Stuart Drake wasn’t opposed to a plain bride, but he didn’t want an ugly one. He didn’t require a witty girl, but he couldn’t bear a stupid one. Her disposition was negotiable, depending on her dowry, but he couldn’t see himself tolerating a shrew. His single inflexible condition was wealth; tall or short, plain or pretty, sweet or sour, she must be rich, exceedingly rich if at all possible. If he had to marry for money, then by God, he meant to marry a lot of it.
He didn’t think it would be difficult. What he had to offer a wife was not inconsequential: one of the oldest and most distinguished viscountcies in England, as soon as his grandfather and father shuffled off their mortal coils. Granted, it might be years before his wife lived as Viscountess Belmaine in the fine house at Barrowfield, but barring his own death it was an absolute certainty, and when the title came, it would bring enough wealth and status to satisfy any female.
Fortunately he had come across a fine girl at what passed for a ball here in the wilds of Kent. Miss Susan Tratter, and her fortune of eighty thousand pounds, was everything he was looking for in a bride. She was pretty, in the rather pale tradition of English girls; clever, at least enough to sneak away from her chaperone for private strolls on the terrace; and more than wealthy enough. She was quite simply perfect, as well as completely infatuated with him almost from the moment they met.
The only obstacle to his courtship was her guardian. Susan was convinced her guardian, who was also her aunt, didn’t want any joy in her life. Aunt Charlotte had traveled all around the Continent in her youth, but refused to take Susan even to London. Aunt Charlotte had kept company with any number of men when she was young—scandalous men, even—but refused to allow Susan to take so much as an afternoon drive with a gentleman. And, most damningly of all, Aunt Charlotte wore anything she wanted, much of it highly inappropriate for a woman of her age and widowed status, yet forced Susan to dress like a child in plain, girlish frocks that weren’t at all fashionable. Aunt Charlotte, in fact, did Stuart’s cause a world of good, all the more so by being out of town and leaving only a hired companion to chaperone her niece. In her absence, Stuart was free to console and sympathize until he found himself on the brink of a marriage proposal he knew would be accepted.
That was perhaps part of the problem, he reflected one evening. There had been nothing challenging about his pursuit, and Stuart could never believe it when anything fell into his lap so easily. He was always certain the benefits would be offset by some hidden deficiency. Now that he had Susan Tratter, he was beginning to doubt he wanted her. On the surface he did, no question. His father had cut off his funds and told him not to come back, an action Stuart still thought way out of proportion even to his supposed offense, let alone to the truth. There was no way he could possibly earn enough in time to satisfy his banker, even had he had a profession. Marrying an heiress was the quickest, easiest way out of his financial problems—or so he had thought.
He sighed and resumed pacing the Kildairs’ library. This was supposed to be his triumphant hour. Aunt Charlotte had returned to town, and tonight he would meet her, charm her, and ask for her niece’s hand in marriage. Susan would accept his formal offer tomorrow, and within a month he would be a wealthily married man, no longer subject to his father’s rigid dictates and an object of amusement to the gossips. He would be financially secure for the first time in his adult life, and should be reasonably content; Susan was a nice girl, and he was sure they would get on well enough. But even though Stuart couldn’t quite put his finger on it, there was just something ... wrong.
He reminded himself that he was mad to reconsider now. He ought to be happy the plan had gone so well instead of questioning the plan itself. If only it were done already, and he didn’t have the luxury of wondering whether it was the right thing and not simply the least objectionable thing. He forced aside his doubts as the door clicked open behind him.
Susan hurried forward, wringing her hands. “Oh, Drake!” she said with a little sob. “What are we going to do?”
“Come, my dear,” he said in surprise, taking her hand. “What’s the trouble?”
“It’s Aunt Charlotte,” she wailed, gazing up at him with wet eyes. “She’ll never let us marry, never! She’s a spiteful, dried-up old witch!”
Stuart’s eyebrows shot up. “I’ve not even asked for your hand yet. How can you know she’ll refuse?”
“Because I hinted you were going to ask, and she told me she wouldn’t allow it. She said terrible things about you—as if she would have the slightest idea, when she’s never even met you. Please, Drake, please, say we shall run away together! I’ll go with you tonight, I will!”
“That would ruin your reputation,” he reminded her. “I don’t want to do that to you.”
“I don’t care!” She flung herself on his neck, sobbing loudly now. Stuart patted her back for a moment, suppressing another sigh. Everything would be fine if only she’d let him handle things instead of rushing off to bungle them by herself. What had she accomplished by telling her dragon of an aunt they wanted to marry? Nothing good; now the woman had made up her mind against him without even the courtesy of meeting him. While he still had every confidence he could persuade her—elderly ladies were always impressed by a title, even a future one, and Stuart did move in the most elegant circles in London—it would have been far easier had he taken her by surprise.
“Come, calm yourself,” he said when the sobs seemed to be dying down. He extricated her arms from around his neck. “You must put on a cheerful face and go back to the party.”
She sniffed and rubbed her face with the handkerchief he offered. “A sad face is the least of my problems, thanks to her. I can’t imagine what my papa was thinking, to make her my guardian.”
“None of that is within our control, so we must simply try to make the best of it. You promised to introduce me this evening; let me meet her, and see if I can charm away her doubts.”
“Oh, Drake.” She hiccupped. “If anyone could do it, you could, but I think even you will find her as receptive as a stone.”
“Are you implying my charm can’t touch a stone?” he demanded lightly. She smiled up at him, starry-eyed.
“Well, perhaps. Come, I’ll introduce you, and if she doesn’t consent tonight, we can run away tomorrow.”
Not bloody likely
, Stuart thought as he chuckled for her benefit. He couldn’t afford to marry her without her dowry, and it would serve neither of them to elope into poverty. She hesitated, then leaned forward slightly, her lips pursing in his direction. He almost recoiled in alarm, then recovered enough to kiss her lightly on the forehead. Her mouth turned down in disappointment. “Not until you are my wife,” he whispered. It would be improper.”
She brightened. Stuart felt another pang of misgiving. It was frankly embarrassing how quickly she had fallen for him, how open she was about her infatuation. It only served to remind him how young and innocent she was.
He couldn’t do it. He hadn’t committed himself yet, he could still walk away. She would feel hurt and misled, as she had been, but he would still be free ... free to watch everything he had slip away. Stuart gave himself a mental shake. Oakwood Park needed only another year or two to become profitable, and Stuart refused to let it go now without exhausting every possible salvation.
He had discovered the modest estate last spring. The house was a wreck, with a leaky roof and a crumbling east wing, but it still had a certain charm, and Stuart could see renovating it into a very comfortable manor—for a sizable sum of money, of course. The real draw, though, was the land itself: gently rolling hills, prime forest, and the richest soil he had ever seen. Though not large, the property would more than support itself, if properly managed. Stuart had borrowed the entire purchase price from a friend and bought it four days later. Then he had turned around and mortgaged it to pay back his friend, and borrowed some more to get the estate running again. For over a year he had been pouring everything he had into Oakwood Park, growing more and more attached to it and to what it meant for his life. Stuart was tired of being dangled on a string by his father; with his own estate he would be a landed, respectable, independent gentleman. Unfortunately, he needed money to pay the mortgage until the farms were profitable, and his father had suspended his only income without warning. If he didn’t marry Susan, he would marry another heiress, and nothing would be different except that he would have wasted this time courting her. He couldn’t back out now.
Stuart reached into his pocket. If he gave her the ring, he would be as good as engaged. “I cannot bear to see you sad. Perhaps this ...” He unfolded his hand to show her. “Perhaps this will bring a smile to your face,” he whispered. “It will be yours tomorrow. I have great confidence in my persuasive ability.”
Her blue eyes opened wide, and her lips parted in a soundless gasp. “Oh, Drake,” she breathed. “Really?” Stuart nodded. She took the ring reverently, cradling it in her cupped hands. “It’s beautiful.” She looked up, her eyes swimming with tears again. Stuart touched one finger to her lips.
“Now go back to the ballroom, my dear. Your aunt will be missing you.”
She smiled, holding the ring close to her bosom. “I am sure she’ll consent. And if she doesn’t, we shall run away at once. I would do anything to be with you.”
“Go on,” he said gently. “But it must be a secret until tomorrow. Your aunt might not appreciate it, and we must do what we can to secure her blessing.”
She nodded, looking as if she would throw herself into his arms again, but then turned and slipped out the door. He smiled until she was gone, then dropped into a nearby chair the instant the door closed.
The whole thing made him feel vaguely pathetic. Here he was, a grown man, strong in body and sound in mind, reduced to charming a young miss barely out of the schoolroom. He told himself that if he had already inherited his title, young misses would be lining up to be charmed, heiresses and otherwise, and society would applaud the one who caught
. There was absolutely nothing exceptional about his actions. Stuart told himself this even as he knew it was different, to him at least. It was one thing to marry well, and another to marry well because the alternative was ruination. Stuart had never liked being cornered.
But the die was cast now. He had declared himself, and given her his mother’s ring, the one thing he wouldn’t sell to support himself or Oakwood Park. Although, in a way, it felt as if he had just sold something dearer than a ring.
He leaned forward, reaching for the decanter on the table close at hand. He needed a drink before going out to charm grumpy old Aunt Charlotte. Perhaps two drinks.
“Has she gone? Goodness, the child belongs on the stage.” Stuart nearly choked on his brandy at the husky voice, tinged with amusement. He swung around and peered into the shadows.
“I didn’t plan to,” she said with a low laugh, coming forward. “I only sought a quiet moment alone with my thoughts. Libraries are usually quiet, are they not?” She stepped into the light, and Stuart’s interest came to full alert in an instant.
Dark curls gleamed mahogany in the candlelight, diamonds glittering in their midst. Her skin was as golden as her gown, giving the material the appearance of being transparent. In fact, it almost was transparent, as he could clearly see when she crossed in front of the lamp, revealing the curves underneath the silk. A long, narrow shawl draped over and around her shoulders, drawing attention to the swell of her breasts, full, enticing breasts that swelled above a tiny waist and made her rounded hips all the more voluptuous. She strolled into the light, stopping in front of the lamp and leaning back against the table. She braced her hands on either side of her hips, and tilted her face up to his. Stuart realized he had come to his feet without thinking.
A smile lit her face. It was a beautiful face, even without the smile, but that mischievous look made her entrancing.
“I don’t believe we’ve met,” he said, his senses sharpening. This sort of woman was much more to his liking.
Another mysterious smile. “No, we have not, Mr. Drake.” He considered her a moment longer, then put down his glass.
“How flattering that you know who I am. How I wish I could return the favor.”
“Oh, I daresay we would have met eventually. The society in Kent at this time of year is rather limited.” There was a suggestive lilt in her voice. Stuart could hardly believe his ears.
“That is not altogether a bad thing. Often I find myself wishing to limit my society to one person entirely.”
She arched her brow, dipping her head in a thoroughly seductive way. “Do you? How very decadent.”
His blood thrumming with excitement, he moved a little closer. She didn’t retreat at all. “Do you like decadence?”
Her laugh was throaty. “I’ve known a bit in my day,” she admitted. “But what would your betrothed think?”
He paused, disconcerted, then remembered Susan Tratter. “She’s not my betrothed.”
“But you do plan to marry her?” The mystery woman twined one finger in the lone curl lying across her shoulder.