Authors: Nicole Jordan
friend, husband, hero,
with all my love.
I vow the new earl will drive me to distraction, thinking to marry us off like so much breeding stock.
âLetter from Miss Arabella Loring to Fanny Irwin
London, May 1817
The very word was menacing. Yet the new Earl of Danvers could ignore the topic no longer, much to his regret.
“A pity the late earl already met his end,” Lord Danvers professed, punctuating his declaration with the slash of a steel rapier. “Otherwise I would have his heart on a spit for the trick he served me, leaving me to play procurer for three wards I never wanted.”
His complaint, voiced amid the sounds of swordplay, was met with both sympathetic laughter and skepticism from his friends.
“Procurer, Marcus? Isn't that something of an exaggeration?”
“It perfectly describes my responsibility.”
“Matchmaker is a more tasteful characterization.”
What a lowering thought.
Marcus Pierce, formerly addressed as Baron Pierce and now the eighth Lord Danvers, winced with reluctant humor. Although he normally relished a challenge, he would gladly have forgone being saddled with three penniless beautiesâand worse, the burden of finding them respectable husbands.
Yet he'd inherited the Loring sisters along with his new title, so he was resigned to discharging his duty sooner or later.
Marcus had enjoyed thirty-two pleasurable years of bachelorhood, the last ten as one of England's most eligible and elusive marital catches. Since matrimony ranked high on his list of least-favorite subjects, he had put off facing his obligation to his unwanted wards for weeks now.
This fine spring morning, however, he'd finally forced himself to broach the issue while he was engaged in fencing practice at his Mayfair mansion with his two closest friends and fellow escapees of the Marriage Mart.
“But you do see my dilemma?” Marcus asked, executing a swift parry against his equally skilled opponent, Andrew Moncrief, Duke of Arden.
“Ah, yes,” Drew answered above the clang of blades. “You hope to marry off your three wards, but you expect to find few takers, given the scandal in their family.”
“Precisely.” Marcus flashed an engaging grin. “I don't suppose you would volunteer to offer for one of them?”
The duke shot him an eloquent glance as he leapt back to evade a deft thrust. “As much as I yearn to help you, old sport, I cherish my liberty too much to make such a devastating sacrifice, even for you.”
“Stubble it, Marcus.” The amused drawl came from the sidelines of the salon that Marcus used as a fencing hall. Heath Griffin, Marquess of Claybourne, lounged on a settee as he awaited his turn at practice, drawing idle patterns in the air with his foil. “You're touched in the head if you think to persuade us to offer for your wards.”
“They are reputed to be great beauties,” Marcus coaxed.
Heath laughed outright. “And spinsters, every one of them. How old is the eldest Miss Loring? Four and twenty?”
“Not quite that.”
“But she is said to be a spitfire.”
“So I'm told,” Marcus reluctantly acknowledged. His solicitors had described Arabella Loring as charming but fiercely stubborn-minded in her desire for emancipation from his guardianship.
“You haven't met her yet?” Heath asked.
“No, I've managed to avoid her thus far. The Misses Loring were away from home when I called to pay my condolences on the death of their step-uncle three months ago. And since then, I've let my solicitors handle all succeeding correspondence. But I will have to deal with them eventually.” He sighed. “I will likely travel to Chiswick next week.”
The Danvers estate was in the countryside near the small village of Chiswick, some half dozen miles west of London's fashionable Mayfair district, where many of the wealthy aristocracy resided. The distance was an easy drive in a fast curricle, yet Marcus was under no illusions that his task could be dispatched quickly.
“From everything I hear,” Drew said as he steadily advanced, “your wards will indeed prove a handful. It won't be easy to marry them off, particularly the eldest.”
Nodding, Marcus gave a wry grimace. “Certainly not when they profess to be so adamantly opposed to marriage. I've offered to provide them significant dowries to induce respectable suitors to wed them, but they rejected my proposition out of hand.”
“Harbor bluestocking notions of independence, do they?”
“So it would seem. A pity I can't convince either of you to come to my rescue.”
It would have been a neat solution to his dilemma, Marcus reflected as he fought off Drew's determined offensive. In addition to inheriting the title of earl to add to his long-held barony, he'd been encumbered with the entailed and impoverished Danvers estate, as well as responsibility for its genteel dependents, three indigent sisters. All three were blessed with impeccable lineage, superb breeding, and enviable beauty, but all were unmarried and getting somewhat long in the tooth.
Their single state was due less to their lack of fortune than to the horrendous scandal in their family. Four years ago, their mother had run off to the Continent with her French lover. Then barely a fortnight later, their father had been killed in a duel over his latest mistressâwhich had put an abrupt end to any last gasp chances the daughters had of marrying well.
Resolving to give his unwanted wards into more willing hands, Marcus had thought to marry them off by providing them with immense dowries. But that was before he'd discovered how fiercely independent the three beauties were. The eldest sister's letters had become downright impassioned in her appeals for self-rule.
“They are legally my wards until they turn twenty-five,” Marcus explained, “but the eldest, Arabella, is already fretting over the constraints. In the past month, she has written me four letters proclaiming that she and her sisters have no need of a guardian at their advanced ages. Regrettably for us all, I am bound by the terms of the will.”
Pausing to circle his opponent, Marcus ran a hand roughly through his raven hair. “Truthfully,” he muttered, “it would have suited me better had I never heard of the Loring sisters. I never wished for the additional title. I was perfectly content as a baron.”
His friends offered him sympathetic but amused looks, which prompted Marcus to add pointedly, “I expect your help in solving my dilemma, you spineless reprobates. Surely you can think of some appropriate candidates I can throw their way.”
“You could always offer for one of them yourself,” Heath suggested, a wicked gleam in his eye.
“God forbid.” Marcus paused to shudder and was nearly skewered when Drew lunged with his foil.
Through much of their boyhood and all of their adulthood, the three of themâMarcus, Drew, and Heathâhad been inseparable, having attended Eton and Oxford together and then come into their vast fortunes and illustrious titles the same year. And after being chased relentlessly by marriage-minded debutantes and barely eluding the traps of countless matchmaking mamas, all three shared grave reservations about the institution of matrimony. Most particularly the sort of cold, convenient union typical of the aristocracy.
Marcus had never encountered even one woman he might want to take for his wife. The thought of being shackled for life to a female he scarcely liked, much less loved, sent chills down his spine. Yet he owed it to his titles, both the new and the old, to carry on his bloodlines, so eventually he would have to marry.
The demise of his bachelorhood, however, would be a long time in coming, Marcus vowed.
Realizing his concentration had been shattered by all this unpalatable talk of matrimony, he stepped back and offered Drew a sardonic salute. “I had best withdraw before you slice me to ribbons, your grace. Heath, pray take your turn at practice.”
When the marquess replaced him on the floor, Marcus crossed the salon to a side table, where he set down his rapier and retrieved a towel to wipe his damp brow.
The clash of steel had just resumed when he heard a commotion out in the corridor, coming from the vicinity of his entrance hall. He could only make out every third word or so, but it was clear he had a female callerâ¦and that his butler was denying his presence.
His curiosity piqued, Marcus moved closer to the salon door, the better to hear.
“I repeat, Lord Danvers is not at home, miss.”
“Not at home or not receiving callers?” the female voice asked pleasantly. “I have come a long distance in order to speak with him. I am willing to search the premises if I must.” Her voice was low and melodious but definitely determined. “Where may I find him?”
There followed sounds of a scuffle. Apparently Hobbs was attempting to prevent her from entering the house but losing the battle. A moment later his august servant actually yelped. “Madam, you cannot go abovestairs!”
Picturing the butler blocking the foot of the mansion's sweeping staircase, Marcus found himself stifling a grin.
“Why not?” she queried. “Will I find his lordship abed or in a state of undress?”
Hobbs let out a shocked exclamation before muttering, “Very well, if you insist. I will inquire if his lordship is receiving.”
“Pray, don't trouble yourself. Just tell me where he is, and I will announce myself.” The dulcet voice paused. “Never mind. I hear swordplay, so I expect I need only follow the sounds.”
Marcus braced himself as light footsteps approached along the corridor.
The woman who appeared in the doorway a moment later was striking in her loveliness. Although her tall, elegant figure was gowned modestly in a blue crepe carriage dress, she possessed an unmistakable confidence, a graceful presence, that compelled attention.
A beauty of substance, Marcus realized at once, captivated by the sight.
Despite her unusual height and slenderness, she was curvaceous enough to entice even a man of his jaded experience. Her pale red-gold hair was swept up beneath a bonnet, with curling tendrils spilling around her finely-boned face. He was mainly aware, however, of the pair of keen gray eyes surveying the room, the most intriguing he had ever seen. They were the hue of silver smoke and held an intelligence and warmth that instantly stirred his senses.
Her jaw was set with determination, yet when she spied him, she suddenly faltered. A slight blush rose to her cheeks, as if she realized the impropriety of barging in on three noblemen engaged in a fencing match, all dressed in shirtsleeves and breeches and boots, with no cravats or waistcoats or coats.
Her eyes traveled from Marcus's bare throat to his linen shirt that hung partway open, exposing his chest. Then abruptly, she jerked her gaze back up to his face, as if knowing she'd been caught in a forbidden scrutiny. When he locked glances with her, the color mounted in her cheeks.
Marcus found himself enchanted.
An instant later she appeared to gather her wits and forged ahead with her mission. “Which of you gentlemen is Lord Danvers?” she asked sweetly.
He took a polite step toward her. “At your service, Missâ¦?”
A vexed Hobbs answered behind her, “Miss Arabella Loring to see you, my lord.”
“I take it you are my eldest ward,” Marcus observed, concealing his amusement.
Her lovely mouth tightened the slightest measure, but then she tendered him a charming smile. “Regrettably, yes, I am your ward.”
“Hobbs, take Miss Loring's pelisse and bonnetâ”
“Thank you, my lord, but I don't intend to stay long. I only desire a brief interviewâ¦in private, if I may.”
By now his two friends had paused in their fencing match and were watching his unexpected visitor with avid curiosity. When she advanced into the room, Marcus saw Drew raise a quizzical eyebrow, expressing surprise at her stunning appearance.
Marcus was highly surprised himself. Based on his solicitor's comments, he had expected his eldest ward to be something of a shrew, but the reports of her beauty didn't do her justice. She was, to put it simply, magnificent.
He gave Drew and Heath an apologetic glance. “Would you excuse us?”
Both noblemen crossed the salon with their rapiers, and Heath flashed Marcus a slow grin as he passed, along with one of his habitually baiting remarks. “We will await you in the hall should you need defending.”
He saw Arabella stiffen at the quip, but then she laughed, a low melodious sound that once more fired his senses. “I promise not to do him bodily harm.”
was Marcus's first thought; he might have appreciated seeing what she could do to his body.
When they were alone, however, Marcus fixed his ward with a level gaze. He admired her boldness in coming here but knew he should make some show of disapproval if he intended to keep the upper hand with her. “My solicitors warned me about your determination, Miss Loring, but I didn't expect you to flout propriety by visiting me at my home.”