A marriage of convenience leads to an unlikely chance at love for a beautiful widow and a mysterious Earl in this heartfelt Victorian romance.
Riordan Wollstonecraft labors under the heavy burden of his forebears. For generations, a curse has followed the dashing young men of his family, guaranteeing the women they love an untimely death. The youngest grandson of the Earl of Wollstonecraft Hall, charismatic Riordan is quietly resigned to his fate. An educator who devotes his life to good works, he ignores any longing for something more . . .
Widowed and penniless, Lady Sabrina Lakeside is desperate to avoid a second forced betrothal—this time to an aged marquess. Her chance encounter with Riordan leads her to an impulsive offer: a temporary marriage that could benefit them both. His agreement is as surprising as it is welcome. Before long, Riordan’s keen intellect and kind heart have Sabrina thinking their marriage of convenience could be something more. But her new husband is holding something back. Will giving in to their passion lead only to further heartache . . . or could it be the first step toward healing?
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Wollstonecraft Hall, Kent August 1844
Growing up in an ancient, medieval hall filled with powerful men had not been without its issues, especially when tragedy and loss hung over the place like a heavy, melancholy mist on the moors. Today, however, Riordan was ready to embark on a new chapter of his young life.
Since sleep had been sporadic the previous night, he arrived in the dining room for breakfast and the first-Monday-of-the-month family meeting before the rest of his family. Rubbing his hands together to elicit a little warmth as he entered the room, the enticing aromas of bacon, ham, and coffee filled his senses. Murmuring "good morning" to the phalanx of footmen standing by, Riordan lifted the covers of the silver chafing dishes and commenced loading his plate with food.
Martin, the butler, already well-versed in Riordan's beverage preference, prepared his tea the way he liked it, with two teaspoons of sugar and the milk added first. He set the cup and saucer on the table next to Riordan. "Cook made cinnamon scones, sir. Would you care for one? I know how you enjoy them."
"After I tackle this rasher of bacon, I will. Thank you, Martin." Popping a forkful of curried eggs in his mouth, he nodded to his father, Julian Wollstonecraft, Viscount Tensbridge, as he strode into the room. All the Wollstonecraft men were tall and dark-haired, save his Uncle Garrett, his father's thirty-two-year-old half brother. At the age of forty-five, his father had threads of gray at his temples but was often mistaken for someone younger. His detached, distinguished air bespoke of their venerated lineage.
"Already tucking in, I see." His father gave him an amused smile as he took his seat, content to allow Martin to serve him.
"I'm blasted hungry this morning. Perhaps it is the change in temperature," Riordan said between bites.
"Coffee this morning, my lord?" Martin asked.
"Yes. Coffee it is. And ham instead of bacon." Julian snapped open the linen napkin and laid it on his lap. "Riordan, where is your older brother?"
Older by fifteen minutes, Aidan was the heir apparent and Riordan was fine with it. His paternal twin had stumbled in at three in the morning; he couldn't help but hear his brother's cursing and bumping into furniture from across the hall. "Still asleep, I believe."
His father sighed. "Martin, send one of the footmen to rouse my slugabed son."
"At once, my lord." The butler inclined his head toward one of the footmen, who exited the dining area.
Garrett walked into the room dressed as if he had come straight from the barn, which he had, seeing he spent all his time with horses. His uncle had inherited his red hair, pale skin, and freckles from his Scottish mother. Close to six and a half feet in height, his barrel chest and massive shoulders were a stark contrast to the leaner musculature of the rest of the men. Much like a medieval Highlander, Riordan mused.
"Before you ask, brother, I wiped my muddy boots," Garrett said as he moved to the sideboard. His uncle managed to pile more food on his plate than Riordan had. Sitting across the table, Garrett immediately started to eat as the footmen brought toast and poured his tea.
"How's Starlight doing?" Julian asked while cutting his ham into meticulous bite-sized pieces.
"She hasn't foaled yet," Garrett replied. "Going to be a long siege, I imagine. The stable lads are keeping watch and will inform me if there are anydevelopments."
Aidan happened into the room with a short, unsteady gait, looking the worse for wear. He plopped down next to Garrett. "Coffee, Martin, and lots of it. Bring me nothing else or I shall puke, for certain."
Julian curled his lip in obvious distaste. "Out gambling and whoring again? Best not let your grandfather see the state of you. Sit up straight." Aidan sneered, but did as he was told. "Martin, bring the heir toast and cheese. You will eat and get that insolent expression off your face. Look at the state of you, unkempt, eyes bloodshot. We will be speaking about this at great length after the meeting concludes."
Riordan did not envy his brother. He's in the soup now. But when had he not been with their father? It was as if Aidan acted in such a way to rile him on purpose.
As always, Oliver Wollstonecraft entered last. Tall and regal, his grandfather defied Father Time, standing as straight and tall as his sons and grandsons. He was a sterling example of exemplary hereditary vim and vigor and amazing good health. Riordan's great-grandfather, the old earl, passed away five years ago, and he'd remained a striking figure well into his eighties. Of all the maladies to cause death, it was a winter chill that took him.
"Ah, all here. Excellent." The earl took his seat at the head of the table while Martin and the footmen laid tea, coffee, and various food items in front of him — and Aidan, who turned a sickening shade of green at the sight of it. Riordan smirked. Having his brother cast up his accounts would certainly add drama tothe gathering.
Attendance was mandatory at these family meetings. The earl would brook no argument or accept any excuses for not being present. What was discussed at these compulsory summits? Ways to further the family's progressive agenda. Though distantly related to Mary Wollstonecraft, the late-eighteenth-century scholar, philosopher, and advocate of women's rights, and to her daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, essayist and the novelist of the gothic tale Frankenstein, the men of Wollstonecraft Hall were no less involved in liberal causes.
When he finished serving, Martin sat next to the earl, pen, ink, and parchment at the ready to record the minutes. The footmen moved efficiently around the table, bringing the scones, cheese turnovers, and fruit, and refilling beverages as the men conversed.
"I've received word that our eccentric neighbor, Sir Walter Keenan, has passed away," the earl stated.
Riordan's mouth quirked with amusement. Not at the news of Sir Walter's death, but at the fact his grandfather found him eccentric, considering what society thought of the Wollstonecrafts. Sir Walter was an ex-soldier, granted knighthood for his bravery in the Peninsular War at Salamanca in 1808. Since returning home from the army in 1819, he had lived as a hermit.
"Since he is unmarried, the property is passing to his next of kin," his grandfather continued. "His niece, a widow, I don't know her name, is the beneficiary. He's been our neighbor for more than thirty-five years. Someone should put in an appearance at his funeral."
Julian shook his head. "The widow will be inheriting a run-down manor, to say the least. I will not be able to attend. I am heading to London, the autumn session of parliament, as I've meetings with Lord Ashley." Since his father had a courtesy title, he didn't sit in the House of Lords. He served as a member of parliament for this region of Kent, though he often worked with the upper chamber on many bills.
Riordan would not be able to attend the funeral either, but he decided he would leave his announcement for the end of the gathering. Why stir up the hornet's nest at this juncture?
"How go the discussions for restricting the number of work hours?" Garrett asked as he sipped his tea. All the other men gave him incredulous looks. "What? I read the papers, and I am a member of this family. I have broadminded views."
"I'm working with Lord Ashley to reduce the workweek to sixty hours for women and children," Julian replied. "We are being fought tooth and nail. I predict a compromise somewhere between sixty and seventy."
The earl harrumphed. "Still too long."
Julian buttered his cinnamon scone. "I agree, but most peers strongly believe women and children are an integral part of a family's earning power, and under the man of the house's command. Most do not want any regulations at all."
Riordan glanced across the table at his brother. Aidan's expression held a combination of nausea and boredom. "I've read that one out of every three citizens is under the age of fifteen, which is the reason many children labor in textile mills and coal mines," Riordan said.
Julian nodded. "True. There should be regulations in place to protect the innocent. Another touchy subject is repealing the Corn Laws."
"Blasted protectionism. I was against it from the first," the earl boomed. "By imposing restrictions on imported wheat, which in turn inflates grain prices, all it has done is managed to further deepen and expand the wretched poverty infecting this country."
"I agree, Father. It is going to be a nasty fight. I predict it will shake the foundations of the British government." Julian popped a piece of scone into his mouth and swallowed. "You should go with me to London instead of waiting until the middle of next month. There are many battles to be fought, and we need every progressive voice we can muster."
"Yes, perhaps I will," the earl replied.
Riordan's heart swelled with pride as he listened to his father's impassioned words. The subject changed to the running of the estate, and Garrett brought everyone up to date on the horse breeding, farming, and the surrounding tenants.
Aidan remained silent, slowly picking away at his toast and cheese.
"Aidan," Julian said, his voice tight with annoyance. "You are the heir. You will be carrying our progressive torch into the future. Have you nothing to offer?" Aidan looked up, a bored expression on his face. "Not this morning, Father."
The rumblings of a heated argument simmered near the surface, and because of it, Riordan decided to make his announcement to divert away from a family spat. At least, he hoped it would. "I have news. I have accepted a position as schoolmaster in the town of Carrbury, in East Sussex."
The table grew quiet and all eyes turned to him. Well, he'd shocked them into silence. Might as well continue. "One of our main concerns is neglected, exploited, and abused children. Trying to pass compulsory education is defeated at every turn for the exact reason you mentioned, Father. The notion that children be kept uneducated and ignorant so that it makes them better workers is inherently heinous."
The men all grumbled, nodding and agreeing with his assessment. Even Aidan reacted with a brisk nod. Riordan pushed on. "Education reform is achingly slow. We all know it will take decades of small, incremental changes before education for all becomes enforced. But there are changes being made. The Ragged School Union was set up this past spring. Schools are opening all across Great Britain, but not only charity schools. There's a new concept:board schools."
He had their complete attention. Even the butler listened in. "Feepaying schools have been around for centuries, but only available to those in the upper class, who can afford them. Board schools would charge landowners and businesses a small fee, to be administered by an elected board of local officials. One of these schools has been set up in Carrbury. I applied for the position of schoolmaster, was interviewed and accepted. I did not go by Wollstonecraft. I applied as Mr. Riordan Black." Black was his middle name, his mother's surname. "One of the board members knows my true identity, as I had to prove my education credentials, but he agreed to keep it secret so that it would not draw too much attention to the school. I will be able to gather information, implement my own reforms, and observe if they take root."
"I am exceedingly proud of you, Son," Julian said, the words spoken with warmth. A derisive snort came from Aidan, but their father ignored it.
"As am I, Riordan. All the information you gather will only strengthen our cause. How far away is Carrbury?" his grandfather asked.
"About twenty-two miles south of here, less than a day's ride. I'm to report there in five days' time. The small township and surrounding area covers a population of about seven hundred, and I'm told I may have upward of thirty-five children of various ages in the classroom."
"Shrewd of you to conceal the name. Come and walk with me, Riordan, and we will discuss this development further. If there is no other business?" He glanced around the table. "I adjourn the meeting," the earl stated.
Aidan stood, but Julian shot him a thunderous look. "Sit. We have much to talk about."
"On that ominous note, I will return to the horses." Garrett took one last sip of tea, wiped his mouth, and stood. He strode over to Riordan and the earl, clasping Riordan on the shoulder. "Well done. You do this family proud." Not used to such gracious words from his self-contained uncle, he was genuinely touched. With a nod, Garrett left the room.
The late August morning had a slight chill to the air, a hint of the cooler autumn weather to come. Riordan and his grandfather strolled in silence for several minutes. As they entered the garden, the earl returned greetings to the gardeners, answering them by name. The well-manicured shrubs, hedgerows, rosebushes, and wildflowers added to the pleasantness. The slight breeze rustled the birch leaves, acting as nature's fan.
"For all our progressive views and reform work, we do live a life of privilege. This will be a good opportunity for you, Riordan. To see how others live, how they struggle. Do you plan to stay in the position long?"
"At least one year. I have always wanted to do it. To teach, make a difference in others' lives. To introduce children to a world of books, learning, and imagination."
"A noble calling," the earl murmured.
"I hope one day to start my own progressive school. Employ only the best educators. But I cannot move forward until I'm able to prove my reforms will work in a classroom setting."
"I agree completely. Take extensive notes, as if you were a scientist conducting an experiment, which, in fact, you are. I pledge I will do all I can to see your dream comes to fruition. As will your father."
"Thank you, Grandfather."
Taking a turn on the stone path, Riordan frowned. They were heading to the private family cemetery. The men rarely came here, as it was a place of unspeakable tragedy. He hadn't been to this dreary place since his grandfather brought him and Aidan here when they were thirteen. Thankfully, they stopped well short of the gated entrance.
"This is as good a time as any to discuss the curse once again," the earl stated.
Oh, God. Riordan struggled not to react, but with one glance at his grandfather, at the obvious pain and grief on his face, he decided to keep his opinion to himself. Through the years, he dismissed the fable. Time often lessened the impact of frightful episodes, and his grandfather telling him of the curse was one of them. But here lay the proof. Row after row of graves. It was enough to give him pause. Generations of women. His own mother and grandmother. An aunt who died in infancy.
While his father, uncle, and grandfather had certainly indulged in a few brief affairs through the years, the different generations of men allowed no women close. In truth, many ladies of society were wary of any long-lasting romantic ties to such a storied and tragic clan. The curse followed the men like a hovering black cloud. It was one of the reasons Riordan had hidden his name when applying for the teaching assignment: he did not want the scrutiny or the attention.
"You are about to go out into the world. Make your own way. You will meet young ladies," the earl said.
"Grandfather, I am hardly a monk. I've been in the company of ladies before." A couple of dalliances. Nothing significant, and he certainly didn't have the carnal experience Aidan possessed. His twin had cut a wide swath through London society and beyond in the past six years.
"You would be wise to follow your Uncle Garrett and remain free of any romantic entanglements. Build a wall about your heart, lock it away, and let no one in. I know I told you all this years ago, but a reminder is warranted."
The earl laid his hands on Riordan's shoulders and looked him in the eye. "I have come to learn it is better not to feel anything at all in order to avoid heartbreak. You turned twenty-six last month; you are young and impressionable. Remain aloof, even remote, in your dealings with women. I would not see you hurt for the world."
Excerpted from "Marriage With A Proper Stranger"
Copyright © 2018 Karyn Gerrard.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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