both jump. 'And if I do not I will have a word with your father, young lady. He is back in Town-without, apparently, any notion of where you are. Now, off with you both.'

'Old witch,' Rowan said with a chuckle. 'I nearly expired with embarrassment when she rattled the door handle.' Papa was back! Was it possible to be any happier? He was going to love his son-in-law.

Beside her, Lucas snorted with amusement. 'You'd have done more than that if I'd yielded to your blandishments and joined you on the sofa.'

'I suppose you are going to become tiresomely honourable and not lay a finger on me until we are married?' Rowan sighed. It was torture not being able to touch him. She just wanted to stroke him, reassure herself that he was real.

'Of course. I will be a pattern book of respectability. But then, I do not intend having to wait very long. If I

go up to Town tomorrow to speak to your father and get a licence, what do you say to a Twelfth Night wedding?'

'Oh, yes!' Rowan tried to realise that this was truly happening-that her utterly unsuitable love was about to become her completely suitable husband. 'Where?'

'Is your Town house open?'

'It can be. St George's Hanover Square, then-?' Rowan broke off. 'Lady Smithers? Yes, thank you, I feel much better now. Something I ate, I think. Quite. Have you by any chance seen Miss Maylin? No?'

They passed on, scanning the room.

'Oh. Lord, where can she have got to?'

Lucas was nodding and chatting, his eyes running over the crowd crammed around the walls now the dancing had begun.

'Where's Will? Never mind your pea-brained friend.'

'She is not pea-brained!' They passed a door leading to the conservatory. 'Let's look in here. She might have escaped for some peace and quiet.'

'May as well. At least I can kiss you in here,' Lucas observed, making cold shivers run deliciously up and down her spine by kissing the nape of her neck as she dodged around a potted palm.

'Shh, there is someone in here already.' She tiptoed forward, conscious of Lucas on her heels, and parted the fronds of a large fern.

A tall, dark man had a young woman locked in his arms, kissing her ruthlessly. She had no chance of escape but hung, tiny and fragile in his arms, as he ravished her mouth. There was no mistaking that gown of blonde lace and pale amber silk. She had fastened it herself that evening.

'Stop it at once, you brute!' Furious, Rowan launched herself out of the shelter of the fern, tugging on Lord Danescroft's sleeve.



'Lucas!' Lord Danescroft pulled himself together first. 'I do not know who you are, ma'am, but my fiancee and I-'

'Fiancee? Penny, you do not have to do this-'

'Will, for heaven's sake think! This is the rest of your life you are-'

'Stop it-all of you.'

Rowan blinked at her friend. Penny was flushed, but her small round chin was firm and her head was up. Indignation flashed in her eyes.

'I am marrying Lord Danescroft. I love Lord Danescroft. And if anyone else tries to stop me I shall-'

'Penny, my love,' Danescroft said tenderly, 'it is quite all right. Lucas and his friend-I am afraid I do not know her name-have your best interests at heart. They just do not know yet that we love each other.'

'Lucas?' Penny glared at him. 'Your valet? That libertine?'

'Yes, that one. Lucas Dacre, Viscount Stoneley, at your service ma'am,' Lucas said with a bow. 'Will, may I introduce Lady Rowan Chilcourt? Sometime dresser to Miss Maylin under the soubriquet of Daisy Lawrence. And shortly to be my wife.'

'Really? Oh, Rowan!' Penny hurled herself into her friend's arms, knocking her back several paces. 'I love him, you see, and I was determined to tell him, and say that I didn't want to marry him just to be a mother to his daughter and a good, conformable wife, and that if he didn't want a love match then I didn't want him. But he loves me! And is that truly Lord Stoneley?'

Over Penny's shoulder, as she patted her on the back while she shed happy tears into her cream silk, Rowan watched the men gripping hands. Then Will pulled Lucas into an embrace and she saw his face: pure happiness. It was going to be all right. For all of them. But she had to be sure, for Penny's sake.

'Lord Danescroft?'

'Lady Rowan?'

'What is the truth about your wife? It will go no further, I swear.'

'I loved her-she, I discovered, loved many.' His voice was harsh, and Penny pulled out of Rowan's arms and went to wrap her arms around him. He looked down at her, stroking his hand over her mousy hair. 'Lucas had tried to warn me, but I was besotted. Once I discovered that she was happily cuckolding me with a number of gentlemen, I sent her off to my country estate. I thought there would be no temptation: I had not realised she would simply start working her way through the male staff.' He paused, his face stark.

'And she began drinking-gin, mostly. I went away for a couple of days and came home unexpectedly, in the early hours. They were not expecting me, so the front door was bolted. I knew where the back door key was and went round through the kitchens, intending to go up the service stairs. I met her coming down-drunk, fresh from her lover's bed. She saw me, screamed, turned to run and fell. There was nothing I could do.'

'I am so sorry,' Rowan said, drawing a deep breath. They could go on picking over the past, or-



'Stop crying, dear. Shall we get married together? St George's Hanover Square on Twelfth Night?'

Lucas and Will came over. Will was holding Penny gently against his shoulder, his other hand on Lucas's shoulder as he grinned at his friend. 'Be my best man?'

'Of course. If you'll be mine.'

'And what is going on in here, might I ask?' It was Lady Rolesby, with what appeared to be half the guests at her heels.

Lord Danescroft looked sheepish, Penny quailed, but Lucas's arm came around Rowan's shoulders and he stepped forward. 'Madam, I have an announcement. We are all going to get married. For Christmas.'

In the ensuing uproar Rowan tipped her head back to smile up at him, and he added in a whisper only she could hear, 'For Christmas. For life. For ever, my love.'

Louise Allen

Louise Allen has been immersing herself in history, real and fictional, for as long as she can remember, and finds landscapes and places evoke powerful images of the past. Louise lives in Bedfordshire and works as a property manager, but spends as much time as possible with her husband at the cottage they are renovating on the north Norfolk coast, or travelling abroad. Venice, Burgundy and the Greek islands are favourite atmospheric destinations. Please visit Louise's website – – for the latest news!

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