Authors: Cathy Maxwell
“Heath, your language,” her mother chided.
“Cate, stinker is a good word. When something is a stinker, I say it is a stinker. Bossley thinks too much of himself, and you can’t expect me to hold my tongue when my daughter is involved—although I’m very happy our Abby is free at last of Sherwin.”
Abby’s stomach tightened at the memory of her interview with Freddie. “It’s his father who wants the marriage with Corinne. Freddie is being pressured.”
“Posh and nonsense,” her father replied. “If he loved you, he wouldn’t think of marrying another. He’d come for you the way I did your mother.”
Her parents had been a love match. One look, and Lady Catherine had been smitten by her young banker—or at least that is what she claimed. What Abby knew was that her mother had loved her father enough to defy her family and be ostracized from society. They had eloped, creating a huge scandal in the day.
Abby’s grandfather, the current duke of Banfield’s father, had been furious and disowned his daughter. He’d never spoken to her again.
However, the banker had turned into a golden goose. Abby’s father knew how to earn money. Upon inheriting the dukedom, Abby’s uncle had welcomed him into the family, and the Banfield estates had prospered from it.
Of course, that still didn’t mean that Abby’s family was accepted with open arms by society. There were those with long memories.
“This is my brother’s fault,” her mother said quietly. “He wouldn’t think of pulling anything like this with my sisters’ and brothers’ children.”
“Like what? Arranging a marriage to Sherwin?” her father barked. “I thank him for it. And you will, too, someday, miss,” he said to Abby. “Yes, the earl of Bossley has money, but there isn’t any amount of gold that could pay me to listen to that windbag over a family dinner. And his son will be just like him as he ages. Mark my words.”
“Freddie is not like his father,” Abby insisted.
“No, he’s more wishy-washy,” her father predicted.
Her mother made an impatient sound, indicating she would like him to be less direct. She turned her back on her husband and took Abby’s hand, her face a study in empathy. “Abigail, I’m sorry. I know how attached you were to Freddie. But, my dear, he didn’t speak up for you when we arranged your betrothal to Mr. Lynsted. That is your father’s concern—”
“Freddie didn’t have a chance,” Abby said. “He knows Father doesn’t like him.”
Her father sat back in his seat, muttering under his breath, and in that moment, Abby could almost hate her parent. He didn’t remember what it was like to be in love. He couldn’t and be so hard on her now.
But Abby did love her father. She loved both her parents. She changed the subject to another very real concern. “You aren’t going to call the barón out, are you?” she asked her father.
“And say what?” her father answered. “You called my daughter beautiful, so en garde?” He shook his head. “I don’t understand you, Abby. I don’t know why you don’t have more pride. Why you fawn over that weak, pandering fool—”
“Heath,” her mother warned.
“It’s true, Cate. She put off marrying Lynsted because she was waiting for Sherwin—don’t try to deny it, Abigail,” he said, seeing her about to protest her innocence. “Your mother and I both knew what you were up to.”
He was right, and the time for pretending her parents didn’t know was over.
She’d made a ruin of herself this evening and all because she’d lacked the grace, the maturity to be honest with them and herself. If she’d never gone looking for Freddie, her path wouldn’t have crossed the barón’s. “You’ll have a hard time marrying me off now,” she admitted.
Her mother gave her hand a squeeze. “Please don’t say that, Abby. All is not lost.”
“Yes, it is. I seem to not know what is good for me,” Abby said. “And now I’ve created a dreadful scene, and who knows what will happen on the morrow?” She didn’t want to cry. She wouldn’t.
“You aren’t the one who created a scene,” her mother said. “It was that wild Lady Dobbins. I hear the woman has been shameless in her pursuit of the Spanish baron. They say she dressed up like a valet and went parading in the streets in front of his lodgings,” she told her husband. “In broad daylight.”
“She’ll blame me,” Abby predicted, referring to her aunt. “Certainly the duchess will blame me.”
“Lucinda won’t,” her mother assured her. “I will talk to her. I’ll explain it all.”
“When has that ever helped?” Abby couldn’t stop the bitterness. “I can’t believe Corinne and Freddie. Everyone in the family knew I cared for him.”
Her mother bowed her head for a moment. When she raised it, her smile in the coach light was rueful. “I thought they did … but you know how my brother the duke is. He doesn’t often consider feelings or wants other than his own.”
“And his set looks down his nose at me,” her father corrected.
Abby sat up, her problems forgotten. “You are better than all of them put together.”
“Thank you, my girl,” her father said. “But you don’t have to worry about me, or yourself. There was a reason why I agreed to go this evening, and it has paid off handsomely. I doubt if your little scene will deter him.”
“Him?” Abby’s senses went on alert. She glanced at her mother, who shook her head, indicating she didn’t know what her father was about.
Her father caught that look. His bushy brows came together in consternation. “All right, I’d best confess. I wasn’t going to say anything until I talked to you first, Cate, but, with Abby all contrite, now is as good a time as any.”
“As any for what?” her mother asked.
“To say that I’ve arranged another marriage for Abby.”
Abby didn’t believe she’d heard him correctly. Her mother was equally confused, because she said, “Excuse me?”
“I spoke with Lord Villier tonight. You remember him, Cate. He is one of the Lords of the Treasury. Sharp man. Well respected and has the First Lord and the Exchequer’s ear. He’s been in need of a wife, and when I broached the subject to him this evening, he was delighted.”
“Lord Villier?” Abby shook her head. “I do not know him.”
“You will,” her father said. “He’ll be over to pay his respects on the morrow.”
Abby looked to her mother. “Do you know this man?”
A deep frown line marred her mother’s forehead. “I do. He’s—” She paused.
That was not a sweeping endorsement. “What is wrong with him?” Abby demanded. “I mean, this is such sort notice. I didn’t even know you were looking for a husband for me, Father.” Her goodwill toward him moments ago was rapidly vanishing.
“Of course I was looking for a husband for you,” her father answered. “Did you think I’d let you turn into an old maid? I want what is best for you, Abby, and let me tell you, Lord Villier will be an even better husband than Richard Lynsted.”
“That isn’t the best comparison, Father,” Abby snapped, shocked that he would marry her off again.
Her mother placed a hand on Abby’s arm. “Let us wait and see,” she advised.
“Meet him first before passing judgment.”
“What’s wrong with him?” Abby demanded, turning to her mother. “You know him. You have reservations. I can see it in your face. Is he ancient?”
“No,” her mother hurried to insist. “He’s older, but not unreasonably so.”
“Then what is wrong with him?” Abby repeated.
“Nothing. Not one thing,” her father answered.
“Well,” her mother hedged.
“Yes?” Abby prodded.
“He has children,” her mother answered.
“There is nothing wrong with having children,” her father insisted.
Abby shook her head. “There is something wrong when a man with a title has to have a marriage arranged with me.”
“You underestimate yourself,” her father said. “You have your grandmother’s money and the dowry I will be settling on you.”
“Ah, so he needs money,” Abby surmised.
“Half the lords in London do,” her father answered.
“And what of his children?” she asked again, looking pointedly at her mother, who was having trouble meeting her eye.
There was a moment of silence, then her father broke it. “All right. He has thirteen children. And, in the interest of telling all, he’s had two wives, who each died in childbirth. However, that fact is not his fault.”
“Two wives?” Abby repeated, stunned.
“You’ll become Lady Villier,” her father announced, as if it had been her dearest wish. “No one will look down their noses at you ever again.”
“Thirteen children?” Abby was having a hard time wrapping her mind around such a number. She’d been around children before, but usually one or two at a time. “Why don’t you just sell me into slavery?”
“Abby—,” her mother started, but her father cut in.
“He’s a good man. He’ll treat you well. There are many advantages to this arrangement.”
“Including for you, Father. Didn’t you say he was involved with the Treasury?”
“Abigail, that is unfair.” Her father withdrew to his corner of the coach. “I think of you. I want to see you safe and well-established. No more of this being prey to scenes like we had this evening.”
The coach rolled to a stop as he spoke. They’d arrived home.
Home was a palatial white marble town house. The black lacquered doors opened and servants dressed in blue-and-gold livery rushed out to open the coach door and attend the family.
Abby took this one last moment of privacy to say, “What I don’t understand is that the two of you were a love match. Why would you not want the same for me?”
Her father caught the door handle, holding it so the footman could not open it. “If you met aman who loved you and who had one ounce of my drive and my ambition, I’d bless the union. But Sherwin isn’t the man and you’ve been so daffy for him, Abigail, for so long, I believe it is too late for you to find another.”
He said this not unkindly but with the practicality of his nature.
And he was right. At five and twenty, she was already on the shelf in the minds of most people. She was spent, used, no longer fresh and young.
Already many assumed she’d not marry. It wouldn’t be long before they’d be referring to her as a spinster, even to her face. Her brothers would marry and their children would call her a maiden aunt.
Still, it was not in Abby’s nature to give up. “Let me have one more chance,”
“I’ve done the best I could for you,” her father insisted, and she knew he had.
“But the truth is, Abby my girl, looking back now with the benefit of age and experience, your mother and I realize we took a tremendous risk. It could have all gone so wrong if either of us had been of a more shallow nature.”
“We were very lucky,” her mother agreed.
“But we want more than luck for you,” her father continued. “I must know your husband will take care of you and treat you with the respect you deserve. You are more precious to me than my own life, and what was good for me is not good enough for my only daughter.”
“Meet Lord Villier,” her mother said. “Perhaps you’ll like him.”
“Yes, perhaps,” Abby echoed.
Her father opened the door, considering the matter closed.
They went inside. Abby could feel her mother hovering, worrying.
Her father had no doubts. Abby knew that in his banker’s mind, he considered the matter a bargain well made.
It was a relief to Abby to finally be alone in her room. After undressing and dismissing her maid, she tried to sleep and failed.
Finally, she climbed out of her bed and walked across the thick carpeting toward the window. How many nights had she sat on the cushioned window seat, looking out in the garden and dreaming of Freddie coming for her like Romeo had come for Juliet?
Those had been the days of passionate notes smuggled to each other through books at the lending library. Many a time her maid had gone out shopping and returned with a nosegay that Freddie had bought and asked to be delivered to her. No name but a gleam in her maid’s eye had told Abby she’d seen him.
Everything had always been clandestine because of his father’s disapproval, and it had added an element of romance.
Or had it clouded her judgment?
Tonight, after Freddie had rejected her passionate plea, Abby had to face the truth—her father was right. Freddie was weak.
Acceptance didn’t make her feel better.
The October sky outside her window was clear save for a thousand stars.
Pressing her nose against the glass, Abby marveled at how vast the universe was. What were her small troubles in comparison?
One star burned brighter than the others. Venus. Abby’s brother Robert—
the one who had died fighting with Nelson—had considered himself an astronomer and had taught her to search for it. It wasn’t a star but a planet named after the goddess of love.
Star or planet, what better orb to choose for making a wish? Perhaps Robert in his heavenly life would hear her wish and grant an intercession.
“I want to be loved,” she whispered. Was it such a difficult request? “I want someone who loves me for me.” Not for money, or connections, or any of the exchanges that made arranged marriages so important.
The answer was silence … and the knowledge that right now, back in the duke of Banfield’s ballroom, Freddie was probably happily toasting his betrothal to Corinne with iced champagne.
Abby leaned her head against the cold windowpane. Thirteen children…
She was not anxious for the morning to come.
The duke of Banfield’s ball was turning into the longest night of Andres’s memory.
After Miss Montross’s slap and departure, he could have happily left. He hadn’t deserved her anger; he’d been protecting her. However, to leave would have called attention to the incident, and he was absolutely certain that if he stayed, Carla would do something so outrageous that the gossips would forget Miss Montross had even been in attendance at the ball. If history repeated itself, everything he’d done this evening would end up in the papers, especially with Lady Dobbins involved.
He wasn’t wrong.
Not thirty minutes passed before his friend the duke of Holburn sought him out in the card room.
“She’s going too far this time,” the duke said, coming up to stand beside Andres, who’d been watching the play at a table of his gambling friends.