Title: A False Proposal
Author: Pamela Mingle
Genre: Regency Romance
War hero Adam Grey returns home with a burning ambition to run for Parliament. But he needs the support of the local baronet, who controls the seat. Adam’s plans are thwarted by his dissolute father, who has promised him to the baronet’s daughter in return for forgiveness of his debts. Adam wants nothing to do with marriage or his father’s problems, so he fakes an engagement to Cass Linford—his best friend’s sister.
Cass has been through hell since she last saw Adam. Her betrothed committed suicide, forcing her to withdraw from London society. Heartbroken, she’s given up on marriage. So when Adam suggests a temporary engagement, she agrees. He needs help with his campaign, and Cass can’t resist his charm or the chance to be involved in politics. It all seems so easy, until she finds herself falling in love with her fake fiancé.
After Willis departed, Cass heard the front door burst open, accompanied by voices. She identified one as belonging to her brother, Jack. But there was a second voice, one she didn't immediately recognize. Botheration! She was tired and not in the mood for company.
Philippa was still in motion when Jack stepped over the threshold, another gentleman in his wake. Taking no notice of where her whirling carried her, and still singing, she spun right into her older brother, who leaned down and hoisted her up into the air.
“Mind where you’re going, scamp!” he said fondly, kissing her cheek before setting her down. She swayed, and the other man grabbed hold of her in time to prevent her from falling. At that moment, Cass had a clear view of him. With a sharp intake of breath, she recognized Adam Grey, a longtime friend of her brother. Of her. An older and more mature looking Adam, to be sure, but it was unmistakably he. Suddenly, everything seemed out of balance.
She had not seen Adam in four years. Not since the evening of the Sheffield ball, during her first season. She would never forget it. Cass could, without any difficulty at all, conjure up a memory of how he’d looked that night, so handsome in black and white evening clothes. His slow, appreciative grin when he’d seen her in her finery, as if she’d made his heart beat a little faster. It was the first time he had looked at her in quite that way. She had idolized him since their childhood, when they’d spent summers together on their neighboring estates. But in the middle of the ball, she had wandered down a darkened hallway by mistake and came upon him in the act of seducing a young lady. Fondling her breasts, to be precise. Mortified, Cass had been rooted to the spot. Adam had harshly ordered her to go back from wherever she’d come and never speak of this to anyone. Sadly, she had concluded that he must be a rake. Not a man to admire. Her girlish dreams had died that night.
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Cass sensed rather than heard the door opening and raised her head. Blast! Couldn’t she be left alone for five minutes? It was probably Jack or Cousin Louisa coming to make sure she was all right. With the back of her hand, she brushed away the tears brimming over her eyelids and tracing a path down her cheeks.
“Well done, Cassie. Excellent set-down.”
But no, it was Adam, making his way toward her.
Hastily, she swiveled and set her feet on the floor. “I imagine it flew right over her head.”
She started to rise, but he reached out a hand and gently touched her shoulder. “Don’t. Are you all right?” He looked down at her, his brow furrowed, and Cass’s heart surged, knowing he was worried about her.
“Thank you, yes. The news was a shock, that is all.”
“You’re lying. I can see you’ve been weeping.” His voice was soft, concerned.
Oh, no. His attentions were welcome, but she didn’t want him to see her crying. It seemed so weak. “Only a little.” She thought about the wisdom of confiding in Adam, drew a deep breath, and plunged in. She wanted to trust him. “For the first year, I thought about Bentley’s death every day. I no longer do so. But with the news about Perceval…the memory of that awful night came roaring back. The fear. The chaos afterward…it was like Bedlam. For a moment, when you told us about Perceval, I felt as though I could hear the gunshot, see the blood, all over again.”
“My dear Cass, don’t torment yourself.” He sat down next to her and reached for her hands, and she allowed him to take them. “I would never have said what I did upon meeting you again…seeing you for the first time after so long, had I known. It was unforgivable.”
“Oh, don’t speak of it. I was rude to you as well. Perhaps we both got what we deserved.”
“You will not let this drive you back into hiding, will you?”
Smiling regretfully, she said, “It was easy enough to withdraw from society once, and I can surely do it again, if I must.”
He tightened his grip on her hands. “No! You must not think of doing that.”
She was shocked at the vehemence with which he spoke. “Why ever not?”
His eyes gleamed in the firelight. “Because I do not wish you to. Is that a good enough reason?”
And just like that, something changed. Cass wasn’t sure what it was, but she felt a spark ignite in the air between them. Her senses heightened. Every breath felt charged. In the dim light, she couldn’t read his expression. Was he saying that he cared for her? That he would feel the loss if she weren’t present at balls and soirees and parties? Flustered, she stammered out a reply. “I—I suppose so. You are a future MP, and perhaps I will have to bend to your will.”
He chuckled softly, certain she was unaware of the double entendre. “I like the sound of that.”
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“You’ve mentioned to Jack that you wanted to be involved in my election.”
She smiled. “Yes, I did. I do.”
“A special circumstance has arisen. As it turns out, you are the only person who can help me deal with it.”
Odd that she could be the “only person.” Now her curiosity was piqued, more than it had been initially. “Go on.”
Adam seemed to hesitate. He’d dropped his gaze to the rubble on the floor, and the silence stretched out.
Did he need her encouragement? “If it’s my advice you want, I shall be glad to give it.”
He looked up and directly at her. “Dearest Cass, it is not your advice I need, precisely.”
He was stalling. After years of dealing with a younger sibling, she was able to wait a long time if necessary, though little doubts began to assail her. What could be so difficult to ask of her?
Adam picked up a small fragment of rubble from the floor and rubbed his thumb across its uneven edges. Finally, he looked at her. “On my way here I visited my father. It was the first day of the house party, the day you and I came upon each other walking.”
“Oh?” She remembered how preoccupied he’d seemed.
“I had not seen him in several years. As you know, we are estranged. But I thought if I were to stand for election, I would need to sort things out with him, at least to some degree.” Adam moved toward her, stopping finally and putting his hands behind his back.
Cass wasn’t sure if she was meant to respond, but when he did not immediately continue, she said, “And how did you find him?”
“Worse than I expected, but you need only concern yourself with the fact that I told him I was betrothed. To you.” He watched her, gauging her reaction.
Cass felt something sink inside her. Was this some kind of monstrous joke? Perhaps she had misunderstood, or hadn’t heard him correctly. “I beg your pardon?”
“Let me be perfectly clear. My father is in debt up to his ears, and the person who holds his vowels and mortgages is Sir William Broxton. He as much as promised the man that I would offer for his daughter in exchange for his debts being forgiven. I told my father I was engaged to you so that he would not press me to wed Miss Broxton.”
“To me,” Cass repeated dumbly. “Why didn’t you simply refuse to do it instead of lying?”
“I tried to, I even suggested that the girl marry Hugh. Apparently Sir William wants me. I needed an absolutely unimpeachable reason to refuse. I wasn’t about to trade marriage for a seat in Commons, especially since I don’t plan to wed. Ever.”