The handsome, wealthy Marquess of Rockingham is the most notorious man in London, as infamous for his violent temper as he is for his intemperate ways.
Miss Lucinda Westerville is a country vicar’s daughter, as innocent as she is lovely and as proper as a young lady can possibly be.
Yet when this improbably matched pair meets at a glittering social ball, they strike the dubious bargain to become man and wife—in name only. But Lucinda soon finds that she has taken on more than she bargained for—when she vows not to love this untamed, infuriatingly attractive man . . . When she tries to rein in her own foolishly galloping heart.
“Chesney is a romance writer who deftly blends humor and adventure . . . [Sustaining] her devoted audience to the last gasp.” —Booklist
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"My dear, he's back! Rockingham's back!"
The Earl of Clifton sighed noisily and rustled his newspaper defensively. He had brought his wife to London to prepare for their daughter, Ismene's coming-out. He had wrenched himself away from his beloved country home for the few months of the Season and felt he had done enough.
"Who is Rockingham?" he asked testily.
The Countess of Clifton sat down in a flurry of satin and lace. "You are indeed out of the world," she said with that affected laugh of hers which never failed to grate on the earl's nerves. "The Marquess of Rockingham. The Savage Marquess. The one they say has sold his soul to the devil. He disappeared for years after that scandal when his mistress tried to hang herself. Now he is back and announces he is looking for a wife."
"Rich?" asked the earl, trying to show some interest.
"Vastly so. And devilishly handsome."
"Then he should have little trouble in finding one." The earl yawned and picked up his newspaper again.
"But that is the point! No lady of breeding could face the idea of such a monster. 'Tis said he beats his servants."
"Stout fellow," came the languid voice of her spouse from behind his newspaper barrier. "Some of 'em could do with a beating."
"And he gambles and drinks to excess."
"Then he won't stay rich for long."
"Ah, but that is why they say he has sold his soul to the devil, for he mostly wins."
"Then if he is such a nasty character," said the earl in an abstracted voice, "he probably cheats. Since he is obviously not a suitable prospect for Ismene, may we drop this tedious subject?"
Lady Clifton pouted. She had once been a great beauty and still adopted all the mannerisms of a youthful belle. "You take no interest in Ismene's welfare," she said. "You know Ismene is monstrous lonesome in London and craves company of her own age. You promised and promised to find her a companion and yet you do nothing about it."
"I had hoped," said Lord Clifton, putting down his newspaper with an air of defeat, "that our daughter might have managed to endear herself to some members of her own sex. It seems hard I should have to pay for a companion as well as paying the expenses of a Season."
"But don't you see! It is because Ismene is so very beautiful. All are jealous of her."
At that moment Lady Ismene flounced into the room. She was indeed a dazzling beauty, from her pomaded brown curls to her little rosebud mouth and dainty figure.
"What are you talking about?" she asked.
"I was trying to interest your father in Rockingham's return."
"La! No one talks of anything else. I confess I am bored with the Savage Marquess before I even set eyes on the man. I asked that cat, Miss Sommers, to go driving in the park with me and she said she was too busy. And yet I have just seen her driving in a vis-à-vis with that antidote, Miss Flanders."
"Perhaps she had a previous arrangement," said the countess. "We have also been discussing the idea of hiring a companion for you."
"That would be fun," said Ismene, pleating the fringe of her stole. "I mean, a companion would have to go everywhere with me, would she not?"
"Your father has promised to attend to the matter urgently. Whom are you going to employ, Clifton?" The earl threw down his newspaper and marched to the door. "I am going to my study to think about it," he snapped.
Once in his study, the earl sighed with relief and sent for brandy to soothe his nerves. This Marquess of Rockingham would never put up with such henpecking, he thought. But, he decided, the sooner he found someone to accompany Ismene, then the sooner he would be left in peace.
He went over to his desk, dipped a pen in the standish, and furrowed his brow as he turned over the names of various poor relations. If only he could think of someone staid and practical who would be a good influence on his spoilt daughter.
His thoughts turned longingly to his country home, Beechings. In his mind's eye he could see the graceful porticoed entrance, the rose gardens, and the smooth lawns. On the edge of his estates lay the village of Sarral, a pretty, picturesque place with its old Norman church.
As a picture of the church floated across his inner eye, he sat upright. What had been the name of that curate? Westerville, that was it. He had read a most affecting sermon one Christmas when the vicar had been ill. Sterling fellow. And he had a daughter who must now be Ismene's age!
He had heard Westerville was ill. Now, in return for the use of his daughter, he would send this Westerville the best physician and enough funds to ensure he could hire proper care while his daughter was in London. What was the girl's name? Pretty thing. Lovely hair. Ah, Lucinda, that was it.
The Earl of Clifton began to write busily.
Lucinda Westerville sat in the shed in the garden of her family cottage, waiting for the water in the copper to boil. The vast copper basin held by its brick framework had been laboriously filled with pails and pails of water, carried from the pump. In a basket on the floor beside the copper lay a pile of sheets. Once the water was boiling, Lucinda would put them in the copper, boil them for an hour, and hope that some of their yellowish hue would be miraculously taken out. The women in the village used a mixture of chicken dung to whiten yellowing linen, but Lucinda could not bring herself to mix anything so evil-smelling into the wash.
Lucinda was not pretty by the standards of London fashion. Her nose was too short and her mouth was a trifle too generous. Her eyes were hazel and fringed with long lashes and her chestnut hair was thick and had a natural curl. But she was too tall and too thin in an age when plump bosoms and rounded arms were much admired.
The water in the copper began to bubble. She raised the heavy wooden lid and then heaved up the basket of soiled linen and tipped in the contents.
She went out into the garden, preparatory to going into the house to make a nourishing vegetable broth for her sick father.
The spring sunlight struck down on her bare head and a light warm breeze flirted with the darned skirts of her muslin gown. She turned away from the house instead and wandered down to the end of the garden, where there was a rustic seat under the spreading branches of an apple tree.
She wanted to pray for her father's recovery, but found she could not. What kind of God was up there who could ensure that the vicar, the Reverend Mr. Glossop, his wife, and two nasty daughters continued to live in riches and health while her father wasted away? When his curate, Mr. Westerville, had first fallen ill, Mr. Glossop had cut his miserable wages in half and had considered he was doing a great Christian act by paying him even a pittance. Lucinda knew it would be only a matter of time before Mr. Glossop ceased to pay him anything at all.
She had even humbled herself by going to ask Mrs. Glossop for work, but that sour and snobbish lady had remarked acidly that Lucinda's place was at her father's bedside. In vain did Lucinda plead they had not enough money to buy medicine. Mrs. Glossop had ceased to listen and her two daughters had cast sly, pitying smiles in Lucinda's direction and had continued to play with their latest expensive toy, a clockwork nightingale.
There seemed to be no way she could earn money. A month ago, Tom Barnet, the squire's son, had called and had begged her to marry him. He was a tall, gawky youth, quite stupid, and given to long drinking bouts. Lucinda had told him gently she would think it over. By the end of the day, she had decided to accept. Her marriage to the squire's son would ensure expert nursing and medicine for her father.
But Tom Barnet did not call again. She had just been summoning up her courage to call at his home when she learned from Mrs. Glossop that Tom had been sent away on the Grand Tour "because it is rumored he has fallen for some undesirable village girl."
The post boy's horn, sounding from the front of the cottage, broke into her bitter thoughts. She ran through the garden and along the side of the cottage to the front.
"Letter for Mr. Westerville," said the post boy. "Got a crest and all."
Lucinda took the letter from him and examined the heavy-crested seal. She recognized the Earl of Clifton's coat of arms.
She went indoors and carried the letter upstairs to her father's bedroom.
Mr. Westerville was lying in an old four-poster bed. A shaft of sunlight fell on his thin, wasted face. His sparse gray locks straggled down on his shoulders.
He opened his eyes as Lucinda came into the bedroom, and gave her a faint, sweet smile.
"Was that the post boy?"
"Yes, Papa. A letter for you with the Earl of Clifton's crest."
"Then it is good news," said Mr. Westerville, a faint tinge of pink staining his cheeks.
"Good news!" cried Lucinda. "Oh, Papa, I know what it is. You have written to the earl for help."
"Then how can you possibly know it is good news?" "I have prayed for assistance," said the curate with simple dignity. "I have been daily awaiting an answer to my prayers. I do not care for myself, but I care very deeply about your future, Lucinda."
"It is your health that matters," Lucinda said passionately. "I can look after myself."
"Raise me up," said Mr. Westerville, "and bring me my glass and we shall see what the earl has to say."
Lucinda helped him to sit up against the pillows and then handed him a large magnifying glass. He fumbled for a long time with the seal before he got the letter open. But Lucinda was no longer excited about the possible contents of the letter. She was sure it contained some trivial request. She envied her father his simple faith but could not share it.
Mr. Westerville read the letter very carefully and then put it down on the worn quilt and looked up at his daughter with tears in his eyes. "God is good," he said.
"I hope He has seen fit to send us some money," said Lucinda tartly.
"Better than that," said Mr. Westerville. "The earl wishes you to travel to London to be a companion to the Lady Ismene. No!" He raised a thin, transparent hand to check the outburst he saw on Lucinda's lips. "I shall not be left uncared for. I am to be taken to Beechings, the earl's home, during your absence and there attended by a London physician and given all care and comfort."
Lucinda began to tremble. "You are sure? Oh, do let me see the letter, Papa."
He handed it to her, closed his eyes, and moved his lips in prayer.
Lucinda scanned the contents quickly. It was indeed as her father had said, but there was more detail. The earl wished Lucinda to travel to London almost immediately and was sending his coach, which should arrive a week following the letter. During that week, his servants would move Mr. Westerville to Beechings.
"A week!" said Lucinda. "What about clothes? I have nothing grand enough for London."
Her father stopped praying and opened his eyes. "I have no doubt they will furnish you with a wardrobe as befits your position. I have no more worries now."
Lucinda leaned forward and kissed his cheek. "So why do you still pray?" she teased.
"I gave thanks," said Mr. Westerville, "and then asked that you should be wed to a man worthy of you."
"Prayers are not always answered," Lucinda said.
"Yes, they are," sighed Mr. Westerville. "Always. Although sometimes the answer is no. But I am sure there is a gentleman waiting for you in London, a gentleman of refinement and breeding and infinite kindness...."
"Why does no one answer this damned bell," roared the Marquess of Rockingham. "Oh, a pox on my curst head!"
"The staff all gave notice this morning, my lord," said Chumley, his wooden-faced valet.
"What! Why? I pay them enough."
"Your lordship was in your altitudes when you returned from Watier's last night. You had unhitched one of your carriage horses and ridden it home, my lord."
"So what's the fuss?"
"Your lordship rode the animal in through the front door and up the staircase. The horse was unnerved and behaved accordingly. The resultant mess on the stairs gave the housekeeper the vapors. The housemaids went into hysterics. You dismounted and slapped two of them. You then collapsed on the landing and fell asleep. When two of the footmen lifted you up to carry you to bed, you awoke and attempted to throw one of them over the banisters. Before you left for Watier's, you had a wild party here, attended by ladies of cracked reputation. I have this morning engaged two scrubbing women to clean up the worst of the mess, and after I have attended to your lordship, I shall call at an agency and employ more staff."
"Oh, the deuce. Since when were servants so nice in their tastes?"
"It is the changing fashion," said Chumley, stooping to pick up a soiled cravat. "I believe licentiousness and drunkenness are quite exploded."
The marquess, who had picked up a hand mirror to study his ravaged face, threw it furiously at his valet, who fielded it with the dexterity of long practice.
But as the valet handed the mirror back to his master and turned away, the very stiffness of his back registered disapproval.
"Oh, the deuce," said the marquess. "I didn't try to hit you. But you are too free-spoken, Chumley."
"I always have been," said Chumley. "It is the only way I can cope with your lordship's humors and stay in your employ."
"You would have humors too, you nutcracker-faced martinet, if you drank as much as I. This little gathering I held here — very wild, was it?"
"The wildest, my lord."
"It's this damned ennui that plagues me. What a pesky, boring frivolity this London Season is."
"Then may I suggest, my lord, we resume our travels and adventures? You are not out of sorts when you are not bored."
"My adventures are over for the moment. I must find a wife."
"It is not unusual. I want sons."
"Your lordship's reputation is such that I fear your lordship will have to learn to court the ladies."
"Fiddle! When did a rich and titled man have to court any of the creatures? Why, Lady Bessie Dunstable, the belle of two Seasons, has settled for that creaking old duke."
"The duke is tranquil and manageable. I fear rumor has it that you frighten the fair sex."
"Well, I shall behave prettily for just as long as it is necessary to find me a bride. Does that suit you?"
"Your liaison with Mrs. Deauville is well known, my lord. Mrs. Deauville is good ton. Society expects you to marry her sooner or later."
"Then society is quite mad. Maria Deauville amuses me, but she would not be faithful to me for a twelvemonth were she married to me."
Chumbley began to strop a razor. "Your lordship's cousin, the Honorable Zeus Carter, is waiting below."
"Why did you not tell me sooner? Not that I am interested in seeing the weakling."
"I feared the intelligence would put your lordship in a passion had I divulged it first thing this morning," said Chumley, advancing on his master with hot towels. "I can tell him you are not at home."
"No, I may as well see him. I wonder what brings him to London. His regiment is in Portugal."
The Honorable Zeus waited impatiently in the library downstairs. He had been a lusty baby, a fact that had prompted his doting parents to bless him with the name of Zeus. But he had grown up tall and weedy and effeminate. He was the marquess's heir. He paced up and down the library, occasionally pausing to narrow his eyes and imagine what the room would look like redecorated to his own taste. The way Rockingham was going on, he could not live very long.
He studied his rouged face in the glass over the fireplace. It was, he thought, twisting his head from side to side, an aristocratic and noble face, marked with faint lines of sensitivity. Such a face should not be exposed to the burning sun of the Peninsula, and such delicate shell-like ears should not be abused by the roar of cannon. He had sold out of his regiment. Now he was in need of funds. He had had to exit from his lodgings by the back door, as the duns were camped out at the front.
Goodness, this room was like a pigsty! One of Rockingham's notorious parties, no doubt. A red silk garter hung from the chandelier and a scanty lace shift was draped around a bust of Plato above the door. He wondered idly how it had got up there.
He rang the bell impatiently, but no one answered. He peered around the door into the shadowy hall and called, "Wine, I say! Where's the decanter?" But only silence answered his call. Rockingham's servants must have given notice, apart from that stiff martinet of a valet, who stuck by his master through thick and thin.
Mr. Carter slumped petulantly into a chair and closed his eyes. In no time at all, he was fast asleep.
After half an hour, he came slowly awake, sensing someone was looming over him. He opened his eyes wide, under short stubby lashes darkened with lampblack, and stared up.
The saturnine face of the Marquess of Rockingham looked down at him.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Savage Marquess"
Copyright © 1988 Marion Chesney.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
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