Imogen relaxed against the usual rock she liked to lean on when she fished, her rod held loosely in her hand so that she would be able to feel it if she got a bite. She pulled her hat low to shield her face from the summer sun and closed her eyes. She wouldn’t sleep, she knew, but a light doze here in the warm afternoon—
“Excuse me! What are you doing?”
She was immediately alert. The voice was unfamiliar and unfriendly, and she turned to see a young gentleman—perhaps twenty years old—staring at her.
“I’m fishing,” she told him. “Is it not obvious?”
“You’re fishing on my uncle’s land,” the gentleman said.
“I have permission,” Imogen said, her voice rising slightly in pitch as she stood to face him. Her nerves were beginning to get the better of her, in spite of herself. “Lord Winterbourne lets me fish here.”
His eyes widened. “Oh, you’re a girl.”
She scowled. She knew it was a little unfair to allow comments like that to bother her. After all, she was dressed—as she usually was on days like this—in her brother’s clothes. She had tucked her hair up underneath the hat she wore. Probably anyone would have mistaken her for a boy.
In all honesty, Imogen didn’t know whether she was more annoyed that he’d taken her for a boy, or that he had now realized she was a girl.
And it wasn’t as if it mattered. She knew what people saw when they looked at her, when they understood that she was a girl. They saw someone chubby and plain and unfortunate-looking. She was the odd duck in her family, nothing like her tall, fair, lovely siblings. Sometimes she really felt as if she didn’t belong with the rest of them at all.
So what difference did it make if this gentleman knew she was a girl? He wouldn’t see her that way. He wouldn’t look at her and see someone he could find attractive. He would see someone dirty and plain, and that was fine with Imogen. She didn’t want him to see anything else!
“Who are you?” the gentleman asked her.
There was no reason to lie. In fact, there was every reason to tell the truth, if he meant to ask Lord Winterbourne if she was really supposed to be here.
But he was so handsome. With his dark hair that fell just slightly into his grey eyes, with the muscles that showed even through the clothes he was wearing—she felt as if she was looking at a work of art, and she had a strange urge to hide from him.
“Mary,” she lied. “My name is Mary.”
“Do you live around here? Perhaps I should speak to your mother and father.”
No, she definitely couldn’t have that. Lord Winterbourne might not object to her fishing here, but her family wouldn’t like hearing about it. Imogen knew she was lucky to be the least supervised of all her siblings. Her parents happily looked the other way on most of the things she did. But if they began to hear complaints, that might come to an end. She might no longer be free to dress in boys’ clothing and come to the river to fish. She relished her freedom too much to let it go.
“I work on the Darlington Estate,” she said. “My parents are nowhere nearby. You might speak with the Darlingtons, I suppose, but if you scolded me, I could lose my position, and I would be out on the street.”
She held her breath, hoping that this gentleman wouldn’t be willing to do such a thing.
He hesitated, then nodded. “Very well,” he said. “But perhaps I ought to stay here and make sure you don’t get up to no good.”
“What trouble do you imagine I might cause?” she asked. “I’m not stealing the fish. I throw them back when I catch them. I’m only doing this for fun.”
“And why do you dress like a boy?”
She scowled at him. “Why do you ask so many questions?”
“You are on my uncle’s land,” he reminded her. “I think I’m entitled to my questions.”
Imogen sighed. “I dress like this because it’s more convenient for fishing,” she said. “You wouldn’t want to come down to the river in a gown, would you?”
He laughed. “No,” he agreed. “I’d say I wouldn’t! But I’ve never seen a girl dressed up in boys’ clothing before.”
“Well, I’ve got to be able to move quickly if I get a bite—” She gasped and broke off. Just as she’d spoken the words, the rod had jerked in her hands.
“Have you got something?” the gentleman asked. “Do you need assistance?”
“Of course, I don’t need assistance.” She grappled with the rod for a moment, then pulled the fish to shore. It was a good catch, as long as her forearm. It lay on the grass, staring resentfully up at her.
“You’re a good fisherman,” the gentleman said. “I mean, fishergirl.”
She ignored him and loosed the fish from its hook, tossing it back into the river. “There,” she said. “Are you satisfied that I’m not stealing?”
“Why are you doing it?” he asked. “If you’re just going to throw the fish back into the river. What’s the point?”
“It’s fun,” she said. “Have you never been fishing before?”
“No, I haven’t,” the gentleman admitted.
“Well,” she said, “maybe you ought to try it sometime.”
She gathered up her rod. “Are you leaving?” he asked.
“It’s really not as much fun with an audience,” she said. “Perhaps I’ll come back another time.”
And before he could stop her, she hurried away.
Lord Winterbourne’s estate had always been an escape of sorts for her, but she didn’t feel that way now. She would be better off staying away until that gentleman, his nephew, left and went back home.
She didn’t want to face his questions and his scrutiny again.
“I spoke to Uncle Albert, and you might as well come out,” Anthony said on the third day of Mary hiding in the bushes. “I can see you there. You don’t need to hide, because Uncle Albert told me you’re permitted to be here.”
After a moment’s pause, the girl emerged. She was still dressed in boyish clothes, but today her hair wasn’t concealed beneath a hat. She had brown curls that hung in disarray, and yet Anthony found them rather enchanting. He’d never known anyone quite like this.
“Come and fish, if that’s what you want,” he said. “You can show me how.”
She hesitated for a moment. Then she shrugged, came over, and sat down. She dropped her line into the water. “One would think a handsome lord such as yourself would have more interesting things to do.”
“I suppose I’m curious about you.”
She rolled her eyes. “Or perhaps you believe you have to prevent me from stealing your fish.”
“If that’s what you choose to believe.” He had never said anything about stealing fish and didn’t think she was going to do that. He sat down with his back to a nearby tree. “Go on. Do your fishing. I’ll watch.”
“Is that why you’re here? To watch me? To make sure I don’t make trouble again?”
“No, now that Uncle Albert has told me you have his permission to be here, I feel no need to do that anymore.”
She hesitated. “Did he tell you anything else about me?”
“No. Should he have?”
“Really, he didn’t? Nothing at all?”
There was definitely something odd about the question, and it got Anthony’s attention. What did she expect Uncle Albert to have told him about her? Whatever it was, it hadn’t happened—he hadn’t said anything. He’d just listened to Anthony’s description of the girl and nodded when Anthony had asked whether or not she was allowed to be here.
He decided not to question her further. Perhaps, in time, the truth would come out.
But it didn’t. Not that day, and not in the days that followed. Anthony took to walking down to the river almost every day that summer, eager to see her again, eager to watch her fish, and something like a friendship grew between the pair of them. But he was never able to shake the sense that she was hiding something.
“Why do you spend so much time with that girl?” Uncle Albert asked him one day when the summer was half over. “She’s young for you, you know. Only fourteen.”
“I know she’s young,” he said. “I don’t see her that way, Uncle Albert. Not at all. Of course, I don’t.”
“Well, I wouldn’t have thought you would,” his uncle said.
“She’s not the sort of person I would usually choose to spend my time with,” Anthony said. “But I find her so intriguing. I suppose it’s just that I’m filled with a desire to understand her—does that make sense? She’s like a puzzle I want to solve.”
“Well, just be careful,” his uncle warned. “Be very careful of her.”
“Careful of her? What can a fourteen-year-old servant girl possibly do to me?”
“Women can always surprise you.”
“Oh, Uncle Albert,” Anthony laughed. “She’s only a girl. And not an especially attractive one at that. She’s chubby, and she dresses like a boy, for heaven’s sake. Do you really think I’m going to be taken in by her? Besides, she’s a child.”
Anthony thought nothing of the conversation—but after that, Mary stopped coming over. He never knew the reason why. When he went down to the water the next day, she wasn’t there—and it was the same every day after that, for the remainder of the summer.
Regardless of the reason, it seemed that he had lost a friend. He had all but given up hope of seeing her again until one day near the end of summer, shortly before he was due to return to his father’s house when he went into town to do some shopping.
And there she was. She was standing outside a bookshop, peering in the window at the display, but…
But it wasn’t her at all. At least, he wouldn’t have believed it at first. She was dressed in a proper gown, not just like a girl, but like a lady. She had told him she was a servant at the Darlington Estate, but the lady he was looking at was a servant to no one.
She looked at him and froze, and he knew—it was her. And she was as taken aback at the sight of him as he was at the sight of her.
Before she could answer, a voice called, “Imogen!”
An older lady had appeared behind her. “What are you doing?”
“I was just looking in the window,” she said, gesturing. “Couldn’t I have five more minutes?”
“Two minutes. Then you’re to come meet us in the milliner’s shop. Everyone is waiting.” The lady hurried away, looking distracted.
“Imogen?” Anthony asked her.
She looked down.
“Your name is Imogen?”
“And you’re not the daughter of a servant at all, are you? Look at you. Look at the way you’re dressed. You’re a lady. You don’t work at the Darlington Estate. You live there!”
“Lord Darlington is my father,” she admitted. “But I don’t see how you have the nerve to scold me right now.”
“Excuse me? What could you possibly mean by that?”
“You’re hardly blameless in our interactions!”
“I’ve done nothing to you! And you’ve just shown me your true nature.”
“My true nature?”
“You said your name was Mary. You said you were a servant.” His eyebrows pulled together. “I don’t like liars, Imogen.”
She looked up fiercely. “You didn’t like me anyway,” she said. “I heard what you said to Lord Winterbourne. You said I was unattractive and nothing more than a puzzle to be solved. I might have lied about my name, but at least I’m not arrogant and self-centred. I don’t want you to like me. I don’t care what you think about me. But you can just keep away from me from now on!”
She hurried up the street in the direction the older lady had gone without looking back, leaving Anthony to stare after her.
Why on Earth did she lie about who she was?
What is it she doesn’t want me to know?
“We’ve allowed you far too much freedom, Imogen. We’ve all been far too permissive with you, allowing you to run around like some sort of wild thing. It ends now, do you hear me?”
Imogen looked up at her oldest brother. David’s jaw was set, and he looked as if there would be no changing his mind. Probably there wouldn’t, she thought heavily. It wasn’t common to see David this worked up about anything. He was the most even-tempered of her six brothers and sisters—she supposed it was something about being the oldest.
But he wasn’t even-tempered today. Something had gotten under his collar.
“It’s my responsibility to see you married,” David insisted. “I’m the head of this family now.”
So that was what it was all about—Father’s death. Ever since David had become the Earl of Darlington after their father had died four years ago, he had become very serious about his duties to his family. But he hadn’t turned his gaze to Imogen before now, and she had dared to hope she would continue to be afforded the same freedoms she’d enjoyed when she was younger.
It was beginning to seem as if that wouldn’t be the case.
“You need to make your entrance into society,” David said. “You’re nineteen years old. It’s past time for you. Well past.”
“But I don’t want to have a Season,” Imogen said. “I thought we agreed, when you moved onto Father’s estate, that I would be free to stay here and take care of Mother.”
“Yes. We made that agreement when you were fifteen years old. Things have changed, Imogen. You’re a lady now, and you must go. You and Mother will go to London—you’ll stay in the townhouse there—and you’ll have a proper Season. By the end of it, I’m sure we’ll have offers of marriage.”
Imogen couldn’t answer that. She couldn’t bear to face what he was saying because she knew that he was wrong.
Nobody was going to want to marry her—how could they? She knew how plain she was, how unappealing. Nobody would look twice at her—or, if they did, it would only be to comment on how unlovely she was.
Imogen had been hearing comments all her life about that.
It was so unfair. She could accept that she had been born chubby and short instead of willowy, slender, and tall. She could accept her dark hair and plain features. But if she had to look as she did, why must she be born the youngest of seven siblings, and why must all six preceding her be so beautiful? Every one of them was tall, with fine features and fair hair. Every one of them drew gasps and stares when he or she walked into a room. Imogen had often thought that she wouldn’t feel nearly as ugly as she often did if it weren’t for the fact that all her siblings were so beautiful.
David, for example, with his golden curls, his square jaw, his bright blue eyes—what wouldn’t she have given for those features instead of her own! It was something she couldn’t even dare to dream of. It was something she would never have.
And she knew exactly what would happen if she dressed up and went to a ball.
David might think that he could find her a husband, but he hadn’t thought things through at all. He wouldn’t be able to find someone for her. She would be laughed out of the room. Nobody would want to come anywhere near her. Then David would be angry with her because she had failed. She would be humiliated, and nothing good would come out of any of it.
It would be better not to try. Better not to put herself in that position, to just stay at home and not face it.
But David wasn’t even looking at her. “The arrangements are made,” he said. “You and Mother will leave first thing tomorrow morning.”
“Do you see a reason to delay?”
“You haven’t even given me time to—”
“To what? What is it you need to do, Imogen?”
She didn’t have an answer. She wished she did. She wished she could have told him that there was something—anything—good enough to keep her here. Something worth staying for. She wished she could convince him that the life she had planned for herself, taking care of their widowed mother and then growing old by herself, was enough for her.
It was enough for her. She didn’t want anything more than that.
But David wouldn’t accept it. She could see that. David had other plans, and he was determined to force her to cooperate.
“I’ll send someone along with you.” Perhaps this was David’s idea of a compromise. “You’ll need a lady’s maid to tend to you as you prepare for each ball.”
Imogen closed her eyes. Would this lady’s maid be a friend, someone she could confide in as she went through this ordeal? She couldn’t be sure. The fact that David was making the choice for her did not inspire overwhelming amounts of confidence.
But this battle had already been lost.
“You’d better go upstairs and see that your things are packed,” he said. “I’m going to arrange for your travel first thing in the morning, so you won’t have any time for it then.”
“I can’t believe you’re doing this to me.”
“You ought to be grateful. And you will be, once you’re married and happy. Then you’ll see that I was right all along.”
“You don’t know better than me about everything just because you’re older,” Imogen murmured.
David had already turned to go, but she knew she was right.
He would never understand what it was like to be a young lady.
And her perfect, handsome older brother would never understand what it was like to know that you weren’t beautiful.
The lady’s maid Daniel hired turned out to be a woman named Millicent Taylor, who was only a few years older than Imogen herself, and to Imogen’s surprise, she liked her immediately and intensely.
“Who’s been choosing your gowns for you?” the woman asked, looking Imogen up and down as the pair of them walked downtown to visit the modiste.
“I choose for myself,” Imogen said. “I get most of my things from my elder sisters—mostly from Julia, as she’s the closest to me in age, and her things are still fashionable.”
“Wouldn’t your parents buy you things of your own before now?”
“I suppose they would if I had asked, but I never cared,” Imogen said. “What would have been the point of brand new gowns when I am the youngest of four sisters, and there are already plenty in our family, Taylor?”
“There are plenty of reasons to buy new gowns,” Taylor said. “Not the least of which is that you look nothing like any of your sisters.”
“Have you met them?”
“I’ve seen the painting your brother keeps in his study. I saw it when I was offered the position.”
Imogen despised that painting. It had been done six years ago when her father was still alive, and it showed six tall, graceful, beautiful siblings alongside one dark and awkward looking one. It was the perfect reminder that she didn’t fit in, that her family was full of beautiful people, and she wasn’t one of them.
She hated that her new lady’s maid had seen that painting. Taylor was not a beautiful woman herself, but neither was she ugly—she was tall, with rather mannish features and a hawkish stare. She struck Imogen as someone who was used to having her orders followed, which was a strange quality in a servant, to be sure—but she supposed it wasn’t surprising that David would have chosen someone like that for her.
“If you’ve seen that painting, then you’ll know there are no clothes in the world that can hope to make me look as lovely as my brothers and sisters,” Imogen said.
“Quite the contrary. There are many things that can help. You’re dressing in pale pink today, and that’s completely wrong for your colouring. You should be wearing bold colours, and more blues and greens. And there’s also the matter of the fit of your gowns.”
“I have them tailored to fit me,” Imogen protested.
“There are some things not even a tailor can put to rights. It doesn’t drag on the ground when you walk, that’s true, but it certainly doesn’t show you off to your best advantage!”
“There’s no such thing as showing me off.”
“Don’t be silly. Your mother is meeting us in the modiste’s shop, and then we’ll see what they can do for you.”
At least Imogen hadn’t been required to spend the whole day in town. That was a relief. Her mother had been running errands since early that morning, but Taylor had only brought Imogen along for this one stop. They made their way into the shop and saw that Imogen’s mother was arguing with the modiste while a young child ran about the shop.
“You simply must fit my daughter in,” Imogen’s mother said. “This is an urgent matter.”
“And I tell you, I’m fully booked—Reginald, put the hat down!” The child had picked up one of the display hats and put it on his own head. “Really, just because grandmother couldn’t mind you today doesn’t mean that you have the run of the store. I asked you to remain in a seat!”
Imogen could see that the woman was busy and harried—she was fully booked, after all, and it seemed she’d been forced to bring her child with her today instead of leaving him with his grandmother. She bent down to look the child in the eye. “Are you Reginald?”
The boy nodded solemnly.
“You do look fine in that hat.”
“It’s my hat!”
“Perhaps it ought to be! I wonder if you can show your mother how you can sit quietly like a real gentleman? If so, maybe she’ll feel you ought to be able to try on hats from time to time.”
Reginald hesitated for a moment, then went over to a chair—still wearing the hat he had chosen—and sat down.
“You’re good with children,” his mother said to her.
“Oh—I don’t know.” Imogen felt suddenly shy. “I just thought I could see the way to help him. I thought I could see what he wanted.”
“Well—perhaps we can fit you in,” the modiste said. “In truth, the lady I was supposed to be seeing right now has failed to appear, so you may have her appointment if you’d like. Why don’t you come and look at some fabrics with me?”
Imogen was just about to follow her when her mother spoke faintly. “My goodness—Charles?”
They all turned to look. Her mother was looking at an older gentleman Imogen didn’t recognize.
“Juliet,” the gentleman said. “How long has it been?”
“Oh, my goodness—years and years. I never thought I would see you again, but of course, you do live in London.”
“And I imagine you’re here for the Season?”
“Yes, myself and my daughter. But she’s about to go and be fitted for new gowns—go on, Imogen. I’ll just catch up with Charles.”
Imogen had no idea who Charles was and had no desire to ask. She turned and followed the modiste into the deeper recesses of the shop, glad that her mother had found an old friend to talk to. Whoever Charles might be, he would serve a useful purpose. He would keep her mother distracted during these proceedings, which would stop her from exerting too much control. Imogen would have some say in the gowns she chose today.
It was a small thing, but it was better than nothing.
“Now, which fabrics do you like best?” the modiste asked.
Imogen wasn’t honestly sure what to say. “Whatever my lady’s maid thinks would be best,” she decided. Taylor had clearly had some ideas about what would suit her, and Imogen had no ideas herself, so it would be best to leave the decision in more capable hands.
She ceased paying attention for a few moments as the two women discussed styles and pulled out bolts of fabric, and it was then that the door opened, and two more people entered the shop.
Imogen registered the familiar face of the gentleman, but for a moment, she couldn’t place it. And then the lady with him spoke.
“Anthony, there’s no need for you to be here. I can manage this on my own.”
Could it really be him?
But it made sense. She had known that he lived in London, that he was only visiting Lord Winterbourne for the one summer they had known each other. But she hadn’t even thought about the possibility of running into him here. How could she have? He hadn’t so much as entered her head in years.
And now here he was.
He hadn’t seen her. He was too focused on the lady with him. That was the one thing that might save her, for she certainly didn’t want to speak to him after all this time—not to mention after what she had overheard him saying to his uncle about her. It was no worse than what she supposed everyone who saw her said about her, certainly no worse than the things her own family members had often said, but it had felt different coming from him. She had believed him to be her friend.
Of course, she knew better now. She had been nothing but a child, and he had been older then than she was now. They hadn’t been friends. She had been a diversion for him, a curiosity, a strange little girl who came over in the clothes of her older brothers and played like a boy. An ugly little girl.
She didn’t want him to see her now, when she was trying to make her entrance into society. Her life was fine as long as she wasn’t trying to be beautiful, but the moment he saw that she was trying, he would laugh at her. He would mock her for it.
She ducked down, hiding behind a display.
“All right,” she heard him say. “I’ll go next door, then, to the bookshop, and you can see to your needs here. I’ll come back and collect you in half an hour.”
The door opened and closed, and finally, Imogen felt safe enough to stand upright.
The young lady was now looking around the shop with some anxiety. Imogen was surprised that she had sent Anthony away—she seemed uncomfortable on her own.
Perhaps I can help.
Imogen went over to her. “Excuse me,” she said. “Are you looking for gowns as well?”
The young lady appeared to be a couple of years younger than Imogen. She nodded gratefully. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” she said. “My brother would have helped me, but—I do want to show him I’m able to handle some things by myself.”
“I quite understand,” Imogen said. “My mother has stepped out into the road to speak with a friend of hers and has left me to deal with this on my own—not that I mind! I appreciate having the freedom. Still, it can be difficult to be certain you know what you’re doing.”
“That’s exactly how it feels.”
“What’s your name?” It seemed strange that she had passed that whole summer without knowing that Anthony had a younger sister—but then, the girl would have been very young indeed at the time, and very unlikely to spend her days fishing at a river. It was possible, indeed, that Anthony had never told any of the members of his family where he went every day. His uncle had known, but Lord Winterbourne was good at keeping secrets. He had kept the secret of her true identity from Anthony back then, intuiting that she hadn’t wanted Anthony to know. Imogen hadn’t even needed to ask.
The young lady smiled at her. “My name is Violet.”
“Violet, this is to be my first Season as well. Perhaps you and I should stick close to one another—perhaps that would make things easier for both of us.”
“I’d like to have a friend,” Violet agreed. “That would help matters.”
Imogen couldn’t help wondering what she was doing. By befriending Anthony’s sister, wasn’t she allowing Anthony back into her life?
But she couldn’t help sympathizing with the young lady. Violet was lovely, and yet she seemed just as anxious and insecure as Imogen felt when faced with the idea of showing herself to London society. She wondered what someone so pretty had to feel so nervous about, but no doubt Violet had her reasons, and Imogen wouldn’t question them.
She stuck by her new friend, discussing fabrics and patterns, until she saw Anthony appear outside the shop window. She wasn’t ready for him to see her. “Excuse me,” she murmured and faded toward the back of the shop.
No doubt Violet wondered what her sudden disappearance was about, but she had no chance to ask. Anthony had entered the shop, and now Imogen was crouching down, hiding like a thief, not only from him, but from Violet and the modiste as well—any of them might expose her, and she couldn’t bear it.
There was a brief conversation between Anthony and Violet, and then the door opened again, and they were gone.
Imogen straightened up, her heart pounding.
She loved the idea of having a friend at her side this Season, and she was already very fond of Violet. But could she do it if it meant seeing Anthony again? He had hurt her deeply.
What was more—she had to admit it to herself—she knew she had hurt him too.
“My Dear Enemy, the Earl” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Lady Imogen Hilton has always felt overshadowed by her dazzling sisters, resigning herself to a life of solitude. Yet, as fate would have it, her debut in London society is approaching, and she dreads every moment of it. Little did she know that her journey would lead her to confront a figure from her past, forcing her to face old secrets and buried emotions. With an unexpected turn of events, Imogen’s world is about to be turned upside down…
Can she let go of old wounds and allow love to rewrite her story?
Anthony Crawford, a young man seeking to savor life before succumbing to the chains of marriage, is uninterested in the obligations of society. Yet, when he realizes that his sister has formed a friendship with a lady he harbors deep mistrust for, he is compelled to confront his own complicated history. As he becomes entangled with Imogen once more, memories of a once cherished friendship, shattered by betrayal and lies, resurface…
Can forgiveness and love triumph over long-held resentments?
Imogen and Anthony will ultimately find themselves entangled in an unforeseen complication, one that transcends their personal misgivings – the unexpected romance blooming between their parents. While devising a risky plan to keep them apart, they must also fight against their own growing affection for each other. Will they be able to accept that their hearts have found solace in the most unexpected place or will they be torn apart by dark external forces?
“My Dear Enemy, the Earl” is a historical romance novel of approximately 60,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.