Read The Marriage Lesson Online

Authors: Victoria Alexander

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General

The Marriage Lesson

BOOK: The Marriage Lesson
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Chapter 1

Spring 1819

“B
last it all, I’m a marquess, not a bloody governess.” Thomas Effington, the Marquess of Helmsley and future Duke of Roxborough, drained the glass of brandy he held in his hand and promptly poured another.

Randall, Viscount Beaumont, studied him over the rim of his own glass. “You’ve mentioned that already this evening. Several times, in fact.”

“It bears repeating.” Thomas sank into a wing chair identical to the one his friend occupied. Both were angled toward the massive oak desk that had well served the previous eight Dukes of Roxborough.

For a moment he considered suggesting they move to the sofa facing the fireplace at the far end of the long Effington House library. In spite of the fine spring day, the evening was cool and the warmth of the fire would be welcome. Still, these chairs were closer to the cabinet that housed his father’s supply of spirits and their proximity was more important than mere creature comfort.

Thomas drew a long, appreciative swallow. There was a great deal of warmth to be had right here. “I ask you, Rand, how can my family possibly expect me to find a bride—their idea, mind you, not mine—if I’m also expected to play nursemaid?”

“I’d scarce call it playing nursemaid. Or perhaps I’ve misunderstood.” Rand glanced wryly at his drink. “It’s entirely possible I’ve overlooked some of the finer details of your dilemma.”

“It’s quite simple.” Thomas heaved a heartfelt sigh and launched into a recitation he thought he’d already given at least once tonight, although at the moment he was not entirely certain. “Last year my sister, Gillian, married Richard, the Earl of Shelbrooke. You know him, don’t you?”

“I know
of
him.”

“He promised his three youngest sisters—they’ve been raised in the country—a season in London, with all the stuff and nonsense such a thing entails to women. My mother—”

“Ah, yes, the Duchess of Roxborough,” Rand said, “and a woman not to be trifled with, if rumor serves.”

“None of the Effington women are to be trifled with. From my grandmother to my youngest cousins, they are stubborn and opinionated to the last.” Thomas glared at his glass. “My mother had planned to take Richard’s sisters under her wing personally and had gone so far as to arrange for a come-out ball for them. It seems my sister was something of a disappointment to her when she married her first husband after only one season. It was all my mother could do to keep from drooling at the very thought of steering not one but three young women through the rigors of a first
season. And as an added bonus, I’d finally agreed to seriously look for a bride.” He narrowed his eyes. “She was quite beside herself with glee at the thought of it all.”

Rand snorted with ill-concealed amusement.

Thomas slumped deeper in his chair. “Unfortunately, my parents are no longer in England, and I’ve been forced into the temporary role of head of the family, with all the accompanying headaches and responsibilities.”

“Pity. Are you up to it?”

“When it comes to handling estate concerns or family business or my own financial affairs, for that matter, I haven’t a worry. Effington men may well spend their nights in questionable pursuits, but we are remarkably competent when it comes to the maintenance and increase of the family fortune. Runs in the blood.” He grinned and raised his glass in a salute. “Even my more disreputable ancestors didn’t squander whatever wealth they’d stolen.”

Rand laughed and lifted his glass. “To the Effington ancestors, then.” He took a sip. “A shame the Beaumonts can’t say the same. Now, where have the duke and duchess gone?”

“America.” Thomas grimaced. “Richard and Gillian inherited a great deal of property in that godforsaken land and for some absurd reason wanted to see it in person. While there, Richard had the nerve to get her with child.”

“Damned inconsiderate of him.”

“I thought so. And he calls himself my friend.” Thomas pulled a long sip and considered the events of the last year. He’d been delighted when his dearest
friend had fallen in love with his sister. And no one could have been more pleased than Thomas when the couple had been the beneficiary of a substantial inheritance. Now, however, he did wish Richard’s timing had been better. “When my mother learned of Gillian’s state, not more than a month ago, she insisted on going to be with her rather than having Gillian risk the voyage home. First grandchild, and all that.”

“And the duke went with her?”

Thomas nodded. “He’s never been to America and apparently has a much more adventurous streak than I’d ever credited him with.”

“Bad piece of luck there. Still, correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought England was riddled with Effing-tons. Surely there’s some other relation, preferably female, who can shepherd these girls around for the season?”

“One would think, but this year they all seem to have scattered to the four corners of the earth. One branch of the family is hanging about old ruins somewhere—Greece, I believe. Richard’s oldest sister and her husband are in Paris, and everyone else in the family is too taken up with their own affairs to lend any assistance whatsoever. In short, old man, I’m trapped. Saddled with the responsibility of launching three girls onto the choppy seas of society.” Thomas blew a long breath. “As well as fulfilling a promise to find a bride of my own this season.”

“What on earth possessed you?”

“Oh, the usual reasons,” Thomas said grimly. “I’m three and thirty. My father, my mother and even my sister delight in pointing out to me the need to provide an heir.”

“Any prospects?”

“Not as of yet, but I do know what I want in a wife.” He rested his head against the back of the chair and gazed toward the ceiling. “I want a woman who will be biddable and soft-spoken. A woman to whom I will be the moon and the stars. Who will acquiesce to my desires and not challenge my decisions.”

Rand laughed. “In short, you want the complete opposite of the Effington women.”

“Exactly.”

“And how will you find such a paragon?”

“I don’t know at the moment but it shouldn’t be too difficult. Effington women are the exception not the rule. And while Effington men have always managed to keep them well in hand, I have no desire to spend the rest of my days in a battle of wills and wits. Still,” he drained his brandy and got to his feet, “it’s going to be bloody difficult to pursue anyone at all if I have to spend all my time watching over Richard’s sisters.” He stepped to the cabinet, grabbed the liquor decanter and returned to his seat. “In all good conscience, I have no choice. I received a letter from Richard last week in which he expressed every confidence that I would safeguard his sisters as he would. He said he was relieved they would be in my capable hands. And he thanked me for my efforts.”

“You’re right. You are trapped.” Rand held out his glass and Thomas obligingly refilled it. “When do they arrive?”

“Oh, they’ve been here for a fortnight now.” He filled his own glass, placed the decanter within easy reach on the table between them and took a healthy swallow.

“Really?” Rand raised a brow. “Yet I’ve seen you every night for at least that long at Whites or some other establishment. They don’t seem to be much of a hindrance thus far.”

“I’ve simply become quite adept at avoiding them. It hasn’t been all that difficult during the day. They’ve been exceedingly busy with fittings and shopping and dancing lessons and God knows what else. They came complete with a chaperone, an iron-willed curmudgeon of an aunt. An extremely unpleasant, dragonlike creature who glares at me as if I were a well-known seducer of innocent young women.” He shuddered. “That alone is reason enough to stay out of their paths.

“However, the ball my mother arranged is in three days’ time. She even procured vouchers for Almacks for them.”

Rand winced. “My sympathies. Still, if you are to pursue a bride of your own, wouldn’t you be doing all this anyway?”

“No doubt, but at least I would be unfettered. So . . . ” Thomas studied him for a moment, wondering if Rand had consumed enough liquor to be amenable to his proposal or if Thomas should add another dollop of brandy to his glass. “I have come up with a plan.”

“Oh?”

“The true purpose of any season is to find a good match. Richard has provided his sisters with impressive dowries, and it shouldn’t be all that difficult to find acceptable husbands. Quickly and with a minimum of fuss.”

“Perhaps.” Rand took a thoughtful sip and consid
ered him carefully. “Unless, of course, they’re as ugly as toads.”

“Oh, they’re not. Not at all,” Thomas said quickly. “I have met them, although admittedly briefly, but all three are quite lovely.

“The oldest—her name is Merry-something, I believe—is a bit of a bluestocking, but still very attractive, even if she is nearly two and twenty. Rather unruly blond hair, and I think her eyes are blue behind her spectacles. I understand she’s quite intelligent.”

“No problem marrying off that one. There’s quite a demand on the marriage mart for bespectacled, aging, intelligent bluestockings,” Rand said wryly.

Thomas ignored him. “The next—I don’t recall her name, either—is the prettiest of the lot and bound to be considered a diamond of the first water. The youngest is lovely as well. An excellent rider, I hear. Very fond of horses and the country. And Rand”—he forced a note of enthusiasm to his voice—“she has a dog. A great furry beast of an animal any man would be proud to own. She brought him with her.”

“Good for her.” Rand’s brow furrowed in suspicion. “Why are you telling me all this?”

“I was thinking, they haven’t been introduced to society yet and at this point”—Thomas leaned forward—“you could have your pick of any of them.”

“My
pick
?” Rand said slowly.

“Yes, your choice.”

“Are you mad? What would I want with any of them?”

“Come, now, Rand,” Thomas said in a placating tone. “Isn’t it time
you
found yourself a wife? We are of
a similar age and you, too, have the responsibility to provide an heir.”

“I don’t want a wife right now, thank you all the same.” Mild amusement sounded in Rand’s voice.

“Well, none of us really
wants
a wife, now, do we?” Thomas reached for the decanter to top off Rand’s glass, but his friend waved him off. Pity. The man definitely needed more to drink. “But the time comes when we must live up to our responsibilities.”

“Your time, perhaps, but not mine.” Rand downed the rest of his drink, placed his glass beside the decanter and got to his feet. “However, it is past time for me to take my leave.”

Thomas stood. “You disappoint me, Rand. I thought we were friends.”

“We’re not that close.” Rand started for the door.

“If the situation were reversed, I’d happily marry one of them to help you,” Thomas said staunchly and followed him, goblet still in hand.

Rand laughed. “Even you don’t believe that.”

“I knew I wouldn’t be able to convince you. Still, I thought it was worth a try.” Thomas heaved a sigh of resignation. “The very least you can do is help me find matches for them.”

“As much as I would be willing to assist you, or at a minimum watch what will surely be a most entertaining endeavor, that, too, I must decline.” Rand reached the door and pulled it open. “I’m afraid I’ve been called away and probably won’t be back in London for some time. I could well miss the season altogether. You, old chap, are on your own.”

    *    *    *

“Are you certain you wouldn’t at least like to meet them?” The marquess’s hopeful voice echoed in the room.

Marianne Shelton stared at his distorted reflection in the brass andirons flanking the fireplace and choked back yet another of no less than a dozen scathing comments she’d thought of in the last few minutes.

Helmsley and his friend—she never did get a good look at him—left the room and the door closed firmly in their wake.

She breathed a long sigh of relief and stretched. Her cramped position on the sofa hadn’t been uncomfortable when she’d reclined here to page through a book. She’d only come to the library at this late hour to find something interesting to read. She’d had no intention of staying, but she’d dozed off, only to awaken when Helmsley and his friend had come in. When she’d realized they had no idea of her presence, and further discovered exactly what they were discussing, she’d taken care not to move so much as a single muscle. She sat up, slid her glasses back to the bridge of her nose and rubbed the nape of her neck.

What an insufferable creature this marquess was. Speaking of her and her sisters as if they were nothing more than inconveniences to be disposed of as quickly as possible. It certainly wasn’t their idea to inflict themselves on him. No, in point of fact his mother was to blame.

The original arrangement had been for Marianne, Jocelyn, Becky and Aunt Louella to reside with Richard and Gillian. But when the couple could not return for the season, and Aunt Louella had threatened
to cancel their trip altogether, the duchess had written insisting they all stay at Effington House. Her Grace had even anticipated Aunt Louella’s objections that it might well be considered improper for unmarried young women to stay under the same roof as a single gentleman, pointing out it was an exceeding large roof with a small army of servants who provided no lack of chaperones. She further noted they were all more or less family at any rate and what could be more appropriate, indeed, expected, than for family to stay with family?

BOOK: The Marriage Lesson
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