Authors: Ashlyn Macnamara
What a Lady Requires
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
A Loveswept eBook Original
Copyright © 2015 by Ashlyn Macnamara
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Loveswept, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.
is a registered trademark and the L
colophon is a trademark of Random House LLC.
eBook ISBN 9780553393774
Cover design: Seductive Designs
Cover photograph: © Shutterstock.com/Vladimir Wrangel
AYFAIR, EARLY 1822
Not for the first time since her aunt and cousin came to stay, Miss Emma Jennings wished she’d been born male. A man wouldn’t have to endure constant twittering over the rules a proper lady should uphold. A man wouldn’t have to tolerate constant reminders to fold his hands just so and to put on a bonnet for goodness’ sake. A man would be permitted to pursue whatever interests he liked.
“My dear, what has got you so caught up that you cannot even heed our conversation?” From across the sitting room, Aunt Augusta asked the question in a sticky tone that might indicate concern to the unsuspecting.
Emma knew better. That tone meant nothing less than suspicion. She adjusted her spectacles. “I am merely writing a letter.”
Surely Aunt Augusta wouldn’t protest such a mundane activity, but the older woman pressed her lips together all the same. The tiny lines about her mouth deepened into furrows. It was as if she knew Emma’s letter was addressed to the owner of a vineyard in Burgundy and discussed the most recent vintages available for import at an advantageous price. More, it was as if her aunt could see through the sheets of vellum to the ledger hidden beneath. To Emma, either one was far more interesting than contemplating which members of the
might attend the Pendleton ball tomorrow evening. She far preferred to speculate on wine futures, even if that speculation was intended to benefit another.
Her cousin Uriana stabbed her needle into her embroidery, drawing a length of peacock blue floss through the stretched linen. “I still cannot decide which gown I ought to wear. Do you think Mr. Crawley will be more impressed by the pink or the sea-foam green?”
Since Mr. Crawley had spent the last rout the family had attended in the card room with the inveterate gamblers, that question was entirely moot. Uriana might well wear an ostrich-feather headdress and nothing else before Mr. Crawley deigned to notice her, but Emma could not voice that scandalous thought aloud. Aunt Augusta would certainly expire of the vapors in the face of such a breach of propriety.
The thud of the door knocker saved Emma from having to reply. Uriana straightened an already painfully rigid spine. “Good heavens. A caller. Do you think Mr. Crawley might actually be here?”
In spite of herself, Emma strained her ears toward the foyer. The rumble of the butler’s voice greeting the newcomer rolled down the passage, borne on a draft of wintry air. Aunt Augusta rose to her feet and padded to the doorway. Uriana folded her hands in her lap, placing them the requisite number of inches from her knees, and held her chin canted at the perfect angle. The eponymous headmistress of Miss Conklin’s School for Young Ladies had done her job well where Uriana was concerned. The rules had been drilled into her until she became their physical embodiment.
Just as well, since where Emma was concerned, Miss Conklin might well consider herself an abject failure. She might even be driven to over-imbibing ratafia at the very thought of her former pupil.
Aunt Augusta craned her neck toward the corridor. “Good heavens,” she said, echoing her daughter’s epithet. “I believe that’s an earl at the door.”
Impossibly, Uriana found the means to straighten herself even further. “An earl? Which one?”
So much for Mr. Crawley. When it came to titles, Emma’s cousin and aunt couldn’t aim high enough. Neither, for that matter, could Emma’s father, and Emma herself had long since resigned herself to her fate. If she must marry, she would only accept the best possible match.
“Sparkmore.” Aunt Augusta sounded only slightly discouraged. As far as earls went, the Earl of Sparkmore was eligible, but he wasn’t what anyone would deem spirited or witty or any other factor that made young ladies sigh.
A pucker formed between Uriana’s brows. She looked for all the world as if she wanted to deflate but couldn’t decide if such an action was polite.
“At any rate,” Aunt Augusta went on, “Grundy is showing him to your uncle’s study.”
“Oh…” Uriana leaned forward in her seat. “Oh, do you think…”
Emma laid her quill aside. She could concentrate on neither French grammar nor grape varieties and prices as long as her relatives insisted on taking on so. “Nonsense. It could be anything.”
Aunt Augusta pursed her lips. “I never heard the Earl of Sparkmore was much of a wine enthusiast.”
“The Earl of Sparkmore isn’t much of an enthusiast about anything,” Emma muttered. She was merely going on reputation. She had little enough personal knowledge of the earl. Based on her cousin’s repetition of gossip, she knew less kind tongues referred to the man as Sparks, all because of an incident at a party where an experiment with electricity went rather awry. By all accounts, it took a great deal to get a reaction out of Sparks, but the experiment certainly did the trick. Apparently, he’d jumped at least a foot, his hair on end. It was the fastest anyone had ever seen him move.
“I daresay, he might find his enthusiasm should he be in need of funds.” Aunt Augusta’s brows lowered into an expression that could only be described as calculating. She narrowed her eyes on Emma. “Perhaps enough to speak to your father.”
“Pish posh,” Emma insisted. “We’ve never been introduced. You’d think if the man intended to court me, he’d have asked me to dance at some point. Or paid a call.”
“I’m not certain he knows how to dance. As for paying calls…” Aunt Augusta waved a hand. “He’s not much for conversation, either.”
“Then his visit with Papa shall be short, indeed.” Emma took up her quill once again, determined to ignore the speculative glances bouncing between her aunt and cousin. They were being ridiculous. But the ink she’d already committed to her page blurred before her eyes. The letters transposed themselves into an inscrutable jumble she’d need a machete to cut through.
She’d grown up with the knowledge that her eventual husband would marry her for her money, rather than some romantic notion of tender feelings. When one stood to inherit twenty thousand pounds upon one’s marriage, one must face certain facts. Being a young lady who preferred to deal with the stark truth of ledger columns, she’d never conjured any personal objections to the idea. Actually, by the age of five and twenty, she’d long since expected to see the entire matter settled.
But now that the day of reckoning had seemingly arrived…
She shook herself. There was no evidence whatsoever that Sparks had come to ask for her hand. He might be here for any number of reasons. And even if he did have matrimony on his mind, she’d resigned herself to her fate ages ago.
Her husband would take her considerable portion in hand, true, but her father had also set aside funds for her personal use. It would all be detailed in the marriage settlement. She concentrated on that fact. At last, she’d control her own fortune to an extent, and perhaps her husband’s, as well. One of the advantages to attracting a titled fortune hunter was the potential of taking an entire estate in hand. If the gentleman in question had difficulties in handling his own finances, he might well accept a little wifely advice. At least, as long as she approached him properly.
A man like Sparks would certainly prove himself biddable, and that was all she needed.
No doubt expecting their guest would soon join the gathering in the morning room, her aunt reached for the bell and rang for tea. Emma bent her head back to her letter and painstakingly transcribed a few more thoughts into French. Presently the tea cart rattled into the room. The maid bowed herself out, and Uriana poured. Half an hour or more passed in heavy silence, while Emma’s aunt and cousin leaned in the direction of the door and their over-sugared tea grew cold in their cups. Emma’s letter grew by yet another sentence, but before long, even she could no longer stand the quiet.
And still Sparks did not emerge from the study.
“What on earth do they have to discuss that’s taking so long?” Uriana burst out at last. Or at least it was what passed as an outburst. Miss Conklin’s dictates about proper ladies modulating their voices were never far from the surface.
Aunt Augusta set her teacup aside. “I’ve no doubt any marriage settlement involving Emma would take the better part of the day simply to lay out the initial stipulations. The full negotiation might take months.”
“Or perhaps they haven’t got past the weather,” Emma couldn’t resist adding. “Besides, we still don’t know that this has anything to do with me. They could be chatting about the secrets of making a proper champagne. It could be most anything. Until we see solid evidence they’re discussing my personal future, I refuse to worry myself over it.”
Aunt Augusta fixed her gaze on Emma’s spectacles. “You will remove those before your intended sees you in them.”
Defiant, Emma stared straight back at her. “As I’ve just said, I’ve no intended yet.”
Aunt Augusta opened her mouth to argue, but the sound of the knocker cut her off.
Uriana raised her brows. “Another caller?”
Emma readjusted her spectacles. “Perhaps it’s Mr. Crawley this time.” After all, there was just as much evidence of Mr. Crawley’s interest in Uriana as there was for Emma’s impending nuptials.
Aunt Augusta took up her station at the door once again. “Hush.”
But the order was hardly necessary. Whoever was at the door greeted the butler in an overly loud voice. “I’m here to see Mr. Jennings. Or more accurately, my brother called me here to see Mr. Jennings, if you catch my meaning. But of course you wouldn’t. I can barely catch my own meaning.”
Loud. Overly jovial. All that was missing was a slap on Grundy’s back, a slap that the ensuing booming silence refused to reveal. Such a slap would surely have echoed through the corridor, for the person who stood on the threshold could be nothing but in his cups.
As if to confirm Emma’s suspicion, Aunt Augusta glanced at the gilt ormolu clock on the mantelpiece. “Not even five,” she muttered.
“If you’ll step this way.” Grundy’s voice carried as far as the sitting room.
“And which way is that? I can adapt any manner of silly walk you like as long as it’s not ridiculously complicated.” The newcomer laughed at his own joke, a mirthless bark that bounced off the narrow walls of the passageway. “I’ve had as much as is good for me already. You can’t ask too much now.”
“No need. I know my way. Right familiar with this place, I am.” That overly loud voice was coming closer. Drunk or not, it was low-pitched and somehow melodious all the same.
“If you don’t mind, Mr. Jennings’s study is this way.”
“Ah, and here I thought I was meant to pay my respects in the morning room.” The owner of that voice appeared on the threshold. “Never let it be said I missed an opportunity to greet the ladies. And here they all are.”
He stood tall enough that the beaver hat he’d tucked beneath his arm would have brushed the top of the door frame. That is, if he hadn’t already crushed the poor unsuspecting piece of headgear. His shoulders seemed to span the width from jamb to jamb.
But it was his face that made Emma catch her breath. She’d never seen it with such clarity, but then her aunt insisted she leave her spectacles behind whenever she went out in society.
The suspiciously red tinge on his straight blade of a nose did nothing to mar his looks. Classically handsome, with a mop of elegantly styled blond hair and striking blue eyes, like chips of sapphire. A set of side-whiskers extended toward his jaw, highlighting a pair of chiseled cheekbones. His lips stretched into a smile that somehow promised all manner of wickedness, so much that Uriana completely forgot her manners and let out a girlish titter.
“Ladies.” He swept into a bow that wouldn’t have been out of place in the royal palace, but for the way he wavered on the way back up. “You can never miss the chance to greet too many ladies.”
The force of his charm crashed up against the cliff face that was Aunt Augusta. “Have we been introduced?” she asked in her iciest tones.
“My apologies.” He stuffed a hand into his top coat and produced a card, hesitating between Aunt Augusta and the butler for a moment, before finally passing the bit of cardboard off to Grundy. “Yes, I ought to have handed this over sooner. Rowan Battencliffe at your service.”
He tucked his hand into his waistcoat and bowed his head once more. “And now I’m afraid I must leave you all. Duty calls, I fear. My brother asked me here, and I’m late, but I’m sure he’ll not have noticed.”
Grundy cleared his throat and gestured toward the passage. “I believe you’ll find your brother already in the study with Mr. Jennings.”
“Yes, and I do hope they’ve saved me some claret, or I may have to start straight in on the port.”
No sooner had he shuffled out of the morning room than Aunt Augusta closed the door. Turning, she set her back to the oak panels, as if she might physically prevent another intrusion. “Well, I never.”
Uriana ducked her head behind her embroidery frame. “Shocking breach of manners. Pity, in one so handsome.”
“Indeed.” As much as she hated to agree with her aunt and cousin, Emma could simply find no excuse for the display. “And society would claim him as one of our betters.”
Goodness, she sounded as prim as Miss Conklin, but her former schoolmistress would never have dared utter a word against someone higher up the social scale. In the complicated patchwork of fashionable London, the brother of an earl beat the daughter of a wine merchant anytime, and any number of society ladies would pounce on the opportunity to remind Emma of that fact. They’d pounce politely, naturally, never raising their voices, but their censure would be all too clear behind the shield of their simpering smiles. None of them ever let Emma Jennings forget for long that, despite her fortune, she was tainted with the stench of trade. On her, it must smell slightly musty with a hint of vinegar—like the inside of an old wine barrel.
Rowan should have refused the summons. At the very least, he should have remained at his club and drunk himself into oblivion. But that was the problem. His tab couldn’t tolerate the weight of so much as another glass, let alone an entire bottle. Especially after the news he’d just been handed.