Caring for eight siblings and burdened by a bankrupt estate, Jane Sedgwick happily accepts her aunt’s invitation to the festive London season. This could be her chance to find a wealthy husband and get the entire family out of debt . . .
But the upper crust of London bristles at Jane’s blunt country ways—with one exception: Lord Glendale. The handsome lord, not in the market for a wife, finds himself amused by Jane’s frank manner and he wagers that—within the month—even provincial Jane can be brought into fashion.
His plan succeeds only too well, as Jane blossoms into the most popular young lady of the season. Now will Lord Glendale relinquish Jane to her newfound admirers? Or will he take the biggest gamble of all—and risk his heart in a challenging game of love?
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"You'll never do better than Percival George Black," Angus MacLeod declared. "And I've never seen a more likely lad."
"Isn't he a bit young?" Jane Sedgwick asked her steward.
Angus gave her a reproachful look. "He's old enough, and bloodlines are what counts. He's got better breeding than most of the noble families in the county. You'd be a fool to let him get away."
Jane blew on her gloved hands, then rubbed them briskly together to warm them. The Yorkshire cold permeated the house, and the tiny fire she allowed in her study gave no more than the illusion of warmth.
"It's just that Mama has her heart set on sending the twins to school this year. That money was set aside for their school fees. If we do this, it will be another year before we can think about sending them."
Angus MacLeod nodded in understanding. "I know you promised her, and last fall it made sense. But it's been a hard winter, and old Hugh just isn't what he used to be. I doubt he'll last another season. You're lucky the Squire thought of you first, rather than taking Percival to the city."
He had a point there. Squire Jones was being very accommodating, but he wouldn't wait much longer for her to make up her mind. If Jane didn't want Percival George, there were plenty of others who did.
"Well, I know the boys won't raise any objections," Jane said, trying to reconcile herself to the idea. "They've never showed any enthusiasm for the idea of going away to school."
"School's all well and good in its place, but Percival George Black is an investment in your future and theirs. We can set Percival to work right away, and in no time he'll be earning good money for you."
"True," Jane agreed. "The future of the farm comes first. Squire Jones is very kind to offer us Percival. This may be our only chance to get a full-blooded merino ram. We can set Percival to breeding with our ewes, and in a few years we'll be getting premium prices for our wool."
"I'll go speak to Squire Jones," Angus MacLeod said, as he stood up. Sensing her hesitation, he gave her a reassuring smile. "Don't worry, lass, it's for the best."
"I am sure of it," Jane answered, as much for her benefit as for his. Angus left, but Jane stayed behind in the study. It was the right decision, but the familiar knot in her stomach let her know that her heart wasn't convinced. Money. It was all a question of money. It seemed that no matter how hard she tried, there was never enough for their needs.
A chill that had nothing to do with the cold swept over her, as she remembered just how close they had come to losing everything. The family had lived a modest but comfortable existence while her father was alive, but all that changed after his death. Only twelve at the time, Jane had paid little attention to the steward her mother had hired to run the estate. Grieving over the loss of her husband, Lady Alice had been grateful to place all her affairs in such seemingly competent hands.
Mr. Cartwright embarked on an ambitious improvement plan which he assured Lady Alice would greatly increase the family holdings. He threw himself into his work, but none of his projects ever reached completion. It was just a matter of a little more money, or a little more patience, he would explain, and Lady Alice, too trusting to do otherwise, would agree.
Three years later the family was on the brink of ruin. Lady Alice's first inkling of trouble came when tradesmen came to the door, seeking payment. Mr. Cartwright's glib explanations for once failed to reassure. Questioning the servants revealed that they, too, were owed money. Lady Alice demanded a full accounting, but Mr. Cartwright had already fled.
Lady Alice had attempted to straighten out their affairs, but the complex tangle soon defeated her. Fortunately Jane had a better head for numbers than her mother, and after several days of going through the steward's papers, the scope of the disaster became appalling clear.
Their comfortable savings had disappeared, and they owed money to everyone. Drastic action was required to save the little they had left. They mortgaged the Manor and sold off most of the farmland to meet their debts. With fitting irony, the family moved from the Manor into what had been the steward's cottage, renting out the Manor, and concentrating their efforts on their only profitable investment, the flock of sheep.
It had taken Jane's best efforts, aided and abetted by her family, to scrimp and save enough to send the twins to school. It was only right that her brothers be educated as befit the grandsons of a duke. But every time they seemed close to having enough money, another crisis arose. It was three years since she had taken over management of their affairs, and they were little better off now than they had been then.
But Angus was right. With the rent from the Manor going to pay the mortgages, the money they received from the sale of wool was the only real income the family had. Investing in Percival was an investment in their future. Without the flock, things would be grim indeed.
School could wait. The boys had just turned twelve, and another year wouldn't make that much difference. And next year she would find the money, she vowed, no matter what it took.
With this resolution made, Jane left the tiny study and sought out the parlor, where she was sure to find someone to cheer her out of her doldrums. Her timing was perfect, as she found everyone else had already gathered there, in anticipation of tea.
Parlor was really too grand a name for the room, as it was neither large nor elegantly furnished. Delicate chairs from the days of the old king shared space with plain benches of local manufacture. The walls were decorated with Rosemarie's sketches and samplers that the younger girls had made. Still, for all its homeliness, the parlor had the advantages of a good fireplace, and of being large enough to hold all the family at once.
"Jane, I thought you would never lift your head from those accounts. I was about to send Bobby to fetch you," Lady Alice greeted her daughter. "Sit down and I will pour you a cup of tea."
"Thank you, Mama." A stranger looking around the room would have said there was no room for another body, but with the experience of years in a large family, Jane quickly made a place for herself on the bench between her eldest sister Rosemarie and five-year-old Michael, the baby of the family.
"Jane, Jane, you'll never guess what happened," Rosemarie said. The acknowledged beauty of the family, her eyes were sparkling with excitement. Dick obligingly jumped up and fetched the letter from its place of honor on the mantelpiece.
Jane read the letter carefully, conscious of what it said, as well as what it did not say. Lady Barton seldom bothered to acknowledge her older sister's family, and a letter from her was a rare occurrence indeed. Finally Jane finished reading. Folding the letter carefully, she looked up to find all eyes upon her. Even Michael ignored a cream scone in favor of watching whatever fascinated his brothers and sisters.
"It is a generous offer, but —"
Her mother nodded in agreement. "A trifle unusual, considering that she hasn't written to us in almost four years. I wonder what made her think of this?"
"Precisely," Jane replied, relieved that her mother seemed to share her hesitation. "But if she really wanted to help, there are so many other things she could do. The boys' school fees, or the mortgage on the Manor. It seems a waste to spend money on such a frivolous purpose." She had no idea what a London Season would cost, but it was bound to be far more than they could ever repay.
"Well, it is up to you to decide. Your father, rest his soul, always said you had a good head on your shoulders. I am sure you will know what is best."
"But what should I do?" The question was addressed to her mother, but her siblings rushed to add their opinions.
"You must go to London! Just think of the gay times you will have. A handsome duke will fall violently in love with you and sweep you off your feet." Rosemarie sighed at the romantic image, and Jane exchanged an amused glance with her mother.
"Go to London. We don't need to go to school, we do just fine here," Dick and Bobby chimed in together. She should have known how the twins would feel.
"Won't Lady Barton be mad if you refuse?" Katherine asked.
"Why should we care? She's a nasty old witch, anyway," Emily added. Jane hushed her sister, although privately she agreed with the assessment.
The little ones had been quiet, so Jane found herself turning to look at them.
"You decide," said her youngest sister Ellen. Only nine years of age, Ellen had inherited the same practical streak that governed Jane. "You're the one who has to go."
"Let's all go to London," Jonathan offered.
The younger children raised a brief cheer, only to be silenced as Jane shook her head. "There isn't enough money," she explained. Even at seven, Jonathan knew enough to accept this explanation as final.
"And what do you think, Michael?" Jane asked, careful of preserving his five-year-old dignity.
Michael looked at her, and his lower lip stuck out. "Stay," he said, wrapping her in a sticky hug. "You belong to us."
Jane hugged Michael, ruffling his hair affectionately. "Of course I belong with you," she replied. If only matters were that simple. Jane looked down at her teacup, aware from the unusual silence that everyone was waiting for her to elaborate. But there was too much at stake for a hasty decision.
"There is no need to decide this now," said Lady Alice, taking pity on Jane's hesitation. There were a few grumbles, but soon the conversation turned to genial wrangling over whose turn it was to help out Cook.
The next day, Jane went about her usual chores, but the letter continued to prey upon her mind. At breakfast, over a bowl of oatmeal porridge, she decided that she would refuse the offer. Her family would never be able to manage without her. And how could Jane possibly enjoy the luxuries of London, knowing that her family had only the bare necessities?
By midmorning, as she helped prepare for Percival George's arrival, Jane reconsidered her decision. Perhaps she should go. Such a chance might never come again. And she had always planned to marry, after the girls were settled and she was no longer needed. But why not marry now? Think of how much easier it would be to find husbands for her sisters, if she was in a position to sponsor them. Seen in this light, it was selfish of her not to go.
But what kind of gentleman would want to marry her? Jane wondered that evening, as she brushed out her hair in preparation for sleep. Critically Jane examined her reflection in the looking glass. Her familiar features stared back. She was pretty enough, she supposed, having inherited her father's black hair and mother's green eyes. But she was too thin, and far too tall. By the time she was twelve, she was taller than most men in the district. Except Papa, of course.
Years ago, Jane had resigned herself to the fact that she would never be a beauty in the manner of her mother and sisters, all of whom were petite and delicately feminine. It hadn't seemed important, until now. Her lack of looks would make her quest for a husband that much harder. It was one thing for a man to marry a beautiful pauper, but another thing entirely to marry an ordinary-looking girl with no dowry.
Still, she wasn't an antidote. She was young, healthy, and reasonably pretty. She knew all about running a household, and had no expensive tastes. She would make some man a good wife.
But where to find this man? The gentry were scattered thinly through this part of Yorkshire. She could think of only two eligible gentleman in the whole of her acquaintance. And neither of these would do. Sir John Morehouse was from a distinguished family, but he was old enough to be her grandfather, and so feeble that he never ventured off his own grounds these days. And Peter Dawson, the curate, was a nice enough young man, but he was far too poor to take on the responsibility of a wife who came burdened with a large family.
There was no husband to be found here, but perhaps Lady Barton offered an alternative. Surely she could find an agreeable gentleman in London. Someone who would be willing to make a practical arrangement that would secure her family's future. And it wasn't as if she expected to marry for love.
A marriage of convenience was a perfect solution to their troubles, yet as Jane crawled into the bed she shared with Rosemarie, she wondered why she felt so bleak.
The next morning she broached the subject with Angus MacLeod. It was not the usual conversation one had with one's steward, but Angus's practical, earthy wisdom had always served her well in the past. To her surprise, he favored her aunt's scheme.
"It's a rare opportunity, lass, and mighty generous of your aunt to offer to take you in hand."
"But I don't need to be married now. And even if I did, surely there is no reason to go all the way to London to find a husband," Jane argued.
"Well, there's no finding a husband here," Angus observed. "Not a single man for miles around, unless you count Mr. Norton."
Jane shuddered with distaste. Tom Norton was often referred to as the most mean-spirited, tightfisted, and surly man in all of Yorkshire. He had buried two wives already, and Jane had no intention of being the third. Angus was right. If Jane was to find a husband, she would have to leave home.
"But how would you manage without me? You know that Mama has no head at all for business." That was phrasing it mildly. Her mother had no conception of economy. Without Jane's careful scrutiny of expenses, the family would have long since wound up in the poorhouse.
"I reckon we could survive without you, for a while anyway."
First her sisters, and now Angus. It seemed that everyone was anxious to see her leave.
Jane tried another tack. "What if this turns out to be a fool's errand? Lady Barton has shown us no kindness in the past, and I put no faith in her ability to find me a worthy gentleman." The gentlemen that her aunt thought suitable might make Tom Norton look pleasant in comparison.
"I still think you should go. If you find yourself a steady chap, someone with a bit of blunt, then you'll be better off than you are now. If not, no harm done. You'll have a bit of fun, then come back home, and things will be as they are now."
Jane was unconvinced, but not even to Angus would she admit her true reservations. How could she explain that she, who wasn't afraid of anything in Yorkshire, found the idea of mixing with London society frightening?
Here in Barkhamsted Jane knew who she was. Over the past years she had won the respect of the local farmers and landowners. She knew every nook and cranny of the family land, and the pedigree of each member of her flock. She was as comfortable helping the shepherds with the shearing as she was meeting with the wool buyers in York, or discussing scientific farming methods with Squire Jones.
But she knew nothing of the grand society that formed her aunt's acquaintance. Would Lady Barton's set welcome her, or scorn her as a country bumpkin? And could she bear to leave her own family to become some gentleman's wife?
This was a hard decision to make alone, yet there was no one besides Angus who could advise her. Jane loved her mother dearly, but knew her mother would be of no help. After all, Lady Alice had given up everything to marry the man she loved. She was hardly in a position to advise Jane on the benefits of a marriage of convenience.
This wasn't the first time Jane had mulled through a problem on her own. Since the disaster with Mr. Cartwright, all of the important decisions had been left to her. It had been Jane who, on the advice of Angus MacLeod, decided to economize by renting out the Manor and moving the family into the cottage where they now lived. The cottage was too small for such a large family, but it was a sacrifice that had to be made.
Life was hard, but no one had complained, or criticized Jane's decisions. Sitting around the table that evening, observing the familiar wrangling, they all seemed very precious. Every one of them, from Rosemarie with her foolish fancies, to Michael who looked lost in a handed-down jacket of Jonathan's that was much too big for him.
She was making a fuss over nothing. Lady Barton's offer was a golden opportunity that might never come again. Jane had always planned to marry someday, so why not pick a gentleman with a small fortune? And people were people, so how strange could London be? A flicker of apprehension crossed her mind, but Jane resolutely banished it with a decisive nod of her head.
"Is something wrong, Jane?" her mother asked.
"Not at all," Jane replied firmly. "But I have decided to go to London."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A London Season"
Copyright © 1997 Patricia Bray.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Easy rading. Not muvh of a plot or drama