THE MARRIAGE PLOT
Ophelia Elliot has delayed marriage long enough. Now, for the sake of her future, she must choose between three impatient suitors. But she’s determined to use only the most rational of methods to make her decision. And when her dear friend, Sidney Mason, offers to help, how can the discerning debutante resist? Besides, spending time with him is no hardship—his dashing looks and irresistible laughter have delighted her for years. Not that Sidney is a suitable prospect. As a member of Parliament, he’s already married to the state. No matter how chivalrous his attentions, falling in love with him would be most unreasonable . . .
The fact is, Sidney finds Ophelia infuriatingly stubborn—and yet there is no other woman for him. Convincing her that she must marry for love—his love—will be a formidable challenge. So he concocts a clever strategy to expose her suitors’ true natures—and show the strong-willed beauty that when it comes to marriage, it is imperative that she follow her heart—straight into his strong and loving arms . . .
“Rachael Miles’ knowledge of the time period she writes about adds a depth of authenticity that enriches every page.” —Jodi Thomas, New York Times bestselling author
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A Muses' Salon Novella
By Rachael Miles
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Rachael Miles
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"But with such a momentous decision as marriage, I must choose wisely." Ophelia Gardiner paced the drawing room, from the window to the door and then back again. With each circuit, she avoided the long legs of her sixteen-year-old brother, Thomas Gardiner, Lord Wilmot. "Surely you both understand that."
"Of course we do. But you have been hesitating, and we wish to know your reasons." Judith Alderson, Ophelia's cousin, watched as Ophelia paced the room. "Once you narrowed the field to three suitors, we expected a decision but that was months ago."
"Judith's right, as usual." Tom shifted his legs out of Ophelia's path. "It's almost as if you are waiting for them to lose interest and find other prospects."
"I had hoped ..." Ophelia paused, searching for the right words. "I wished ..." She began again but stopped once more. To avoid the concerned looks of her brother and sister, she turned her face to the window. Her words hung in the silence of the drawing room.
After several seconds, Judith spoke, hesitantly.
"Why don't you gather your thoughts for a few minutes, while I set Tom to reviewing the documents my father sent to town? I've been married for over a year, yet I am still Father's courier whenever I come to town." Judith removed a thick stack of documents from a leather portfolio. Motioning for Tom to sit at the desk, she sorted the papers into tidy stacks.
Tom made a show of dragging himself from his chair to the desk. With his thumb, Tom measured the thickness of the first document Judith set before him, then with an exaggerated sigh, he began to read the pages sent him by his guardian.
Judith joined Ophelia at the window.
"Is it merely a pretty day? Or are you wishing to escape through the window?" Judith whispered, twining her arm through Ophelia's. "The square is crowded enough. We might not find you for days."
Ophelia pointed toward the park entrance in the far distance. "I've called for breakfast to be served when Kate and Ariel return with Aidan. I was watching for them. But yes, escape sounds very appealing. Unfortunately, I have nowhere to go and no means to go there. Unlike Tom, neither I nor my sisters can access our funds until we turn twenty-five."
"Is that your plan, to make yourself a spinster and live on your inheritance?"
"No, my portion amounts to less than twenty pounds a year, not enough to live on alone." Ophelia fell silent once more, indecision stifling her voice.
"But you've considered it."
"I've considered every possible option and permutation. In every assessment, marriage is my best choice."
"Then what is the sticking point?"
Ophelia sighed. "Each of my suitors offers a very different sort of life, and I can't decide between them."
"There is something else to consider." Judith looked over her shoulder at Tom to see he was absorbed in his work. "It's the real reason I came to town. I didn't trust a letter."
"You make whatever it is sound quite nefarious." Ophelia was puzzled; Judith was never so dramatic.
"Nefarious might be a good word for it." Judith squeezed Ophelia's elbow. "But you must keep my suspicions a secret. No one can know, not your Aunt Millicent, not even my own brothers."
"I've never revealed any of our secrets."
"Your future happiness depends on it." With another look at Tom, Judith spoke quietly but firmly. "With my marriage, the duke realized the financial benefits of having a daughter. His brokering of my marriage has enriched the estates. I'm afraid he has begun to think of how he can capitalize on your and your sisters' marriages."
"Broker. Capitalize. Can the duke possibly be so mercenary as to care about the marriages of we three girls?"
"Can be and is."
Ophelia patted Judith's hand reassuringly. "Don't worry. Aunt Millicent is adamant that we choose our own futures, and she has promised us as long as we need to decide. In addition, our father's will was quite specific: the duke rears Tom, but Aunt Millicent rears we girls."
"Ophelia, a duke does as he wishes. The will indicates only that Millicent should rear you. It doesn't say where, and it certainly doesn't say in her house in London. Father could simply insist that Millicent keep you girls under his roof, and, as duke, he has that power."
"She'd never agree to that." Ophelia objected, then grew suspicious. "How do you know what the will says?"
"I found it on Father's desk in a pile of papers to be filed. Besides, I know how he thinks." Judith glanced once more at Tom. "Father arrives on Friday. If you wish to make your own decision, do it before then. In fact, do it, get your aunt's blessing, and announce your decision somewhere very public — somewhere that would make him feel he had more to lose than gain by opposing you. Leave him only the negotiation, not the choice of the man."
Ophelia suddenly felt a bone-deep regret, realizing — too late — why she had heard so little of Judith since her marriage. "Are you not happy in your marriage?" she whispered.
Judith paused. Her voice, when she spoke, was filled with sadness. "My brother Aaron has made a career of dissipation, but I didn't learn how much his debts had drained the estate accounts until after my marriage. Father had two requirements for my husband, and Alderson met them both."
"Which were?" Ophelia whispered.
"Ready cash and the means to make more of it," Judith said matter-of-factly. "Alderson wanted the prestige of an alliance with a duke. But after a year of seeing his hard-won profits go to feed Aaron's vices, Alderson clearly regrets the bargain, although he is too polite to say it." Judith's tone shifted to a more playful one, but the undertone of sadness remained. "Someday after Father is gone, I will make myself thoroughly disreputable. I'll send anonymous letters to the London Times detailing every delectable detail, until the scandal reaches such a pitch that I have no choice but to retire in disgrace to the continent — if there is a continent left after Boney."
"Judith, you can't be serious."
"Oh, I am serious, Phee, with all my heart. Like you, I have no means to support myself. So, I wait. Alderson is forty years my senior, so the odds that I will outlive him are good. Until then, I make myself valuable: a useful secretary to Alderson, and a trusted courier to Father."
"What would you do?"
"If Alderson were dead, and I were free? I will never remarry. Perhaps I will fill the East Wing with beggars and set up a school. But back to my point. Aaron refuses to retrench. Soon, the estate will need another influx of funds, and Father has learned the value of bartering off a female relation to a member of the new rich. So, you must choose, Phee, and soon. Otherwise, you might find yourself in a profitable, but not happy, match."
Before Ophelia could question her cousin further, Tom interrupted. "Judith, the duke's instructions indicate I'm to initial each page. But there are more than a hundred pages in this document alone."
"The duke wishes to ensure that you fully understand the responsibility you incur by taking on the management of your estates now."
"But he's written a treatise on estate management." Tom held up a thick portion of his stack. "This section surveys the various livestock the estate currently raises. I've finished rabbits, horses, sheep, and goats, and I've arrived at pigs. What they eat — which is, by the way, everything — when to take them to market, what return I can expect, and so forth. After this, there are sections on crops, cottagers, other tenants, market towns, and the list goes on." Tom held up a sheet of paper, filled with many narrow lines of handwriting. "Even the table of contents is daunting."
"At least you aren't reading it in the duke's crabbed hand." Judith left Ophelia at the window to oversee Tom's work.
"I pity his secretary," Tom growled. "You would understand if you had to read this ... thing."
"Then pity me. To keep his advice in the family, the duke had me copy it out fair for you. I will entertain no complaints when you get to the sections on enclosing lands and dredging swamps."
"My estate doesn't have any swamp on it," Tom objected. "Or at least it didn't when I visited last."
"It has a swamp now. But you'll have ample time to investigate all the aspects of your land when you visit later this month."
"It's one of the duke's stipulations for transferring the property to your management. It's the last document in the pile. But keep reading. You have five more documents after that one."
"Ophelia, you could save me from this hell," Tom joked. "I'm only taking over the estate management to ensure that, should Aunt Millicent die, you and the girls will have a congenial place to live. But if you would choose a husband, you would have your own household, and the girls could live with you ... at least until Aidan and I return from our Grand Tour." Tom paused, but Ophelia said nothing. He blew out a breath. "Well, then, back to my pigs."
Ophelia remained at the window. She felt sadder and wiser from knowing her cousin's plight. But even so, she could not choose. She needed something more, something to throw the balance in one man's favor over the others. What it was, or how to find it out, she had no idea. But she knew one thing: she had to choose with her head, not her heart. Her heart had led her astray before.
In the distance, Ophelia spotted her sisters Kate and Ariel being escorted home by Judith's younger brother, Aidan Somerville. With some relief, Ophelia began to rearrange the room's furniture for their arrival.
Aunt Millicent had spent her youth in France, and her furniture harkened to the comforts of Louis XIV's court. To each side of the fireplace stood a comfortably stuffed sofa. One was a chaise longue, which Kate and Ariel often shared; the other was a duchesse brisée, a long couch formed by two chairs and a connecting footstool. Ophelia separated the three parts, making the footstool into a space for the tea service. Facing the fireplace at the end of the couches was the desk where Judith and Tom sat.
"Tom, we haven't enough chairs for everyone," Ophelia observed. But Tom and Judith were focused on the duke's papers, as Judith replaced the first thick stack with another. Tom groaned, then began reading the top sheet. A few moments later Ophelia's sisters, boisterous and happy, burst into the room, laughing with their cousin Aidan.
"Aidan saved a kitten from a tree." Kate announced proudly, taking her regular seat on the chaise longue nearest to her sewing table.
"More truthfully, Aidan climbed the tree, got caught on a branch, and while he was extricating himself, the kitten climbed down his back and ran away." Ariel corrected, then, picking up the book she had been reading before their walk, sat on the opposite end of the chaise.
"That was, of course, my plan." Aidan interjected. "It's always best to let the kitten think it's saving itself."
As everyone settled in, footmen quietly delivered breakfast. One placed platters with toast, ham, jam, and tea cakes on the sideboard. The other set the tea and coffee services on the duchesse brisée's footstool, along with a platter of sandwiches cut delicately into small triangles. The family lined up at the sideboard and filled their plates. Aidan, ignoring the space left for him in the middle of the chaise, made his seat on the floor nearest the footstool, within an easy arm's reach of the sandwiches.
"Judith and I were encouraging Ophelia to choose a husband in time to announce her engagement by the Paverset ball." Tom, undaunted, reopened the conversation, as he returned to the desk. "If she were to decide quickly, we could celebrate for a week: her birthday tonight, the Paverset ball next Saturday, and her engagement sometime between."
"That's an excellent idea. The Paverset ball is always well attended: everyone will be there." Judith counted the remaining documents her father had sent.
Ophelia, still considering her cousin's news, tried to answer diplomatically. "I haven't delayed this long to rush any decision. And I'm certainly not going to decide merely to announce it before a ball."
Judith looked up, clearly disappointed, then returned to the duke's papers.
Ophelia took her place before the tea service. Enough cups and saucers, but the food wouldn't last long, not with Aidan and Tom at the hungry age of sixteen. "Until Sidney and Aunt Millicent arrive, we are six. I'm assuming that everyone wants tea?"
"I want tea, but no husband." Ariel, already a philosopher at thirteen, balanced her plate and her book. "I will be just like Mary Astell and Aunt Millicent, devoted to a life of study and good works. Besides, as Astell points out, Ophelia doesn't get to choose, she can only accept or reject what is offered to her." As punctuation, Ariel turned her book — Astell's provocative essay on women's education — into a small tray for her plate.
"What does your heart say?" Fourteen-year-old Kate gazed adoringly at cousin Aidan while she knit. "One must always follow one's heart."
"Forget her heart. What does her brother say?" Tom interjected. "Doesn't society say that his — by which I mean my — opinion is the only one that matters?"
"My brother has been quite useless on this point. I've asked him — by which I mean you — to accompany me to balls or to rout out eligible young men at university. But to no avail. Aren't you supposed to vet the men, then indicate which are suitable?" Ophelia motioned for the footman to remove the empty breakfast trays and to bring more tea cakes and sandwiches.
"I tried to give you advice once, Phee. And you emptied a bucket of cow's milk on my head." Tom stopped to trim his pen, deftly creating a nib with three quick strokes of his knife.
"That was years ago. And besides, that time, I didn't ask for your advice." Ophelia handed Aidan his cup, then moved the sandwich tray several inches out of his reach.
"Phee!" Aidan offered his most plaintive look. "I'm only trying to make a proper sandwich out of these cut-up bits."
"By my count, you've already eaten the equivalent of four proper sandwiches," Judith chided. "Leave the rest for your cousins."
"He can have my portion." Kate removed her plate from the sewing table and held it out to Aidan. Her unrequited love for her second cousin dated to her seventh birthday when Aidan helped her return a fallen fledgling to its nest.
"No, Katie, I won't take food from your mouth." Aidan pulled the sandwich tray closer. "But if Tom and Judith won't retrieve their sandwiches from the platter, then I have no qualms about eating theirs."
Ophelia removed several sandwiches to a plate and handed it to Judith and Tom.
Tom picked up the butter and ham, leaving the watercress for Judith. "Ophelia, I've already told you which man gets the nod from me. By the way, I thought Sidney was coming for your birthday breakfast."
"Since he's not here, I'm happy to eat his portion." Aidan held out his plate to be filled. Ophelia took the plate from his hand, and rising, set it on the sideboard.
Ophelia walked to the window once again, looking for Sidney Mason, their neighbor. Below the window, walking swiftly on the pavement in front of the house, Sidney, tall and smartly dressed, approached, carrying a large box. Seeing Ophelia standing in the window, Sidney, smiling, tipped his hat. Then balancing the box in one hand, he carefully mocked a full court bow. She held back a laugh, relieved. Surely, Tom would let go of the question of her marriage with Sidney present. And without Tom pursuing the question of her engagement, Sidney, always affable, would help her steer the conversation to something more entertaining. She needed time to consider Judith's warning.
Ophelia watched, rapt, as Sidney reached the porch, his long legs taking the steps two at a time. No man had the grace or style of Sidney Mason. Perhaps ... but Sidney pitied her — and that made him a man she could not marry. She turned the thought away.
Sidney entered the drawing room moments later. "I told the butler that I would announce myself." He set the box on the edge of the desk and greeted the company. "I regret arriving late."
"Had you been any later, Aidan would have eaten all your breakfast. He's already stolen all the remaining sandwiches." Ariel held forth a plate with several tea cakes remaining. "I hid some food for you on my plate."
"That's my girl, Ariel. Hold them just another moment for me, will you?" Sidney retrieved three wrapped objects from the box. "Every Gardiner girl gets a gift on Ophelia's birthday — and Judith as well." Both girls made quick work of the wrapping, Ariel receiving a stack of heavy drawing paper, and Kate a set of embroidery patterns first published in the Lady's Magazine.
Excerpted from Charming Ophelia by Rachael Miles. Copyright © 2017 Rachael Miles. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I really enjoyed this quick read and fell in love with Sidney a bit myself!! This is a great little addition to the Muses' Salon series!
3.5 Stars 'Charming Ophelia' by Rachael Miles is book 3.5 in the "The Muses' Salon" series. This is the story of Ophelia Elliot and Sidney Mason and is about 115 pages long. This was a nice Friends to lovers/romance story. Sidney has always had feelings it seems more on the Romantic side for Ophelia then on the friendship side. Ophelia has settled on three gentleman of who might would make a good husband. Sidney has been playing the friendship card but now he is serious about showing her another side of him. Sidney goes through with showing flaws with the gentlemen that she has chosen.
1805 Ophelia Gardiner is avoiding marriage because she cannot seem to choose which suitor suits her. Her large family is urging her to make a choice and are offering their opinions. One suitor is Sidney Mason, a neighbor. The man has grace, style, and is cheerful. But Ophelia insists that they could only ever be friends. While Sidney is a good choice, Ophelia feels he is so enmeshed in his Parliament duties that theirs would not be a good marriage. However, Sidney is quite skilled in his diplomacy which helps to improve cooperation between the political factions. Today is Ophelia’s birthday and all of her family and friends have given her gifts. Tonight, Sidney is taking all of them to a play. There, he begins to point out the things that might make his competition for Ophelia’s hand look bad. He does try to list the good things and bad things of each man for her to consider. Sidney seems to be the perfect choice but Ophelia wonders if their marriage would be boring. Whom will she choose? This is simply an OK story and I felt it lacked real substance to make it appeal to readers. Unfortunately, it did not appeal to me. I did like Sidney and found him to be a terrific choice and couldn’t figure out why Ophelia seemed so blasé about making a choice. Copy provided by NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.