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Harlequin

Release Date: November 2015

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Chapter One—London, 1805

           “I hear he is the handsomest thing ever seen!”

           Mary Manning tried not to laugh at her friend Lady Louisa Smythe's enthusiastic words.  Instead, she smiled and nodded at the people they strolled past in the park, and adjusted her lace-trimmed parasol against the bright afternoon sun.  Lady Louisa did tend to get so very excited over tidbits of gossip, especially gossip about good-looking young men.

           And a good-looking young man who was the newest hero of the war against Napoleon, after his valiant behavior at the battle of Caldiero—well, Mary was surprised she hadn't swooned quite away with enthusiasm yet.

           But Mary had to admit, even though she was very intrigued by the tales of Lord Sebastian Barrett, third son of the Earl of Howard and a captain in the 3rd Hussars, and his heroism herself.  Just a tiny bit.

           Lady Louisa took Mary's arm as they turned along a winding, narrow river path.  Mary automatically studied the people gathered there, strolling in pairs or laughing quartets, talking together by the sun-dappled water.  Her father had worked in the diplomatic service for as long as she could remember, and she had been his hostess since her beautiful Portuguese mother died a few years ago.

             Sixteen had been young to organize dinners and card parties where foreign envoys and their sophisticated wives could make alliances with the English representatives, especially in such dangerous wartime days, yet there had been no one else to do it.  Mary had already learned much from watching her gracious mother, listening to her parents' conversations, asking questions.  She loved the work, loved having a purpose.  Loved learning new things.  With her father, she had seen Italy and Austria, lived in Russia for many months, only returning to England a few months ago.

           Yet sometimes—well, sometimes she almost wished she could giggle and whisper like other young ladies, be carried away by the wild wings of flirtation and infatuation.  Just for a moment.  That was why she so enjoyed being friends with Lady Louisa.

           “The handsomest man ever?” Mary said.  She and Lady Louisa stopped in the shade of a copse of a trees where they could watch the crowds flow past, the children sailing their toy boats on the water, the bright flutter of beribboned bonnets and silk parasols.  “Better looking than the prince de Ligne?  You swore last week he had quite won your heart forever.”

           Louisa laughed merrily.  “Oh, him!  He is to marry some little German dumpling of a duchess, trying to get his lands back.  He was a fine dancer, to be sure, but he is no hero like Lord Sebastian.  There is just something about a man in uniform, don't you think, Mary?  A wonderful manly spirit.”

           A naval officer in his blue coat and cocked hat strolled past just then, giving them a bow and a grin.  Louisa giggled and fluttered her handkerchief at him.

           Mary bit her lip to keep from smiling.  It seemed any uniform would do, Army or Navy.

           She thought of the stories she had heard of Lord Sebastian, how he fought off ten Frenchmen in hand-to-hand combat, had several horses shot from beneath him.  She was sure they could not all be true, but she liked the tales anyway.  Fairy stories had always appealed to her, ever since she was tiny and her mother would tell her Portuguese myths at bedtime.  Ancient battles, knights, fair maidens.

           Louisa leaned closer to whisper in Mary's ear.  “Though I am sure Lord Sebastian can be no more handsome than his brother Lord Henry.  You should have no worries on that score.”

           Mary looked at her friend, startled.  How did Louisa know of Lord Henry and his vague sort of courtship?  “Lord Henry Barrett?”

           Louisa's smile turned secretive.  “Why, yes.  For is he not a great admirer of yours?”

           Mary felt her cheeks turn warm, and not from the touch of the sun beyond the edge of her parasol.  She looked away, staring hard at a child with a wildly-waving hoop dashing past with his nurse in pursuit.  “I wouldn't say that.  We have only met once or twice.”

           “No?”  Louisa already seemed distracted by a gentleman on horseback in the distance.  “Are you quite sure?  You two would surely be a most suited pair.  My uncle says Lord Henry's future in the diplomatic service seems assured.  That he might even be sent to Russia soon, like your father.”

           A most suited pair.  So they would be.  Lord Henry Barrett had become something of a protege to her father in recent days.  Sir William Manning never complained of having only a daughter, only Mary, but she knew he would have liked a son to follow in his career footsteps, who he could guide and advise amid the powder keg of politics and wars and royal courts. 

           Her father had asked her to invite Lord Henry to some of their dinners lately, and often the two of them were talking afterward in the library for many hours.  Much longer than Lord Henry had ever talked with Mary herself.

           A promising young man indeed, Mary dearest, her father had said only that morning, as she prepared to go out walking with Louisa.  Steady and calm, exactly what this country needs now. 

           Mary sighed as those words echoed in her mind.  She twirled her parasol, thinking of Lord Henry Barrett.  He was handsome enough, with golden hair and a careful, polite smile.  The perfect diplomat, correct, careful, giving nothing away, barely even touching her hand in a dance.

           A man somewhat like her father must have been, in fact, before he met her beautiful mother in Lisbon and brought her home to London.  A man her father would surely like to see her matched with, so she could continue on in what she was trained to do.  To be a hostess and helpmate in foreign postings.  A diplomat herself in all but title.

           Mary knew that would be the best path in her life.  The only path, really.  All she knew. 

           Yes, Lord Henry Barrett would be a suitable match.  Tales of his dashing, heroic Army brother were only that—thrilling fairy stories.

 

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