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London, England 1813
The hackney coach slowed in front of Lord Aynsley's townhouse. With her heart pounding prodigiously, Miss Rebecca Peabody pushed her spectacles up the bridge of her nose and drew a deep breath as the driver assisted her from the carriage. She paid him, glanced up at the impressive four-story townhouse, then climbed its steps and rapped at the door's shiny brass plate. Almost as an afterthought, she pulled off her spectacles and jammed them into her reticule. Though she abhorred going without them due to her inability to see, she had decided just this once it was necessary. One who wished to persuade a virtual stranger to marry her must, after all, make every effort to look one's best.
She felt rather like a convict standing before King's Bench as she waited for someone to respond to her knock. Soon, a gaunt butler with a raised brow opened the door and gave her a haughty stare.
"Is Lord Aynsley in?" she asked in a shaky voice.
She had particularly selected this time of day because she knew it was too early for Parliament.
The servant's glance raked over her. Though her dress was considerably more respectable than a doxy's, he must still believe her a loose woman because no proper lady would come to his lordship's unescorted. But, of course, she could hardly have brought Pru with her today. One simply did not bring one's maid when one wished to propose marriage.
"I regret to say he's out," the butler said. There was not a shred of remorse on the man's face or in his voice.
She had not reckoned on Lord Aynsley being away from home. Now everything was spoiled. Such an opportunity might never again be possible once it was discovered she'd sneaked out the back of her dressmaker's, stranding her poor maid there. All likelihood of ever again disengaging herself from either her sister, Maggie, or Pru would be nonexistent. And to make matters even more regrettable, the hackney driver had left! She fought against tears of utter frustration. Perhaps the butler was merely protecting his master from tarts. She drilled him with her most haughty stare (though he was nothing more than a blur, due to her deficient vision) and said, "You must inform his lordship that I come from the foreign secretary, Lord Warwick." Which was true, but misleading, given that her sister was married to Lord Warwick, and Rebecca made her home with them.
"I would convey that to Lord Aynsley were he here, but he is not. Would you care to sign his book?"
Owing to the fact she had not anticipated his lordship's absence, she hadn't given a thought as to how she should proceed were he not at home. Should she sign his book with a cryptic message? Should she merely leave her card? Should she ask him to call on her? No, not that. Maggie would never allow her to be alone with the earl, and in order to propose marriage, Rebecca must have privacy.
She decided to sign his book.
The unsympathetic butler allowed her to step into the checkerboard entry hall and over to a Sheraton sideboard beneath a huge Renaissance painting. Lord Aynsley's bookits pages openreposed on the sideboard.
Though it was undignified to remove a glove, she did so before picking up the quill. This was her last pair of gloves that was free from ink stains, and Maggie had persistently chastised her about her endless destruction of fine, handmade gloves.
As soon as she divested herself of her right glove, she heard the front door swing open and a second later heard his voice.
"Lady Warwick!" Lord Aynsley said, addressing Rebecca's back. "How may I be of service to you?"
Oh, dear. Because he saw her from the back, he would think she was her beautiful sister, whom he had once wished to marry. Drawing in a deep breath, Rebecca whirled around to face him, a wide smile on her face.
His face fell. "Miss Peabody?"
"Yes, my lord. I beg a private word with you." How she longed to jam on those spectacles and give the peer a good look over. It had been so long since she last saw him, she couldn't quite remember what he looked like. Truth be told, she had never paid much attention to him. At the present moment she wished to assure herself that his appearance was not offensive. But the only thing she could assure herself of was his blurrinessand that he was considerably taller than she and still rather lean.
A hot flush rose into her cheeks as she perceived that he gawked at her single naked arm, then he recovered and said, "You've come alone?"
She duplicated her haughty stare once again. "I have." She gulped. "A rather important matter has brought me here today."
"Then come to my library where we can discuss it."
She followed him along the broad hallway past a half dozen doorways until they came to a cozy room lit by a blazing fire and wrapped with tall walnut cases lined with fine leather books. A much finer library than Lord Warwick's, she decided. Another recommendation for plighting her life with Lord Aynsley.
"Oblige me by closing the door," she challenged as he strode toward his Jacobean desk.
He stopped, turned to gaze at her and hitched his brow in query. "I'm cognizant of your unblemished reputation, Miss Peabody, and I don't wish to tarnish it."
"My unblemished reputation is exactly why I'm here today, my lord."
"I'm sorry. I don't follow you."
"Please close the door and I shall explain."
His gaze bounced from her to the door. He did not move.
Was he afraid she would damage his sterling reputation by intimating that he behaved in an ungentlemanly manner? "I assure you, Lord Aynsley, I have no aspirations to make false accusations against you."
"You have roused my curiosity, Miss Peabody." He crossed the room and closed the door. "Please sit on the sofa nearest the fire."
She did as instructed, then wadded the missing glove into a ball concealed in her fist and hoped he would not notice her breach in decorum.
He came to face her on a silken plum-colored sofa that matched the one she sat on. "It's quite remarkable how much you look like your sister."
"That, my lord, is another reason why I'm here today."
"I'm afraid I don't comprehend, Miss Peabody."
"Allow me to explain. You were once so attracted to my sister, you asked her to marry you."
He nodded. "Your sister is a most beautiful woman."
She drew a long breath, counting to five, then plunged in. "Then you must be satisfied with my appearance, my lord, for we look vastly similarexcept for my deficient vision which necessitates my spectacles." If only she could believe that. She was no beauty like Maggie.
Because his lordship was nothing more than a blur, she was unable to observe his reaction to the illogical trajectory of her conversation. The man was apt to think the most deficient thing about her was not her vision, but her mental capacity.
After a mortifying lull, Lord Aynsley recovered and answered as would any well-mannered gentleman. "You're a most lovely girl."
She glared at him. "I am not a girl. I'm a woman of eight and twenty. I came out of the schoolroom more than a decade ago, and in most quarters I'm considered past marrying age. That is why I've selected you."
He did not say anything for a moment. "Pray, Miss Peabody, I'm still not following you. For what purpose have you selected me?"
"Before I get to that," she said, opening her reticule, stuffing in the glove and pulling out a folded piece of parchment, "I should like to mention the points on my list here."
While she unfolded the list she could see that he crossed his arms and settled back to listen.
Her glance fell to the list, but she was unable to read the now-fuzzy letters. She would have to recite from memory. "Not only do I greatly resemble my countess sister, but I'm a reputed scholar. I read and write Latin and Greek and am fluent in French, German and Italian. I'm exceedingly well organized and capable of overseeing a large household." She paused to sit on her naked hand, hoping the earl had not noticed it. Lord Aynsley was a most proper peer, and she was most decidedly improper to be sitting here not only without a chaper-one but also with a naked arm.
"The most important thing on my list," she continued, "is that I absolutely adore children. I dislike the city and would love to live in the countrysurrounded by said children. I have decided to marry a man a bit older, a man whose children need a capable mother. I shouldn't mind at all if it wasn't a real marriage. I suppose an older man would not still fancy the romantic aspects of marriage."
No man who'd ever loved Maggie could be attracted to Rebecca. She understood that. She would never be able to experience a marital bond like Maggie shared with Warwick. Men just didn't feel that way toward her.
"Dear heavens! How old do you think I am?"
She gazed up at him, but of course could not really see him without her much-needed spectacles. "Five and forty?"
"I am three and forty, Miss Peabody, and have no desire for a wife." He stood abruptly.
"I beg that you sit down and hear me out. I'm not finished." It was really the oddest thing how this idea of marrying Lord Aynsley had taken ahold of her. Her desire to wed the earl had nothing to do with his desirability and everything to do with her need to leave Lord Warwick's house before she destroyed his heretofore loving marriage to her sister.
Another strong impetus to marry was the prospect of liberating herself from the strictures of society that rather imprisoned an unmarried lady.
And she was devilishly tired of people pitying her as the old maid aunt to Maggie's darling boys.
Though Miss Rebecca Peabody was void of passionate feelings toward any man, she was possessed of a great deal of passion, all of it channeled into the radical political essays she wrote under the pen name P. Corpus. Ever since the day she'd read Thomas Paine's Rights of Man she had felt that expansion of civil liberties was her life's calling. She'd even come to understandagainst her initial resistancethat she was meant to leave America and come to England. It was only right that an American like she should show these snooty British just how antiquatedand oppressivetheir government was.
It was her forward thinking that continually pitted her against Lord Warwick and the Tory government he served. Last night's argument over his government's resistance to labor unions had been the final straw.
She could not coexist with a man who upheld the wretched Tories' elitist principlesor, in her opinion, lack of principles. How could a man like Lord Warwickwho was so good to his wife, his children and his servants, who read his Bible every day and went to church every Sundaynot follow his Savior's command to treat the least of his brethren as he would treat Jesus?
The government should serve all its peoplenot just the wealthy landowners. How could the Tories think it right to repress men who needed to earn enough to feed their families? It wasn't as if the wealthy, landed Tories would be destitute if they allowed modest increases in their workers' wages.
She was certain the Heavenly Father had guided her to P. Corpus; therefore, He must be guiding her to this proposed marriage. It had become increasingly difficult to post her essays to her publisher without being discovered. A married woman would not have to be constantly watched by her well-meaning sister or her ever-present maid, neither of whom could be allowed to learn of her P. Corpus identity.
As a married lady, she could pursue her writingsand even be at liberty to write that full-length book on a perfect society, the book that was her life's goal.
A pity she could not own the authorship of her essays, but doing so would jeopardize Lord Warwick's career. Were it to be discovered that a woman living under his roofa woman who had been an American colonist, no less!so opposed the Tory government he represented, his distinguished career could be destroyed.
Lord Aynsley eased back into his chair without breaking eye contact with her.
"I know eight and twenty may seem young to you, my lord, but I assure you I'm very mature. Your seven children need a mother, and such a charge would be very agreeable to me. I also possess the capabilities to smoothly run a large household. You could attend to your important work in Parliament, secure in the knowledge that your competent wife was promoting domestic harmony in your house."
He began to laugh a raucous, hardy laugh.
Even if the spectacles would obscure her resemblance to her beautiful sister, she must put them back on. It was imperative that she be able to see the expression on his lordship's face. She opened her reticule and whipped out the two spheres of glass fastened together by a gold wire and slammed them on the bridge of her nose.
That was better! She could see quite clearly that Lord Aynsley was indeed laughing at her. It was also evident that he wasn't so very old after all. Granted, a bit of gray threaded through his bark-colored hair, but the man was possessed of a rather youthful countenance. The man also had a propensity to always smile. "How dare you laugh at me, my lord!"
He sombered. "Forgive me. I mean no offense." He cocked his head and regarded her. "Do I understand you correctly, Miss Peabody? You believe I might wish to make you my wife?"
Her dark eyes wide, she nodded.
"Pray, what makes you think I even desire a wife?"
She squared her shoulders and glared. "You asked my sister to wed you."
"That was two years ago when I was freshly widowed and rather at my wit's end as to how to run a household of seven children, a ward and an eccentric uncle."
"You're no longer at your wit's end? Your children no longer run off governesses?"
He sighed. "I didn't say that. It is still difficult to manage my household, but the task is less onerous now that my next-to-eldestmy only daughteris a bit older."
"How old is she?"
Rebecca could see she would have to convince him that his womanly daughter was due to take flight at any moment. "Is that not the age when most young ladies choose to take husbands? Do you aim to keep her always with you?"
He did not respond for a moment. For once, the smile vanished from his face. "As a matter of fact, it's my hope that my daughter will come out this year."
"And if she chooses to marry? Who, then, will manage your household?"
"I shall cross that bridge when I come to it." He peered at her with flashing moss-colored eyes. "One thing is certain, Miss Peabody. If I do remarry, I shall choose the wife myself."
"But, my lord, you chose my sister, and that did not work out."
"I have explained why I felt obliged to offer for your sister." He stared at her, no mirth on his face.