London, Summer of 1793
Lady Nancy Davenport rolled her eyes again at Monica’s giggling. It was bad enough that she was forced to endure their inane conversation about the latest fashion, frills and fabric—it had to be worsened by Monica’s constant insufferable giggling every occasion Lord Ashworth and Lord Townson glanced toward their group.
She wasn’t as prudish as to deny that they were a very attractive pair. Both were tall with large frames, which most noble men did not hold. Ashworth possessed such rich dark brown hair that it looked black in the evenings. Townson had a head of strawberry blond hair many women coveted. Their physiques were close to what a man of labor would possess, but Nancy had it on good authority—Mrs. Nolan, England’s chief gossiper—that their vanity forced them to keep fit. With all the potbellied, lanky framed, stout and short men in England, they had to be in top form to be at the top of the list if they had hope of joining any willing or widowed woman in their beds.
Monica’s annoying giggling drew Nancy’s attention from her covert inspection of the men in question, making her clench her fists with frustration as she looked back to the circle of chatting women.
Why, oh why, does possessing breasts force women to be marginalized to conversations that reduced their brain size by an inch every time they opened their mouths and something dim-witted came out?
“Make her stop, Nancy, or I swear I’ll shove my slipper into her mouth!” Miss Julia Fielding, her closest and most dear—so her only—friend whispered discreetly to her.
Nancy grasped her hand and took a step back, “Let’s sneak away and go find a more stimulating conversation that, hopefully, will not make our brains shrivel and die!”
Once they had made it a few feet away unnoticed, they turned around and quickly made their way to a large group of ladies and a few gentlemen.
Nancy groaned once she looked around at the faces in the group. This convergence was where all the gossip was shared before it was spread with a few alterations and exaggerations until the gossip club believed it scandalizing enough.
Have they nothing better to do with their lives? Nancy huffed.
Julia chuckled, taking Nancy’s hand and leading her away. “Come on. Let’s join Lord Ashworth’s group. They are bound to be discussing something that will definitely preserve your mind,” she teased.
Nancy stopped, pulling Julia to a halt. There was no way she was joining a group where that man was! “Oh no! You just want to join them so you can fawn all over Lord Ashworth, and you know I can’t stand that man.”
Julia whined, “Please, Nancy. This is my second season and if I don’t nab him this time, I’ll never get another chance. I’ll be a spinster!”
Nancy rolled her eyes. Julia had a tendency to over exaggerate and wanted things that she could never obtain. Only this time, she was convinced she could succeed where every other lady in the marriage mart had failed—to get Ashworth to propose marriage.
Nancy drew in a breath in mock horror. “At the age of just nine and ten, we simply cannot permit that.” Despite having no desire to either join the men or have to listen to Victoria who she could already see unabashedly flirting, Nancy pulled Julia forward. “Come. We’ll drag him to the altar, kicking and screaming, if he does not propose willingly and save you from the life of a spinster that looms so near!”
Julia pulled her to a stop. “Don’t mock me, Nancy! He and Lord Townson are the best catches. They have titles, are handsome, rich and are bound to produce attractive children. The best allure is that they are a perfect mix between a rake and a gentleman.” She bounced with a giddy cheer. “They are perfect!”
She was glad Julia didn’t have an incessant giggle. With her impulsive and outgoing nature, a dreadful giggle surely would have worn on Nancy’s patience. “Then why not chase after Lord Townson?”
Julia gave her an incredulous look. “And what of you? The only other option would be Lord Ashworth and you are bound to kill him after the first day of marriage.”
Nancy bit her tongue to keep silent. If her friend only knew her heart’s desire.
There were almost twenty other eligible bachelors in the same room with them but Julia was a little vain. If it wasn’t the best of the breed, then it was nothing at all, meaning Ashworth and Townson were the only worthy candidates for her and her best friend.
Nancy sighed. The two men being best of friends did mean she and Julia would stay close to each other if her silly plan worked.
Nancy wasn’t willing to let go of the only friend she had. Her pursuit for knowledge and not inane things ostracized her. So even if it meant aiding Julia in her foolish plan, she would do it with gusto.
“All right. Come along. I’ll help you catch your rake-gentleman.”
“No. We’ll help each other. Don’t forget your Lord Townson.”
My Lord Townson? Nancy held in the snort and led the way to their group. She positioned herself between Lord Ashworth and Townson, which wasn’t so difficult with the bell-bottom shape of her hoop skirt, which forced the two men to create space for her.
Nancy smiled her thanks to them, making sure to avoid eye contact with Ashworth and stepping closer to Townson so that Julia would stand next to Ashworth.
“Lady Nancy, Miss Julia, it’s nice of you to join us.” Townson, the gentleman of the duo spoke with a slight bow of his head.
Mayhap marriage to him wouldn’t be so bad. He surely was a sight to look at—a feasting for the eyes—unlike some gentlemen of his stature.
Nancy smiled and gave a small curtsey. “Thank you, Lord Townson.”
“Miss Julia, Lady Nancy.”
Nancy swallowed hard at Ashworth’s sensual drawl of her name with his deep baritone. She hated the way he made her feel—unsettled and tingly. She especially didn’t want to feel tingly!
Why, oh why, do I torture myself with his presence?
“Lord Ashworth, it’s a pleasure to be in your company again. The last time we spoke was season past,” Julia answered in a breathy voice.
Nancy turned to her friend with a raised brow. Julia sounded like she was ready to swoon! Or worse yet, float away with all those airs she was putting on in the name of charming the man. Nancy fought not to scowl at Julia’s pouty lips, fluttering eyelashes and the way she leaned into Ashworth with her chest pushed out. Of all the things! She might as well pull the top of her dress down and expose her breasts judging by how blatantly she was trying to draw his eyes to her cleavage.
Lord Ashworth chuckled softly. It was obvious he had definitely picked up on Julia’s attempt of a seductive voice as Nancy watched his eyes stray to her friend’s cleavage, staying there a minute too long for what was considered appropriate.
Finally looking up to her face with a lopsided grin and an attractive alluring in his eyes, he said, “The pleasure is all mine.”
Nancy’s body tingled again at his voice. Damn it!
She turned away from the two and gave her attention to the discussion the men were holding, hoping to drown out his voice. It didn’t take long for her attention to be caught. They were discussing the colonies in the New World, though her intrigue was quickly building to irritation.
“I say, there is only one way to deal with those savages. Kill the rebels and make them an example to the rest!” potbellied Lord Wimbleton declared.
“Why? Because they are fighting for what is rightfully theirs?”
The group hushed turning to face her. She knew those looks. She’d received them far too often and not once had she let them intimidate her.
Julia groaned next to her, giving her a pleading look that said ‘Why now?’
Nancy knew Julia hated it when she argued with the gentlemen, but she wasn’t the type of woman who swallowed her opinions and nodded like a good little dim-witted debutant training to be an obedient lapdog wife. But then again, what was the difference between a married woman whose only vocabulary consisted of the two words ‘yes dear’ and a pet? And wives question why men have mistresses. She tipped her chin up in defiance, refusing to shy away.
“Lady Nancy, I believe this discussion is extremely heavy for your delicate sensibilities,” Lord Wimbleton rebuffed.
Nancy’s brow slowly rose at the insult. Extremely heavy for my delicate sensibilities?
“Oh no!” Julia whined next to her.
“Thank you for your concern, Lord Wimbleton, but my delicate sensibilities are quite capable of handling this and any other politicking discussions.” She snubbed him by turning away from him and addressing the rest of the group “We invaded their home not the other way around.”
“Which gives them the right to rebel against his majesty’s rule, is that right?”
Nancy turned to Ashworth apprehensively. She wondered if he was making fun of her, but his expression seemed serious. Well it should be, considering he had relatives in the New World, or so she’d heard. The gossiping during the season rivalled the Gazette in distributing news on London’s elite society’s personal lives.
“That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
He nodded slowly, thoughtfully. “Conquering lands and expanding territories has been an age old tradition. Why would we change that now?”
Nancy grew hesitant. Something told her to tread lightly, even though she wished she could nurse the thought that he was sincerely asking for her opinion. Could it be he was genuinely interested in her thoughts on the subject? Why, she had a lot to say on the matter and wished she had someone with a like mind, if not greater, who would participate in a scintillating debate. Academic arguments were a favorite pastime; that is, if she could find someone who looked beyond her gender and saw her as a scholar and not an annoyance. Her parents thought she read too much and too widely for a lady and should be concentrating on landing a well-to-do, titled gentleman. And, yes, they did think her dogmatic and exasperating with a slim to no chance of landing a husband. But, they did still hope that Papa’s increase in her dowry would lure a man willing to ignore her ‘smart mouth’. Her intelligence was reduced to impudence because she was of the wrong gender.
She opened her mouth to answer when a look passed over Ashworth’s face, which he quickly hid. Nancy stewed. He had no interest in what she had to say. She should have known he was just setting her up for a fall on her face. Well, not this time around!
“I believe we are sufficiently civilized to carry such politics in way that doesn’t involve bloodshed. In fact, theft and murder are deplorable ways to carry out business.”
Ashworth slapped his hand to his chest, his face contorted in horror. “Oh my bleeding heart!”
The group erupted in laughter and Nancy felt her face burn with embarrassment. A quick glance at Julia showed she was mortified as well. Nancy felt frustrated tears burn the back of her eyes. She hated being laughed at and despised suffering embarrassment because she possessed an educated mind and individual opinions.
“Excuse me,” she whispered before she hastily turned and fled.
If she hadn’t embarrassed herself enough, she would have broken into a run across the ballroom to reach the steps that led out into the night. Halfway away from that insufferable man, she felt Julia’s hand slip into hers.
“Just a little further. Don’t give them the satisfaction of letting your tears fall before the ton.”
Nancy felt the threat of tears worsen as her eyesight blurred. They’d just stepped into the garden when the first tear fell. She moved behind a tall hedge to hide her breakdown. She wasn’t the weepy type. She had never understood why his cutting words sent her to tears when she readily rose to the challenge when it was any other man. This was the second time Ashworth had brought her to tears. The first time that it happened was during her first season.
She had been the belle of the ball at ten and eight. She’d heeded her mother’s advice and kept her opinions to herself, smiling, laughing and joining silly conversations like she was meant to. Her beauty and her large dowry were all meant to speak for her. But halfway through the season, after five proposals and over ten men calling on her—some fortune hunters, others obsessed with the sound of their own voices, and most believing that a woman should be seen and not heard—she’d had enough! She decided she wanted her intellect added to her list of attractive traits.
With that decision, she unfortunately picked the wrong group to exercise her resolve. She made a comment and a commendation about gentlemen and even ladies having employment, hoping to impress them, especially Lord Ashworth who she’d been infatuated with since her sixteenth summer. Only, the source of her infatuation was less than impressed, going as far as to publicly embarrass her by saying the only employment a woman was good for was lying on her back and breeding. He then went further by asking when her own employment would commence and who the unfortunate employer was.
To her mother’s shame, all proposals were withdrawn and no one called on her from that day forward. Not even her father’s increase to her already exuberant dowry could lure anyone back. By the end of that season, she had been snubbed from all the parties her mother hadn’t already accepted invitations to and was only left with Julia as a friend.
This season, her mother begged her not to make the same mistake, but she was taking a stand, even if it meant having a second unsuccessful season. She would not be marginalized, only to be seen and not heard, making herself available to her husband’s pleasures and breeding.
No. She wanted to be a partner in her marriage, not live a life of servitude.
So why doesn’t she take that ‘stand’ every time Ashworth challenged it?
“Please don’t cry anymore, Nancy. The more tears you shed, the more victorious he is.”
Nancy wiped her eyes dry. Julia was right. She wasn’t going to let that man ruin her first ball of the season. Still, she couldn’t help but worry that he hadn’t already ruined her prospects and rejoining the ball was a waste of time.
Julia clapped. “Come on. Shoulders back, chest out and chin up. We are going back to the ball and forget that man ever existed.”
Yes, Nancy could see that working.
“Julia, your infatuation with him did not ‘cease to exist’ when he slighted me last season. It won’t change now either.”
“No, it just tells me the amount of work I have on my hands to set him right.”
Nancy chuckled. Julia was ever determined. “Let’s go. I need to speak to mother before she hears this from someone else.”
“Did you really have to do that?” Victor Wentworth, Earl of Townson, huffed his frustration.
Thomas had gotten used to his reproaching puffs. He gave his best friend a dry stare, “Do what?”
“Embarrass Lady Nancy for the second time. You damaged her prospects last season and all her suitors withdrew. Now at the beginning of her second season, you’ve obliterated them! She will never marry if you keep this up!”
Thomas Wimberley, the new Earl of Ashworth, knew his longtime friend was correct, but something about Lady Nancy just rubbed him the wrong way. She was gorgeous. None of the ladies in the room could hold a candle to her beauty, but she also exuded an air of self-importance, which he completely despised. Ever since her statement about gentlemen with titles not working and wasting their hardworking tenants’ monies gambling, whoring and drinking, he’d acquired an instant dislike for her. Yes, he was one of those men, but that did not make him useless. He was still young and at the prime of his life at the age of six and twenty. He should be allowed to have fun, and he did run his own estate—in a manner of speaking. He’d hired a manager who did most of the work.
“I do believe the only reason you are so nasty to poor Lady Nancy is because she is the only one who doesn’t swoon over you.”
That rang true, but he was never going to admit it. “Oh posh! I have no obsession for her like you do for Miss Julia.”
Victor sighed. “Between her attraction for you and my mother’s insistence that I marry a lady from a titled family, I have no hope of wedding her.”
Thomas had very little interest on topics that involved marriage, but he did want to help his friend. “Speak to her father.”
Victor harrumphed. “She has that man wrapped around her finger. He wouldn’t force her to do anything she did not wish, no matter the fact he is hoping for a titled son-in-law. And don’t forget, my mother!”
Thomas snapped his fingers as a full proof thought occurred to him. “Compromise her.”
Victor choked on his champagne. “What?”
“If you compromise her, none of them will have an option. Your mother would be shunned if she dared prevent the marriage, turning you into a defiler of virgins. Miss Julia would have no choice but to agree, because no man wants another’s seconds, thus her father would also agree, if not even force the marriage.”
Victor looked scandalized by the suggestion. “You can’t be serious!”
Thomas shrugged. “I gave you my advice. It’s yours to take or leave as you wish.”
Victor crossed his arms across his chest. “Once she’s married, what is there to stop you from cuckolding me? Because we both know what happened with the last infatuated, newly married lady.”
Thomas fisted his hands at his sides. He looked around to ensure no one close had heard Victor, then whispered harshly, “That was a onetime mistake and you don’t have to keep reminding me of it!”
“Fine. I’ll agree to it on one condition.”
“You offer for Lady Nancy and we’ll court them together.”
Thomas laughed. “Are you ill, my friend?” He plucked the glass of champagne from Victor’s hand and lifted it to his nose. “What is in this that’s making you delusional? Opium?”
Victor took his drink back. “Not at all. It’s only just that you are responsible for her lack of suitors. And you forget, you need to marry soon and produce an heir. God forbid if anything happened to you; the title and everything with it will go to your cousin Henry.”
Thomas sneered. His cousin had a great weakness for gambling. Within a week… no, that was giving him too much credit. Within a day, the estate and all his father’s assets would be lost on the gambling table, including his inheritance from the New World. Not even if he were lying cold in the ground would Thomas permit that.
“You could do worse, or do you want giggling ones like Monica?” he asked, pointing at Lady Monica.
Thomas followed his finger’s direction and visibly cringed at the thought. Her incessant giggling was enough to drive him to Bedlam.
“Or marry a lady with a head on her shoulders—one who won’t drive you crazy with mindless chatter?”
Thomas returned Victor’s knowing grin with a glare. He was right, even though Thomas didn’t find either of the options appealing. The only way to make a choice that he would not regret as much, was to question which one he wouldn’t murder on their first day of marriage.
“I will not marry that pompous, ill-reputed, lazy philanderer!” Nancy protested, shooting out of her seat and punctuating each word with her fist on her father’s desk.
It was the eighth morning after her humiliating first ball of the Season. They’d been forced to leave early, because Ashworth’s slight had spread through the ballroom like a blazing fire and her mother couldn’t stand the pitying glances. Nancy had left for home in disgrace and with no hope of further invitations to parties only to wake up to this. Had the world suddenly turned against her? Or was this her punishment for embarrassing her parents—a betrothal to her persecutor? Did she not have a say as to whom she took as husband? Of course not. She was not but a cow sold to the first interested farmer. Was the marriage mart not a market where the debutants, better referred to as cattle, were shown off, primed to attract the highest purchase?
“I decide who you will marry, Nancy, and my decision is final. Considering the spectacle you made of yourself at your first ball, you are lucky someone offered for your hand! It’s been a week and they are still whispering about the debacle!” her father bellowed, staring her down with a fierce look. That was a clear warning for Nancy to back down, but she refused.
“But him? I would rather marry a stable hand than that… that…” Words failed her. She wasn’t sure a proper word existed to describe Lord Ashworth, but husband was clearly not it.
“Earl,” her father tendered. “Lord over one of the richest earldoms.”
Nancy dropped back into her seat and folded her arms across her chest with a snort. “No thanks to him. That’s for sure,” she mumbled.
“What was that?” her father demanded.
Nancy sat up. “He could be lord over Olympus or hell and I could care less. I will not be one of his possessions to lord over!”
“Oh!” her mother wailed, dabbing her dry cheeks with her handkerchief. “Have you not embarrassed me enough? Do you want the ton to shun me worse than your last debacle?”
Nancy sighed at her mother’s dramatics. “Mother, the ton will not shun you.”
“They already have!” she screeched. “Would you like to know where all the ladies are at this very moment? At a tea party with the duchess where I received a disinvite this very morning! She said there were insufficient chairs in the garden.” She sniffed then blubbered loudly, “She has enough chairs in that garden for the whole of England!”
Nancy was a little shocked. Her mother had never shouted at her before. It pained her to see the distress she had caused. There were actual tears on her mother’s cheeks!
She really did not want to fold on this, although she clearly had to for her parents’ sakes, but she did want some say in the matter. “Will I not even be afforded the dignity of being courted first?”
“Does that mean you agree to the marriage?” her mother asked hopefully, tears in her eyes.
She knew she was going to live to regret this response. “Yes, Mother.”
Her mother sighed with relief and slumped into her chair.
Her father nodded his approval. “Lord Ashworth knew you would not be agreeable to you and him being alone so he suggested having your friend Julia join you.”
Julia! Oh, that rake! He didn’t want just her, but also her friend!
Nancy smiled at a sudden thought. Her misfortune may turn around if Julia replaced her as the bride.
Her father’s gaze narrowed as if he could read her thoughts. She stared back at him with a blank stare, hoping to appear docile and defeated.
“Nancy, mark my words. You will marry Lord Ashworth if I have to carry you to the altar. So whatever sinister plans you have turning in your head, forget about it. In three months there will be a wedding.”
Only she wouldn’t be the bride. Let the battle of wills commence.
She grinned, fully prepared to battle. “As you wish, Father.”