was like a bloodhound on the scent. Nothing ever got past him.
“I just need to avoid Lady Arabella,” he whispered furtively.
“Why? Do tell,” whispered Lewis, his eyebrows shooting up.
James cursed. “It is old business, Hann. I courted her many moons ago. But she has never forgiven me for breaking it off. I ran into her at the Nightingale tearooms only a few days ago, and let us just say if looks could kill….” He shrugged ineffectually.
Lewis smiled, his eyes gleaming. “You and the delectable Lady Arabella? How did I never hear of it? I usually have my finger on everything that happens in this district.”
James sighed heavily. He wished now he hadn’t mentioned it at all. But then, he had to give some rationale for his extreme behaviour.
“We kept it a secret,” he muttered, running a hand through his hair. “Not many people knew about it. It was quite intense between us for a while there.”
Lewis suddenly poked his head up. James knew that the ladies would be passing the rotunda by now or very soon. Desperately he dragged him down again.
“I mean it, Hann,” he whispered furiously. “I do not want to see that lady. Especially in my present state. I could just imagine the look of contempt in her eyes.”
“It seems to me that you still carry a flame for Lady Arabella,” said Lewis, smiling wickedly. “Why else would you care what she thinks of you?”
“I have no feelings for her at all anymore,” he hissed. “It is old news. It is just unpleasant, that is all. No one likes to be so thoroughly hated. Just let it be, Hann. Keep your head down, and they will soon pass, and then we can be on our way.”
“Hmmm,” said Lewis, his eyes still twinkling with mirth. “Perhaps we could put it to the test, my friend. You say that the Lady Arabella truly despises you now?”
“She detests me,” said James glumly, slumping against the rotunda wall. “I swear she would have my guts for garters if I let her.”
Lewis gazed at him, a sly look on his face. “You lost quite a lot of coin to me last evening, Fernside. Quite a lot indeed.”
“I told you I am good for it,” said James sourly. “I just need to get back to London to secure the funds, that is all.”
Lewis smiled. “What if I were to tell you I am willing to let the debt go entirely? I propose another wager.” His smile widened. He looked for all the world like an angel that had just fallen to Earth, instead of the devil that he was. “I think Lady Arabella still harbours feelings for you, my friend. Shall we put it to the test? I want you to try your hardest to win back the fine feelings of the lady—to have her fall in love with you again. If you succeed, then we shall call it quits. You owe me nothing. If you lose, however, the debt stands, and I shall call it in.”
James gaped at him. “You want me to do what? It is impossible, man! She can barely speak to me. You want me to try to make her fall in love with me?”
Lewis nodded. “Just so. It shall be a challenge of gargantuan proportions, I grant you. But therein lies the sport. I shall be watching with bated breath from the sidelines.”
“I have not agreed to it yet,” muttered James, shaking his head. “It is probably one of the most foolish things I have ever heard….”
Lewis sighed. “London is turning you into a lily-livered dandy, Fernside. And do not forget, you owe me rather a lot of coin.”
James glared at him. It was true he had gambled past his limits last evening. His father would not be happy when he heard about it. James only got a limited income from the estate until he inherited the title. And with his father unwell, it seemed cruel to burden the old man with it. The Marquis was notoriously frugal and despised gambling, calling it the devil’s work.
But accepting this bet meant that his debt would be wiped. His father need never know about it. It was just a little tempting.
He gazed back at Lewis. “How long would I have to win her over? Is there a time limit?”
Lewis coughed into his hand. “By midsummer. That gives you three months, at least. More than enough time to gradually woo her and convince her you are not the devil incarnate.” He smiled suddenly. “The Basingstokes always hold a midsummer ball. That can be the line drawn in the sand on the matter. If you have not won the lady over by the night of the ball, then we shall say you have failed. We could even give you until the stroke of midnight. A dash of Cinderella to add to the mix.”
James shook his head in disgust. It was a cad’s bet. No true gentleman would ever bet on such a thing. He knew that.
But his competitive instincts were roused, now. He had never been able to refuse a bet. Especially one so challenging.
“Is it a deal?” asked Lewis, holding out his hand.
James hesitated for a moment. Then he stuck out his hand, shaking his friend’s extended hand.
“Deal,” he said.
“Oh, well done!” cried Lewis, forgetting the need to be quiet in his excitement. “This shall be jolly good sport!” He suddenly looked around him. “Have they passed by yet? Are we able to leave this rotunda? I fear I am in need of my bed soon, Fernside.”
James glanced down the path. He could just see the backs of the ladies, their parasols swaying above their shoulders. He almost sagged with relief. They were gone. He didn’t have to deal with the wrath of Arabella today at least.
His heart lurched. How on earth was he even going to attempt to win this bet when he was scared to even speak to her?
His mind started spinning. It was all too much to contemplate now. He needed to get into his carriage and get to bed, have at least a few hours kip underneath his belt. Things were starting to seem strange and almost hallucinatory. Rather like the only time he had visited an opium den in London and over imbibed on the poppy. That experience had scared him off for life.
He staggered to his feet, holding out his hand to Lewis and helping him up. Carefully, they made their way down the steps of the rotunda and back through the park. As soon as they were outside the club again, they parted ways. Lewis headed to his carriage, and James almost collapsed across the seat of his.
The carriage lurched away. He was asleep before it even reached the corner.
Arabella sat in the parlour with Phoebe, sipping tea. Her mother had finally left them after their excursion into Gillridge, and she could speak to her best friend alone, at last.
Phoebe put down her teacup, seemingly as eager as she was to talk privately. “What is it you wanted to tell me, Arabella?”
Arabella bit her lip, gazing at her best friend. Now that the time had come, she wasn’t at all sure she should mention how she had run into James Fernside the other day. Even though she had been bursting to talk about it with Phoebe. She was the only one who knew about what had happened between them, all those years ago. At least, Arabella believed she was.
She took a deep breath. “James Fernside is back in the district. I ran into him at the Nightingale tearooms.”
Phoebe looked aghast. “Oh, dearest! How dreadful for you! Did you speak?”
Arabella smiled tightly. “Yes and no. At least, he spoke to Mama, making pleasantries. He had no choice. He looked like a cornered rat.” She shuddered. “It amazes me that I still want to slap his face after all this time, but there you have it.”
Phoebe looked sad. “It is a shame that you still feel so strongly about it, Arabella. It is water under the bridge now. Can you not just talk to him in a neutral way and be done with it? I only say this because I care about you. I do not want you to become bitter.”
Arabella’s nostrils flared. She didn’t want to hear this. She wanted Phoebe to be as outraged as she was, fanning the flames of her contempt. But instead, her best friend was trying to be wise and sensible about the whole thing, forcing her to perhaps look at it from another perspective.
Arabella sighed. She loved her friend for trying. But it was never going to work. It seemed that James Fernside was as a red rag to a bull with her. He always had been, and he always would be. It didn’t matter how much time had passed. The feelings were as intense as they had ever been.
Except now, she hated him rather than loved him.
“I do not intend to become bitter,” she said, gazing steadily at her friend. “Not in the least. But James Fernside deserves every bit of contempt that I have for him. You know that he does, Phoebe.”
Phoebe nodded. “I know what he did to you, Arabella. It was not a nice thing at all. I do not mean to sound flippant when I said that perhaps you need to move on a little. I am very mindful of the pain he caused you and the fact he was an utter cad.” She paused. “But is he still the same man? People can change, you know. He might have matured since he moved to London. Stranger things have happened. He might deeply regret the pain he caused you and wish that things had ended differently.”
Arabella shrugged. “He may be a different man now. He may have matured. Who knows? But I do not intend to give him the benefit of the doubt. He revealed his true colours to me, and I could never fully trust he would behave any differently.” She hesitated. “It is best that we avoid each other. I know he desires it as much as I do.”
“How do you know that, dearest?” asked Phoebe in a gentle voice. “How can you be so sure?”
Arabella laughed outright. “Phoebe, you should have seen his face in the tearooms. Believe me, he only spoke to us because he was forced to. And he hightailed it out of there, claiming he had forgotten an appointment. They did not even sit down.”
“They?” questioned Phoebe. “He was not alone?”
Arabella shook her head. “He was with his friend, Peter Mowbray. I used to call him the Shadow because he was always one step behind us at events.” Her face softened a little. “Peter is not a bad man, though. I quite liked him. A pity that it is so awkward between us now because of his friend.”
Phoebe took a deep breath. “Well, perhaps James Fernside’s visit shall be short, and you will not see him again, dearest. We can only hope.”
Arabella raised her eyebrows. “I am afraid there is little hope for that. He is attending the Townshends’ ball this weekend. I pleaded with Mama to get out of it but to no avail.” She chewed the end of her thumb absently. “I will be on alert and duck behind pillars if I must. And you must have your eye out for him as well, Phoebe. We can be a team.”
Phoebe laughed. “Very well. I shall do my best, dearest. But please, do not let him spoil your evening. That would be a shame.”
Arabella shrugged again. “I do not especially care for balls anyway, Phoebe, as you know. I only attend them to appease Mama. She still has hopes that some eligible gentleman will sweep me off my feet and lead me to the altar.”
Phoebe looked sad. “That is still possible, Arabella. You are only in your early twenties. Do not let one broken heart put you off men for life. That would be the biggest tragedy of all.”
Arabella forced a smile onto her face. But she didn’t know what to say to her best friend at all. She wished she could reassure her, but the words simply would not come.
She took a deep breath. This was her life now, and she simply had to accept it. She wasn’t the same person she had once been. And there was nothing she could do about it.
“A Lord’s Roguish Game” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Lady Arabella Walford knows from experience that Lord James Fernside is a rogue. They had a secret, passionate affair years ago, before he betrayed her, fleeing to London and a new life. However, James is back in the district, stirring up trouble, provoking her once again… How is she going to endure running into him at every social event of this enthralling season?
An inevitable meeting…
Even though Lord James Fernside has chosen to leave his sinful past behind, a drunken mistake puts him in very hot water once again… Suddenly, he is forced by a hideous bet to awaken the desire of a Lady he has been trying so desperately to avoid. Trying to seduce her as a secret admirer, his scandalous love letters set a fire in her heart that he can not cool down. How will he ever win her back using a wicked identity?
A cruel twist of fate…
As the tangled web of deception and betrayal grows ever more complicated, Arabella and James are forced to confront their flaming past… A past that has never been resolved. Is it truly over between them or is this just the beginning of another burning affair?
“A Lord’s Roguish Game” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.