Excerpt from PASSION AND PRETENSE
Whispers and scandalized murmurs breezed through the ballroom crowd around her but Penelope could not hear enough
to get the gist of things. She could, however, begin to pick out a few words here and there from the loud male voice
shouting over the hushed din. Indeed, things were getting more than interesting. She ducked under Lady Davenforth’s
enormous bosom and pressed past Sir Douglas MacClinty’s portly abdomen. No one noticed her, so she kept on,
moving slowly toward the front of the room. Mamma would surely have a fit, but Mamma hadn’t seen her so far. She
could gawk as blatantly as she liked.
“It just isn’t seemly, sir!” the blustering male voice was saying.
“Yes, it seemed a bit unusual to me, too,” another male voice said.
This was a deep voice, a voice with tone and texture that Penelope was certain she’d recognize if she ever heard it
again. It was a good voice, warm and amused and certain. She could picture the man it belonged to as smiling while he
spoke. She could imagine he had a glint of mischief in his eye.
She could also tell he was more than a little bit drunk.
“But for shame, sir! You had your hand on my wife’s, er . . . arm!” the first voice stormed.
“No sir,” the second man corrected. “I had my hand on your wife’s, er, bosom.”
The crowd gasped. Someone—most likely the blustering gentleman—choked. The man with the warm, amused voice
said nothing, despite all the tumult around him. Penelope decided she simply must get a look at this person.
There was a chair against the nearby wall, so she scooted herself to it and hoisted up her skirt. Surely with all the fuss
these gentlemen were causing no one would so much as notice a woman with strawberry ringlets standing atop a chair,
would they? Of course not. Up she went, steadying herself by grasping onto the nearby fern propped securely—she
hoped—on a plaster column.
Ah, now she could see the men. She easily recognized her host, Lord Burlington, and he appeared much as he usually
did; red-faced, jowly and, well, blustering. The other man was a different story. She drew in a surprised breath.
For all his cultured tones and textured warmth, the man appeared very unlike his voice. She expected someone dashing
and rakish, someone who lived by his wit and reveled in the stimulation of intelligent conversation, among other things.
Someone who appreciated fine spirits and looked down his nose at lesser men. A dandy even, who was sought after
and used to being admired. That was how he had sounded, at least.
What she saw when her eyes fell upon him was something quite different.
By heavens, but the man was a hermit! He was unkempt, with dirt in his hair and whiskers on his face several days old.
His clothes were a disaster. If he had been dressed for mucking a stable or plowing a field, he would have been only
slightly overdone. The man was a positive horror!
And now he noticed her. She clutched the fern for support when his eyes locked onto hers. When he smiled she
thought she felt the chair shift beneath her feet.
“If you’d let me explain, Burlington,” he said to the blustering man, although his eyes remained fixed on Penelope. “I
was trying to tell you that you have reached a hasty conclusion where your wife is concerned. I was walking into the
room as she was walking out of the room and we merely collided. There was nothing more than that.”
“But you were alone with her. Your hand was on her . . . Well, don’t think I haven’t heard of your reputation, sir.”
“Yes, yes. I daresay everyone has heard of my reputation and this is hardly going to rectify that, is it? Oh well. I assure
you, in this instance, at least, I am innocent.”
“I ought to call you out!” the first man blustered on bravely.
“Well, I suppose I could shoot you on a field of honor if you insist, but I really would so much rather not. My head is
going to be bloody ringing enough in the morning, as it is.”
The crowd laughed at that and the red-faced man went even more red-faced. He seemed to realize he was running out
of practical reasons to continue his blustering, but it was obvious he wished to continue. He glanced around nervously
and at last was reduced to giving his disheveled companion a frustrated sneer.
“Since my wife would be very much distressed at the thought of a duel, I shall let you go this time.”
“Ah, Burlington, that’s terribly kindhearted of you.”
“But watch yourself, man. And do what your uncle sent you to Town for in the first place; find yourself a wife and
leave everyone else’s alone.”
The hermit only gave half a smile at this advice. “Isn’t it thoughtful of my uncle to keep all of London so well informed
of my endeavors.”
“If your endeavors did not breed scandal and dishonor at every turn, no one in London would give a fig for them.
Watch yourself, Lord Harry, unless you really don’t wish to live long enough to make use of that title your unfortunate
brother will be forced to leave you one day.”
“Leave my brother out of this, Burlington.”
“Why? Are you ashamed of having a half-wit in the family, sir? Do you wish his compromised body would just hurry
up and die so you can finally make use of that title?”
For a moment it seemed something would explode. The hermit seemed to grow larger, his shoulders tensed and his
expression was harsh and cold. Even from this distance she could see something raging behind his eyes. But then it was
gone; he became calm and amused once again.
“Oh, that ruddy title,” he said. “I tell you, Burlington, there are plenty of other things I’d very much rather make use
of.” Again, his eyes fell on Penelope and for just a moment she felt as if she might have an inkling what the man meant—
and she did not mind it.
“But I also tell you,” he continued, turning back to his grumbling confronter, “your wife is not one of them.”
With that, the man nodded at those around who still observed their altercation, then he gave Penelope a special nod all
her own, and departed. He turned on his heel and abandoned the assembly. Penelope clenched the fern so tightly she
was left with nothing more than a handful of tiny green leaves. The dratted chair was still moving. She was sure of it.
This blustering screech was her mother’s. Penelope started and very nearly fell off her precarious roost. Bother. Of
course Mamma would appear now and discover her this way.
“Oh, hello, Mamma,” she said, as if standing on chairs in someone’s decorated ballroom was perfectly normal. “I
thought I saw a mouse.”
“More like a rat,” her mother said, glaring in the direction the hermit had gone. “You pay no attention to that man,
Penelope. Harris Chesterton might be heir to the Marquis of Hepton, but he’s hardly fit for polite company. And here
you are gawking on a chair? Honestly, Penelope, what can you be thinking?”
Honestly? Well, she was thinking she’d just discovered the perfect fiancé.
Penelope Rastmoor is back! Lord Rastmoor's little sister is all grown
up, and he's determined to get her properly married. To change her
brother's mind, Penelope decides what she needs is the most horrible,
unsuitable fiancé ever imagined. Unfortunately, she never quite
imagined Lord Harry!
When Lord Harris Chesterton notices Miss Rastmoor wearing an
ancient Egyptian scarab, he suspects her of being in league with his
enemy. When she proposes a fake engagement, he agrees readily in
hopes of foiling her schemes. But after a few stolen kisses and a threat
on their lives, they begin to realize the greatest danger they face is
falling in love.
Passion and Pretense
(Book 4--Warwickshire Series)