Authors: Anabelle Bryant
Matchmaker Wilhelmina Montgomery helps cupid’s arrow find its mark in the drawing rooms of the Ton, effortlessly pairing even the most unlikely couples for a discreet fee. Perhaps not an appropriate pursuit for a lady…but with an ailing sister to care for, it’s Whimsy’s only hope at securing their future.
Meanwhile, penniless aristocrat Valerian St. David, Earl of Dashwood is society’s favourite matchbreaker; assisting those who want to escape engagement without being sued for breach of promise. Cynical, yes…but with no intention of falling in love himself, Valerian considers himself ideally suited to the role.
When Whimsy discovers that Valerian has set out to
the very engagement she has been painstakingly arranging, she refuses to allow this mysterious saboteur have his way. Yet she didn’t expect to find the handsome Earl so distractingly alluring. And suddenly, it seems that the Ton’s last two loneliest hearts are in danger of finding their match…in the most inopportune of places.
To Love a Wicked Scoundrel
Duke of Darkness
The Midnight Rake
Defying the Earl
With sincere thanks and gratitude to my brilliant editor, Clio Cornish, for her unending encouragement and effervescent support. How lovely to know you share my vision.
To the entire Carina team for their dedication and hopelessly romantic cover creations and to Harlequin/HarperCollins for allowing me the opportunity to realize a dream with every novel.
This book is dedicated to my Aunt Maryann, who has politely listened to me rattle on about hopes, dreams, wishes, and concerns, even when she might have preferred to press mute, and who has always offered the most sincere advice in return.
And to my readers and friends; the start of a new series is thrilling and your genuine enthusiasm has been contagious. You have my heartfelt gratitude for reading and believing in me.
May all your days be charmed.
“We’re done for.” Valerian St. David, Earl of Dashwood, pushed an accumulation of bills to the side of his desk and eyed his brother sprawled across the threadbare chaise in a pose that mocked the gravity of their situation. “We haven’t enough to pay the creditors, nor our meager staff, never mind afford food and firewood. If we do not contrive a solution, we’re set to starve or freeze to death before the end of the month.”
Jasper appeared nonplussed. “We’ve ventured into dun territory before. You’ll find a means to keep us alive.”
The lackadaisical response abraded Val’s fragile hold on his temper. He would not mention his brother’s outlandish gambling debts. He would not suggest poor investments and irresponsible behavior were what landed them on the rocks. Instead he flicked his eyes to his father’s portrait, dusty and faded above the fire, if it could be called that, the meager log smoldering in the box nothing more than a cold insult; and instead, lamented how Jasper had grown into a duplicate of their deceased father, a popular, likeable gentleman who possessed a devil-may-care attitude void of one drop of responsibility. Jasper, as a second son to boot, was excused by society for most every indiscretion.
Perhaps Valerian’s silence conveyed what his words did not because the subject of his morose deliberations stood with alacrity and walked to the sideboard intent on a drink only to discover the brandy decanter bone dry.
“We have to find a solution, Dash. Conditions are truly grave when the brandy’s run out.” Jasper swept his eyes from left to right. “Isn’t there something here of worth?”
“So now I have your attention.” Val pinned his brother with a scathing glare. “There’s nothing left to sell. I pawned the silver to settle your vowels with that crooked gaming hell in St. Giles. I’ve sold artwork to repay the debt you owed Lord Rendly, and by work of determination, cajoled the bank into a few more weeks of credit. We’re in damned low water this time. We’ll have to give the staff notice so they can seek new positions. Cook and Turner deserve better than to remain in employ of two brothers housed in a ramshackle country estate where wages cannot be paid.”
“You’re doing it up a bit much. Turner has been our butler forever and Father’s butler before that. He would work here at Kirby Park for free if we asked.”
“You can’t possibly be suggesting—” Indignation laced Valerian’s objection.
“Not at all. Hold your temper. I’m merely stating the man will understand if his monthly wages are not forthcoming. I’d bet the old purse-pincher has abundant savings.”
A gleam lit his brother’s eye and Valerian interrupted before Jasper voiced the words. “We’ve already ascertained your success with wagers. Never would I, the sixth Earl of Dashwood, borrow funds from my butler.” Blameful accusations danced upon his tongue eager to be granted freedom, but speaking them served no purpose other than to blanket his brother with poor feelings and alienate the opportunity to discover a solution.
“Alas, pride comes into play.” Jasper checked the brandy decanter a second time, as if wishing would cause the liquor to appear. “Pride will be your downfall. You need to free yourself from the pressures of social opinion.”
Easily said, but a hard war won. Jasper was free to proceed through life without the burden of responsibility and he continued now in the same untroubled tone.
“We need a plan. Some type of purposeful action. It may take a little creative thinking, but we’ll figure this out.”
Valerian’s left brow climbed in speculation on cue with his brother’s brash optimism and liberal use of the word
. “I’m not in the mood for one of your havey-cavey schemes. We haven’t six pence to scratch with. You need to show more concern.” It was the closest he could come to implying fault, although in truth he should rail with anger from the impossible debt incurred by father and brother; debt leaving them notoriously entailed and cash poor, their reputation in desperate need of repair and any option to sell up efficiently eliminated.
Besides, he’d promised his father a recovery of Kirby Park, not abandonment invigorated by unholy debt and a rapscallion sibling. And yet he loved Jasper as he did their departed father, dearly and unconditionally. If only his brother didn’t test the limit of his loyalty so often.
“Concern? Worry? Those will get me nowhere fast. Where’s the sense in distress? It creates two problems instead of one.” Jasper tossed the crystal stopper of the liquor decanter from hand to hand in a careless game of catch. “If you mean to imply my investments failed to reach fruition, I will concede the point. Although I still believe a mousetrap is a viable invention. Mark my words someday they will be top-of-the-trees.”
“Perhaps when cats become extinct. Meanwhile s
will not put dinner on the table this evening. Had we a mouse or two I’d skewer them with a letter opener and roast them over that pathetic flame.” Both gentlemen slid their eyes to the firebox where a few dim embers glistened among the ash. “I’m hungry and embarrassed. How will I forestall the creditors this time? I’ve spent whatever meager savings Father left us on necessary estate repairs, food, and the barest living essentials after I repaid your debts. We need more than a plan. We need a miracle to alleviate these dire straits.” His stomach growled loudly but hunger did not pain him as much as failure.
“It can’t be
bad.” Jasper replaced the stopper and strode to the window before pivoting with renewed enthusiasm. “We still have the house and two horses.”
“I acquired another last evening.” Jasper’s mouth twisted with a wry smile. “It was a stroke of luck, really.”
“You were out gambling? Another horse means another portion of oats and hay.” Valerian exhaled deeply in hope of offsetting the additional burden placed on his shoulders. “And where is this wonderful example of horseflesh?”
“In the stable with your Arcadia. He’s named One-Eyed Jack and I’m told he has a touch of Arabian in his blood.” Jasper straightened his shoulders as if the statement elevated the news.
“I’m sure he has a touch of something.” Resigned, Valerian dropped into the desk chair. “Ridiculous name for a horse, but I presume his moniker was derived from the final card that placed him in your possession.”
“No. He only has one eye. Although I did win him in a tight game of vingt-et-un.”
Jasper chuckled as he responded, his lighthearted attitude toward life unblemished, while Valerian’s innards clenched with the responsibility of past debt and the promise of a bleak future. There was no one left to borrow from, nothing left to sell. If he didn’t resort to the most desperate measures, his prediction of death by hunger or cold temperature would prove true. He could see the headline of
The London Times
in bold print,
Earl of Dashwood Perishes in Poverty, Nary a Shilling or Crust of Bread to His Name
How did he arrive at this juncture? His father had squandered their savings, exploited the title, and died with neat efficiency shortly thereafter. Jasper, while the truest of brothers, had inherited his father’s despicable habits, more suited for wastrel than gentleman. His hardly controlled caper-witted antics had created more complications than Val wished to consider. True, Jasper meant well, but his investments had all proven futile, while the monies spent on mousetraps and the like could be heating rooms in the form of firewood. Valerian looked out the window and sized the ash tree on the front lawn. Perhaps he could chop it down, split the logs.
“I’ve got it.” Jasper clapped his hands together, delighted by the realization he intended to share. “You can get married.”
The unsettling strategic glimmer in his brother’s eyes raised the hairs on the back of Val’s neck, but as the zealous words reached comprehension, his entire body tensed in warning. He’d never considered his brother a lackwit. Impulsive, yes, but in a well meant manner. They had no money to support the likes of themselves plus a few aged servants. How would the addition of a lady-wife improve their lifestyle?
“A rich one of course.” Jasper’s devious proclamation bounced across the room. “You, my distinguished brother, could pose as a regular out-and-outer, ingratiate yourself into society, and land a wealthy wife. All our troubles will be solved.” His grin was as delusional as his proposition. “Of course, we’d have to go to London.”
“London.” Valerian’s immediate protestation nipped the end of Jasper’s statement. “That infernal city is the reason I dragged you back to Kirby Park, away from the gaming hells, business propositions, and otherwise troublesome temptations you find on every corner.”
“True enough, but here in the country, the plan is sure to fail. Events of the ton are where you’ll find my wealthy future sister-in-law.”