The door of the Duke of Eversleigh's library clicked shut. From his chair behind the huge mahogany desk, Jason Montgomery, fifth Duke of Eversleigh, eyed the oak panels with marked disfavour.
"Impossible!" he muttered, the word heavy with contemptuous disdain laced with an odd reluctance. As the sound of his cousin Hector's retreating footsteps dwindled, Jason's gaze left the door, travelling across the laden bookcases to the large canvas mounted on a nearby wall.
Expression bleak, he studied the features of the young man depicted there, the impudent, devil-may-care smile and mischievous grey eyes topped by wind-tousled dark brown hair. Broad shoulders were clad in the scarlet of regimentals, a lance stood to one side, all evidence of the subject's occupation. A muscle twitched at the corner of Jason's mouth. He quelled it, his austere, chiselled features hardening into a mask of chilly reserve.
The door opened to admit a gentleman, elegantly garbed and smiling amiably. He paused with his hand on the knob and raised a brow enquiringly.
"I saw your cousin depart. Are you safe?"
With the confidence of one sure of his welcome, Frederick Marshall did not wait for an answer but, shutting the door, strolled towards the desk between the long windows.
His Grace of Eversleigh let out an explosive sigh. "Damn it, Frederick, this is no laughing matter! Hector Montgomery is a man-milliner! It would be the height of irresponsibility for me to allow him to step into the ducal shoes. Even I can't stomach the thoughtand I wouldn't be here to see it."
Pushing back his chair, Jason swung to face his friend as he sank into an armchair nearby. "More to the point," he continued, stretching his long legs before him, a somewhat grim smile twisting his lips, "tempting though the idea might be, if I introduced cher Hector to the family as my heir, there'd be a riota mutiny in the Montgomery ranks. Knowing my aunts, they would press for incarceration until such time as I capitulated and wed."
"I dare say your aunts would be delighted to know you see the problemand its solutionso clearly."
At that, Jason's piercing gaze focused on his friend's face. "Just whose side are you on, Frederick?"
Frederick smiled. "Need you ask? But there's no sense in ducking the facts. Now Ricky's gone, you'll have to wed. And the sooner you make up your mind to it, the less likely it will be that your aunts, dear ladies, think to take a hand themselvesdon't you think?"
Having delivered himself of this eminently sound piece of advice, Frederick sat back and watched his friend digest it. Sunshine shone through the windows at Jason's back, burnishing the famous chestnut locks cut short in the prevailing mode. Broad shoulders did justice to one of Schultz's more severe designs, executed in grey superfine, worn over tightly fitting pantaloons. The waistcoat Frederick espied beneath the grey coat, a subtle thing in shades of deeper grey and muted lavender, elicited a twinge of envy. There was one man in all of England who could effortlessly make Frederick Marshall feel less than elegant and that man was seated behind the desk, sunk in unaccustomed gloom.
Both bachelors, their association was bound by many common interests, but in all their endeavours it was Jason who excelled. A consummate sportsman, a noted whip, a hardened gamester and acknowledged rake, dangerous with pistolsand even more dangerous with women. Unused to acknowledging any authority beyond his own whims, the fifth Duke of Eversleigh had lived a hedonistic existence that few, in this hedonistic age, could match.
Which, of course, made the solution to his present predicament that much harder to swallow.
Seeing Jason's gaze, pensive yet stubborn, rise to the portrait of his younger brother, known to all as Ricky, Frederick stifled a sigh. Few understood how close the brothers had been, despite the nine years' difference in age. At twenty-nine, Ricky had possessed a boundless charm which had cloaked the wilful streak he shared with Jasonthe same wilful streak that had sent him in the glory of his Guards' captaincy to Waterloo, there to die at Hougoumont. The dispatches had heaped praise on all the fated Guardsmen who had defended the vital fort so valiantly, yet no amount of praise had eased the grief, all the more deep for being so private, that Jason had borne.
For a time the Montgomery clan had held off, aware, as others were not, of the brothers' affection. However, as they were also privy to the understanding that had been forged years beforethat Ricky, much less cynical, much less hard than Jason, would take on the responsibility of providing for the next generation, leaving his older brother free to continue his life unfettered by the bonds of matrimony, it was not to be expected that the family's interest in Jason's affairs would remain permanently deflected. Consequently, when Jason had re-emerged, taking up his usual pursuits with a vigour which, Frederick shrewdly suspected, had been fuelled by a need to bury the recent past, his aunts became restive. When their arrogantly errant nephew continued to give no hint of turning his attention to what they perceived as a now pressing duty, they had, collectively, deemed it time to take a hand.
Tipped off by one of Jason's redoubtable aunts, Lady Agatha Colebatch, Frederick had deemed it wise to prod Jason's mind to deal with the matter before his aunts made his hackles rise. It was at his urging that Jason had finally consented to meet with his heir, a cousin many times removed.
The silence was broken by a frustrated snort.
"Damn you, Ricky," Jason grumbled, his gaze on his brother's portrait. "How dare you go to hell in your own way and leave me to face this hell on earth?"
Detecting the resigned undertones in his friend's complaint, Frederick chuckled. "Hell on earth?"
Abruptly straightening and swinging back to his desk, Jason raised his brows. "Can you think of a better description for the sanctified institution of marriage?"
"Oh, I don't know." Frederick waved a hand. "No reason it has to be as bad as all that."
Jason's grey gaze transfixed him. "You being such an expert on the matter?"
"Hardly mebut I should think you could figure as such."
"Me? " Jason looked his amazement. "Well, all your recent mistresses have been married, haven't they?"
Frederick's air of innocence deceived Jason not one whit. Nevertheless, his lips twitched and the frown which had marred his strikingly handsome countenance lifted. "Your misogyny defeats you, my friend. The women I bed are prime reasons for my distrust of the venerable bonds of matrimony. Such women are perfect examples of what I should not wish for in a wife."
"Precisely," agreed Frederick. "So at least you have that much insight." He looked up to discover Jason regarding him intently, a suspicious glint in his silver-grey eyes.
"Frederick, dear chap, you aren't by any chance possessed of an ulterior motive in this matter, are you? Perchance my aunts have whispered dire threats in your ear?"
To his confusion, Frederick blushed uncomfortably. "Damn you, Jason, get those devilish eyes off me. If you must know, Lady Agatha did speak to me, but you know she's always been inclined to take your side. She merely pointed out that her sisters were already considering candidates and if I wished to avert a major explosion I'd do well to bring the matter to your mind."
Jason grimaced. "Well, consider it done. But having accomplished so much, you can damn well help me through the rest of it. Who the devil am I to marry?"
The question hung in the calm of the library while both men considered the possible answers.
"What about the Taunton chit? She's surely pretty enough to take your fancy."
Jason frowned. "The one with reams of blonde ringlets?" When Frederick nodded, Jason shook his head decisively. "She twitters."
"Hemming's girl thena fortune there, and word is out that they're hanging out for a title. You'd only have to say the word and she'd be yours."
"She and her three sisters and whining mother to boot? No, I thank you. Think again."
And so it went, on through the ranks of the year's debutantes and their still unwed older sisters.
Eventually, Frederick was close to admitting defeat. Sipping the wine Jason had poured to fortify them through the mind-numbing process, he tried a different tack. "Perhaps," he said, slanting a somewhat peevish glance at his host, "given your highly specific requirements, we would do better to clarify just what it is you require in a wife and then try to find a suitable candidate?"
Savouring the excellent Madeira he had recently acquired, Jason's eyes narrowed. "What I want in a wife?" he echoed.
For a full minute, silence held sway, broken only by the discreet tick of the ornate clock on the mantelpiece. Slowly, Jason set down his long-stemmed glass, running his fingers down the figured stem in an unconscious caress. "My wife," he stated, his voice sure and strong, "must be a virtuous woman, capable of running the Abbey and this house in a manner commensurate with the dignity of the Montgomerys."
Wordlessly, Frederick nodded. Eversleigh Abbey was the Montgomery family seat, a sprawling mansion in Dorset. Running the huge house, and playing hostess at the immense family gatherings occasionally held there, would stretch the talents of the most well-educated miss.
"She would need to be at least presentableI draw the line at any underbred antidote being the Duchess of Eversleigh."
Reflecting that Jason's aunts, high-sticklers every one, would certainly echo that sentiment, Frederick waited for more.
Jason's gaze had dropped to his long fingers, still moving sensuously up and down the glass stem. "And, naturally, she would have to be prepared to provide me with heirs without undue fuss over the matter." His expression hardened. "Any woman who expects me to make a cake of myself over her will hardly suit."
Frederick had no doubts about that.
After a moment's consideration, Jason quietly added, "Furthermore, she would need to be prepared to remain principally at the Abbey, unless I specifically request her presence here in town."
At that cold declaration, Frederick blinked. "But
do you mean after the Season has ended?"
"No. I mean at all times."
"You mean to incarcerate her in the Abbey? Even while you enjoy yourself in town?" When Jason merely nodded, Frederick felt moved to expostulate. "Really, Jason! A mite draconian, surely?"
Jason smiled, a slow, predatory smile that did not reach his eyes. "You forget, Frederick. I have, as you noted earlier, extensive experience of the bored wives of the ton. Whatever else, rest assured my wife will never join their ranks."
"Ah." Faced with such a statement, Frederick had nothing to do but retreat. "So what else do you require in your bride?"
Leaning back in his chair, Jason crossed his ankles and fell to studying the high gloss on his Hessians. "She would have to be well-bornthe family would accept nothing less. Luckily, a dowry makes no oddsI doubt I'd notice, after all. Connections, however, are a must."
"Given what you have to offer, that should hardly pose a problem." Frederick drained his glass. "All the haut ton with daughters to establish will beat a path to your door once they realize your intent."
"No doubt," Jason returned ascerbically. "That, if you must know, is the vision that spurs me to take your advice and act nowbefore the hordes descend. The idea of being forced to run the gamut of all the dim-witted debs fills me with horror."
"Well, that's a point you haven't mentioned." When Jason lifted his brows, Frederick clarified. "Dim-witted. You never could bear fools lightly, so you had better add that to your list."
"Lord, yes," Jason sighed, letting his head fall back against the padded leather. "If she's to avoid being strangled the morning after we are wed, my prospective bride would do well to have rather more wit than the common run." After a moment, he mused, "You know, I rather wonder if this paragonmy prospective brideexists in this world."
Frederick pursed his lips. "Your requirements are a mite stringent, but I'm sure, somewhere, there must be a woman who can fill your position."
"Ah," said Jason, amusement beginning to glimmer in his grey eyes. "Now we come to the difficult part.
Frederick racked his brain for an answer. "A more mature woman, perhaps? But one with the right background." He caught Jason's eyes and frowned. "Dash it, it's you who must wed. Perhaps I should remind you of Miss Ekhart, the young lady your aunt Hardcastle pushed under your nose last time she was in town?"
"Heaven forbid!" Jason schooled his features to a suitably intimidated expression. "Say on, dear Frederick. Where resides my paragon?"
The clock ticked on. Finally, frowning direfully, Frederick flung up a hand. "Hell and the devil! There must be some suitable women about?"
Jason met his frustration with bland resignation. "I can safely say I've never found one. That aside, however, I agree that, assuming there is indeed at least one woman who could fill my bill, it behoves me to hunt her out, wherever she may be. The question is, where to start?"
With no real idea, Frederick kept mum.
His gaze abstracted, his mind turning over his problem, Jason's long fingers deserted his empty glass to idly play with a stack of invitations, the more conservative gilt-edged notelets vying with delicate pastel envelopes, a six-inch-high stack, awaiting his attention. Abruptly realising what he had in his hand, Jason straightened in his chair, the better to examine the ton's offerings.
"Morecambes, Lady Hillthorpe's rout." He paused to check the back of one envelope. "Sussex Devenishes. The usual lot." One by one, the invitations dropped from his fingers on to the leather-framed blotter. "D'Arcys, Pen-brights. Lady Allington has forgiven me, I see."
Frederick frowned. "What did she have to forgive you for?"