To Marry A Marquess (A Regency Romance), страница 1
TO MARRY A MARQUESS
Copyright © Teresa McCarthy, 2004
All rights reserved
First published in print by Signet, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., August 2004
EBook, July 2012, Teresa McCarthy
Cover Art, LFD Designs For Authors
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored, copied, or transmitted without the prior written permission of the copyright owner.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Lady Victoria, daughter to the late Earl of Wendover, sank into the leather chair beside the rosewood writing desk, gripping her aunt's accounting ledger in her hands.
No, this couldn't be true.
An uneasy chill spread down her back as she flipped through the marked pages of credits and debits. The expenditures of the past year were all itemized. Invoices and bills were totaled. Family jewels and silver had been sold. The quaint cottage in Yorkshire had been mortgaged. Taxes were due in two months.
Debts and more debts. The columns showed continuous losses. It was all there for her to read.
"Oh, Aunt Phoebe." Victoria slouched forward, tucked a strand of mahogany hair behind her ear, and closed her eyes in anguish.
Leaning her elbow on the desk, she brought a shaky hand to her brow, breathing in the bouquet of lavender that still lingered in the air. It was Phoebe's scent. Her aunt must have left the library only minutes ago.
Victoria swallowed past the lump in her throat and opened her eyes, turning back to today's date. The numbers in the right-hand column of the page were smudged with fresh tears.
Sickened, Victoria shifted a blank gaze toward the library window. A moaning wind blew hard about Hanover Square, sending dust and grime swirling in the air, mimicking the tumultuous emotions clouding her mind. The trees outside the Chester townhouse resisted against the mighty force of nature, but they eventually bowed, not able to combat the storm hovering in the distance.
Wiping a hand across her eyes, Victoria turned her attention back to the ledger. The storm would come. It was inevitable. Her wonderful aunt would be all but penniless in a few months. Victoria's chest tightened in dread at the thought of Phoebe in debtor's prison.
No, her heart answered with a stab of pain. Not Phoebe. Not the lady who had been her guardian angel, taking her in at the age of twelve, as if she were her very own child, after Victoria's parents had died.
Victoria's lips trembled and her nose started to sting. She had never planned on peeking at her aunt's books, but curiosity had taken hold of her like a demon in the night. One minute she was fiddling inside the crammed drawer, searching for an ink well and an extra quill for William, her aunt's six-year-old son, and the next minute she was staring at the accounting ledger that had literally fallen into her lap. Impulsively, she had opened the book without ever thinking that she would be invading her aunt's private domain.
It had been wrong of her to look in the book, but she was glad she had done it. Aunt Phoebe, her father's sister, was all that was good. Beautiful, poised, and without a hateful bone in her body, Phoebe moved about London, conveying such an easy grace that once she had actually caught the Prince Regent's eye at a masquerade ball.
After that episode, Victoria vividly remembered Uncle Henry refusing to be present at anything the Regent was attending, unless it was ordered by royal decree. And if Henry did not attend, Phoebe refused to go either.
No, Henry Chester had loved Aunt Phoebe with an all-consuming passion, and she had loved him back. When Henry died, Phoebe had been heartbroken, but she moved on, trying to make a good life for Victoria, William, and Sarah, Phoebe's niece on Henry's side.
Sarah had been orphaned as well, but her parents died when she was but two. Unlike Victoria, Sarah, now eighteen, had never remembered her parents.
Though Victoria remembered her uncle fondly, it didn't change the fact that Henry had never been good with money. He drank a little too much at the gaming tables, losing enormous sums, and ventured into madcap plans of becoming rich, only to lose much of his fortune in a scheme gone awry. He meant well, but he wasn't good at keeping or making money.
Mentally tallying the columns, Victoria realized Uncle Henry had been punting on the River Tick when he died two years ago, and it seemed poor Phoebe had been selling off everything to her name just to keep afloat.
Oh, Uncle Henry. Not you, too.
Victoria had learned that trusting a man with one's future always bordered on trouble, and that is why she meant to choose her own road in life. Her father had failed her by dying and leaving her with nothing, and even dear Uncle Henry had failed Phoebe, Sarah, William, and her by his irresponsible behavior.
No, trust of the male gender was not something that came easy to Victoria. She tried to suppress the anger that curled inside her at the men whom she loved and had abused that trust. In truth, she felt stretched like a violin string, ready to snap in two, if she let one more male decide her fate.
"Vicki, where is the ink? I have been waiting a very long time. Almost a hundred hours!"
Victoria jumped at the sound of William's voice. She turned her gaze toward the doors where the boy hurried into the room. His play sword, a long wooden replica, swung at his side while yellow curls bounced playfully about his face.
She fought the ache in her throat and flipped the ledger closed, trying to control the trembling within her. What would happen to Sarah and little William if funds did not arrive in time to pay the debts? What would become of Phoebe? What would become of them all?
"Botheration! Vicki, are you listening to me? I've been waiting in my chambers for... forever! You were going to show me how to draw a pirate ship. 'Member?"
Victoria smiled. "Of course, I remember, silly. I was looking for extra ink." She reached toward the back of the jammed drawer and pulled out the ink and quill, easing the accounting ledger back into place. "There, all set."
William peeked over the edge of the desk. "Are you hiding treasures in there, me princess?"
Victoria threw a hand to her breast. "Oh, no, Captain. I would never hide treasures from you."
William jumped on top of a nearby wing chair and sliced his sword through the air. "Never fear. I will fight all the pirates on the high seas and save you! Your treasures are safe with me!"
Victoria chuckled and rendered the boy her deepest curtsy. "I am in your debt, sir. What do you ask of me?"
William took a flying leap onto the Aubusson rug, then puffed out his chest like a preening peacock. "You must show me how to draw a pirate ship!"
"I will, Captain. You have my solemn word."
The sword swooshed through the air. "Very well. Let us begin at once, me princess. And don't worry about the pirates. I will protect you with my life! Let us be off before the villains find us."
When William's small hand slipped across her palm in such a trusting grip, Victoria's heart turned, and she knew without a doubt that she would protect this boy with her life.
"I think a pirate with a skull on his flag is a good idea, don't you think, Vicki? We could put that in the drawing, huh?"
"Anything you like, me Captain."
"I will have the bestest ship in the whole wide world when I am grown. Did you know that?" William looked up expectantly, his innocent
Victoria smiled at the twinkling blues eyes glancing up at her. "Of course. The bestest ship for the bestest captain, me Captain."
The boy laughed.
Victoria's heart squeezed. She would never let this boy go hungry. Never! She owed her family all the security they had given her when she had come to them a fearful and penniless twelve-year-old. Her parents had left her nothing, but it had mattered not to Phoebe or Uncle Henry.
Victoria had been with Phoebe for more than nine wonderful years, and she would never change a minute of it.
"Do you think we could have another ship, Vicki? One with a good captain?"
"We must have two ships, or we would not have a fight between good and evil."
"But good always wins, right, Vicki?"
"Yes, William," she paused, "good always wins in the end."
At that moment Victoria promised herself that Aunt Phoebe, Sarah, and William would always have a decent home. They would never be hungry or want for anything. Never. As long as she had breath within her, Victoria would do what she had to do in order to see that her family was kept safe and secure.
"Confound it!" Jonathan Gorick Kingston, the Marquess of Drakefield, hurled the Times to the floor, his black brows slamming together in disgust. Drake, as his friends knew him, gave his butler another blasting glance of disbelief.
Stanby, the bearer of the ghastly news, bowed his bald head in agony, stuffing one of his hands, which were double the size of the average man's, against his breast. "I have it from a most reliable source, my lord."
Drake paced the drawing room of his London townhouse, his Hessian boots digging into the Aubusson rug with every angry step. A lock of jet-black hair fell from his queue as he wiped a tense hand across his face, pinching his right forefinger and thumb to the bridge of his nose.
"I cannot believe it. Nightham would have said something to me."
"My lord, if you don't mind me saying so, sometimes a man in love does stupid things."
Drake's jaw clenched. A man who thinks he is in love, that is. "But the man is not in love, Stanby. I tell you, I would have known. Nightham may have a secretive streak, but this does not signify at all!"
Orderly? He slapped his free hand against the nearby wing chair. His friend's entire situation was inconceivable.
With another curse, Drake snapped the pocket watch closed. Order was the key to life. Order and predictability. And now Nightham had done the exact opposite. Blast the man!
"Devil take it, Stanby. I need a drink."
"My lord." Stanby gave his employer a curt nod, handing him the ready glass of brandy. "Heard it from Crotchet, Lord Fairbury's cook, who heard it from the groom, who heard it from Lord Nightham's groom, who is no longer his groom by the way, who heard it from—"
"Yes, yes." Drake downed the amber liquid in one long swallow, raising a stiff hand in the air. "Plain, old-fashion gossip line to be precise. Always a reliable source."
"Quite right, my lord."
Drake frowned as he turned toward the hearth. "There's no plausible reason for Nightham to marry by special license, and especially to a penniless female. He saw what happened to me."
Stanby stood by, his expression worried. "I do have his direction, my lord. Only a few hours ride, I believe."
Drake turned, thrusting a stiff hand through his blue-black hair. "Indeed? Then have the grays brought about immediately. Seems I won't be going to my grandmother's after all. I'll talk some sense into that idiot, even though it pains me to do so. But talking to the man won't do any good if Nightham is already married."
"Very good, my lord." Taking one last worried look at his master, Stanby departed from the room.
Drake clanked his brandy glass on top of the rosewood table behind him, refilling his drink. The beating of the nearby mantel clock mimicked the ticking of his brain where chaos and confusion had swiftly replaced all thoughts of regulation and order.
Marriage to a pauper?
He slowly sipped his second glass, gripping the mantel with his free hand. Nightham's decision was like a knife to his heart.
Old wounds began to open again, bleeding him of the defensive armor he had built up over the years. He was determined not to let the same thing happen to his friend that had happened to himself. The union of a penniless woman and a wealthy earl like Nightham would only bring trouble.
But the loss of one's coin would be the least of Nightham's worries. Drake instantly recalled the pangs of humiliation he suffered only a few years ago. A conniving, treacherous woman marrying for money could change a man's life forever.
When Honoria died, Drake vowed never to marry a poor woman again. It might kill him next time or squeeze every drop of blood out of his heart, and to him, that was certain death. At a score and seven, he was too young to die.
Drake lifted his head, pushing his emotions to the back of his mind as his four-year-old daughter burst through the doors of the drawing room. "Come here, Margueretta."
"Papa!" The girl flew into his arms like a well-aimed cannon-ball. "You thaid that later you would give me a horthy ride."
The high-pitched voice carried a soft lisp that turned Drake's heart. He loved this child more than life itself.
Dressed in a pink and white striped robe that flowed about her small form like an angel, she gave him a kiss on the cheek. Her skin was as white as alabaster, and smelled of fresh rose petals from her bath. Silky, ebony hair spilled down her back in a cascade of rolling waves. Two chocolate brown eyes looked up at him expectantly. "Are you going to be my horthy, Papa? Are you?"
"A horsy?" Drake's smile widened as he swung his daughter into the air. "I suppose I can squeeze in a horsy ride for my favorite girl, especially since you will be returning to Grandmama's house today."
His grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Glenshire, relished her time with Margueretta as much as Drake did.
Drake gave his daughter a ride on his back and let out enough neighs to make the fiercest of stallions take a step back.
Margueretta laughed, rolling on the floor beside him. "Grandmama promithed me a cuthtard pie!"
"A custard pie?" Drake stopped abruptly, raising his black brows in mocked outrage. "She is giving you my favorite pie?"
Margueretta's laugh became a hysterical giggle, her warm hands clapping against his face. "Oh, Papa, you are tho thilly."
The shadows across Drake's heart momentarily disappeared.
Drake stood and pulled Margueretta onto his hip, turning his gaze toward Nanna, Margueretta's nursemaid, who peeked into the room, a smile on her face. He nodded, giving the older lady his permission to take his daughter.
"Here now, Lady Margueretta," the lady continued, "we will travel to see Her Grace today. You need to be dressed, child. You don't want to keep your father waiting."
Drake frowned as he let his child slip to the floor. "My plans have changed. I won't be able to go with you right away."
Margueretta's dark gaze met his with a pleading look. "But I want you to come with me, Papa. Pleeeeeathe."
Drake's stomach knotted with guilt. He brushed a hand through her silky waves. "Wish I could, poppet. But I need to help a friend. I'll meet up with you at Percy Hall later. You must listen to Nanna and hurry so as not to disappoint Grandmama."
"Oh," his daughter said, looking down at her pink toes. "Your friend needth you very bad then?"
The word friend sounded more like fwend from Margueretta's lips, and Drake bit back a smile. He knelt down in front of his daughter and tilted her face to meet his. "Very bad, indeed. But the next time I see you, I shall bring you a special gift. What say you to that?
The smile she sent him pierced straight through his heart. "A thpecial gift?" she asked, her eyes wide with excitement.
He grinned. "Very special."
"Margueretta," Nanna called softly.
Margueretta flew into her father's arms and gave him one last hug.
Drake swallowed hard as black, wavy tresses disappeared up the stairs. Though his late wife had scourged his heart, he had always kept a hidden place for his daughter, a corner of his heart set aside only for her. For Margueretta's sake, he vowed to marry a woman who would not have money matters on her mind.
If luck were with him, in his marriage of convenience, he would have an heir as well. To marry for love was for fools. But respect was a different thing altogether. His new wife would not come to the marriage a pauper, and with money of no consequence, there would be no question of her loyalty.
Drake dropped his gaze to the crumpled Times resting beside his boots. Confound it. He would stop that marriage between Nightham and that pauper. He would go as far as to offer a good amount of coin to the woman if she would agree never to see Nightham again. He would make her a generous offer, or he would make her life miserable.
Biting back a curse, Drake flipped open his pocket watch, snapped it closed, and swallowed the raging emotions clogging his throat. Maybe he could still reach Nightham in time.
Lady Victoria descended Lord Nightham's carriage, not able to dismiss the dull ache of foreboding that crept along her spine. The sky was overcast, and a cool breeze swept through the village. Spirals of mahogany hair whipped against her face, and she shakily pushed them away.
The entire escapade had been a secret from the very start. Not even her family knew what she was doing. But there was no time to feel sorry for herself. Nothing would change the fact that she was about to enter into a marriage of convenience.
She managed a tremulous smile as Charles Millington, the second Earl of Nightham, took her gloved hand in a possessive grip and led her toward the Boxing Boar Inn at the edge of the village.
"No need to worry, Victoria. This marriage will suit us both."
Lord Nightham was a handsome man with a hard-muscled frame, golden blond hair, and devilish blue eyes that seemed to hold a host of secrets. If she didn't know better, she would have thought he had known all about her dire circumstances before she had told him the truth.