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Piper's Mead, Hampshire, England
"I wish to marry one of your daughters."
Marcus Brookstone, Earl of Spenford, was certain his position and wealth more than compensated for the urgent, somewhat irregular nature of the request. Every father in England would be honored to hear those words from him.
"I gathered as much from the message you sent." Reverend Adrian Somerton removed his spectacles. "How is your dear mother?"
Marcus spread his fingers on the arms of the rosewood chair and forced himself to appear at ease. The reverend's study was a fine enough room, but smaller than Marcus was used to. Whether it was the room, or the awkward nature of his mission, he felt hemmed in. Trapped.
He turned his neck slightly within the starched collar of his shirt, seeking relief from the constriction. He couldn't bear to discuss his mother's fragile condition, even with her parson. More particularly, he couldn't bear any delay.
But the Earl of Spenford always behaved in a manner befitting his position.
"The dowager's health is somewhat worse," he informed the reverend stiffly. "I hope my marriage will be a source of strength for her."
"Indeed." Reverend Somerton's smile managed to convey both understanding and a shared grief.
A churchman's trick, Marcus supposed, but a good one. He wondered if the reverend had positioned the leather-topped oak desk precisely so the fall of April afternoon sunlight through the study window should bathe him in its glow, making him look as reverent as his title suggested.
Sitting in relative dimness, Marcus recalled assorted sins of which he probably ought to repent. He quelled the instinct to squirm in his seat. He was here for his mother's sake, and the reverend's affection for his patroness, the Dowager Countess of Spenford, was both genuine and reciprocated, which was why Marcus expected full cooperation.
A series of framed embroideries hung on the wall behind the rector. The colorful words were Bible verses, Marcus guessed, though they were too distant to read. The kind of needlecraft with which genteel country ladies occupied their time. There were five of these works of art, each presumably the handiwork of one of the reverend's five daughters. One of them Marcus's future bride.
"Am I to understand," Reverend Somerton inquired gently as he polished his spectacles with a handkerchief, "your primary aim in seeking a wife is your mother's peace of mind?"
Marcus bristled, unaccustomed to having his actions questioned by men far more important than the rector of a quiet parish in Hampshire. But this particular parson was not only the man whose sermons he'd sat through as a child, he would soon be Marcus's father-in-law.
"I have always planned to marry, of course," he said. "The age of thirty seemed reasonable. I'm now twenty-nine. I won't deny my mother's illness has spurred me to action, but only to bring forward an inevitable event."
He didn't mean inevitable to sound quite so distasteful.
The rector gave him a quick, assessing glance. "I fear my daughters," he said, "lovely though they are, may lack the sophistication to which you are accustomed."
"I have had ample opportunity to" take my pick "engage the interest of a young lady in London, but this has not occurred." Rather, though Marcus might have engaged their interest, they had not engaged his.
Reverend Somerton and his wife would prove more pleasant relatives than some of the grasping parents he'd encountered in the city, he mused. The rector was of excellent birth, even if he'd forsaken his noble connections to "serve the Lord," as Marcus's mama put it. Two of the Somerton daughters were beautiesin the absence of fortune or title, the world would expect Marcus to settle for nothing less. His father would have insisted upon a bride worthy of the Earl of Spenford. Marcus insisted upon it, too.
"I am still at a loss to understand why you alighted on the idea of one of my daughters." The rector's manner remained pleasant as ever, but his persistence was beginning to grate on Marcus's taut nerves.
"It is my mother's desireand minethat I should find a Christian bride." He schooled impatience out of his voice. "I have known your daughters at least as long as any other young lady of my acquaintance, and I hold them in the highest regard."
No need to mention the bargain he'd struck with God on the subject. He wasn't sure how reverends felt about mere mortals bargaining with the Deity.
Marcus Brookstone, Earl of Spenford, would bargain with whomever he chose.
He pressed into the arms of the chair, ready to leave if the reverend didn't come to heel. "Sir, I regret to inform you this is a matter of some haste. While I would like nothing better than a courtship of normal duration" an untruth, since he could think of nothing more tedious than courting a country miss "upon securing your consent I must return to London immediately. I'm not happy to have left Mama even for the journey down hereher physician has said she may have only a week ."
Mortifyingly, his voice cracked. Somerton made a hum of concern.
With the ease of long practice, Marcus set sentiment aside and pursued that slight advantage. "The marriage would take place as soon as a special license can be obtained," he said, his words thankfully steady.
Today was Monday. He could have the license by Thursday evening and return here Friday morning. In normal circumstances, Marcus would avoid the unsavory implications of such a hasty wedding, but his mother's failing health ensured no gossip would attach to his actions.
"I would wish the marriage to take place here." Reverend Somerton settled his spectacles back on his nose. "To perform my daughters' wedding services is a long-cherished ambition."
At last, some indication the man would consent! Marcus had expected this condition, had reconciled himself to it on the journey down.
"Of course," he said magnanimously. "All I ask is that my bride and I leave for London in time for me to present the new countess to my mother that evening."
Somerton pressed his thumb to the distinctive cleft in his chin.
"Which of my daughters do you have in mind?" he asked. "Serena, my oldest, isn't here. She is governess to the Gran-ville family in Leicestershire."
Marcus frowned. That would have to cease. The Earl of Spenford couldn't have a sister in any form of employment.
He'd left London struggling to remember any of the Somerton girls' namesfive was a ludicrous number of daughters for any familydespite having encountered them many times previously. Not only in church, where they filled the front left-hand pew in the company of their mother, but also at dinners and receptions held at the homes of nearby gentry. Including Palfont, the estate bequeathed to Marcus's mother, which would return to her family coffers upon her death.
She will not die. I have agreed it with God.
He'd had nightmarish visions of taking tea with all five Somerton sisters, inspecting them as if they were horseflesh before making his choice.
Thankfully, circumstance had spared him that.
"Miss Constance Somerton.. " he suggested.
"Constance," the rector said, delighted. "Why, that is excellent news." All of a sudden he seemed more kindly disposed toward Marcus's request.
Marcus could guess why. He'd encountered Miss Constance Somerton a short while ago in the village, when he'd climbed down from his curricle at the Goose & Gander, not wishing to be forced to prevail upon the rector for refreshment.
Having eaten, and about to leave the inn, he'd heard a female cry out. In the stable yard, he'd found the prettiest girl he'd ever seen, trying to sidestep around a young man of clearly amorous intentions.
"May I be of assistance, miss?" he'd inquired of the girl.
"Yes, please, sir." She turned a relieved face toward him. Then recognized him. Alarm flashed across her features, putting a pretty pink in her cheeks as she curtsied. "I believe, my lord, Mr. Farnham was just leaving."
Bellingham, the squire's son, Marcus recalled, stammered an apology to the girl before scuttling away like a beetle. Marcus took a step after him.
"He meant no harm, my lord," the girl said quickly. "I'm certain he regrets presuming on our friendship."
Marcus decided to let the youth go; doubtless he'd learned his lesson. "That is gracious of you, Miss ?"
She blushed deeper. "II'm Constance Somerton, my lord."
Marcus started. "How remarkable. I'm on my way to visit your father."
"Indeed, my lord?" She'd recovered her composure and spoke with a demureness belied by the dimple dancing in her left cheek.
"Allow me to drive you home in my curricle."
She cast a longing look toward the fine pair of gray horses an ostler was walking up and down. "My lord, Papa would not be pleased to discover me abroad in the village. It's best if I walk home."
"But that will take at least an hour," he protested.
"My sisters and I walk it all the time."
Perhaps that explained her slender figure. In which case, how could Marcus complain?
"Very well." He executed a bow of a depth he would usually reserve for an equal in the peerage, and was rewarded with an appreciative twinkle in her near-violet eyes. "Your servant, Miss Somerton."
Her beauty and lively nature were more than he'd dared expect. She would command the admiration of Society he just hoped she was of marriageable age.
"My lord." She hesitated as she curtsied. Her eyes widened in an unspoken plea.
He guessed what she wished to ask, and appreciated her delicacy in not framing the question outright. Yes, with a little guidance, Miss Constance Somerton could be the ideal bride.
"No benefit will be served by my mentioning to your father that I met you here," he assured her.
"Thank you," she breathed. Her hand touched his arm ever so briefly.
Now Marcus returned Reverend Somerton's smile with understanding. Constance Somerton's liveliness was doubtless a source of concern to her parentshe suspected the average parson's daughter was far more docile. Not to mention her appeal to the local young men. Her parents would be delighted to have her safely off their hands.
"I believe I don't speak out of turn when I assure you Constance holds you in the highest esteem," Somerton said.
"I'm happy to hear it." Marcus wondered why the man felt obliged to say such a thingnaturally all the Somerton girls would appreciate his position. He remembered there was still one potential obstacle. "Er, how old is the young lady?"
He would have put her at seventeen, better than sixteen, which would have been impossible, but still arguably too young. Though in a year or two the maturity gap between them would narrow. .
"She turned twenty last month," Somerton said. "She is my second daughter."
Twenty? Marcus was surprised, but pleased. Though no one would dare accuse him to his face of robbing the nursery, he hated to be the subject of gossip. His father had spent years schooling him to be worthy of his titlehe would not let it fall into disrepute again.
"Unfortunately, Constance is sitting with a sick friend this afternoon," Somerton said. "I could send for her ."
"That won't be necessary." Knowing full well Constance wasn't at a friend's sickbed, Marcus had no desire to land her in trouble. "I must return to Londonin addition to the wedding license and to reassuring my mother, there are marriage settlement documents to be drawn up. I propose an allowance of"
Reverend Somerton held up a hand. "My lord, your family has never been anything but generous to mine. I trust you to create a settlement that will be fair to my daughter and her offspring."
Marcus would do exactly that. His position demanded it. But still, such naivete seemed irresponsible. "Sir, your trusting nature does you credit, but you might be wiser"
"Naturally, I will read the settlement document thoroughly before I sign it." The reverend smiled kindly. "If it's not fair, I won't sign it and the marriage will not take place."
Not so naive after all. He knew Marcus wouldn't risk that. The settlement wouldn't be fair; it would be more than fair.
"Of course," Marcus said stiffly. He gathered his riding gloves and stood.
"One more thing." The reverend did not rise, a surprising breach of courtesy, yet his holy calling made it impossible for Marcus to take offence. Or to take his leave. "You do not love my daughter."
Just when Marcus thought the awkwardness past!
He had the uncomfortable sensation his face had reddened. "I cannot love what I do not know."
"An excellent reply, my lord." Somerton's smile bordered on indulgent. "For to know Constance is to love her."
It was the comment of a hopelessly doting father. The kind of father Marcus had never had. He found himself touched by the rector's paternal loyalty.
"Sir, you know enough of my family's history to understand that aan infatuation is the last reason I would marry," he said. "But it is my hope a strong and natural affection will develop in my marriage." He would not use the word love, as the parson had. Love was what a chambermaid might feel for a groom. Love had almost destroyed the Spenford earldom in the past; it would not be given the chance to do so again.
Affection seemed a proper objective for his marriage.
"I know your mother to be a lady of great faith," Somerton said. "Do you share her faith, my lord?"
Marcus tensed, but he said lightly, "Indeed I should, sir, having listened to your sermons for so many years. However, I believe a man's faith to be his own business."
"And God's," Reverend Somerton added with a slight smile. Not before time, he rose to his feet. He came around his desk, stepping out of the sunshine that made him look so dashed holy. "You are right, my lord. It's not for me to judge a man in his faith. However, I wouldn't like any of my daughters to marry an unbeliever."
"Then I'm happy to assure you, you need not fear," Marcus said. This was the worst interview of his lifehe thanked heaven a man must only be interrogated by his father-in-law once. An irritating urge to prove himself worthy of Somerton's paternal devotion, the kind of urge he should have outgrown, made him add, "It may comfort you to know I prayed before the outset of this journey."
Perhaps not a conventional prayer of the kind a reverend might favor but Marcus had spoken to God, had he not?
"Thank you, it does indeed comfort me." The reverend moved to open the study door. This awkward encounter was finished.
"I wish you Godspeed." Reverend Somerton shook Marcus's hand. "I will discuss your offer with Constance this evening. If she does not wish to accept, I will send word immediately."
Living in a house filled with women must have addled Somerton's brain. The parson's daughterany parson's daughterwould be honored to marry the Earl of Spenford.
Marcus didn't waste time pointing that out. He'd come here for a wife; he'd found one. Nothing else mattered.