Regency and historical romance devotees will find Johnston’s (The Inheritance) latest lively and well-written, and her characters perfectly enchanting. Lady Charlotte Edgerton, Charlie to her friends, is an American fish who finds herself in stuffy English waters when her father dies and leaves her to the care of the Earl of Denbigh. Denbigh has two duties: to civilize Charlie and to find her a suitable husband-only it can’t be him. Haunted by his fiance’s suicide, Denbigh mistrusts women. In spite of Charlotte’s innocent appeal, he refuses to let himself become involved and tries his best to alienate her affections. But Charlotte-an American through and through-won’t take no for an answer. An exciting secondary plot involving a duke bent on avenging his brother’s murder by dishonoring Denbigh’s sister adds an element of mystery.
The bride was late. The guests were starting to whisper. Lionel Morgan, Earl of Denbigh, stood waiting near the altar of St. Paul’s Church in London with his best friend and groomsman, Percival Porter, Viscount Burton, who also happened to be the bride’s elder brother.
“Where is she, Percy?” Denbigh asked. “What do you suppose is causing the delay?”
“You know the ladies, Lion. It takes them an eternity to dress themselves. Alice hasn’t been on time for anything in her entire life. She was even born two weeks late. You cannot expect a rare bird like Alice to change her feathers simply because she is getting married.” Percy smiled and gave Denbeigh a friendly cuff on the shoulder. “Be patient. It cannot be long now.”
A commotion in the vestry attracted Denbigh’s attention. Heads swiveled in the congregation to see what was amiss. It took Denbigh only a moment to recognize the Marquis of Peterborough, Percy and Alice’s father, and another moment to see that the marchioness was hanging on his sleeve, trying vainly to stop him.
“She’s bolted!” Peterborough said, his voice echoing off the church’s high ceiling as he marched down the aisle toward Denbigh. He shook a piece of crumpled parchment—apparently a note from Alice—in Denbigh’s face. “The foolish chit has run away. She says she will not marry you.”
The wedding guests gave a collective gasp and began to whisper in earnest, creating a buzzing sound not unlike a nest of hornets.
Denbigh felt his skin prickle. His heart pounded in his chest as adrenaline laced his blood. He was having difficulty grasping the enormity of the catastrophe that had befallen him. The woman he loved—the woman he had believed loved him—had run away rather than marry him.
He turned to Percy in disbelief. “Percy? How…? Why…? Did Alice say anything to you, give you any clue that she was unhappy with the match?”
Percy stared back at him. “I am as shocked as you are, Lion. There must be some good explanation for Alice’s behavior, but I cannot imagine what what it is.” He turned with a confused look to his parents. “What does her note say, Father?”
“Please, may we go somewhere private?” Lady Peterborough begged. “There has already been scandal enough to keep tongues wagging for three lifetimes.”
Denbigh glanced up, square into the gawking face of Lady Hornby, a notorious gossip. That flustered lady quickly hid her face behind an ivory fan, but as Denbigh’s narrowed eyes scoured the pews, he found as many smirks as he did expressions of sympathy. He had never considered himself a proud man, but he was a private one. Today his pain and humiliation had been laid bare for the town.
He felt cold, as though his warm, pulsating heart had ceased pumping blood to his extremities. He hardly noticed Percy ushering all of them into a nearby room used by the clergy. He saw, as from a distance, Percy retrieve the crumpled note from his father and spread it out to read what it contained.
“She does not say where she is going, precisely,” Percy announced. “Only that she is going somewhere she cannot be found. And that she is sorry for any pain she has caused.”
“I have to find her,” Denbigh said. “I must speak with her.”
“I would not advise it, my friend,” Percy said gently. “Nothing good can come of such an interview.”
“I don’t care!” Denbigh said in an agonized voice. “I have to know why she ran away.” He fought the lump in his throat as he met Percy’s pitying gaze. “I love her, Percy. I’d have her even now.”
Percy hesitated another moment before he said, “Very well, Lion. We shall go after her.”
“I’ll go alone,” Denbigh said.
“I cannot let you do that,” Percy said, shaking his blond head. “The gel may be in disgrace, but she is my sister and still an unmarried lady. If you’re going to meet with her, she should have family nearby to protect her.”
“I mean her no harm,” Denbigh said.
“I believe you,” Percy said. “But I shall come with you, all the same.”
Percy made his farewell to his parents and promised to bring Alice home if—when—they found her.
“No,” the marchioness said. “Not back to London, Percy. Take her to the summer house near Brighton.”
“Very well, Mother,” Percy said. “I will take her to the manor in Sussex. But I can tell you Alice won’t like being sent off to molder in the country.”
“I don’t much care what Alice wants at this point,” the marquis retorted. “Do as your mother says.”