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by Kieran Kramer

Genre: Regency Period, England, Historical Romance

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In a proper English drawing room on Clifford Street in London's Mayfair district, Lady Poppy Smith-Barnes, daughter of the widowed Earl of Derby, threw down the newspaper and stood up on shaky legs. Finally, the secret passion she'd been carrying around with her for almost six years would have its day in the sun.

"He's here," she announced to Aunt Charlotte. "Sergei's in England."

She could hardly believe it. She'd resigned herself to being a Spinster--she was in good company, after all. But now…in a matter of a moment, everything had changed.

Her prince had arrived.

Aunt Charlotte, tiny in her voluminous, outmoded gown, stopped her knitting. "Are you sure?"

Poppy found the paper again and put it under her aunt's nose. "He and his sister are touring with their uncle's last portrait and unveiling it for the very first time here in London. They intend to enjoy the social whirl while they're visiting, of course."

"Oh, Poppy!" Aunt Charlotte's eyes were a bright, mischievous blue above her spectacles, and her powdered white wig sat slightly askew on her head.  "He's the only man on earth who could coax you out of the Spinsters Club."

"Indeed, he is." She hurried to the front window and looked out, expecting something to be different.  But the day appeared like any other day. She knew, however, that it wasn't. It was special.

Sergei--the perfect boy, and now the perfect man--was in Town.

She spun around to her aunt. "Do you think he'll remember me? It's been six long years. I was fifteen. We had only a week. It seems a lifetime ago."

"How could he forget you?"

She shrugged. "So much has happened to him. He's been traveling, he was in the military--I kept up with him as best I could through the papers. I'm afraid…I'm afraid he'll see me at a ball and walk right by me."

Aunt Charlotte laughed. "No one walks right by you, dear. Not with that fiery hair of yours. Or that mischievous grin. You're an impudent thing, you know. Just like me. He'll notice you, all right."

Poppy went to her and squeezed her hand. "But I've got to get through Eversly's proposal first. I'm dreading it, Aunt, more than any other offer I've ever had. He's such an amiable sort."

Aunt Charlotte calmly resumed her knitting. "Yes, he is. But you must stay true to yourself.  He'll survive the turn-down, and you will, too. It's not as if you haven't had a great deal of practice."

Eversly was due to arrive within the hour, and his would be the twelfth marriage proposal Poppy had turned down in the three years she'd been out. Two of those offers had rather predictably taken place during the fireworks at Vauxhall. Another two had transpired at Rotten Row in Hyde Park at the fashionable hour, both times while she'd sat astride docile mares (Papa wouldn't let her take out the prime-goers). One proposal had taken place in front of a portrait of a spouting whale at the British Museum at eleven in the morning and two more at the conclusion of routs that had dragged on until dawn. One had transpired in the buffet line at a Venetian breakfast after she'd overfilled her plate with wedges of lemon tart to make up for the dull company, two had occurred in her drawing room over cold cups of tea--tepid because her suitors had posed on so long about themselves--and one had taken place, inexplicably, at a haberdashery, where she'd gone to buy buttons for Papa's favorite hunting coat.

Two barons, a baronet, three viscounts, four earls (one of them only nine-years-old at the time), and one marquess had proposed to her. Two had had large ears. Five had had small eyes. Three had smelled of brandy, and one had lost his breeches in a fountain. One had been missing his front teeth (and it hadn't been the boy).

Stay calm, she told herself. More than ever, you have a reason to say no to Eversly.

As the clock ticked closer toward the earl's arrival, Aunt Charlotte kissed her on the cheek and left the room. Poppy waited another agonizing twenty minutes. Finally, there was a knock at the front door, and she put her newspaper under a pillow. Kettle, Lord Derby's elderly butler, greeted the visitor in his usual sober way.

Poppy stood.

Then she sat.

And then she stood.

Finally, the earl, a veritable Adonis, entered the room. He had gleaming blue eyes, a golden curl on his forehead, and shoulders so broad she should feel weak in the knees.

But her knees stayed firm.