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"Katherine O'Neal is the queen of romantic adventure."
--Affaire de Coeur
On the boat to England, Mylene had learned her role. She was to play an English orphan who'd lost her parents in an Irish uprising and, for want of any relations, had been shipped home to an English orphanage. The story would explain Mylene's knowledge of Dublin. But more, it was calculated to stir the embers of Lord Stanley's heart. He was the staunchest opposition Parliament had to Irish Home Rule. That Mylene's parents had been killed by Irish rabble rousers garnered his instant sympathy. He'd taken her in at first glance, and formally adopted her within the year.
In the beginning, Mylene had been flabbergasted by her surroundings. She wasn't certain she could perform such an extended role without giving herself away. The luxurious lifestyle, the formalities and graces, proved matters of extreme discomfort. To be awakened in the warmth of her plush canopied bed with a cup of steaming cocoa embarrassed her as much as being waited on hand and foot. But soon enough, James--the driver who secretly worked for their cause--had passed along her assignment. She was to use her position to discover the scandalous secrets of Lord Stanley's friends and associates. Buoyed by the sense of purpose, she'd thrown herself into her task with relish, becoming accomplished at subterfuge in no time.
What she hadn't counted on was growing to love Lord Stanley. Ireland, and her old life, began to seem like the dream.
"How fares the Countess?" he asked, thinking she'd gone to visit a friend.
"Well enough, I think, for all that her confinement makes her edgy."
"Well, it's all to a good purpose, as she'll see when the baby comes. But tell me, my dear, did her happy state have its effect? I shouldn't mind a grandchild of my own before too much time."
"The very thing we were discussing when you came in," announced his companion.
Mylene turned and looked at Roger Helmsley. He was a dashing gentleman of thirty years, tall with dark brown hair and a fetching pencil-thin mustache. He wore his evening clothes with negligent ease, secure in his wealth and position. He was Lord Stanley's compatriot in Parliament, the driving force behind the Irish opposition.
"Lord Helmsley has been pressing his suit," explained her father. "He informs me, with the most dejected of countenances, that he's asked for your hand on three separate occasions. Yet he says you stall him with pretty smiles."
"She's a coy one, my lord," said Roger, coming to take both her hands in his. "I daresay some of your own impeccable diplomacy has rubbed off on your daughter."
"Is this a conspiracy?" she laughed. "Is a girl not to be allowed her say?"
"If you'd say anything at all, I might bear up. But this blasted silence on the subject...Come, my sweet. What must an old bachelor like myself do to entice the heart of such a fair maiden?"
Roger was looking at her with a glow of appreciation that to this day made her flush with wonder. At twenty-two, Mylene had blossomed under the Earl's care. The rich food from his table had transformed the scrawny street urchin into a woman with enticing curves. Her breasts were full, her hips ripe and rounded, her legs nicely lean and defined from hours in the saddle and long walks through Hyde Park. Her skin, once so sallow, glowed with rosy health. Even her riotous curls glistened with rich abundance. Her pouty mouth was legendary among the swells of Marlboro House. Her clothes were fashioned by the best dressmakers in London, giving her a regal, polished air--if one didn't look too closely at the impish scattering of freckles across her nose. But when she looked in the mirror, she always gave a start of surprise. She thought of herself still as the ill-nourished orphan without so much as a last name.
It was partly this quest for a family of her own that had her considering Roger's proposal. He was an affable and decent man who, on their outings, had displayed a freewheeling sense of the absurd that had brought an element of fun to her sadly serious life. His wealth, good looks, and charm were the talk of mothers with marriageable daughters. And if his politics appalled her, she'd learned long ago from Lord Stanley that a man could hold differing, even dangerous political views, and still be the kindest of men. Admittedly, the challenge intrigued her. As his wife, she could perhaps influence him to take a more liberal stance.
"You see how she avoids me," Roger complained in a melodramatic tone.
There was a knock on the door before the panels were slid open by Jensen, the all-too-proper majordomo who'd been in the service of Lord Stanley's grandfather. "Excuse the intrusion, my lord, but a gentleman caller awaits your pleasure without."
"A caller?" asked Lord Stanley. "At this hour?"
"His card, my lord."
Lord Stanley took the card. "Good gracious. Lord Whitney. Send him in, Jensen, by all means."
When Jensen left with a stiff bow, Roger asked, "A jest perhaps? A visit from the grave?"
"No, no, my good man. Not old Lord Whitney. It's his son. I'd heard on his father's death that he was on his way. Been in India with his mother since he was a lad. As you know, the climate agreed with her, and she refused to return when her husband's service was at an end. Kept the boy with her. We haven't seen the scamp since he was but a babe."
"Well, well, this is news! It's our duty, then, to set him straight right from the start. Curry his favor, so to speak. We shouldn't want the influence he's inherited to go the wrong way."
"He's his father's son. He'll see our way of things, I'll warrant."
Mylene knew what this meant. Old Lord Whitney, while ill and with one foot in the grave, had nevertheless roused himself to Parliament in his wheelchair to lambaste, in his raspy voice, the MPs who favored Ireland's pleas. Lord Stanley, she knew, was counting on the son to take up the cause. It meant another evening of feeling her hackles rise as the gentlemen discussed new ways to squelch the Irish rebellion.
She kept her lashes lowered, cautioning herself to silence, as the gentleman stepped into the room and the doors were closed behind him.
Lord Stanley greeted him. "Lord Whitney, what a pleasant surprise. I'd planned to call on you myself, as soon as I'd heard you'd arrived. May I express my condolences for your father's passing. He was a distinguished gentleman, and a true friend. I assure you, he shall be missed by all."
Mylene felt the gentleman give a gracious bow.
"Allow me to present my good friend, Lord Helmsley. You'll be seeing a great deal of each other, I don't doubt."
The men shook hands.
"And this, sir, is my daughter, Mylene. Lord Whitney, from India."
Mylene set her face in courteous lines. But when she glanced up, the smile of welcome froze on her face. It was Johnny!