An Earl for the desperate bride (Regency Romance) (Regency Tales Book 1)

BOOK: An Earl for the desperate bride (Regency Romance) (Regency Tales Book 1)
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Copyright © Regina Darcy 2016

 

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher and writer except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

 

This is a contemporary work of fiction. All characters, names, places and events are the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously.

             

For queries, comments or feedback please use the following contact details:

 

reginadarcy.cleanandwholesomeromance.com

info@cleanandwholesomeromance

 

 

CHAPTER 1

 

“I could be a governess! I speak French, I paint watercolours, I play the pianoforte—you know that Lady Darden said I play beautifully—I could be a governess. I’d rather be a governess and earn my own living than marry His Lordship,” Miss Eliza Stanton exclaimed.

“What silly chit of a girl would be a governess when she has the opportunity to become a viscountess? You have no idea what you are saying. No daughter of mine is going to become a mere governess,” Lady Stanton answered matter-of-factly, brooking no disobedience from her daughter who was entirely too impudent.

Eliza stared at her mother, her blue eyes stormy with outrage and fear. Lord and Lady Stanton were well known among the Mayfair
ton
, but until this summer, Eliza had been left to stay with the servants at the Stanton country home during the Season. She was neither used to their presence or their attentions.

Her brother Harry had been at Oxford until recently. He had been sent home over some scandal, the details of which no one would disclose to Eliza; he, too, had taken up residence in London. Eliza was not sure what he did in London, but she supposed that, the card game,
baccarat chemin-de-fer
featured prominently in his activities. All gentlemen gambled; this much Eliza knew. Whether Harry won or lost, she did not know.

What she did know was that, less than a year ago, the portrait that Sir Joshua Reynolds had done of the renowned Marchioness Charlotte Stanton had been taken down from the drawing room wall and replaced with seascapes. She suspected that gambling losses were to blame for the loss of Lady Stanton’s oil paint, but as the earlier matriarch had a haughty, hot-tempered look to her, Eliza found the seascapes more soothing. Something was afoot in the household.

Taking a deep breath she tried to reason with her mother again.

“If being a viscountess means marrying that repulsive, odious man, it’s the far better option!” Eliza declared.

“Nonsense. You will marry the Viscount of Savile and that’s the end of it. Your father and I agree, and besides Lord Savile has graciously agreed that you will move into Savile House this week in order to become accustomed to your new station in life.”

“You’re sending me away? To live there? Before marriage?” Marriage was bad enough, but to reside under the same roof as a man who was not her husband was unthinkable. The gossip would be rampant. Her name would be a byword for scandal. She had never been to London before and now that she had finally arrived, she would become a subject of speculation.

“Lord Sevile’s sister lives there and she is a more than respectable chaperone,” Lady Stanton replied. Her eyes did not meet her daughter’s indignant gaze. “It’s well known that you are a virtuous girl; no talk will attach itself to you. Lord Savile is most satisfied with your innocence, and he—”

“He has had three wives who died!” Eliza cried out. “I should think they preferred death to marriage.”

“Don’t be insolent, Eliza. His wives died in childbirth. It’s very natural for a man of Lord Sevile’s standing to want an heir, and as a young girl of unblemished reputation, you are naturally a very desirable choice of a wife for him.”

“What if I die also? Will that matter a farthing or will his search simply continue for another girl to bear the heir?”

“You’re a healthy girl, you’ve been brought up in the country. You will bear healthy children. Lord Savile is confident that you will make an excellent wife. Of course, he will be your guide, as you are young and unschooled in Society,” her mother replied. With a frown she continued, “You must learn to be docile, Eliza; gentlemen do not like their wives to scold them. You must remember that Lord Savile is the head of the household and you must heed his word. You will promise to obey him; that is a sacred vow and must not be broken. Now, you must write a note to His Lordship thanking him for the honour he has bestowed upon you. There isn’t time for a trousseau, but His Lordship has most kindly agreed that he will provide you with a wardrobe fitting your station as the Viscountess of Sevile.”

“I can’t believe that you would cast me off as if I were of no more account than a servant. Less, rather, for you would at least give a servant a reference.”

“That,” Lady Stanton said tartly, “entirely depends on the servant.”

Surely, this marriage is not about money?
Before she had time to complete her though, Lady Stanton dismissed her.

“Go and send that note to His Lordship, Eliza. He expects you to demonstrate your gratitude to him for choosing you to be his wife.”

“I don’t feel grateful in the least. I feel as if I’m being sold off at a matrimonial auction!” Eliza said bitterly, letting an angry voice conceal the tears, which she felt welling up in her eyes.

“Do not say such vulgar things! Really, Eliza, I marvel at your tongue. I assumed that you were well looked after but now I begin to wonder if you have been in the company of servants who have failed to recognize their status in the household.”

Eliza knew that a footman and a housemaid had recently been dismissed from the Stanton country home. Their work had been satisfactory, but Eliza had overheard Harding, the butler, telling them, when he delivered the news that their services were no longer needed in the household, that regrettably, there were no funds to pay them their wages.

“What will you do? Give that as an excuse for not paying their wages, and then dismiss them?”

Her mother’s hand cracked across Eliza’s cheek. Lady Stanton’s lip trembled. She had never struck her daughter before. “Go, Eliza!” she ordered, sounding as if she were close to tears herself. “Write that note. It must be delivered today, do you understand?”

The imprint of her mother’s hand was clearly marked in red upon Eliza’s cheek. “I understand very well,” she said, her voice low. Without another word, she turned on her heels and left the morning room.

 

 

 

CHAPTER 2

 

But she did not go to her room. Instead, she headed to the stables. Holding back her tears, she was able to say in an imperious voice, “Stephen, please saddle Marquessa for me; I wish to ride.”

The oldest of the stable hands, Stephen Croft, who had been grooming the horses, met her eyes. “Yes, Miss,” he said, immediately moving to Marquessa’s stall, while the other grooms made way.

Once Marquessa was saddled, Stephen helped Eliza mount her mare. He saddled Waterloo, a stallion, and followed her as she galloped out of the stable.

Stephen followed her at a discreet distance until they had left the bustling streets behind them. The members of
Le
Beau Monde
who rode out in the park, in a singular effort to be seen by someone of importance, would not be heading their way. In this area the crowded streets receded into quieter byways, where one could gallop across the green, summer landscape without unwelcome encounters with members of the
ton
. Eliza hadn’t realized how much she missed the country until she awakened every day to the City of London’s elaborate maze of streets and sounds.

This was not the first time that Eliza and Stephen had met here. He was newly in the employ of the Stanton family but it hadn’t taken long for a lonely girl in London, for whom riding was her only solace, to find a sympathetic ally in the groom who had been assigned by Lady Stanton to ensure that Miss Eliza never went out in public unattended.

Lady Stanton did not realize that what had developed between her daughter and the stable hand was not quite what she had intended. Stephen Croft was clean and respectful; he almost, Lady Stanton thought, had breeding and looks, although of course that was impossible. Stable-boys didn’t have breeding. They had simply been fortunate in hiring him before he’d sought employment elsewhere. As for looks, well, doubtless some store attendant would catch his eye, eventually, they’d marry and breed the way the lower classes did. It was none of her concern, and Lady Stanton, once the hiring was done, didn’t give it another thought. It should have been Lord Stanton who took on the stable lads, now that the Steward had been let go, but His Lordship was rarely out of bed before noon.

“Who struck you?” Stephen asked, his voice low as always, but with an edge to it that Eliza didn’t recall hearing before.

Eliza touched her hand to her face. “My mother,” she said.

There was a grove of trees behind a stone wall that was falling into disrepair, a remnant of a long-ago past when London had known other masters besides the lords of industry and commerce. Eliza had found the spot early on, the first time she had gone riding with Stephen in accompaniment. Now it was their destination.

They dismounted and sat down on the wall, their horses in front of them, concealing them from view while allowing them to remain respectably in public sight, should anyone pass by. Occasionally a farmhand, walking stick in hand, ambled by, or a stout, ruddy matron, her parcels in her arms from her shopping trip into the city, but this spot was not a throughway for travel.

Eliza told Stephen what had transpired earlier and the tears, which she had been able to hold back, spilled from her eyes. Stephen, mindful of his place, did not transgress the boundary of his station, but his dark brown eyes expressed his thoughts, comforting Eliza as if he had offered her a shoulder to cry on instead of merely a clean white handkerchief.

“It’s monstrous!” she exclaimed, finding it easier to give way to anger than to succumb to tears. “My mother must know that Lord Savile is a vile man, and yet she thinks it perfectly acceptable for me to marry him. But if I were to tell her that my affections lay elsewhere, that I loved someone who was not of high birth, someone like—“

Abruptly she stopped, halting her speech before her tongue exposed what her heart had only recently acknowledged.

“Someone like?” Stephen prompted, his voice as soft-pitched as ever, but with the underlying strength that she sensed was a true barometer of what he was as a man: not merely a servant, obliged to do the bidding of others, but a person who was more than his station in life. “Someone like who? Look at me.”

She lifted her tear-stained face to his. “I can’t marry him, Stephen, I simply cannot. My mother doesn’t understand.”

“Someone like who?”

“Stephen, please—”

“Do you not want to marry Lord Savile because you find him repugnant, or do you object to marriage because you have feelings for someone else?”

“I certainly wouldn’t want to marry him in any circumstance!” she declared, taking refuge in the easy response rather than the one which made her vulnerable.

“Answer me.”

He was the servant, she was the young lady of the house, but it was Stephen who commanded the conversation. She wondered how a groom could possess such poise. Not for the first time, she considered the mystery of Stephen Croft. Could he be some nobleman’s illegitimate son? His very speech was cultivated. He carried himself with such presence that the other grooms deferred to him. It seemed an eternity since he had entered their household. But it had only been a few weeks, shortly after she had arrived in London. Now he seemed an integral part of her life. She wasn’t certain why it was so easy to speak candidly with Stephen when she and her mother seemed to have no common ground on which to converse. She only knew that he was unlike anyone she had ever met, and that the prospect of marriage, intimacy, and daily contact with Lord Sevile, with his arrogance and disdain for anyone whose wealth failed to match his, was utterly unbearable.

Lord Savile had, upon meeting her with her parents at the theatre, studied her with his quizzing glass as if she were something that he had decided to purchase. His small, greedy eyes exploring her hair and skin and frock as if he were itemizing up each individual asset in order to haggle over the price of what she would cost in total.

Her blue eyes, honest and forthright, met Stephen’s warm brown gaze. He was staring at her intensely and she realised he was still waiting for a response.

“Someone kind,” she said, choosing her words carefully, wary of saying too much but at the same time, fearful of saying too little. “Someone who values me for who I am, not for—not merely because I am a woman and if I can produce an heir. Someone who is thoughtful and not boastful. Someone I can admire as a husband. Someone who does honest work and has honest pleasures.”

“And do you know such a man?” he asked. His voice took on a different tone, as if he were tentatively teasing her.

“I do,” she replied simply, her heart beating in her chest. In that moment she was sure he would kiss her. But instead he pulled her tenderly towards him and held her in his strong embrace. Shielding them from public eyes, their horses, placidly chewing on grass, formed a wall to protect them.

Stephen broke away first, the look in his eyes unreadable. “Well. How very forward of me—I suppose I should beg your pardon,” he said.

“You certainly should!” Eliza replied, fervently hoping he did not actually regret his actions.

“I—”

He caught sight of her eyes, alight with merriment as the soft, pink rosebud of her mouth attempted unsuccessfully to conceal her smile.

“Eliza,” he said, he murmured in warning.

“Not Miss Eliza?” she asked playfully.

“Miss Eliza,” he continued, grinning. “Miss Eliza, would it be terribly forward of me if I managed to find a position in Lord Sevile’s stable? And if, having procured such a position, if I deigned to further my acquaintance with you? And if, having furthered this acquaintance, if I were able to find an alternative to this misalliance with the odious Lord Sevile, would this be to your satisfaction?”

She nearly asked him how a stable groom knew a word like “
misalliance
” but she refrained from the query. Whatever he was and wasn’t, he was honourable and perhaps proud and she would do nothing to injure that pride, which came from a quality more worthy of merit than any of the golden coins that Lord Savile had acquired.

“I think,” she said demurely, “that if you could indeed obtain such a post, and if you could find an alternative, it would not be forward of you at all. But—oh, Stephen, there’s no time at all. I’m to move into the household this very week.”

“Do not fear,” he said to her. “You’re not his wife yet. I won’t let that happen.”

She wasn’t sure how he could prevent it. But there was a strength and a certainty to Stephen Croft that was unmatched by any of the London fops that she had met since her arrival in the city. Was that courage powerful enough to circumvent the force of her parents’ intentions and Lord Sevile’s desire?

BOOK: An Earl for the desperate bride (Regency Romance) (Regency Tales Book 1)
10.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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