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Diana Wylder, the third and final daughter of the late Earl of Hervey, had never particularly believed in fate.
That is, she hadn’t until the afternoon Mama explained to her about Lord Crump.
The afternoon began well enough, with a drive planned, to be followed by a stroll through St. James’s Park with her mother and her older sister Charlotte. They were already waiting in the front hall as Diana hurried down the stairs, for as usual Diana was not precisely on time. To be sure, it was her hat’s fault, not hers: a splendid new hat with a wide, curling brim and a crown covered with white ostrich plumes, coral satin bows, and small sprays of pink silk flowers. This hat required a great deal of strategic pinning so that the brim would tip at the exact fashionable angle over her face, yet still permit Diana (barely) to see. Her maid had taken a quarter hour to get it right, and though Diana considered this time well spent, she couldn’t help but feel guilty as she saw Mama and Charlotte waiting for her.
“Forgive me,” she said breathlessly, pulling on her gloves as she joined them. “I didn’t intend to take so long.”
“So long as you’re ready now,” Mama said. “But don’t you think you should push your hat back a bit?”
Ever helpful, Mama reached out to adjust the hat herself, but Diana scuttled backward.
“No, Mama, please,” she said, holding the curving brim defensively. “Mrs. Hartley assured me that this is the way all hats are being worn this spring in Paris.”
“You should care more for how hats are being worn in London, Diana, considering that is where you live,” Mama said, but sighed wistfully to show she’d already resigned herself to defeat. “I only wish you wouldn’t hide your pretty face away behind feathers and ribbons.”
“She looks lovely the way she is, Mama,” Charlotte said firmly, looping her arm fondly through Diana’s. “Now come. It’s far too fine a day to waste standing inside discussing hats.”
That should have been a warning of sorts, for Mama generally wished Diana to show less of her person, not more, just as Charlotte, her older, married sister and the famously beautiful Duchess of Marchbourne, could seldom resist suggesting improvements to be made in Diana’s dress. But Diana was in too good a humor to be wary, and instead she simply grinned and followed her sister and mother from the house and down the steps.
The sun was shining as it rarely did for April in London, and the air was so warm with the first true breath of spring that the side windows were down in the carriage. Charlotte’s footmen, gorgeous in their pale blue Marchbourne livery, hopped to attention as soon as the ladies appeared. One of the footmen held the carriage door open and the folding steps steady as they climbed inside. As the youngest, Diana faced backward and slid across the feather-stuffed seat to the farthest side, claiming the window, where she could see and—more important—be seen. She’d no wish to have that splendid new hat be wasted where no one could admire it.
“I do like riding in your carriage, Charlotte,” she said happily as they began. “Much better than Aunt Sophronia’s.”
“It’s very kind of your sister to invite us to share it,” Mama said, settling her skirts around her legs. Mama was young to be the mother of two duchesses—she wasn’t even forty—and, with her golden blond hair and wide blue eyes, still sufficiently beautiful that people often mistook her for one more of the Wylder sisters instead of their mother. “It’s also generous of March to have given Charlotte such a comfortable carriage for driving about.”
“I like how everyone sees March’s crest on the door and makes such a fuss over us because of it,” Diana said, watching how even now people on the pavement were bowing and curtseying as they passed by. “It’s as good as being a duchess, but without any of the responsibilities.”
“You could do with a few responsibilities, Diana,” Charlotte suggested gently. “You’re eighteen now, no longer a child. It wouldn’t hurt you to concern yourself with more important things than new hats.”
Diana looked dolefully at her sister. Ever since Charlotte had married four years ago, she’d become more serious, more proper, more . . . well, dull, and it was all because of responsibility. To Diana, Charlotte’s entire life now seemed so dutiful and ordered, without even a morsel of excitement. Charlotte and March’s marriage had been arranged long ago by their fathers, and it was already well sealed with the birth of an heir, plus three other babies besides. As March’s wife and duchess, Charlotte oversaw his four households, his servants, his female tenants and their children, his journeys, his charities and subscriptions, his dinners for his friends, and likely many other things that Diana didn’t know about. From what Diana observed, Charlotte worked harder at being a duchess than her maidservants did in the scullery, and Diana didn’t envy any of it—except perhaps this carriage.
“Don’t make a face like that, Diana,” Mama said. “Charlotte is only speaking the truth. Unless you wish to return to Ransom Manor—”
“I’m not going back to Ransom,” Diana said quickly. Ransom Manor was the only true home that Diana had known, a rambling, ancient house on the southern coast where Mama had retreated from London to raise her three fatherless daughters—or, more accurately, where they’d raised themselves. It had been a splendid childhood, filled with pony riding and boat rowing and tree climbing and numerous pets, and very little of the education expected for the daughters of peers. But there were no suitable young gentlemen near Ransom, especially when compared to the absolute bounty of them to be found in London. “You can’t expect me to go back there unless you wish me to marry a—a fisherman.”
“Really, Di,” Charlotte said mildly, opening her fan. “As if anyone would expect that of you! Though an honest fisherman might be considered an improvement over some of the rogues you’ve let attend you.”
“They weren’t rogues,” Diana said, folding her arms over the front of her bodice with bristling defense. It was true that she’d been guilty of a few minor, minor indiscretions, but nothing worse than most young ladies indulged in to amuse themselves. “They were all gentlemen, every one of them.”
“It’s of no consequence now,” Mama said quickly. “Those, ah, gentlemen are all better forgotten.”
“Exactly,” Diana said, pleased that for once Mama had taken her side. “Much better to think of all the other ones who will be riding through the park today, ready to admire my hat.”
She smiled, tipping her head to one side as if already displaying the hat’s magnificence. On the seat across from her, Mama and Charlotte exchanged glances, which only made Diana smile more. They knew there would be young gentlemen striving to capture her attention in the park, just as she would be smiling winningly at them in return from beneath the curving brim of her hat. Such attention followed her everywhere she went in London—in parks, in shops, in theaters and playhouses, at the palace, and even in church—and it had been like that since she’d first come to London to stay two years before. No wonder Diana found her life so amusing, and no wonder, too, that she smiled now at the prospect of the afternoon before her.
But Mama wasn’t smiling in return, and neither was Charlotte.
“Diana, my darling girl,” Mama said, a disconcerting tremor in her voice, “I know it’s been my fault for letting you be so free, but now I hope to make it up to you in the best possible way.”
“Nothing’s been your fault, Mama,” Diana said. “You don’t need to make anything up to me, not now or ever.”
“But I do,” Mama said, pulling a lace-edged handkerchief from her pocket. “If your poor father had lived, he would have seen to this long ago, as he did for Charlotte and Lizzie. You’re my baby, you see, my youngest and my last, and I haven’t wished to let you go, even though I should.”
“But you’ve always let me go wherever I pleased,” Diana said, not understanding. “You are not making sense, Mama, not at all.”
“Yes, she is,” Charlotte said. “Mama has accepted an offer for your hand from the Marquis of Crump. He is going to join us in the park so that you may meet him.”
“But I do not wish to marry!” cried Diana, stunned. “Not now, not yet, and certainly not to a man I have never met!”
“You’re more than old enough, Diana,” Charlotte said, shifting across the carriage to sit beside Diana, taking her hand. “You’re eighteen, the same age as Lizzie and I were when we wed. And we hadn’t known March or Hawke, either, and look how splendidly everything turned out for us.”
“But I thought I would choose my own husband,” Diana protested. “I want to marry for love, not because I’ve been offered for!”
“Choosing is not always for the best,” Charlotte said. “You do recall how narrowly you escaped the disaster of Lieutenant Patrick.”
Diana blushed furiously. She had in fact been embroiled in a near disaster with the very handsome (and, as it was discovered, very rapacious and ungentlemanly) Lieutenant Patrick, but usually, by tacit agreement, his name was never mentioned in the family. “That was last year, Charlotte, when I was only seventeen. I’d never make the same misjudgment now.”
“Oh, my dear,” Mama said, also squeezing onto the seat beside Diana. “I know this must seem something of a shock, but Lord Crump is known to be a most kind and generous gentleman. He has the patience and gentleness to be able to guide you as a wife and lady, something none of those younger rascals could ever do for you, nor does he care about any of your past indiscretions.”
“You mean Lieutenant Patrick again,” Diana said, unable to keep the wounded reproach from her voice. “First Charlotte, and now you, too, Mama. Last year you said it wouldn’t matter, that everyone would forget. But now you’re reminding me of him because you want me to marry someone else!”
Mama sighed. “We can put the misfortunes of your past behind us, Diana, because we love you. But others have not been as, ah, charitable, and you know how skittish gentlemen can be when it comes to choosing a wife. It’s most admirable that Lord Crump has chosen to ignore the tattle and offer for you in spite of it. A sure sign that he will try his best to make you happy.”
Frantically Diana shook her head. It was true that there’d been considerable talk about her last summer, talk that hadn’t been very nice. Because of Charlotte being a duchess, Diana hadn’t been completely cast out from polite society, but there was a decided chill to her reception in the most noble houses, a chill that would be cured only by an excruciatingly respectable marriage, preferably to an equally respectable peer.
And it was also true that both her sisters had had their marriages arranged for them, and equally true that their bridegrooms had been virtual strangers. But just because Charlotte and Lizzie had fallen in love with their husbands didn’t mean that Diana would be so fortunate—especially not wed to a man named Crump, who was marrying her because no one else would.
“I’m sure that Lord Crump will come to love you, Di, and you him,” Charlotte assured her, as if able to read her thoughts. “True, lasting love, too, and not silly flirtation.”
“But why would he ask for me if he’s never so much as seen me?” Diana asked plaintively. “He must be attracted only to my fortune, or my connection to you and March, or—or some other mercenary reason. He cannot care for me.”
“But he will, Diana, just as we do,” Charlotte said with a firmness that startled Diana. “Don’t pretend you didn’t know this would happen one day. You saw it with me, and with Lizzie, too. This is how ladies like us marry. We’re not dairy maids or seamstresses, you know.”
Diana bowed her head, hiding herself and her misery under the brim of her hat. Deep down she knew that everything Charlotte was saying was right, because she’d seen it in her own family. If being a lady and the daughter of an earl meant that she rode in a carriage and wore fine gowns and lived in a grand house on St. James’s Square, then it also meant that she wasn’t permitted to marry whomever her heart might lead her to.
Her marriage would be a mercenary transaction, a legal exchange of property and titles for the sake of securing families and futures. She would simply be another one of the properties to be shifted about by the solicitors in their papers. It didn’t really matter that she was surpassing pretty, or that she possessed a kind heart and a generous spirit, or that she could ride faster than any other lady she knew, or that she always defended small animals and children, and it certainly didn’t matter that she’d always dreamed of a handsome beau who would declare his love and passion for her alone.
No. She was no different from her sisters or her mother or any other lady of her rank. She must forget all the dashing young gentlemen who’d danced and flirted with her and sent her flowers with sweet little poems tucked inside. There would be no romance for her, no grand passion, no glorious love like the kind to be found in ballads and novels and plays.
For her there would only be Lord Crump.
And that was the exact moment Diana realized the grim, unforgiving nature of fate.
“There’s nothing to weep over, Di, truly,” Charlotte said, slipping her arm around Diana’s shoulders. “You’ll see. March knows Lord Crump from the House of Lords, and says he’s a steady, reliable gentleman, which is exactly what a lady wishes in a husband.”
Steadiness was what Diana wished for in a horse. It was not what she dreamed of in a husband, though she knew better than to say that aloud.
“Pray do not misjudge Lord Crump, Diana,” Mama said earnestly. “Let him address you and show you himself how fine a gentleman he is.”
Still staring down at her hands, Diana sighed forlornly. “Is he handsome? If he were to ride by this window, would I take notice of him?”
Mama hesitated a moment, exactly long enough for Diana to know that Lord Crump was decidedly not handsome.
“Lord Crump is a good man,” Mama said, carefully avoiding Diana’s question as the carriage turned into the park’s gates. “A most honorable gentleman.”
“There he is, Diana,” Charlotte said, leaning forward, toward the window. “Come to greet you, just as he promised. There, on the chestnut gelding. That is Lord Crump.”
At once Diana looked up, her heart thumping painfully behind her stays. There was only one gentleman mounted on a chestnut gelding within sight, and he was riding purposefully to join them.
And—oh, preserve her—he wasn’t handsome. The closer he came, the more apparent that became. He was stern and severe, his face beneath his white wig and black cocked hat without the faintest humor. His eyes were a chilly blue, his thin-lipped mouth pressed tightly shut, and there was a peppering of old smallpox scars over his cheeks. Diana could not guess his age, except that he was older than she: much older, perhaps even thirty or beyond.
“Oh, Charlotte, he—he frightens me,” Diana whispered. “He’s dressed all in black.”
“He’s in mourning, silly,” Charlotte said, signaling for the driver to stop the carriage. “His older brother died last winter, which was how he came into the title. That’s why he has such an urgent desire for a wife and marchioness.”
“Smile, Diana, please,” Mama whispered even as she turned toward the open window. Mama’s own smile was as warm and irresistible as the sunshine as she nodded to the marquis.
But there was no smile in return from Lord Crump.
“Good day, Your Grace,” he said solemnly to Charlotte, greeting each of them in turn by rank. “Good day, my lady. Good day, Lady Diana. I am your servant.”
Unable to make herself speak—even if she could find words to say—Diana ducked her chin in a nervous small nod and smiled as best she could. It wasn’t much of a smile, not at all, nor was it enough to thaw Lord Crump’s grave expression.
“I trust you are well, Lady Diana?” he asked, his face looming in the window as he continued astride his horse.
“Oh, th-thank you, yes, my lord, I am,” Diana stammered, her cheeks hot. “Very well. I trust you are also well?”
“I am well, Lady Diana,” he said. “Indeed, I am grateful for your solicitude.”
She had never felt more devoid of wit or conversation, more awkward or tongue-tied in her life—nor, she suspected, had Lord Crump as he stared at her, his pale eyes unblinking.
Not that Mama appeared to notice their discomfiture. “There now, Lord Crump,” Mama said, beaming with overbright cheerfulness. “A fair beginning if ever there was one! But wouldn’t it be better if you were to continue to converse beyond our ears? Diana, why don’t you climb down and walk a bit along the path with his lordship whilst your sister and I take our turn about the drive. Does such a plan please you, Lord Crump?”