Mary Balogh

A Masked Deception

Chapter 1

Richard Adair, seventh Earl of Brampton, was not quite sure whether he was feeling just uncomfortable or actually bored. Neither was a feeling he usually allowed himself to be trapped into. He lifted the delicate china teacup to his lips, only to discover that it was empty. He set it down in the saucer and placed both on the table beside his chair.

He looked across the drawing room to his companion, who appeared to be quite comfortably engrossed in her embroidery. His eyes traveled with some distaste to the little lace cap that she wore on her brown hair, which was drawn smoothly back from her face and coiled in heavy braids at the back. How old was she, for God's sake? Brampton wondered irritably. Twenty-six? Twenty-seven? She behaved as if she were a maiden aunt in her dotage.

His eyes wandered over the placid face, eyes lowered to her work, surprisingly long, dark lashes fanning pale cheeks, the straight, short nose, a mouth that could be described as sweet, but was certainly not inviting. Would one call her face heart-shaped? he wondered idly. Or was that glamorizing it too much?

He watched the rise and fall of her slight breasts, which were flattered by the high waistline of her blue muslin day dress. He looked at her little feet, set neatly side by side in their dark-blue slippers. Altogether, he concluded silently and bluntly, she was not much of a prize.

Margaret Wells paused in her work and raised her eyes to his. He was jolted back to reality, suddenly aware of his ill-mannered silence.

"What do you hear of your brothers, my lord?" she asked, her voice low and melodic, but totally lacking in the type of inflection that could capture his interest.

"My mother received a letter from him just one week ago," he replied. "He is still in Spain, enduring the rain and the mud and the constant marches from place to place, but so far has escaped injury."

"I am pleased to hear that, my lord," she commented.

And that exhausted that topic, he decided gloomily.

He drew a deep breath and finally got to the point of his visit. "Miss Wells," he began, crossing one elegantly booted leg over the other, "you must know, I believe, that I have spoken with your father and received his permission to pay my addresses to you. You would be doing me a great honor if you would consent to become my wife."

He kept his eyes steadily on the little figure seated on the sofa opposite him. Her eyes stayed on the embroidery, but her hands had stilled.

"Yes, my lord, I did know the reason for your visit," Margaret replied, her voice quite calm. "You mistake, sir. The honor is all mine. I shall be happy to accept your proposal."

She looked up at him again, and once more he felt jolted. Those gray eyes certainly did not belong with the plain and placid little person that was Margaret

Wells. They almost made him forget that she was not at all beautiful.

Brampton shifted uncomfortably in his chair. Now what? He had not thought beyond the terrible ordeal of the proposal. He got to his feet and bowed formally.

"You have made me a happy man, Miss Wells," he lied. "I am afraid that we have not yet had a chance to become well acquainted, but I believe that we shall deal well together. I have spoken with your mother, and she has agreed to allow me to escort the two of you to the opera this evening. I believe that her sister and your uncle will make up the party."

Margaret murmured her thanks, quietly set aside her needlework, and rose to her feet. She looked up into his face from the vantage point of somewhere on a level with his broad shoulders accentuated by a tight-fitting and immaculately tailored coat of green superfine.

"Until this evening, then, Miss Wells," Brampton said. "Good afternoon to you." He reached for her hand and raised it to his lips.

"Good afternoon, my lord," Margaret replied, dropping him a deep curtsy.

Eleven hours later, at two o'clock in the morning to be exact, the Earl of Brampton sat alone in the library of his town house in Grosvenor Square, getting slowly but very effectively drunk. The brandy decanter beside him was all but empty; another stood on the desk, waiting to be tackled. Chalmer, the butler, and Stevens, Brampton's valet, had both been sent to bed and ordered not to disturb him again that night.

"So," he said aloud to his brandy glass, peering through the clear liquid to the dancing flames of the log fire a few feet away, "at the grand age of thirty-three, you are getting leg-shackled, are you, Brampton? You are giving up all the loneliness and cheerlessness of a bachelor home for the bliss of matrimony-and with an antidote like Margaret Wells, self-styled spinster who was unable to snare a husband in more than five Seasons in London, until she gave up the struggle and donned her old maid's cap."

He laughed harshly, reached out with one foot to push a log back into the blaze, and lurched to his feet. A few moments later he gazed with satisfaction at a full glass of brandy and stumbled back to his chair.

"And with this paragon of beauty and feminine grace and charm," he continued, still aloud, "you are proposing to set up your nursery." He shuddered with distaste at the fashionable phrase which always conjured up in his mind unpleasant images of squawking babies and nursemaids.

Brampton drank down his brandy as he would a glass of water on a hot day. He let his head fall back against the comfortable headrest of his favorite leather chair. A curse on all mothers and sisters, he thought with weary venom, and closed his eyes.

He was back in his mother's drawing room a week before. A note summoning him there had been awaiting him when he returned home from a morning visit to Tattersall's, where he had been trying to close a deal for the purchase of a pair of matched grays for his new curricle.

Brampton knew that he did not visit his mother as often as he should. He had all the affection in the world for her, but was very aware that she had a one-track mind. Marriage seemed to be the only topic that really animated her and gave her the energy to get up in the morning and live through the day. Up to two years ago, the situation had been tolerable. There had been three daughters to bring out and get suitably matched. That task had been finally accomplished three years before, when Brampton's youngest sister, Lucy, had married Sir Henry Wood at the age of nineteen.

For one year after the marriage of her daughter. Lady Brampton had only occasionally nagged her older son to choose a wife and settle down; her younger son, Charles, had still been at home. Then Charles had persuaded his brother to buy him a commission in the army and had gone adventuring to Spain to fight Bonaparte's troops. Lady Brampton had stepped up the campaign against Richard.

It had reached its climax during that afternoon visit a week before. Brampton had known she meant business as soon as he saw Rosalind, the oldest of his sisters, firmly ensconced in the chair next to the hearth. Rosalind had always been considered the "sensible" one. All that meant was that she was prosy and totally lacked a sense of humor. She had obviously been installed as moral support.

It had not taken his mother many minutes to come to the point. It was time he put behind him his wild ways (someone had obviously told her of his latest mistress, then) and took a wife; he was the head of the family and should take it upon himself to set a good example to the other members; it was high time that he secured the succession by setting up his nursery (he had winced); dear Charles could be killed any day and then the future of the family would look very bleak, everything depending upon dear Richard; and-the crowning detail of her argument-how would he enjoy seeing Cousin Osbert succeed to the title, the property, and the fortune?

Brampton refrained from pointing out that he was never likely to see any such thing, since he would have to be dead before Osbert could succeed-supposing, of course, that Charles were also dead. He crossed one leg over the other and stared gloomily at his left foot, jiggling it slightly so that the tassels of his gleaming Hessians swung back and forth.

"Really, Richard dear, you should consider poor Mama's feelings," Rosalind had added, "if she were to be ousted from her home by my upstart cousin."

Brampton had blinked. His mother lived in a very comfortable house on Curzon Street, left her quite unentailed in her husband's will. He had wisely refrained from pointing out this fact. He had stood up and wandered restlessly to the window that overlooked the busy street outside.

"Very well, Mama," he had said at last, abruptly. "I have been aware of my responsibility for some time now. Unfortunately, I have no candidates for wife in mind. Do you?" He had swung around and favored his mother with a piercing glance from his blue eyes.

She had picked up her cue without hesitation. "Well, there's Melissa Rathb-"

"Not a simpering miss from Almack's," Brampton had cut in. "Spare me that, Mama."

"Well, she is rather silly, and her conversation is not highly edifying," Rosalind had commented, unexpectedly coming to her brother's defense.

"Then how about Nora Denning? She has beauty, wealth, position…"

"No!" Brampton had thundered. "If I want an iceberg, I shall join a naval expedition to the North."

"Really, my dear, I do believe she would make an excellent countess," Lady Brampton had urged.

"Perhaps so, Mama, but she will not be my countess," her son had answered firmly.