The Rogue She Loved by Ella Edon

Chapter One

There is no better place or time than the London Season for any marriage-minded woman in want of a good match.

Elise tapped her foot impatiently beneath the soft tangle of skirts as she stared out of the drawing room window. This was her second year out, and yet it was set to pass without incident, on account of her not being allowed to go to London, where the genuine spirit of the Season could be felt.

Even as she stared longingly out the window, a raven flew down to rest on her windowsill. That was a terrible omen. As if she needed any more evidence to crush any surviving hope of being taken to London by her father. She wanted nothing more than to dress for an outrageous soiree on the Ton where she could indulge her innermost whims and desires, having the time of her life. She was tired of being trapped at home while other young women of her age had the pleasure of theatre parties, balls and grand masquerades. She wanted more. She wanted more, so much that it hurt.

A knock sounded at her door.

“Who is it?” she asked, glancing over her shoulder.

A soft, charitable voice replied. “It’s me my Lady. Henrietta.”

Elise smiled and swivelled to face the door. “Do come in, Henrietta.”

Henrietta, her lady’s maid, appeared in the open doorway with a smile and a tray of letters. “A letter has come in for you, my Lady.”

Elise gave a start, almost jumping at the sudden jolt of excitement. “A letter?”

Henrietta smiled, nodding vigorously.

Elise darted forward and ran a hand over the tray. “From whom Henrietta?”

“Lady Amy Andrews.”

Elise picked the letter up from the tray, examining the seal. Upon prying it open, she found it was written in the unmistakable cursive of a woman tutored to the highest standards of calligraphy.

Elise smiled as she read:

My dearest Elise, I have missed you dearly in the time since we last spoke. How have you been? I do hope you are well. I have come to believe that you belong to a very peculiar category of person. The sort who has all the beauty, elegance and grace one could ever imagine but manages to never show it to the world. For that reason, I write with the sincerest hope that you respond to this invitation favourably. I wish for you to visit me in our home in London and attend all the events of the Season. This year promises to be a particular delight, and I would love nothing more than to have you, my best friend, by my side. Do think about it.

Your dear friend, Amy,

Elise folded the letter away and drew in a long, protracted breath. Henrietta stood at her side with a look of inquiry on her face. Though Henrietta served as Elise’s lady’s maid, she also took on the role of the adviser and confidant to Elise. She possessed a strength of understanding and calmness in judgment, which made her not just an attendant but a close and trusted friend. Henrietta gave a rough, indiscriminate cough which was as clear a call for details as asking the outright question.

“My dear friend Amy wants me to come to London, to spend the Season with her.”

Henrietta clapped her hands at her cheeks. “Lady Elise, that is delightful. The weather is fair, and all the talk from down in London is that this promises to be a Season to remember.”

“Papa will never allow it. He hates London and all the Season’s events. They remind him of-” she trailed off, leaving the sentiment incomplete.

Henrietta knew the words that had gone unsaid. “Surely we mustn’t presume, my Lady. The Lord is a reasonable man, and I do say you are certainly of age for the Season. Why don’t you try speaking to him? He might surprise you.”

Elise did not want to let her hopes rise. It would simply hurt too much if they were dashed again. But she couldn’t help herself; here was a clear, uncomplicated invitation to attend the Season. An opportunity, if nothing else, to leave Hertfordshire. Henrietta was right, she had to try.

Elise touched her lip, considering her options. “Is Papa back from his ride?”

“Yes, my Lady,” said Henrietta, “In fact, he has already settled into his study.”

Elise swallowed. Going to see her father in his study was almost always a daunting affair. It was in his study that her father was at his most intimidating. The desk seemed so small and her father so large that when he stood behind it, he seemed a very frightening man indeed.

She made her way to the study and stared at the door. Her heart started to beat faster, and she balled her hands up into fists, breathing through her nose. Her effort to summon courage achieved only partial success. The terror was there in great measure. Her father, Lord Hammington, was far from a wicked man, but he was stern as an old oak tree and had no patience for fools. When he attended to business, it was with ruthless efficiency, and he cared little for giving the appearance of geniality to anyone but his horses. On the best of days, talking to her father was a challenge, but when it came to the subject of London and her desire to taste of the pomp and pageantry of the Ton, he was particularly obstinate. Worse still, the Barony had fallen on hard times because of some bad investments, followed by a bad harvest and the succeeding effect on yields and repayment obligations. They had tried to disguise their increasingly desperate straits by quietly reducing their number of servants and selling off some valuable assets, but as it was, their family was not far from the brink of ruin. That had put her father in particularly bad spirits of late. Steeling herself, she leaned forward and gently knocked on the door.

Her father’s voice came as though from the heavens. Deep and foreboding. “Come in.”

She sucked in a breath and pushed the door open. Her father stood at his full, towering height with arms folded across his chest. His scowl was etched deep, and he narrowed his eyes as he studied her. He had always been a physically imposing man, but there was also a terrible concentration in his stare that made it hard to hold his gaze for anything longer than a moment. A thick grey-white beard hung from his chin like a swathe of seafoam, and his brows had a most singular arch that almost touched the temples.

Elise forced herself to meet his eyes, smiled, then gave a gentle curtsy. “Welcome back, father.”

Lord Hammington tilted his neck until it clicked and let out a small breath. “How may I help you, Elise?”

Elise opened her mouth and then closed it again, fumbling at the words. She came to the brink of abandoning the idea altogether. Such was the intensity of his penetrating stare when he regarded her. He didn’t press her on the question to her relief and gave her the time to get the words out.

“I received a letter from my dear friend Lady Amy Andrews today.”

Lord Hammington raised an eyebrow and gave the semblance of an ingratiating smile. “How is she?”

“She is well, Papa.”

He nodded. “Good.”

This was it. Her moment of truth.

“Amy has invited me to spend a few weeks at her family's home. To attend the Season with her.”

Lord Hammington’s grip seemed to tighten about his arms as she spoke, but his calculating expression did not change.

“Which home is Amy referring to in her letter?” Lord Hammington asked absentmindedly.

Elise coloured violently, fearing the outcome of her words. “Their home in London, of course, father.”

Lord Hammington was silent for a long moment, his eyes narrowed to slits.

“London,” he said finally, shaking his head. “No, not London.”

Elise lowered her voice to a volume she only supplied in times of supplication. “Father, every year I grow older, and yet you have not allowed me the opportunity to make a good match, to meet a good husband. We could certainly use the benefit of a good marriage for me.”

He snorted. “There are many good husbands to be found about the country. There is no particular need to go to London. I am already making arrangements and negotiating for a good match for you. You need not worry yourself on this account.”

Elise narrowed her eyes. This had always been an area of a great struggle between her and her father. Elise had never been explicitly marriage-minded, but she always believed that when she did get married, it should be for love with someone who cared about her. To her, the idea of marriage to a man with whom she had no connection or attachment was entirely abhorrent. Her parents had set a shining example, which she felt morally inclined to follow.

The love her parents had shared was impressed strongly in her mind. They stood by each other’s side on good days and stood closer on bad days. Both joy and sadness were things that they shared, and they enjoyed nothing more than being in one another’s company. Having seen that in her childhood, how could she not consider love an essential ingredient in marriage? She was committed to marrying a man with wit and colour about him. A man who read and understood much beyond the affairs of business. Who found value in art, poetry, and music. Her father knew this and for him to allude to already making arrangements for her marriage was close to an act of intimidation which she would not countenance easily. All the same, she needed his permission to go to London, and she was desperate to have it. So she picked her words very carefully.

“Father, would you be so cruel to me as not to allow me any say on my own marriage?”

Her father blinked and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I know you are particular about your marriage Elise, and I fear you will not make it easy on me. Should I choose a husband without your word on the matter-”

Elise gave a small smile. “You may be correct on that count, father.”

Her father snorted. “I am more than willing to allow you a say in who your husband should be, provided the gentleman be of good breeding and manners, but the gentleman in question does not need to be in London. You don’t know what it’s like in London. I do. There are pickpockets on every corner, and rats fed fat on the muck about the street. I have known nothing good to ever come of that place.”

Perhaps in her father’s mind, his words would have put her off on the idea of seeing London. In truth, they had only strengthened her resolve to go. She wanted to see this place, which promised all the excitement she had craved in her life. To know for sure if what he was saying was true. Her father hated London and never spoke a single pleasant word about it.

Elise knew that it was because her mother had once loved London, and to recollect that connection had often proved too hard for her father to bear. Elise understood his pain intimately. The pain of losing a mother was like a shadow, trailing her everywhere she went. A part of her that would never leave for good. Every time she saw a woman of like age to her mother, she was reminded of all her mother’s dreams that had been cut short, and the pain came again. She knew London was not her father’s true enemy. His true enemy was pain.

She gave her father a questioning eyebrow. “Surely, Father, London is not quite so terrible.”

“Oh, it is,” Lord Hammington replied.

“Wasn’t that where you met my mother?” Elise urged. “If it is such a terrible place, what were you both doing there? And finding love no less.”

A deathly silence fell upon the room. Elise knew she had stepped close to the mark of her father’s incandescence, but that was always the way with the man. You had to sometimes go to extremes to get him to agree with you.

Lord Hammington’s scowl somehow deepened. His face hard enough to withstand hammer and anvil.

“Do not use your mother’s memory as a weapon against me,” he said, his voice almost in a whisper.

Elise gave a start. “I am not using her father. I only ask that I be allowed the same privileges that she was once allowed. To go into London and attend the Season.”

Lord Hammington scratched his chin, seeming to consider it. “How long would you be gone?”

Elise was taken aback. It seemed as though he was really considering her request. “Four weeks at the very most, my Lord,” Elisa said.

“Three weeks,” he supplied.

Elise nearly jumped but remastered herself to contain her unbridled glee. She would have accepted two weeks, two days even. Three weeks was a wonderful opportunity.

“Agreed, three weeks would be adequate, father,” she said, scarcely able to contain the smile at the corners of her mouth.

Her father’s countenance changed, and for a moment, Elise feared he was going to reject the proposal outright once again and that all would be lost.

Desperate to go, she hurried to make a promise.

“I make this promise to you, Father, if you let me go, then I will marry whomever you decide without a word of complaint.”

Her father raised an eyebrow and combed through his beard. Those moments seemed to last an eternity as Elise waited with bated breath for his answer.

“Alright, Elise,” he said at last. “You may go for three weeks and not a day more, and when you return, I will have found a fitting suitor. I will hold you to your word and expect no complaints from whomever I choose.”

Elise pursed her lips and nodded firmly. It was a steep price to pay, but once she had said it, she was sure that she would make the forfeit. This was her one chance to enjoy all the promises of the Season at least once in her life. She tried to console herself about her decision by considering whether love in marriage was even possible at all. She knew it was, for she had seen it, but even so, perhaps it was not available for her. Men were - even at the best of times - vexing creatures, and it was to Elise’s credit that she was possessed of such long-suffering and unbothered disposition that she felt she could learn to tolerate any man she married so long as he was not cruel to her and treated her with respect. She could learn to live with whatever man her father picked, but she could never learn to abandon her desire for some form of adventure in life. Her mind was made up.

“I agree, father.”

She stepped out of the study and found Henrietta waiting patiently in the corridor. A glance was the only invitation Henrietta needed to fall into step as they started towards her bedchamber. Elise, barely able to stop herself from sprinting up the stairs, laughed as she opened the door and entered the bedchamber.

With a knowing smile, Henrietta shut the door firmly behind them. “Was my Lord disposed to granting permission, my Lady?”

Elise blinked. “Indeed he was. You were right!”

Henrietta beamed. “I’ll prepare your best dresses, my Lady.”

Elise reached out and clasped Henrietta by the hand. “How fun this will be! In two weeks, we will be on our way to London for the Season, and we will have the very best time.”

She wondered for a moment whether she had paid too steep a price for a prize. London would be a dream, but what if her father fixed a marriage that would become a nightmare?