A Season with Her Forbidden Earl

A Season with Her Forbidden Earl

April 23, 2024

A fun foray into the London Season

Determined to stay a spinster

For her second Season!

When an unexpected windfall gives Lady Margaret the chance for another Season, she relishes the opportunity to see her friends again, including Julian Randall, Earl of Atherton. She has no need to find a husband, and widower Julian has sworn off the marriage mart, so escorting each other is the perfect platonic arrangement. Until a new, exhilarating attraction simmers between them—one this respectable spinster is forbidden from indulging in…isn’t she?


Pulling on her riding gloves, Lady Margaret D’Aubignon was descending the stairs at Montwell Glen when the butler appeared at the foot. “Lady Margaret, I was just coming to fetch you,” he called up.

“What is it, Viscering?” she asked, her ever-present foreboding deepening as she hastened to meet him.

Had her father given some new order? As she hadn’t—recently—done anything to anger him, surely he hadn’t banned her from riding. Although as she knew only too well, the Earl of Comeryn didn’t need a reason for the arbitrary dictates he issued.

“Nothing alarming, my lady,” the butler reassured her. “Only there’s a courier come with a message for you. He’s waiting outside.”

A message sent by private courier? Arriving as it had on a Friday morning, when her father was away from Montwell Glen at his weekly meeting with the JP in the village, the letter must be from her brother Crispin--who knew the earl’s routine as well as she did. It also meant the missive must contain something he didn’t want their father to intercept.

“Thank you, Viscering. I’ll be off on my morning ride after I collect it,” she said, increasing her pace—and trying to restrain her desperate hope. Had Crispin’s venture succeeded? Might she be free at last?

Hurrying through the door the butler opened and down the front steps, she met the rider, who bowed. “A letter for you, my lady.”

She took it eagerly, noting with a leap of excitement that her name inscribed on it was indeed in Crispin’s distinctive hand. “Are you to wait for a reply?” she asked as she took it from him.

“No, my lady. The sender said I might leave once the letter was delivered.”

“Go round by the kitchen first and ask for Anna. She’ll see that you get a meal and have a groom tend your horse before you ride back.”

“Thank’ee, my lady,” the rider said, doffing his cap again before leading his horse off.

Repressing the urgent desire to break the seal and scan it immediately, she made herself instead tuck it inside the jacket of her habit and walk at a sedate pace toward the stables. Any of her father’s spies who might be watching would have noted she’d received a message, but their diligence might wane if she didn’t seem in any hurry to read it.

She arrived at the stable to discover to her relief that the groom Higgins, her secret ally, was available to ride with her. Even supervised, she was not permitted to go farther than the north pasture, but when she was fortunate enough to snag Higgins as her escort, once they were out of sight of the house, he always lagged behind and gave her some privacy.

Still, not until they reached the copse of trees bordering the pasture’s farthest point did she dismount and leave Mahogany free to graze.

“I’ll keep watch as usual, m’lady,” Higgins said, exchanging a nod with her before she walked off.

Once she was well into the grove of concealing trees, she pulled out the letter, broke the seal with shaking fingers, and quickly scanned it.

Her heartbeat accelerated and a wild joy seized her. “Halleluiah!” she cried, kissing the parchment before reading it again, the rest of the information it contained blurring beneath her tears as she focused on the most important words: “investment succeeded beyond my fondest hopes….handsome sum deposited in London bank…will come myself to Montwell Glen next week to escort you to London.”

She was indeed free, she and her mother, with the means to escape the Earl’s control forever. As she would inform her father when he returned tonight.

But she had no intention of waiting a week to make her escape. She would gather Mama and a few belongings and steal away tomorrow before first light. Before the Earl of Comeryn could devise a way to prevent her.



Three days later, Maggie was walking along Bond Street in London, a trailing footman carrying the packages from her first shopping expedition, when a voice behind her called out, “Lady Margaret?”

Halting, she looked back, her surprise turning to delight as she recognized the speaker. “Atherton!” she cried, smiling as the Earl hastened to meet her. “What a pleasant surprise.”

“It really is you!” the Earl said, smiling back. “I wasn’t sure I could believe my eyes—I thought perhaps my mind had only conjured you, like a mirage. You are back in London, then? How did you manage it?”

“A long story,” she said drily.

“I can’t wait to hear it. You’ve been shopping, I see. You must be in need of refreshment. Can I persuade you to join me at Gunter’s for some tea and cakes?”

“Tea and cakes sound lovely. Jackson,” she said, turning to the footman, “Please take my purchases back to Portman Square and have the Countess informed when she returns that I encountered Lord Atherton and will be taking tea with him at Gunter’s. Have the carriage return for me in—“she looked back to the Earl, “an hour?”

“No need for that. I can drive you home. I’ll send for my phaeton, so it will be quite proper. We can have a good chat without worrying about the time.”

“I accept your kind offer, then. Jackson, if you’ll have Viscering inform Mama that Lord Atherton will drive me home? Thank you.”

After nodding to the footman, who bowed and walked off, she turned back to the Earl. “What a happy chance, to meet you on my very first day back in London! Which, by the way, is why I was so rude as to not ask you back to Portman Square for tea. We arrived only yesterday, and as the house has been shut up since last year, everything is at sixes and sevens. We came on ahead with just horses, grooms and maid, Viscering to folIow, so I’m afraid we’re not quite ready for company.”

“Your company is all that’s required. What a treat to see you again as well! Shall we?” he said, offering her his arm.

Smiling again, Maggie took his arm, surprised at first by the little shock that tingled up her fingers. Though she shouldn’t be.

He’d affected her just as strongly during her disastrous Season last year, when she’d briefly considered him as a marriage candidate. Apparently time hadn’t weakened the attraction.

Handsome, witty, charming and older—but not old enough for her purposes—despite that strong physical pull, she’d managed to turn him from potential suitor to friend. Next to her brother Crispin, he’d become her best and dearest male one.

Now that she was back in London, she might have the delight of continuing that friendship. As long as she could keep that pesky sensual attraction under control.

Of course you can, she told herself stoutly. Just ignore it and enjoy him being handsome, witty and charming.

“I’m as relieved as I am delighted to discover you back,” the Earl was saying. “I have to admit, given the…circumstances of your leaving town so abruptly last year, I’ve been worried about you.”

“Worried because my father literally dragged me out of that last ball after he’d announced my engagement to Lord Tolleridge and I emphatically denied it?”

“Did he think you could be cowed into going through with it if he made such a public announcement?” Atherton asked. “That you would be too afraid of being ostracized for being a jilt?”

“I suppose, though he should have known me better. But then, the Earl of Comeryn often thinks the world should arrange itself as he wishes, despite reason or reality.”

“The episode at the ball was alarming enough, but when I called the next day and found the house in disarray, with you whisked away to the countryside… I was on the point of manufacturing an excuse to visit Montwell Glen to check on you when I received your first letter.”

“Thank heavens you did not! With you being a highly eligible widowed gentleman, my father would probably have engineered some way to get us into what he would have deemed a ‘compromising situation.’ Then used your sense of honor to force you to marry me.” She gave him a grin. “Us, married? What a way to spoil a friendship!”

Though there might have been compensations, she thought, a swooping feeling in her stomach as another tingle traveled from his arm to her fingertips.

Atherton chuckled. “However improper it might have been for you to write to me, I cannot thank you enough for doing so and letting me know you were…well.”

Well… Maggie grimaced, remembering the solitary chamber into which she’d been locked for weeks, the Earl’s way of expressing his displeasure at her refusal to bend to his will. “As well as could be expected under the circumstances,” she replied noncommittally. “Mama was distraught enough on my behalf, she mustered the bravery to send my letters under her seal, so it was quite proper. And fortunately, her correspondence has always been so vast that the Earl never thought to check her letters or their replies for…inclusions.”

“I’m just glad she continued to act as intermediary, so I knew at least something of what was going on with you. But you never gave a hint that you were returning to London.”

By now they’d reached Berkeley Square. After nodding and exchanging greetings with acquaintances who’d taken advantage of the fine spring morning to take refreshment in their carriages beneath the plane trees, the Earl led her to a table. “So, tea and cakes? Or would you prefer ices?”

“Tea, I think.”

After giving the waiter their order and directions to have a message sent to summon his phaeton, Atherton said, “Tell me, then, how did you come to return to town? Did the Earl finally relent?”

Maggie uttered a scornful huff. “You should know my father better than that. Now,” looking around, she lowered her voice, “I’ll tell you the truth, but you must keep it in confidence. Not that I care about Society’s opinion of my father, but I do want to protect Mama.”

Atherton put a hand to his chest, as if struck. “Surely you know I would never reveal anything you said to me in confidence!”

She patted his hand, frowning a bit as another spark sizzled through her. Shaking it off, she continued, “I do know. I just wanted to emphasize that it’s best the real story not get out—at least for the present. In any event, after the Earl hauled me back to Montwell Glen, my brother Crispin visited and tried to plead my case. The Earl, still furious at my rejecting his crony, refused to lift his order of banishment, but he did allow Crispin to see me afterwards. My brother then offered to approach Lady Ulmstead, my mother’s aunt—the one, you may remember, who gave Crispin the funds he used for his initial railway investments—and ask if she would advance me the sum she’d intended to leave me as a bequest. He proposed to invest it on my behalf, and if the investment prospered as his had, create a large enough fund for me to live independently of my father. As I’ve just turned one-and-twenty, the Earl would not legally be able to prevent me. Well, Aunt Ulmstead agreed, Crispin’s investment has been wildly successful, and so—” she gestured toward herself—“you see before you an independently wealthy woman!”

“Bravo, Lady Maggie! That’s excellent news! So the Earl was forced to stomach this? I can’t imagine he was very happy about it.”

The waiter returned then with their refreshments, halting conversation while she poured tea and dispensed cakes.

Maggie smiled grimly as she did so, remembering the tense confrontation in her father’s library the night after Crispin’s message arrived. Her father’s hiss of fury when she revealed her change of fortune and informed him that her brother would come the following week to help her move to London. His shouted response that by now both she and his heir should know better than to attempt to defy him. She, coolly standing her ground, having already planned to make a stealthy exit with her mother at dawn the next morning before Comeryn could imprison again or devise some other means to foil her plans.

She felt again the bitter satisfaction of knowing that, now that she was in London, never again would the tyrant be able to lock her away or control her.

“He wasn’t happy,” she resumed after they’d sipped their tea. “I informed him that I had sufficient funds on deposit in a London bank to support an independent establishment, and that I intended to take Mama with me to London and stay at a hotel until we found a suitable residence. Unless he would allow us to reside, without interference, at Comeryn House.”

She let the Earl digest her words for a moment, and smiled when, a moment later, he chuckled. “What a devious female you are! He must have been doubly furious at that! Realizing what a scandal it would cause if his wife and unmarried daughter were to establish a separate residence and live independently of him. Only if you resided at Comeryn House, ostensibly with your father’s permission and under his protection, could you be on your own in London without setting Society on its ear.”

“Exactly,” she confirmed, nodding. “Although, quite frankly, were it not for my desire to have Mama resume her rightful place in Society, I would have insisted on my own residence. But she’s endured enough conflict and turmoil all these years, married to him. I wanted her to finally be able to visit all the friends with whom she’s corresponded so faithfully through the years and fully participate in the Society she’s been denied, without a scandal of my making impeding her.”

“Living anywhere but Comeryn House would have ruined your reputation, too,” Atherton pointed out. “Or at least rendered you such an oddity as to compromise your eligibility and limit your own acceptance by Society.”

Maggie shrugged. “Now that I have funds and can live as I choose, I don’t intend ever to marry, so I’m not concerned about what Society thinks of me. Even so, I will safeguard my social position long enough to accomplish my next goal. Which is why I ask that the true circumstances of my return to London remain concealed, at least for now.”

“Done. And so what is this ‘next goal’?”

“You may remember the two good friends I made during my debut Season—Lady Laura Pomeroy and Miss Eliza Hasterling?”

“The tall, graceful blonde and the quiet little brunette?”

“Yes. I should like them to achieve the same happy state of independence I now have. Unfortunately, neither has an obliging relation to give them money to invest, so they will be forced to follow a more traditional path—marriage. But I mean to find suitors for them who are wealthy enough and elderly enough to soon leave them rich widows. Sadly, in our Society the only female who is truly in control of her own life—aside from an independent oddity like me--is a rich widow.”

Putting down his cup, Atherton stared at her a moment. “You’re joking, of course,” he said at last.

“Indeed not! I wouldn’t joke about something as serious as the happiness of my dear friends!”

“But what you suggest is…preposterous!”

“Why so? Planned and calculated, perhaps, but why is it any more reprehensible than an ambitious Mama hoping to marry her daughter to the highest title she can snag? Or a girl who wants to snare a wealthy husband? Both of which are thought quite acceptable aims. I’m not suggesting that they marry men for whom they care nothing; respect and admiration, if not love, would be essential.”

“It still sounds bloody cold and calculating to me.”

Maggie waved an impatient hand. “Given that once married, her person, life, and fortune is entirely controlled by her husband, a female would have to be stupid not to carefully consider her choice—if she is indeed given a choice. Why should you think it despicable that I would match my dear friends to wealthy older gentlemen who will treat them kindly but leave them time to live their lives as they, and only they, wish? Doing so is a man’s birthright!”

“Not so!” he countered. “Gentlemen are often obligated to marry for practical reasons.”

“Very true. Which is another reason why my proposition shouldn’t provoke your disdain. Marriage very often is arranged for practical rather than romantic reasons. The difference is that once married, a man still controls his own destiny. A woman does not. If she is mistreated, the law offers no recourse, and often, even her own family cannot assist her. And that is a fact you cannot dispute.”

Her mother’s married life had illustrated that truth. By now, Atherton he knew enough about her family not to be able to argue the point. After opening and closing his mouth several times, he replied, “That may be true. But not every marriage is a cruel bondage from which the wife wishes to escape. Only consider your brother’s union with Marcella!”

“No, not every marriage is unhappy,” she conceded. “But enough are that I’d rather try to secure for my friends the most favorable circumstances. The plan of action I’m proposing for them is, after all, the same one I was following for myself before my Season was abruptly curtailed.”

Atherton raised his eyebrows. “You planned on finding yourself an older husband? Is that why you encouraged me?”

Maggie grinned. “Initially. But I soon concluded that, though rather older than me, you were still too young and healthy to be a suitable candidate.”

Atherton stared at her a moment before shaking his head. “You are the most outrageous female! I’m not sure whether to feel gratified or insulted.”

“Besides, you’re titled,” Maggie continued, “and I wish them to wed wealthy commoners. Aristocrats are too often arrogant and controlling, believing the world should accommodate itself to their views.”

“Which is why you tried to discourage Lord Tolleridge, while at the same time encouraging Mr. Hallston and Mr. Knightley?”

She arched an eyebrow. “You did pay close attention to my suitors.”

“As I remember, you inveigled me into it, once we’d decided to be friends. Although I would have gladly helped any young lady avoid Tolleridge. I don’t generally speak ill of my acquaintance, but in his case, I make an exception.”

Maggie shuddered, remembering the viscount’s cold, snake-eyed stare. “I would have discouraged him even if he weren’t Father’s friend as well as titled. There’s something…so unpleasant about the man.”

Atherton nodded agreement. “You’d do well to avoid him now that you’re back in London. I doubt he took your public rejection of his suit any better than your father did.”

“A recommendation I am happy to follow, as I have no wish to associate with him. Happily, I no longer need to focus on marrying an elderly suitor to attain my independence. I shall employ all my efforts on behalf of Laura and Eliza instead.”

Raising a skeptical eyebrow, Atherton said, “What do your friends think of your grand plan?”

“I’ve not seen them yet to broach it,” Maggie admitted. “But I will soon. Even now, Mama is calling on her many friends, making discrete inquiries to discover the most promising candidates this Season, as sadly both Hallston and Knightly have already remarried. Of course, I would never suggest to my friends any gentlemen whose characters had not been completely vetted, so you could help with—”

Atherton held up his hand. “—Stop right there! I appreciate your good intentions; I know you only want the best for your friends. But rather than try to maneuver them into a scheme of your making, wouldn’t it be wiser for them to choose what will make them happy?”

“And so they will!” Maggie countered. “I simply intend to bring promising candidates to their attention. Whether or not to pursue any particular relationship will be entirely up to them.”

Atherton shook his head. “That relieves my mind—somewhat. I still feel your attempting to manipulate their suitors is a mistake. So don’t even think of asking me to help.”

“Not even to verify from your contacts—masculine contacts I have no way to access—that the information I obtain about them is correct?”

Atherton blew out a sigh. “I suppose I can agree to confirming a prospective suitor’s character. But nothing else. I would still ask you to consider abandoning this project entirely.”

Maggie grinned. “You can ask. But having—oh, happy day!—finally securely my own freedom, I can’t help wanting the same glorious independence for Eliza and Lady Laura.”

“You do realize they may not be as enthusiastic about this idea as you are.”

“Perhaps not. Though Lady Laura is wrapped up in her studies and taking care of her father who, as you know, has never fully recovered from that terrible carriage accident, she must marry sometime. And Eliza just wants an establishment of her own. Why should considering kind, older gentlemen as potential husbands not be viewed as an acceptable option?”

Shaking his head at her, Atherton said, “You’re nothing if not tenacious once you’ve taken hold of an idea. But I suppose a female who can defy a man as forbidding as the Earl of Comeryn has to be…determined. It must have taken tremendous courage growing up not to end up as cowed by him as your poor Mama has been.”

Maggie laughed. “At the risk of tarnishing the shiny image you seem to have of my bravery, I must confess remaining independent didn’t require much fortitude. As the youngest offspring, and a mere female at that, Comeryn simply ignored me. Elizabeth married while I was still a child, my brother James left for India shortly after and Crispin dealt with the Earl, so I was left very much to my own devices. Not until Crispin broke with Comryn to forge his own path and I took up his role of protecting Mama did we begin to clash. Even then, the skirmishes were brief—I generally lost—and didn’t become serious until I refused to bow to his matrimonial schemes. The affrontery of me, rejecting a man who’d agreed to forego my dowry, thereby preventing the Earl from plowing those funds back into his estate!”

“How could the Earl access the money if it had been reserved for your dowry?”

“Though the funds came from Mama, having a certain amount allotted as my dowry wasn’t specifically spelled out in the marriage settlements. So, once they wed, the money was legally Comeryn’s to dispose of as he pleased. He’d been priding himself on scoring quite a coup, getting a useless daughter off his hands without having to part with any blunt.” She gave a mirthless chuckle. “Fond as I am of Montwell Glen, had the prospective husband not been Tolleridge, I could have sympathized with his aims.”

Atherton frowned. “With the man in question being Tolleridge, any father worth his salt would have gladly expended the funds to see you married to someone else.”

“Well, there you have it. Now, I intend to make sure my dear friends are much more comfortably situated than, save for Crispin’s intervention, I would have been.”

“On that point, I can sympathize! Just make sure you don’t push your friends too hard.”

“I’m sure you will remind me if I try. I shall see you often during the rest of the Season, shall I not? You don’t have plans to remove to Randall’s Roost?”

“I’ll make periodic visits, but with the spring planting finished and everything going as it should in Kent, I intend to remain in London for the Season.”

Maggie gave him an arch look. “Soon to gratify the desires of some voluptuous matron?”

A faint flush coloring his face, Atherton said, “That’s not a fit subject for discussion with an unmarried maiden.”

Maggie waved away his protest. “Come now, you wouldn’t like me half as much if I were some die-away female who pretended to know nothing about what goes on between men and women. To say nothing of being hypocritical in the extreme, as I’ve been aware of my father’s little ‘arrangements’ since I was hardly out of leading strings. But you are right; your intimate affairs are your own business. And if I can persuade you to help me, even if only to verify the character of my prospects, I shall be most grateful.”

“My help shall remain very limited indeed,” Atherton warned.

Satisfied to have coaxed from him even that much of a concession, Maggie changed subjects. “What of your boys? Are they all settled at school?”

She smiled to see Atherton’s eyes light up. If he still mourned his late wife—the reason gossip said he’d never remarried, despite the many lures cast his way since he came out of mourning six years ago--he kept those feelings close. But his delight in his three strapping sons was charmingly evident.

“They are back at school—I stayed in Kent until they had to leave for the next term. Stephen’s become a crack shot and an excellent horseman, Mark is always up to mischief, and both have promised to look out for Edward. It’s his first time at Eton, you may remember.”

“I’m glad he’ll have his big brothers to protect him. Boys can be brutal, I understand. You must miss them.”

Atherton sighed. “I do. At ten, eight and six, they are now old enough to ride out with me to visit tenants, go hunting or fishing, play a rousing game of cards, and Stephen even challenges me at chess. But…they must be at school, so here I am.”

“And you doubtless have in mind some voluptuous matron to console you for their absence,” Maggie teased again. It was also well known that since his bereavement, Atherton had made discreet arrangements with a succession of willing matrons, each liaison lasting no longer than a single Season.

At the thought of the strong arm she’d leaned on while they walked to Gunters wrapped around another woman, Maggie felt a pang of—surely it couldn’t be jealousy?

She might find his touch thrilling, but the sad reality was, as a single lady rather than a dashing widow, she couldn’t indulge in such pleasures.

“Another impertinent question to which I shall make no reply,” Atherton was saying.

“So unforthcoming,” Maggie said with an elaborate sigh. “Well, I suppose I should get home. There’s much to do to get the house set up so Mama can receive her friends, who they will all want to return her calls. Fortunately, we expect Viscering imminently to help bring all to order.” She grinned. “Now that our removal to London is a fait accompli, the ton would find it very strange if Comeryn tried to keep our butler at Montwell Glen.”

Atherton laughed out loud. “The cruelest blow of all! Stealing your father’s butler out from under his nose!”

“I can guarantee you, Viscering would far rather be in London with us than in the country with Comeryn.”

“That I can well believe.”

“We must have you to tea as well, very soon. We could compare diaries to determine which entertainments we’ve been invited to so we can attend the same ones. I’m looking forward to dancing with you again. And you must promise to partner me at cards.”

Atherton raised his eyebrows. “Are you planning to fleece your friends even now that you are independently wealthy? Or are your funds tied up such that you need to augment your pin money?”

Maggie shook her head. “No, I’ll play for the enjoyment of it. Though a little extra income never hurt. It’s always more entertaining to play with an intelligent partner, and we did make a good pair.”

“So we did. I’ll be happy to dance and partner you—at cards or anything else you require.”

Maggie sobered. “I left London so precipitously last year I never had a chance to thank you for all the help you gave me. Acting the suitor to protect me from the Earl while I evaluated other choices. Intervening to keep Tolleridge at a distance.”

“It was my pleasure.” The Earl stared down at her, his intent expression holding her motionless. Had she ever appreciated what a deep velvet green his eyes were? Like the depths of a verdant forest at midsummer.

Captured by the strength of his gaze, she had to force herself to look away. “Thankfully, with no need any longer to avoid Father’s machinations, we can simply enjoy our friendship. Promise me I’ll see you again soon.”

Friendship will be enough, she told herself, squelching the lingering regret that there could never be more.

“Send me a note once you are ready to entertain. In the interim, perhaps we could go riding some morning?”

“I would love that! Once my schedule is more settled, I’ll let you know when I am free.”

“Excellent. Ah, I see Welsh nodding from the entrance—he’ll have brought my phaeton around. Shall we go?”

Conscious of both the warmth of renewed friendship and a tinge of regret at ending their visit, Maggie reminded herself they would soon meet again. Hopefully, by then she would have thought of a way to persuade him to cooperate more fully with her Grand Plan.

She’d need to discuss it with Laura and Eliza first, of course. She would write and invite them for tea tomorrow; they wouldn’t mind that the household was still unsettled. How wonderful it would be for the three of them to be together again!

Even more wonderful to imagine them married to suitable husbands, on their own paths to achieving financial and personal independence. She couldn’t wait to begin.

Atherton kept the conversation light on the drive back to Portman Square, giving her a recitation of who among her former acquaintances had returned to London this Season and a rundown of which plays and entertainments were currently available. She sat contently beside him, enjoying the delicious thrill of his tall, virile body just a touch away.

And if she occasionally allowed herself to imagine what it might be like, were she one of the dashing matrons with whom he could establish a more intimate connection, what harm was there in that?

She would never try to entice him to it. Her sole purposes for reentering Society were to return her mother to the city she loved and achieve advantageous marriages for her friends.

What she meant to do after, she wasn’t yet sure. But while she remained in London, having Atherton’s friendship, occasional escort and possible assistance in accomplishing those goals would be the savory finish to a satisfying meal.

AmazonBarnes & NobleAmazon KindleNookKoboGoogle PlayiBooks