But George Chervil had not kept his part of the bargain. And if that was indeed him, standing outside Burnel’s Haberdashery . . .

She could not stand there like a target and wait to find out. With a choked cry of frustration, she turned on her heel and ran . . . into the very first shop she came across.

Chapter Six

Eight years earlier . . .

Tonight, Annelise thought with growing excitement. Tonight would be the night.

It would be a bit of a scandal, her becoming engaged before either of her older sisters, but it would not be entirely unexpected. Charlotte had never shown great interest in their local society, and Marabeth always looked so pinched and angry—it was hard to imagine anyone wanting to marry her.

Marabeth would have a fit, though, and their parents would surely console her, but for once they would not force their youngest daughter to give up a prize for the sake of the eldest. When Annelise married George Chervil, the Shawcrosses would become forever connected with the most important family in their corner of Northumberland. Even Marabeth would eventualy realize that Annelise’s coup was in her best interest.

A rising tide did indeed lift all boats, even prickly ones named Marabeth.

“You look rather like a cat in cream,” Charlotte said, watching Annelise as she examined herself in her mirror, testing one set of earbobs against the other. They were paste, of course; the only proper jewels in the Shawcross family belonged to their mother, and all she had besides her wedding ring was a small broach, with three tiny diamonds and one large topaz. It wasn’t even very pretty.

“I think George is going to ask me to marry him,” Annelise whispered. She never could keep secrets from her sister. At least not until recently. Charlotte knew most of the details of Annelise’s monthlong secret courtship, not all of them.

“Never say it!” Charlotte gasped with delight and clasped both of her sister’s hands in hers. “I am so happy for you!”

“I know, I know.” Annelise could not keep herself from grinning. Her cheeks would hurt by the end of the night, she was sure. But she was so happy. George was everything she had ever wanted in a husband. He was everything any girl had ever wanted—handsome, athletic, dashing. Not to mention incredibly wel-connected.

As Mrs. George Chervil, Annelise would live in the finest house for miles. Her invitations would be coveted, her friendship desired. Maybe they would even go to London for the season. Annelise knew that such travels were dear, but George would one day be a baronet. At some point he would need to take his proper place in society, wouldn’t he?

“Has he been dropping hints?” Charlotte wanted to know. “Given you gifts?”

Annelise tilted her head to the side. She liked the way she looked when the light hit her pale skin just so. “He has not done anything so obvious. But there is such history behind the Midsummer ball. Did you know his parents became engaged at the very same event? And now that George has turned twenty-five . . .” She turned to her sister with wide, excited eyes. “I overheard his father saying it was high time he married.”

“Oh, Annie,” Charlotte sighed. “It’s so romantic.” The Chervil family’s Midsummer ball was the event of the year, every year. If ever there was a moment when their vilage’s most eligible bachelor would announce his engagement, this would be it.

“Which ones?” Annelise asked, holding up the two sets of earbobs.

“Oh, the blue, definitely,” Charlotte said before grinning. “Because I must have the green to match my eyes.” Annelise laughed and hugged her. “I am so happy right now,” she said. She squeezed her eyes tight, as if she couldn’t possibly keep her feelings contained. Her happiness felt like a living thing, bouncing around inside of her. She had known George for years, and like every girl she knew, had secretly wished he would pay her special notice. And then he had! That spring she had caught him looking at her differently, and by the dawn of summer, he’d been secretly courting her. Opening her eyes, she looked at her sister and beamed. “I didn’t think it was possible to be so happy.”

“And it will only get better,” Charlotte predicted. They stood, hands clasped, and walked to the door. “Once George proposes, your happiness will know no bounds.”

Annelise giggled as they danced out the door. Her future was waiting, and she could not wait to reach it.

Annelise saw George the instant she arrived. He was the sort of man one couldn’t miss—briliantly handsome with a smile that melted a girl from the inside out. Every girl was in love with him. Every girl had always been in love with him.

Annelise smiled her secret smile as she floated into the balroom. The other girls might be in love with him, but she was the only who had been loved in return.

He’d told her so.

But after an hour of watching him greet his family’s guests, she was growing impatient. She had danced with three other gentlemen—two of them quite eligible—

and George hadn’t once tried to cut in. Not that she’d done it to make him jealous—wel, perhaps a little. But she always accepted invitations to dance, from anyone.

She knew she was beautiful. It would have been impossible to grow up with so many people saying so, every single day, and not know it. Annelise was some kind of throwback, people said, her glossy dark locks the result of an ancient Welsh invader. Her father’s hair had been dark, too, back when he’d had hair, but everyone said it hadn’t been like hers, with the shine and bounce and ever-so-gentle curl.

Marabeth had always been jealous. Marabeth, who actualy looked quite like Annelise, but just not . . . as much. Her skin wasn’t quite as pale, her eyes not quite as blue. Marabeth was forever painting Annelise as a spoilt little shrew, and maybe it was for that reason that Annelise decided, on her very first foray into local society, that she would dance with every man who asked. No one would accuse her of reaching above her station; she would be the kindhearted beauty, the girl everyone loved to love.

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