For Alex and smiles that melt the heart

Chapter One

They stared out the window at the bleak, winter-touched garden where the girl walked. It was small, though the town house was large and in a fashionable area of London—there simply wasn't much land available to any of the houses along the block, to devote to a "country look."

Lady Mary Reid, their hostess, had done well with her small section of garden, when most of her neighbors didn't bother with other than grass. And trust their niece, Sabrina, who loved the outdoors no matter the time of year, to be found out in that little piece of earth.

The two women continued to watch Sabrina, silently, pensively. Alice Lambert wore a frown. Her sister Hilary, the elder by one year, looked rather despondent.

"I don't think I've ever been this nervous, Hilary," Alice whispered to her sister.

"Me either, if you must know," Hilary answered with a drawn-out sigh.

It was hard to tell they were sisters by looking at them. Hilary took after their father, tall, narrow of frame to the point of extreme thinness, with dull brown hair and light blue eyes. Alice was nearly an exact copy of their mother, on the short side and rather plump, but with dark hair of a lustrous brown and dark blue eyes tinged occasionally with a violet hue.

They were sisters who didn't get along too well. Bickering was common. Yet for once they were in agreement. The niece they had pretty much raised was having her come-out in London society tonight, and they were both worried. Unfortunately, they had good reason to be worried.

It wasn't that Sabrina might not stand out or make a good showing. Though she wasn't a great beauty like Mary's daughter Ophelia, who was also having her come-out this Season, Sabrina did have her good points. It wasn't their lack of consequence, either. Sabrina's grandfather had been an earl, her great-grandfather had been a duke. Her own title was merely Honorable, but then they weren't hoping to catch a lofty title for her, nor even great wealth. Any husband of good standing would do as far as the Lambert sisters were concerned.

No, it wasn't any of the normal worries that one might expect when dealing with a country girl being put on the marriage block in high society. It was much, much more personal and had to do with why the two sisters had never married themselves. They each feared that the old scandal that had haunted their family for three generations might surface again after all these years.

But neither of the two women would mention what was at the heart of their nervousness. By mutual accord, the long-ago tragedies were never spoken of.

"D'you think she's warm enough in that woolen coat?" Alice asked, still frowning. "D'you think she cares?"

"But her cheeks are going to get wind-chapped, and how will that look at her first ball?"

As they continued to watch their niece, a dead leaf, overlooked by Lady Mary's gardener, drifted toward Sabrina and stopped at her feet. The girl, having noticed it, assumed the pose of a fencer and, as if she had a real rapier in hand rather than an imaginary one, made a stab for the leaf. She then laughed at herself and scooped the leaf up, tossing it into the air where the brisk winter wind caught it and carried it away.

"She doesn't take this marriage thing seriously," Hilary said now.

Sabrina should have been just as nervous as her aunts were, if for different reasons, but instead, she appeared not to have a care in the world.

"How can she take it seriously when she knows we didn't marry and it didn't hurt either of us?"

"I'm afraid we've given her the wrong impression. It's not as if we didn't want or hope to marry when we were her age, just that now we're rather glad we didn't."

Which wasn't putting a good face on it. Neither woman truly regretted not having a spouse. What they might have regretted was not bearing any children themselves, but Sabrina, having come to them to raise when she was barely three, had thoroughly satisfied their maternal instincts. Many might call them old maids and claim their sour-grapes bickering stemmed from that, but that was hardly the case. The two sisters had been bickering since they were children. It was rather ingrained.

As if Hilary suddenly realized she had been participating in an unspoken truce, she said abruptly, "Call her in. It's time to prepare her."

"This soon?” Alice protested. "We've still hours yet before—" "It will take hours to do her up properly," Hilary cut in. "Oh, posh, it might take you hours, but—"

"And what d'you know about it, when you didn't even have a come-out yourself?" Hilary interrupted yet again.

"And you did?” Alice shot back.

"Doesn't signify. Mary has mentioned many times in her letters that she starts preparing herself as soon as she gets out of bed in the morning."

"It would take her all day just to stuff herself into her corset."

Hilary flushed with color, unable to deny that charge about her childhood friend who had been kind enough to offer them her residence for the Season, since they didn't own property in London themselves. Mary had grown exceedingly plump over the years, so much so that Hilary had barely recognized her old friend when they arrived in London yesterday.

She countered instead, "Even her daughter begins readying herself at noon" "Ophelia just likes staring at herself in her mirror, no doubt,” Alice snorted. "I'll have you know ..."

The words trailed off as the sisters left the room, this squabbling a much more normal state of affairs for these two. No one who had heard them talking in whispers and in such agreement for those few moments would have believed it, certainly not the niece they had been discussing.

Chapter Two

Sabrina Lambert was nervous, but for her aunts' sake, she tried her best not to show it. Her come-out had been a year in the planning, which included several trips to Manchester for fittings for her new wardrobe. And she knew her aunts had such high hopes for her. That was why she was nervous. She really didn't want them to be disappointed, when they'd put so much effort into this launch.

But she was realistic even if they weren't. She didn't expect to find a husband here in London. The people here were much too sophisticated, while she was just a simple country girl. She was used to conversations about crops and tenants and the weather, while the London ton thrived on gossip, salacious gossip—about each other. And there would be dozens of other hopeful young misses all descending on London for the same purpose. It was considered the place to find a husband.

But Sabrina began to relax as the evening progressed. It helped that she had a friend in Ophelia, who was so very popular. But then Ophelia had been born and raised in London. She already knew everyone, was already aware of all the current on-dits, and even helped to spread the latest gossip—even if it was

about herself. The London girl was in her element. And she'd also had her launch at the very start of the Season three weeks prior.

Not that arriving in time for the first ball of the Season would have made much of a difference, when Ophelia was destined to be the success of the Season, as beautiful as she was. And ironically, she wasn't even shopping for a husband, already had a fiancé, although she'd never met him. Her own launch was merely a matter of course—at least Sabrina had thought so until she found out that Ophelia wasn't exactly happy with the husband her parents had arranged for her, and had every intention of finding a better match.

How she was setting about accomplishing that, which was to slander and ridicule her fiancé every chance she got and to anyone who would listen, Sabrina found highly distasteful. But for all she knew, that was how it was done in London, the getting rid of one's unwanted fiancé, that is.

And she might have personally felt sorry for the man in question, who apparently wasn't even in England and so couldn't put a stop to the rumors that Ophelia was spreading about him, but it wasn't her place to defend him. It could all be true, after all. How was she to know?

Besides, Ophelia's mother was their hostess and Aunt Hilary's good friend. While Lady Mary might want to know what her daughter was up to so she could put a stop to it, Sabrina wouldn't feel right being the one to tell her. Ophelia had befriended her, was introducing her to all her friends. It would be like betraying her. And furthermore, her own aunts didn't like the man’s grandfather ...

That was the strange part, and probably why Sabrina felt sorry for Ophelia's fiancé. He was actually her neighbor, or rather, his grandfather was. The "old coot," her aunts called him, "the recluse," and when they thought she wasn't listening, "the old bastard." Sabrina had never met him herself. He really was a recluse who rarely left his estate. And it had certainly been news to them that he had a grandson. Her aunts had actually scoffed when they learned that Ophelia had been affianced to this heretofore unknown heir. What grandson? They'd never met or even heard of him.

According to Lady Mary, however, it was the marquis himself who had contacted her husband and made the arrangements for the marriage on his grandson's behalf. And of course, the Reids had jumped at the chance for their daughter to be married to such a lofty title, which the grandson was going to inherit. It didn't hurt, either, that the marquis was quite rich and all that wealth would be coming to the grandson as well. It was only Ophelia who was unhappy with the match, well, Ophelia and her many ardent admirers.