The Vulgar Heart - Unmarriageable, Book 3
Light, fun Regency romance from Mary Lancaster.
Welcome to the Hart Inn, a lucky house where love always seems to blossom, whatever the obstacles...
When convention clashes with love…
Eager to outshine her older sisters, Henrietta Maybury is disappointed to discover the first man to make her heart race is the scion of a banking family, and therefore quite ineligible as a husband to a viscount’s daughter.
But as it turns out, Captain Sydney Cromarty is even less marriageable than she first imagined. For beneath his respectable facade, he’s a notorious smuggler – as Henrietta discovers during a reckless evening at the Hart Inn. And the more she learns, the more he fascinates her.
As Henrietta begins to doubt her values, Cromarty is forced to reassess his own. No one is more amused than he to discover he is now the Earl of Silford’s heir, a position he has no intention of embracing, but it becomes a situation that makes him dangerous enemies who are not above using his growing feelings for the charming Henrietta to destroy him.
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"Another great book from Mary Lancaster"
"Riveting... this series is brilliant"
"great fun, and the story will engage you from the beginning."
"simply wonderful, and illustrates beautifully the writing talent of Mary Lancaster!"
"such intriguing characters and storylines...Prepare to be enthralled"
- Amazon reviews
Miss Henrietta Maybury fanned herself vigorously. The heat inside the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden was intense that July evening, not least because of the thousands of candles which lit the stage and the auditorium with equal brightness. A faint, smoky mist blurred Henrietta’s view of the play, but it made little difference to her understanding, for she couldn’t hear the dialogue either. The noise of the chatter from her own and surrounding boxes drowned most of that out. Then, there was the general background hum from more distant voices and the occasional shout from the cheap seats in the pit.
The whole oppressive atmosphere combined to make Henrietta feel just a little dizzy. A few twinges behind her eyes warned a headache was not far away. To distract herself, she transferred her attention to the audience—which was, after all, the main reason most people of her class attended the theatre. There was always a wonderful new fashion to observe, or gossip to acquire from seeing who accompanied or visited whom in their box. Or one could look down on the hoi polloi who rubbed shoulders with the few single gentlemen ogling the ladies from the pit.
Henrietta’s slightly blurred vision was drawn to the boxes opposite, particularly to one in the row above her own, where she picked out a gown of such a vibrant shade of puce that it cut through the haze. Worn by a stout, middle-aged lady, it was indeed an extraordinary garment, trimmed with feathers of the same shade. A puce turban, sporting plumes so tall they bent against the ceiling of the box completed the awe-inspiring ensemble. Henrietta wanted to applaud the lady’s courage, if not her taste, for the sight quite cheered her up.
The lady’s companions were an older gentleman with bushy side whiskers, and a younger, elegantly dressed man with short, dark hair…who gazed directly at her. Of course, she should have immediately lowered her eyes and pretended not to see, but Henrietta was bored with the stifling conformity of her first London season, and some devil prompted her merely to stare back in order to put him rather than herself out of countenance.
He was not even a handsome man, nor particularly young, she guessed, but his harsh, weather-beaten face held a certain rough attraction, particularly when an intrigued smile began to form on his lips. Far from being embarrassed by her haughty glare, he inclined his head. Of course, even she could not acknowledge such a sign from a stranger. Recognizing with some pique that this was one staring contest she was not going to win, she let her gaze drift out of focus. Then she glanced along the rest of the row before returning casually to the stage.
It was still hot, still oppressive, and the incipient headache behind her eyes had intensified. After a further ten minutes, she leaned closer to her mother. “Mama, it’s so hot in here, I’m just going to put my head out of the door for some fresher air.”
“Well, don’t go out into the passage,” her mother warned. “At least, not alone. Do you feel faint?”
“No, no, I just need a breath of cool air.” Henrietta slipped past her sister Thomasina, now Lady Dunstan, to the back of the box and opened the door.
A waft of slightly cooler air greeted her, and she stuck her head out into the corridor in search of more. Fortunately, it was empty, so she slipped outside and lifted her head and arms to catch as much breeze as she could. She closed her eyes, willing away the headache.
A small, high-pitched whine disturbed her. Opening her eyes in some surprise, she looked around her. A tiny puppy wobbled along the passage toward her, sniffing at the wall as it went, all but tripping over its too-large feet.
Henrietta smiled, surprised to realize how much she’d been missing Spring, her sister’s pet dog, who’d gone with Charlotte to Lincolnshire since her marriage. She could not resist hurrying toward the little creature. “Hello there, little fellow, where did you come from?” she murmured, pausing at the stairs and holding out her hand.
The puppy wagged its tail but backed off, clearly unsure.
“Has someone hurt you, poor little thing?” Henrietta murmured in quick sympathy. She remained still, with her gloved hand held out. “I won’t. Come and greet me civilly, which is more than Spring ever did.”
The pup pranced forward a little, sniffed once at the very tip of her finger, and then bolted down the stairs, bouncing and tumbling.
“Oh, silly creature!” Impulsively, she ran after it. But her attention was more on the dog than her own clothing, and her foot caught in the tumbling train of her gown. She gasped, grabbing for the bannister to save herself.
Vaguely, she was aware of a male figure bounding upstairs toward her. Her floundering hand missed the bannister and then she was falling, head first.
She slammed into a man’s hard chest. His arms closed around her, catching her and hauling her upright.
Bemused, unable to quite believe her inevitable disaster had been prevented, she gazed up into the face of the man who had bowed to her from the opposite box.
“You,” she uttered in confusion.
“Are you hurt?” His voice was deep, his speech clear and clipped, like a man used to giving orders. He had eyes the color of the sea. Her hands still clung to his thick arms.
Hastily, she released him. “No…no I don’t believe, I am, thanks to you.”
She flushed, just because she could feel the heat of his body, and tried to step back. He released her, but slowly, perhaps to be sure she wouldn’t fall again, and stepped down on to the stair below.
She smiled a little uncertainly, smoothing her ruffled gown. “I’m most grateful, sir. Oh! The pup! Where did it go?”
“A tiny little thing with a floppy ear. I was following it downstairs… I’ve no idea how it got into the theatre, but I fear someone has mistreated him because he seems very thin and timid for a puppy. Though, of course, there’s no point in comparing him to Spring.”
“To what?” A faint frown of bafflement tugged at the man’s brows.
“My sister’s dog,” Henrietta said, starting down the stairs again, this time looping her train over her arm as she should have done in the first place. “He bounces—” She broke off as she caught sight of the puppy watching her through the spars of the bannister from the landing. “Ah, there you are!”
It seemed to be playing, in a nervous kind of way because although it waited for her, as soon as she offered her hand, it made to scamper off again. But she was ready for it this time and merely scooped it up.
Triumph turned quickly to concern. “Oh, dear, he’s mere skin and bones. The poor little thing is starving.”
The pup wriggled, licking her detaining hand and then chewing her finger with needle-sharp teeth. Henrietta laughed.
Her savior stood at the foot of the stairs, regarding them with amusement. “Now what do you plan to do with it? Take it to the play?”
“Oh, the devil, the play!” she uttered, quite improperly. “It will be the interval any moment and Mama will scold me into next week! Perhaps I could give the pup to the doorman to look after until we leave…”
“Allow me,” her savior offered.
Henrietta regarded him doubtfully. Despite his swift action in saving her from a nasty fall, he did not look to be a terribly safe person. On the other hand, he was dressed with the quiet elegance of wealth and taste, and he was neither young nor silly, being surely well into his thirties. Deep “crow’s feet” were etched around his eyes. A man who laughed a lot or worried a lot. Either seemed to bode well for the pup.
Reaching her decision, she held the dog out to him.
He swept it up carelessly, and the puppy bit his finger. “What name shall I give the doorman?”
“Maybury,” she said. “I’m Henrietta Maybury. And if such information will help him be kind to the pup, please tell him my father, Lord Overton, is with me. Sir, thank you for everything!” She fled back upstairs and made it back to her own box just as everyone else began spilling out of theirs.
“Where have you been?” Thomasina hissed at her. “I told Mama you were still in the passage, but you weren’t. Did you meet someone?”
“Actually yes,” Henrietta said, laughter bubbling up. “But not in the way you mean. I found a puppy and it is clearly neglected and hungry, so I’ve arranged to collect it from the doorman as we leave.”
Thomasina blinked. “You’re mad. Mama is still celebrating life without Spring.”
“I think she secretly finds it a little dull without Spring.”
“You mean you do.”
“Yes, and so does Eliza. And the boys who will be home for summer soon. Besides, this little creature is nothing like Spring. It is quite timid and shows no signs of insanity.”
“Yet, if it’s as hungry as you say, it won’t have the energy.” Thomasina nodded toward their parents. “How are you planning to talk them into it?”
“Face to face, they’re bound to love it. And if they don’t…” She smiled. “You and Dunstan could always take it, just until I wear them down.”
“Take what?” Dunstan demanded, moving closer to them in order to make way for the gentlemen who had just entered the box to pay their respects to Lady Overton. One of them was Lord Rudd, who’d become quite a persistent admirer of Henrietta’s.
“Oh, Henrie has discovered a stray puppy in the theater of all unlikely places.” Thomasina broke off as she recognized one of their guests, and lowered her voice once more. “Why, it’s Lord Rudd again. I think you have made a conquest, Henrie.”
“Fiddlesticks,” said Henrie airily.
“It would be an excellent match. And quite a triumph, for so far he’s avoided all the lures cast out to him.”
“Well, I have no intention of luring him,” Henrie stated.
Her sister frowned. “You’re beginning to sound like Charlotte.”
“Why is that bad?” Henri shot back.
“It isn’t,” Thomasina said wryly. “She never lured anyone in her life and yet she is a duchess.”
Henrietta had once entered fully into her parents’ plans to save the family fortune by settlements gained through their daughters’ brilliant marriages. However, in the last few weeks, she had begun to find herself irritated by such talk and, even more unexpectedly, bored with the whirl of her first London season. It all seemed a trifle pointless when Charlotte’s marriage and the generosity of her husband had restored the family finances already. Henrietta now had a respectable dowry to attract a husband, and yet somehow that had taken all the fun out of everything. How much better to be married for love rather than one’s dowry.
She fanned herself a little too energetically.
“It is somewhat stuffy in here,” Lord Rudd remarked, sitting in the vacant seat beside her. “How do you do, Miss Maybury?”
“My lord. Do you want the truth or the polite answer?”
He smiled faintly. “That bad?”
“Oh, London is so stifling in the summer, but I am glad to say we are leaving next week.”
“For Brighton, perhaps?”
“No, for Audley Park.”
“I am desolated,” Rudd said in the somewhat intriguing way he had, so that you didn’t quite know if he was serious or not. “For I have been commanded to Brighton by Prinny. I had hoped that I might at least have the pleasure of seeing you there.”
“We might go for a day or two, for we’re not so far away.”
Rudd smiled. “I have rarely met a debutante with such little enthusiasm for the social scene.”
“I bore easily,” Henrietta said.
“Then I must strive to be much more interesting.”
She laughed, for in truth, he was already more interesting than most. Although still in his twenties, his air was one of elegant world-weariness, which quite suited Henrietta’s mood these days. He also had a bit of a reputation as a rake and had been disappointing hopeful mamas for years by failing to be enchanted enough by their lovely daughters to marry any of them. In short, he presented a challenge, although what she would do with the prize, she wasn’t quite sure.
Neither of her older sisters had tamed a rake, although neither of their husbands, she suspected, had been precisely angelic either. So at least if she married Rudd, she would have that triumph. On the other hand, her imagination baulked at the prospect of being his wife. She could not quite envision their married life. Besides, how much fun would it actually be, being bored together at balls without even the diversion of flirtation left to them?
The future seemed just as dull at the present and she felt rather flat. Until her wandering gaze drifted again over the stunning lady in puce. A gentleman sat down beside her, causing Henrietta’s heart to give a pleasant little lurch. It was him again. The man who had saved her, and who she had thought must be leaving the theatre. As though sensing her gaze, he turned from the puce lady and glanced over to her. A smile flitted across his face and he inclined his head as though telling her his task was complete and the pup in the care of the doorman. She nodded her thanks with a quick smile in return.
“That is an odd connection for an ambitious young lady,” Rudd remarked beside her.
“It isn’t a connection at all,” she retorted, “but a matter of common civility. The gentleman has done me a service.”
“Hush, Miss Maybury,” Rudd mocked. “A fashionable lady should never admit to such a service, for your knight is no gentleman.”
Intrigued, she turned back to Rudd. “Then who is he?”
“Some banker’s son,” Rudd said with contempt. “An encroaching cit.”
Henrietta was conscious of disappointment. It was snobbish, of course, but she did not wish to have been saved and helped by a cit. It lacked distinction. And while she could laugh at herself for such feelings, they had been bred into her and they remained.
“And the fabulous lady in puce?” she asked, deciding to be amused.
“I really have no idea. One doesn’t know such people.”
“Of course, one does not,” she mocked Rudd, and inspired a fresh spark of interest in his jaded eyes.
All the same, when the interminable play finally finished and she stood up to leave, she pretended not to see the banker’s bow and followed her family outside.
Sydney Cromarty, grandson of a successful and well-known banker, had indeed intended to leave the theater after depositing the skinny pup with a none-too-happy doorman. An innocent young debutante, however lovely, was really of no interest to him on any level. And while he had no objections to preventing her tumble downstairs, or transferring care of the cur on his way out, he had no reason and less intention to pursue her.
But something about her expression—far more than her mere youthful beauty—had attracted his attention while she sat in the box opposite. And nothing about her subsequent impulsive and slightly bizarre behavior for a young lady of fashion had lessened that interest. He was curious, and in a way that was quite safe, for she was far too young and naïve to inspire amorous pursuit. And so, he found himself returning to the box—which, in any case, he had paid for.
“I believe I will watch the end of the play,” he said to Mrs. Jenkins. He had only invited them to secure the deal for his new ship and now that it was done, he had nothing more to do in London. Tomorrow or the day after, he would ride back to Sussex.
In the mean time, he discreetly observed the Maybury girl, and the somewhat possessive gentleman who sat by her side. Whoever he was, he clearly whispered poison in her ear, for she refused to look at him as she left.
Cromarty only smiled cynically. The girl’s snobbery hurt him no more than anyone else’s. He’d been immune through constant exposure since he was fourteen years old. And when he’d finally run away from school when he was sixteen, it had had nothing to do with his schoolmates and everything to do with him.
Still, he wished her well enough to linger in the shadows outside the theater as the carriages pulled up and swallowed the members of the ton, taking them back from the dangers of Covent Garden to more salubrious neighborhoods in Mayfair.
The Maybury girl emerged with another young lady who had been in her box—her sister perhaps, for they shared the same shade of shining chestnut hair. Henrietta darted to the various doormen until she received the pup whom she held up with delight for her sister to admire. The sister laughed and dragged her back to her parents. Cromarty realized he knew Lord Overton slightly. He was partial to decent French brandy and disliked to let a little thing like war get in his way.
Overton’s voice said clearly, “Oh for the love of—”
“No, Henrie,” Lady Overton said firmly and then, after the pup was brought closer to her and Henrietta wheedled, she threw up her arms and got into the carriage. Henrietta followed with the pup, though she paused to grin over her shoulder at her sister.
Cromarty turned and walked away.
He contemplated calling on his mistress to make up their quarrel in the most delicious ways he could imagine. But in the end, he had little enthusiasm for it. She had grown too capricious and her undoubted pleasures were no longer worth the inconvenience. Their relationship would remain over. He looked forward instead to a good night’s sleep at Claridge’s Hotel, where he often stayed to avoid his old family home off Hanover Square. And then a swift return to Sussex and the sea.
I’m getting old and staid…
However, when he entered the hotel, it was to be greeted with the news that a gentleman called Mr. Godfrey awaited him in his rooms. Irritated that they had let the solicitor in at all, he scowled and hurried upstairs.
Godfrey, as usual, had helped himself to a glass of brandy as he waited. It wasn’t the brandy Cromarty grudged him.
“What do you want?” Cromarty greeted him as he sprang to his feet.
“I was sent by your grandfather to impart important information,” Godfrey said with dignity. “And issue an invitation.”
“An invitation to go to the devil? I accepted long since. What is the rest of it?”
“Sir, I regret to inform you that your cousin, Jeremy is dead.”
Cromarty shrugged. “My grandfather is mistaking me for someone who cares. I never met the late Jeremy, and his death is of no moment to me.”
“Actually, it is,” Godfrey said sharply. “Of considerable moment, in fact. He was your grandfather’s heir.”
“I still can’t care,” Cromarty said, pouring himself a glass of brandy. “To Jeremy, whoever he was.” He raised his glass and drank.
Godfrey pursed his lips at such flippancy. “He was the man whose death makes you your grandfather’s heir.”
That got his attention. He lowered the glass, frowning. “No. There is another cousin, isn’t there? About to spawn, too, last I heard.”
“Sadly, the child was a girl. Perhaps the disappointment aided Mr. Adrian’s departure from this life a year ago. Even more sadly, you are now the nearest living male heir.”
Cromarty stared at him. Then he laughed and poured himself another brandy. “No, I’m not. Tell him to get one of his by-blows legitimized if he has to, for I’m having nothing to do with any of ‘em. Good night, Godfrey. Close the door on your way out.”