One Tempting Proposal
Accidental Heirs, Book 2
Becoming engaged? Simple. Resisting temptation? Impossible.
Sebastian Fennick, the newest Duke of Wrexford, has always preferred the straightforwardness of mathematics to romantic nonsense. When he meets Lady Katherine Adderly at the first ball of the season, he finds her as alluring as she is disagreeable. His title may now require him to marry, but Sebastian can’t think of anyone less fit to be his wife, even if he can’t get her out of his mind.
After five seasons of snubbing suitors and making small talk, Lady Kitty has seen all the ton has to offer…and she’s not impressed. But when Kitty’s overbearing father demands she must marry before her beloved younger sister can, she proposes a plan to the handsome duke. Kitty’s schemes always seem to backfire, but she knows this one can’t go wrong. After all, she’s not the least bit tempted by Sebastian, is she?
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London, April, 1891
Kitty Adderly straightened her back and planted her feet flat and firm against two enormous pink cabbage roses decorating the Osgood’s drawing room rug. She resisted fidgeting with the ribbon along the skirt of her gown and tried summoning a pleasant expression, though the tremor in her cheek probably meant she’d only managed to transfer a restless quiver to the corner of her mouth.
The gilded timepiece over the mantel had to be broken. Despite the hour it seemed she’d spent perched on the edge of the settee, the clock’s hands insisted only fifteen minutes had passed. Even the vase of sunny daffodils and white narcissus on a table at her elbow failed to inspire any cheer.
Time did tend to move slowly in the Osgood’s drawing room, especially when Cynthia, this week’s hostess of their regular ladies’ gathering, appeared determined to turn afternoon tea into a tedious skirmish. She’d already insulted one lady’s hairstyle, dismissed another’s taste in music, and implied that a third was such an awful dancer that she should consider avoiding the upcoming ball altogether. All of that in a quarter of an hour. She was efficient, if nothing else.
“We’re looking forward to your mother’s ball, Kitty. Wait until you see my gown. My dressmaker is a true artist, and there’s never been a mauve like mine, I assure you.” Cynth’s boast had more to do with claiming a position among Kitty’s circle of friends than with fashion or balls. The leader of their group always chose the color of her gown first.
Any other day, Kitty would put the younger woman in her place, but social ranking, announcing the color of her dress, and being the one to offer the cleverest set down seemed less important with every passing season.
“Shouldn’t Kitty be the first to choose her gown’s color? Her mother is hosting the ball.” Bess Berwick occupied the other half of the couch and spoke low enough that the rest of the ladies at the tea party might not hear her retort.
She was Cynthia’s younger cousin and the newest addition to their group, with a figure as round as her cheeks and a soothing softness in her tone. Kitty assessed Miss Berwick and wondered what it would be like to be soft, to allow herself to be meek and gentle. Would it smooth over her sharp edges? Compared to Bess’s curves, Kitty was all angles. She’d been taught to be steely on the inside too. After a childhood of sickness, her father demanded that she grow up strong.
“What do you know of picking colors, Bess? You’ve chosen a bland white dress for the ball, which no one will even notice.”
Neither the petulance nor the dismissal in Cynthia’s tone surprised Kitty. Cynth had a terrible talent for preying on the weak, and from the day Bess joined their circle, she’d become the main target of her older cousin’s snipes.
Yet Miss Berwick refused to play the game. She offered no set downs, flung no insults, and made it a habit to speak as little as possible. Perhaps she simply waited for her moment, watching and learning from the rest of them.
Kitty knew the power of waiting. She’d waited four seasons while all of her friends rushed into romances and engagements.
If the girl refused to spar, Kitty would join the fray. “I don’t mind you choosing your gown’s shade first, Cynth. Mauve will suit you. Your complexion always benefits from a bit of color.”
Except now, of course, when a rosy stain rushed up their hostess’s cheeks.
“Thank you,” Bess whispered as she lifted her teacup, casting Kitty the quickest of glances.
The girl had much to learn. None of them thanked each other in such circumstances. Bess’s gratitude was a faux pas. Acknowledging a barb or praising a retort opened the door to honesty, and truth was their nemesis. Truth would force each woman to admit the game they played at social gatherings, exposing their false smiles, backbiting whispers, and the art of cutting others to the quick with a few words.
“What color have you chosen for the ball, Kitty?” Cynthia bit out.
Now was her moment. Kitty could upset all of Cynth’s plans. If she chose a rose or pink or any color that might clash with Cynth’s mauve, the young woman would have to relent and chose another gown for the ball. Her father’s title and wealth gave Kitty status in their little group, and her popularity among their circle still exceeded Cynthia’s, despite the younger woman’s attempts to dethrone her.
Yet Kitty couldn’t rally a cool smirk as she held Cynth’s dark gaze.
These battles were ridiculous. Frivolous. Petty. Worst of all, they seemed to form the confines of her life. Explorers were out climbing mountains while great thinkers innovated technological marvels. One American lady journalist had even managed to travel around the world in seventy-two days. Other women, like the members at the Women’s Union meetings Kitty sporadically attended, focused their energies on advancing the cause of women’s voting rights or charitable endeavors.
Now her main task for the day would be deciding whether to smash the plans of one of her dearest and most false friends. Was this her mountain? Were these trifling battles all she had to look forward to during another social season?
The airy, flimsy silliness of it all brought no laughter, only a dizzying queasiness that intensified when she thought of doing this again, and again, for the next several months. The next several years. The rest of her life.
“Not to worry, Cynth. My gown is cream,” Kitty offered, infusing her voice with a reassuring tone she didn’t often employ in this company.
Cynth frowned and pursed her mouth as if she’d accidentally taken a sip of something sour. “Cream? Isn’t that just a muddier version of white?”
“My modiste calls the shade ecru and assures me it is all the rage in Paris.”
Mention of Paris never failed to do the trick, and several ladies nodded approvingly while Cynth sniffed and turned her attention to pouring more tea.
With the gown nonsense settled, Kitty considered raising a more interesting topic. Something that mattered. Any subject that might turn their thoughts to the world beyond the walls of fashionable drawing rooms and ballrooms.
One of the ladies began describing the dress she’d wear to the dance. Then the others began a round-robin, each lady enthusing over the cut and details of her ball gown, while the rest joined in with comments of approval or challenge.
Kitty released the breath she’d been holding on a long sigh, but dizziness blurred the room’s walls whenever she tried to inhale deeply and met the restraint of her corset. She tried again, fighting the confines of laces and stays. If only her emotions were as easily bound as her waist and breasts.
Poise. Decorum. She was the Marquess of Clayborne’s eldest daughter. She’d be his heir if the laws that decreed only men worthy of inheriting were ever overturned. Crumbling in public was not allowed. Her father’s admonitions were always with her, imparted in youth and repeated so often they’d become tattooed in her mind. Never display weakness. Never cry or lose oneself in sentiment. Never let them best you.
Today the energy required to appear flawless—to move with elegance, to smile at the right moment, to fight these silly drawing room battles while being witty and charming and never, ever boring—had all been sapped by a fearsome row with her father.
His shouts still echoed in her ears. Angry words spewed past a sneer that twisted his features until she’d barely recognized him.
She’d been a fool not to anticipate his outburst.
Four years of rejected suitors had worn down the modicum of patience he possessed, and he’d never had much where Kitty was concerned. He insisted this season she must relent and accept an offer.
This season she must give up the freedom of being unmarried and place herself under a man’s control. Or, more accurately, another man’s control. Exchanging her father’s disapproval and admonishments for a husband’s sounded as appealing as spending a lifetime of afternoons sparring with Cynthia Osgood.
He’d called her a disappointment, a cruel daughter, an unnatural woman for her lack of enthusiasm for marriage and children and a settled future.
She swallowed and sat up tall. Not even her father could overturn the poise she’d worked years to perfect, and she couldn’t let her circle of friends glimpse any sign of weakness. The sweet-natured few like Bess might offer comfort, but others would love to see her falter and rush to claim her place in their social circle, or attempt to push her out of the group entirely.
“Are you looking forward to the season, Kitty?” Bess took a bite of scone while waiting for Kitty’s answer.
“There can’t be much to look forward to when it’s your sixth season.” Cynthia had a talent for infusing every sentence with a sting.
“It’s actually my fifth season, Cynth. And I look forward to it as I did all the others.” Which was to say, not much at all.
Dancing could be invigorating, and she enjoyed attending social events to hear the latest gossip and speculate about who would be shackled to whom by the season’s end. But as to the main purpose of the season for every unmarried young woman—the game of being gazed upon and measured for the role of some fop’s wife—that prospect held no appeal. Independence called to Kitty more and more every year as she steeled herself for dozens of visits by overeager and utterly unappealing gentlemen.
“Well, perhaps your fifth season will finally bring you some success.” Cynthia spoke with all the pomposity of a woman who’d “succeeded” in her second season. She’d captured a priggish earl who spent too much time twisting his mustache or patting his ample waistline and far too little time saying anything intelligent or interesting. Their engagement had lasted nearly a year and soon she’d have to commit to the man who held more appeal in prospect than he likely would in reality. Knowing Cynth, she judged him steerable and already plotted ways to manipulate the poor besotted fool for her own gain. Thirty thousand pounds per annum and a title could make almost any man tolerable. She’d become Lady Molstrey, and that’s what mattered most.
“I can only dream of catching a gentleman as charming as yours.” Kitty couldn’t quite manage a grin, as Cynth always did when delivering one of her barely veiled set downs.
Miss Berwick choked on her scone, and a few other ladies tittered behind their teacups. Lord Molstrey wasn’t anyone’s notion of charming.
Cynthia narrowed her eyes. “Yes, well, I doubt you ever will when you chase away every man who offers you a bit of attention.”
Kitty held Cynthia’s gaze as sparks of challenge and disdain electrified the air between them and the other ladies chattered among themselves.
She longed to tell Cynth and the rest of them the truth. A loathing for marriage and the prospect of motherhood had less to do with her reticence to accept a proposal than the men who’d proposed. None of them moved her. None of them inspired trust or desire. None of them gave her any reason to hope that a life spent with them would be any different than living in the glare of her father’s judgments.
Men had been disappointing her since her first season, and she’d been disappointing them in return. Snubbing gentlemen had practically become a skill. She’d turned away countless suitors and refused several offers of marriage.
“Of course, there’s always Lord Ponsonby,” Cynthia purred before reaching for a neatly trimmed triangle of sandwich.
Gasps echoed in the high-ceilinged room and Bess pressed a hand to her mouth to stifle hers.
Lord Molstrey might be a bit of a farce, but Kitty knew precisely what the rest of them thought of Lord Ponsonby. He’d rout Molstrey in a game of wits any day, but the man was old. Half their fathers were younger than Ponsonby, and yet the earl retained enough energy to haunt the London season, his eagerness to find a young bride swamping the air around him like a miasma. He’d served with Kitty’s father in the army, and she had long been his favored candidate to serve as broodmare. He’d all but bribed her father for the honor, but Kitty refused him. Several times. But he was as persistent as a weed, springing up at this ball or that social event when she least expected him.
“Unlike some young women”—Kitty scanned her gaze from face to face before turning to stare at Cynthia Osgood—“I am not eager to marry. Why should I give up my freedom and choices to a man?”
She thought of her sisters, both of whom longed for marriage and motherhood. Why was she different? She’d always imagined having a child one day, but it was impossible to envision being a wife, especially if she found herself married to a man like her father—impossible to please and determined to mold her to his liking.
“There are some worthy gentleman, surely.” Miss Lissman, who was usually content to let her older sister do the speaking at their gatherings, frowned at her declaration, as if she didn’t quite believe it either. “Our cousin married last summer and seems quite blissfully happy,” she added as further evidence of her dubious pronouncement.
“But her husband is a bit of a saint, you must admit. How many of us will snare one of those?” The elder Lissman sister spoke matter-of-factly, but the younger seemed to take the words as chastisement and said nothing more.
“A saint sounds terribly daunting. I think I’d prefer a sinner.” Bess’s soft voice sometimes went unnoticed during a particularly lively discussion, but in the quiet of the room, her words fell like a solemn decree. Cynthia wore a disapproving scowl but the rest of them lifted hands to cover grins or outright smiles. Kitty raised her teacup in a symbolic toast. The girl had the right of it.
After striving to live up to her father’s expectations and forever falling short, the notion of a spending the rest of her life with a saintly man turned her stomach. If she did capitulate to the pressure to marry, it would be to a flawed man. Or, at the very least, one who could love her beyond her own flaws.
She heard laughter echoing in the silence and realized it was her own. What a notion. A man who would love a woman for her flaws. Each woman in the room had been taught to eradicate their flaws, or at least give the appearance they had. Her own mother bought tonics to cover blemishes, salves to soften skin, unctions to make one’s hair glossy, and powder to whiten her teeth. And those only redressed physical flaws. What of the rest? Was there a miracle cure to improve one’s inner flaws, to turn unkind thoughts sunny, to fill the empty spaces in a heart and light up dark corners of doubt? If she could bottle that tonic and sell it, she’d never need any man’s income to sustain her.
As their weekly teatime drew to a close, Bess moved to occupy the empty spot on the settee next to Kitty.
“Are you all right, Kitty? You seem a bit unsettled.”
“I’m well, Bess. Thank you.”
The girl’s query wasn’t an accusation or a warning that her weakness would be used against her. Bess Berwick didn’t seem to possess that sort of malice.
“You’re too sweet.”
And she was. Sweet and naive and kind without expecting anything in return. She feared for anyone so gentle. In this company it was better to be hard, to wear one’s armor, as well as perfecting one’s noncommittal grin. If Bess ever challenged someone like Cynthia, she’d be cut down before she ever saw the scythe.
“I don’t disagree with your notion of independence.” Even when espousing women’s independence, Bess spoke softly. “But what of love?” She waited a beat and turned to watch Cynthia leave the room to see the Lissman sisters off.
When Bess turned back, her delicate features tensed as she whispered, “What of passion?”
Yes, what of passion? Kitty had been waiting to feel it for four seasons. There’d been moments of excitement—the thrill of catching a handsome man’s gaze, the zing of physical attraction when a gentleman took her in his arms before a waltz, and even the heady pleasure of conversing with a clever man interested in topics beyond sports and gentlemanly wagers.
Every spark of intrigue fizzled, and not a single burst of initial enchantment ever grew into a flame. If a man’s attention toward her didn’t quickly wane, her interest in him did. In Kitty’s experience, most men’s appeal lasted the length of one ball or perhaps a single other afternoon social call. If a gentleman didn’t drone on endlessly about himself, he took to telling Kitty what she must do. You must see the new play at Drury Lane. You must go riding with me in Hyde Park tomorrow. You must come see my horse run the Derby.
Few asked her opinions or considered her preferences. Just like her father.
When she found herself unable to wrap four years of disappointment into a few words, Bess nudged her arm.
The girl’s eyes were huge and danced with mischief as she spoke in a low voice meant for secrets and intrigue. “If you have no plans to marry, will you take a lover?”
Apparently Miss Berwick could be as fanciful as she was kind.
Passion. A lover. Kitty couldn’t imagine either when she anticipated a season of struggling with her father to make her own choices.
Cambridgeshire, May, 1891
Slashing the air with a sword was doing nothing to improve Sebastian Fennick’s mood. As he thrust, the needle-thin foil bending and arching through the air and sending tingling reverberations along his hand, he glared across at his opponent, though he doubted she could see any better than he could from behind the tight mesh of her fencing mask.
His sister parried before offering a spot-on riposte of her own, her foil bowing in a perfect semicircle as she struck him.
“Are you making any sort of effort at all?”
Seb bit back the reply burning the tip of his tongue. Fencing was the least of his concerns. In the last month he’d learned of the death of a cousin he’d barely known and inherited the responsibility for one dukedom, three thousand acres of land, hundreds of tenants, twenty-eight staff members, one London residence, and a country house with so many rooms, he was still counting. He could find no competitive pleasure in wielding a lightweight foil when his mind brimmed with repairs, meetings, investments, and invitations to social events that spanned the rest of the calendar year.
And all of it was nothing to the bit of paper in his waistcoat pocket, separated by two layers of fabric from the scar on his chest, dual reminders of what a fool he’d been, how one woman’s lies nearly ended his life.
He wouldn’t open her letter. Instead, he’d take pleasure in burning the damn thing.
Never again. Never would he allow himself to be manipulated as he had been in the past. He had to put the past from his mind altogether.
Fencing wasn’t doing the trick. Give him a proper sword and let him dash it against a tree trunk. Better yet, give him a dragon to slay. That might do quite nicely, but this dance of lunges and feints only made his irritation bubble over.
Yet his sister didn’t deserve his ire, and he’d no wish to stifle her enthusiasm for the newest of her myriad interests.
“I fear fencing and I do not suit, Pippa.” As she returned to en garde position, preparing for another strike, Seb hastened to add, “Nor shall we ever.”
Pippa sagged in disappointment when he reached up to remove his fencing mask. “I’d hoped you might find it invigorating. A pleasant challenge.”
In truth, his mathematical mind found the precision of the sport appealing, and the physical exertion was refreshing. But when he’d inherited the dukedom of Wrexford, Seb left his mathematics career at Cambridge behind. And weren’t there a dozen tasks he should be attending to rather than waving a flexible bit of steel about at his sister?
“Invigorating, yes. Challenging, absolutely. Pleasant? No.”
When he began removing his gloves and unbuttoning the fencing jacket Pippa insisted he purchase, she raised a hand to stop him.
“Wait. We must do this properly.” She approached and offered him her hand as if they were merely fellow sportsmen rather than siblings. “Politeness is an essential element of fencing.”
Seb cleared his throat, infused his baritone with gravitas, and shook his younger sister’s hand. “Well done, Miss Fennick.”
She’d tucked her fencing mask under her sword arm and met his gaze with eyes the same unique shade as their father’s. Along with her dark hair and whiskey brown eyes, Pippa had inherited their patriarch’s love for mathematics and sporting activity of every kind.
“Fine effort, Your Grace.” And father’s compassion too, apparently.
Pippa smiled at him, her disappointment well-hidden or forgotten, and Seb returned the expression. Then her words, the sound of his honorific at the end, settled in his mind. Your Grace. It still sounded odd to his ears.
Seb and his sister had been raised for academic pursuits, children of a mathematician father and a mother with as many accomplishments as her daughter now boasted. Formality, titles, rules—none of it came naturally. The title of Duke of Wrexford had passed to him, but it still rankled and itched, as ill-fitting as the imprisoning fencing mask he’d been relieved to remove.
As they exited the corner of the second ballroom Pippa had set out as her fencing strip, she turned one of her inquisitive glances on him.
“Perhaps you’d prefer boxing, like Grandfather.” Their grandfather had been as well known for his love of pugilism as his architectural designs, and had reputedly been one of Gentleman Jackson’s best pupils.
Taller and broader than many of his classmates, Seb had engaged in his own share of scuffles in youth, and he’d been tempted to settle a few gentlemanly disagreements with his fists, but he never enjoyed fighting with his body as much as sparring with his intellect. Reason. Logic. Those were the weapons a man should bring to a dispute.
“Unless you’re like Oliver and can’t abide the sight of blood.”
It seemed his sister still sparred. Standing on the threshold of Sebastian’s study, Oliver Treadwell lifted his hands, settled them on his hips, and heaved a frustrated sigh.
“I did consider medical school, Pip. I can bear the sight of blood better than most.” Ollie’s eyes widened as he scanned the two of them. “What in heaven’s name is that awful getup you two are wearing?”
Seb didn’t know if it was his lack of enthusiasm for fencing or Ollie’s jibe about their costumes that set her off, but the shock of seeing Pippa lift her foil, breaking a key point of protocol she’d been quite insistent upon—“Never lift a sword when your opponent is unmasked”—blunted the amusement of watching Ollie rear back like a frightened pony.
“Fencing costumes,” she explained through clenched teeth. “I tried instructing Sebastian, though he says the sport doesn’t suit him.” She hadn’t actually touched Ollie with the tip of her foil and quickly lowered it to her side, but the movement failed to ease the tension between them.
Turning back to Seb, she forced an even expression. “I’ll go up and change for luncheon.” She offered Ollie a curt nod as she passed him, her wide fencing skirt fluttering around her ankles. At the door, she grasped the frame and turned back. “And don’t call me Pip. No one calls me that anymore.”
“Goodness. When did she begin loathing me?” Ollie watched the doorway where Pippa exited as if she might reappear to answer his query. “Women are terribly inscrutable, aren’t they?”
Seb thought the entire matter disturbingly clear, but he suspected Pippa would deny her infatuation with Oliver as heatedly as Ollie would argue against the claim. They’d been friends since childhood, and Ollie had been an unofficial member of the Fennick family from the day he’d lost his parents at twelve years old. Seb wasn’t certain when Pippa began viewing Ollie less as a brotherly friend and more as a man worthy of her admiration.
As much as he loved him, Seb secretly prayed his sister’s interest in the young buck would wane. Treadwell had never been the steadiest of fellows, particularly when it came to matters of the heart, and Seb would never allow anyone to hurt Pippa.
“Welcome to Roxbury.” He practiced the words as he spoke them, hoping the oddness of playing host in another man’s home would eventually diminish.
“Thank you. It is grand, is it not? Had you ever visited before?”
“Once, as a young child. I expected it to be less imposing when I saw it again as a man.” It hadn’t been. Not a whit. Upon arriving thirty days prior, he’d stood on the threshold a moment with his mouth agape before taking a step inside.
Seb caught Ollie staring at the ceiling, an extraordinary web of plastered fan-vaulting meant to echo the design in the nave of an abbey the late duke had visited in Bath. Every aspect of Roxbury had been designed with care, and yet to match the whims of each successive duke and duchess. Somehow its hodgepodge of architectural styles blended into a harmonious and impressive whole.
“You mentioned an urgent matter. Trouble in London?” A few years older than his friend, Seb worried about Ollie with the same ever-present paternal concern he felt for his sister.
After trying his hand at philosophy, chemistry, and medicine, Ollie had decided to pursue law and currently studied at the Inner Temple with high hopes of being called to the bar and becoming a barrister within the year.
“No, all is well, but those words don’t begin to describe my bliss.”
Bowing his head, Sebastian closed his eyes a moment and drew in a long breath, expanding his chest as far as the confines of his fencing jacket would allow. It had to be a woman. Another woman. Seb had never known a man as eager to be enamored. Unfortunately, the mysteries of love couldn’t be bound within the elegance of a mathematical equation. If they could, Ollie’s equation would be a simple one. Woman plus beauty equals infatuation. If Ollie’s interest in this woman or that ever bloomed into constancy, Seb could rally a bit happiness for his friend.
Constancy. An image of black hair came to mind with a piercing pain above his brow. How could he advocate that Ollie learn constancy when his own stubborn heart brought him nothing but misery?
“Tell me about her.”
Ollie’s face lit with pleasure. “She’s an angel.”
The last had been “a goddess” and Seb mentally calculated where each designation might rank in the heavenly hierarchy.
“With golden hair and sapphire eyes . . .” Ollie’s loves were always described in the same terms one might use when speaking of a precious relic Mr. Petrie had dug up in Egypt, each of them carved in alabaster, gilded, and bejeweled.
“Slow down, Ollie. Let’s start with her name.”
“Hattie. Harriet, though she says she dislikes Harriet. I think it’s lovely. Isn’t it a beautiful name, really?”
Too preoccupied with unbuttoning himself from his fencing gear, Sebastian didn’t bother offering a response. Ollie rarely had any trouble rambling on without acknowledgment.
“She’s the daughter of a marquess. Clayborne. Perhaps you know him.”
Seb arched both brows and Ollie smiled. “Yes, I know. You’ve only been a duke for the space of a month. Don’t they introduce you to all of the other aristocrats straight away, then?”
A chuckle rumbled up in Seb’s chest, and for a moment the burdens that had piled up since the last duke’s passing slipped away. He laughed with Ollie as they had when they were simpler men, younger, less distracted with love or responsibilities. Seb felt lighter, and he held a smile so long his cheeks began to ache before the laughter ebbed and he addressed the serious matter of Oliver’s pursuit of a marquess’s daughter.
“I think the better question is whether you’ve met Harriet’s father. What are your intentions toward this young woman?”
Ollie ducked his chin and deflated into a chair. “Goodness, Bash, you sound a bit like you’re Hattie’s father.”
Only Ollie called him Bash, claiming he’d earned it for defending him in a fight with a particularly truculent classmate. The nickname reminded him of all their shared battles as children, but if Ollie thought its use would soften him or make him retreat, he was wrong. Ollie needed someone to challenge him, to curb his tendency to rush in without considering the consequences. If he lost interest in this young woman as he had with all the others, a breach-of-promise suit brought by a marquess could ruin Ollie’s burgeoning legal career.
“I intend to marry her.”
“May I ask how long you’ve been acquainted with the young lady?” Mercy, he did sound like a father. As the eldest, he’d always led the way, and with the loss of their parents, Seb had taken on a parental role with his sister too. Pippa might wish to marry one day, and it was his duty to ensure any prospective groom wasn’t a complete and utter reprobate.
“Not all of us fall in love with our childhood friend.” The barb had no doubt been meant to bring Seb’s past heartbreak to mind, but Seb thought of Pippa. Thankfully, she hadn’t heard Ollie’s declaration.
“Indeed. I would merely advise you to take more time and court Lord Clayborne’s daughter properly. Her father will expect no less.”
Even with a properly drawn-out courtship, a marquess would be unlikely to allow his daughter to marry a man who’d yet to become a barrister and may not succeed once he had.
“I must offer for her now. Soon. She’s coming out this season, and I couldn’t bear for another man to snatch her up.”
“You make her sound like a filly at market.”
“Will you come to London and meet her? I know you’ll approve of the match once you’ve met her.”
Seb had already given into the necessity of spending the season in London at Wrexford House. Pippa had no interest in anything in London aside from the Reading Room at the British Museum, but their aristocratic aunt, Lady Stamford, insisted he give his sister a proper coming out. She’d also reminded him that a new duke should meet and be met by others in their slice of society.
“You hardly need my approval, Ollie.”
“I need more than that.”
If he meant money, Seb could help. Cousin Geoffrey and his steward maintained the estate well over the years, investing wisely and spending with restraint. Sebastian had met with the estate’s steward once since arriving at Roxbury and emphasized his desire to match his predecessor’s good fiscal sense.
“We should discuss a settlement of some kind.”
Waving away Seb’s words, Ollie stood and strode to the window, looking out on one of Roxbury’s gardens, perfectly manicured and daubed with color by the first blooms of spring.
Oliver Treadwell had never been a hard man to read. Seb knew him to be intelligent, but he used none of his cleverness for artifice. A changeable man, Ollie blew hot and cold with his passions, but he expressed himself honestly. Now Seb sensed something more. Another emotion undercut the giddiness he’d expressed about his most recent heart’s desire.
His friend seemed to fall into contemplation of the scenery and Sebastian stood to approach, curious about what had drawn Ollie’s attention. The sound of Ollie’s voice stopped him short, the timbre strangely plaintive, almost childlike.
“She says her father won’t allow her to marry until her older sister does. Some strange rule he’s devised to make Harriet miserable.”
It sounded like an unreasonable expectation to Sebastian. At two and twenty, Pippa found contentment in pursuing her studies and political causes. She’d indicated no desire to take any man’s name. Never mind the way she looked at Oliver. If they had a younger sister, the girl might have a long wait to wed if some ridiculous rule required Pippa to do so first. Then again, not all women were as reticent to marry as Pippa.
“Does this elder sister have any prospects?”
Ollie’s whole body jolted at Seb’s question and he turned on him, smile wide, blue eyes glittering.
“She has more suitors than she can manage, but she’s not easily snared. I assure you she’s just as beautiful as Hattie, with golden hair . . .”
“Yes, yes. Eyes of emerald or sapphire or amethyst.”
Oliver tugged on his ear, a frown marring his enthusiastic expression. “Well, she is lovely. Truly. You should meet her.”
A sickening heaviness sank in his gut at the realization of Oliver’s real purpose for their urgent meeting.
“You’re very determined to convince me, Oliver.”
Ollie sighed wearily, a long gusty exhale, before sinking down into a chair again. “You only call me Oliver when you’re cross. Won’t you hear me out?”
Sebastian had a habit of counting. Assigning numbers to the objects and incidents in his life gave him a satisfying sense of order and control. Not quite as much satisfaction as conquering a maddening equation, but enough to make the incidents he couldn’t control—like the small matter of inheriting a title and a home large enough to house a hundred—more bearable.
He wished he’d counted how many times he’d heard those same words—“Won’t you hear me out?”—from Ollie. Whatever the number, it would certainly be high enough to warn him off listening to the man’s mad schemes again.
“All right, Ollie. Have it out then.”
“Do you never consider finding yourself a wife?”
“Must I? Why? I have quite enough to occupy me.”
Ollie took on a pensive air and squinted his left eye. “The estate seems to be in good order, and you’ve given up your post at the university. Pippa has her own pursuits.” He glanced again at the high ceiling over their heads. “Won’t you be lonely in these grand, empty rooms, Bash?”
Sentiment? That was how Ollie meant to convince him? Seb had put away sentimentality ten years before, dividing off that part of himself so that he could move forward with the rest of his life. If its power still held any sway, he would have opened the letter in his waistcoat pocket the day it arrived.
“I will manage, Ollie.”
And how would a woman solve anything? In Seb’s experience, women either wreaked havoc on a man’s life, or filled it with noise and color and clever quips, like his mother and sister. Either option would allay loneliness, but he did not suffer from that affliction. Sentimental men were lonely. Not him. Even if he did live in a house with ceilings so tall his voice echoed when he chattered to himself.
He narrowed his eyes at Ollie, and his friend sat up in his chair, squared his shoulders, and tipped his chin to stare at Seb directly.
“She’s the eldest daughter of a marquess, Bash, and much more aware of the rules of etiquette among the wealthy and titled than you are.”
“Then we won’t have much in common.”
Ollie groaned. “She would be a fine partner, a formidable ally in this new life you’ve taken on.”
Denial came easily, and he denounced Ollie’s mad implication that the two of them should marry sisters from the same family. But reason, that damnable voice in his head that sounded like his father, contradicted him.
At two and thirty, he’d reached an age for matrimony, and with inherited property and a title came the duty to produce an heir. No one wanted Roxbury and the Wrexford dukedom to pass to another distant cousin. If he had any doubts about his need for a wife, he was surrounded by women who’d happily remind him. His aunt, Lady Stamford, had sent a letter he’d found waiting for him the day he’d arrived at Roxbury suggesting that marriage was as much his duty as managing the estate. Pippa also dropped hints now and then that having a sister-in-law would be very nice indeed.
Ollie had yet to multiply the bride-taking encouragement, but he was making a fine effort at rectifying the oversight.
“Acquiring a dukedom is a vast undertaking.” Ollie stretched out his arms wide to emphasize the vastness of it all. “Why not have a lovely woman by your side in such an endeavor?”
“I didn’t acquire it, Oliver. It passed to me.” He loathed his habit of stating the obvious.
A lovely woman by his side. The notion brought a pang, equal parts stifled desire and memory-soaked dread. He’d imagined it once, making plans and envisioning the life he’d create with the woman he loved. But that was all sentiment and it had been smashed, its pieces left in the past. Now practicality dictated his choices. He spared emotion only for his family, for Pippa and Ollie.
Ollie watched him like a convicted man awaiting his sentence.
His friend’s practical argument held some appeal. A marquess’s daughter would know how to navigate the social whirl, and Seb liked the notion of not devoting all of his own energy to tackling that challenge. He might even find a moment to spare for mathematics, rather than having to forfeit his life’s work entirely to take on the duties of a dukedom.
And it would give Ollie a chance at happiness. Perhaps this younger daughter of Lord Clayborne’s would be the woman to inspire constancy in Ollie, and Seb might assist his friend to achieve the family and stability he’d lost in childhood.
Seb spoke on an exhaled sigh. “I suppose I do need a wife.” And there he went stating the obvious again.
Oliver turned into a ten-year-old boy before his eyes, as giddy as a pup. If the man had a tail, he’d be wagging it furiously. He jumped up and reached out to clasp Seb on the shoulder.
“Just meet Lady Katherine, Seb. See if you suit. That’s all I ask.” It wasn’t quite all he asked, but Seb had learned the futility of quibbling with a giddy Oliver.
A marquess’s daughter? Lady Katherine sounded like just the sort of woman a duke should seek to marry. Seb could contemplate marriage as a practical matter, but nothing more.
Would he ever feel more?
He hadn’t allowed himself an ounce of interest in a woman in ten years, not in a lush feminine figure, nor in a pair of fine eyes, not even in the heady mix of a woman’s unique scent under the notes of some floral essence.
“I think you’ll enjoy London during the season.” Ollie couldn’t manage sincerity when uttering the declaration. His mouth quivered and he blinked one eye as if he’d just caught an irritating bit of dust.
Seb doubted he’d enjoy London during the crush of the social season. As a Cambridge man raised in a modest home in the university’s shadow, he’d enjoyed occasional jaunts to London but had always been content to return to his studies. As he opened his mouth to say as much to Ollie, Pippa strode into the room and drew their attention to the doorway.
She’d changed into one of the day dresses their aunt insisted she choose for the upcoming season, though Pippa signaled her disdain for the flouncy yellow creation by swiping down the ruffles that kept popping up on her chest and around her shoulders.
“Luncheon is laid in the morning room. Are you joining us, Oliver?”
Ollie stared wide-eyed at Pippa a moment and then turned to Seb.
“We’re almost finished here,” Seb assured her. “Ollie and I will join you momentarily.”
She nodded but offered the still speechless Ollie a sharp glance before departing.
After a moment, Ollie found his voice. “I’ve never seen her so . . .”
Seb took a turn glaring at Ollie. The man had just been thrilled at the prospect of a match with Lady Harriet. He had no business noticing Pippa’s femininity, especially after failing to do so for over a dozen years.
“She chose a few new dresses.” Seb cleared his throat to draw Ollie’s attention.
“It’s odd,” Ollie said, his face still pinched in confusion. “I’ve known Pippa most of my life and never truly thought of her as a woman.”
His friend’s words put Seb’s mind at ease, but he suspected Pippa wouldn’t find them nearly as heartening.
“Ollie, let’s return to the matter at hand.”
“Yes, of course.” Ollie rubbed his hands together and grinned, the matter of Pippa quickly forgotten. “Will you come to the Clayborne ball and meet Lady Katherine?”
“I will.” Meeting the woman seemed a simple prospect. Practical. Reasonable. A perfectly logical decision in the circumstances.
“If you’re still planning on presenting Pippa this season, by all means, bring her along too,” Ollie added. “Why leave her to ramble this house alone?”
Pippa preferred to spend her days at Cambridge where she’d been studying mathematics for much of the previous year. Yet Seb felt the pull of his aunt’s assertion. His sister should have a London season, or at least spend some time among London society. He wished to open as many doors for Pippa as he could. Give her choices and options. If his title meant his sister might be more comfortably settled in life, all the better.
“She’s not convinced of the appeal of a London season.” Seb worried neither of them was equipped for it either. Gowns and finely tailored clothing aside, they didn’t possess the aristocratic polish others would expect of a duke and his sister.
Ever undaunted, Ollie grinned. “Then you must convince her.”
Seb lifted his gaze to the ceiling, following the tracery, lines in perfect symmetry, equidistant and equal in length, forming a perfect whole. The geometric beauty of the design melted a bit of the tension in his shoulders. Still, he doubted the propriety of allowing his sister to attend a ball when she’d not yet formally come out. And, most importantly, he feared Pippa was unprepared for the sort of attention she would encounter in London.
Pippa unprepared? She’d fence him into a corner for even entertaining the notion.
“Very well. We’ll both attend, but I make no promises regarding Lady Katherine.”
He’d accept the invitation in order to give Pippa her first glimpse of a proper London ball, meet this marquess’s daughter, and do what he could to assist Ollie’s cause. But marrying Lady Katherine was another matter entirely. He’d only ever intended to marry one woman and that had gone so spectacularly pear-shaped, he wasn’t certain he could bring himself to propose ever again.