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London, early May 1829
She would not be sold like a prized mare at Tattersalls! Julia Prentiss's elegantly coiffed head swivelled in dis-belief between Uncle Barnaby and Mortimer Oswalt, the lecherous old cit who had come to offer for her. She could hardly countenance the conversation that flowed around her as if she were not standing in the centre of her uncle's study listening, nor had a mind of her own and was quite capable of speaking for herself.
'I would, of course, provide a handsome bride price for your niece. Say, fifteen thousand pounds.' Mortimer Oswalt spread his hands confidently over the purple expanse of his waistcoat, which gave him the appearance of an overripe grape. He leaned back in his chair, perusing Julia with his dissipated blue eyes, still bloodshot from a night on the town.
Fifteen thousand pounds! Julia fought back a surge of inappropriate comments. How dare he offer for her in the same manner one might offer for goods on the dock or at an auction house. The force of his vile gaze made her skin clammy. She could not bear to imagine how his hands would feel against her skin. But surely there was no sense conjuring nightmares that would not come to pass.
Julia turned her frantic gaze on Uncle Barnaby. Uncle Barnaby would certainly refuse the offer in spite of how advanced the talks had become. After all, Mortimer Oswalt was not from their circles. Her uncle was Viscount Lockhart, a noted politician in the House of Lords. Oswalt was merely a London merchant. A wealthy London merchant, to be sure, but still a merchant, regardless of the fact that his annual income was at least triple theirs. The Lockhart title might not be possessed of a fortune, but they were peers and peers did not marry cits.
'Fifteen thousand pounds, you say? That is quite generous, a very respectful offer. I am sure we can come to an agreeable accord.' Uncle Barnaby gave a resigned smile, carefully looking anywhere but at her.
Julia was dumbfounded. What had possessed him to sell her to this old man? She would have dug her toes into the carpet she stood upon if it had had any pile left on it with which to do so. It was time to speak up. This ridiculous notionnay, this repulsive notionhad gone much too far for her liking. Julia summoned her best manners.
'I respectfully decline.'
Her voice was sufficiently loud to be heard. It cut across the two men's conversation. Incredulously, both men shot her quelling glances and continued their discussion.
'Five thousand pounds now and ten thousand after she is certified by my physician. I will have a draft drawn and deposited for you this afternoon. My physician will return to town in five days. We can do the necessary examinations then and I will write a second draft to you immediately upon his surety of her condition.' Oswalt was all brusque business in spite of the intimacies of his contract.
Julia blanched at his coarse requirements. She stared directly at her uncle and was gratified to see that he wavered over such terms, but only slightly.
'I can vouch for my niece's chastity. I assure you that such indelicate proceedings are not needed.' Uncle Barnaby coughed with embarrassment at such frank discussion.
Mortimer Oswalt shook his bald pate. 'I must insist. I have not made a fortune in business dealings without making absolutely sure of the quality of my investment. Let me remind you, I will be sixty in November. My first two wives were unable to give me the heir I required. My medical advisers confirm that whatever prior difficulties have occurred in that area, a virgin wife would overcome those concerns. I must have an heir quickly. My bride must be of virgin stock and must be quite capable of conceiving and birthing a child in short order.'He fixed Uncle Barnaby with an intimidating eye. 'I will pay the family an extra five thousand pounds upon the birth of my child.'
Julia watched in horrified fascination as her uncle capitulated to the bribe. Well, she was not dazzled so easily.
'I will not consider it!' She stamped her foot for emphasis, making sure the men could not ignore her a second time. 'Uncle, I cannot be married under duress. There are new laws. The Betrothal Act of 1823 allows people to marry out of free will.' It was a weak appeal and she knew it. Legislation was only enforced when one had an advocate or the means to acquire one. She had neither.
Uncle Barnaby opened his mouth to scold, but Oswalt raised a hand to stall his reprimand. 'Lockhart, allow me to explain it to her. She is to be my wife soon enough and must learn to take direction from her husband. Young women are a sheltered lot and must be tutored in the ways of the world.'
Julia fought the urge to cringe. It would be a cold day in hell before she took 'direction' or anything else from the lecherous likes of Mortimer Oswalt. She struck a defiant pose, disgusted that Uncle Barnaby demurred.
Oswalt continued. 'Miss Prentiss, the subtleties of this arrangement may have escaped your notice. Young ladies like yourself are often not aware of the rigours associated with maintaining the lifestyle you take for grantedthe horses, the country home, the gowns, the entertainments and all the fal-lals a young woman expects as her right.
'It is especially difficult to raise a beautiful girl like yourself since it is much more expensive to accommodate her needs. A lovely girl stands out. She cannot afford to be seen in the same gowns as a wallflower who isn't noticed. A pretty girl must always be shown to her best advantage. In short, a lovely daughter or, in your case, a lovely niece, can become an asset to the family.
'Your uncle has fallen into need of such an asset. His coffers are empty. There is no one who will advance him any further loans. He has mortgaged all he can simply to lease this borrowed town house and to give you one Season. You are the last pearl left to the Lockhart title. Failure to make a financially advantageous match on your part will land your aunt and uncle and cousins in dun territory, to say nothing of yourself. You will suffer the deprivations with them.' Oswalt finished his lecture and began picking his nails. 'They have given you this Season not merely for your personal enrichment, but in hopes of getting a return on their years of investment.'
'Tell me it's not true, Uncle?' Julia demanded, whirling on the poor man. Oswalt's disclosures had discomfited him and he seemed to shrink in the leather chair he occupied behind the desk. Julia's throat constricted in terror at the morbid truth.
'It is true. I cannot deny any scrap of it. Our pockets are to let. We need Oswalt's offer.'
'There must be another way! I do not love him. I will not grow to love him. He is a despicable old man to buy a bride in this way.' Julia gave her tongue free rein, not caring that Oswalt sat feet away, absorbed in his nail picking.
'Julia! Hush. This outburst is most unladylike,' her uncle admonished. He craned his neck to speak around her and she could see the fear in his eyes that Oswalt would retract his offer at the display of her temper.
Julia put her hands on her hips, ready to do battle. 'What about Cousin Gray's ship? Surely the payoff from that cargo will see our problems resolved.'
'Gray's venture is fraught with risk. It is a gamble. I would rather bet on a sure thing.' Uncle Barnaby gave her a terse scolding. 'Remember your manners, Julia. It is not good ton to speak of money in company.'
'You don't seem to mind. You and Oswalt have divided me up like so many stock dividends on the exchange.' The comment went beyond the pale, but if a temper tantrum got her out of this unholy arrangement, then so be it.
Oswalt was not fazed. He gave Julia all his attention. 'Ah, I've got myself a cinnamon-haired virago, have I? Perhaps all that hot blood is what I need to warm myself. My dear, I welcome your passion and I care not a whit if you love me. I certainly don't love you, nor do I intend to cultivate affection for you. I merely need a well-bred virgin in my bed from a family who will accept my offer. All that aside, it will be exciting to tame you to my hand. Should all go well with my physician, I'll have a special licence in hand by week's end and we'll be wed by Sunday.'
'My wife will want to give the wedding breakfast,' Uncle Barnaby put in, relaxing again now that the deal had not been retracted.
Oswalt gave a gracious nod. 'My new bride will enjoy a last chance to associate with family and friends before we depart.' He fixed Julia with a crawling stare filled with a wealth of meaning. 'I will have no desire to stay in London, where the pleasures of the Season might detract from our marriage. We will journey promptly to my country home in the Lake District. It's very remote and well supplied. We won't be bothered by outside interruptions. Once we have good news to share, I will return to town.'
Julia swallowed hard. His libidinous intent was clear. She was to be locked away in the country. Her only task in life would be to service his base needs and produce an heir for his cit's fortune. She was nineteen and her life was about to be over.
She gave them each a curt nod of her head. 'I give you good day', then she turned hard on her heel and exited the room before either of them could see the fright they'd wrought in her with their thoughtless negotiations.
Once in her room, Julia locked the door and leaned against its solid oak panelling, taking comfort from the thickness of the wood. The little ormolu clock on the table beneath the window suggested the whole reprehensible interview had taken a short twenty minutes. It was barely eleven o'clock in the morning and her life was nearly ruined. The good news was that her life was only 'nearly' ruined.
It could have been worse, she supposed. Oswalt and her uncle could have signed the contracts already. Oswalt could have arrived with a licence and vicar in tow and married her in the study.
Julia shuddered and thought uncharitably that the Notorious Rake, Innocent Lady 14
scenario was unlikely since his coveted physician wouldn't have been on hand to certify her virginal status. Five days. That was all the time left to her, barring the unforeseen circumstance that the physician return to town earlier or that Mortimer Oswalt's need for haste caused him to engage another physician who wasn't on holiday.
This was a time for action unless she reconciled herself to a life under Oswalt's rule and hoped he didn't live very long. It was clear from events in the study that neither protests nor legislation would avail her now. It was true, a law had been passed that allowed people to marry without parental consent, but it didn't prevent parental arrangement of her marriage to another.
Her uncle's financial situation had been made painfully clear as well as the reason for her Season in London. She was the one thing her uncle had left to pawn. He'd used her on the Marriage Mart to garner an offer that would save the family from penury.
Not for the first time, Julia cursed her unusual beauty. Ever since she'd turned fourteen and started to come into her womanly form, her looks had held an appeal for men that she could not understand. When she looked in the mirror, she saw a normal girl with green eyes that tilted up slightly at the corners, a mouth that might be described as wide, and a heap of red-brown curls her cousins often teased looked like the hue of autumn leaves. But there'd been local callers aplenty at the Grange where they lived when she started receiving last Christmas and her dance card had been full at the local assemblies. It had been the same in London after her presentation at court.
She knew, although it was difficult to admit, that this proposal from Oswalt wasn't the first time her uncle had used her looks to ward off a financial situation. It had never been as dire as it was now, but he'd sent her to the village on several occasions, telling her to talk to the merchants to whom he owed money, to see if they'd extend his credit a little longer.
Julia paced the chamber, her fright giving way to anger. She would not allow herself be used again in such a shameless manner. They would have to tie her up and drag her from this house in order to see her wed to Oswalt. She stopped pacing. It would come to exactly that, she was sure of it. Dragging her to the altar, literally, would be just one of the many indignities she would be put through this week if she remained.
Her options hit her with startling clarity. If she stayed at her uncle's rented town house as a virginal débutante, she would have no way to fight her wedding to Oswalt. There was nothing for it. She would have to find a way on her own to break the contract. There would be severe consequences, but she would suffer them.
Immediately, her mind raced over her options. The most obvious option was to run away.Where could she go? Who could help her? She sat down on the bed and sighed. She had no answers to any of those questions, but it hardly mattered. She was far too bright to ignore the reality. If she was discovered at any point, she would be brought back to London and forced to fulfil her uncle's contract.
No, running away wasn't a valid choice. Julia prided herself on being practical. If she was honest now, she had to admit that the prospect of successfully eluding Oswalt, who would most likely hire professionals to hunt her down, was a slim one indeed. She had learned much during her short time in London, but she had not learned enough to hide herself indefinitely, or at least until her twenty-fourth birthday, which marked the end of her uncle's guardianship. Even then, she wasn't certain being four and twenty would nullify her uncle's contract with Oswalt.
She stood up and started pacing again. 'Think, Julia, think. How do you get out of the contract?' She mumbled to herself. She could use the 1823 legislation and marry another. Her uncle couldn't stop her. She discarded that notion immediately. Where would she find a husband in five days who would be willing to risk marriage against a pre-existing contract?
A husband might be too ambitious on short notice, but one didn't need a husband to be ruined. She could cast aspersions on her suitability. That option might work. A plan began to form.
There was a rout tonight at Lady Moffat's. It would be well attended and many of the beaus who made up her court would be there. She would lure one of them out on to the terrace, coax a walk in the garden, flirt with him a bit and make sure they were found in a compromising situation.