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The Duke's Quandary
A Marriage Mart Mayhem Novel
By Callie Hutton, Erin Molta
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Callie Hutton
All rights reserved.
Her heart thumping with excitement, Penelope Clayton peered through her spectacles as she gently touched her finger to the three tiny leaves before her. Small, pale green, and delicate. Her lips twitched in a slight smile as she bent closer. A new specimen–she was absolutely certain. With a trembling hand, she dug around the outside of the plant with one of the Manor's silver tea spoons and eased out the tiny bud. She raised it to the scant sunlight and sighed.
Anxious to put pencil to paper and draw the cutting in her journal, she gathered her supplies and stuffed them into the pockets of her father's old tattered greatcoat. Excitement hurried her steps as she left the wooded area and began the two-mile trek homeward. She cupped the small plant with both hands, careful not to jar it as she walked. Mud squished under her worn half boots, and small animals skittered away as she moved quickly over the ground.
Barely through the back door of the Manor house, she came to an abrupt halt and called out, "Mrs. Potter! See what I found." She held her prize up for inspection.
The older woman, cook and housekeeper to the Claytons for many years, shook her mob-capped head. "Now look at the dirt ye be bringing tae me kitchen." She grimaced at the filthy boots tracking caked mud on the otherwise sparkling floor.
"I'm so sorry, Mrs. Potter, but look." Penelope shoved her spectacles further up her nose with a dirty finger and grinned. "A new specimen."
"Ach, lass, 'tis time to put playing in the mud away, and find yourself a braw man to give ya a houseful of bairns."
Penelope shook her head, causing her curls to tumble about her shoulders. "Not for me, Mrs. Potter. I'm very happy with my life just the way it is."
After placing her treasure on the table with instructions to Mrs. Potter to "guard it with her life," she hurried from the kitchen. Whipping around the corner, she almost ran smack into the butler, Malcolm, who guarded the door as if he expected hordes of visitors to descend upon them. Though he'd never had call to do that in the three years she'd resided in the rambling house.
"Malcolm, I've found a new specimen!"
The older man's soft brown eyes regarded her with affection. "Very good, miss. I'm sure it's an exciting discovery for you."
"Indeed it is." She fisted her skirts and raced up the stairs, her stocking-clad foot catching the bottom of her gown, tripping her.
"Be careful, miss." Malcolm's panicked voice reached her as she righted herself before she fell on her face.
She waved her response and continued down the corridor to her bedroom.
The bright yellow chamber cheered her. Flowery striped paper covered the walls, banishing the gloomy day outside. She crossed the room, her toes digging into the plush Brussels carpet as she padded closer to the fireplace, seeking its warmth. Shivering, she unbuttoned the front of her gown and slid it off her shoulders, down her body, to pool at her feet.
"Miss, you should have rung for me." Daisy, the young maid that she mostly forgot about, entered the room, her brows drawn into a frown. "Here now, let me help you."
"Daisy, I found a new specimen!"
"Isn't that wonderful, miss." Daisy knelt to remove her mistress's stockings. "And what does that mean?"
"It means I will study it, draw it, and send the information to the Linnean Society of London for recognition. Once they acknowledge it, the specimen will be classified and I will be listed as its discoverer." Free of her damp stockings, she studied her hands and headed to the pitcher of water and bowl on her dresser. "Of course, I can't use my real name, since women aren't permitted in the Society. So, once more, L. D. Farnsworth will have an exciting find to report."
"Well that's a shame, miss, since you do all the work."
Shrugging at life's unfairness, Penelope tried her best to scrub the dirt from under her fingernails. She really should try to remember to wear her garden gloves as her aunt had admonished numerous times. "But it's still impressive to know I am the discoverer, even if no one else does."
An hour later, Penelope sat in her father's old leather chair, next to the cozy fireplace. Rain pelted the library windows, the gusts beating it against the glass like so many needles. She pushed her spectacles up on her nose and scribbled, the journal balanced on her lap. Chewing her lip in concentration, she'd tucked one foot under her, the other tapping a cadence on the carpet. Flexing her cramped fingers, she reached for her teacup, hit the side and knocked it to the floor, spilling the liquid.
"Oh, drat." She leapt up just as the unusual sound of the front door knocker echoed in the room. A quick glance at the aged oak grandfather clock in the corner registered fifteen minutes past nine. They never had visitors at Gromley Manor, except for Aunt Phoebe, who always sent word weeks in advance of her arrival. Who in heaven's name would be at their front door?
She knelt to sop up the tea before Mrs. Potter saw it, dismissing the strange occurrence as most likely a lost traveler. Within minutes, Malcolm entered the library, holding a folded piece of paper. "Miss, there is a Miss Bloom at the door, who has arrived with a message from Lady Bellinghan."
She reached for the note. "Aunt Phoebe?" How odd.
"Please send for tea, Malcolm. I seem to have spilled mine, and I'm sure our guest could do with a cup."
The door opened and a middle aged woman, who had obviously traveled some distance, entered the room. Miss Bloom was pudgy, her wet brown curls clung to her forehead, and her cheeks were rosy either from natural color or the cold.
Penelope waved to the chair next to the fire. "Please have a seat so you may warm yourself, Miss Bloom. This is a nasty evening to be traveling."
"Thank you so much, miss. You are most kind." The woman sighed in relief as she sat and extended her hands toward the fire.
"I've sent for some tea. It should be here soon. While we wait, I will take a moment to read my aunt's note." She leaned back in the chair, unfolded the paper, and read-her horror growing as she skimmed the lines.
My Dearest Niece,
Once again I must relay my distress that you are buried so far from Town at such a young age. I know in the past you have dismissed my suggestions that you travel to London for a Season, but now I must insist upon it. I feel I would not be doing justice to my sister's memory by allowing her only child to rusticate in the country, faced with no more of a future than life as a spinster.
Your trustee, Lord Monroe, has agreed with me, so I have sent Miss Harriet Bloom. She is a sister to my lady's maid, and since Nanny is unable to travel any distance from your home, Miss Bloom will act as your companion and help you prepare for your journey.
Penelope swallowed several times, a knot forming in her chest. London? A Season? No, it was impossible. Attempting to calm herself, she directed the footman to place the tea on the low table in front of her. An array of delicate sandwiches and pastries filled the tray, along with a china teapot and cups and saucers. Penelope reached for the teapot, her mind in a whirl. How in heaven's name could she get out of this fix?
After pouring tea, the paper in her hand now shaking as she tried to quell her anxiety, she continued to read.
Since my health is not as it once was, I have sought the assistance of my longtime friend, Her Grace, the Duchess of Manchester, to assist you in your coming out. Her daughter, Lady Mary, is also making her debut this Season.
Please do not trouble yourself by traveling with a great deal of clothing, since your trustee has authorized the purchase of an entire new wardrobe.
I will expect you to present yourself to the duchess by week's end. Miss Bloom is in possession of the direction. Please arrange for a visit to my home once you've settled in. This is a great opportunity for you, Penelope, so be sure to show your best side to the duchess and her family.
The paper fluttered to the carpet as she slumped in the chair. This would never do. When she had lived in America, her few prior attempts in Polite Society had been disastrous as her father had attempted to nudge her into Boston social life.
A distinguished member of the Boston Botanical Society, her father had dragged her to various dances, musicales, and other social events hosted by fellow members and their families. She'd passed those evenings aching for the security of her bedroom, with her books and papers strewn about.
After a few months of begging him to leave her at home, Father had conceded and gladly resumed their quiet evenings together filled with scientific discussions and games of chess in his library. Those were the happiest times of her life, but had ended abruptly when he had died in a carriage accident.
Her appointed guardian, Father's older brother, the Earl of Monroe, had insisted she leave Boston and take up residence in England. A widower with married daughters, he had been more than happy to leave her to her own devices at Gromley Manor, with an aging Nanny in attendance along with a full staff. Now, that comfort and security was to be snatched away. Once again she would be paraded before Polite Society to make a fool of herself.
She pushed her spectacles up on her nose, remembering how many times Aunt had impressed upon her that gentlemen did not like ladies who wore glasses and appeared smart. She'd oftentimes admonished her to leave off her spectacles in the presence of potential suitors.
Apparently, it was best to let men think they were stronger, more intelligent, and wiser than they really were. The entire pretense seemed foolish, and she really had no desire to be part of it. What she really did not long for, above all else, was a husband.
Just the thought of a man telling her where she could and could not go, with whom she could associate, but most of all, what she must not do to fill up her days, terrified her.
She crossed the room and stared out at the inky black night. The rain had changed to a soft mist, almost as if the sky had exhausted its tears. She ran her palm over the glass to clear the moisture away. Tomorrow she would leave this home that she had grown to love, to spend time with strangers, and be thrust into a life that caused nausea to roil in her belly.
* * *
After breakfast the next morning, Penelope threw on her pelisse and left the house, deep in thought. She kicked at a few stones in her path, meandering, immersed in thoughts of how unfair life was. Once again, she would be wrenched from her home and thrust into an unknown and unwelcome world. Instead of feeling excitement at what another young lady would thoroughly enjoy, she experienced nothing but dread.
If her father hadn't set his will to include a trustee until she either married or reached the age of five and twenty, she'd have control of her funds, her life, and her wishes. Instead, she had to bow to the commands of Lord Monroe and Aunt.
She came to an abrupt halt, her mouth agape in a most unladylike manner. In all the consternation at her upcoming forced social life, she had completely forgotten her new discovery. She could not leave it here. It would be necessary to pack the delicate plant very carefully and bring the treasure with her to London. Also her journals and botanical tomes. She must not leave those behind, either.
Goodness. She turned on her heel and sped to the house. What was she thinking? Instead of wallowing in self-pity over her obligatory presence in Town, she should be preparing for her trip as a true scientist. It would be necessary to wrap her specimen in wet towels for transport. And she'd need time to pack all her books and papers. She must hurry.
"Miss, your bags have been packed and stored on the carriage taking us to London." Miss Bloom stood at the back entrance to the Manor, her pelisse buttoned, and her bonnet securely tied beneath her ample chin.
"Not yet. There are things I must do." Penelope brushed past her companion, almost knocking the woman off her feet. "Oh, so sorry. I'll be right with you." She spoke over her shoulder, at first not noticing the maid standing before her, duster in her hand. The young girl, used to her mistress's manner, scooted out of the way in time to avoid a collision.
"Good morning, miss." The maid did a quick curtsy.
Penelope nodded as she hastened into the kitchen. "I've told you, Madeline, there is no need to curtsy to me."
"Yes, miss." The girl dipped again.
"Mrs. Potter, I need several wet cloths. Please bring them to the library." She grabbed a pastry from the table and headed back out, crumbs trailing as she walked.
"Where are you off tae now, lass? The carriage is waiting for ye."
"It will have to wait," Penelope shouted back, slamming the library door.
When she spotted the small plant in its place of honor on her escritoire, happiness filled her once again. Perhaps she would be viewed as a social failure, but she would have her science to return to when the Season ended.CHAPTER 2
A soft knock on the library door dragged Drake, the Duke of Manchester's, attention from a pile of bills. "Come in."
His mother peeked around the door. "Good morning, dear. Am I interrupting anything?"
"No, Mother, not at all." He indicated the assortment of papers in front of him. "Just stacks of invoices for my sisters' wardrobes." He leaned against the chair's soft leather as Mother settled on the edge of the seat in front of his desk.
"Tell me once again why Father allowed Abigail, Sybil, and Sarah to enjoy financially appalling Seasons, yet they remain unmarried." He tapped the pile of bills with his pen.
"You know why. We've always felt the best marriages were those of the heart. Your father and I had a love match and we wanted nothing less for all of you."
"Nonsense. Three sisters snubbing the Marriage Mart, and another one launching this Season." He eyed the jumble of notes. "And the bills."
"Are we short of funds, then?"
"Of course not." He rose and crossed his hands behind his back, walking to the window to stare out at the bleak morning. "I'm sorry if I sound cross, but I've yet to grow comfortable with the responsibility. Father was much too young to —"
"I know, dear. I feel the same way. I had expected to enjoy many more years with your father." The duchess fumbled in the pocket of her morning gown and produced a lace-edged handkerchief, touching the corner of her eye. "But we need to go on. It's been a year, and Mary must have her coming out."
He crossed his arms and leaned against the shelves of books, his thoughts then drifting to his eldest sister. "And how is Marion today?" She'd been withdrawn and unreachable since her husband died.
"I do so worry about her. She's the same as always. Quiet, calm, not quite there. I understand her melancholy, but it's been almost two years. She needs to rally herself."
He grunted. "There's the result of a love match. Tristan killed at sea in a battle with pirates, and my sister locked up in her room ever since-grieving."
The duchess studied him for a minute, sorrow clouding her still lovely face. "You're so wrong, my son. A love match is worth the pain and suffering one must endure. One day you will see for yourself."
He knelt before her and took her hand in his, not intending his remarks to cause her pain. "Perhaps for you and Father. Not so for myself. I will select a young lady on the Marriage Mart this Season who will suit as my duchess, based on her poise, charm, and ability to carry out her duties. Love will not be a factor."
"As much as I long for grandchildren, don't be hasty in your selection, dear. Marriage lasts a long time, and very few things in life can make you more miserable than an unhappy union. Goodness knows you've seen enough of them in the ton." She patted his cheek. "In any event, I have come to request a favor."
Excerpted from The Duke's Quandary by Callie Hutton, Erin Molta. Copyright © 2014 Callie Hutton. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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