I vow the new earl will drive me to distraction, thinking to marry us off like so much breeding stock.
–Letter from Miss Arabella Loring to Fanny Irwin London, May 1817
The very word was menacing. Yet the new Earl of Danvers could ignore the topic no longer, much to his regret.
“A pity the late earl already met his end,” Lord Danvers professed, punctuating his declaration with the slash of a steel rapier. “Otherwise I would have his heart on a spit for the trick he served me, leaving me to play procurer for three wards I never wanted.” His complaint, voiced amid the sounds of swordplay, was met with both sympathetic laughter and skepticism from his friends.
“Procurer, Marcus? Isn’t that something of an exaggeration?”
“It perfectly describes my responsibility.”
“Matchmaker is a more tasteful characterization.” Matchmaker.
What a lowering thought.
Marcus Pierce, formerly addressed as Baron Pierce and now the eighth Lord Danvers, winced with reluctant humor. Although he normally relished a challenge, he would gladly have forgone being saddled with three penniless beauties–and worse, the burden of finding them respectable husbands.
Yet he’d inherited the Loring sisters along with his new title, so he was resigned to discharging his duty sooner or later.
Marcus had enjoyed thirty-two pleasurable years of bachelorhood, the last ten as one of England’s most eligible and elusive marital catches. Since matrimony ranked high on his list of least-favorite subjects, he had put off facing his obligation to his unwanted wards for weeks now.
This fine spring morning, however, he’d finally forced himself to broach the issue while he was engaged in fencing practice at his Mayfair mansion with his two closest friends and fellow escapees of the Marriage Mart.
“But you do see my dilemma?” Marcus asked, executing a swift parry against his equally skilled opponent, Andrew Moncrief, Duke of Arden.
“Ah, yes,” Drew answered above the clang of blades.
“You hope to marry off your three wards, but you expect to find few takers, given the scandal in their family.”
“Precisely.” Marcus flashed an engaging grin. “I don’t suppose you would volunteer to offer for one of them?”
The duke shot him an eloquent glance as he leapt back to evade a deft thrust. “As much as I yearn to help you, old sport, I cherish my liberty too much to make such a devastating sacrifice, even for you.”
“Stubble it, Marcus.” The amused drawl came from the sidelines of the salon that Marcus used as a fencing hall. Heath Griffin, Marquess of Claybourne, lounged on a settee as he awaited his turn at practice, drawing idle patterns in the air with his foil. “You’re touched in the head if you think to persuade us to offer for your wards.”
“They are reputed to be great beauties,” Marcus coaxed.
Heath laughed outright. “And spinsters, every one of them. How old is the eldest Miss Loring? Four and twenty?”
“Not quite that.”
“But she is said to be a spitfire.”
“So I’m told,” Marcus reluctantly acknowledged. His solicitors had described Arabella Loring as charming but fiercely stubborn-minded in her desire for emancipation from his guardianship.
“You haven’t met her yet?” Heath asked.
“No, I’ve managed to avoid her thus far. The Misses Loring were away from home when I called to pay my condolences on the death of their step-uncle three months ago. And since then, I’ve let my solicitors handle all succeeding correspondence. But I will have to deal with them eventually.” He sighed. “I will likely travel to Chiswick next week.”
The Danvers estate was in the countryside near the small village of Chiswick, some half dozen miles west of London’s fashionable Mayfair district, where many of the wealthy aristocracy resided. The distance was an easy drive in a fast curricle, yet Marcus was under no illusions that his task could be dispatched quickly.
“From everything I hear,” Drew said as he steadily advanced, “your wards will indeed prove a handful. It won’t be easy to marry them off, particularly the eldest.” Nodding, Marcus gave a wry grimace. “Certainly not when they profess to be so adamantly opposed to marriage. I’ve offered to provide them significant dowries to induce respectable suitors to wed them, but they rejected my proposition out of hand.”
“Harbor bluestocking notions of independence, do they?”
“So it would seem. A pity I can’t convince either of you to come to my rescue.”
It would have been a neat solution to his dilemma, Marcus reflected as he fought off Drew’s determined offensive. In addition to inheriting the title of earl to add to his long-held barony, he’d been encumbered with the entailed and impoverished Danvers estate, as well as responsibility for its genteel dependents, three indigent sisters. All three were blessed with impeccable lineage, superb breeding, and enviable beauty, but all were unmarried and getting somewhat long in the tooth.
Their single state was due less to their lack of fortune than to the horrendous scandal in their family. Four years ago, their mother had run off to the Continent with her French lover. Then barely a fortnight later, their father had been killed in a duel over his latest mistress–which had put an abrupt end to any last gasp
chances the daughters had of marrying well.
Resolving to give his unwanted wards into more willing hands, Marcus had thought to marry them off by providing them with immense dowries. But that was before he’d discovered how fiercely independent the three beauties were. The eldest sister’s letters had become downright impassioned in her appeals for self-rule.
“They are legally my wards until they turn twentyfive,” Marcus explained, “but the eldest, Arabella, is already fretting over the constraints. In the past month, she has written me four letters proclaiming that she and her sisters have no need of a guardian at their advanced ages. Regrettably for us all, I am bound by the terms of the will.”
Pausing to circle his opponent, Marcus ran a hand roughly through his raven hair. “Truthfully,” he muttered, “it would have suited me better had I never heard of the Loring sisters. I never wished for the additional title. I was perfectly content as a baron.”
His friends offered him sympathetic but amused looks, which prompted Marcus to add pointedly, “I expect your help in solving my dilemma, you spineless reprobates. Surely you can think of some appropriate candidates I can throw their way.”
“You could always offer for one of them yourself,” Heath suggested, a wicked gleam in his eye.
“God forbid.” Marcus paused to shudder and was nearly skewered when Drew lunged with his foil. Through much of their boyhood and all of their adulthood, the three of them–Marcus, Drew, and
Heath–had been inseparable, having attended Eton and Oxford together and then come into their vast fortunes and illustrious titles the same year. And after being chased relentlessly by marriage-minded debutantes and barely eluding the traps of countless matchmaking mamas, all three shared grave reservations about the institution of matrimony. Most particularly the sort of cold, convenient union typical of the aristocracy. Marcus had never encountered even one woman he might want to take for his wife. The thought of being shackled for life to a female he scarcely liked, much less loved, sent chills down his spine. Yet he owed it to his titles, both the new and the old, to carry on his bloodlines, so eventually he would have to marry.
The demise of his bachelorhood, however, would be a long time in coming, Marcus vowed.
Realizing his concentration had been shattered by all this unpalatable talk of matrimony, he stepped back and offered Drew a sardonic salute. “I had best withdraw before you slice me to ribbons, your grace. Heath, pray take your turn at practice.”
When the marquess replaced him on the floor, Marcus crossed the salon to a side table, where he set down his rapier and retrieved a towel to wipe his damp brow. The clash of steel had just resumed when he heard a commotion out in the corridor, coming from the vicinity of his entrance hall. He could only make out every third word or so, but it was clear he had a female caller . . . and that his butler was denying his presence.
His curiosity piqued, Marcus moved closer to the
salon door, the better to hear.
“I repeat, Lord Danvers is not at home, miss.”
“Not at home or not receivi...