Most girls would dream of marriage to the dashing Earl of Stanton, darling of the ton. For plain Lady Felicity Weston, who is used to being ignored, it's a terrifying prospect!
Richard thought love was for fools. Although, after an explosive wedding night, he's intrigued by his shy new bride.
Day by day the tentative trust between these newlyweds grows. But the stakes in this marriage of convenience are raised when Felicity falls pregnant Will giving the earl an heir finally help this wallflower blossom into a confident countess?
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Late August 1811Bath
'Mama, I should like you to arrange a marriage for me.'
Felicity held her breath as she leant back against the solid strength of her mother's sitting-room door. Lady Katherine Farlowe reclined upon a rose-coloured sofa, clad in a pale pink chiffon robe trimmed with swansdown. Her already huge blue eyes widened as she stared at her only surviving daughter.
'Oh, my darling girl. I am so happy for you.' Lady Katherine arose elegantly and wafted across the room to Felicity. 'Who is the lucky man?'
Felicity braced herself as her mother enveloped her in a scented embrace. 'I don't know.' Her voice was muffled against her mother's breast; the swansdown tickled her nose. 'That is why I am asking you to arrange it.'
Lady Katherine released Felicity and stepped back, a frown creasing her soft white skin. 'But. J do not understand. Why? What about love? Do you not want to be happy in your marriage?'
Felicity bit back her cynical riposte. Her mother was an incurable romantic. Felicity knew better. Love, particularly unrequited love, was agony. She had seen it with her sister. She had lived it with her mothera woman who was adept at closing her eyes and her mind against all unpleasantness. No, she was determined to never feel anything for her husband other than friendship. She would not, like the other women in her family, fall victim to the heartache of unrequited love.
Besides, at four-and-twenty, and after having been on the marriage mart for nigh on six years, the chances of Felicity making a love match were close to zero. She could not recall any man showing her particular attention, despite being the daughter of an earl and possessing a respectable dowry. She had lived her life overshadowed by the beauty of her mother and of her older sister, Emma, before she died.
'I would like my own household,' she said, in reply to her mother's incredulous questions, 'and, eventually, children.'
She felt the heat building in her cheeks as she said the words. She had never admitted that dream out loud before, not even to Beanie, her old nursemaid, but at least her desire for children made this previously unthinkable decision more tolerable. She would wedif her mother could find her someone suitable. Marriage had become the best of a poor set of options available to her.
'Come and sit by me, Felicity.'
Mama was clearly overjoyed, despite the further proof of her daughter's lack of feminine attributes. She had long despaired over Felicity's sad lack of looks, of her inability to make the best of what she had and of her consistent refusal to pander to the mores of society and the expectations of a young woman by seeking a husband. As time had passed, and as Felicity had aged, Lady Katherine had expected less and less of her. And that had suited Felicity perfectly.
Until this past year.
Felicity banished all thought of her new stepfather, Mr Quentin Farlowe: the sole reason for this drastic step. She could never admit that to her motherthe slightest criticism of the latest love of Lady Katherine's life would be met with tears and reproaches and, ultimately, stubborn denial.
Lady Katherine took Felicity's hand, turning it over in her own lily-white hands.
'Tsk. I declare, Felicity, if only you would use Bloom of Ninon on your skin, as I have begged you to do, time without number, you would have hands to be proud of. Like mine,' she added, with satisfaction, as she extended her arm and splayed her plump, bejewelled fingers. 'You will want your husband to be proud you wear his ring, will you not?' Will I? 'Well, Mama? Will you arrange a marriage for me?'
Lady Katherine sighed. 'How I can have given birth to an unromantic soul like you, my darling, I have no idea. Even your dear Papa, God rest his soul, was more romantic, and that is not saying a great deal.'
Felicity pondered this observation of her late father's character. She had watched her parents' marriage: her mother, hopelessly besotted; her father, benignly indulgent of his wifeas long as she did not interfere with his pleasures. Her mother had been deeply hurt by her father's careless neglect and by his affaires. And now, as for her mother's new husband Felicity clamped down her stewing resentment. It seemed it was the way of aristocratic gentlemento pursue their own pleasures, including other women, without regard for the pain it caused.
'Now, who is there?' Lady Katherine tapped one finger against her perfect Cupid's bow. 'There's young Avon. You've always been close, and he is heir to the duke.'
'No! I beg your pardon, Mama, but I should prefer an older man. Not only is Dominic younger than me, he is like a brother. I could never marry him, even if he were ready to settle down, which he is not. No, I do not want young, or handsome, or popular. I want ordinary.'
I cannot marry a man I might fall in love with. I will not risk that.
She could not delude herself that her husband would love her. If neither Mama nor Emma, with all their beauty, could engender such feelings in the men they had loved, what chance did Felicity have?
Felicity watched as her mother visibly swallowed her disappointment. 'Well, it all sounds most unsatisfactory. However, I am sure you know your own mind, Felicity. You always have been an odd girl. Not like my poor, dear Emma ' The all-too-ready tears brimmed over, spilling down Lady Katherine's smooth cheeks. She heaved a sigh, raising a hand to her chest as it swelled. 'Very well, Felicity. I shall consult with the duke. He will surely know of someone. I shall write to him immediately.'
The Duke of CheritonCousin Leowas Felicity's joint guardian, together with her mother, until such time as she married or reached the age of thirty, whichever came sooner.
Felicity must hope he would find some pleasant, unremarkable gentleman with whom she might be content.
'Stan. Good to see you.'
Leo Beauchamp, Duke of Cheriton, clasped the hand of Richard Durant, Earl of Stanton, in a firm grip as they met in the elegant hall at Fernley Park in the County of Hampshire, Richard's family seat.
'Your Grace,' Richard said, grinning, fully aware Leo hated his friends to stand on ceremony. 'Have you come up from Cheriton today?'
'No. Bath, as a matter of fact.'
Richard raised his brows. 'Bath? I had not thought you were in your dotage quite yet, old chap.'
Leo cuffed Richard playfully on the ear. 'Enough of your cheek, pup,' he said, although he was only seven years older. 'I was not there to partake of the waters.'
'Care to enlighten me as to why you went there?'
'I was summoned by my cousin Baverstock's widow on family business.'
Richard knit his brow. 'Baverstock? Oh, yes quite the beauty, his widow, if I remember rightly.'
'Yes, she was is. She remarried in April. Farlowe.'
Richard whistled. 'Went to welcome him into the family, did you?'
Leo snorted. 'Hardly. I tried to warn her off, but she was as determined to have him as he was to secure her. Her income alone will be enough to allow him to live like a nabob.'
'Fortunate fellow, falling on his feet like that. I could wish Charles such luck. Mayhap a wealthy widow would remove him from my back.'
Charles Durant, a distant cousin, was Richard's heir, and regularly applied to Richard to settle his debts. Richard thrust aside his momentary qualm at the thought of Charles ever inheriting the title and the estates. He was fit and healthy and had every intention of living a long time.
A footman opened the salon door as they approached and they dropped the subject as they joined Richard's other guestsgathered for the first evening of a shooting party. It was an all-male event, as Richard's mother was away from home, visiting an old friend.
The messenger arrived as dusk fell on the second day of the shoot. The weather had remained fine, the birds were plentiful, and beaters and shooters alike were happily exhausted after a successful day. The news of the death of Lord Cravenan old school friend of Richard'sin a fall whilst out hunting shook them all but, for Richard, it was particularly painful, resurrecting the dark, agonising time when his older brother, Adam, had been killed in a shooting accident sixteen years before. Richard had been away at school at the time and, poignantly, it had been Craven who had comforted him when he heard the news.
He had returned home to find his parents changed beyond recognition: his father almost mad with grief, scarcely eating or sleeping, and his mother bitter and withdrawn. His parents had barely communicated with each other or with him. Richard had inherited the earldom at the tender age of seventeen, after his father had followed Adam into the grave and, since then, it seemed to Richard that his mother's only interest in him was as a means to secure the succession of the title.
Many an argument had raged over his refusal to contemplate marriage to protect the title and estates, but he had held fast. He was one of the most accomplished sportsmen in the ton. He led a full and active life and was universally admired and feted for his prowess on a horse, his precision with the ribbons, his expertise with an epee, his shooting skills, and even his invincibility in the ring. He was in no hurry to don leg shackles. The only obstacle to his contentment was his mother's persistent harassment about the risks he took, and her refusal to retire to the dower house until there was a new mistress to run Fernley Park.
But now Craven's death made Richard question his stand. If he did nothing, might his mother's great fear of Charles laying waste to the estates be realized?
The atmosphere after dinner that evening was sombre. Most of his guests settled down to play cards after dinner, but Richard declined to join them, in no mood to play the convivial host. He wandered into the library, where he found Leo, alone, pushing chess pieces around a board in a desultory manner.
'Care for a game?'
Richard shrugged, and pulled up a chair. Preoccupied and uneasy, he found it nigh on impossible to concentrate on the game, his thoughts dominated by his mother's diatribes about sporting activities and premature death.
He moved his bishop and cursed under his breath as Leo swooped with his knight to seize the piece. He looked up to meet Leo's quizzical gaze.
'Things on your mind, Stan?'
'Craven; hard to believe, isn't it?'
'Sad business. It must bring back unpleasant memories for you.'
Leo had been a close friend of Adam's and a frequent visitor to Fernley Park during his youth. He had supported Richard through those lonely years after his father's death, having experienced for himself the pressures of inheriting such power and wealth at an early age. They had been friends ever since.
Richard reached for a bishop, hesitated, then withdrew his hand. Moving it would expose his queen.
'How old was he? Thirtyish?'
'Two-and-thirty: the same age as me. We were at Eton together.' Richard fell silent, still contemplating his next move. He reached for a pawn. 'It's brought home my responsibilities, though. There's no shying away from it: I've decided it's time to settle the future.'
Now the words were out in the open, Richard, paradoxically, felt better. The tension that had plagued him throughout the evening began to dissipate.
Besides, marrying will have the added bonus of removing Mother to the Lodge.
The thought of Fernley Park without his mother made even marriage seem appealing. Her presence constantly reminded him of his failure as a son and he was conscious he avoided coming home, leaving more and more of the business to Elliott, his bailiff. Remorse filled him at his antipathy towards his own mother: all he could feel for her was filial duty and responsibility. Since Adam's death, she had withdrawn any hint of affection for him. And then his father had He swallowed hard. If only he had tried harder. Been a better son.
Could I have stopped him? Would he still be here?
His father's death had rocked what remained of their family and shifted their world on its axis. Scandal had been avoided but neither he nor his mother had been the same since.
'Much as I like Charles,' he added, placing his pawn on a square at random, 'I cannot risk him running the estate to ruin.'
'Indeed. He is a somewhat profligate young man.' Leo moved his queen, capturing the pawn Richard had just moved. 'I hear the duns are sniffing at his heels again.'
'So soon? I only bailed him out last year. I thought his debts were all cleared.'
'I have no doubt they were. I believe I cautioned you at the time not to throw good money after bad.'
'You did, and I should have heeded your advice. You've never steered me wrong yet.'
Leo smiled. 'I like to think I still have some uses,' he murmured, moving a rook. 'So, you are thinking of marriage. Might I enquire as to the identity of the lucky lady?'
Richard huffed a mirthless laugh. 'I have no idea. There is no one who springs immediately to mind. As long as she's well born, is of an amiable and compliant nature, and is not minded to interfere with my life, I am sure I can find someone to suit.' He picked up his bishop, hesitated, then took one of Leo's pawns.
'Aha,' Leo said, with satisfaction, as he swooped on Richard's queen. 'Mine, I believe.'
Richard sighed. His mind was definitely not on the game. They had barely begun but, studying the pieces left on the board, he could see he was in trouble.
'A marriage of convenience?' Leo said. 'Are you certain that is what you want? A compliant wife?'
'Why ever not? I have no interest in a love match and, if I crave excitement, I can find plenty outside my domestic arrangements. No. A nice, compliant lady, content to run a comfortable household and to look after my childrenthat will suit me very well.'
'In that case,' Leo said, 'I might know just the girl for you.