“I was thinking.” Jonathan said as they rode through Hyde Park. It was a glorious morning of rare London sunshine, and though both men had stayed out quite late the night before, such weather was too good to pass on the opportunity to ride through the park.
“What’s that?” Matthew asked as he watched the people around them. He tipped his hat to those he knew. Only a few returned the gesture. Too many sneered or turned away. He didn’t bother frowning. By now, he was used to being the recipient of the cut direct from the ton.
“Mayhap, you c-could ap-ap-ap” Jonathan choked on the word and cleared his throat. “Tell the d-duke you’re sorry.”
Matthew gave out a cynical bark of laughter. “If only it were that easy. His grace, I’m afraid, would never absolve me of my sins.”
Jonathan frowned. “He seems intent on g-going out of his way to ruin you.”
Matthew sighed. “I deserve it, I assure you. It’s been four years, Dorchester. I don’t expect forgiveness after so long a time.” He sighed again. “You really should take Hucksford’s advice. I can only serve to drag you down with me.”
He grinned and shrugged his shoulders. “Nonsense. I may b-be young, b-b-but I know g-good from evil and right from wrong. A man should not be j-j-judged for his p-p-past mistakes. Especially when he has ch-changed.
“And what makes you think I have?”
“You told me what happened, and why it happened. You were young and quite stup-stupid and took the wrong c-counsel. The man I know now would not harm any woman, not for all the d-diamonds in Africa.”
He sighed but the corners of his lips curled up. “You know me so well then?”
“I b-believe I d-do. You are a g-good man, Pennyworth, and a loyal friend to me.”
“A loyal friend would have bid you farewell in order to save your reputation,” he muttered.
Jonathan scoffed at his words. “A loyal friend would make sure his young c-counterpart was well educated in the ways of the world and ready to take on all it has to offer. I believe you made sure I was p-p-properly educated at Madam Lowell’s, quite thoroughly.”
Matthew grinned at that. “I can’t have you thinking of marriage if you don’t know what to do in the marriage bed.”
He watched as a woman galloped past them in the opposite direction. She was riding alone, which was not at all done, and riding astride, which was even worse. She wore a dark riding habit and though the veil over her face obscured most of her features, he could see that she was quite a pretty thing. He turned in the saddle to get a better look of her, but she’d already disappeared behind them.
Jonathan chuckled, turning Matthew’s attention back to their ride. “I think that issue well solved now. They took very g-good c-care of me in that aspect. What of you, P-P-Pennyworth? Will you ever settle into marriage?”
Matthew chuckled as they moved to the side of the path to let a curricle pass. “Alas, no one will have me. I may have to resort to finding an American. Regardless of scandals, their mothers are desperate for a son-in-law belonging to the peerage and having a fortune to boot.”
Jonathan chuckled. “You shouldn’t have to resort to that. Surely this b-business with the d-duke will c-calm itself in time and the g-good English mothers will see only your title and fortune, not the scandals of the p-p-past.”
“I should resign myself to life as a bachelor. The last thing I need is a fortune hunter, eager for my title and riches. American or English, I don’t think I’d want that.”
“Well, you’ll have to ch-choose at some p-p-point. You need an heir. I, however, am still young, and have quite a b-bit more time to sp-sp-spend learning at Madam Lowell’s b-before I p-p-put my skills to p-p-practice with a wife.”
Mathew smiled wryly. “It will go faster than you think. Your youth is just the passing of a shooting star.”
“Then I’d b-best make use of it while it lasts. What say you to White’s and onto Madam Lowell’s tonight?”
“If you say so. We can dine at my house and leave from there.”
“C-capital. Should we turn b-back? It’s b-becoming a d-dreadful c-crush here.”
“Indeed,” he answered, turning his horse back to the park entrance. “Too many simpering females and love-struck men.”
* * * * *
Matthew handed the reins to the stable boy and jogged up the steps into his townhouse. He gave his hat to the butler while he took off his riding gloves. “Thank you, Brian.”
“My lord, you have a caller.”
“A caller? Didn’t you tell them I was not at home?”
The butler turned back to him, a look of displeasure on his face. “I did, my lord, but she was quite persistent and wished to wait for your return.”
Matthew paused, his eyebrows lifting. “She?”
“Indeed, my lord,” Brian answered, pretending not to be thoroughly scandalized. “She brought her father’s card and some type of official papers. She claims she is family.”
“I have no family left,” he murmured, taking the card Brian held out to him.
“As I am aware. Should I see her out?”
Matthew looked at the card. It belonged to the Marquess of Scarborough. He’d never met the man. “No, I will see her. Why don’t you bring some tea for our guest?”
“I have already had tea taken to the parlor, my lord.”
“Capital,” Matthew replied, giving him a grin. “Thank you, Brian.”
The butler inclined his head. “My lord.”
Matthew tucked the card into his pocket and entered the parlor. The woman sat on the settee, nervously wringing her hands. She had blonde hair beneath her hat, and a pert nose above full lips. She was quite attractive, and for some reason, seemed familiar to him. He cleared his throat and she jumped a little before standing.
Felicity couldn’t help but stare. She had been expecting, at the very least, a middle-aged man, possibly even a very aged one. Not someone young, in the prime of his life, and quite handsome. She shook her head to clear it before she remembered her manners. She curtsied hastily. “My lord. I’m sorry to intrude.”
“No apology necessary,” he replied, the smell of lemons and horses hitting his senses. It was quite a pleasant aroma. “How may I be of service?”
She opened the satchel she held in her lap and pulled out a sheaf of papers. “I am Lady Felicity Pruitt. You are Matthew Pruitt, Earl of Pennyworth, are you not?”
He took a moment to answer. They shared the same last name. Perhaps she had spoken the truth when she’d claimed they were family. “Last I checked.”
“My father is the Marquess of Scarborough, as I’m sure you noticed on my card.”
“Did he send you here unescorted?” Matthew asked, grinning a little when she blushed.
“He doesn’t know I’m here, actually. I came on my own accord.”
“And why is that, precisely?”
She took a deep breath before answering. “You and I share the same great-great-grandfather,” she explained as she handed him a paper.
He noticed her hand was shaking and reached to take the paper from her. “I wasn’t aware that I had any family left.”
“The solicitor had to go back quite far,” she replied. “Apparently our great-grandfathers had a falling out and forbid their children, our grandparents, from speaking to each other. My father never knew he even had an uncle, let alone cousins.”
He looked down at the document in his had that showed their family’s lineage. He could see his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather above his name. He followed his great-grandfather’s line down from the eldest son and found Felicity’s name. They were third cousins. That wasn’t nearly a close enough relation to make it proper for her to be visiting unescorted.
He set the paper down. “Were you on a search for long-lost relatives then, my lady?”
She held out another document. “Just you.”
He read it over quickly, his eyes widening as the words sunk in. This couldn’t be possible.
“My father didn’t send me, because he is dying. It won’t be long now. When he’s gone, you will be the Marquess of Scarborough.”
Matthew sat for a minute, mulling over the hand fate had just dealt him. “Surely there must be another male somewhere in here,” he gestured to the paper showing their lineage. “A third cousin is quite a stretch.”
“My first cousin, George, died six years ago when the Tay Bridge collapsed. His father, my uncle, passed two years later without any other male issue. There aren’t any surviving great-uncles and the second cousins that were born did not survive childhood.”
“Surely your father could have petitioned the crown to have the title declared defunct until the eldest daughter married,” he muttered, still looking at the lineage. Eight deaths, four of them children, made him the closest surviving male.
“My father became too ill, too quickly, to petition the crown for anything. The chances of the crown even granting the petition was unlikely. Not with you alive and well.”
He stood to pour a cup of tea and offered it to her. She shook her head, so he took a sip of it himself. “That still doesn’t explain why you’re here, alone, my lady. A solicitor would have informed me when your father passed. There was no need to pay call to give me the news.”
She cleared her throat, nervously wringing her hands in her lap. “I came because along with inheriting the title, estate, and fortune of the Marquess of Scarborough, you will also be inheriting my family.” He didn’t seem to comprehend what she was telling him so she continued. “My father, unfortunately, put his trust in a fraud when investing for our dowries. There’s nothing left. And the allowance for my mother is not enough for six people to survive on.”
He looked up from his tea, his eyes wide. “Six?”
She clenched her hands before answering. “My mother, myself, and four sisters. My mother was given a small cottage near Southampton that will stay in her possession, but my father’s funds are entailed, and he is out of time to see anything done to change our financial situation. We will practically be destitute without your assistance.”
He sat down, setting the tea aside. “Which are you?”
She blanched. “I beg your pardon?”
“Out of the sisters,” he replied lazily. “Which are you?”
“How old are you?”
She lifted her chin a notch before she answered. “Nearly twenty-five.”
Only a year younger than himself. “And your sisters?”
“Eighteen, fifteen, thirteen, and ten.”
“None of you are married or spoken for?”
Her eyes narrowed. “No.”
Her cheeks flamed red in anger. “That is none of your business.”
He lifted an eyebrow, ignoring her angry response. “I beg to differ. If I am expected to be taking on such a gaggle of marriageable ladies and their mother, I believe that makes it completely my business.”
“That is not what I came here to discuss.”
“What, pray tell, did you come for? Besides informing me that I will inherit quite a bit more than I already have, including a flock of women I’d rather have nothing to do with?”
She leaned back in her chair, unsure of herself for a moment. She took a breath to steel herself. “I have come with a proposition for you,” she told him in a calmer voice.
He leaned forward in his chair, curious. “An offer for me? I’m on the edge of my seat,” he told her sarcastically.
She cleared her throat. “I ask for a generous income for my mother and sisters, and it must be enough to provide for a coming out season for my three youngest sisters, as well as a dowries for all four of them…” she paused, swallowing loudly as his eyes widened. “And a house in town for my mother and sisters to reside in during the season.” She trailed off as his eyes narrowed.
His voice was cold as he answered. “That is quite a list of demands for someone you’ve just met, Lady Felicity. What, pray tell, could you possibly offer in return for such a lofty request?”
Color blazed across her cheeks again. “In exchange for your generosity, I offer to become your mistress, until you no longer see fit to have me.” He didn’t reply, but sat staring, his face curiously blank, so she continued. “I realize you likely have a host of women at your disposal, and I understand that you likely do not want, or need, a novice as your mistress, but I promise you that I will do whatever you ask, willingly, and without complaint, for as long as you desire it.” She finished her speech in a rush of words and the room fell silent. He didn’t respond, and she could feel a trickle of sweat running down her back. She was furiously trying to think of something else to say when the earl stirred.
“No?” Her voice was barely a whisper, and she felt her cheeks go hot with embarrassment.
His voice was casual as he explained. “You’re right, of course. I have no need for another mistress. I have plenty of women, that know all manner of ways to stir my loins, waiting for word to come minister to my every need.”
Felicity was blushing deeply now and resisted the urge to fan herself. Lord, her sister was right. She never should have come here with such a ridiculous offer.
Matthew wasn’t finished. “What would I need with an inexperienced, young woman, likely still a virgin…” Her gasp had him chuckling. “Yes, definitely a virgin, as my mistress?” He chuckled again before sighing. “No, I don’t need that, my lady.”
Felicity sat with her mouth hanging. What could she say? She’d just been turned down by an earl who apparently had plenty of women at his disposal. She was desperately trying to come up with something to say when he interrupted her thoughts.
“What I do need, however, is a wife.”
He smiled. “Indeed. A wife. I find my selections on the marriage block scarce, due to an unfortunate event a few years past. I’m in need of a wife, and at some point, an heir.”
She choked the words out. “You want me to marry you?”
He grinned. “Come now, it can’t be that bad of a proposal. You were ready to climb into my bed as a mistress, to disregard your reputation and prospects, to provide for your family. Marriage has to be a better offer than that.”
“But I don’t know you,” she squeaked, trying to regain control of her tongue.
“Well enough to offer to bed me,” he reminded her, making her blush again. Damn. She really was quite pretty. “Marry me instead. Your mother and sisters would be well provided for, you will have every comfort and desire, and you’d only have to bed me enough times to give me an heir… and hopefully a spare.” Her face went white at his words. “It can’t be that bad of an offer,” he scoffed. “I’m not normally a boastful fellow, but I know I’m not hard to look at, and I can assure you, you’ll be well pleased in the bedroom.” She gasped at his words and he chuckled. He was having entirely too much fun. “Offering to be my mistress one minute, and thoroughly scandalized the next. You are quite the enigma, Lady Felicity.”
She tried to answer, but found her tongue tied again. What could she say?
He smiled and leaned forward in his chair. “I’ll make it even easier for you. You don’t have to marry me right away. I could court you first. That way you might become more comfortable with the idea.”
“And if I find myself uncomfortable with the idea?” she asked, finally able to speak.
A wicked smile crossed her face. “You could always go back to your former offer. Though I don’t see how that’s any better. A mistress is expected to bed her benefactor whenever and however he so desires. A wife only has to bed her husband enough times to produce an heir.” He grinned when her face paled. “I wonder if you really thought that through? Or anything else for that matter. Your offer isn’t without repercussions. If anyone were to find out about our arrangement, your mother and sisters’ reputations would be thoroughly ruined, and what’s left of my own good name dragged through the mud as well. You would be expelled from society, no man would ever marry you, and when I tired of you, or decided the scandal wasn’t worth the bedding, you would be left a penniless and ruined spinster without any hope of redemption. That would go for your family as well.” He smiled, this time in sympathy. “A mistress has no bargaining chip besides her body. A man can break the arrangement without any thought once he tires of her. Which, in your case, would leave you and your family destitute with nothing gained, given all you sacrificed. Really, your offer wasn’t the smartest of plans.”
She opened her mouth to speak but snapped it shut and stood. She had never been so humiliated or chastised in her life. “I think I was sorely mistaken in coming here,” she told him in clipped tones.
He grinned, thinking it was the first intelligent thing she’d said since he’d walked into the parlor. He couldn’t tell if she was prettier when she was blushing with embarrassment or red with anger.
She dipped into a small curtsy as he stood. “Good day, my lord.”
He bowed gallantly. “My offer still stands, Felicity.” She blushed scarlet at the use of her given name and he grinned again. “A woman courageous enough to sacrifice so much in the face of desperation would make a formidable wife for a marquess.” He inclined his head to her, noticing she was still blushing, but she swept past him without another word.
The butler was waiting by the front door and held it open for her. Matthew followed her outside and it seemed she was doing her best not to look at him. He chuckled as she walked to the hitching post and untied a stunning, white horse before mounting without assistance. She swung the horse away and took off at a canter. It was then that he realized why she seemed so familiar to him. She was the woman that had ridden past him in Hyde Park that morning. He smiled and watched her gallop away. This had turned into quite an interesting day after all.
When writing a story, it helps to have a visual of what your characters look like. Having an actual picture of someone to base your character on helps you keep track of even the most minor details.
Ben Affleck was the inspiration for Inspector David Mills