When a duke denied . . .
The proud and arrogant Duke of Everingham is determined to secure a marriage of convenience with heiress, Lady Georgiana Rutherford. He's the biggest prize on the London marriage mart, pursued by young unmarried ladies and their match-making mamas, as well as married women with a wandering eye. He can have any woman he wants. Or so he thinks. . .
...Hunts an independent lady . . .
Lady Georgiana Rutherfordirreverent and unconventionalhas no plans to marry. Having grown up poor, Lady George has no intention of giving up her fortune to become dependent on the dubious and unreliable goodwill of a man. Especially a man as insufferable as the Duke of Everingham, whose kisses stirs unwelcome and unsettling emotions . . .
...Sparks are sure to fly
The more she defies him, the more the duke wants her, until an argument at a ball spirals into a passionate embrace. Caught in a compromising position, the duke announces their betrothal. George is furious and when gossip claims she deliberately entrapped the dukewhen she was the one who was trappedshe marches down the aisle in a scarlet wedding dress. But the unlikely bride and groom may have found love in the most improbable of placesa marriage of convenience.
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It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Agatha, Lady Salter, tapped her foot impatiently and glanced at the ormolu clock on the mantelpiece. Twenty-six-no, twenty-seven minutes he had kept her waiting. So far.
Young people nowadays. No manners at all.
But she would not allow the duke's rag-mannered behavior to distract her from her purpose. What was that line again? It is a fact, widely understood . . . No, that wasn't it. It is a truthyes, that was it, a truth.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single duke in possession of a large fortune, must be in want of a bride. That was the line. A very sensible observation to commence a very silly book.
Young gels deciding for themselves who they would marry or not. Ridiculous!
Had it not been for the commonsensical actions of an aunt, that foolish, stubborn Elizabeth would have whistled an excellent marriage down the wind. But her aunt had saved the day when she'd taken the gel to visit the young fellow's estate. That had made the foolish gel sit up and take notice.
Lady Salter glanced at the clock again. Twenty-nine minutes. Disgraceful. She'd expected he might be reluctant to see her. But that was no excuse for tardiness.
He'd been more or less jilted at the altar-a little pique was understandable. Young men had their pride. But it had not been, after all, a love match. It was an arranged marriage between her beautiful niece Lady Rose Rutherford and the Duke of Everingham, the catch of the season. The match of the season.
Weeks of careful strategy on her part to get the two together. And when the betrothal was announced, she had basked in universal admiration. While it lasted.
Rose had let her down badly. A secret marriage! And to the veriest nobody. A scarecrow returned from the dead, ragged and dirty, in the middle of the ceremony! An absolute disgrace. It didn't bear thinking about.
But she would not admit defeat.
The door to the sitting room opened. The duke stood in the doorway. Finally!
Lady Salter looked up and inclined her head graciously. "Good afternoon, Redmond." She'd known him since he was in short coats. The use of "Redmond" rather than his title was to remind him of the fact.
Redmond Jasper Hartley, the fifth Duke of Everingham, strolled into the room. He'd kept her waiting a good half hour but he made no apology. He bowed over her hand and said in a bored voice, "Lady Salter, how do you do?" His cold gray gaze was indifferent.
Lady Salter came straight to the point. "I understand my niece has apologized for her disgraceful behavior."
He raised a dark brow. "Niece?" As if he had no idea to whom she was referring.
Her lips thinned. So he was still angry. Coldly furious, under the indifferent-seeming facade, if she was not mistaken. Pride was one thing, incivility to his elders quite another. Besides, she was as much a victim of Rose's carelessness as he.
"I refer to Lady Rose Rutherford, as you very well know. She came here last week, I believe, to apologize."
The duke strolled to the window and stood looking out, his back to her. After a moment he said in a tight voice, "Is there a purpose to this visit, Lady Salter?"
"You are still in want of a bride."
He stilled, then turned slowly to face her and in an arctic voice said, "And if I am, madam, what business is it of yours?"
Lady Salter lifted her chin and said what she had come here to say. "I have another niece."
He didn't move. His expression was carved in ice.
She continued, "She is also, of course, the daughter of an earl, though her mother was of the yeoman class. Georgiana herself is young, attractive, healthy and-"
She blinked. "Not in the least-quite the contrary, in fact. She has-"
"All her teeth too, I'm sure. A picture of perfection, no doubt, but I'm not interested."
She glared at him.
His lip curled and he continued with silken insolence, "We are not at Tattersalls, Lady Salter. There is no need to act the coper and enumerate your niece's various qualities. I am not interested in furthering either her ambitions or yours."
She bristled. Likening her to a horse coper indeed! "You forget yourself, young man-duke or not. Your mother would be appalled." His mother was her goddaughter, as well as a friend.
He glanced pointedly at the clock.
His indiffirence was infuriating, as was his assumption that she was ambitious for her niece. She was, of course-Georgiana had no sense at all of where her duty lay-but the duke could not know that. He and Georgiana had barely even met. She doubted they'd exchanged a dozen words. It was yet another situation where an aunt was needed to step in and take control.
"Your mother and I-"
"-will, in future, kindly keep your noses out of my business. I've had enough of your interference." In two paces he crossed the room and yanked on the bellpull. "Good day to you, madam."
Interference? Madam? She almost choked on her indignation. Such ingratitude toward one who'd worked tirelessly-selflessly!-to arrange a suitable marriage for him.
The butler appeared in the doorway. The duke said, "Lady Salter is leaving, Fleming."
Lady Salter rose and with great dignity stalked toward the door. As she reached it her temper got the better of her. She turned and in an icy voice said, "I was mistaken in thinking you and Georgiana would suit, Redmond. Far from being ambitious to marry you"-she gave a scornful huff-"the truth is, Georgiana did her level best to dissuade Rose from marrying you-"
"Wanted me for herself, no doubt."
"Your arrogance is misplaced, sirrah! Far from wanting you, she was quite vocal in her dislike of you-and I see now she has a point. In any case the ridiculous child has declared far and wide that she would rather live with dogs and horses than marry."
That silenced him, she could see. She added, with crisp satisfaction, "I had thought, your grace, that marriage to a young woman of good family, an independently minded young woman who would not hang off your sleeve, a girl who wants nothing more than to retire to a country estate and be left to breed horses, dogs-and possibly children-would be exactly what you required. A wife who would keep out of your way and give you no trouble." She paused to let that sink in. It was exactly the kind of wife he'd described back when Rose was the bride being considered.
She made an airily dismissive gesture. "Even so, it would have taken all my considerable powers of persuasion to coax Georgiana to wed you."
His eyes grew flintier, and she added with barely concealed relish, "I would not be surprised if we'd had to drag her to the altar in the end. My niece is a headstrong gel who disdains the advice of her elders and betters. You, sir, are equally stubborn. Almost, I think, you deserve each other, but since you both lack a proper attitude to marriageand to me!I wash my hands of you." She sailed from the room in high dudgeon.
"I'm not at home," Hart told his butler after Lady Salter had left. "Not to anyone."
The news of his aborted wedding had spread like wildfire through the ton. His doorbell had been jangling constantly ever since, with women-ladies of the ton-eager to soothe his injured feelings and shove him straight back into the marital noose, if not with themselves, then with their daughter or niece or granddaughter.
To hell with them all. He'd had it with womenno, not with women, with ladies.
He tried to resume his correspondence, but the annoyance lingered. What the devil business of anyone else's was it whether he married or not? He knew he needed to get an heir, but what was the hurry? He wasn't yet thirty. And just because he'd been brought up to the mark once didn't mean he was ready to do it again, dammit.
Because look how well that had ended.
A few days before, his erstwhile bride had called on him, supposedly to apologize, but then she had the cheek to invite him to the ball that had been planned to celebrate his wedding. Its purpose now was to celebrate her husband's return from the dead, blast him. Hart had nothing against the fellow, but why the devil hadn't he come back from the dead a week or two earlier and saved them all a lot of fuss and botheration?
He narrowed his eyes. Now he came to think of it, he had met the girl Lady Salter had just tried to foist on him. Lady Georgiana Rutherford had accompanied Rose on that little errand. A long-legged, dark-haired wench, with more than a dash of impudence.
She'd pulled her skirts up to warm her legs at the fire. Dropped them, cool as you please when he'd entered the room, not embarrassed in the least. A hoyden, if not a light-skirt.
Damned fine ankles, as he recalled.
She would rather live with dogs and horses.
He snorted. She was welcome to them.
"What?" Lady Georgiana Rutherford could hardly believe her ears. "You offered me to that . . . that . . . duke? Like a . . . a cake on a plate? Without even consulting me?"
George was taking afternoon tea in the drawing room with her uncle, Cal; his wife, Emm; and her two great-aunts: the sweet one and the sour one. The sweet one, Aunt Dottie, was knitting haphazardly in between poring over a dish of jam tarts and sipping her tea. Her sister, Aunt Agatha, sat like an offended poker, looking down her nose at them all, disdaining the offerings before her.
Cal, lounging on the settee beside his wife, chuckled. "Like a cake on a plate, George? More like a hedgehog in a bag." He bit into an almond biscuit.
George ignored him. She glared at Aunt Agatha. "How dare you go behind my back and make such a . . . such an offer?"
Aunt Agatha made a dismissive gesture. "Well, someone must make a push to find you a husband, and Emmaline is otherwise occupied breeding The Heir. Besides, since Rose's disgraceful behavior left the duke embarrassed at the altar, this family owes him reparation."
"Possibly, but we don't owe him me!"
The old lady set down her teacup with a snap. "If a duke is going spare, my gel, it doesn't do to dally!"
"But I don't want a duke! I don't want a husband at all! I've said so repeatedly. And even if I did, Everingham would be the last man I'd consider!" George didn't know what it was about the Duke of Everingham, but he . . . he irritated her with his cold, hard gaze, so indifferent and superior and I-rule-the-world. She longed to take him down a peg.
"Nonsense! Every gel needs a husband. And, all appearances to the contrary, you are the daughter of an earl and need to marry and be a credit to your family."
The flat dismissal of her views infuriated George. "Not me. I don't want a husband, I don't need one and I won't have you or anyone else arranging one for me."
"Don't be ridiculous, child."
"It's not ridiculous and I'm not a child. I'm almost twenty and-"
"And well past the age you were married and off your aunt's and uncle's hands. Ashendon and Emmaline are starting their own family." Aunt Agatha gestured to Emm's swollen belly, then trained her lorgnette on her rebellious great-niece.
George put up her chin and glared back. She wasn't sure whether the old lady actually needed the eyeglass to see with, or whether it was just her chosen weapon of intimidation. Whatever the reason, George would not be intimidated.
Aunt Agatha continued, "Ashendon's sisters are now married-in however scrambled a fashion-and their future is taken care of. There is only yourself remaining-an ill-mannered, unfeminine, ignorant, tomboyish hoyden with no idea of ladylike or even polite behaviorand worse!no interest in acquiring it. You should be grateful that I'm taking an interest in your future."
"Grateful? For unwarranted and unasked-for interference?" George was ready to explode. The insults stung; there was no denying there was some truth in them, but she would never let Aunt Agatha get the better of her.