Read The Match of the Century Online

Authors: Cathy Maxwell

Tags: #Romance, #Historical

The Match of the Century

BOOK: The Match of the Century
3.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

 

Dedication

For Pamela Jaffee

I’ve been waiting for the right book

to dedicate to you, and this is the one.

Although it doesn’t have cats.

Should have thought to add cats.

***Author note for next book!***

 

Invitation

In honor of

Miss Elin Morris

and her parents

Mr. and Mrs. Fyclan Morris

Gavin Whitridge,

the Duke of Baynton and Marcella,

The Dowager Duchess of Baynton

request your presence at a ball

Tuesday, 11 April, 1809.

Dances begin at 10 p.m.

An Announcement

of Great Importance

will be made before midnight.

A cold supper will be provided.

R.S.V.P. Menheim House

 

Chapter One

A
ll of London, even down to the riffraff, already knew what the ball’s special announcement would be. There was no mystery, although The Dowager Duchess of Baynton’s guests would feign surprise when the moment for the announcement arrived.

They called it the Match of the Century.

Her son, the Duke of Baynton, London’s richest and unarguably most handsome gentleman, would announce his betrothal to Miss Elin Morris, also known as the Morris Heiress, thereby uniting two great fortunes and two magnificent adjoining country estates in Leicestershire along the River Trent.

And the reason everyone anticipated the “announcement” was because it was a well-known fact that Elin had been promised to the duke almost since the day of her birth. Yes, she had been presented at Court and had gone through the motions of a First Season, but it had all been just a formality, a “show.” The duke was hers. She had Baynton, the epitome of a lordly lord, the Nonpareil.

“And I am not
worthy
of him,” Elin whispered, stopping the furious pacing she’d been at for the last ten minutes in an attempt to settle anxious nerves and a confused mind.

Her bedroom in her parent’s London house was fit for a princess. The India carpet in hues of blue was thick and soft beneath her stockinged feet. Her furniture was gilded in the opulent manner her parents preferred.

Back in Heartwood, the Morris family estate, which adjoined the Baynton’s family seat, the furniture in her room was simple and to her tastes. Here, her parents ruled. They were London creatures, darlings of society known for their generosity and deep, abiding love for each other.

And Elin? Well, their only child preferred the quieter life at Heartwood. Of course, all that would change when she became Baynton’s duchess. He was too important to have his wife rusticate in the country.

She caught a glimpse of herself in her dressing-table mirror, a lone figure in finely woven petticoats, her face pale beneath a mop of overcurly brown hair. Her dark eyes reflected her agitation. They threatened to swallow her face.

“It’s not that I don’t want Baynton,” she attempted to explain to her image. “It is that I
shouldn’t
have him. Not without telling him—”

Her bedroom door flew open, interrupting her thoughts, and her mother, Jennifer Morris, sparkling in the famed Morris diamonds, swept into the room. Her dress was of Belgian lace dyed in her favorite shade of sapphire, a color that matched her eyes. Her honey blond hair betrayed barely a trace of gray. She glowed with eagerness for the evening ahead. She enjoyed crowds and being the center of attention. She had looked forward to this night for over twenty years, ever since the old duke of Baynton had suggested a match between their children.

Jenny shut the door and took in the situation in the room—Elin in her petticoats, her hair curling without a sense of order or style—and focused on the supper tray on the desk by the window overlooking the back garden.

“What is this? You haven’t touched any of your food. Sarah said she encouraged you to eat, but I can see you haven’t taken even a bite.” Her mother approached her. Jenny was half a head taller than her daughter. She cupped Elin’s face in warm, loving hands. The rose scent of her perfume swirled around them. “Elin, you must eat. This evening is all about you. You are going to be very busy tonight. So many people will beg your attention, you won’t have time to sit, let alone enjoy a bit of supper. Cook prepared the chicken in that French cream sauce you like so much. And then, sweet bee, you need to finish dressing. In fact, while you are eating, let me call for Sarah to do your hair. We don’t want to keep Baynton and his guests waiting—”

Elin caught her mother’s hand before she could move away. “I can’t do this. I thought I could, but I can’t.”


You can,
” her mother answered. “You were meant to do this. Born for it. Elin—” She paused, closed her eyes as if searching for the right words, or patience. When she raised her lashes, her expression was one of loving concern. “Elin, forgive yourself. You made a mistake. It shouldn’t have happened, but it did. However, it was many years ago. What were you, fifteen?”

“I was to turn sixteen.”

“So very young. How could you have known? You trusted Benedict. Your father and I trusted him.”

“I was foolish.” A hard lump formed in Elin’s chest at the mention of Benedict Whitridge’s name. Ben had been her closest friend, and he had taken what she should have protected—her virginity. He was also her betrothed’s youngest brother.

Not only had the experience been painful and humiliating, he’d gone away the very next day. He’d left for a career in the military without a word of farewell. Or a warning that he was leaving, that he wouldn’t be there to reassure her when she needed him most.

Her mother led Elin to her dressing table. She gently pushed Elin to sit on the bench, then knelt on the carpet in front of her, taking her hands and holding them.

“My daughter, we have discussed this. I thought you’d forgiven yourself. It was not a good incident in your life, but nothing terrible came of it.”

“I have forgiven myself.” Elin’s voice sounded false to her own ears. “I just believe Baynton should know.”

“That his
brother
took advantage of his betrothed? Is that what you want to tell him?”

“I wouldn’t say who.” Especially since Baynton and his brothers had shared a turbulent history.

There had been three Whitridge sons until Gavin’s twin, Jack, had disappeared one night from Eton. Some claimed he had run off. Others believed foul play. No matter which, he was never seen or heard from again.

The disappearance had meant that the old duke had not wanted to let his third son meet the same end. Or have the same opportunity to escape. The old duke had been an exacting taskmaster. He had high expectations for his heir. Ben often felt he was an afterthought. “A spare,” Ben had always claimed, oftentimes bitterly. “Always kept at bay.”

Because of Jack’s disappearance, his father had kept him at Trenton, the family estate, and had him educated by a succession of tutors. Elin had been his sole companion.

As an only child of parents who were often in London, Elin had valued Ben’s company. She’d trusted him and, to this day, could not believe he had taken her innocence to strike out at his oldest brother, as her mother had claimed. Then again, everyone knew the brothers were highly competitive. The old duke liked them that way.

However, to Elin, the loss of her purity was a small thing in the face of the betrayal of a trusted friend. She’d known he’d longed for independence. He’d yearned to buy his commission and set off into the world.

What she hadn’t anticipated was that he would use her in such a deliberate way. That had seemed out of character. Her mother had assured her it was very much the nature of men and one of the reasons that, from now on, her parents would protect her more closely.

And so they had.

Elin was now three-and-twenty. Ben actually meant nothing to her save for a hard lesson learned.

She admitted to her mother, “Of the two brothers, I am marrying the best . . . but Baynton is known for his integrity. Is it wise to start a marriage with a deception?”

“And you could speak this honestly without telling the name of the man?” her mother repeated incredulously, then shook her head. “He would demand it or go mad with jealousy. Sweet bee, when a man’s pride is on the line, he will move mountains to discover the truth. You know how single-minded your father can be.”

Elin nodded. Fyclan Morris’s story was well-known. He’d been an Irish nobody who had raised himself to the highest levels of society.

“Well, Baynton is even more so. Your honesty could destroy any chance you have at a happy marriage. He will not cry off. His honor won’t let him. And this means so much to your father.”

The marriage also meant a great deal to her mother as well. Jenny Tarleton had married beneath her.

Fyclan had been a man full of big dreams and confidence. He’d told her that his children were to someday be dukes and princes. His Romney grandmother had foretold it, and if Jenny ran away with him, if she eloped against her family’s wishes, she would have no regrets.

And now, Fyclan was one of the most respected businessmen in London. Certainly, he was the wealthiest. Through Elin, the prophecy was about to be fulfilled.

“I know what this marriage means to you and Papa,” Elin said as gently as she could. “However, I feel it only fair to tell Baynton of my indiscretion. I was foolish.”

Her mother leaned forward. “My darling daughter, there isn’t a woman alive who hasn’t been foolish at one time or the other. You took it too far, but the simple truth is, you are not the first woman to go to her husband’s bed after having lost her purity to another, and you will not be the last.”

Elin knew this was true. She’d heard the other young women of her acquaintance whispering.

“Benedict is gone,” her mother continued. “He is far away serving on some battlefield, plumping his vanity. He wanted to hurt his brother, and if you do tell Baynton what happened, then he will have succeeded.”

For a moment, Elin sat silent. Then she pulled her hands from her mother’s grip and turned on the bench to face her image in the mirror. Her expression had lost its haunted look. She lifted her chin with resolve. “Will you send for Sarah? I need to dress.”

“Are you going to make a confession to Baynton?” Her mother rose to her feet.

“There isn’t any sense to it, is there?”

Her mother kissed her on the top of her unruly curls. “Only the future matters, sweet bee. Baynton will make you a wonderful husband. Your son will be magnificent. Yes, I’ll fetch Sarah, and don’t forget to manage a bite or two.”

She started for the door, but Elin had one last question, something she’d always wondered knowing how close her parents were. “Does Father know what happened between Ben and me?”

Her mother stopped at the door, one hand ready to turn the handle. “Men are not as wise about these matters as we women are. He would have called Benedict out. It would not do for a grown man to duel a seventeen-year-old boy.”

She opened the door. “This is your night. Do not fear your destiny. Let this evening be one filled with the joy of an open heart. And when you walk into Menheim”—she referred to the Baynton’s London home—“look toward the sitting room because someday soon, your portrait, the portrait of a young duchess, will grace the mantel there. The pictures of your children will line the walls around you. And Baynton will value you above all others.” On those words, she left the room with perfumed grace.

Elin confronted herself in the looking glass. Since that fateful night, she’d lived a circumspect life. “My son will be a duke,” she whispered, testing the words that filled her parents with confidence, and yet, she felt nothing.

However, when all was said and done, the least she could do was to please her parents, to make them happy. Baynton was a good man. She didn’t know him well because he was so incredibly important, he was busy all the time, but she liked his mother. She respected Marcella and prayed she was half as dignified and good of heart as the Dowager.

A knock sounded on the door, and Sarah entered the room to help Elin dress.

Few women were as energetic as Marcella, The Dowager Duchess of Baynton. She was ten years Jennifer Morris’s senior, but she appeared young enough to be her contemporary.

The Dowager’s jewels of choice for the evening were her blood red garnets. They circled her throat, her wrists, and her fingers and stood out against silvery gray of her dress. In her white-blond hair, she wore a bandeau in garnet red. She appeared queenly and gracious, as was her welcome for her dearest friends in the upstairs sitting room reserved for family. They were not alone. The room was crowded with Baynton’s relatives, some of whom Elin knew, but many she did not. The sound of the musicians tuning their instruments drifted up the stairs from the ballroom.

“Jenny, you are radiant,” Her Grace said in greeting. “And, dear Fyclan, how handsome.”

Elin’s father did look good. He might not have been as tall as his wife, but there was a presence about him that made others take notice. Elin had gained the exotic shape of her brown eyes as well as her dark hair from him. His hair, once as black as a raven’s wing, was now silver.

Surprisingly, the years had been unkind to him. He used a walking cane now and not just for effect. Elin and her mother both worried after him. He was a man who worked far too hard.

However, tonight was one for celebration. Fyclan offered the duchess the kiss of friendship. “You are stunning as well, Your Grace.”

Marcella laughed, an expression that quickly took a dangerous turn toward tears. She pressed a gloved hand to her cheek. “I’m so sorry, Fyclan, it is nothing you said. My husband had so anticipated this evening and a wedding between our two families. You know how highly he thought of you?”

“I do, and I miss his friendship daily.”

“Yes,” the Dowager agreed and sent a sad smile in Elin’s direction. “And here I haven’t even told you how lovely you are, my Elin. You look like a young Helen of Troy,” she declared. “The pale peach of that dress sets your skin off to perfection. Your mother and I knew it would when we saw it, and I so admire the bands of gold holding your curls.”

Elin blushed with the compliment. But before she could respond, the duchess said quietly, “You and Gavin should have been married years ago. I feel so much regret over what happened.”

Jenny rested a hand on her friend’s shoulder. “My dear, it isn’t your fault that your husband took ill. The marriage could wait until he was better.”

“But he never became better.” Again the duchess’s eyes misted over the loss of her beloved husband. Elin and Gavin were to have been betrothed four years earlier, but the duke’s illness and subsequent death, not to mention the challenges Gavin faced in assuming the duties of the title, had set back plans for a wedding.

“I’m sorry,” Marcella apologized, taking a kerchief a footman offered and dabbing her cheeks, “for being a watering pot. I must stop this, or I will not make it through the night.”

BOOK: The Match of the Century
3.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

The Chateau on the Lake by Charlotte Betts
Beyond the Burning Lands by John Christopher
Angel in Scarlet by Jennifer Wilde
The Black Rood by Stephen R. Lawhead
The Distance Between Us by Masha Hamilton
Lettuces and Cream by John Evans
Wicked Lies by Lisa Jackson, Nancy Bush
A Hidden Life by Adèle Geras