Earl of Cavendish

Chapter One

Loyalties

August 1811—Bath

   “Oh, you must, Meg!” pleaded Elizabeth as she paced to the cold fireplace and back, the heels of her mules clicking across the wood flooring before becoming silent on the rugs.

   “I cannot, Bess! What if we get caught!” Margaret’s heart pulsed like never before. She placed a hand on her chest to calm its beating. She worried her bottom lip—a childhood habit—while she tracked her cousin with her eyes. What her cousin asked of her was scandalous! Thank the Lord she was sitting on a stool when Elizabeth asked if she would pretend to be her. “No, no, I cannot do it,” she said, shaking her head to confirm her convictions.

   Stopping her pacing, Elizabeth rested her hands on her hips and scowled at Margaret before thinking better of it. She swiftly replaced her glare with a smile. Her dear mother had often said that honey worked better than the belt. “Oh, dear cousin Meg—” she moved across the thick carpets to kneel in front of Margaret, “—darling Meg. Do not fret. There is no chance of us getting caught.” She grabbed her cousin’s hand and squeezed. “Lord Cavendish is out of town, and his aunt has never met me. Neither will know of our—” she paused, her brow creasing, “—ruse. No one will get harmed. I will marry him, as planned, in a couple of months.”

   “But we will deceive his aunt. And she is a viscountess!” she spluttered. “Think of the scandal if we get caught. The gossip columns—” The rest of her words caught in her throat. 

   Elizabeth’s lips thinned. Margaret was normally more of a pushover. “We will not get caught, and her title does not matter. She is skin and bones, like the rest of us.”

   Margaret’s emerald eyes remained widened in alarm. It seemed her cousin had everything worked out, but she had barely a moment to wrap her head around the plans. There were too many ifs and buts to merely say yes, as much as she loved Elizabeth. “But what happens when his aunt attends the wedding? She will know we have deceived her! He will know!” Fear gripped her, closing off her arguments. 

   “They will not. Fear not, darling Meg,” soothed Elizabeth. “You are fretting too much.”

   Margaret held up her hand. “Please give me a moment to think, Bess.” Her eyes narrowed on the pleading face of her cousin before she looked away in order to think straight. Elizabeth, or Bess as family called her, could not fulfil an obligation to her betrothed—the Earl of Cavendish—and had asked her to stand in for her. That alone was shocking, and daresay risky, but Bess also wanted her to pretend to be her! What if she got caught? If anyone found out their duplicity, the humiliation, and scandal would be intolerable. Society might eventually forgive Elizabeth, as she was betrothed to an Earl—people had a way of forgiving the richer—but it could further ruin her own already perilous reputation on the circuit. Would a scandal of deceit damage her to the point of spinsterhood?  

   Her cousin’s request made little sense. Why ask such a thing? Could she not just say she had another engagement? Would her cousin’s betrothed be mad? She bothered her bottom lip as she concentrated. It would not surprise her if he were. If she was being honest, the thing that had her heart racing the most was the thought of the Earl. What if he found out! She fingered the locket of her mother’s necklace. If the stand-offish, dour Earl of Cavendish found out, well… 

    There would be hell to pay.

   She closed her eyes and tried to control her increased breathing. She had to become calm and think rationally. Elizabeth assured her that he would not be at his aunt’s house in Bedford because he was in France. That was comforting—if she was going to do her cousin’s bidding—as she did not choose to get on the wrong side of him. He could even frighten the Devil with his dark countenance!

   “Please?” Elizabeth’s pleading continued. She tightened her hold on Margaret’s hands. 

   “I continue to need a moment to think, Bess.” She stood and walked over to the bay window, hoping the scene outside would soothe her. 

   When they had arrived on the London circuit, early in the season, Margaret had glimpsed the Earl. His handsomeness stole her breath. He was the first man to stir heat within her. But as her observation of him through the evening continued, it was plain to see that although he was there in body, he was not there in spirit. Nevertheless, intrigued by him—and by the whispers about him—she continued to track him from a distance, not even daring to tell Elizabeth of her fascination. The surrounding gaiety made his dourness even more obvious. To this day, she vividly recalled the shiver which coursed through her when his gaze caught hers before she cowardly hid behind her fan. By the end of that first ball, she found herself attracted to him, but also intimidated by him. 

   But it did not matter how she felt. Her aunt had singled him out as a potential suitor for Elizabeth. He was an Earl, after all.  

   It was not long into the season before her aunt procured an introduction, confident that her daughter’s beauty and conduct would woo him. But he refused to be introduced to them! Her aunt was incensed, but his rebuff did not surprise Margaret. Whenever she had seen him, it seemed he barely said two words to anyone. Was he angry, bored, rude, or all of those? He was evidently comfortable ignoring society’s rules; but then he was a man. Society was not so harsh on males.

   Margaret sighed as she watched her neighbours alight from their carriage, the footman carrying their bags. She rubbed her arms, hoping her brewing headache would wane. 

   At one of the next balls, when Lord Cavendish strode across the room in their direction, her aunt pushed Elizabeth into his path, forcing him to stop. Horrified at her aunt’s scheme to gain a meeting, Margaret remained behind her cousin, trying not to win anyone’s attention. She flinched when his penetrating blue eyes trapped hers for a moment before he swung his attention on her aunt, already singing about Elizabeth’s attributes. When he finally invited Elizabeth for a dance, she was grateful, but equally humiliated that, after what she could only call a stare, he completely disregarded her. From the moment he snubbed her, she avoided him, even when he came to their rented London townhouse to call on Elizabeth. She quietly snorted. Life was heartless because, despite him being with her cousin, the peculiar longing which ran through her when he pinned her with his gaze remained scorched into her memory. It was why she kept her distance. It was easier to be afraid of the man, than be afraid of her true feelings for him. 

   “Please? I beg you.”

   Elizabeth’s voice brought her out of her reflections. She turned from the window and pulled her shoulders back. She was prepared to tell her cousin she would not—for fear of someone finding out—do as she asked. “I cannot possibly do it. If Lord Cavendish finds out…” 

   “Poppycock!” Elizabeth let out a snort, and her lips thinned at her cousin’s protests. “Do not be childish, Meg.”

   Is that what Elizabeth thought she was being? “I am not being childish. I am being prudent. Someone will know what we have done because I am one of your bridesmaids,” she said, praying her cousin would not notice the wobble in her voice. Her quickened breathing and pounding heart made talking difficult.

   Elizabeth rolled her eyes while letting out an exaggerated sigh. “We went over this, Meg. Lord Cavendish’s Aunt Agnes is not attending our wedding. She detests travelling and has already declined the wedding invitation.”

   “But what about the other guests?”

   Elizabeth paused. “Your stature and liking to me is too close. If they detect a small difference, they will think I am merely glowing with happiness on my wedding day. If you meet anyone in Bedford who is invited, which I doubt you will, I will avoid talking to them on the day. With over three hundred guests, it will be simple.”

   She shook her head, not the least bit convinced. “Even if that is so, are you not expected to visit his aunt? Does Lord Cavendish not pay her calls?” Her mind raced with all the scenarios that might make her cousin see sense. 

   Elizabeth shook her head slowly before shrugging. “Lord Cavendish does not visit her often. She lives in her country estate far from his townhouse in London. Besides, I plan to live in Bath.”

   Her brow creased with confusion, and she rubbed her temples, hoping to relieve her brewing headache. “But will you not live in London when you are married? The Earl of Cavendish is a representative of the House of Lords.”

   Elizabeth’s delicate nose crinkled. “I am not living in that cesspit of London. It was fine staying there for the debutante season, but that is all.  Lord Cavendish can work there in the week and return to a country house on the weekends.”

   “Oh.” She quietened as Elizabeth was not listening to reason. Her protests were either being batted away or landing on deaf ears. She could not truly comment on her cousin’s future living arrangements. She had never been in the position of marrying herself—not even close—so did not have an inkling about the intricacies of marriage and living arrangements. 

   Her shoulders sagged when she sat down by the fireplace. It was a depressing fact that Elizabeth knew if she persisted to pester, Margaret would likely do her bidding. It had been the same since she arrived in Bath when she had been grateful to be taken in after her parents perished in a carriage accident. Elizabeth’s voice broke through her thoughts.

   “Besides, if he wants me to visit his aunt in Bedford, I can always make an excuse. Feign a headache or something.” She waved her hand. “Why would I want to spend time with a doddery old aunt?”

   As she continued to listen to Elizabeth, although she was still annoyed by the request, she felt her resolve to refuse slipping away. It was not because she did not have a backbone, but when she became her uncle’s ward, with no friends of her own, a fear of losing Elizabeth caused her to pander to her cousin’s whims. Now they had grown into adults, it seemed a difficult cycle to break. Besides, she learned it was usually best to agree with Elizabeth if you wanted a calm environment. Elizabeth’s parents had spoiled their only child to a point where she rarely saw anyone’s viewpoint apart from her own. 

   “Oh, for goodness’s sake, stop your fidgeting, Meg.” Elizabeth straightened her shoulders, her voice hardening. “If you are going to pass as me, you will have to act more like me.”

   “But I have not agreed…” She clenched her mouth shut and lowered her gaze to study the pattern on the carpet when Elizabeth glared at her. In her heart, she knew her cousin was panicking, and therefore using pressure for her to do her bidding. But it did not make the situation any easier. 

   “It is only this once.” She flapped her hand dismissively. “Besides, Aunt Agnes may never see me. She has already got one foot in the grave.” 

   Margaret’s hands flew to her mouth. “Oh Bess, that’s an awful thing to say!”

   Elizabeth shrugged. “Well, I speak the truth.” She tilted her head and smiled warmly, changing her tactics of persuasion. “Now Meg, stop with all the excuses. Are you going to Lord Cavendish’s aunt in place of me? Please? It is only a couple of weeks.” Her hands clapped together. “Oh, please say you will.”

   She remained silent because she really did not want to. Her mother, when she was alive—God rest her soul—had brought her up to be a truthful person and this situation was wrong, despite her cousin insisting that it was not. At the very least, they were consciously going to deceive an elderly woman. 

   “Please?”

   Margaret looked at her cousin’s pleading eyes. She tried to spin the situation into something positive. Perhaps pretending to be Elizabeth, who she knew so well, for a couple of weeks was not the end of the world. And she would help her beloved cousin not to get into strife. She let out a large breath. She loved her, and Elizabeth knew, when it came down to the wire, she would do anything wished of her. “All right, I will do it…”

   Elizabeth squealed with delight before spinning in a full circle.  

   “But—” she said firmly, holding up her hand, “—only if you guarantee they will not catch us out.”

   Elizabeth beamed. “Of course, we will not get caught. Lord Cavendish is away in France for a month. He will not be back until September when the Commons reconvene. Aunt Agnes has never seen me, and never will. I have yet to meet his friends in London, so they do not know me.” 

   “Did they not meet you at the functions we attended during the season?”

   Elizabeth laughed. “They are men, dear cousin. They would not remember me unless there was something in it for them. You have a lot to learn.”

   Her brow gathered. Seemingly, she did.

   “We have the same delicate bone structure and similar colour hair. If you wear more makeup to hide the rosy colour in your cheeks—” Elizabeth tapped a finger on her lips, “—you really should always wear your bonnet…”

   She scowled. Her parents had never insisted she wear one as a child and she sometimes forgot as an adult, revealing freckles on her nose. Now her cousin would not let her forget how dark her skin was before they taught her the ‘fashionable’ way. 

   “No one will know, even if they meet me in the future,” concluded Elizabeth. 

   “I do not wish to wear more makeup to hide my complexion.”  

   “You must if you are to pass as me. Your skin must be white. It is the fashion,” said Elizabeth, aghast her cousin would contemplate pretending to be her without her impeccable style. “You must look the part.”

   Margaret detested the fashion of pale makeup to hide natural rosiness, and especially hated the newer fashion of drawing blue veins on your arms! She veered towards the more natural appearance, but it was potentially the reason why, at nineteen, she still had not received one marriage proposal. It secretly worried her that she was bordering on being an old maid! But what more could she do? She had been ‘out’ for two seasons, but only Elizabeth received male callers after the balls. She received merely one—an older boorish man with a paunch, who ran as soon as he realised she did not have a five numbered dowry. 

   “That is it,” said Elizabeth, excitement lacing her voice as she swirled around. “We will spend the weekend practising your makeup, so you look like me.” She tapped her lips with her finger, deep in thought, before smiling. “You will need to take some of my dresses, mantels, wraps, shawls, and spencers. My morning and visiting gowns; my dinner dresses and my ball gowns. My fur-lined pelisse, too.” She frowned. “You will not need to take my promenade dresses because you are in the country.”

   Margaret’s mouth dried. So many things.

   “Luckily, mother ordered many clothes and accessories for the season. There are plenty for you to choose from.”

   Margaret’s heart sunk even more when the feeling of entrapment intensified with another worry on her shoulders—caring for Bess’s expensive dresses. Her uncle and aunt gifted her beautiful gowns, but they were not on the same level as Elizabeth’s. Their daughter’s image was important in society. They wanted her married to someone of worth, and their expenditure on her reflected that wish. 

   Late one night, as they chatted in candlelight in their rented London townhouse, she asked Elizabeth why she did not have suitors calling on her because, unless she was being naïve, she did not think that having a less expensive dress limited her suitors. Elizabeth informed her that besides her lack of title and dowry, she needed to become a more talented actress, demure and coy when in the presence of males, but also flirtatious, too. 

   It made little sense to Margaret, but she did not have another reference other than her cousin. Why could you not be yourself? Did that mean you had to continue to hide your true personality for the rest of your married life? Although she recalled a warm feeling of love when she remembered her parents, it was fleeting. Her heart told her that her parents were in love, and she hung onto that. It was what she wanted in her future, but Bess told her love within marriage was virtually impossible. 

   Her cousin’s candour about affairs of the heart shocked Margaret. After all the effort it appeared to take to meet a suitor, did it all just come down to money and titles? Mayhap it was why her uncle, knowing his daughter’s personality, had allowed the Earl to court Elizabeth. Lord Cavendish, richer than most and a member of the House of Lords, was no pushover for Elizabeth to manipulate. She shuddered, and struggled to refocus on her cousin, when an image of his scowling face popped into her head.   

   “Oh, yes. His aunt would expect you to be properly presented with fine attire.”

   While Margaret’s less fortunate family circumstances made her less of a catch, suddenly the idea of becoming an old maid became more appealing! “If you say, Bess,” she mumbled. She prayed the viscountess was not cut from the same cloth as her nephew. His dismissive, piercing blue eyes still seemed to take everything in. “Do I honestly have to wear your clothes? Your dresses are silk. I am afraid they might get damaged.” 

   “Do not be so ridiculous. I have many. If one gets spoiled, it will not be too much of a loss to replace. Besides, when I marry Christopher, he has the money to buy me new.”

   Margaret’s eyes widened at the use of his name. Earl of Cavendish or Lord Cavendish seemed to suit him much more adequately. “Do you call him Christopher?”

   “I do, but only in private when there is no one around and the chaperone does not overhear.”

   “But I cannot be alone with him or call him Christopher!”

   Elizabeth put her hands on her hips, tapping her foot under her dress. “You will not see him. Remember he is in France, Meg.”

   Margaret let out a breath, fanning her face with her hand. Even the thought of him was making him seem too real. “Oh yes, sorry. He is away in France. Where exactly, so I know if questioned?” 

   “Paris.”

   “The capital?”

   “Yes, Meg. I will school you on what information you need to know, and I will turn you into looking like me. Our ruse will be simple.” Elizabeth swirled around the room, arms extended, as though all her troubles had ended. 

Tears glazed in Margaret’s eyes. She was fearful of all the things that could go wrong with Elizabeth’s plan. She loved Bess, she truly did, but her cousin often got her into scrapes where only she paid the price. Repeatedly, the blonde, blue-eyed beauty was never viewed as the instigator, only ever the victim. Elizabeth learned from a young age to batter her eyelashes and act dumb so her father would forgive her for any misdemeanours. If only she had been so lucky! Margaret let out a huff. Perhaps it is what Elizabeth intended to do with Lord Cavendish—if he ever found out!

   “Come,” said Elizabeth, waving her hand. 

   Margaret stood.

   “Come, let us call on my abigail to help dress you.”

   She paused, her face losing its colour. “But I thought you said no one would know of our deception.” 

   Elizabeth laughed. “Don’t be silly. Alice is just an abigail. She won’t say anything.”

   Her brow creased at hearing Elizabeth’s statement. If her cousin took the time to enter the kitchens, she would know that although servants were to be ‘seen and not heard’, that did not mean they kept their master’s secrets. 

   Elizabeth rang the servant’s bell to require assistance before she walked to the bedchamber door and opened it, poking her head out to view the corridor. When she spotted her abigail rushing along, she urged, “Maid, come quick. We need your help.”

   Margaret stayed quiet when, eventually, Elizabeth’s abigail rushed into the room. 

   “I have a mission for you, and you have to promise to keep quiet about it.”

   “Whatever you want, miss,” said Alice, giving a small bob. 

   Elizabeth looked over her shoulder and winked at Margaret. “We are going to turn cousin Meg into me.”

   The shock that flittered over the abigail’s face was clear to Margaret, but obviously not to Elizabeth, as she included her maid in their subterfuge. They walked over to her closet. “Come here, dear cousin. Look at my clothes. We will pick some for you to wear. We need a selection of undress, half dress, and full dress. Evening wear, too.”

   Margaret slowly made her way over, while Elizabeth looked her up and down. 

   “You can wear your own stays, stockings, and chemise.” Elizabeth inspected the clothes, choosing and discarding as she walked alongside them.

   Margaret glanced at the beautiful gowns carefully arranged in the closet. Up-to-date gowns in white and light pastels with square cut necklines, beautifully decorated with elaborate embroidery, filled every nook and cranny. While she herself was privileged enough to own similar—a luxury bestowed on her by her uncle as her father had gambled most of their family fortune away before he died—they were nowhere near as decorative or as delicate a fabric as Elizabeth’s collection. Elizabeth’s were made from lawn and batiste materials, silks, and velvets, while hers were mainly muslin. Elizabeth’s were exquisite. 

   “Help Meg take her gown off, down to her shift, petticoat, and stays.” 

    “Yes, miss,” said Alice, motioning for Margaret to turn around.

   Elizabeth tapped her finger on her lips. “I will have to lend you some of my more elegant chemisettes, Meg. When they fill the neckline of the dress, they will be more in keeping with my style.” She reached into her closet to remove an evening dress. “This one—” she fingered the long sleeves, bunched at intervals by ribbons, “—is a new design. My dressmaker said they call the sleeves mameluke or Marie sleeves. Aren’t they wonderful?”

   Margaret looked at the puffy material and chose not to comment. She preferred the capped sleeves of her dresses, but it did not appear as though she had a choice in what she was about to wear for the next couple of weeks. 

—-#—-

   Hours later, after being donned in many beautiful dresses, she now wore one with a delicately embroidered hem. Under Elizabeth’s guidance, Alice had coiled her hair into an elaborate hairstyle, and her makeup was perfect. 

   Elizabeth held up a mirror in front of Margaret. “Look.” Excitement laced her voice. “Apart from your eye colour, you look like me!”

   Tentatively, Margaret reached for the handheld mirror, not really wanting to know what she looked like concealed under a facade. Moving her head from side to side, she inspected her image. Elizabeth was proved right. They were remarkably similar when made up. But that did not make her mood any better about what they were about to do. “We certainly have a likeness,” she muttered, concerned that the plans were becoming even more difficult to back out of. 

   “Yes, yes! Of course, we do. This is going to be so easy.” She grabbed Margaret’s hand. “I will send Alice with you and she will help.” She turned to her abigail. “Won’t you?”

   “Yes, miss.”

   In the mirror’s reflection, Margaret noticed Elizabeth’s smile fade. What had soured her cousin’s mood? Had she changed her mind? As her heart skipped a beat, she placed the mirror on the dresser and swivelled around on the stool. 

   “You can go now,” said Elizabeth, shooing Alice out with her hands. “Come back later to help me pack.”

   “As you wish,” said Alice with a bob of her mob capped head before she left. 

   When Alice shut the door behind her, Elizabeth whirled around so quickly she made Margaret jump. 

   “Come now. Stand for me to get a better view of you.” Elizabeth’s brow furrowed. “You look the part but there is a lot to remember.”

   Margaret’s shoulders sagged. Her cousin had not changed her mind as she hoped.

   “Remember, you must not fidget. You must be respectful to the viscountess.”

   Margaret’s mouth opened. Did her cousin think of her uncouth?

  “And you must try to be as forgettable as possible.” Elizabeth’s mood changed again as she laughed gaily. “Not that I am ever forgettable, but you know what I mean.”

   Margaret’s nose crinkled as she digested her cousin’s words. 

   “Dear Meg, do not appear so sour. You should not come across any of Lord Cavendish’s acquaintances at Aunt Agnes’s home. If Christopher is not there, his friends will not visit.” 

   Margaret could not help her mind wandering to the Earl, despite Elizabeth’s insistence he would not be there. Even from a safe distance, the black-haired nobleman continued to affect her. The worry, when she resided at Chenny House, was that he would be on her mind all the time, when she hoped to forget about him! 

   Suddenly, Elizabeth’s laugh faded, and she tilted her head to the side. “And certainly, do not worry your bottom lip as you always do. You will spoil your lip salve.” 

   Margaret’s cheeks reddened under her makeup. Her cousin always reprimanded her for how she behaved; needless really, as apart from a couple of silly habits, she always was a model of decorum. 

   “Oh, for goodness’ sake, Meg. Pull your shoulders back. You will crease the material.”

   Jumping at the censor in Elizabeth’s voice, she stood straight. Any joy she might have gleaned for wearing such gowns well and truly evaporated. “Can I get out of this dress?”

   “Why?” Elizabeth’s brows gathered. “You will wear gowns like this for the next three weeks.”

   “I know, it’s just—” she searched for something to say other than that would be long enough to act, “—I do not want to spoil this. Besides, we must attend dinner with your parents, tonight, and they might wonder why I am in one of your dresses.”

   “Good point, Meg. Let us get you back to your normal self.”

   She let out a sigh of relief before her anxiety returned. There was so much to think of. “What will we say to your parents about my absence?” Panic surged through her, tightening her chest. She reached out for Elizabeth’s hand. “I go nowhere without you!”

   “Oh, don’t worry about that. I can wrap my parents around my little finger. I will come up with some explanation.” She squeezed Margaret’s hand before letting go. “I will call my abigail to help you get out of my dress.”

   “Before you do,” she paused, wondering how to tackle the subject, “I haven’t asked…”

   “Asked what?” Elizabeth’s nose crinkled and her eyes narrowed. “Lip, Meg.”

   Margaret released her bottom lip, ignoring Elizabeth’s enormous sigh. She would have to remember to curtail that habit. “I have not asked why you need me to go.” Her eyes narrowed when she noticed a flush creep up Elizabeth’s neck. It was a rare occasion to see her cousin redden. “It’s not something awful, is it?”

   “No, not especially.”

   “Well, what is it then, Bess? Why am I to be put in this situation? You should tell me.”

   “Because…” Elizabeth turned away before she rounded back around to look at Margaret. “Because I am meeting my lover.”

   Margaret’s hands shot to her mouth, covering it. “Your lover?” she stuttered out, not believing she had heard her cousin correctly.

   “Yes, my lover.”

   “Who? When? How?” Questions stumbled out of her mouth so fast, Elizabeth had no time to answer. She shook her head, the shock too much. “You cannot have a man!”

   “Come, let us sit and chat,” Elizabeth suggested, pointing to the two padded chairs next to the fireplace. “I will explain as much as I can about affairs of the heart.”

   Shaken, she made her way over to the seats, wanting—but also not—to hear what Elizabeth had to say.

   After listening to her cousin’s confession, Margaret sat back in the chair. Her head spun, but she resisted the urge of censor in her voice. She was not in her cousin’s shoes—well, not yet anyway! “Do you not love Lord Cavendish?”

   “No, I have agreed to his marriage proposal as mother said he is a respectable suitor—” Elizabeth let out a sigh, “—and I am sure I will grow to love him once we marry.”

   Margaret’s eyes widened. “You are still going to marry him when you… you have another man?”

   “Don’t be silly. Of course, I am. Father spent a long time securing a good marriage for me to a man of great wealth. Besides, mother chose him.”

   “But you don’t love him.” Her stomach dropped with the knowledge.

   “There is nothing to suggest he loves me, either!” Elizabeth shouted defensively. 

   “But he asked you to marry him,” she mumbled, her mouth down turned. 

   “Oh, for heaven’s sake.” Elizabeth let out a sigh. “Most marriages are not born of love, dear Meg. I have told you that many times. Women are married off to the best suitor for their—” she gave a bitter laugh, “—moral protection.” 

   A furrow appeared in Margaret’s brow as she looked at her cousin. Was genuine love just an illusion? Today, she had not only learned her cousin’s morals were not what they seemed, but any hope she clung to that love was out there, diminished too. Marriage truly was a business negotiation. Could she give up on that dream? “Surely, some marriages are for love?” 

   “No, most are merely contracts for fiscal or social gain. And to produce heirs.” 

   “But I want to marry for love,” she protested. 

    Elizabeth emitted a hoot of laughter. “Oh, darling Meg.”

   She scowled. She truly thought Elizabeth had feelings for the Earl—enough to contemplate marriage. She was not totally naïve; she was aware there were marriages of convenience, but surely the love that poets, singers, and entertainers wrote about must exist somewhere? “I want a husband that I adore.”

   Elizabeth’s chin lifted as a wry smile flittered on her lips. “Then you are a fool, cousin.”

   “I’m not.” Her cousin often called her such names, but to call her such because she believed in love was uncalled for. “My parents loved each other.”

   “So, you think, Meg” said Elizabeth, standing quickly. Her rapid movements clearly displaying her agitation. “You were too young to know when they died.”

   Tears sprang to her eyes as she stood to face Elizabeth. “That is unfair, Bess. You did not live with my family; you did not see my parent’s love.” 

   “Would you love your husband if he spent all your fortune on gambling and whores?”

   Panic rose within her. Had she spent years defending a feeling, not facts? “Elizabeth!” Without thinking, she struck her cousin’s cheek. 

    Elizabeth’s icy blue eyes narrowed on her as she flinched away from Margaret’s outstretched hand. “I will let you have that blow. I was out of order, bad-mouthing your father, but if you are going to act as me, you had better learn to reel in your temper.”

   “I don’t have a temper,” she countered, shocked that Elizabeth could say so. 

   “You do,” Elizabeth murmured, “when you are pushed too far.”

   “You have an awful temper!” she countered. 

   “But I know when not to show it! I am schooled in social behaviours, as you are!” Elizabeth spat out. 

   “But you told me things about my father I did not wish to hear. You were unkind about him. I would never disrespect yours.”

   Elizabeth removed her hand from her cheek as she tilted her head. “That is because he took in his brother’s orphan, and you have to be grateful.”

   Margaret bit down on the inside of her cheek. There was no point arguing with Elizabeth even though she spoke an untruth. Her gratitude and respect for her uncle was not only because he had taken her in—voluntarily or otherwise—it was because he was a fair and kindly man. Although he had amassed a fortune on top of his family inheritance—and not squandered it like her father—he still had time for special charitable causes close to his heart. Not that Elizabeth would know. Unlike her, Elizabeth never accompanied her father on his charitable work because there was nothing in it for her. Margaret sighed as she glanced at her cousin. Her self-centeredness and vanity often over shone her natural beauty. 

   “I am sorry,” murmured Elizabeth. “The stress is evidently getting to me.” 

   The sadness in her cousin’s apology deflated her anger. Why had she slapped her? They often niggled each other and fought, but never physically. This outburst was not in her character. She stepped forward, her tears finally flowing, and enveloped her cousin in a hug. “I am so sorry, too! I do not know what came over me. I should not have slapped you, even if your words hurt me.” 

   Elizabeth pulled away and walked towards her dresser. “Let us forget our incident.” She picked up her mirror, turning it in her hand. “All I ask is for you to pull this off for me, Meg. You must be on your best behaviour. If Christopher gets a whiff of what is going on, or his aunt comments on something I would not do—” her eyes narrowed on Margaret, “—my life, and yours, will not be worth living. The gossip could kill the family name.”

  Their family name was all on her shoulders! She was innocent in all of this. So far! She finally snapped. “I do not want to partake in this ruse,” she said, her frustration clear. Deceit, and the chance of Lord Cavendish finding out, was terrifying for one that always thought truth was the right path. This was too much. “Why can you not put off whatever you have planned and go yourself? I am sure your…” she struggled over the word, “lover would understand.”

   Elizabeth’s face hardened. “Because I cannot.” She slammed the mirror back down, forgetting its value. 

   “Why?”

   “Because he is married. Normally, he has little time to get away, but his wife is resting—” she had the decency to flush, “—because she has birthed a child.”

   “Elizabeth Howard! That is awful. He’s a rake!”

   Elizabeth’s hands shot up into the air. “He is not. He does not love her! She cares not if he flirts with me or if he visits me when she has her monthly courses.”

   “How long has this been going on, Bess?”

   Elizabeth gazed at her entwined hands, having the decency to flutter her gaze away from Margaret’s. “For years. I met him when I was barely sixteen.”

   She grabbed her necklace. Had she ever truly known Elizabeth and her heart? “Were you acquainted before he married?”

   “Yes, we were in love.”

  “Why did you not marry him?”

   “He never asked.”

   Her emerald eyes widened. “Why not? Does he not love you?”

   Elizabeth’s lips thinned. “Yes, of course he does, but father would not give his permission for us to wed. This is the next best thing.”

   “Why did he not give permission?”

   “Because he is lower in station than me.”

   She studied her beautiful cousin and although the exterior package was familiar, what was underneath was a revelation. How had she not known something was going on under her nose? Shaken, she sat, trying to process everything she had heard. 

   Elizabeth took a step forward. “I will ask once more; will you do this kindness for me?” Her blue eyes glazed with tears. “If you do not go, they will find us out. I cannot bear not to see him.”

   Elizabeth was an only child, so she had no sister to sully in this mess. But if her cousin got caught, it would also blacken her name, which was already precarious enough because of a gambling father. This was enough for her to be shunned by polite society. 

   Elizabeth bent over and grabbed her hands, her face sombre. “Father will be disgraced if I do not become a Countess.”

   Margaret was angry with Elizabeth for her indiscretions. It did not matter if Elizabeth declared her love for the man, it was still wrong. But she still did not want to see her family ruined. She felt her resolve not to be involved in the ruse, slipping away again. 

   “Remember, Lord Cavendish will not be in London. He is safe in France,” Elizabeth continued with her argument. 

   Finally resigned to her fate, Margaret nodded. 

   “Wonderful. Now let us get you organised.” Elizabeth stood and walked across the room, the tone of her voice displaying her relief. 

   As Margaret followed Elizabeth back across the bedchamber, her stomach churned at the upcoming events. What have I got myself tangled up in? While Elizabeth wittered on about how she should behave—as if they had not schooled her in such manners—she let out a lengthy sigh of resignation. It appeared she was going to be mixed up in one of her cousin’s schemes yet again. 

***

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