» A Countess of Convenience

A Countess of Convenience cover

Blurb

Description: In Victorian England, Anthony Fairchilde, the earl of Malvern, is tricked into a compromising situation with a tradesman's daughter and must marry her to prevent a scandal. He's determined it will be a true marriage of convenience, but his bride is so unimpressed by his rank and yet so responsive in his bed, that she's soon the only woman he desires.

Prudence Crump has dreamed of finding love, but faced with the threat of a scandal that will make her unfit for respectable employment, she's forced to agree to the earl's arrogant proposal. She's determined to protect her feelings from her husband's charm, but he stirs surprising emotions within her. Prudence begins to hope for something more than a marriage of convenience, but first she must teach her husband that rank has responsibilities as well as privileges, and he must teach her to once again believe in love.
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Excerpt

Hyde Park, 1845

"Are you still miffed over Monique's defection?" Foster asked with an air of disbelief.

The Earl of Malvern glanced at his riding companion with annoyance. Surely Foster understood no man enjoyed being made a fool of. "She wheedled diamond earbobs out of me three days before she left."

Foster poorly concealed a grin. "Ah, well, consider those a wedding gift."

Malven huffed indignantly. "Obviously, she was seeing that penniless Frenchman while accepting my largess. Women have no honor."

Foster threw his head back and guffawed. "Not women who become mistresses," he finally choked out. "Why don't you keep your dalliances down to brief encounters, as I do? The hunt for new quarry is the real sport."

Malvern told himself to drop the subject. This was the first warm day of summer. He should concentrate on the lush greenery the wet spring had left, but he couldn't stop himself from asking, "Don't you find hopping from bed to bed rather tedious?"

The bridle path opened onto Serpentine Road, and they had to stop and wait for an opening in the stream of carriages and single riders who had crowded into the park to enjoy the weather.

Foster arched one eyebrow. "Don't you find the same woman night after night tedious?"

Malvern started to tell him that a peer of the realm couldn't risk the scandals unwise dalliances might cause, but he didn't want to emphasis the differences between his friend and himself. After all, Foster had been elected to Parliament, even though his father was nothing more than a common tradesman.

There was a break in the traffic and Malvern led the way onto the road. When the two horses were again side-by-side, he said, "Until you get to know a woman, she's pretty much like all the others."

Foster looked at him with a frown. "The only woman I need to know is the one I marry. Are you thinking of settling down?"

Malvern stiffened. "Certainly not. A man who marries before he's sown his wild oats will never be a faithful husband."

"What about your title? You need an heir."

"There's no hurry on that score. Lord Halsey is nearly sixty and his young wife just had a baby."

Foster smirked. "I hope you haven't told your mother you intend to imitate Halsey."

"I'm not foolhardy," Malvern said and chuckled at the thought of his mother's reaction to such an announcement.

Something in the road ahead caught Foster's attention. "Is Weathersby driving that cabriolet?"

"Weathersby doesn't own a carriage."

"Well, he must have rented one. Who's the beauty with him?"

Malvern scanned through the traffic until he spotted the drab, single-seated vehicle pulled by a sway-backed horse.

After satisfying himself that his friend, Neil Weathersby, was indeed driving, he swung his attention to the passenger. Her black clothing suggested she was in mourning, but the white of her collar and of the rucking that lined the brim of her bonnet showed it was not the deep mourning of a widow.

The white material surrounding her face gleamed in the bright light, forming a halo around her delicate features. Her lips moved as she spoke to Weathersby and her smile broadened at his reply.

Malvern knew she must be laughing and wished he could hear her. Who was this lovely young woman and where had Weathersby found her? Anxious for an introduction, he tightened his knees against his horse, urging it into a canter.

The carriage jerked to a stop, and Malvern shifted his attention back to the driver. Through the traffic separating them, Weathersby met his gaze but instantly looked away, yanked on his reins, and turned the cabriolet hurriedly, causing several riders to scramble out of its way.

Malvern stopped his horse and stared after the disappearing carriage in amazement. He looked over and saw a stunned expression on Foster's face too. "By God, the man cut us!" Malvern said.

Foster shrugged. "Evidently, Weathersby didn't want to introduce the lady. Perhaps he feared a rich earl would outshine a duke's poor relation."

Feeling a twinge of regret, Malvern asked, "Do you think she's the heiress he's been looking for? I didn't recognize her."

"That doesn't mean much. You tend to avoid entertainments that include marriageable women. Besides, hasn't Weathersby been out of town lately? Maybe he found a rich, country squire's daughter."

Foster twitched his reins and started his horse forward.

Malvern followed his lead. He hoped Weathersby had found an heiress. The man was a good companion when men were out and about, but his lack of blunt could be awkward at times. He needed a rich wife, while Malvern didn't want a wife of any kind in the near future. Still, the sunshine didn't seem quite as bright as it had while shinning on her angelic face.

* * *

That night, Malvern went to the Carlton Club. He preferred to keep up with the doings of the Conservative Party through the club founded for its members rather than spending long hours listening to boring speeches in the House of Lords.

He moved about the hazy smoking room, joining one group after another, seeking an interesting conversation, but tonight everyone seemed to be talking about some new blight attacking the potato crop. Malvern tried to pay attention. Some MP's said the blight presaged a famine, especially if it reached Ireland. The opinion seemed extreme to him.

Actually, he couldn't get involved in the conversations swirling around him because he kept glancing at the doorway, looking for Weathersby. Why had his friend avoided him this afternoon, and who was the mysterious lady?

At last Weathersby stood in the doorway, glancing about the room as if searching for familiar faces. Malvern stepped into his line of vision determined to see if Weathersby would snub him again?

With a small nod, Westhersby acknowledged Malvern and started toward him.

Foster materialized at Malvern's elbow. "Now we'll find out who the beauty in the park is."

Weathersby's steps slowed as though he knew an inquisition awaited him. He'd barely reached them when Foster blurted out, "So, where have you been, and who is your new ladylove?"

Weathersby's face reddened. "I-I don't know what you're talking about."

"Come now, old sport." Foster said in a teasing voice. "We saw you in the park this afternoon and from the way you avoided us, it's clear you want that little plum all for yourself."

Weathersby's neck stiffened. "The lady is my sister. I brought her up from the country to see the city. That's why I've been away."

Foster raised his eyebrows. "What's this? Aren't we good enough to be introduced to your sister?"

"Of course, you are. I truly didn't see you," Weathersby replied too earnestly.

Malvern chuckled in disbelief. "Didn't see us? You almost turned your rented rig over avoiding us. If you had told us she was your sister, we would have behaved ourselves."

Weathersby didn't quite look him in the eye as he said, "Prudence suddenly decided she wasn't feeling well, and the carriage was unfamiliar. That's why I botched the turn."

Malvern knew that was a lie.

Foster assumed a thoughtful expression. "Prudence-fresh from the country. Sounds sweet. But I didn't know you had a sister."

"She's his half-sister," Malvern supplied, to let Weathersby know he hadn't forgotten any of the confidences they'd shared while deep in their cups.

Weathersby nodded. "Yes. She's a Crump, by my mother's second husband."

"So how do you intend to entertain her while she's here?" Foster asked. "It's rather late for a season."

"Oh, she's not here for a season. Our mother passed away only six months ago. So we're still officially in mourning. I'll take her to museums and art galleries, perhaps the theater. Pruddy's been staying with our aunt, Lady Agatha Weston, so I decided to rescue her from the old dragon."

Foster sighed as though already bored with the conversation. "It's still fairly early. Shall we play a few hands of whist?"

Malvern shook his head.

"I'm really not in the mood for cards, tonight," Weathersby muttered.

"I'll go to the card room then. See if anyone's looking for a fourth." Foster left them.

Malvern gestured toward a couple of empty chairs. "Why don't we sit and get the steward to bring us brandies. I had a dull dinner this evening at my mother's."

As they moved to the chairs, Weathersby asked, "How is Lady Caroline?"

Malvern signaled the steward. "Her usual indomitable self."

"Still pushing you to marry?" Weathersby asked, after they were seated.

Malvern ordered two brandies and then looked at his companion levelly, intent on keeping him from changing the subject. While Malvern preferred to spend most of his time with actresses and opera dancers, he knew how to treat ladies. So he meant to find out why Weathersby thought his half-sister, whose father had been a tradesman, was too good to meet him?

As if he had read his mind, the younger man smiled weakly "Sorry about the park. I handled it badly."

"I presume you're talking about something other than the cabriolet."

Weathersby tugged at his collar as though it were too tight. "The truth is I didn't want to introduce Pruddy. I should have known you fellows would be out on such a splendid day. I just didn't think."

Malvern was truly offended. "What kind of atrocious behavior did you fear we'd commit in front of your precious sister?" Weathersby's eyes opened widely. "Oh, no, that wasn't it."

The steward returned with their drinks and Weathersby sat quietly until the man left.

After taking a hurried sip from his glass, he said, "I'm just-just embarrassed about her." He glanced around, making sure no one was near enough to overhear. "You won't say anything about this, will you?"

His interest piqued, Malvern leaned forward. "Of course, not."

"Well, you see, Pruddy sent for me. Lady Agatha threatened to throw Prudence out after hearing gossip about her. During Mother's long illness, Pruddy had a bit too much freedom, if you take my meaning?"

"She didn't get herself in a family way, did she?"

"No, thank God. But her behavior was noticed and gossip flies through those country villages. Now it's reached her Aunt, and well, I'm afraid the girl's ruined."

"Can't the man be persuaded to do the right thing?"

"Hardly. He's already married."

Malvern gasped. That fresh-faced little innocent involved with a married man-he never would have guessed. "Too bad, but what does she expect from you?"

Weathersby hung his head. "She wants me to help her find a protector," he muttered.

"My God!" The nerve of the chit to ask her brother, well, half-brother, to do something like that. "What are you going to do?"

"I don't know," Weathersby replied in an anguished voice. "I brought her to London thinking I could talk her out of it. In the park, when I saw how eager she was to meet my friends, I panicked. I mean, what if she'd tried to lure one of you into a liaison? I'd have been mortified."

Malvern formed a steeple with his fingers and stared into the distance as he recalled his brief glimpse of Prudence Crump. He hadn't seen much, golden curls peeking from under her bonnet, a straight back, a long, slender neck. Her smile had impressed him the most. It had seemed genuine, as though she thoroughly enjoyed the simple pleasure of riding in the park on a sunny day. No artifice, no pretension. She had looked like an honest, English, country lass. So different from the women he was accustomed to.

He cleared his throat and brought his gaze back to Weathersby's face. "Perhaps you should turn to your friends with this problem."

Weathersby's head jerked back in surprise. "You can't be serious. Unlike you, I'm eager to marry. If it's even rumored I'm arranging an illicit alliance for my own sister, I'll be as ruined as poor Prudence."

"But if you don't help her, and she sets out on her own, there's no telling what mischief she might get into in a city like London."

Weathersby's brow twisted with concern. "You're right. She might end up inů" He chewed his lower lip. "What should I do?"

Malvern paused, asking himself if he were about to make a foolish misstep. What could go wrong? He needed a new mistress and was fed up with greedy sophisticates. Even if she had strayed from the straight and narrow, Prudence Crump was obviously a long way from being world-weary. She'd be thrilled a man like himself even noticed her. And it would be nice to have a woman show him a little gratitude for a change.

"A friend, who found your sister to his liking, would take proper care of her," Malvern said.

Now Weathersby looked shocked. "I can't allow her to become the mistress of one of my friends. Wouldn't a gossip like Harry Maitland delight in telling that story in every parlor in Mayfair?"

"I mean a friend who would handle the situation discretely, perhaps buy your sister a little place of her own where she could build up a nest egg and secure her future."

Weathersby studied him for a long moment. "Who do you have in mind, Malvern?"

"Well, I'm in the market since Monique left me."

"You? Why Pruddy's spent most of her life in a country cottage in Lancashire. This is her first visit to London. She wouldn't hold your interest for an hour."

Malvern smiled wearily. "After the way that French bitch lied and stole from me, I'm re-thinking my taste in women. I'd find one who still has a few things to learn about life quite refreshing."

Weathersby stared at him for a moment and then shook his head. "I don't know. I still feel it would be wrong to arrange such a thing for a sister-even a half-sister."

"She seems to have taken a very sensible approach to her situation. Why don't you?"

"Well," Weathersby paused and took a deep breath, "I could introduce you. Most likely you two will not suit."

"Absolutely," Malvern replied. "How about the theater tomorrow night? I'll get a box and reserve a private dining room for a late supper."

Weathersby looked at Malvern as though truly shocked. "I can't just hand her over to you."

"Of course not, you'll have to come along in case we do not suit. If I like her, and she likes me, you can excuse yourself during dinner. I assure you, I'll do nothing without her full consent."

Weathersby drained his glass. "How will I know if you like her?"

"Why, I'll give you a signal. Say something about hunting in Hamptonshire."

"Hunting in Hamptonshire?"

"You don't like that?"

Weathersby sighed in resignation. "It will do."

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