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The Earl, the Vow, and the Plain Jane

Chapter 1

As much as Miss Jane Featherstone adored her lovely cousin, Lady Sarah Bertram, she most decidedly disliked riding in Hyde Park with her on this fine May day. Not because of any fault of Lady Sarah's but because of Miss Featherstone's own unpardonable jealousy.  Her clandestine envy was positively illogical (and Miss Jane Featherstone had always prided herself on her ability to master the principles of logic).

It wasn't as if any of the Most Eligible Matrimonial Catches would have given a second glance to the exceedingly drab Miss Featherstone were the dazzling Lady Sarah not perched beside her.

In the ten minutes since the maidens' open barouche had passed through the gates into the bustling park, no less than five young men of title, fine looks, and amiability had sputtered their horses to a halt in order to make cakes of themselves over Lady Sarah.

And it was no wonder. Once her cousin was presented to the ton at tonight's ball, every Eligible Matrimonial Catch in the entire kingdom would be hurling himself at the beautiful girl. With hair the colour of wheat sparkling in sunshine, a face as flawless and smooth as the finest pearl, and a figure that curved like that of a Roman goddess, Lady Sarah would effortlessly rise to the top of the pack of this season's debutantes.

When it was discovered the titled beauty was possessed of one of the largest fortunes in Britain, there would be no stopping the stampede to Clegg House in Berkley Square.

Owing to the fact the beautiful heiress had not yet been presented, the young oglers could not directly start a conversation with her until Miss Featherstone did them the goodness of facilitating the introductions.

Therefore, Miss Featherstone was—for the first time since her own presentation three years previously—the object of young men's profound felicitations.  Once greetings were exchanged, Miss Featherstone had no choice but to introduce these Eligibles to her spectacular companion.

And then Miss Featherstone would quietly fade into the upholstery like gray paint on tin.

Leaving young Lord Averworth worshipfully watching Lady Sarah continue down the park's broad lane, the beauty turned to her cousin, her blue eyes flashing with excitement. "All the young men I've met are exceedingly nice. I cannot wait until tonight."

"I daresay you'll be like a queen holding court."

"You will put me to the blush."

"I assure you, that is not my intent. We wouldn't want any redness to mar your lovely complexion."

Lady Sarah was too honest to feign maidenly modesty. Not a day of her life had passed that her remarkable beauty not been commented upon. "Nor would I. That's why I'm wearing this hideously wide-brimmed bonnet today."

Miss Featherstone shook her head. "Your bonnet is not hideous. Everything you wear bespeaks impeccable taste." Indeed, thought Miss Featherstone, she had never seen a lovelier bonnet. Where most ladies of her acquaintance changed the trim of the bonnets to coordinate with their clothing, Lady Sarah's entire bonnet perfectly matched the pale yellow of her morning gown. Had she the luxury of a different coloured bonnet for each dress?

"Do you really, truly like the gown I shall wear tonight?" Lady Sarah asked.

"I do, though I daresay if you wore a horse blanket you would still be the prettiest girl at the ball."

"You're much too kind, my sweet Jane."

 Miss Featherstone sighed. "Would that I could feel more kindly toward Lavinia." She had prayed to no avail that she and her brother's abrasive wife would rub along together better.

Lady Sarah's eyes slitted. "That horrid woman is positively odious! I will never understand how your brother could ever have chosen to marry her."

"Her generous dowry helped." Unfortunately, none of the Featherstones had a . . . well, a feather to fly with.

"Then he probably doesn't love her at all. That's the problem when one is possessed of fortune. One never knows if a gentleman is in love with her or her money."

"If he didn't love her when they married, I believe he does love her now, but you need have no fears of fortune hunters," Miss Featherstone assured. "Men would fall horribly in love with you even if you were as poor as . . . well, as poor as me."

"Your lack of fortune does explain why you've received no offers, for you are possessed of a great many attributes."

Miss Featherstone adjusted the brim of her bonnet to shield her eyes from the blazing sun. "Pray, my dear cousin, enlighten me on these attributes."

"You may not be beautiful like me, but you really are pretty. In a quiet way."

"You obviously have been too much around my Papa."

"That has nothing to do with my opinion, I assure you. I am possessed of good vision. Your face is pretty.  You are terribly clever. And there is nothing offensive in your figure."

"If one is given to admiring flagpoles." Miss Featherstone nodded at a pair of giggling girls who were strolling by, parasols protecting their fair faces from the sun.

"Many men prefer slender women. Remember, it's women like me—women with generous endowments—who grow portly with age."

That was true. But, then, many men preferred portly women. Look at the Regent himself! Most of the women with whom he'd been romantically linked tended to be as rotund as he.

As they followed along in the procession of fine carriages toward a copse of trees, Miss Featherstone gloried in the sun's warmth, her thoughts snaking around her own abominable envy. There was no reason to feel in competition with Lady Sarah. She loved her cousin, and she knew she could never compete with her in the higher echelons of society.

Miss Featherstone had always understood her own future would be with an equally plain man of no particular distinction. The problem was that not even a plain man of no particular distinction had ever honored Jane Featherstone with an offer of marriage.

Which was a pity. Papa was nearly seventy, and when he was gone, Jane would become the burden aunt in her brother and Lavinia's household—a prospect as unwelcome to Lavinia as it was to Jane.

When their coach neared the Serpentine, she thought she recognized Lord Slade riding alone on a striking black mount. Her back straightened. Her gaze narrowed. And as she realized he was riding toward them, her heartbeat clanged against the walls of her chest.

Since the very day Miss Jane Featherstone had come out of the schoolroom, she had secretly worshipped the man. Long before he succeeded to his title, she had admired his brilliant orations in the House of Commons. Her dear Papa was one of Lord Slade's staunchest allies against the beastly Tories. She had filled a book with newspaper accounts of his lordship and tucked it in a drawer beneath her jewel box.

Not only did she vastly admire his intelligence and political philosophy, but she also thought he was perhaps the most physically appealing man she had ever seen.

Of course, he likely would not remember someone as plain as she. Before he moved up to the House of Lords upon his father's death, he had come to their home often to discuss political reform with her father and their colleagues in the House of Commons.

Because she served as her father's hostess and because her father rather indulged his only daughter, Miss Featherstone had been permitted to join in on those conversations.

As Lord Slade drew nearer, his eyes appreciatively raked over Lady Sarah, then flicked to Jane, and a smile of recognition lighted his tanned face. Dear heavens! The man was going to stop and speak to them.  She was quivering so, she doubted she would be able to summon her voice.

Their scarlet-liveried driver pulled up when he saw that Lord Slade had stopped.

"Good afternoon, Miss Featherstone. I see you're also enjoying this fine, sunny day." From his wide shoulders to the squared planes of his face to his casually tossed deep brown hair, the man exuded the most ruggedly handsome masculinity she had ever beheld.

He eschewed the trappings of dandies and dressed in riding clothes with neither shiny top hat nor shiny boots. His buff-coloured breeches stretched over long, muscled legs, and his brown boots would have been more appropriate in the country than here in the middle of London. That he was not a slave to fashion rather endeared him even more to Miss Featherstone.

 "Indeed, my lord," she managed, thankful her voice had not betrayed the rattling within her.

He nodded, then his flashing black eyes perused Lady Sarah.

Jane realized he was expecting an introduction to the Incomparable. "Lord Slade, may I present my cousin, Lady Sarah Bertram?"

Lady Sarah bestowed her brilliant smile upon her latest admirer, and they exchanged greetings.

After saying all that was proper, Lord Slade's once again directed his attention at Miss Featherstone. "Then you two are related on your mother's side? Was Lady Mary not sister to the Earl of Clegg?"

Had Miss Featherstone's departed mother—the Lady Mary to whom his lordship had just referred—appeared on this meandering trail, Jane could not have been more stunned. Lord Slade had remembered her mother was the daughter of an earl. "Yes. The Earl of Clegg–who's my mother's brother–is Lady Sarah's father."

"Then you're the granddaughter of George Berkley?" he said to Lady Sarah.

Everyone in the ton knew that George Berkley's significant banking fortune had been settled on his first granddaughter, who just happened to be the astonishing creature sitting there in her father's barouche in Hyde Park.

Lady Sarah smiled. "Indeed he was. Did you know him?"

A pity her cousin's lengthy lashes swept down upon her cheeks, Jane thought. Could anyone be more beautiful? Pangs of jealousy spiraled within her. What a beastly pity Jane could never appear to such advantage to his lordship.

"I did not have that pleasure, but he was banker to my father—who greatly admired him."

"As did I," said Lady Sarah, her voice lifting into the sweetest possible tones.

"Tell me, my lady, why is it I have not yet met you before?"

"I have not been presented. Well, actually I was presented to the queen yesterday."

"And she comes out tonight," Jane added. "Will you attend the ball at Spencer House, my lord?"

His crooked smile returned. "You may be assured I will." He doffed an invisible cap, favored them with his infectious smile, and took his leave.

When he was out of earshot, Jane turned to her cousin. "What did you think of Lord Slade?"

Lady Sarah shrugged. "I didn't think about him one way or the other. I will own, I was prepared to dislike him excessively. Papa, you know, detests the man's radical ways in Parliament. He's always grumbling about Lord Slade."

"Then I daresay Uncle grumbles about Papa, too, for he and Lord Slade are rather two peas in a pod."

"It's no secret, of course, that Papa and your father do not agree on matters of government, but your papa is family, so Papa never maligns him."

"Gentlemen are much nicer than ladies."  How could Lady Sarah not be in awe over his Sublime Lordship? Had the dust kicking up from hooves clouded her vision?

"You're right. Papa never speaks ill of Lavinia, and you must own everyone speaks ill of Lavinia."

Jane nodded absently. Incomprehensibly, Lady Sarah still had displayed no great admiration for Lord Slade. "Did you not find Lord Slade uncommonly handsome?"

Lady Sarah shrugged again. "He's . . . older than what I normally find attractive."

"He's not even thirty!"

"And I'm not quite eighteen!"

"Then you're attracted to young men closer to eighteen?" How very peculiar.

Lady Sarah nodded. "Up to my brother's age."

Lord Harry was two and twenty. "But most men of that age—unless they've had the good fortune to succeed—are not in a financial position to offer for a wife- - -" Miss Featherstone thwacked her forehead. "Such consideration, though, is unnecessary to a lady of large fortune."

"Indeed. I can wed whomever I choose." She gave a stupendous smile and pronounced, "I shall be wed by September."

"If that's what you want, I'm certain you will. Why the hurry?"

"I adore the idea of having my own house. Wouldn't it be wondrous to marry a man with a family castle? With my fortune I could decorate it whatever way I choose. And I love children. I see myself surrounded by beautiful little blond daughters. "

"What of sons? Or a husband?"

Lady Sarah Bertram scrunched up her perfect nose. "I suppose my husband will expect me to give him an heir, even though I'm not overly fond of little boys. Of course, I do long for a husband."

"Perhaps you'll meet him tonight."


"I beg that your lordship stand still," Lipton said to Lord Slade.

With a deep sigh, Slade straightened his neck and peered into his full-length looking glass. His man labored over tying the cravat Lipton had spent a goodly amount of time ironing. It was far more important to Lipton than to Slade that his master present an admirable appearance.

If Slade were at liberty to please only himself, he would not be standing there. He would not be going to the Spencers' ball at all. And he would not be preparing to offer up himself like the day's catch at Billingsgate fish market.

But the earl was not at liberty to please himself. He was now head of the household. He must think of the others. Buying David's colours had nearly cleaned out his limited funds, and he would have to put off the girls' come-out at least another year.

Since the exchange had decimated his father's blunt, there simply wasn't enough money despite all his measures to economize. He'd leased the London house and presently let rooms at a respectable address. He'd sold the costly carriage and three of the four horses it necessitated. He and his siblings occupied but one wing of crumbling Dunvale Castle, which could now be run with a fourth as many servants as when the old earl had been alive.

His gaze followed Lipton's expert manipulations, and he frowned deeply. Why had he made that wretched Vow, the Vow that would irrevocably alter the course of his life?

How much happier he'd been before he succeeded. Until he saw Miss Featherstone that afternoon, he'd almost forgotten how greatly he'd enjoyed those lively Whig discussions at dinners presided over by that extraordinary young woman's father. Why, there had been more intellect within those modest walls than in all of the House of Lords.

The door to his dressing room eased open, and his brother strode in.  Slade thought his brother—Captain David St. John—cut a handsome figure in his Life Guards' uniform. Women would be sure to swoon over him tonight. They always did.

"I thought Lipton was dicked in the nob when he told me you were going to the ball at Lord Spencer's tonight." David looked at Slade as if the elder brother were mentally deficient. "Didn't know debutantes were your thing."

"Heretofore, they haven't been." Slade's lips set into a grim line.

David smacked his forehead. "Oh, yes. The Vow."

Lord Slade nodded almost imperceptivity, saw that Lipton had not left even a speck of lint on his freshly pressed jacket of fine black worsted, and was satisfied with his appearance. Nothing too colourful for him. Black and white was just fine.  "Shall we go?" he said to David.

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