Bennet Kelmarsh is a gentleman by his actions, but not his birth, and he believes his origins are securely hidden behind the veneer of wealth and gentility he has developed. Rebecca Valence was born a lady, but as a victim of a careless aristocratic upbringing, she rebelled. Her rebellion was both immoral and unacceptable to society.
An orphaned child brings them together. Little Maudie Fairmile needs Rebecca's help, and she requires the assistance of Bennet Kelmarsh as well. More than that, it becomes clear Maudie needs a home. In attempting to resolve Maudie's problems, both Rebecca and Bennet fall in love with the child. And then, they fall in love with each other.
But it seems clear to them both that their past lives prohibit any future happiness. They try to protect each other from harm by denying their mutual attraction, and their love, and they determine to go their separate ways. They each wish to care for the child, however, and that desire drives them further apart. She may be the only child either of them will ever have.
There is no solution which will satisfy everyone; a choice has to be made, no matter how much--or who--it hurts. Maudie's future and her happiness are at risk. Someone must make a great sacrifice...
It soon became apparent, to Bennet and the rest of the company, that Miss Finedon had not invited Miss Valence out of the goodness of her heart. From somewhere, probably one of her much-famed correspondents, she had obtained information about Rebecca and she was going to share it with the neighbourhood, one hint at a time.
"My friends in London tell me you are well-known there, Miss Valence," she began, her narrow face alight with malicious glee.
Kelmarsh had to grant that Rebecca looked to be alert and wary, more than her hostess' match.
"As well as any member of the ton is known, Miss Finedon," she drawled in response, straightening imperceptibly. "I am better known in Brighton, where I own a house."
Bennet accepted a chair beside Phoebe Brockhurst, but conversation in the chamber had largely expired. All attention was upon Miss Finedon and Miss Valence. It was rather, he thought, like waiting for a mill to begin.
"And your brother, Lord Valence? He is a man-about-town, I understand." Lettice Finedon's tone indicated that what she had heard of Lord Valence was all to his detriment.
"Unless my brother is mightily changed, which I must admit is not impossible as I left England thirteen months ago, he is a devoted husband with a loving wife and a burgeoning nursery. I have not met my niece, but I believe, from my brother's letters that she is an astonishingly brilliant child."
She invited the laughter of the assembled parents over this typical exaggeration of a loving father. There was a hint of anxiety in the laughter; the company seemed powerless to stop Miss Finedon's interrogation.
"Is Almack's as delightful a place as we, here in the country, have heard, Miss Valence? Do you attend there frequently?" The lady purred her questions with ill-concealed malice.
"As I have been abroad for more than a year, I cannot say that I attend Almack's with any frequency, Miss Finedon." Rebecca's small jest raised a ripple of amusement. She appeared to recognize that her hostess would not be satisfied with her response. "Before my departure, the lady patronesses and I agreed to disagree upon several issues of etiquette. I am not enamoured of the place."
Miss Finedon seemed delighted with that admission, and continued her examination. "I believe you are well-acquainted with a duke, Miss Valence?" she asked.
"I am acquainted with several dukes, Miss Finedon; I might claim friendship with one or two. Are you referring to one in particular?"
Kelmarsh noted that Miss Finedon was reluctant to make her aspersion so definite, and momentarily did not speak.
"I once had the honour of being introduced to the Duke of Cambridge," Cyril Drayton said, unable, apparently, to resist the opportunity to puff his consequence. No one responded to the sally and so he was forced to subside.
Miss Finedon had rallied her attack. Finally she said, "The Duke of Wellsbourne?"
A less observant person might not have noticed Rebecca's slender fingers tighten on her fan or her lush, rosy lips thin, but Bennet did. There were undercurrents here that they might all regret.
"I am acquainted with him, yes. Whether I can claim intimate knowledge of the gentleman is another matter." She carried the attack into the enemy's camp, obviously at the end of her patience. "Is it of importance to you?"
Kelmarsh could only admire her tactic, though his own curiosity was aroused by mention of this duke.
Miss Finedon sputtered over the question. Sir George took a step forward clearing his throat.
Before he could speak, Mrs. Gedding came to the rescue of the entire party. "I believe I met Wellsbourne once," she said brightly. "At the home of my grandmama." Everyone present knew that Mrs. Gedding's grandmother was a lady of some substance, though the rector's wife never paraded the fact. "I thought him a handsome man, high in the instep as one might expect, and very proud, but conversable."
"I cannot better that description," Rebecca commented. "I have lived a typical life in the beau monde, Miss Finedon. Is there anything further you wish to know? The number of my household? The name of my modiste? My physician?"