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Authors: Aileen Fish

APretenseofLove

A Pretense of Love

Aileen
Fish

 

Blush sensuality level: This is a sweet romance (kisses
only, no sexual content).

 

Twenty-two-year-old Miss Jean Seaton��s best chance of
finding a husband is behind her. When her brother’s friend offers to pay for a
Season in London in exchange for pretending to be his betrothed, she sees it as
a miracle.

Ben needs a fiancée to convince his dying grandfather that
he has settled down and is capable of inheriting and running his business and
estate. But he didn’t consider how spending six weeks with Jean would make her
necessary to his happiness. Now she’s in London and he’s in agony. A gentleman
never reneges on an agreement…unless his heart is broken.

 

A
Blush®
Regency romance
from Ellora’s Cave

A Pretense of Love

Aileen Fish

 

Prologue

Fall, 1816, Hambledon, Hampshire

 

“Yes, I will accept your offer.”

The words slipped out so easily Miss Jean Seton feared Mr.
Tilbury would know how often she’d practiced them. Never with him as the
intended recipient, but for the moment that minor detail was unimportant.

Mr. Ben Tilbury paced the small space between the seating
area and the fireplace, a crease dividing his thick black brows. In his buff
breeches, gold waistcoat and brown tailcoat, he appeared ready to ride, not
discuss an arrangement such as this. “I suppose we must inform your mother of
our plans too.”

Rising from the faded settee, Jean smoothed the wrinkles
from her worn muslin day gown. “Yes, she would question the propriety of our
traveling together if we don’t.”

“Of course. We must ask her to accompany us. Forgive me, but
I hadn’t thought the entire scheme through. It wasn’t until I received
Gilbert’s letter that it occurred to me to ask you.”

She also forgave him the tactless mention of her not being
his first choice. There was no pretense of a grand romance between them. There
was barely an acquaintance. “When did you wish to leave for your grandfather’s
estate?”

“As soon as possible. The doctor said Grandfather doesn’t
have long. I came straightaway in hopes you’d agree.”

“As long as we are clear that I do not wish to marry you, I
can accept your terms.”

He held up his palms as if warding her off. “I have no
intention of marrying, or I wouldn’t suggest this scheme.”

“But surely you’ll marry one day, to beget an heir at
least.”

“I have many years before I shall require an heir. In the
meantime, there are always women willing to provide comfort without the need
for a commitment of long duration.”

Her eyes widened as she grasped his meaning fully. That he
would mention such a woman in her presence told her all she needed to know of
his character. He might be a friend of her brother, but he was no one she
needed to know better. She would accept his offer and play her part, and then
be glad to be free of him.

Jean’s mother bustled through the open doorway, reaching out
with both hands to welcome Mr. Tilbury. “It is so good of you to come. Are you
on your way from London?”

“No. I came from Greater Yarmouth. My grandfather is dying.”

Mrs. Seton lifted a hand to her lips as her smile retreated.
“I am sorry to hear this. Whatever called you from his side?” She motioned for
him to sit as she took the space next to her daughter.

Jean perched on the edge of the settee once more, but Mr.
Tilbury remained standing. She drew in a deep breath. “Mr. Tilbury has made me
an offer, Mama.”

Her mother’s smile lit her deep-brown eyes.

Jumping in quickly, Jean waved a hand. “Oh, not the sort of
offer you are imagining. It’s more a business proposition. If I will pose as
Mr. Tilbury’s fiancée for a short time, he will provide me with a Season in
London.”

The familiar melancholic veil slipped back over Mama’s
features, aging her instantly. “Oh, I see. But how can you expect to find a
husband in London once word gets ’round of your betrothal? No one will want you
if you cry off, and will want you even less if Mr. Tilbury does the leaving. As
difficult as it is for a lady your age to find a husband, you make it
impossible with this arrangement.”

The room grew quite warm and Jean fought the urge to fan
herself. She avoided looking at Mr. Tilbury, not wishing to see his pity, or whatever
emotion he might feel toward a plain, dowerless woman such as she. “I am only
two-and-twenty, not a spinster yet. And no one will know of our betrothal. If
you will accompany me to Sir Waldo’s home, Mr. Tilbury can present me to his
grandfather and we can slip away before anyone’s suspicions have been raised.”

He cleared his throat and tugged at his heavily starched
cravat. “Your presence might be required a bit beyond the introductions.
Grandfather wishes to see for himself that I am settling down, so we will have
to play the merry couple. But I fear he’ll not be with us for longer than a
fortnight, at most a month. He has no one calling on him, so no one will know
of our charade.

“I will introduce you as the family of my comrade at arms,
Gilbert, should anyone visit. I’m certain my aunt will agree to sponsor Miss
Seton next Season, if I tell her of some great service your son did me on the
battlefield. You see, this will work to everyone’s benefit. I will get my
inheritance without being leg-shackled, and Miss Seton will have her Season.”

She was to have a London Season. Jean held her breath in
anticipation of Mama’s agreement. Although she knew Mr. Tilbury only a little,
from his visits with her brother in recent years, she trusted him to protect her
reputation in such an arrangement. Visiting Sir Waldo’s estate would be a
holiday of sorts, a chance to live in the comfort she hadn’t known since she
was a child.

Truthfully speaking, she’d never known the sort of comfort
Sir Waldo must live in. His income was said to be far above any her father
could ever have claimed. And the meager inheritance Father had left them meant
she’d have to work, or marry a local man, if there had been any men nearby she
would consider. Hambledon didn’t have a lot to offer no matter how pretty or
accomplished a young lady was.

“Mama, will you allow it? May we tell Sir Waldo we are
engaged?”

At her mother’s quick shake of her head, her dark ringlets
bounced about her neck. “I do not like this. There are too many ways it can go
wrong, and it could ruin you if it did. Then there are the specifics. Your
wardrobe. You do not have enough fashionable gowns to dine at Sir Waldo’s table
for weeks on end. He will wonder why his grandson has chosen someone beneath
his notice.”

Mr. Tilbury approached in long strides. “I will buy Miss
Seton some gowns, if she needs them, and anything else either of you require.
But Sir Waldo doesn’t leave his bed, so we needn’t dress as formally as he
might expect. I daresay Miss Seton is beautiful enough that my grandfather
won’t notice her attire.”

“But the servants will notice. And the servants will talk.”

“I will inform his butler to expect the mother and sister of
my dear friend, who have come to enjoy the sea air while recovering from an
ailment. If Sir Waldo says differently, it can be blamed on his feeble mind.
But he isn’t able to speak clearly, so it’s unlikely he’d contradict anything
we say.” Mr. Tilbury remained standing in front of Mama, watching her response.

She looked at Jean for a long moment. “Are you certain you
wish to do this?”

“It would mean so much to me to have a Season, Mama. And as
your father was a gentleman, no one would look askance at Mrs. Granderson
sponsoring me. I will have the chance, at last, to change our circumstances by
being exposed to such gentlemen as we might meet. Do say we will go with Mr.
Tilbury to Three Gables.”

Her mother’s features softened as she let a sigh escape her.
“If it’s what you truly wish, I will go along with you.”

Jean grinned and turned to Mr. Tilbury. “When do we depart?”

Chapter One

May 1817, Greater Yarmouth, Norfolk

 

Ben stared past the trees skirting the walled garden,
watching a bird float on a current. Its wings spread, it hovered in the sky as
if held there by some invisible hand.

That same hand pinned Ben to a piece of linen under glass.
An insect to be examined, a lifeless shell with no purpose other than to be
displayed when the right callers visited.

Such was his life since taking over Sir Waldo’s enterprises
six months earlier. Ben was a figurehead, leader in name only. No one cared to
hear his opinions on how the end of the war might influence the fishing market,
or whether they should consider diversifying in shipping. He might as well be
carved from wood and bolted to a ship’s bow for all that was required of him.

Boot heels clambering on the marble floor outside Ben’s
study announced his friend Viscount Ringley’s approach. Ben stiffened,
expecting a continuation of their rather loud discussion over breakfast.

“Rather pleasant out today, isn’t it?” Ringley stopped at
the desk and shuffled through the latest issue of
The London Gazette
that arrived in the morning post.

“I’m certain the breeze is as cold and damp as always.”

“No worse than the one indoors,” muttered Ringley. “Well
then, when do you leave?”

Ben spun around. “Leave? For where?”

“London, of course. That’s where you said Miss Seton is.
Didn’t you have some urgent news for your dear Aunt Granderson?”

“I have no such news, urgent or otherwise. What do you go on
about, man?”

Ringley sank into a chair and snapped the newspaper open.
“The reason for your trip to London.”

“I am not having this discussion.”

“No, it is much wiser to remain in the country and brood
like a lovesick swain than actually pay a call on the lady in question.”

“I am not lovesick,” Ben barked. When his words echoed off
the glass doors of the bookshelves, he ducked his head and scratched the back
of his neck. Ringley was quite accurate in his description, whether Ben wanted
to admit it or not. The brooding portion, not the lovesick claim. Ben hardly
knew what love looked like, much less how it felt. Never had the thought of
love arisen in those weeks Miss Seton spent at Three Gables. Nor would he call
his feelings for Miss Seton lust. “It’s this foul weather we’ve been suffering.
I miss the warmth of Spain.”

Chuckling, Ringley shook his head. “You may make all the
excuses you wish, but I believe your best remedy is a trip to London.”

“London? During the Season? Don’t be daft. I should no more
enjoy myself there than I do those soporific board meetings at Tilbury and
Company.” He left the window and sat before the pile of papers awaiting his
perusal.

“I shall join you there. We’ll spend some time in the clubs,
and you may find your Miss Seton and beg her to end your misery.”

“I might, if I were at all miserable. Or had I any interest
in a wife.”

“End my misery, then. Your manner is lacking.”

Ben snorted. “If you find my company dull, you are welcome
to depart at any time. No one is holding a knife to your throat.”

“Go now, when the plot is getting interesting? You jest.”

“There can be nothing interesting in watching me read
business letters. And I’d finish much sooner if you’d leave me to it.”

“I shall do so. Just as soon as you name the date for our
journey.”

Dropping the papers he’d been trying to read, Ben combed his
hair back with one hand. “If I agree to travel, will you allow me to finish my
business in peace?”

“Of course. The sooner you finish, the sooner we may away.”

Emitting what came awfully close to a growl, Ben went
against his better judgment. “If you’ll leave me to my work, I can be ready to
go by week’s end.”

Ringley’s chuckles echoed in the hallway as he sought his
entertainment elsewhere. Ben shook his head. Admittedly, a short stay in London
might relieve some of the tension that had taken residence in his shoulders
ever since he’d come to stay at Three Gables. He’d never been close to
Grandfather. The man’s cool demeanor didn’t encourage affection. But watching
the old man fade into his feather mattress had tugged at Ben’s gut, and
attempting to learn what was necessary to tend the running of the business left
him drained.

Miss Seton’s sweet voice had carried him through those weeks
when Sir Waldo lay dying. Perhaps just the sound of it was all he needed to
clear this gloom and focus on business again. Or perhaps he would find a
mistress in London to tend to his needs, and leave Miss Seton to her search for
a husband.

An image of her on the arm of another man filled his head
and he snarled. What if the man was a rake? She was so innocent of society,
with her country upbringing, she might easily be led into a compromising
situation. She needed her brother in Town with her, or since he was in Spain, a
good friend of Gilbert’s. Ben should offer his services to his aunt, of helping
to determine which men were worthy of Miss Seton’s heart.

Miss Seton’s heart. Did any man deserve it? No man of his
acquaintance was good enough for her. She deserved only a strong man of high
morals. One with a country house, where she would feel at home. Income adequate
to buy her fine gowns to enhance her beauty, and fill a library with books to
enjoy so she no longer had to borrow them.

Yes, a generous soul, a man who could look at no other woman
having rested his eyes on her heart-shaped face. Those peach-colored lips, soft
and full and begging to be kissed.

Blast and bollocks!

He should be the one kissing those lips, not some titled
peacock seeking a brood mare to provide his heir, spare and nursery full of
little lords and ladies. The very thought of another man being intimate with
her had his blood boiling.

The only way to assure himself of Miss Seton’s future
well-being was to be present in it. To be the one providing that happy state.

All he needed to do was convince her he was what was best
for her.

* * * * *

Jean stepped off the path in Hyde Park to let a governess
with a brood of enthusiastic youngsters pass, then returned to Miss Agnes
Sunderland’s side. “Do you think Lord Milford will be at Lady Reddingham’s ball
this evening?”

Agnes brought her gloved hand to her lips to soften her
giggle, glancing over her shoulder at her much older, spinster sister, who
trailed behind. “I do hope so. I wish he would attend me, not you. But no man
will so much as speak to me while
she
is hovering about.” Her sigh
overflowed with melodrama.

“Plenty of eligible and handsome men have danced with you.”

“But none quite as good-looking at your Lord Milford.”

“He’s not my lord, and you know it. I shall not argue should
he wish to become so, however.”

They laughed together and Agnes took her arm as they
approached the Serpentine. A pair of gentlemen strolled in their direction some
distance away, and the sight of the taller one took Jean’s breath away. She
clutched her throat with a gasp.

“What is it? Did you swallow a fly?”

“No. I’m fine, truly. But I’m suddenly feeling ill. May we
return to Mrs. Granderson’s home now?”

Agnes’ delicate red brows drew together. “Of course. Shall I
fetch us a carriage?”

“No, no. I’m quite capable of walking.” Just so long as they
walked quickly. What was Mr. Tilbury doing in London? Even had he come on
business, he would never be strolling in Hyde Park at this unfashionably early
hour. In the six weeks she’d spent at Three Gables, not once had she seen him
idle, or stroll about with no direction.

She’d mistaken a stranger for him, that was all. Easily
done, with his just-above-average height and common black hair. Had she been
closer, she might have seen this man’s eyes were not the shocking, expressive
blue of Mr. Tilbury’s and his hair not so unfashionably long and unkempt. Mr.
Tilbury’s visage hovered just beyond sight in her mind, sending an odd warmth
curling through her.

Forcing the hazy vision away, she picked up her pace. Mr.
Tilbury was not the man for her. She wanted a husband who was hers alone, not
one she’d have to share with assorted mistresses. One who would love and
cherish her. Want only her company, in the bedchamber and elsewhere.

Mr. Tilbury was not that man.

She was silly to even think Mr. Tilbury would have come to
London, much less be looking for her. They’d agreed, should they somehow cross
paths in the future, to act as indifferent acquaintances. He would not let on
they shared any connection other than the wartime one with her brother, Gil. She
had nothing to fear. No one would learn of her pretend betrothal.

Stepping a bit more lightly, she lifted her face to the sun
before remembering her mother’s admonitions about freckles. “I cannot wait to
see who fills our dance cards tonight, Agnes.”

Her friend sighed. “Why should tonight be any different from
the others? We’ve seen all the available men this Season. Now we simply wait
for an offer.”

“And that, my dear, is precisely why you are unmarried
still. I understand enjoying the first Season with little regard to actually
accepting an offer, but this is your third go-round. One mustn’t wait for a
husband to appear, one must hunt for the right one.”

Agnes hurried to keep up with Jean’s quick pace. “I don’t
want to appear too forward—”

“What is forward about placing oneself in the path of the
preferred gentleman? Letting him see how well you would entertain guests in his
home and how desirable your company is?”

“If I had your knack for witty conversation, I might have
already found a husband. My looks are pleasing enough, I’m told. I do not
understand why I must sing well, unless my future husband wishes to father an
opera performer.”

Jean laughed. “One must not only sing, but be artistic, well
read and beautiful. Never fear, once those five accomplished young ladies are
betrothed, there is hope for the rest of us.”

She slowed when they reached the townhouse belonging to Mrs.
Araminta Granderson, Mr. Tilbury’s aunt and her sponsor for the Season. “Will
you come inside for tea? You can help deflect the questions and instructions my
mother and Mrs. Granderson will surely assault me with.”

“I must return home. Mama has threatened to hire a dance
tutor again if I don’t practice with my brother every afternoon.”

Shaking her head, Jean said, “I shall watch you dance this
evening and comment to Mrs. Sunderland on how well you do.”

Agnes laughed. “Yes, please. She will drive me mad
otherwise.”

They waved goodbye and Jean went directly to her bedchamber
to freshen up before joining the older women for tea.

* * * * *

Lady Reddingham’s home was aglow with candlelight and lamps,
and after an hour of dancing, Jean was certain her complexion was also aglow.
The ballroom, actually several connected rooms with doors between them opened
wide, was too warm by half, and the iced punch didn’t offer enough refreshment.
She wished she could step outside for a few moments, but that excursion would
be so much more enjoyable if a certain gentleman would request it of her.

Lord Milford was nowhere in sight, however. She had danced
once with him already and he had requested the supper dance, so perhaps he’d
take her aside then and speak to her. Surely he wished to speak with her. He’d
played the beau since meeting her at Vauxhall. How long could a gentleman drag
out his courtship? It was most vexing the way he kept her waiting. She’d been
fairly plain with her affections, so he must be assured of her interest.

Agnes drifted by in the arms of a captain who looked quite
regal in his regimentals. They waltzed beautifully together. Jean had yet to
waltz with anyone, as she’d not been introduced to the patronesses at Almack’s
who could grant that permission. As she was the twenty-two-year-old daughter of
the younger son of a younger son of no one of importance, she hadn’t expected
to receive that recognition. Mama’s own father hadn’t enough cachet to outweigh
Mr. Seton’s lack thereof in matters such as this. Still, her grandfather’s name
and that of Mrs. Granderson allowed her to meet gentlemen of a far better
stature than she might in Hambledon, even without the invitations from the
grander ladies of the
ton
.

“You should be out there demonstrating your grace,” purred a
much too familiar voice.

She gasped but refused to look over her shoulder. Mr.
Tilbury shouldn’t be here. Jean forced a polite smile and spoke carefully in
light of the gossips surrounding her. “Mr. Tilbury, what a surprise. I hadn’t
expected to see you in London.”

He stood much too close behind her, the warmth of his body
igniting her skin where they didn’t quite touch. When he leaned forward to speak,
his breath brushed over her bare neck. “I discovered I needed something I
couldn’t find elsewhere. As I knew you were attending Lady Reddingham’s
assembly, I took the liberty of including myself in my aunt’s invitation.”

“Do you mean to dance or are the card rooms more to your
liking?”

“That depends.”

When he didn’t elaborate, she asked, “On what?”

“On whether you have an opening on your dance card.”

Wistful curls of excitement fluttered inside her, and she
silently cursed her reaction to the man. “I do have one set free after supper.”

“I shall claim it, then, before someone else does. In the
meantime, will you walk with me?”

She couldn’t gracefully refuse even though she wished to
rail at him for disturbing her calm demeanor. Looking back, she saw her mother
and Mrs. Granderson eying them. Jean nodded to the ladies and took Mr.
Tilbury’s arm.

“This is quite the crush.” He led her away from the
refreshment tables.

“Yes. I’m not used to being in such a crowd. I believe you
could fit all the residents of Hambledon in this room and not have half this
many in attendance.” She refrained from mentioning the over-strong perfumes and
sharpness of heels and elbows belonging to passersby. How she missed the
country.