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Counterfeit Countess

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Chapter 1

 As Edward, the Earl of Warwick, lay soundly sleeping in his dark bedchamber his subconscious awakened to the sound of chattering females. But that same subconscious assured him of the improbability of such an occurrence. After all, he had no wife, no sisters, not even a mother to intrude on his gentleman’s domain. He therefore rolled over with the firm intention of going back to sleep.

Then he heard a shrieking female voice, and this time--no matter what his subconscious told him--he realized she was inside Warwick House.

He jerked up and listened. Though the words he heard were indistinguishable, they were definitely uttered by one or more females who must have stormed into his home. He flung himself from the bed and jammed his legs into a pair of breeches, flying from the room and along the hallway to the stairwell. What the devil was going on down there? A blazing glow illuminated the great entry hall, where the candles had been extinguished when Edward had gone to bed not so very long ago.

From the top of the stairs he surveyed the ruckus below. And froze. What was likely the most beautiful female he had ever seen stood spitting out orders to his servants as if she were the mistress here. His mouth opened in dismay when he realized one of those orders was a demand to carry trunks to the “countess’s” chambers. His glance scanned the disarray in his heretofore well-ordered townhouse. He counted no less than fourteen trunks. In addition to the arrogant Incomparable, there was a slightly more youthful version of her with spectacles propped on the bridge of her nose, a skinny hag dressed in servant’s clothing, and the fattest cat he had ever seen--all of them talking and shrieking at once.

Edward cleared his throat. No one seemed to take notice of him. He began to move down the stairs and cleared his throat again. This time all the intruders glanced up and stared at him.

Completely incognizant that he stood there shirtless, he asked, “What is the meaning of this?”

The Incomparable stepped forward and he was powerless to keep his gaze on her incredible chocolaty eyes when every part of her was a feast for any man's eyes. His glance dipped along her creamy skin over her pink hued cheeks and along her graceful neck and bare shoulders to settle on a remarkably lovely pair of breasts that were only partially covered by the bodice of her elegant gown. The rose-colored dress draped over the smooth curves of a body as perfect as her stunning face. She absently stroked the enormous cat as she looked up at Edward. “Who is this handsome creature?” she asked, then quickly cupped a hand to her mouth in embarrassment.

“I might ask the same of you?” he said.

“This is Warwick House, is it not?” she asked, a hitch of uncertainty in her rich voice.

“It is,” he said, moving down the stairs.

Her chin lifted. “I, sir, am Lady Warwick, and this is my house.”

“I, madam, am Lord Warwick and I’d sure as hell know it if you were my wife!” For a fraction of a second he wondered if the old earl might have secretly married The Incomparable, but Edward’s predecessor’s movements--including his abhorrence of females--were well known to Edward.

He watched the beauty for signs of capitulation, but the proud woman gave none. “How long, my lord, since you succeeded?” she challenged.

What gave her the right to question him? “Eighteen months.”

Now her shoulders slumped and her composure dissolved. Right before his very eyes, she slid into a graceful heap on his marble floor, her skirts fanned out beside her, that damned squealing cat arched on her lap.

And she proceeded to cry. Not that it was like any female hysterics he had ever witnessed before. For one thing, she kept shaking her dainty fists and saying the most vile things, and her curses seemed to be directed at a man she most UNaffectionately referred to as The Scoundrel.

Even if she was behaving in a most undignified fashion, the sight of a female (especially a beautiful female) weeping, softened Edward. “Now, now,” Edward soothed, stepping toward her but not really knowing what to do. He could hardly hug a strange woman, nor could he give her any hope that this was her house.

“Why did I ever believe him?” she cried. “I knew he was a wicked, scheming, lying, perfectly o-o-o-d-i-ous scoundrel.”

Her shoulders heaved with each wrenching sob. He felt deuced awkward just standing there when the woman was so obviously distressed.

“Hell’s too good for the vile, lying, despicable scoundrel,” she continued.

It was a given the man she abhorred was a scoundrel.

“To whom are you referring, madam?” Edward asked, setting a gentle hand on her trembling shoulder. That damned cat of hers--claws extended--slapped at Edward’s hand!

Sucking a bloody finger into his mouth, Edward realized he knew who The Scoundrel was. Hadn’t Lawrence Henshaw been passing himself off as Lord Warwick when he fled England just ahead of the hangman’s noose?

“My . . . late husband,” she answered.

Henshaw was dead? England should be so lucky. “I beg that you quit crying, my lady.” (He used the title to appease her, though he knew she was no countess.) “Let us go into the saloon where we can discuss your situation.” Damn that Henshaw! He’d always had an eye for the ladies and had obviously tricked this woman into marrying him under the false impression she was marrying an earl.

The young woman he took to be The Incomparable’s younger sister retrieved a handkerchief from her reticule and handed it to the weeping beauty, who promptly dried her eyes, then looked up at Edward and offered her hand. He was deuced happy to help her up, especially since she gave all appearances that her crying was ended. But when he reached for her, that damned gray cat slapped at him again. This time he snatched back his hand ahead of the fat feline’s attack.

“Stop that, Tubby!” she said to the huge cat as she cradled the overfed ball of gray fur to her breast. “I’m sorry, my lord,” she said, peering up at Edward. “Tubby’s wary of strangers.” Then she contrived to get up without his assistance.

Tubby? Edward had to admit the name suited the animal. As did Killer, Tiger, and Out-You-Go.

They walked to the saloon which Wiggins, ever the pragmatic butler, had anticipated would need candles and had accordingly brightened the celery green room.

“Here, here, my lady,” Edward said, tentatively putting an arm around the distressed widow, his eye peeled for a reaction from Tubby. “Come sit down.” Edward cursed to himself. Damn that Henshaw!

As soon as she was settled upon the gold and green striped brocade settee, he came to sit next to her. He had to know if Henshaw was really dead. He wouldn’t put anything past the blighter. “About your late husband,” he began, “Would he have been a black-haired man some four or five inches shorter than myself? Probably the same age as I?”

Her gaze swept over him, pausing discernibly at his bare chest.

That was when Edward realized the impropriety of his sitting there bare-chested with a woman who was an obvious lady. He moved to get up, to go fetch a shirt and coat when the always-competent Wiggins strolled into the room with a freshly ironed shirt and navy blue frock coat.

The widow and her female entourage had the decency to turn their heads while he dressed.

When he finished, Wiggins asked, “Should your lordship desire a fire?”

“Don’t bother,” Edward said. “We shan’t be here long.” Then Edward returned to the settee. “Now where were we?”

“I believe you had just described my late husband,” she said. “You knew him?”

Edward’s lashes lowered. “I believe so.” Since Henshaw was last seen boarding a ship bound for the colonies, that probably meant The Incomparable was an American.

“You are an American?” he asked.

She shrugged. “I’m from Virginia, but my parents were English. Royalists. So it’s difficult to call myself an American, though I suppose that’s what I am.” Her voice was upper-class British.

From the corner of his eye Edward saw that the younger woman whom he presumed to be The Incomparable’s sister had plopped onto a Louis XIV chair and proceeded to lose herself in the pages of a book.

His attention returned to the beauty. It sickened him to think Henshaw had abused so lovely a creature. He hoped to God the man truly was rotting in hell. But he wouldn’t trust the scoundrel not to have faked his own death. “When did your husband die?”

“Four months ago.”

“A natural death?”

She stiffened. “I’d rather not say.”

She was hiding something, and he wouldn’t put it past that damned Henshaw to be forcing this beautiful woman in on his vile schemes. “What I need to know, madam, is if you actually saw his dead body.”

She nodded solemnly. “Fortunately, they had put his clothing back on before they brought him to me.”

What in the deuce was she talking about?

The younger girl looked up from her book and spoke. “What my sister is reluctant to tell you, my lord, is that her late husband met his end at a brothel.”

Now Edward was convinced the dead husband was indeed Lawrence Henshaw.

The Incomparable flicked an impatient glance at her sister. “I didn’t want you to ever know that!”

The girl had returned her attention to her book.

“Foul play?” he asked the widow.

“Not at all,” she said. “Lawrence--in his cups and feeling rather invincible after a triangular tryst--leaped naked from a third-floor balcony. It’s just the sort of thing The Scoundrel would have done.”

Yes, it was. “And you’re sure the body was his? Could his fatal injuries have obscured his appearance?”

She smiled. The most radiant smile he had ever seen. Her teeth were even and a stunning white. He felt as if he were in a sunny spring meadow. “I wondered the very same thing myself,” she said, “for by then I knew how his wicked mind worked. So I bared his chest for proof.”

He waited for her to elaborate, but she didn’t. “What proof would that be?” he asked.

A slight blush rose to her cheeks. “Lawrence was possessed of chest hair that formed a harlequin pattern.”

“And the dead body was undoubtedly your husband’s?”

Her lovely lips thinned to a grim line. “Undoubtedly.”

“I see you’ve chosen not to wear mourning.”

“To do so would be hypocritical, my lord. I was living apart from The Scoundrel at the time of his death with no intentions of ever going back to him.”

He wondered why she had married the man in the first place since she found him so despicable, but Edward knew how charming Lawrence Henshaw could be--until he got what he wanted. He also knew how destructive Henshaw could be. His hands fisted with anger toward the dead scoundrel.

“Then it seems, madam, you are possessed of sound judgment. Your husband barely escaped England with his neck.”

Petting the contentedly purring cat, she nodded thoughtfully. “I should have expected as much. When he courted me he vowed to bring me to London and give my sister a grand debut, but once we were married The Scoundrel changed his tune. He offered one excuse after another why we couldn’t come to England. Soon his own stories were conflicting with each other, and I knew it was all just so much flim-flam. I even came to wonder if he already had a wife in England.” Those huge brown eyes of hers quizzed him.

“He had no wife,” Edward assured.

“So what was his real name?”

“Lawrence Henshaw.”

She sighed. “I much prefer being Lady Warwick. Mrs. Henshaw sounds so . . . so mundane, and you must admit Lawrence was anything but mundane. The Scoundrel.”

“No, I don’t suppose he was mundane.”

“I suppose he was a thief,” she said matter-of-factly. “That would explain why he arrived in Virginia with a great deal of money.”

“Worse than a thief.”

Her eyes widened. “Oh, dear, was he a murderer?”

“He was a traitor. He used his position at the Foreign Office to pass important information to the French. That information contributed to the loss of life for thousands of British soldiers.”

She winced.

“For this, he was paid handsomely.”

“Oh, dear, I’m most happy, then, the money is gone for I should hate to be living on blood money.”

All that money gone? Then how was this woman to return to America? “Why, precisely, did you wish to come to London?”

“To be perfectly honest with you, my lord, I planned a deceit of my own. I thought I would come live at Warwick House and have a grand season for my sister before I contacted what I thought was Lord Warwick’s attorney to notify him of Lawrence’s death. I knew once it was known Lord Warwick was dead, his heir would be entitled to all of this. Being an optimist, I had hoped that by the time we’d had our season, Rebecca would be betrothed to a man of means.” She glanced at her girlish-looking sister.

“And,” Rebecca piped up, “Maggie knew that by that time her beauty would have secured many hearts.”

Scarlet tinged The Incomparable’s cheeks. “I thought no such thing!” she chided her sister.

Rebecca shrugged. “It’s just as well I don’t have a season. I have no desire to be wed.”

After her sister’s disastrous marriage, Edward could well understand Rebecca’s aversion to matrimony. Besides, he peered at her youthful face, she hardly seemed old enough. “How old is Miss . . .”

“Miss Peabody,” Rebecca answered. “I shall be eighteen next month.”

He settled back against the settee, eying the pair. He needed to get these females out of his house. “Well, well. I’ll summon the carriage to convey you ladies to Claridge’s Hotel.”

This announcement succeeded in refreshing The Incomparable’s tears. Dash it all! Made him feel quite the brute. “Now see here, my lady, surely you realize this is not your home.”

“Oh, I know that,” she said, sniffling. “It’s just . . .” She let out a sob. “We have no money for a hotel.”

Or for the passage back to America, he’d guess. What was he to do? Anything to snuff those wretched tears. “Then I suggest you ladies settle in for the night. I know you’re whipped from the long journey. Tomorrow, when you’re refreshed, we’ll see what we can do about your return to America.” He was well satisfied with himself. Even if he was stuck tonight with these females. And one very fat cat. It wouldn’t do at all for Fiona to get wind of these accommodations.

Between great sobs, the beauty favored him with another of her shattering smiles. “You’re so very kind, my lord.”

They all stood up, and he rang for the housekeeper to prepare rooms for the visitors, but Wiggins had anticipated that, too, and the rooms were in readiness for the ladies.

Edward walked with them to the iron-banistered stairway, rather pleased with himself because the lovely one’s tears had stopped.

“Is there a Lady Warwick?” she asked, placing her hand on his proffered arm.

“Not as of yet,” he answered. “I’m pledged to Lady Fiona Hollingsworth, but there’s nothing official yet, owing to the sudden, unexpected death of her mother, which has plunged the lady into mourning.”

“The poor dear,” Maggie sympathized. “Our dear mama’s death was even more painful than Papa’s, was it not, Rebecca?”

The very bookish Rebecca Peabody had refined the art of walking upstairs and reading at the same time. “What?” she asked, annoyed to have had her reading disturbed.

“Oh, never mind!” Maggie said. “Mind your step or you’ll fall down the stairs and break into a hundred pieces.”

The first rooms they came to on the second floor were for Miss Peabody. She did not even look up from her book as she bid them good night and wandered into the room.

Next they came to the countess’s chambers. “Actually, a countess hasn’t occupied these chambers in at least fifty years,” he said, “owing to the fact my uncle--the late earl--never married. I plan to redecorate before I wed Lady Fiona. The rooms are exceedingly outdated.”

He swept open the door as two maids were putting fresh linens on the bed, and The Incomparable’s maid was unpacking her mistress’s valise. It was as if he were seeing the formerly scarlet room for the first time. It was not only outdated, it was faded and some of the fabric had become so fragile he could have read a newspaper through it.

“It looks clean, and that’s all that matters, my lord,” the beauty said, giving him her hand. “My sister and I are most indebted to you for your generosity.”

“It was nothing,” he mumbled as he started for his own bedroom.

* * *

Maggie waited until she heard the earl’s door close, then snatching up her cat, she hurried to her sister’s chamber. Though smaller than the long-dead countess’s chambers, this guest room was spectacularly furnished in elegant ivory and gold with stunning gilt cornices and moldings. Still reading her blasted book, Rebecca glared at her sister over the rim of her spectacles. “You should be ashamed of yourself, Maggie.”

“Whatever for?” Maggie asked as she sank onto the silken bed, her feet dangling far off the carpeted floor, her hand absently stroking Tubby.

“For abusing your gift of being able to cry at the drop of a hat.”

“Oh, that.” It was really the oddest thing that she possessed the ability to cry on cue, but when she was truly distressed, like when her late Papa died, nary a tear could be summoned. She supposed her tears--like her beauty--were gifts bestowed upon her for the purpose of making big, strapping men putty in her delicate hands.

And Lord Warwick was most definitely a big, strapping man. She had nearly lost her breath when she had stood at the bottom of the stairs and looked up to glimpse the tall, bare-chested god-like creature scowling down at her. Of course she was completely humiliated that she’d blurted out her admiration, a most vexing habit of hers, to be sure! Even now the vision of that sleek, powerful body and the handsome dark, brooding face that went with it made her throb in places she’d as lief Rebecca knew nothing of. “Is not Lord Warwick a most splendid looking man?” she asked casually.

Rebecca did not remove her eyes from her book. “Pity he’s spoken for.”

“My dear sister, spoken for is not the same thing as actually being married. It’s probably one of those engagements arranged long ago by meddling family. I daresay Lady Fiona’s some horse-faced peeress Lord Warwick can barely tolerate.”

Now Rebecca closed her book and gaped at her elder sister.

“Dear God, you can’t mean to snare him! How could you when your last marriage was so disastrous?”

“Now, now, pet. Don’t get so overwrought. I have not decided to snare him. After the last fiasco, you can be well assured I will never rush into a marriage without knowing--really knowing--a man.” She shrugged. “But you must admit the earl is decidedly promising.”

What she neglected to tell her sister was that a hasty marriage (that wasn’t too hasty) would keep them from the poor house. Maggie was getting desperate. By the time he had met his untimely death, The Scoundrel had managed to squander away most of his ill-gotten fortune.

She had racked her brains trying to come up with some way to continue living in modest dignity with her sister, but no viable possibilities presented themselves. Being a governess was out of the question because she would have to leave Rebecca behind, and her little sister was hardly equipped for self-sufficiency. Being a seamstress was also out of the question. Her needlework--as her own governess had been quick to remind her--was most inferior, and why shouldn’t it be? Maggie had been raised to expect fine modistes to make her clothing. She had even thought of taking up her pen in order to eke out a modest living, but, alas, she was possessed of no talent in that direction, either.

When it came right down to it, Maggie had only one talent: the ability to attract men. Not just attract them. Men had been known to make complete idiots of themselves over her.

A pity she’d wasted her charms on The Scoundrel. But then eligible men in the Virginia farming community where she was raised were as scarce as English lords.

“One would think the association of the name Warwick with The Scoundrel would be enough to warn you away from the man, regardless of his handsome face. And body,” Rebecca added.

“I should have known Lawrence wasn’t Lord Warwick,” Maggie said. “I’m so vexed at myself! I knew he was a lying, scheming, perfectly odious scoundrel.”

“The real Lord Warwick, you know, is going to send you away tomorrow.”

Maggie, her fine brows lowered, bit at her lip. “You must help me think of a way to stay here. Lord Warwick’s bound to know hoards of eligible men--men whose character he can vouch for. A month should be long enough for me to find one.”

Rebecca rolled her eyes. “I suppose one of us could feign an illness.”

“That’s it!” Maggie flopped onto her stomach. “Of course, I can’t be the sick one. Then I wouldn’t be able to be properly courted.”

“So what illness shall we say I have?” a resigned Rebecca asked.

Maggie considered the matter. “Let me hear you cough.”

Rebecca gave a fake cough.

“Can you not do better than that?"

Her sister gave it another try, this time a deep, bellowing sound.

Maggie’s face screwed up, and she had a strong desire to clamp her hands over her ears. “No, that won’t do,” Maggie said, shaking her head. “Consumption’s out.” She bit at her lip some more, then sighed. “You’ll just have to pretend to be suffering with fever. Don’t worry, pet, I’ll smuggle you all the books you could ever desire to read.”

Rebecca’s eyes brightened. “Did you see his lordship’s library?”

“How could anyone possibly read all those books?”

“I could.”

“Yes, I suppose you could.”

“What if Lord Warwick sends for a doctor? He’d know at once I have no fever.”

Maggie went back to chewing on her lip. “Let me sleep on it.” She got up off the bed, cradled the cat to her bosom, crossed the room to the chair where Rebecca sat, and kissed the crown of her sister’s head. “Don’t read all night. You’ll put undue strain on your already weakened eyes.”

When Maggie returned to her own chamber, Sarah was laying out her night shift on the faded red counterpane. Maggie’s heart caught as she watched her aging maid. It seemed like only yesterday Sarah’s hair had been brown and her step lively. When had her hair turned silver? How could the once-strapping maid have become so frail of body? Maggie wished to reverse their roles, to wait upon the woman who had waited upon her since the day she was born, but Sarah’s whole life had been spent serving the Peabody family, and the maid bristled at the idea of relinquishing what she perceived as her responsibility. Would that she could pension Sarah off, Maggie thought bitterly. Nothing would make Maggie happier than seeing Sarah relieved of all her burdens, ensconced comfortably near Rebecca and her, the closest thing to family that Sarah had.

“You shouldn’t have waited up,” Maggie said. “I know you’re exhausted from today’s long journey.”

“I’d rather be here than in my bed tossin’ and turnin’,” Sarah said. “Sleep don’t come so easily when one gets older.”

As much as Maggie wished it weren’t so, Sarah was old. Maggie allowed Sarah to assist her into the shift, then she placed firm hands on her maid’s fragile shoulders and ordered her to bed. “And don’t you dare present yourself in my room before ten of the clock.” Sarah did so need a good night’s sleep after the grueling journey.

Maggie doused the candle and lay in the aged bed. It felt so good to be in a real bed after so many weeks sleeping on the ship’s narrow cot. It felt good to be on solid land that didn’t pitch and sway. Never mind that the room smelled musty from years of disuse. Never mind that her presence was as welcome to her host as the pox. Just to be in a warm home on a real mattress provided a comfort she had not known in a very long time. For tonight, she would allow herself to be lulled by the physical replenishing she had craved for so many weeks.

Tomorrow, she would face her demons.

As she lay there awash in contentment, Tubby purring beside her, she pictured the restrained power in Lord Warwick’s wondrous physique. “Please, God, don’t let him be another scoundrel.”

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