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Authors: Lorraine Heath

To Marry an Heiress

BOOK: To Marry an Heiress
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L
ORRAINE
H
EATH
To Marry an Heiress

For Ann N.,
who knows how to keep
Christmas well,
with love

Contents

Chapter 1

“Huntingdon, I do think it would be prudent for you…

Chapter 2

“At tonight’s ball, if you wish to speak to a…

Chapter 3

As Georgina stood beside Lauren in a corner of the…

Chapter 4

Devon had feared gaining his introduction to Miss Pierce would…

Chapter 5

Lounging in a chair before the cold, empty hearth in…

Chapter 6

As the carriage wheels whirred, Georgina studied the man sitting…

Chapter 7

Sitting astride his black gelding in a secluded spot away…

Chapter 8

As though she was handling a newly born baby, Georgina…

Chapter 9

Georgina thought she would forever remember her wedding day as…

Chapter 10

Georgina awoke to the heavenly weight of a man’s leg…

Chapter 11

Wearing her nightgown, Georgina sat in a chair, her feet…

Chapter 12

As his coach journeyed along the road toward Huntingdon, Devon…

Chapter 13

“You’re determined to make this entire situation as difficult as…

Chapter 14

Wearing her nightgown and wrapper, Georgina sat in a chair…

Chapter 15

Devon decided he was undeniably insane, placing temptation within his…

Chapter 16

Georgina drank her coffee, relishing the bitter brew. As mistress…

Chapter 17

Georgina was grateful Devon did not appear to be inclined…

Chapter 18

Standing at the window in his library and staring at…

Chapter 19

Barely able to keep her eyes open, Georgina watched the…

Chapter 20

Georgina lay beneath the thick comforters in her bed in…

Chapter 21

Devon did not find looking over his ledgers nearly as…

Chapter 22

The bonfires burned into the night, illuminating the harvested fields…

Chapter 23

Don’t die.

Epilogue

“Once upon a time, in a land across the vast…

London
1878

“H
untingdon, I do think it would be prudent for you to reconsider this nefarious scheme of yours.”

Sitting in the lavishly decorated library, Devon Sheridan, the seventh Earl of Huntingdon, was amazed to discover himself capable of sipping his cousin’s port without smashing the delicate crystal glass held within his grasp. He damned well wanted to destroy
something
.

But he had learned at an early age to always project a veneer of civilization, regardless of his true feelings, particularly when his emotions bordered on the barbaric. As they so often did of late.

Slowly he lifted his gaze to the man seated in the leather chair behind the immense mahogany desk.

“I’m not the first nobleman to marry an heiress in order to refresh the family coffers,” he reminded Christopher Montgomery, the Earl of Ravenleigh. “Nor do I expect that I shall be the last. Marrying money, after all, is considered a perfectly acceptable and reputable undertaking.”

Unlike his endeavors of recent years, which would be perceived as dreadfully appalling by those of his acquaintance should they hear of them. Even his cousin would be horrified if he learned the depths to which Devon had plunged in an attempt to save all he held dear.

His ancestral estate was deteriorating, and the land that had once supported tenants was becoming barren. For some time now hopelessness had gnawed unmercifully at him, while he’d gradually slipped off the mantle of a gentleman to become little more than a common laborer.

Then nearly a fortnight ago possible salvation had arrived in the form of Miss Georgina Pierce—a reputed American heiress who seemed blessedly naïve regarding her worth.

He’d learned of her family’s riches quite by chance when he’d encountered Ravenleigh at White’s. His cousin had mentioned he’d welcomed Miss Pierce and her father into his London home. Their roots were strongly embedded in Fortune, a small town in Texas where Ravenleigh had met his present wife and her brood of daughters. Her eldest, Lauren, and Miss Pierce had been childhood friends.

Devon’s circumspect investigation into Nathaniel Pierce’s financial situation had revealed he’d amassed
a small fortune during America’s civil war. That he had done so by defying the blockades didn’t matter. Following the war, he’d sold much-sought-after items at what some people considered exorbitant prices. He’d also dabbled in land speculation, and it was rumored he’d recently taken an interest in railroads. Apparently he was a jack of all trades with a golden touch.

“But American women, especially those from Texas, particularly those from Fortune, are not always…malleable,” Ravenleigh stated.

Devon quirked a dark brow. “Had a bit of trouble taming the little wife, did you?”

His cousin narrowed his pale blue eyes in warning. Devon knew it was a foolish man who taunted his benefactor. As a rule he tended not to be foolish. Proud, yes. Beyond measure. But foolish, no.

Pride was a dominant family trait, and true to form, Ravenleigh would not add sparks to to the dying embers of gossip. Although Devon readily admitted Ravenleigh seemed more than content now, he had heard the rumors bandied about that his cousin’s Texas bride had not initially adjusted well to life in her new country.

“These women were forged in the fires of a difficult life. They are accustomed to independence,” Ravenleigh informed him in a tightly controlled voice.

“My next wife shall have all the independence she craves. All I desire is her wealth, in exchange for which she will become my countess. I understand these Americans long for the respectability our titles afford them.”

Although he’d yet to be introduced to Miss Pierce, he could not help but wonder if she was aware that her father had let it be known that he was eager to purchase a titled husband for her.

“Although our society is fraught with marriages of convenience and political alliances, I can imagine nothing lonelier than being married to someone you do not love,” Ravenleigh said.

Not wishing to crush his glass as the dark emotions roiling through him took a firmer hold, Devon carefully placed it on the polished marble table beside the chair and stood. “Then you possess a deplorable lack of imagination, Cousin.”

He strode to the window and gazed out on the well-manicured garden.

Loneliness was watching respectability stripped away bit by agonizing bit. Isolating himself so others would not witness his fall from grace. Projecting a false image to the world so no one would know his true sorrow, his immense fears, his incredible woes. To face everything alone. To desperately want to weep only to discover he no longer possessed the comfort of tears.

Now he was precariously balanced on the precipice of losing all he loved. His family’s estate. The dwindling respect of his peers. His own self-respect and his damnable pride. Seeking Ravenleigh’s help in his quest for deliverance had gouged his vanity, and the wound continued to fester.

“Huntingdon, I could see my way clear to loan—”

“Don’t!” Devon clenched his hands until his forearms ached with the effort to restrain himself. He
wanted neither pity nor magnanimity from the man. “I refuse to become a charity case as long as I possess the means by which to avoid it. I have but one thing left to barter: my title, in exchange for an heiress. It will have to suffice.”

Closing his eyes, he imagined Huntingdon as it should have been: grand, bold, majestic. Not as his father had left it: strongly resembling an aging dowager who spent far too much time drinking.

Shaking off the well-worn cloak of resentment, he forced his thoughts to return to Miss Georgina Pierce. Georgina. He didn’t fancy the name, but in truth he wasn’t overly concerned with compatibility. He had married once for love and had no intention of repeating that ghastly mistake.

“Are the ladies about?” Devon asked.

“No, Elizabeth took the girls shopping.”

“Good. We shan’t have to worry about being disturbed once Pierce arrives. What is your impression of his daughter?”

“That she is not overly fond of England.”

Devon glanced over his shoulder. “How can she not be?”

“Our world is extremely different from theirs. While I was in Texas visiting Kit, I could not help but be grateful that
he
was the one Father had sent away and not me.”

“You weren’t the one creating scandals,” Devon reminded him.

“If only the reasons behind his going had been that simple.” Ravenleigh shook his head. “But that discussion is best left for another time. Regarding
Georgina…I suspect it will not be enough to gain her father’s favor. You will be forced to gain hers.”

Devon grinned cockily. “Don’t underestimate the family charm. I can exude it in abundance when necessary.”

“You would do well not to begin in a manner you do not intend to maintain.”

“I shall do whatever I must, Cousin, and the lady will be grateful for it. I assure you that I can play the part of attentive husband.” He turned his face back to the window. “Do you ever think of Clarisse?”

“Every day.”

“How do you suppose your current countess would feel to know how often you think of your first wife?”

“I suspect she knows. As I’m well aware, she often reminisces about her first husband.”

Devon swallowed hard before confessing, “Margaret hated me before she died. Pierce’s money will ensure his daughter does not harbor the same sentiment toward me.”

“I must admit to not knowing Georgina well, but she hardly strikes me as a woman who would
hate
under any circumstances.”

“We can only hope.” Because hate had the ability to slice a man to ribbons. To make him feel less of a man. Perhaps the worst of all, to cause him to despise himself. He’d loathed looking at his reflection in the mirror. And unfortunately, his home possessed a beastly number of mirrors.

A subtle knock on the library door broke into his morose thoughts. How quickly introspection could
sneak up on him, haunting, stirring up a past he hoped to put to rest expeditiously with the attainment of an heiress.

“Milord, Mr. Pierce has returned,” the butler announced. “As you requested, I informed him you required his presence in the library.”

Devon stiffened. The hour of his deliverance had arrived, and none too soon. Left to his memories much longer, he’d no doubt resemble a thunderous black cloud when he greeted the man whom he hoped would serve as his new benefactor.

“Give us another moment,” Ravenleigh said authoritatively. The door clicked shut.

How easy it was to command when a man stood on top of the mountain, how difficult to regain his footing as he was toppling off.

“Would you like me to stay?” Ravenleigh asked quietly.

Devon shook his head. “You’ve done quite enough by making Mr. Pierce aware of my needs and arranging our meeting. I prefer you not witness my supplication.”

He winced as Ravenleigh scraped back his chair. He doubted the drop on the gallows echoed as loudly. In the sparkling-clear window, he saw his cousin’s hazy reflection. In his own windows at home, he saw nothing but smudge and dirt.

“I’ll inform Mr. Pierce you’re ready for him.” Ravenleigh placed his hand on Devon’s shoulder. “For what it’s worth, Kit found himself in a marriage of convenience, and it’s worked out splendidly.”

Devon was truly glad Ravenleigh’s twin brother
had found contentment in his new home, but the past few years had taught him that dreams existed only in the dominion of children and fools.

“Don’t hold your breath waiting for my happiness, Cousin. I’ve never possessed the reach with which to grasp it, and that aspect of my life is unlikely to change.”

Ravenleigh’s hand fell away as his cousin’s footsteps echoed through the grand library. Devon bowed his head and prepared himself for the selling of his soul, pride, and self-respect.

His face rigid, unemotional, Devon turned.

A gray-haired, slightly balding, pot-bellied man in ill-fitting clothes shambled into the room.

“Mr. Pierce, may I present Devon Sheridan, Lord Huntingdon,” Ravenleigh said.

“Huntingdon, huh? What goes with it?” Pierce asked.

Devon cocked his head slightly, as though the action would help him decipher the strange question. “I beg your pardon?”

“You’re
what
of Huntingdon?”

“He’s the Earl of Huntingdon,” Ravenleigh supplied.

Pierce smiled, displaying crooked teeth. “I knew that. I know a lot about you, young fella. I’ve been checking you out ever since Chris here told me of your interest in my daughter.”

Chris?
Never in Ravenleigh’s life had he been addressed as Chris. Devon suppressed a shudder at the inappropriate informality, appalled by the man’s lack of respect for his cousin’s title.

Ravenleigh cleared his throat. “If you gentlemen will excuse me, I’ll leave you to discuss your business.”

“’Preciate the howdy-do, Chris,” Pierce said.

Good God. Devon could only pray the man’s daughter didn’t speak as though she’d recently fallen off a turnip wagon. While his cousin closed the door quietly behind him, Devon gave Pierce his undivided attention.

Pierce narrowed his eyes into darkened slits, studying him as though he were some prize stallion on the bidding block. Devon endured the scrutiny because he recognized he had little choice in the matter. He was willing to do whatever necessary to achieve his goal. As a result of primogeniture—his blessing and his curse—English heiresses were few and far between.

Lord Randolph Churchill had recently wed an American. American ladies had so charmed the Prince of Wales when he visited their country that he was now inviting them to England and into his social circle—much to the chagrin of his mother, Her Majesty Queen Victoria.

Devon had little doubt that in a few years Americans would be taking London by storm and a desperate man would be able to select from a veritable feast instead of settling for the crumbs. But he did not have the luxury of waiting until the fare improved.

Whatever Pierce was looking for, Devon wished he’d find it soon so they could get on with this meeting.

“So you’re wanting to form a partnership, are you?” Pierce asked at long last.

Devon nodded curtly. “Indeed I am.”

With a lumbering gait, Pierce continued across the room. Devon had intended to place himself behind the desk to gain an advantage, to be perceived as the one offering instead of the one reduced to asking.

But with typical American brashness, Pierce dropped into the large leather chair behind the desk, rested his sturdy elbows on the polished mahogany top, and eased forward.

Devon held his position by the window as though he were guarding the Crown Jewels instead of his pride.

“Did your cousin explain the conditions under which I might be agreeable?” Pierce asked.

Might be?
Devon had expected all the bargaining to occur on his side and be to his advantage. After all, he was offering to marry the man’s daughter. Still, he replied succinctly, “He did.”

Pierce leaned back in the chair and repeatedly tapped the tip of one finger upon the desk. A most irritating sound.

“Nothing in the world is more precious to me than my daughter, Mr. Sheridan.”

“Huntingdon,” Devon stated firmly.

Pierce’s bushy eyebrows nearly reached the top of his balding pate. “What?”

“When in England, you should address a peer by his title. Mine is Huntingdon. My cousin’s is Ravenleigh.”

“And if my daughter should cotton to marryin’ ya, how would she be addressed?”

Cotton to marrying him? Was there any reason why she wouldn’t?

“As my countess, she would be addressed as Lady Huntingdon.”

“Countess. I like the sound of that. Just kinda rolls off the tongue like hot honey. Lady Huntingdon.” He grinned broadly. “I like it just fine.”

He patted both palms on the desk, a little rat-a-tat-tat, as though he was a drummer in Her Majesty’s army. “Let’s get down to business, then. I’ve been making inquiries about you since your cousin told me you were interested in marrying my daughter.”

BOOK: To Marry an Heiress
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