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"Blast it all last it all, I'm a marquess, not a bloody governess." Thomas Effington, the Marquess of Helmsley and future Duke of Roxborough, drained the glass of brandy he held in his hand and promptly poured another.
Randall, Viscount Beaumont, studied him over the rim of his own glass. "You've mentioned that already this evening. Several times, in fact."
"It bears repeating." Thomas sank into a wing chair identical to the one his friend occupied. Both were angled toward the massive oak desk that had well served the previous eight Dukes of Roxborough.
For a moment he considered suggesting they move to the sofa facing the fireplace at the far end of the long Effington House library. In spite of the fine spring day, the evening was cool and the warmth of the fire would be welcome. Still, these chairs were closer to the cabinet that housed his father's supply of spirits and their proxirnity was more important than mere creature comfort.
Thomas drew a long, appreciative swallow. There was a great deal of warmth to be had right here. "I ask you, Rand, how can my family possibly expect me to find a bride-their idea, mind you, not mine -- if I'm also expected to play nursemaid?"
"I'd scarce call it playing nursemaid. Or perhaps I've misunderstood." Rand glanced wryly at his drink. "It's entirely possible I've overlooked some of the finer details of your dilemma."
"It's quite simple." Thomas heaved a heartfelt sigh and launched into a recitation he thought he'd already given at least once tonight, although at the moment he was not entirely certain. "Last year my sister, Gillian, married Richard, theEarl of Shelbrooke. You know him, don't you?"
"I know of him."
"He promised his three youngest sisters -- they've been raised in the country -- a season in London, with all the stuff and nonsense such a thing entails to women. My mother --"
"Ah, yes, the Duchess of Roxborough," Rand said, "and a woman not to be trifled with, if rumor serves."
"None of the Effington women are to be trifled with. From my grandmother to my youngest cousins, they are stubborn and opinionated to the last." Thomas glared at his glass. "My mother had planned to take Richard's sisters under her wing personally and had gone so far as to arrange for a come-out ball for them. It seems my sister was something of a disappointment to her when she married her first husband after only one season. It was all my mother could do to keep from drooling at the very thought of steering not one but three young women through the rigors of a first season. And as an added bonus, I'd finally agreed to seriously look for a bride." He narrowed his eyes. "She was quite beside herself with glee at the thought of it all."
Rand snorted with ill-concealed amusement.
Thomas slumped deeper in his chair. "Unfortunately, my parents are no longer in England, and I've been forced into the temporary role of head of the family, with all the accompanying headaches and responsibilities."
"Pity. Are you up to it?"
"When it comes to handling estate concerns or family business or my own financial affairs, for that matter, I haven't a worry. Effington men may well spend their nights in questionable pursuits, but we are remarkably competent when it comes to the maintenance and increase of the family fortune. Runs in the blood." He grinned and raised his glass in a salute. "Even my more disreputable ancestors didn't squander whatever wealth they'd stolen."
Rand laughed and lifted his glass. "To the Effington ancestors, then." He took a sip. "A shame the Beaumonts can't say the same. Now, where have the duke and duchess gone?"
"America." Thomas grimaced. "Richard and Gillian inherited a great deal of property in that godforsaken land and for some absurd reason wanted to see it in person. While there, Richard had the nerve to get her with child."
"Damned inconsiderate of him."
"I thought so. And he calls himself my friend." Thomas pulled a long sip and considered the events of the last year. He'd been delighted when his dearest friend had fallen in love with his sister. And no one could have been more pleased than Thomas when the couple had been the beneficiary of a substantial inheritance. Now, however, he did wish Richard's timing had been better. "When my mother learned of Gillian's state, not more than a month ago, she insisted on going to be with her rather than having Gillian risk the voyage home. First grandchild, and all that."
"And the duke went with her?"
Thomas nodded. "He's never been to America and apparently has a much more adventurous streak than I'd ever credited him with."
"Bad piece of luck there. Still, correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought England was riddled with Effingtons. Surely there's some other relation, preferably female, who can shepherd these girls around for the season?"
"One would think, but this year they all seem to have scattered to the four comers of the earth, One branch of the family is hanging about old ruins somewhere -- Greece, I believe. Richard's oldest sister and her husband are in Paris, and everyone else in the family is too taken up with their own affairs to lend any assistance whatsoever. In short, old man, I'm trapped. Saddled with the responsibility of launching three girls onto the choppy seas of society." Thomas blew a long breath. "As well as fulfilling a promise to find a bride of my own this season."
"What on earth possessed you?"
"Oh, the usual reasons," Thomas said grimly. "I'm three and thirty. My father, my mother and even my sister delight in pointing out to me the need...