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Authors: Jane Goodger

The Spinster Bride

BOOK: The Spinster Bride
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Matchmaker, Matchmaker
Marjorie waved her hand. “Blackmail, extortion. I daresay, what's the difference as long as my mother doesn't know about it? How exciting this shall be. Clandestine meetings. Romance. I really should be paying you,” Marjorie said with an impish grin. Mr. Norris's expression was so startled, Marjorie laughed again.
“You have no idea how utterly dreary the life of a spinster can be,” she said. “I want to travel, to see the world, to have adventures. Do you know, the only place I've ever been is to Paris and for the sole purpose of being fitted for gowns? A spinster's life is tedious.”
“Lady Marjorie, if you don't mind my saying so, you are not the picture of any spinster I have ever seen.”
“Nevertheless, I am at the age when most young women are married.”
“How old would that be, ma'am?”
“Twenty-three.”
Mr. Norris raised one eyebrow. “Indeed. Perhaps, whilst we are looking for a wife for me, we might find a husband for you.”
More historical romance from Jane Goodger
Marry Christmas
A Christmas Scandal
A Christmas Waltz
When a Duke Says I Do
The Mad Lord's Daughter
When a Lord Needs a Lady
The Spinster Bride
JANE GOODGER
LYRICAL PRESS
Kensington Publishing Corp.
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
This book is dedicated to everyone who urged me to keep writing. Thank you.
Chapter 1
M
arjorie Penwhistle came to the startling realization, on the fifth of May in the year of our Lord eighteen hundred seventy-four, that she was destined to be a spinster. That she was, in fact,
already
a spinster.
She had been overlooked.
As she stood in the ballroom next to her mother, she noticed an odd phenomenon. All the young swains who used to hover around her were now hovering around Miss Lavinia Crawford. Marjorie was, by London society standards, quite old to not be married. At twenty-three (and very nearly twenty-four), she was, of course, still lovely, but there were lovelier—and younger—women, fresh to the marriage market, full of laughter and life while Marjorie had to admit she was a bit . . . jaded.
“Miss Crawford seems to be drawing quite a crowd,” she said to her mother. One look told Marjorie that her mother had noted the same thing.
With eyes narrowed, Dorothea Penwhistle, Lady Summerfield, said, “They'll stop flocking around her once she opens her mouth to speak. I have never heard such a high-pitched screeching sound come out of a young lady's mouth.”
Marjorie chuckled and her mother looked pleased by her reaction. Miss Crawford did, indeed, have a voice normally found in a ten-year-old child, but, despite her mother's comment, the young men by her side didn't seem at all bothered by it. Marjorie pressed her lips together, earning a sharp look from her mother. She forcibly relaxed her mouth, turning it up into a pleasant smile meant to convey both confidence and feminine charm. It was a smile she'd practiced in front of the mirror any number of times, with her mother by her side offering suggestions.
Marjorie had been the rather miraculous product of two exceedingly homely people. Her long-dead father (some said her mother had killed the man with one of her lethal looks) had been short, fat, and balding, with a bulbous, cratered nose and plump lips. His one pleasant feature, deep gray eyes rimmed with blue, Marjorie had inherited. Dorothea had been his perfect match—a sturdy, square-jawed woman with iron gray hair (even in her late twenties), and small brown eyes dominated by strong, thick eyebrows that needed trimming once a week.
Marjorie was slightly taller than her father and her mother, and had been blessed with a lovely face, thick dark curls, and a trim, feminine figure that, until this season, had attracted a large bevy of suitors. She knew her lack of beaus perhaps had as much to do with her age as the fact she'd rejected nearly everyone who had approached her. The pool of suitable men was rapidly dwindling, thanks not only to her pickiness, but also to her mother's insistence that she marry only a title. It was quite known among the
ton
that unless one had a lofty title (a mere baron would never do—at least not until this point) one did not approach Lady Marjorie Penwhistle and ask for even as much as a dance. If Marjorie were honest, she'd enjoyed her discerning reputation the first two years after coming out, but was weary of it now. She wondered if her mother were even aware that Marjorie was no longer the belle of the season.
“She's rather like a delicate canary surrounded by hungry cats,” Marjorie said of Lavinia in her mother's ear, gaining her a grin.
It was easy to please her mother. Marjorie need only breathe to make her mother happy. She knew her mother believed Marjorie was the product of her own hard work, a piece of art to proudly be put on display. Marjorie loved her mother dearly, but often found herself disliking her. The burden of always being the good child, the beautiful one, the charming and special one, grew tiresome. If she were the golden child, her poor brother George was the pariah. George, with all his wonderful imperfections, bitterly embarrassed their mother. Sweet George, who didn't have a mean bone in his lanky body, was the object of Lady Summerfield's scorn. And so, as much as Marjorie loved her mother, she disliked her, too. Disliked the way she treated her beloved brother, the way her eyes turned cold when he walked into a room.
 
Something was off about the young man sitting across the card table, but Charles couldn't quite put his finger on it. It was more than his unruly and rather horrifyingly red hair or the strangely intense way he was looking at his cards. The young man, who could be no more than twenty years of age, kept losing—mostly to him. And yet, his expression never altered, even when his older friend lost. He didn't sweat or swear. He didn't engage in any of the banter the others exchanged after a disastrous hand, the kind of verbal volley that was meant to announce to the others that losing five hundred pounds in a single hand was merely a drop in the bucket. It looked as if he didn't truly care whether he won or not.
And Charles had yet to meet a man who truly didn't care.
Hand after hand, the young man stared at the table or at his cards as they were dealt to him. He played poorly, mostly because he never looked around him, didn't bother trying to see if his mates were telegraphing the kinds of cards they held. Sir Robert, for example, would pull at his untamed eyebrows when he had a particularly poor hand, and sit stock-still when he had a very good one. Lord Hefford would clear his throat when he was a bit excited about his hand; Lord Pendergast would slouch. And the young man's friend (he couldn't recall his name even though they'd been introduced) tugged on his collar when his hand was particularly bad. Their tells were easy to pick up if one were actually looking.
But the young man had no tells, for his expression never varied. Charles knew this because he stared at the young man hand after hand, watched his eyes darting over his cards. He knew how to play, that was certain. He bid well when he had a bidding hand. But because he didn't look around, he had no idea what the other men held. And that's how Charles won hand after hand, until the young man realized, much to his surprise apparently, that he'd accrued a debt of nearly twenty-five thousand pounds. It was an enormous sum. A devastating one. And yet . . . surprise was as far as it went when the men were finished and the damage totaled, as if the young man had taken a bite of something that looked sweet and found that instead it tasted sour. Such a curious reaction.
Charles knew very few men—particularly young ones—who would not have vomited after losing such a stunning amount of money. Or started to weep. Instead, the young man said with resignation, “Oh, dear. Mother will be very angry.”
The game broke up and Charles eyed the young man carefully. He'd heard of men taking drastic measures after losing such a sum, and he hardly wanted to feel guilty after the fellow committed suicide. Charles pulled him aside so as not to humiliate the fellow.
“Sir, do you need time to settle your debt?” he asked the younger man. Charles studied his face for any signs of distress. There were none.
“I lost a total of twenty-four thousand, five hundred and seventy-five pounds,” the young man said, bobbing his head slightly in cadence to his words. “I owe
you
twenty-four thousand, five hundred and thirty-two pounds. I have thirteen thousand, two hundred and twenty-two pounds in my account at Baring's.”
Charles grimaced. “So, you do need time.”
“I need eleven thousand three hundred and ten pounds in order to make good on my debt to you.”
“Of course.” Charles furrowed his brow. Something wasn't quite right. The man obviously was intelligent enough to do high figures in his head, but it was the manner in which he was speaking that told Charles that he was a bit of an odd duck. “And do you have that amount?”
“No.” That word was said with the same inflection one might use to refuse a drink of water.
“Allow me to introduce myself. I am Mr. Charles Norris.” The man continued to stare just off to Charles's right side, not meeting his eyes, though he did dart him a look or two. The young man held out his hand and the two shook.
“I am George Penwhistle, Earl of Summerfield.”
Charles's brows shot up and he took a moment to consider. “Your sister is Lady Marjorie?” He remembered meeting Lady Marjorie and her bulldog of a mother at a house party last fall. Lady Marjorie's name, which had appeared on his list of potential brides, had a large and definitive “X” by it. Her mother not only frightened him, but she also insisted with a ferocity he'd never seen—and that was quite the statement—that her daughter only marry a titled man. Alas, Charles, a second son of a viscount with a brother who already had three strapping male children, was quite far down the list of heirs.
George smiled for the first time. “Marjorie is my older sister,” he said enthusiastically. “She is two years, nine months, and two days older than I.”
“I see.” Charles was beginning to see very clearly, indeed. Though the man demonstrated keen intelligence, something wasn't quite right. Charles hadn't been back in England long enough to be privy to all the gossip, but now that he thought about it, his fellow card players had seemed a bit reticent about welcoming Summerfield to their table. He could not take money from this man, for he obviously didn't have all his wits about him.
“I'll tell you what, Lord Summerfield. I'll forgive your debt if you do me one favor. Wait here.”
Five minutes later, when Charles returned with a sealed envelope, Summerfield was standing precisely where he'd left him. He fleetingly wondered how long the young man would have stood there if he hadn't returned. “Give this to your sister, will you? It is a matter of vital importance.”
 
Marjorie wished her brother were here. Instead, he was out with their cousin, Jeffrey, a nice enough chap if you liked sullen men who constantly complained of their lack of funds. Ironically, the two were playing cards at their club. Marjorie gazed around the room, then halted when she saw the familiar shock of her brother's bright red hair. Next to her, her mother stiffened, and Marjorie's stomach twisted, to see the object of her thoughts walking toward them.
“Good God, he's not even dressed,” Dorothea said with horror.
“He's dressed, dear Mother, just not properly.” Marjorie gave George an affectionate smile. He was wearing an informal suit with a bright green vest and mustard-yellow cravat. His hair, never truly tamed, was particularly messy, as if he'd been out in a windstorm.
Marjorie left her mother's side to intercept him and lead him away from their parent. “I wasn't expecting you this evening, George,” she said, looping her arm affectionately around one of his. “And from your dress, I don't believe you were, either.”
“Mother is going to be so angry, Marjorie,” George said, swallowing thickly. He sounded frightened to death.
Marjorie felt the blood drain from her head, and she pulled him into a hall for even more privacy and to get away from her mother's prying eyes. “What's happened, George?”
“I like playing cards at school. I'm good at it, too. I almost always win because I know what cards there are. I keep track of what's left, you see.”
“You gamble, George?” Marjorie asked, dreading what was to come.
“Only for a few pence at school. But I went to the club—it's Wednesday, you know.”
Yes, Marjorie knew what day it was and also knew that on every Wednesday George went to his club without fail. However, she'd never known him to join a card game.
“I saw Lord Hefford and Lord Pendergast and asked if I could join their game. A Mr. Norris was there, too.”
“Charles Norris?” Marjorie asked, with the feeling of dread growing. She'd met Charles Norris during a house party. The boisterous Mr. Norris had briefly pursued her dear friend Katherine Wright, now the Countess of Avonleigh.
“Yes. Charles Norris. He won a lot of money from me.”
Marjorie could feel sweat forming along her hairline as her trepidation grew. Surely Mr. Norris would not take money from George. Then again, perhaps he hadn't noticed that her brother was slightly . . . off. Oh, she adored George, but she worried about him in social situations. He was brilliant researching law, which was why he was a solicitor, but he'd never be an effective barrister. He was, to say the least, awkward. “How much money did he win, George?”
“Twenty-four thousand, five hundred and thirty-two pounds.”
What little blood was left in her head drained away and Marjorie actually swayed. “Oh,
no
, George.” She knew it wasn't the loss of money that was the most important thing, it was that
George
had lost the money. If it had been Marjorie, her mother would have forgiven it, would have even laughed at her daughter's silly folly. But this was George and he would never be forgiven. It was simply another flaw that would never be overlooked, another reason for her mother to claim he was not worthy of the title. How many times had her mother said aloud that she wished she could petition the House of Lords to remove his title? Even Lady Summerfield knew that was a nearly impossible task. But losing such a sum? It would simply add fodder to her claims of incompetence. Poor George would not fare well in any public hearing.
“It's all right, Margie. He said he'd forgive the debt. He gave me this note to deliver to you.”
The relief she felt was nearly as strong as the fear she'd experienced just moments before. Perhaps Mr. Norris was a good, fair man who realized George likely didn't understand the enormity of what he'd done.
Marjorie took the note, suspecting it was simply an explanation of the evening's events.
Please meet me at my townhouse 25 Bury St. immediately so that we may negotiate the terms of the dissolution of your brother's debt.
Yrs.
Charles Norris
The dread came back in force. Immediately? It was nearly one in the morning. She couldn't possibly . . .
BOOK: The Spinster Bride
2.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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