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The Elusive Wife
By Callie Hutton, Erin Molta
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Callie Hutton
All rights reserved.
"Bloody hell!" Jason Cavendish, the new Earl of Coventry, rubbed the back of his neck as he sat on the edge of the bed and read the missive in his hands. He'd grabbed it on the way out of his house that morning, and had just now remembered it. "Bloody, bloody hell!" Although he'd expected it, his jaw muscles tightened as he read it once more:
In keeping with the terms set forth in the Will of the late John Martin Cavendish, Earl of Coventry, you are required to present yourself at Coventry Manor at ten o'clock in the morning, on the twenty-second day of February in the year of Our Lord eighteen hundred, twelve, to exchange marriage vows with one, Lady Jane Grant, who has now this day arrived from Rome, Italy.
According to the terms of said Will, if you are not present on that date and time, you will forfeit all un-entailed properties, income, and capital previously held in the name of the late John Martin Cavendish, Earl of Coventry."
He banged his fist on his leg as he read the final, "Yours Most Respectfully, Meyer, Johns, and Meyer, Solicitors."
"Bad news, darling?" Lady Sheridan stretched her lithe, nude body like a feline relishing its time in the sun. Rolling over, she walked her fingers up his arm, and gently raked her nails back down.
Too angry to sit, he left the bed still filled with the scent of their recent lovemaking, and strode across the room to pour a brandy.
Jason downed the liquid, relishing its burning as it landed in his stomach. He glanced at Selena as he poured a second drink. Growing tired of his mistress despite her beauty and allure, he'd been wrong in assuming her appeal would last a while. Like the two paramours before her, he'd begun to lose interest in her sultry body only a few months after he first bedded her.
Am I getting old? Nothing seems to hold my interest for long anymore.
Flinging his naked body into a softly padded chair, he closed his eyes and rubbed his temple with a thumb and forefinger. "The old Earl is still controlling me from the grave. I'm to be married."
His sire had never left things to chance. He'd wanted Jason to produce an heir, had badgered him about it for years. Since his son hadn't settled down and set up his nursery before the old Earl had turned up his toes, he'd made sure he had left his only offspring no choice.
Selena sauntered over, and standing behind the chair, placed her delicate hands on his shoulders and rubbed his flesh.
"What a bother. When's the wedding to take place?"
"Two days. Two bloody days." Unable to contain his anger, he leapt up again to pace.
"I have been ordered to present myself at Coventry Manor in two days, to marry some woman the old Earl chose. If I don't fall in with his plans, I am cut off. I'll get the title and the Manor house, since they are entailed, but nothing else. No money to support the place, or myself."
"Well, darling, you have to do what is necessary and marry the girl. Marriage doesn't have to make a whit of difference in your life. Heaven knows mine never did. Just marry the chit, get her with child and leave her in the country." She returned to the bed, and posing sensually on the silk sheets, reached out her slim arms. "Now come back to bed. We have a couple more hours before Sheridan returns from his club."
Jason rolled his shoulders to relieve the tension, then moved to the bed and sat next to her supine body. "Sorry love, I have an appointment," he lied, giving her a quick kiss. Of late, one time was enough with the lovely Selena. He left the bed and began gathering his clothes.
She sat up, her features in a frown. "You didn't mention an appointment before."
"I just now remembered it." He hopped on one foot as he attempted to climb into his pantaloons. Now that the summons had actually arrived, he was anxious to leave. He needed to think, and he found her cloying presence annoying. He quickly fastened his shirt and reached for his boots.
"When will I see you again?" Selena whined as she climbed to her knees, wrapping the cream-colored silk sheet around her.
"I shouldn't be long. I'll leave for Coventry tomorrow, marry the chit, and be back in London in no time." Carelessly tying his cravat, he headed for the door.
"I'll plan a special dinner for us." She followed him, the sheet dragging behind her. "Sheridan is going out of town for a few weeks. What day shall it be?"
Jason fought the irritation that seemed to erupt so quickly of late at her machinations. He wiped the exasperation from his face and turned. "I can't say for sure, love. I don't plan to be there long, but I'd better not set anything definite." Giving her another brief kiss, he waved a small salute and left the room.
Damn the old Earl!
His relationship with his father had never been a good one, so Jason had spent most of the last ten years doing the opposite of everything his sire wanted — just to prove he was his own man. But his father had always managed to find a way to control him, mostly by threatening to withhold funds. But this! To actually require him to marry someone of the Earl's choosing was beyond the pale.
Will I never be rid of the bastard's mandates?
* * *
Jason strode into White's, nodding briefly at friends comfortably settled in chairs near the massive roaring fireplaces. The muted sound of clinking glasses, filled with the best liquor London had to offer, rang in the air. Heading straight for his long-time friend Drake, he plopped into the chair next to him and glowered.
The Marquess of Stafford had been his best friend since their days at Oxford. Shortly after the term had begun, they had awoken naked, with two delectably nude young ladies between them in a large bed. They'd both had enormous headaches, wide grins, and became instant friends.
A relationship begun as such could only get better with time, and the two young men drank, gambled, and seduced their way through University and then London society. Last year Drake's father had ordered his son home to the family manor.
He'd returned to London a more subdued man, but still continued to engage in activities so favored by the peerage, albeit this time with a bit more restraint and discretion.
Drake studied his friend's clenched jaw and tapping fingers. "Problems?"
"The edict has arrived."
Jason leaned back in the chair, releasing a huge breath, and gazed at the ceiling. "What am I to do, Drake?"
"Nothing you can do, except marry. You no more want to be poor than I. We bend to our sires in order to continue our life of pleasure and entertainment." He waved at a footman and held up his empty glass.
Jason banged his fist on the arm of the chair. "Your sire is much alive, unlike my own who continues to manipulate me even in death. But marry? Even if I've a mind to do so — which I don't at this particular time — I prefer to make my own selection."
Curse the old Earl.
"I'm sure you realized you'd be required to marry one day. Duty to the title and all that. Like it or not, it seems the selection has been made for you." Drake smiled as he swirled the brandy around his glass before taking a sip.
"Don't look so bloody cheerful about it. Not only have I never met Lady Jane — that's her name — I know very little about her. Not even where in heaven's name the Earl found her. For all I know she could be some light skirt."
Drake sat up abruptly. "I say, Jason, even the old Earl wouldn't pull something like that."
"No, it's not that bad." He rubbed his eyes with his fists. "Actually, Lady Jane is the old Earl's goddaughter. The solicitors tell me she's been in Italy with her father, who's some type of Ancient Roman scholar. A scholar's daughter! She's probably dry as a bone."
Both men sat glumly staring at the flames in the fireplace, each occupied with his thoughts.
"I shall travel to Coventry tomorrow, stay overnight at the inn, before showing up for the nuptials. Can you be ready before daybreak?" If he had to go through with this, at least he could have his best friend to commiserate with.
"Why stay at the inn when you've a totally acceptable bed at the manor?"
Jason rested his booted ankle on his bent knee. "I want one more night of freedom. Who knows how much of Coventry the estimable Lady Jane has already taken over since her arrival?"
"Well, sorry, no can do. M'sire requested my presence at Manchester. I was about to leave when you came in."
Jason's head jerked up. "Surely you don't expect me to face my blasted wedding alone?"
"Wish I could help you out, old man, but duty calls. I'm sure you can get through it without my assistance." He slapped Jason on the back, then drained his glass. After placing it on the polished table, he stood. "How long will you be at Coventry?"
"Long enough to wed and bed her. Then I'll be back." His scowl returned in full force.
Drake raised his eyebrows. "With the fair Lady Jane in tow?"
"Not a chance. The new Lady Coventry will take her residence at Coventry Manor."
Jason sprinted up the stairs of his town home in London's fashionable Mayfair area.
Barton immediately opened the door. "Good afternoon, sir." The butler relieved his employer of his soft woolen greatcoat and hat.
"Tell Grady I wish to see him right away. I need to pack for a three-day trip to Coventry."
Barton bowed slightly and Jason again took the stairs two at a time, and continued on to his bedroom. He barely got his cravat and jacket off before his man, Grady, joined him.
"Taking a trip, are we, sir?"
"Yes, about three days-to Coventry. You won't have to come, just get me packed."
"As you wish," Grady nodded slightly. "When are you leaving?"
"Tomorrow, before first light. I have the blasted Newbury rout tonight. I would send my regrets, but Lady Newbury reminded me at the Fenniwick ball last evening I have missed the last two. It pays to have the old harridan on my good side.
"Tell Cook I'll be dining out, and prepare my bath," he said, heading toward the door. "I'll be in the library when it's ready."
Finally away from his mistress, friend, and servants, Jason had time to think about his future. He strolled over to gaze out the window, his hands clasped behind his back. Despite his statements to the contrary, at twenty-eight it was only a matter of time before he followed the natural progression of things and obtained the requisite wife and set up his nursery. Since his elevation to the title, siring an heir had rested heavily on his shoulders.
His stomach clenched with rage at how his father continued to control him. The last time they had spoken — or rather had disagreed, as always — the old Earl had threatened his only child with cutting him off if he didn't settle down and choose a wife on the marriage mart.
"You will do your duty, or I shall cut you off," his sire had roared, rising slightly from the chair behind the enormous desk in his library.
Jason had lounged lazily in a chair across from him, his long legs stretched out, crossed at the ankles, his indifferent bearing belying the anger clawing at him from his father's edict.
"I shall marry when I find the right woman. I have no intention of selecting a whimpering, giggling miss barely out of the schoolroom from the marriage mart." He'd flicked a non-existent piece of lint from his well-cut jacket.
"By God, you'll pick someone, and do it this Season, or I will take matters into my own hands," his father had said, collapsing back in his chair, taking in gulps of air.
The Earl's doctor had warned him not to tax himself, his heart was not strong. Still, the suddenness of his death a few weeks after that conversation had rattled Jason more than he'd cared to admit. The overwhelming presence of his remaining parent had been so much a part of his life, so much to fight against, he felt lost in some ways. But the anger at being boxed into a corner remained.
Wearily, he turned from the window at the summons from Grady and made his way upstairs.
A sense of despondency stayed with Jason all night. At the Newbury rout he went from table to table, doing a little bit of gambling, talking to friends. He had little interest in the bored matrons of the ton who observed him from behind fans, offering with their eyes what, at one time, would have had him heading in their direction.
The numerous activities he'd taken for granted that had occupied his time for years now seemed dull and lifeless. Pointless. The women were both too young and innocent, or too blatant in their attempts to lure a new man into their bed while their husbands were otherwise occupied. Everyone laughed too loud, drank to excess, gossiped ruthlessly, and gambled too much.
Don't worry, old man. The Earl's death has you rattled, as well as marriage to an unknown. Best to get it over with and back to London. Then things will return to normal.
Sure that Lady Newbury noted his presence, he took his leave and had his driver drop him at White's. After only one drink taken in solitude, he left and found himself at home at the ridiculous hour of midnight.
Might as well go to bed, and while away the hours sleeping.
But instead of sleeping, he tossed and turned, his thoughts returning to his father. The fifth Earl of Coventry had never been happy with having sired only one son. As was the old Earl's way, he had placed the blame for that omission solidly on his wife's shoulders.
There had been years of shouting and arguing, Coventry accusing his wife of being less of a woman for not breeding the requisite spare. In turn, she had accused him of wasting his seed on light-skirts. Their typical ton marriage, known as an "excellent match," had followed the usual course.
Lady Harriet had been the daughter of a Marquess. The third and final of his daughters who had both married Dukes, her father had been pleased to be done with the whole marriage nonsense. Quite rapidly she had produced Jason, the heir. However, after several years of bickering about unsuccessfully producing the spare, Lord and Lady Coventry had gone their separate ways.
His mother had spent most of her time in London and Bath, while the Earl had settled comfortably in his country home with a succession of mistresses to keep him company. Jason had seen little of either of his parents, spending his early years in the nursery with Nanny, and a succession of tutors. Then he'd been sent off to Eton, followed by University.
He'd never thought his childhood was much different than any of his peers until he'd spent time with Drake's family. His Grace and his Duchess had a love match, and the difference in their home from his own was remarkable. Drake was the oldest of seven. He and his siblings fought, argued, teased, and loved each other, all the while surrounded by the devotion that flowed from their parents' union.
After years of observing the coldness in his home, Jason decided that he would not settle for a conventional ton marriage. He had no intention of selecting a simpering, empty-headed debutante whom he would court and betroth while her parents eyed his money, title, and position with avarice.
His mother had died from a brief illness while he was still at Eton, not that she would have understood his reluctance to make an excellent match anyway. Time spent with the old Earl consisted mainly of father and son arguing about Jason's escapades and shortcomings as the heir.
He scowled. Now it appeared the Earl had taken care of that last bit of unfinished business. Jason's desire to secure a love match was at an end. Even though dead in his grave, the Earl had managed to reach out and select his son's bride, making damn sure there wasn't any way the groom could refuse.
Matching his mood, the next morning dawned cold, dreary, and with the threat of rain so typical in London. The sun not yet having made an appearance, Jason climbed into his carriage and the driver started off.
Excerpted from The Elusive Wife by Callie Hutton, Erin Molta. Copyright © 2013 Callie Hutton. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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