How to Choose the MostEligible Bachelor
Jane glanced across the mahogany table at her friend. It was laden with tiny cakes, and the prettiest of china cups. Emily smiled, knowing Jane would be feeling as bored as she was. Her mother, Lady Laceford, was holding a tea party for them. The gossip had, as usual, turned to the London Season that year, which didn’t interest either of the young women in the least. Jane’s mama, Lady Faye Hayfield was, however, engrossed in the same conversation she had already had on several other occasions with Lady Laceford.
It was regarding Jane and Emily’s chances of success in finding a husband amongst the currently available bachelors. It involved meticulously considering who would make the best suitor. That turned out to be, of course, the wealthiest. They had already dealt with the competition their daughters might face from other debutantes—especially those who had come out during the current year—who would also be attempting to attract the gentlemen’s interest.
Lady Hayfield was trying to hide her embarrassment about what she regarded as Jane’s failure to secure a marriage proposal, since this was her daughter’s third Season. She did this by laughing at the disadvantages suffered by some of the other young ladies, listing the causes in turn as poor dress sense or posture, talking too little or not enough, clearly being terrified of the gentlemen, and so on.
However, this ruse wasn’t entirely successful because their hostess knew exactly how her friend was feeling. It was Emily’s second London Season, and so far, not a whit of interest had been shown in her by any of the gentlemen, young or old. At least Jane didn’t suffer from her daughter’s increasingly obvious problem with her weight, nor short-sightedness, which she put down to her reading too many books, however many times she was told not to. The situation had deteriorated to such an extent that Emily seemed incapable of walking so much as a foot in front of her without those atrocious silver frames perched on the end of her nose. Certainly not an attractive feature for a young lady!
Then again, it was perfectly clear to Lady Laceford and the majority of the other discerning mamas of the ton, who regularly had similar conversations with each other, that Emily was exactly like Jane. Neither of the girls were in the least bit interested in making the most of the way they looked, which was truly shocking. If the two ladies had trusted each other sufficiently to speak of it, they would have agreed on the huge disadvantages these failures presented to both of their daughters. Nevertheless, determined to succeed, they pressed on regardless in planning suitable betrothals and weddings for them. As if both would soon be married to the most suitable bachelor of the 1816 Season.
Jane was by now twenty-one years of age, and Emily nineteen. They had met not long after Emily had come out the previous year, and quickly became firm friends. Their families had townhouses in Belgravia not far from each other, and the two debutantes had soon agreed that they were considerably less excited than their mothers about the balls and other social occasions they would be expected to attend. They had tired of them early in the Season, along with their mothers’ endless complaints about the lack of suitable bachelors calling on them the following morning.
The women hadn’t yet reached the inevitable point in the conversation where they would discuss the stories in the latest scandal sheets—and those unfortunate young ladies who had fallen foul of the writers. They risked ruin for such sins as speaking to a man without a chaperone present.
Lady Laceford noticed that both girls had a faraway look on their faces. She wished to discuss the latest scandal in depth with Lady Hayfield, a topic quite unsuited for their inexperienced ears.
“Emily, dear, take Jane into the garden. The red roses bloomed this morning, and their scent is delightful.” She couldn’t help adding with a nervous laugh, “After all, Emily, you can’t possibly want to eat any more cake!”
Emily frowned at the plate of iced sponge cake in front of her, knowing she would have to do as her mother asked, though she desperately wanted another slice. Cook had cut the cake too thinly, and the slices were miniscule. Nevertheless, a visit to the garden would provide them with an escape from their mothers, and they would be able to talk freely to each other outside. So, she answered dutifully, “Yes, Mama. That will be nice.”
“Don’t forget to take your shawl, Jane. It would never do to catch a cold when you have so many balls and other events on your calendar. There is nothing attractive about a young lady having to stop dancing to blow her nose, not even into the whitest, most beautifully trimmed handkerchief,” Lady Hayfield said, with distaste.
She then produced a lace-edged one from her sleeve and wiped her own nose delicately, much to Jane and Emily’s amusement. Exchanging a quick glance, they carefully hid their mirth. The pair had already discussed at length what they regarded as Lady Hayfield’s obsession with catching a cold, particularly on a warm afternoon in early June.
Jane also did as her mother had asked and picked up the shawl from a nearby chair. It had been left for her by Mary, her ladies’ maid, in case she should need it. Once they were safely in the garden, she dropped it onto the first stone bench she saw before gazing in wonder at the rose bower.
“Your mother was right, Emily. The roses are gorgeous! No wonder the poets talk about them being the flower of love.”
“Mmm, they are wonderful. One of the gardeners says they are an old variety. I am so annoyed with myself because I can’t remember the name. I think it is French, but I shall ask him for it again. I love their perfume after the sun has been on them,” Emily said, flinging her arms up to the sky before dancing across the grass. She was closely followed by Jane, who was also enjoying the freedom to do as they wished without being reminded by both of their mamas to be more ladylike.
When they stopped to catch their breath, the girls laughed. “This reminds me of the Shakespeare sonnet, Emily said. ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’” She was kneeling on the grass. “It’s such a lovely afternoon, I feel like I could live forever.”
“Yes, you are right, but I think Mama would probably prefer us to be thinking more along the lines of Lord Byron’s ‘She walks in beauty like the night.’ Though I am not supposed to know anything about him or his poetry because of his wonderfully scandalous life. From what I do know, he wrote the words after seeing a beautiful woman at a London social event,” Jane said, pulling her friend upwards so they could run across the grass to sit comfortably on the swing.
“Something awful has happened, Em,” Jane said, taking her friend completely by surprise. She did not feel entirely comfortable with what she was about to reveal, and so she did not get straight to the point. “I do like the townhouse Papa has rented for us here in London, but I wish he hadn’t sold our other one. I didn’t think I would miss it so much, or the gardens, but the new house isn’t the same.
I still haven’t found a secluded spot where I can hide from Mama when I’m reading. She’s always insisting I should be practising my scales on the piano or doing embroidery. Apparently, they are much more ladylike activities that suitors find attractive. She is constantly reminding me that not all men like books, nor the young ladies who read them.” Jane groaned. “The conversation always finishes me with being told that I must start thinking of things like this, especially as it’s my third Season. As if I could forget! But that fact alone seems to make Mama even more convinced that she is right,” she said as a tear slid down her cheek.
“I’m sorry,” Emily said, quietly, leaning across the gap between the swings to slip her hand through her friend’s arm. She didn’t remind her that the situation wasn’t anything new. And there was a lot more to come, she expected. “If it’s any consolation, don’t forget that I’m catching up with you. I’ll be on my third Season next year, and this one is almost finished. My mother is adamant that my weight and spectacles are at fault. She is always telling me that I can’t eat so much because of my height. Although I am not convinced that even if I was taller, she would say anything different.”
Jane looked at her friend with sympathy, seeing only kindness and compassion in her eyes. Emily did have a well-rounded figure, and her features were plainer than some of the other debutantes; some of them were stunningly beautiful. But she couldn’t help thinking that changing the way she looked wasn’t going to make Emily any nicer than she already was.
“There’s something else too,” she said, almost in a whisper. “I may as well tell you everything. Do you remember us wondering why Papa sold our house at the end of last Season, even though Mama loved it so much? All he said at the time was that he no longer liked it. Renting a townhouse is supposedly a temporary measure for this year, just in case he doesn’t find another to buy in the meantime, he said. I think that might have been an excuse, Em. He is in trouble,” Jane said, finishing the last sentence abruptly when she felt unable to carry on.
Emily stood up straight away, and went to put her arms around Jane to comfort her. “You must swear this will be our secret, Emily, and you’ll not tell anyone else,” Jane continued. “If the scandal sheets get to hear of it, Papa will be dishonoured and even ruined.”
“Of course, I won’t say anything,” Emily said immediately, feeling slightly offended that Jane felt she needed to ask.
“I couldn’t sleep the night before last. I desperately wanted a glass of water, but it was a long time after midnight. I didn’t want to wake Mary, or ring for one of the housemaids, not when they seem to get so little sleep anyway. It seemed mean to do that.
I knew Mama wouldn’t approve or would call it improper, but she wasn’t going to find out if I went downstairs and got the water myself from the kitchen. The last thing I expected to see was the door to Papa’s study ajar and the candles still lit. When I went in. I saw he had fallen asleep with his head on the desk. The brandy decanter next to him was almost empty. I ran across the room to him, and . . .” Jane paused, feeling too ashamed to carry on.
“What happened?” Emily said, unable to wait to hear the rest.
“Several letters were scattered across his desk,” Jane said, looking at her. “They were from creditors demanding money and threatening Papa with the consequences of not paying what he owed. It was horrible!” Jane said, clutching Emily’s arm. “I still feel shocked when I think about it. Papa is an honourable man. I am certain of that. Something dreadful must have happened for him not to be able to pay them.
I haven’t seen any sign of him being in trouble with money at home in Yorkshire. But not knowing what else to do that night, I blew out the candles, fetched my water, and went back to bed. No one knew I had been downstairs. It was impossible to go back to sleep after that. By the time morning came, I knew Mama was right. I have to find a wealthy husband, Emily, before this Season is finished, someone who will pay off Papa’s debts. If I don’t, the consequences will be too hard to bear. It’ll be all my fault that he is ruined.”
A sob escaped Jane’s lips while Emily hugged her, knowing her friend was right. Jane had to find a rich husband this Season. Although, it could easily involve her being pushed into the arms of the next eligible bachelor who took an interest, however awful he might be, and ending up in a loveless marriage.
Emily took a step back from the swing, and said, firmly, “Jane, you must stop worrying. I’ll help you. I promise. There has to be a way for you to find a rich husband whom you can also love. Why else would all the poets we read keep writing about falling in love if we can’t also do it?” Emily blushed as soon as the words left her lips. She knew full well that this was one of the main reasons why their mothers were against them reading so much, particularly not the romantic poets. They had been told often enough that a good match was precisely that, even though it didn’t always include love.
“If you would like me to, I’ll draw up a list of the wealthiest gentlemen who are in London for the Season, so that you can concentrate on them in trying to find a good match,” Emily said, giving Jane a reassuring look. “Once we take control of the situation, you’ll find the perfect husband in no time at all!”
Jane tried her best to look pleased, even though she doubted that making a list was the answer to the problem. “Thank you,” she said, trying to sound grateful because Emily was only trying her best to help.
“There’s something else you may need to do,” Emily added, wondering how Jane would react to what she was about to say. “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but making a few small changes to the way you look could also help. I appreciate that we have often criticised the other debutantes for spending most of their time trying to look even more beautiful than they already are.
They are not like us, reading and learning what we can of the world. I can’t stop wishing to remain a spinster and attend university. Though it’s not likely to happen But you are different, Jane. You can find a husband! You are beautiful, whereas the Lord gave me a plain face. If you try, I am sure you could be more flirtatious. You could change your hairstyle, wear a little more rouge, that sort of thing. Smiling more at the gentlemen, as Mama says, should also help you to get noticed.”
The thought had already crossed Jane’s mind that she needed to try harder. “Thank you, Emily. What would I do without you?” she said, hugging her friend before looking at her mischievously. “Of course, the other problem we have now is how to get you another slice of cake without your Mama discovering it.” That made them both giggle as they hurried across the lawn to the kitchen, with the intention of persuading Cook to help them.
A week later, Owen Price couldn’t help thinking how different the dimly lit warehouse on the London docks was to the bright sunshine of the Far East, from where he had recently returned. The building was in such a poor state of repair that it appeared to be falling apart. The timbers were rotten, and the glass was broken in the few windows it possessed. Yet it could have been so different if his father, the Duke of Rosingdale, hadn’t been quite so keen on saving money whenever he could. After all, he had accumulated a vast fortune over his lifetime, with businesses in Wales and Yorkshire.
Owen, who was twenty-five, had often been reminded by his father that he would one day inherit all of it. He was, however, finding it increasingly difficult to adjust to being part of the duke’s household again. That was apart from being able to see his mother, Harriet, with whom he had a close bond.
Over the last three years, he had travelled to several different countries at his father’s request, searching for new suppliers of silk and other rich materials. In exchange, he had traded the cotton fabrics produced by the duke’s Yorkshire mills and the coal mined on his Welsh estate. All that had to produce high profits, of course, to satisfy his father’s constant need to expand his business affairs and, thereby, the family fortunes.
Despite now being in his early sixties, the duke, Matthew Price, showed no sign of easing the pressure he put on himself or his only son. Owen knew his mother secretly disapproved of it. She would have much preferred her husband to spend more time at her side, enjoying life, but what could she do? It was his decision to continue building the family fortunes, and Owen had been dragged into it as soon as he was old enough.
Lady Rosingdale had warned him soon after his return from abroad a few weeks ago that his father’s latest scheme was to marry him off to Lady Arabella Compton. This was simply because her father was the distinguished Earl of Carrington, who had vast and very useful connections in the textile trade.
Owen had assumed he would merely be returning to London to pick up where he had left off as manager of the warehouse and the Duke of Rosingdale’s shipping company. He certainly had not expected to have to take part in the London Season. Owen had been less than enthusiastic about the plan. But his father had pointed out that he was only wealthy enough to be regarded as an eligible bachelor because earlier generations of their family had worked exceptionally hard to make it so. Consequently, it was his duty to act honourably, and court Lady Arabella.
Recalling this unpleasantness, Owen sighed heavily as he ran a hand through his dark curly hair in frustration. He had grown used to making his own decisions while he was abroad, beyond his father’s reach. He had still gone about his duties diligently in sourcing the cloth the duke desired, negotiating the best possible.
Nevertheless, the work had given him the opportunity to see a different side to the world and experience things he never thought to. The last thing he wanted now was to be pursued by the latest batch of mamas, desperate to match their empty-headed daughters with the most desirable suitor they could find.
Damn it! The Old Man has gone too far this time, he thought darkly. What about love? Presumably, Father can still remember that! Yet he thinks it is appropriate to deny me the chance of finding it myself, his only son. Owen’s heart wasn’t in the match his father was planning, and he was sure the unfortunate girl he was supposed to wed likely felt the same.
There was certainly no guarantee love would grow between them. The pair of them would be stuck then, in a loveless marriage. No! It wasn’t right. Despite his father’s often abrupt behaviour and attitude, he had always assumed his parents’ marriage had been a love match, so why should he be denied the same?
The poverty in India he had seen when he had travelled there had been worse than that on the Rosingdale estate in Wales. There, the miners spent most of their lives in the dark, below ground. More often than not, their wives and children toiled in the mine too. Despite working long hours, the family would still be barely able to feed themselves. Some of the coal they mined there was sent to power the duke’s Yorkshire mills.
And it was all so that the ladies of the ton could have their finery and the most beautiful clothes imaginable—worn with the intention of trapping some unfortunate man like himself to keep their family line going. Owen’s spirits fell just thinking about it.
I don’t want to live like that!
Naturally, he wanted a wife, but that didn’t mean she had to be beautiful, as all the debutantes spent their time trying to be Rather, she would be someone he could talk to and had similar interests to his own.
Neither of the two clerks the duke employed looked up from their desks. Continuing to write in their ledgers, they ignored Owen as he paced backwards and forwards in front of them. They were used to his preoccupation, and his pacing. They knew he was trying to think of a way out of his predicament. He had been doing it more and more recently, since he knew it wouldn’t be long before he had to make a proposal of marriage to this Lady Arabella. Then, he would have to live with it: a marriage he simply did not want.
Thomas Price looked up from his desk at the side of the room, unable to concentrate any longer on what he was doing when his cousin was still pacing the floor. He was, however, often easily distracted, as his heart and mind were not really on his job. Owen’s father had appointed him manager of the company offices at the dockyard during Owen’s absence abroad. The duke believed it was always better to employ family members whenever possible, not so far realising his nephew’s lack of interest.
Thomas had travelled from Wales to work alongside Owen for a few months before his cousin’s ship put to sea. The two men were of a comparable age and soon struck up a friendship despite their circumstances being completely different.
Thomas already knew something of Owen’s feelings about the London Season, and what he personally thought was an unrealistic wish for the world to be a much better place. Despite sympathising with him in some ways, Thomas privately took the view that Owen didn’t realise how fortunate he was to have been born the Duke of Rosingdale’s son. It had given him the finest education available and opened many doors which would forever remain firmly closed to someone of Thomas’ inferior position.
He cleared his throat, and keeping his voice low, he said, “Let’s get a breath of fresh air, Owen.” He was well aware that the two younger clerks would not be allowed to move from their seats for another hour until it was time for their lunch.
Owen’s saturnine eyes turned to Thomas, and he gave himself a mental shake, bringing his thoughts back to the present. He gestured to his cousin to follow him. When they were outside and Owen could feel the heat of the sun on his face again, he seemed to relax. Thomas took the opportunity to say, “What you need is some fun, Cousin. You’ve barely gone out since you got back to England. Don’t tell me your father has taken you prisoner now, in case you end up in the arms of an undesirable woman.” His raucous laugh rang out across the empty yard.
Owen forced himself to smile. “No, of course not,” he replied. “He isn’t quite that bad! I have plenty to keep me busy, that’s all.”
“In that case, I am the answer to your prayers. You must join a few of us more outgoing gentlemen tonight for a round of cards, and, of course, plenty of alcohol. That’ll soon set you right and make you feel at one with the world again,” Thomas said confidently. This was his own preferred remedy for any misery he might be feeling.
Owen appeared to consider the offer, which he had no intention of accepting, not even if he could. He didn’t fancy what he knew would be evening of excessive drinking and arguments. Thomas’ friends, whom his cousin chose to refer to as gentlemen, enjoyed gambling and often bet far more than they could afford.
“I’m sorry, Tom. I can’t. Not tonight, anyway. I have to go with my parents to a formal dinner which some of father’s business associates are also attending. It’s work, I’m afraid.” The lie slipped heavily from his lips, but he did not wish to discuss the real reason he had to go to the dinner that evening with Thomas.
His cousin looked disappointed but not surprised. Owen had changed since returning to England. He had become a lot more serious. “Then we must arrange to meet another time, Cousin,” Tom said firmly. He was not prepared to give up on the prospect of a night out where Owen would pay for them both.
Later that day, when Owen returned home to Belgravia, he found his mother flitting excitedly from room to room. She told him she was looking forward to going to the ball that evening with his father, and Owen. She explained she was about to go upstairs to change into the new gown she intended to wear, which the seamstress had made especially for the occasion. It was the height of fashion, and very beautiful, she assured him. However, when she added that the ball was being hosted by the Earl and Countess of Carrington, Arabella’s parents, Owen knew with a sinking heart that the Season had begun for him too.
His valet, William, had laid out his plum-coloured waistcoat and favourite linen shirt. Also set out were black trousers and cutaway coat, and the white silk cravat which Owen had acquired in India. William skilfully tied it for him, leaving Owen feeling half strangled.
Without bothering to do more than glance at himself in the mirror when the valet had finished brushing his coat, Owen announced he was ready. However, William inspected his master closely before he was satisfied that the marquess looked distinguished and appeared to be a gentleman who knew how to dress well with understated elegance.
When Owen walked down the wide staircase into the opulent hall of their home, the Duchess of Rosingdale was already there. Her ladies’ maid, Lizzie, was fussing over the duchess’s gown. “Mama, you look absolutely stunning,” Owen said, meaning it. The duchess was obviously very happy. He noticed the diamond necklace she was wearing. It was the one his father had given to her on the day his only son had been born. Owen kissed her powdered cheek affectionately, not wishing to spoil her enjoyment by showing his own misgivings about the evening.
“Ah, Owen, there you are!” The duke’s booming voice rang across the hall as he left his study. He was a man who didn’t countenance argument or delay of any sort. “Come on, the carriage is waiting.” The duke pushed past the butler impatiently and made his way outside without thinking about escorting his wife. It was left to Owen to take her arm, which he gladly did. Especially when he saw the look of disappointment on her face. His father really was impossible!
It is one thing to be thoughtless towards me, Owen thought, but with Mama, it’s an entirely different matter. Owen thought his father ought to remember his own words more often, those he was always spouting about the importance of always acting like a gentleman. As a husband, it was his duty to escort his wife to the carriage. To make up for her disappointment, Owen told her how much he admired her gown while he and Lizzie helped her settle into the carriage.
When they were on their way to the Carrington residence, the duke frowned at his wife and said, “I expect your mother has already mentioned it, Owen, but I have arranged for you to be introduced to Lady Arabella Compton tonight. She has recently come out. I am certain she will make a suitable wife for you, and I expect you to make a proposal as soon as possible.”
Owen didn’t reply, not until he realised his father was waiting for his response. The duke was staring at him, clearly anticipating defiance, and doubtless wondering if he would need to threaten to disinherit his only son to get his way. The duke looked surprised, therefore, when Owen said, “I will do as you ask, Father.” He had all but resigned himself to there being no way out of it, at least, not that particular evening. And the last thing he wanted to do was to upset his mother any further by causing an argument in the carriage.
“Good! Now, do try to enjoy yourself. It’s not as if you are facing the hangman’s noose, just some pleasant conversation with a highly desirable young lady before getting your name onto her dance card. A smile wouldn’t go amiss whilst you’re at it.”
Owen had frowned at that, but when he saw Lady Arabella Compton for the first time, he had to admit that, for once, his father was right. She was stunningly beautiful, with flawless features and the most enchanting blue eyes.
The ball was in full swing when they arrived and were formally introduced to her parents. When Owen requested the honour of dancing with her, he realised that marriage to a woman like her might not be such a bad idea after all. She seemed at first glance to be a little different to the other debutantes in their almost identical white gowns. In his typical fashion, he was oblivious to the many admiring glances he received from the young ladies because of his height, broad, muscular shoulders, slim waist, and brooding eyes.
Lady Rosingdale noticed, however, and she couldn’t help thinking that the wildness evident in her son since his return from abroad would require taming before any marriage could work. Moreover, it would take a strong-willed woman to do it.
The following afternoon, Jane was sitting quietly in the drawing room at home. She was trying to improve her embroidery skills, but that was proving to be easier said than done. She had already pricked her finger several times and drawn blood on one occasion. Mary had been called to attend to the wound before Jane could carry on.
Convinced her needle had ideas of its own, she looked down in dismay at the uneven stitches on the tree she was doing her best to create. Mama would definitely have made a much better job of it, for her embroidery was very neat. She had told Jane repeatedly that it was just the same as learning the piano. All it took was practice, and lots of it. Nevertheless, Jane knew she would never be as skilled as the countess. Reading and losing yourself in a book was far more enjoyable, and also a lot easier, in her opinion.
Mama had gone out, to the fashionable Gunter’s Tea Shop in Berkeley Square, Mayfair, to meet several of her friends. Before leaving, she hadn’t stopped talking about the different varieties of Italian ice-cream and frozen mousse there would be to choose from. It will also, no doubt, give them another opportunity to continue their ongoing conversation about the Season before doing the obligatory shopping, Jane thought.
At least her mother’s absence meant the house would be quiet for a while. Jane was about to read another few pages of Pride And Prejudice, a copy of which was sitting next to her on the settee. The tale had been occupying much of her thoughts recently. This was possibly because of Mrs Bennet’s obsession with finding suitable husbands for her daughters, and, of course, the wonderful Mr. Darcey.
But before she could pick up the book, Soames, the butler, announced Emily’s arrival, much to Jane’s delight. She threw the embroidery onto the low table in front of her as Emily and her ladies’ maid, Grace, came through the door. The two young ladies were delighted to see each other again, even though it had been only a few hours since they had made their plan.
Jane soon sent Grace to the kitchen to ask for tea to be served. That meant the maid could sit in the kitchens and have a cup and chat to the servants, with whom she had become friendly. Her absence gave Emily and Jane an opportunity to talk privately about the matter in hand.
Emily inspected Jane’s embroidery, doing her best to make a few encouraging comments. Then, they talked eagerly about Miss Jane Austen and her wonderful books until the housemaid arrived with their tea, including a plate of freshly baked biscuits. Emily soon selected one and was happily crunching it when she pulled a piece of paper from the top of her dress, where it had been carefully hidden. Jane laughed in delight as Emily explained that this was necessary. What they were doing obviously had to be regarded as top secret, and her mother, Lady Laceford, may otherwise have discovered it. This made them both giggle, and Jane became more confident in Emily’s ability to make their plan work.
When the paper was unfolded, Jane hastily scanned the list of names which Emily had written on it. “It’s just the first few I could think of who might interest you,” she said, trying to excuse herself, in case Jane had expected there to be more. She had actually thought of a lot more names, but Jane had already discouraged the gentlemen concerned when she hadn’t been interested in finding a husband. Some of them would have been suitable but were now, understandably, searching elsewhere. Some might have already proposed to another debutante; such things often happened surprisingly quickly. “There’ll be more we can add,” she said, hastily. Seeing the frown on Jane’s face. “You can add anyone else you can think of or delete any names of gentlemen whom you can’t bear. There is still time for you to have some choice.” Emily knew that wasn’t strictly true. But she had done her best and included the most eminent and wealthy bachelors of the current crop on the list.
“I don’t know a thing about the Duke Of Epsin. He is first on the list,” Jane said, frowning. “I vaguely remember being introduced to him a few weeks ago at a ball. I don’t think I have seen him since. He is quite attractive, I suppose. But he was surrounded by a throng of debutantes and their mamas obviously desperate to attract his attention. I didn’t get the opportunity to speak to him again, nor be asked to dance.”
“That’s because he would be an amazing conquest, Jane, and definitely the answer to your problem. He’s incredibly wealthy, or will be soon. He wouldn’t even notice paying off the small amount I assume your dear papa owes to his creditors.
“The duke has recently come back from America, where he has been living, simply to claim his inheritance. I have no idea how the gossip sheets discover things like this, but it’s rumoured that a condition for him inheriting the huge trust fund set up for him by his late father is that he must marry a lady of the ton. As the late duke died eighteen months ago, and we are talking about a lot of money, I’m guessing he would much prefer to do it this Season if possible. There are only being a few weeks left, which could give you the advantage if you can attract his eye.”
“Surely, he will have chosen someone else by now and is likely courting already? Even if a marriage proposal hasn’t been made,” Jane said, unable to believe the duke would show any interest in her when he had so much choice.
“Strangely enough no, and I don’t know why. He seems to have enjoyed all the attention he has received but appears to be reticent. He has showed a distinct lack of interest in the ladies he has met so far and danced with.”
“Perhaps he is simply like us, bored with it all. Maybe he is more interested in books and what we can learn from them about the world,” Jane said, hopefully. “After all, his experience of life will be a lot different from ours, from living in America. Where is his estate?” she asked, relying on Emily to have done her research.
Her friend grinned. “I made some discreet enquiries about him. Mama, who is as good as an encyclopaedia when it comes to a gentleman’s pedigree and affairs, was highly delighted that I was at last showing some interest.” Emily began to laugh then at the subterfuge, and Jane had to wait patiently until she could carry on.
“She thinks he lives mostly in New York, where his business connections are. Interestingly enough, she is also under the impression that he is anxious to go back to America as soon as possible.” She paused, scrutinising the earnest look on Jane’s face. “The only problem is that he’ll probably want you to live there, after you are married.”
The girls looked sadly at each other when they realised the effect which the distance would likely have on their friendship.
“We can write,” Jane said, bravely, “and I shall come back to visit whenever I can. Just think of it, Em! You could visit me in America.” Her thoughts were racing ahead. “It’ll be exciting, an adventure. I know I’ll miss my parents, and living in Yorkshire, but I can’t be selfish. You must see that,” she said, on the verge of tears. “I have to do it! I can picture the duke in my mind’s eye, and I admit he is a very attractive gentleman, though I did not take a lot of notice of it earlier.”
Jane looked down then at the other names on the list and saw that Emily had written Viscount Mosingdale and Lord Fenshire next, followed by the Marquess of Lockridge. She paled when she read the last name. She hadn’t noticed it earlier when she had glanced at the list quickly from top to bottom. Not objecting to Viscount Mosingdale, she remarked that Lord Fenshire was not quite so desirable, as he was nearly as old as her father. Once, she had seen him dribbling down his chin into his soup at one of the supper balls she had attended. Before Emily could comment on it, Jane added, “I see you have also put Owen Price on the list. Why have you done that?”
“Naturally, I thought he would be suitable, Jane,” Emily replied, wondering why her friend was querying the name so fiercely. “He has recently returned to London. According to Mama, his father wants him to find a bride. Is something wrong? Do you feel faint?” Emily asked, seeing the pallor of Jane’s skin and feeling alarmed.
“No, I’m fine, thank you. It was a shock to see Owen’s name on the list, that is all. We grew up together, almost as brother and sister. Our families spent a lot of time together when he came back from school for the holidays. I didn’t know he was in London. I haven’t seen him since before he left for the Far East. It was just before I came out.”
“Well then, there’s something else you won’t have heard. His name graced Mama’s scandal sheets this morning. He was spotted dancing more than once last night with Lady Arabella Compton, and you know how beautiful she is. So, it looks as if Owen hasn’t wasted any time in doing as his father has reputedly commanded. Are you listening?” Emily asked in frustration when she noticed the faraway look in Jane’s eyes.
“I’m sorry, I heard what you said,” she replied, leaning across to squeeze Emily’s hand. “But I was miles away in the past. Owen and I were very close as children. I was sorry to see him go.”
“Oh, I see!” Emily said knowingly.
“No, you don’t!” Jane replied firmly.
“Are you sure there wasn’t even the teeniest hint of romance in your relationship? He is very attractive with those brooding eyes of his. A bit like Lord Byron, and we both know what he’s like! Even though we aren’t supposed to.”
“Certainly not! How could there be? I told you, it was before I came out for my first Season, so I was still only a child. Besides, I could never consider anything like that with Owen. Not a courtship. I know him too well, which would obviously prevent it from happening. You must scratch his name off the list.”
From the set look on Jane’s face and her pursed lips, Emily knew there would be little point in pursuing the matter further. So, she quickly agreed to do as she had been asked.
She turned Jane’s attention to the other names, which they discussed at length. They considered all matters of relevance, including the gentleman’s appearance, the size of his fortune, their mothers’ opinions, any gossip, and their own observations. As previously, Emily was well informed, for which Jane was thankful since she had actually paid little attention in the past to any of the other gentlemen on the list.
The longer the conversation continued, the more uncomfortable Emily became about deceiving her mother. She began to feel guilty at getting her hopes up unnecessarily, but Jane needed her help. Surely, that was a good enough reason for what they were doing?
Since Emily had also already decided she would never marry, there wasn’t really anything to consider in her case. So, she returned her attention again to the matter in hand. “I can tell you are interested in the Duke Of Epsin, Jane, but you may still be facing a lot of competition for his interest. If not him, then there is Lord Fenshire, even though you aren’t too keen. Also, having danced once or twice with Viscount Mosingdale is a good start.”
After Emily had left, with Grace in tow, Jane stayed in the drawing room practising her embroidery, with the list carefully hidden inside the top of her dress, following Emily’s example. When Lady Hayfield returned from Gunter’s Tea Room, full of conversation and news passed on by her friends, Jane listened to her chatter closely. Her mother seemed unaware of their financial predicament. She clearly had no clue of the threatened drastic change in their circumstances if the situation wasn’t resolved by her daughter. Jane listened to everything her mother said about any of the gentlemen currently in London for the Season. She hoped to discover anything more about them which might affect her own chances of capturing their interest. Sadly, that wasn’t the case.
Disappointed, Jane’s thoughts strayed instead to what might happen later that evening. It would soon be time for her and her mother to start getting ready for the soirée. It was to be hosted by the Countess of Sansberry, who was, incidentally, Owen Price’s aunt. It promised to be another of those important social occasions which many of the most prominent members of the ton would attend.
When she was back in her bedchamber, she said to Mary, the maid who was helping her dress, “I have been thinking. I am tired of my hair looking the same every time I go out. Please, can you style it differently this evening?” She was secretly hoping that the evening would mark the start of connection with the Duke Of Epsin, or one of the others on Emily’s list. It was now hidden safely under her bed, where neither Mama nor anyone else would be likely to discover it. Jane couldn’t help wondering of Owen Price would be there that evening.
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