Imogen Hartford stood in front of the vanity, awed by the lady in the mirror.
If it were not for the familiar green eyes that stared right back at her, she would not believe that it was her own reflection she was seeing.
Those eyes were unmistakably hers. Green like the leaves in full spring with hints of summer sun around the irises; they were unique indeed.
“I look so . . . beautiful,” she muttered.
Her maid, Elena, smiled. “You always do, Miss Imogen. You are beautiful.”
Imogen shook her head. She knew exactly what she was speaking about.
“I have never been so . . . may I say stunning? You make me shine, Elena. I look absolutely radiant!”
This time, Elena chuckled. “I did nothing.”
“That is a lie. Look how beautifully you have done up my hair. My cheeks are a shade rosier and my eyes, oh, they twinkle!”
She turned to her maid, taking her hands. “Thank you, dear. I love it!”
Elena’s cheeks flushed with warmth and she lowered her gaze, refusing to hold Imogen’s. “Oh well, it is the least I could do seeing as it is your debut. Every lady has to be especially pretty on the night she enters society, I hear.”
Imogen’s eyes widened as her brother’s voice filled the room. She spun swiftly, facing the direction she had heard it come from and there he was, arms crossed, standing by the door.
“Lewis!” she chimed. “I did not hear you come in. How long have you been there?”
Lewis Hartford lifted his right shoulder in a small shrug.
“A short while.”
Unfolding his arms, he started to walk towards her. He held her shoulders softly and turned her around so they could look in the mirror together.
Side by side, it was almost impossible to see that they were related for the differences in their features.
Where Imogen had wild chestnut hair that tumbled down her back in waves when set free, Lewis’ hair was blonde and cut short to stop just before his brows.
His eyes often reminded her of honey, and she would ever tease him for his nose being a tad too long.
He stood at five inches taller than her five feet two and his shoulders, because of their broadness, easily shielded her. Imogen remembered crying on them too many times.
The only features they happened to share in common were the oval-shaped face and the milkiness of their skin.
Just then, his lips curved, and she realized one more thing they both had: that smile. Like her hair, it had been passed down by their mother.
“How do you feel?” he asked.
Imogen knew exactly what he was talking about. In another hour, they would be arriving at her first ball. She would formally enter society.
For years, she had been trained for this moment. She had learned how to walk gracefully, curtsy flawlessly, speak properly . . . every manner in the book of propriety had been taught to her.
Her governess had never failed to drum into Imogen’s ears, that her first season would go a long way in determining the rest of her life.
Of course, Imogen was never comforted by the thought that her future depended on a succession of balls and soirees. To her, it was utterly ridiculous. Nevertheless, she had listened and learned, wanting to make her father and brother happy and proud.
The time had finally come to put all that she had mastered into use.
“A little anxious,” she finally answered.
It was nothing but the truth. She was worried she would make a mistake, that she would not be good enough, and would only end up disappointing the family she loved with all her heart.
Lewis nodded. She could see in his eyes that he understood, she did not even have to say much. She often never did.
“Anyone would be, in your shoes. However, you must know that there is nothing to worry about, my dear. You are going to be wonderful, I can tell.”
She smiled. She could tell that he meant every word, believed it even.
“Thank you, Lewis.”
He shook his head. “I am only stating a fact.”
There was a moment’s silence as he paused. When he spoke again, his voice was filled with emotion.
“You indeed look especially lovely tonight, Imogen. Utterly gorgeous. Sometimes, I still cannot believe that you have grown into such a beautiful young woman before my very eyes. If mother were here with us, I am certain that she would be so proud.”
The mention of their mother brought tears to Imogen’s eyes and she blinked rapidly, sending them back. It would not do to shed sad tears in such a beautiful moment.
“She is here with us,” she whispered as she found her voice. She lifted a palm to her heart and tapped. “Right here.”
It was Lewis’ turn to blink. “Yes,” he finally replied, smiling. “Of course, she is. Come now, father awaits us. Society awaits us.”
Imogen nodded as she turned around. With an acknowledging nod and a smile toward Elena’s way, she hooked her arm around her brother’s and let him lead them out of her chamber.
They found their father waiting in the hall when they descended the stairs.
Lewis was his spitting image. But for the evident age difference, it would have been so easy to mistake the elderly Mr. Hartford for his son.
Gerald Hartford’s brown eyes lit up the moment he saw her.
“My goodness! Imogen, it really is you!” he gushed in awe as she came to a stop before him.
Her cheeks filled with the warmth that was spreading through her chest.
“Of course, Father. Why? Do I look that different?”
He chuckled. “Only more beautiful. Ahh . . .” he sighed as he palmed her cheeks. “You look just like your mother. Seeing you now, I can hardly keep the memories away. It was a night such as this one when I first saw her. Her first season, her first ball. She was the loveliest sight, so lovely, she took my breath away. I knew it right then that there was no other woman for me. There could not be.”
“Oh, Father . . .” Imogen whispered.
This time, she had no luck. A drop of tear slipped free, but she was quick to wipe it away.
It seemed everyone was intent on making her cry and she could barely fault them.
In such precious times, it was only right that they remembered the one woman who had meant so much to them and still did, even in death—not that Rachel Hartford could ever be forgotten. Never.
Her father who had been staring into the distance, evidently taken back in time, looked at her again.
His eyes widened as he realized what he had done. He was quick to apologize.
“Oh, my dear. Forgive me. I did not mean to make you feel sad. It is just . . .”
Imogen cut him off. “I understand, Father. You need not apologize. Lewis and I believe she is right here with us. Even though we cannot see her, we feel her, in our hearts.”
Her father’s lips curved in a sad smile. “I must have done something right in my lifetime. It is the only reason I was blessed with the two of you. You are both so precious to me.”
He withdrew his hand from her cheek then and straightened his coat. After clearing his throat, he spoke. “Are you ready?”
Imogen gave it some thought. Was she? She supposed she was. There was no going back now, after all.
She nodded. “I believe I am.”
Her father’s smile widened. “Very well. Let us be on our way.”
With those words, they all left their townhouse. One by one, they got into the carriage that had been waiting just outside and began the journey to the Wembley residence.
Forty-five minutes later, their carriage pulled to a stop. Her father was the first to descend. Her brother went next and when he had, he gave her his hand.
As soon as her feet touched the ground, she started to look around, taking in the sight before her.
There was a large number of carriages already and a small crowd of people. Some had only just arrived, and the others were trooping to the huge doors that guarded the Wembley townhouse.
Loud chatter filled the air, as well as laughter. The joy that filled the ambience was so palpable, it was almost infectious.
“So, this is what it is like, attending a ball . . .” she thought out loud.
Her father and brother chuckled as they fell into place by her sides.
“You have yet to see anything, Imogen. You just wait, patience.” Lewis told her gently.
Intrigued by his words, Imogen decided to hold her peace as they began to walk.
They soon reached the doors and were let in by the butler. Joining the rest of the small crowd that had gathered in the hall, they found their way to the ballroom.
As soon as they stepped in, noise filled Imogen’s ears, deafening her momentarily.
Her eyes widened as she took in the room before her. Slowly, she started to understand what Lewis had meant.
The crowd she had seen in the yard was nothing compared to the one that was gathered in the ballroom.
Her heart began to tremble as her nervousness returned. No one had told her she would have to share such a large room with so many people.
She had never been among such a crowd before. She was a shy one around strangers. How was she ever to make it through the night?
Unaware of her own actions, she began to withdraw, taking a few steps back toward the way they had come. Thankfully, Lewis was quick to notice this.
He wrapped a comforting arm around her, holding her in place.
Then, leaning close to her, he whispered in her ear.
“Breathe, Imogen. They are just people, and you are going to be perfectly fine.”
She let his words sink in, let his calming tenor wash over her. Slowly, she began to feel better. She turned to him then.
“You should have told me. I have never experienced anything like this.”
He looked so apologetic; she would have immediately forgiven him if she were truly cross.
“It will take some getting used to, but you will do just fine. You trust me, do you not?”
“With my life,” she answered swiftly. It was the truth.
He nodded. “Good. As do I. Come now. We arrived just in time. The debutantes will soon be announced and afterwards, Father and I will take you around. There are people you must meet.”
Her father took her hand in his and squeezed.
“We will be by your side every step of the way and even when we are not, we will make certain you are not alone.”
More comforting words. Imogen bobbed her head, grateful for them.
As soon as she declared that she felt better, they began to walk again, leading her to another room just above the ballroom.
“Imogen Hartford,” her father said to the man standing by the door as they reached him.
The man checked the list which he held in his hand. Imogen supposed it contained names.
He must have seen hers, for he nodded and held the door open for her.
“You may enter.”
Imogen looked to her father and brother, seeking assurance once more.
“We will be separated only for a while, my dear,” her father explained.
“In another moment, your debut will be announced and then we will be right by your side again,” Lewis furthered.
“Alright. I guess I shall see you then?” she asked.
It was her father that answered. “Yes. Soon.”
Holding on to their reassurance, she went into the room. As soon as she did, the door closed behind her.
She gave it one last long look before turning around.
This part had been explained to her, so she was not surprised to see several ladies in the room, all debutantes like her. Whatever it was they had been doing, they had stopped when she entered and were now all looking at her.
Imogen’s discomfort grew and she wished that she could disappear, or simply fade into the wall. Perhaps, it was because she had never had to mingle with many people growing up and had only had one friend. That could explain why she was ever awfully shy around strangers.
She seldom wished that were not the case, but unfortunately, it was.
For a moment, she just stood there, staring right back at them, wondering whether to wave or announce herself. She decided on the former. Only, as she raised her hand, she heard her name.
“Imogen! It is you!”
Surprised that anyone would recognize her, her eyes searched the room quickly, eager to find who had spoken.
They immediately lit up when she saw her best, and only friend, Alicia Fitzwilliam, sitting by the corner, waving at her.
Imogen released a breath she had not realized she was holding as relief washed over her.
Finally, a familiar face.
Picking her skirts, she happily crossed the distance to Alicia.
Imogen had feared that they were going to miss each other in such a large crowd but now that she had found her friend, she was a little more positive that she was going to make it through the night, after all.
“Lady Heather Holloway! Lady Leah Wentworth! Miss Janet Belshire!”
Imogen looked at Alicia as she felt a soft nudge in her side.
“What is it?” her eyes asked.
Alicia must have easily read the question for she whispered in response. “Any time now, we shall be called. I suppose I will go first.”
“Oh,” Imogen answered. They were now standing at the top of the stairs that descended into the ballroom.
Everyone who had come was gathered below, looking up at the debutantes, happy to clap politely as they climbed down upon hearing their names.
“You are nervous, aren’t you?” Alicia whispered again, grinning.
Imogen nodded. “And you are not.” It was not a question. She knew Alicia better than most people and her friend could not be more different from her.
Where she was shy and reserved, Alicia was outgoing and outspoken. She barely had a care in the world and acted freely, whatever tickled her fancy.
She was also very beautiful, which made it all the more easy for her to draw attention to herself.
For Imogen, it was attention that she would rather not have, exactly the kind Alicia craved and basked in.
Climbing down a stairway, dressed like an angel with hundreds of eyes staring at her was just the type of thing Alicia lived for.
Imogen did not need anyone to tell her Alicia’s debut would be flawless. She wished she could say the same for herself.
Alicia shook her head. “Why would I be? It is the moment I have been waiting for all my life. You have no inkling how sad I am that Father made me wait this long. If it were entirely in my power, I would have made my debut three years ago. Look at her, MaryAnne Heathridge, she is only sixteen and already entering society. It is difficult not to feel envious.”
“Miss Alicia Fitzwilliam!”
As soon as her name was called, Alicia’s eyes began to twinkle with excitement.
“Oh! That is me! Finally! I guess I will see you below!”
With those words, she walked to the edge of the stairs and dipped in a flawless curtsy. Imogen stared in awe, unable to help it. She had never seen one so gracefully executed.
That was one of the many reasons she loved Alicia. Her dearest friend never had to try too hard. These things came naturally to her.
As Alicia rose, she lifted her hand in a small, perfect wave. Then, she began to descend the stairs. She did not miss one step. Her head remained high, spine straight and shoulders squared until she reached the last and got off.
In her mind, Imogen broke into applause, filled with so much pride and happiness. Alicia had done absolutely splendid. She only wished to do half as well.
“Lady Fiona Whittaker!” the announcer called again.
A tall lady stepped forward then, and Imogen watched as she curtsied, waved and climbed down the stairway. As Fiona joined the crowd smiling, Imogen wondered who would be next.
That was when she heard her name.
“Miss Imogen Hartford!”
For a small moment, she was frozen.
As she thawed, she walked to the edge of the stairway as gracefully as she could, dipped in a curtsy and rose to wave, a dazzling smile on her face.
Afterwards, she picked her skirts in her hands and began to descend. All the while, her heart was lodged in her throat and she would not stop praying that she did not make a fool of herself even as they clapped and cheered her on.
She could feel them all looking at her and it made it even harder to concentrate.
Only two more, she thought to herself as she neared the last steps.
When she finally got off, she released a deep breath. Before she could fully recover, though, her father, brother, and Alicia were by her side.
Lewis was the first person to speak. “You did great, sweetheart. Really great.”
“Truly?” she asked.
Alicia nodded. “I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs that you were my friend. Thankfully, I managed to restrain myself. I knew you could do it, Imogen! Given, I believed you would struggle through it, but you were simply graceful! No one could have told you were nervous.”
Imogen’s heart warmed as it settled in its rightful place.
“You are just saying that to make me feel better,” she protested weakly.
Her father spoke then. “Hogwash! It is the truth that we are telling, and you best believe it. You were flawless, you are flawless. Watching you descend those steps was the proudest moment of my life.”
“Mine too,” Lewis added.
Imogen’s heart melted as she looked them all in the eye, one by one. They seemed so sincere. How could she not believe them? Especially when she wanted to so desperately?
“I am glad, so glad I did not disappoint you.”
“Pshaw, you could never. Come now, there are people you must meet. They are quite eager to meet you as well.”
Her father was already pulling her away. She turned to Alicia to see if it was okay to go and her friend nodded, waving her off.
“Father wants to take me around as well. I was only waiting for you. Meet me back here in half an hour, would you?”
“I will,” Imogen agreed. “See you then.”
With those words, they parted.
It was easier than she had imagined, meeting people.
Some were the familiar faces of her father’s friends and business partners. Others were strangers with whom she quickly made acquaintance.
By the time Imogen returned to the spot where she and Alicia had agreed to meet, she realized that she was starting to feel quite comfortable.
The crowd no longer scared her, and she had stopped being concerned by what little attention she was getting.
“There you are!” Alicia chimed as she arrived. “I hope I did not make you wait too long. I only just managed to get away.”
Imogen shook her head. “Not at all. I just got here myself.” She turned to her brother who had decided to stay by her side until she reunited with Alicia.
“You may go now, Lewis. I am certain you have friends of your own whom you want to be with.”
“They can do without me, but if you insist.” He turned to Alicia, smiling. “Take care of her, will you, Miss Fitzwilliam? Come find me if there is any trouble and do not stray anywhere alone.”
Imogen gave in to the urge to roll her eyes, as Alicia assured him she would take good care of Imogen. Her brother was ever protective of her as though if he looked away for too long, she would vanish into thin air.
“I can take care of myself, you know.”
His response was a kiss to her temple. “I do not doubt it, but I feel better knowing that you do not have to.”
With those words, he was gone, giving Imogen no chance to retort.
“Lewis is ever charming, do you not agree? If only I had a brother like him,” Alicia sighed as he walked away.
“You should confess your feelings one of these days or I shall just have to do so myself,” Imogen teased.
“Don’t you dare! We both know I stopped nursing them years ago. I only fancied him one summer . . . just one summer, but you will not let me hear the end of it.”
Imogen chuckled. Alicia was usually hard to fluster but mentioning Lewis always seemed to do the trick.
She knew Alicia believed she was over Lewis, but Imogen did not think that was the case. There was perhaps, some part of her best friend that still fancied her brother.
It mattered little, though. Lewis had eyes for no one and well, Alicia always had one gentleman or the other to fawn over every few months.
“You keep calling him charming and I might just have to keep disagreeing,” she replied.
Alicia gave her the stink eye, but Imogen’s smile never faltered. In fact, it widened into a grin.
“Speaking of charming gentlemen, have you noticed that there’s quite a number of handsome men here tonight? One particularly catches my fancy. The Earl of Wimbledon. Oh, my days, he is so easy on the eyes, that he is! Thankfully, he asked for my first dance.”
“Oh?” Imogen asked. She was not one bit surprised by how quickly they had moved on from the topic of her brother.
“Yes. And you? Have you promised the dance to anyone? My dance card is filled up as it is. Shall I see yours?”
Imogen showed her.
“Uh-oh. Only three names and the first dance is yet to be promised. Poor dear. Not many men asked, did they? I never imagined that would be the case.”
It was, in fact, not the case but Imogen saw no need to correct Alicia.
She had been asked more times than she could count. She had simply been careful whom she answered favorably. She did not want to spend time dancing with any gentlemen who made her feel uncomfortable, even if only a little bit.
Lifting her shoulder ever slightly, she shrugged as though it was nothing. “I wanted to give it to someone who—in your words—catches my fancy. I have yet to meet him.”
“Ah. I see. I hear the first dance shall begin any moment now. What shall you do if you do not find anyone before then?”
Imogen did not have to give it any thought. She answered easily,
“I shall ask Lewis to dance with me. He is my first love, after all.”
Alicia sighed as she shook her head. “You are not going to marry your brother, you know.”
“What can I say? I can at least hope to choose someone like him.”
Alicia would have replied, but someone appeared by their side just then. A young gentleman with eyes evidently only for Alicia.
“Miss Fitzwilliam, I looked all over for you.”
Alicia’s cheeks immediately flushed with crimson. “Lord Wimbledon, you must forgive me. I did not mean to cause you any trouble.”
“Oh no, please. It was no trouble. I would gladly search the whole of England if only to glimpse your beauty again.”
Alicia blushed harder, lowering her gaze.
Imogen could not help smiling. It must be the earl Alicia had told her about. He was easy on the eyes indeed, tall, dark-haired, and apparently charming.
It was also easy to see why Alicia fancied him.
“Well, it is a good thing you do not have to, is it not?” Alicia replied as she recovered. “You must meet my best friend, Miss Imogen Hartford. Imogen, this is Lord Isaac Brandon, the Earl of Wimbledon.”
Lord Wimbledon’s lips curved in a smile as he turned to Imogen.
Holding his hand out, he greeted her. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss Hartford.
Imogen gave him hers. “Likewise, my Lord.”
He dipped in a bow, kissing the back of her hand as he did.
“I see this season came with the most beautiful debutantes,” he said as he rose, releasing her hand.
Imogen could not help smiling in return. She tried to think of a witty retort, but for some reason she could not form one word.
Thankfully, he continued. “I hope you would not mind if I stole Miss Fitzwilliam away for a bit? The first dance is about to begin, and I am lucky enough to be the one to have claimed it.”
She liked him, Imogen decided—this Lord Wimbledon. She liked the way he looked at Alicia as though she was the only person in the room.
He was evidently smitten and genuinely so.
“Please, do not let me stop you,” she replied, finally finding her voice.
“Beautiful and kind. I thank you, Miss Hartford.”
Again, she simply blushed, her tongue twisting.
He turned to Alicia then. “Shall we?”
Alicia looked at Imogen and Imogen nodded, letting her know it was alright to go.
It was all that was needed. The next moment, she was walking away, arm in arm with the earl.
Imogen sighed as she watched them go.
It must be nice, she supposed, finding someone who warmed your heart at your very first ball.
“They make a lovely sight, do they not?”
She almost jumped out of her skin as an unfamiliar voice sounded in her ears.
She turned swiftly to see who it was and as she did, her heart skipped a beat.
Why, he is the handsomest man I have ever met!
He was tall. Very tall, almost dwarfing her as she barely reached his broad shoulders.
He had striking blue eyes and dusty brown hair that matched the beautifully tied cravat around his neck. There were even more striking features—a sharp jaw with cheekbones that stood out and lips so red, she wondered if he had been sipping wine.
On top of it all, he was looking at her.
He was looking at her and smiling! Those blue eyes would not stop twinkling too. She felt a tremor in her heart and resisted the urge to lift her hand to it.
“Excuse me?” she asked, forgetting the reason she had turned in the first place.
“Your friend and Lord Wimbledon. They make a lovely sight.”
His voice washed over her. A sensuous baritone she could listen to all night.
“Oh?” she cleared her throat when it appeared to be clogged. “Yes, I suppose they do.”
He kept smiling at her, looking at her. “Do you reckon we would make a lovely sight as well?”
The caterpillars she had never thought existed in her belly morphed into butterflies and began to flutter.
She had heard right, had she not?
“Excuse me?” she asked again. She winced as the word left her lips. It was the second time she was using them in five minutes.
“You and I, I think we would make an even lovelier sight.”
“Oh, I see,” she breathed.
Again, she chided herself. Oh, I see? One would think she had never made conversation with a gentleman before. What was wrong with her?
He held out his hand then. “Pardon my manners. I am Lord Jerome Wilkins, Baron of Exeter.”
She gave him hers, trying to remember if she had heard the name or title before. Nothing came to mind.
“Imogen Hartford,” she replied.
He said nothing as he lifted her hand to his lips and pressed a long, affectionate kiss against the back of her palm.
Then, letting her hand go, he said, “I know.”
Imogen hid her hand behind her back, not wanting him to see how much it trembled. The spot where he had kissed her still tingled.
What is wrong with me?
Was this what it felt like? Having one’s fancy tickled? It was quite strange and exhilarating at the same time.
“You do?” she asked again.
Why do I keep asking questions?
He nodded. “I saw as you were announced. I suppose it would not be too much to offer my good wishes. Congratulations on your flawless debut.”
“Thank you,” she answered simply.
He looked away then, and she followed his gaze to see the dance floor being cleared for the first dance.
When she felt his gaze upon her once more, she returned hers to him.
She knew what he would say before he spoke.
“If it would not be too much to ask, given that you have not promised it to another, would you do me the honor of giving me this dance?”
This was it. The moment she had been waiting for. How could she say no?
“Yes. You may have this dance.”
His smile turned to a full-fledged grin then and a sweet shiver ran down her spine. She was starting to understand how it must have been for her father and mother that first night all those years ago.
My first love.
She might barely have been acquainted with this baron, but she knew without a doubt in her heart that she would not mind spending the rest of her life with him.
Her arm tingled as he led her to the dance floor.
She dipped into a curtsy as they found a spot, stepping away. He bowed at her and the dance began.
As they drew closer, he spoke. “I forgot to mention, Miss. Hartford. It is an absolute pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
The pleasure is all mine.
Smiling harder than she had in ages, she simply replied, “Likewise, my lord.”
“Oh, Imogen! You should have seen us. We could have danced all night if we had been allowed to. Lord Wimbledon is an even better man than I thought. Can you believe he has interest in the arts? The arts!” Alicia chuckled in awe as she paused. She soon continued.
“There are not many gentlemen who have interests in books and poems these days, Imogen. Imagine finding one with whom you could speak about your favorite stories and poetry?”
Imogen could hear her friend speaking, but her mind was far away.
Just as Alicia could not stop gushing about the night she had had with the earl, Imogen was replaying it all in her mind.
Thoughts of the moments shared with Lord Exeter filled her mind. When she had gone to sleep the night before, she had dreamt of him. As she awoke that morning, she had continued to think of him.
There was nothing she could do to help it, not even if she wanted to—and she did not.
It had been the best night of her life.
Deciding to only fill three slots on her dance card had turned out to be a good decision. It had afforded her the chance to share one more dance with the baron.
He was charming indeed. He had done enough talking for the both of them when she had been too shy or awed to speak. And when she had spoken, he had laughed as though she was the wittiest person he had ever met.
He was gentle, in speech and in character. He was sweet and endearing and he had looked at her all night, as though she was the only thing he could see.
It had felt like living a fairy tale.
Imogen had only ever gotten so much devotion from her father and her brother. It was Alicia who often got all the attention when they were out together and, in all honesty, Imogen had never cared.
It had never bothered her one bit. It still did not. Especially now that she had someone who appeared to be just as devoted to her.
He had promised to call upon her soon. She hoped he would. She could barely wait to see him again. As humorous as it was, she dared say she missed him.
Indeed, it was too soon. She was aware of this. Nevertheless, if he cared for her anything like she did for him, she believed a proposal was forthcoming.
First, he would ask to court her. Then, he would seek her father’s blessings in the marriage. By the end of the season, they would be married, and, in another year, they would have their first child. They would eventually go on to live happily ever after.
She could just tell they were going to have a wonderful life together.
She startled out of her daydream as Alicia’s voice pierced into her ears.
“What is it?” she asked, worried.
“You did not hear a word I have just said, did you?”
Imogen considered denying it, but she knew it was no use. So, she answered truthfully.
“Quite frankly, you lost me at poetry.” It was the last thing she could remember hearing.
Alicia’s jaw dropped in mock horror as her eyes widened.
“Poetry? That far back? Gracious!” she huffed haughtily, and Imogen could tell she was offended.
“I apologize. I could not help it.”
“Truly? Did I bore you so much that your mind had to wander off or did you simply refuse to listen because you were jealous?”
Imogen frowned. She had not been expecting that at all.
Jealous? She had never for once felt the merest hint of such ugly feeling towards Alicia.
“Jealous? Whatever of? You know I would never, Alicia.”
“Is that so?” Alicia retorted. “Then why would my best friend not listen when I tell her of the man I happen to like very much? Oh dear . . .” she stopped abruptly as though a thought suddenly occurred to her.
“Of course, you were not jealous. Silly me.” She smacked her forehead softly. Then, turning sober, she looked at Alicia with sympathetic eyes.
“You were hurt, were you not? Yes, of course, you were. Here I was, rambling on about my perfect night when you probably had an unmemorable one. You were not lucky enough to meet someone you fancy, were you? Someone who fancied you in return?”
Imogen was even more surprised to hear these words than she had been at Alicia’s accusation.
True, she had yet to tell Alicia about Lord Exeter, but that was because she had not gotten the chance. Ever since Alicia arrived this morning, she had been going on and on about the earl, leaving little room for Imogen to speak.
Slowly, Imogen started to recover from her shock. She could scarcely fault her friend for thinking her night had been bland.
After all, of the two of them, it was quite a known fact that Alicia was the one who led the most eventful life.
As she understood where the presumptions had come from, Imogen smiled, shaking her head.
“That is not the case either, Alicia. You see, I actually met . . .”
Just then, the door to the drawing room opened and the butler, Mr. Ramson, entered.
Both ladies turned to look at him, question in their eyes.
Mr. Ramson bowed his head. Hands folded behind him, he greeted,
“Miss Hartford, Miss Fitzwilliam. There is a young man at the door. He wishes to see you, Miss Hartford.”
“Me?” Imogen asked. Her heart began to thud in her chest, and she wondered if it was the baron.
Could it be?
“Yes. He says his name is Baron Exeter. He claims you are expecting him.”
Imogen was instantly filled with joy. She tried to contain her happiness though, not wanting to give away too much.
“Yes, yes. I met him at the ball last night. He said he would be calling soon. I gave him permission to. Please, show him here. Are Father and Lewis aware?”
Mr. Ramson nodded. “Master Lewis is with him as we speak. Your Father will not leave his study.”
Imogen nodded. “I see. Please, bring him to me before Lewis scares him away.”
Mr. Ramson’s lips lifted in a small smile then, it was almost a smirk.
“I am afraid it might already be too late for that,” he teased.
Before Imogen could say anything else, he turned and left the drawing room.
“A gentleman, here to see you? Did you meet him at the ball?” Alicia asked when they were alone again.
Imogen’s response was a sweet smile. “That I did. Just after you left with Lord Wimbledon, he came to me. I was immediately smitten. He asked for my first dance, and I was happy to oblige. We shared one more dance before the ball ended and he promised to call on me. He did say soon. I did not think it would be so soon, though. I suppose he is eager to see me again.”
The thought both excited and pleased her.
“I see,” Alicia replied. “And here I was thinking . . . I am happy to know that you found someone as well, Imogen.”
She did not seem very happy, but Imogen refused to think too much of it.
She is probably taken aback, is all.
“Thank you. I was daydreaming about him as you spoke. I was lost in my thoughts, yes, but not for any of the reasons you considered.”
“I know that now. You must forgive me, Imogen. It was not my intention to hurt you with my words.”
She sounded so genuine, Imogen was quick to shake her head in disagreement.
She leaned forward and placed a reassuring hand over Alicia’s.
“There is nothing to be forgiven. Please, do not feel sad. You simply did not know, and I should have done a better job at listening.”
Alicia opened her mouth to say something, but the door swung inwards again. This time, there were three people.
The butler, her brother, and Lord Exeter. Imogen’s heart leapt as her eyes fell upon him. He was even more dashing in daylight.
“Baron Exeter, Miss Hartford,” Mr. Ramson announced. “I will have the servants bring tea and biscuits.”
With those words, he bowed and left the room.
Imogen rose to her feet then. She could feel Lewis’s gaze burning holes into her, but she only had eyes for the baron.
“Lord Exeter,” she breathed excitedly.
“Miss Hartford,” he replied. He seemed just as elated to see her.
Lewis spoke then. He could barely mask his annoyance. “I suppose you do know each other.”
Imogen finally gave him attention. “Yes, we met at the ball last night—as I told Mr. Ramson. Lord Exeter and I made fast friends. I assured him he could visit.”
“I see. I simply needed to make sure that was the case. Oh well, seeing as Alicia is here, you will not be needing me as a chaperone. I shall return to my study then. Lord Exeter,” he turned to the baron, “You are welcome in our home,” he finished tightly.
Lord Exeter smiled at him, but Lewis’ face remained stoic. Giving a curt nod, he turned to leave the drawing room.
Imogen did not even have it in her to be cross with her brother. Instead, she found him adorable. Nevertheless, she needed to have a talk with him. As much as he loved her, he had to understand that one day, he would have to let her go.
She had not debuted when she was sixteen because they had lost her mother the year before. When she was seventeen, her brother had argued that she was still too young.
His argument had been the same when she turned eighteen. By the year after that, he knew he could no longer give excuses or hold her back. She was not getting any younger.
She saw right through him, though. She knew he simply was not ready to lose her. Somehow, she had to make him believe he would never lose her. Not even if she fell in love, got married, and lived a thousand miles away. She would always be his little sister.
Turning to the man in the room who was slowly winning her heart as well, she said, “Lord Exeter, please, have a seat.”
He did just as he was told. When he reached her, she gestured at the sofa beside Alicia.
He muttered his thanks and took his seat. As he did, Imogen returned to hers.
“It is wonderful to see you again, Miss Hartford. I am glad I decided to come.”
The warmth in Imogen’s heart spread to her cheeks as those words filled her ears.
Me too, Lord Exeter. Me too.
Imogen cleared her throat as she recovered, not trusting herself to speak easily. When she was certain that she could do so without embarrassing herself, she responded,
“When you said you would be calling soon, I did not realize it would be so soon. Nevertheless, you must know I too am glad to see you, my lord.”
“Ah . . . I am glad you are. I had hoped you would not be offended to see me so soon. It is such a relief to know that you are not,” he replied warmly.
He turned to Alicia then. “I did not come at a bad time, did I? I see you have company.”
Imogen was quick to assuage his fears. “Oh, not at all. You must meet my dearest friend, Miss Alicia Fitzwilliam. Alicia, Lord Jerome Wilkins, the Baron of Exeter. I have just told you about him.”
Imogen watched as the two of them exchanged pleasantries.
An ugly feeling gnawed at her insides when Lord Exeter’s lips appeared to linger on Alicia’s hand for too long, but she immediately pushed it away.
Nonsense. Alicia only has eyes for the earl and Lord Exeter for me. There was absolutely no reason to fret.
“It is an honor to meet you, Lord Exeter. Imogen here spoke very fondly of you,” Alicia said when he finally let her hand go.
“The honor is mine, I assure you.” Lord Exeter turned to Imogen then. “I must admit, it is thrilling to know you think of me well enough to speak fondly.”
Once again, Imogen found her tongue tied. What was she to say at a time like this?
Yes, she was beginning to care for him, but she was not willing to tell him so soon. She narrowed her eyes at Alicia and made a wordless promise.
Next time she saw the earl, she would do well to tell him just how fond Alicia was of him.
Alicia’s eyes bulged as she understood, and Imogen smirked.
This was another reason why she valued their friendship—the ability to communicate so easily without words. It was even better than it was with Lewis.
The servants arrived then, bearing a tray of tea and biscuits. They left as soon as they finished setting the table and Imogen got busy with pouring tea.
“I hope you did not have any trouble locating our residence?” Alicia asked.
The Baron was quick to respond. “Not at all. It was quite easy to find. My coachman happens to be familiar with the street. Even if I had any troubles, they would all be worth it. Miss Hartford made quite the impression on me last night or shall I say . . . on my heart. I planned to wait a few days, but I could not stay away one more hour. I knew I had to see her again today.”
Imogen stilled for a moment, holding the teapot in the air. Those words washed over, thrilling her secretly, making her insides rejoice.
She soon recovered, quickly filling the cups so she could pass everyone theirs.
“Thank you,” Lord Exeter murmured as she handed him his. His fingers brushed over hers when he accepted it and a sweet tremor racked through her. The mischievous glint in his eyes told her it had been deliberate.
“Hmm.” He mumbled as he had first sip. “This is good tea.”
“Made from the finest of herbs,” Alicia responded before Imogen could.
Leaning closer into the baron, she whispered but loud enough for Imogen to hear.
“I would never admit it to another, but the reason I visit ever so often is the tea. For the life of me, I cannot seem to get enough, and the cook has refused to share her recipe.”
She sighed dreamily as she took another sip. “I do not know what heaven tastes like, but I am almost certain this tea is not so far off. I wonder how Daria manages to get it right, every time.”
Lord Exeter raised his brow. “Daria?”
Imogen opened her mouth to answer but Alicia beat her to it once again.
“Yes, the cook. She is quite the charming old lady, I tell you. I would love her entirely but for her tight-fistedness where her recipes are concerned. Many times, I have asked her to share with me so that I might give them to Nancy. Each time, she has refused.”
“And Nancy would be?” Lord Exeter asked again.
“My cook. She is not as warmhearted as Daria, I admit, but she does have her angels. She also puts together a superb meal. Imagine Daria and Nancy sharing recipes . . . both our households would get to enjoy the finest of meals. However, for some reason, they both continue to keep these recipes secret. Do you not also agree that it would be best to share?”
The Baron nodded. “I do. However, I hear recipes are a sacred thing. My mother did her fair share of cooking before she passed away and she would never share her recipes. She said they had been passed down from generation to generation and she would only pass it on to her daughter.”
“Ah. I see. When you put it that way, I suppose I do understand. Family traditions should be respected. You are indeed a wonderful man, Lord Exeter. Charming and understanding as well. Now I understand what Imogen sees in you.”
Imogen sighed then, happy that she had finally been remembered.
Her chest had become tight, watching Alicia and the baron tattle off as though they were old friends, seemingly forgetting her presence.
She knew Alicia was a better conversationalist than she, but was it not rude for Lord Exeter to so awfully ignore her when she was the reason he had come?
“Miss Hartford? If I might ask, what is it you see in me?”
She was happy to finally have his attention again. To have those blue eyes look at her.
She found it, with startling realization, that for the first time ever, she cared. She cared that it was Alicia getting all the attention.
I suppose I am more smitten than I believed I was.
For a short while, she could not say anything. Partly because she was trying to recover from that realization. The other reason was she did not know exactly how to answer his question.
No one had ever asked her, all the more, so directly. What was she to say?
She swallowed then, pushing down the clump in her throat.
“Uhm . . . I suppose your wit, your gentle spirit. You are quite the charmer as well,” she said, finally answering. It was not nearly all that she thought of him, but it would have to do.
The Baron appeared to be pleased by her response, though.
He chuckled as his cheeks turned red. He even broke eye contact, looking away as though he could not bear to hold her gaze.
Knowing that she affected him so thrilled Imogen. At the very least, it was even more proof that she was not alone in this.
He held her eyes once more before speaking.
“I am happy to know you think so highly of me, Miss Hartford. I hope that as we continue to be friends, you will find more reason to do so.”
“I hope so too,” she breathed.
“It will be the greatest honor.”
For a long moment, neither of them said another word. The world seemed to fade away and for Imogen, he was all that was left.
The butterflies in her belly fluttered harder and her heart would not stop thudding heavily. Those eyes held her captive, and she was hopeless to look away.
“If you two keep at that, I might have to leave. Then, Lewis will come be your chaperone.” Alicia said, only half joking.
Just like that, the spell broke, and Imogen returned to her senses. She turned to Alicia, narrowing her eyes at her.
Alicia simply shrugged as she chewed her biscuits, appearing not in the least bit perturbed.
“I had to say something. Any longer and it would have become improper,” she defended.
Lord Exeter laughed, lightening the ambience.
It was such a beautiful sound and Imogen captured that moment, tucking it safely away in her memories. She would always remember it fondly.
“You two have quite a beautiful friendship, I must say. How long has it been?”
“Thirteen years now. We met when we were only six. We have been inseparable ever since,” Alicia responded.
“I see. You grew up together. Now I understand.”
Alicia nodded. “And you, my lord? Do you have any such friends?”
He shook his head. “Regretfully, no. The oldest friend I have, I have only known for three years. We are close, but not as close as you and Miss Hartford evidently are.”
And so, it continued. Alicia and the baron kept speaking with each other, getting along easily.
Once or twice, Imogen gave a remark or two, but that was all. Even in those times, it felt intrusive, wrong, to utter a word.
Alicia and Lord Exeter seemed so attuned to each other, it was as though she was the chaperone and they were the couple.
Imogen could not help but struggle with the discomfort that overwhelmed her. It was so awful that when he finally declared his wish to take his leave, she first felt relief.
True, she would have to say goodbye, but at the very least, she would not have to watch him get on so well with her best friend.
“I shall be taking my leave as well!” Alicia announced, rising to her feet just as the Baron did. “I promised my cousin, Laura, that I would meet her at the pavilion today at two o’clock. It is almost time,” she explained.
One glance at the clock that hung on the wall told Imogen there was still an hour left until then, but she said nothing of it. Alicia probably wanted to get an early start.
“Oh? It has been a while since I last saw Laura. Do send my love, will you?” Imogen asked as she too rose to her feet.
“I will make certain to. Lord Exeter, you do not suppose I could ride with you? The pavilion is just on your way. You could drop me off.”
Imogen frowned as those words tumbled out of Alicia’s lips. She felt terrible for even thinking it of her friend, but she could not shake off the feeling that Alicia’s intentions were anything but pure.
“I would be happy to,” the baron responded. “However, a young lady and a gentleman riding alone in a carriage, would that not raise concern? It is hardly proper.”
Imogen breathed in relief at his words. At least, he was being reasonable.
Alas, Alicia was simply too stubborn to listen.
“It is a carriage, my dear Lord. No one would know but us. I am certain it will be okay. Please? I shall feel safer riding with you than in a hired coach driven by a strange man.”
That was a first, Imogen thought. Alicia had never minded before. Besides, she had only just met the Baron. How could she trust him so easily?
Lord Exeter turned to Imogen then. “If you insist and if Miss Hartford would not mind, I suppose it could be done.”
I do mind.
“Hm? Oh, not at all. I should be asking you. If you are certain it will not be a bother, you would have my earnest gratitude.”
The baron shook his head. “A bother? Not in the least. On the contrary, it will be a pleasure. A service to any friend of yours is a service to you and I do want to serve you, Miss Hartford, very much so.”
Imogen’s heart warmed again and whatever worries she might have been nursing vanished. He was simply perfect.
Looking away as she could no longer hold his gaze, not with her cheeks flaming, she muttered. “You are too kind, my Lord.”
“And you, Miss Hartford, are utterly lovely.”
“Thank you,” she muttered simply. They were the only words she could think of.
She saw the two of them to the door and as they reached it, Alicia lingered behind.
Leaning into Imogen, she gushed.
“If I did not just see it for myself, I would never think it possible that you would manage to arrest the interest of such an impressive young man, and a nobleman for the matter.”
She was smiling from ear to ear. “You made an excellent choice, Imogen. I never thought this day would come, but I am actually envious of you—in the best possible way, of course!” she added quickly, laughing as she finished.
Imogen brows furrowed in confusion. She did not know what to think of Alicia’s words, but she certainly did not find them funny.
“Envious? Whyever would you be? That earl of yours is just as impressive. You said so yourself.”
Alicia huffed, waving her off. “He is alright, I suppose, but not as charming as Lord Exeter.”
Imogen grew even more confused. She opened her mouth to speak again but the baron called out just then.
“Miss Fitzwilliam? Are you coming?”
“Yes! Yes! Certainly! Goodbye, Imogen! I shall see you soon!”
With those words, she was out of the house. Imogen stood at the door, watching as the baron helped Alicia into his carriage.
There was something there . . . in the way Alicia smiled and looked at the baron. It made Imogen even more than uncomfortable, it annoyed her.
Suddenly, she started to regret the decision to let them ride together.
When Alicia had settled, Baron Exeter turned to Imogen and waved. She waved back, returning his smile. Then, he climbed into the carriage and shut the door.
She watched as the carriage rode away, down the street until she could see them no more.
Only then did she turn around to go back into the house and straight to her bedchamber, needing to be by herself with her thoughts. As she curled up in her bed, she took her time to go over the events of the afternoon from the time Lord Exeter had arrived.
Alicia had thought Lord Wimbledon held the sun in his hands just that morning. Suddenly after meeting the baron, she believed he was not all that impressive?
It was probably nothing, Imogen was probably thinking too much of it. Yet, she could not ignore the fact that Alicia’s behavior was strange. Very strange, and Imogen did not like it!
She did not like it one bit.
''The Earl, the Lady and the Song of Love'' will be Live on Amazon soon!
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