A lady who thirsts to be loved for more than her dowry…
A man on the edge of ruin…
Delicious temptation has never tasted this rich.
“Lady Ophelia Thornton?”
Harry Spencer, Earl of Avondale, stared at the list of women his mother had handed him with a growing sense of horror. He gaped at the countess as if she had sprouted another head.
“Marriage? Lady Ophelia Thornton? I don’t even know what the chit looks like.”
“She is rich. Does it matter what she looks like?”
“Of course it matters, Mother.”
“Well, it needn’t be Lady Ophelia Thornton.” She pointed to the other names. “I’ve made a list of six heiresses fit to become the next Countess of Avondale.”
“Lady Harriet Hillstow?” Harry shuddered. “My wife’s name cannot be Harriet. Harry and Harriet. We will be the laughingstock of England.”
“No one will dare.”
Harry took a deep breath and gave his mother a long-suffering look. “Is there no other solution?”READ MORE
“I’m afraid not, dear,” his mother said, patting his hand.
Had Harry known his life was about to be turned inside out, he’d have declined the invitation to tea. In fact, he should’ve been suspicious the moment he had learned that tea had been set up in the countess’s private quarters rather than her favorite sitting room.
He scowled down at the brandy-laced tea gripped between his fingers. Harry hadn’t questioned the spiked tea after his first sip because the countess had just lost her husband six weeks prior, and he had just lost his father. But as he sat stunned, waiting for her to renounce this madness, the slight burn of the tea scratching his throat, Harry realized why his mother had laced his tea with brandy. There was no renouncing anything. His mother had presented him with what she believed was the last resort.
His hand trembled, and he looked down at the black band that circled his wrist. They were in mourning, and while it certainly would not be frowned upon to attend some events, searching for a wife this soon after his father’s death would announce to the entirety of England that they were distressingly impoverished. Harry himself still had trouble swallowing the revelation.
Shock drove into him with the force of a hundred hammered nails. Had she thought a dash of brandy would lessen the blow? Perhaps a bottle with a touch of tea might have done the trick. Not this.
Harry surged to his feet. “We cannot be penniless! I would have known if we were destitute, would I not? How the bloody hell can our coffers be empty?”
“Your father developed a dependence on cognac, as you are well aware, dear.”
Harry dragged a hand over his face.
The late earl had been a dedicated husband and committed father, dutiful to his title, but on matters beyond that, he lacked adherence. But this? “Crippling the family fortune with drink would’ve been too much of an effort for all his distractedness. I would have stepped in.”
The countess sighed. “His drinking in and of itself did not draw us into these dire straits, but the procurement of several expensive pieces of art while presumed inebriated did. He bought numerous paintings, sculptures, and objects at exorbitant prices. Your father made rash decisions.”
How could this be happening?
Blast it! It could not be true. Not when the truth meant wedding an heiress, which in return translated to Harry being in possession of a wife.
He was not bloody ready to have a wife.
At eight and twenty, Harry was still in his prime. He hadn’t thought to settle down until much later. Hell, he hadn’t even become used to being an earl yet. How was he supposed to convince some woman to become his countess when he could not dispel his own doubts?
“This doesn’t make any sense,” Harry growled, circling back to his mother’s explanation. “Where are these precious pieces of art?”
“You have gone over the ledgers with the solicitor, have you not? Did you not see all the purchasing debts?” A sad note entered his mother’s voice. “Your father dug through the family coffers like a pirate working his way through a case of rum—all for art we have never laid eyes on.”
“Artwork, the expensive kind, does not disappear into thin air,” Harry muttered bitterly. “It has to be somewhere.”
“I have searched all of our estates, dear, and have found nothing.”
“Why did you not inform me sooner?” Harry questioned. “I could have hunted father’s purchases down by now.”
“I only discovered the extent of these purchases after his death, dear. You were so distraught. I wished to give you time before I troubled you with financial matters.”
Six bloody weeks.
Harry rolled his shoulders to ease some of their stiffness. Avondale. The title still did not sit right on his shoulders, even though it was his birthright. And now Harry had an additional burden: He had to make what his father had done right. He had to restore the family wealth.
But sculptures and paintings?
What the hell had his father been thinking? Harry could not grasp the logic. How had they missed the extent of the late earl’s condition?
His father had always been an eccentric man, prone to absentmindedness and long periods of solitude, but never careless. Not when it came to the duties of the title. Not when it came to his family. Not until about a year ago. Not until the drinking started.
Even then, though, when his father had lost a portion of his faculties, Harry had not considered the deterioration a severe matter. How many times had he dined with his parents and laughed over a glass of brandy? The nights they had spent idly before a crackling fire, discussing consequential matters for hours, had given Harry no cause to believe his father that ailing. Had it been pious wishes on Harry’s part?
Now that he thought about it, the first sign of his father’s withdrawal had been when his father had missed their annual pheasant hunt in the country. From then on, the frequency of dining together and chatting over a glass of brandy had lessened and lessened. Why hadn’t he questioned this?
He cursed himself a fool.
He should have known.
He should have stepped in a long time ago.
And yet, marbles lost or not, why squander the entire family fortune on art? It boggled Harry’s mind.
“At least the debts are settled,” his mother said, relief evident in her tone. “He left us that much.”
“This is preposterous.”
The countess’s eyes turned solemn. “Regardless, dear, now that you are the Earl of Avondale, it falls upon your shoulders to right his wrongs.” She lifted the porcelain teacup with delicate fingers to her lips. “Marriage is the only way to salvage this.”
“Not the only way, mother. I will find the art father purchased and return it all.”
“What if you cannot find the art? Lord knows I’ve searched everywhere.”
“I’d rather restore the fortune the hard way,” Harry said. “The way our forefathers did.”
A flash of emotion moved in the depth of his mother’s gaze but was gone before Harry could catch it. “You imagine courting a woman is not a challenging pursuit? I suppose you harbor the misleading impression that marriage is an easy way out of this quandary.”
“Surely it is not as hard as resurrecting our financial status.”
His mother chuckled. “Pick a wife, dear, and then we shall see how effortless you find the process of acquiring her.”
Trapped. Harry felt completely and utterly trapped by his mother’s words. His fingers fisted over the paper clutched in his hand. How the hell did his mother expect him to pick a wife while he was grieving the loss of his father? Blast it all, he could not think straight, let alone make such a life-altering decision in the midst of grief.
“Father has been gone but six weeks.”
“Our funds will be depleted in a matter of months, and we have no recourses, dear. We have no way to survive.”
“We are in mourning,” Harry pointed out, a last attempt. A desperate attempt.
His mother smoothed her hands over her black skirts. “Harry, dear, whether you wait or not, gossipmongers will rain upon us regardless. They will either remark on you wedding so soon after your father’s death, or they will snicker about our financial state.”
“So choose a wife. Fix father’s mistakes. Sire heirs? That is what is required of me? This is the duty of the title I now bear?”
Her face softened. “It is also a mother’s fondest wish for her son.”
Hell if Harry did not understand. All his life he’d known what was expected of him. That didn’t mean he wanted to hear it at that particular point in time.
Duty or not, this felt different. A fate he could not readily accept. Not yet. Not in the wake of his father’s death. He would turn over every rock in England for the missing art. Only then would he consider marriage to fill the family treasury with blunt. It was a matter of principle.
After all, who would Harry be if he gave in so easily?
8 hours later
“What could possibly put such a dour look on the newly minted Earl of Avondale’s face?”
Harry looked up from his tumbler of brandy to meet the gaze of Marcus Dawson, Earl of Deerhurst and longtime friend. Deerhurst smirked at him as he plopped down in the chair across the table.
“I’m penniless,” Harry drawled.
“I suppose that would do it,” Deerhurst said with a grimace. “What are you going to do?”
“Auction my title to the highest bidder—at my mother’s request.”
“Ah,” Deerhurst murmured. “The usual.”
Harry grunted, looking around White’s to determine if anyone appeared quite as miserable as he did.
“There are worse things in life than a rich wife.”
Harry didn’t argue the point but simply said, “So I hear.”
They sat in silence until, moments later, Phineas North, Marquis of Warrick, and Field Savage, Earl of Saville, entered the room and, upon spotting them, made their way over to their table.
“Why the glum air?” Saville inquired, eyeing them with interest. He signaled the waiter for more glasses.
Deerhurst lifted a shoulder in a shrug. “Avondale is penniless and must now marry a rich wife.”
“I am sorry to hear that,” Warrick said sincerely.
“So am I,” Harry muttered, pouring each of his friends a drink from the bottle he had steadily been nursing when the waiter returned with three glasses.
“There are worse things in life than becoming a fortune hunter,” Saville pointed out.
Harry shot his friend a glare. Though it wasn’t much different than Deerhurst’s comment, Harry was simply tired of hearing it. Yet it was the truth, was it not? With the stroke of fate’s untimely hand, he had been reduced to exactly that. And women, especially heiresses, were wary of gold diggers.
Seemingly coming to the same conclusion, Deerhurst said, “The key is to not let society discover your pockets are empty.”
Saville and Warrick nodded in agreement. “There are still one or two avenues I have not explored,” Harry murmured into his glass.
“Calling up debts to your family?” Saville asked.
“No debt to call up.”
“Sell your unentailed land?” Deerhurst ventured.
“No unentailed land to sell.”
“Prime horseflesh?” Warrick suggested.
“Investments?” Saville inquired.
“Nary one except for my own, which will barely cover the expenses of three households for three months.”
“So you have two months?” Warrick said, sipping his brandy.
Harry nodded. “Sixty odd days to find the missing art my father bought—the very art that caused this entire mess—or marry an heiress.”
“Two months to court a lady is adequate time if you start now,” Deerhurst remarked. “To delay could cost you.”
Harry sighed, leaned forward to pour himself another drink, and then settled back into his chair. There were worse things than being a fortune hunter and marrying a rich wife. But at that moment, he could not recall one bloody thing worse than either.
“Have you given thought to which heiress you will court?” Saville asked. “Their calling cards are quite full.”
“My mother has made a list.”
“Dear Christ,” Warrick muttered. “A meddling mother to boot.”
“Tell me, Avondale,” Saville said, leaning forward, “Are any of the women she chose passable?”
“Passable?” Deerhurst asked Saville. “Is that your way of asking whether the list at least contains some beauties?”
Saville shrugged. “Money can only serve as a dressing for so long.”
Harry stared down into the amber liquid in his glass, reaching into his pocket for the list. “Apparently all accomplished women.”
“Here, give me that,” Warrick said, plucking the list from Harry’s fingers. His gaze skimmed the names. “Lady Theodosia King? That woman will have you chasing your own tail.”
Deerhurst snatched the list from Warrick. He made an approving sound in the back of this throat. “Lady Louisa Talbot . . . now there is a prime piece of skirt.” He whistled. “Lady Selena—” he abruptly stopped, his eyes jumping to Saville. “Er . . .”
Harry pinched back the list, only for Saville to nick it.
“Do not dare go there, Avondale,” Saville growled. “My sister is off-limits.”
“I didn’t know my mother put Selena’s name on the list,” Harry replied, tossing brandy down his throat.
“Give the countess credit,” Deerhurst spoke up. “She’s an expert at picking potential brides. Every one of these ladies are rich and beautiful. I have half a mind to pick a wife from this list too.”
“We ought to expand the list by adding the advantages and disadvantages of each woman,” Warrick suggested. “A praiseworthy feature and a regrettable flaw.”
Harry merely quirked a brow and sat back in his seat, inviting his friend to explain. Warrick was one of the most sought-after bachelors in England and yet to this day eluded the parson’s trap with grace few men possessed. So far, as Harry counted, Warrick had almost been trapped fourteen times by scheming mothers and daughters. He escaped their ministrations each time. The man was a marvel.
“This way it will be easier to cross names off your list and choose a chit,” Warrick said. “Take Saville’s sister, for example. If you marry her, Saville will be your brother-in-law. Excellent. But again, Saville will be your brother-in-law. I shudder at the mere notion more than I look forward to the prospect.”
Saville grunted. “He has a point.”
“Capital idea,” Deerhurst said with a grin. “Where shall we begin?”
“It doesn’t matter who she is and what talents she lacks,” Harry felt he needed to point out. “Once word about my ramshackle state of affairs gets out, no heiress will come within five miles of me.”
“Not the ones with titles, at least,” Warrick pointed out. “Do not rule out American heiresses searching for despairing titled gentlemen with no wealth to their name.”
Harry scoffed. “I’m not that desperate.”
“Not yet,” Deerhurst said, taking a sip of his brandy. “Perhaps in a month or two.”
“I give it three weeks,” Warrick joined in.
“One week,” Saville interjected. “And he’ll take any heiress he can get.” His gaze hardened. “Anyone that is not my sister.”
Harry glared at them. “You are all warming my heart.”
“Don’t let word of your financial affairs get out,” Saville advised. “As long as the gossipmongers remain in the dark, you can go about your business unperturbed.”
“I agree,” Deerhurst said. “You can pull the wool over society’s eyes long enough to court a bride.”
Warrick nodded, motioning to Saville. “Who is at the bottom of the list? We will start the comparison from there and work our way up.”
Saville’s eyes dropped to the list. “Lady Theodosia King,” he murmured. “Beautiful, if one could look past her Satan eyes.”
“Satan eyes?” Harry muttered, a frown forming between his brows.
“Have you never noticed?” Saville shuddered. “That woman’s stare burns holes in your soul. When her eyes lock directly onto yours, I swear, it feels like a curse is being put upon you.”
The other men nodded their agreement.
“What of Lady Louisa Talbot?” Harry asked.
“Wide mouth,” Warrick announced.
“The girl could swallow you whole,” Deerhurst agreed.
“Lady Harriet Hillstow is on the list?” Saville whistled. “Harry and Harriet.”
“Besides her unfortunate name, she is rather pretty, in a feeble, fairylike way,” Deerhurst murmured.
“Have you not noticed the way she talks?” Warrick said. “The chit never shuts up; she rambles on and on.”
“In a rushed manner, no less,” Saville put in. “I once had the misfortune of spending one minute in her company. To this day I have no clue what she said.”
“Lady Phaedra Sharp.”
All eyes turned to Warrick. One by one, each man began shaking their head. Harry’s mouth twitched in amusement. They could just as well cross her off the list.
“She once threatened a suitor with a pistol,” Deerhurst elaborated and tossed back his brandy.
“What of Lady Ophelia Thornton?” he asked. “I recall my mother wrote her name at the top of the list.”
“Not bad,” Deerhurst murmured. “If you can get past her watchdog.”
Saville nodded. “It’s rumored she and Rochester have an understanding.”
Warrick snorted. “Lady Ophelia is in her third season. No man with an understanding would wait that long to claim her.”
So the lady was a mystery, then, Harry thought, as he shelved the information his friends had imparted for a later date. Tonight was for drinking, wallowing, and stumbling home in a stupor.
Harry observed his friends, who were still amusing themselves with his mother’s list. For them, life went on as usual. They sowed their oats freely, sealed reckless financial decisions, and drank the best brandy coin could purchase. For Harry, however, that had all come to an abrupt end. He had half a mind to snatch the list and tear it into six hundred little pieces.
But destitution loomed.
And when destitution loomed, one tucked away one’s pride. So Harry sank back and drank his brandy, continuing to observe his friends as they plotted and schemed.
Then Warrick started writing.