About the book
Forever has never sounded so tantalizing...
There's only one thing Miss Tabitha Walters dislikes more than being the firstborn: the men after her dowry.
The eldest of the three daughters of the Baron of Narnwood has driven her father to despair by turning down every eligible bachelor who has ever asked for her hand.
Edwin Bolton, Earl of Morrington, is a man with a reputation. With a terrible scandal surrounding his name, he decides to leave town until the rumors have subsided. His days as a bachelor come to an end the moment he meets Tabitha and starts yearning for her with desire.
Lost in their all-consuming affection for each other, their sense of reason has completely abandoned them. For when passion speaks, the mind finds it indecent to answer.
However, Edwin's past is not the only thorn in their side. When Tabitha's little sister goes missing, a series of letters lead them to a dumbfounding conspiracy. A conspiracy that started a long time ago with a strange death and a fatherless child...
His leg jogged up and down as his anxiety made his heart race. He hated this. Hated feeling this way. Hated feeling so out of control.
What is taking so long?
Edwin Bolton, the Earl of Morrington, sat in his godmother’s formal parlor, awaiting her arrival. Elizabeth Rochester, the Duchess of Cantham, tended to keep herself to an agenda all her own, as her lofty position often allowed her to make others wait. Edwin usually didn’t mind her occasional delays, but this day he found himself in very unusual circumstances that did not leave much room for patience.
Please, Godmother, if there was ever a time not to keep me waiting, it is now.
As if his pleading thoughts had summoned her, the door to the parlor flew open and the Duchess swept into the room with a wide smile.
“Oh, my darling Edwin, I am so sorry to have kept you waiting.” She moved toward him with her hands extended. Edwin rose and took hold of her hands. She pulled him in to kiss both his cheeks.
“Good day, Your Grace,” he said, his tone demonstrating a state of calm he did not feel. He escorted her to a seat by the fireplace.
They had a standing appointment when his godmother was in town. Every Sunday, he would join her for high tea and then escort her to either the opera or ballet. Edwin was a very doting and attentive godson. It just so happened that today he was in need of a favor from her.
As he sat across from her, the door to the parlor opened again and a servant entered with a tea service. Edwin waited until the service had been arranged on a low table between him and his godmother before he spoke.
“Your Grace, I am afraid my being here today is not only for a social call.”
“Oh?” She picked up her cup and saucer, her gaze curious. “What else brings you to my door?”
“I was wondering if you would allow me the use of the Manor in Laurelborough”
She didn’t bother to hide her surprise.
“Cantham Manor? Edwin, you haven’t been to the country estate in years.”
“I know. I…I find myself in need of an escape now.”
“Well, I suppose it could be arranged,” she said with a furrowed brow. “I had not anticipated opening the house for at least another month.”
“Would it cause too much of a fuss to open it early?”
She shook her head, setting her cup and saucer down on the low table. Though nearly seventy years in age, the Duchess was still a handsome and glamorous lady. She kept abreast of the latest fashions and held herself with the regal air that her lofty station granted her the right to. However, despite her rather intimidating exterior, she was a kind soul and full of love and compassion for those she cared about.
The Duchess and her husband, the late Duke of Cantham, had not been blessed with children of their own. After Edwin’s parents’ tragic death when he was but a boy, the Duchess had taken on the task of his care, raising him as though he were her own flesh and blood. There was no one in the world he was more loyal to, and no one who loved him more.
“No, darling, of course it is not,” she insisted with a wave of her hand. “I will simply need to send notice to the steward to prepare things ahead of schedule.”
Edwin released a breath of relief. “Thank you, godmother. You are helping me more than you could possibly know.”
She studied him for a minute, her lips pursed in concentration.
“Tell me true, Edwin. Is there any foundation to the terrible rumors I’ve been hearing about you and the Countess of Pimperton? I will not abandon you if they are, but I must know if I am to properly defend you against the vultures of the ton.”
He felt a flash of annoyance, but not toward the Duchess.
“No, Godmother, I can assure you, there is no truth to them.”
She released a breath of relief. “Oh, thank goodness. My dear, it is not that I believe you capable of such impropriety, but you and the Countess have always been so close, I could not help but feel…”
He held up a hand. “It is all right, Godmother. I cannot blame you for your doubts. The Countess and I are close, but never in that way.”
Edwin would readily admit he was no saint, but he’d never done something so egregious as to compromise a lady of high birth. Especially a married one, yet that is what he was being forcefully accused of.
Edwin had known Emma Quarterbow, the Countess of Pimperton, nearly his whole life. Her parents had been close with his, and they’d grown up together. Even after his parents’ deaths, she had remained a loyal and true friend. He had always suspected it was both their families’ hope that the two would one day wed, but they were too like siblings for either to develop romantic feelings for the other.
Lady Pimperton had eventually met Phillip Quarterbow, the Earl of Pimperton. Though he was her senior by several years, they had fallen deeply in love and married five years prior. Their marriage was a happy one, save one aspect. In the years they had been together, they had never produced a child. Edwin knew it had been a heavy weight on the Countess’s heart. She had always dreamed of becoming a mother.
So, after so many years without a single pregnancy, her current condition had come as more than a shock to the elite of London. The Countess was with child at last, but no one believed her husband to be the father. Fingers were being pointed to Edwin, one of her closest friends. He was being accused of seducing the lady, though nothing could be further from the truth.
Unfortunately, he knew the actual truth of the matter, but had sworn to the Countess that he would never utter a word.
“Well, I suppose you need a refuge away from the gossips all the same,” the Duchess said, pulling Edwin from his musings. “Fear not, My Lord. Cantham Manor is yours. I will send a letter to my steward to prepare the estate by the end of the week. Will that be sufficient?”
Edwin wanted to drop to his knees in thanks. “Yes, Godmother. That will be sufficient. Would it be all right if I brought my friend, Lord Habtage, along with me? So I am not completely alone, confined to the country.”
The Duchess offered him a gracious smile. “Of course you may take Lord Habtage with you. I think it will be very good for you to have a companion.”
“You are most generous, Your Grace. I cannot begin to express my gratitude.”
“Not at all, My Lord. Now, on to more pleasant topics of discussion. Have you heard the rave reviews of the ballet we are seeing tonight? I am quite excited for it.”
Edwin allowed himself to relax for the first time in days and granted his godmother an indulgent smile.
“I have not heard, Your Grace. Please, enlighten me.”
Cantham was a grand structure built of red brick with two wings extending from either side of the main building. Fifteen acres of land encircled it, with another five acres of forest along the estate’s back border. Stables, which matched the house in color and design, stood to one side of the manor, and a magnificent garden that was his godmother’s pride and joy could be found behind it.
Edwin had spent many of his childhood summers at Cantham in the company of his godmother. He had not visited as often in his adulthood. With his multitude of responsibilities, it had served him better to remain in town. His godmother had given up her efforts to cajole him out to Laurelborough years ago.
As he and Lord Habtage alighted from their carriage parked in the drive of the great house, they were greeted by the estate’s large staff. Edwin recognized a few familiar faces from his boyhood, though they were significantly older in appearance now. The butler, who Edwin remembered was named Corbin, stepped forward and bowed to both gentlemen.
“My Lords, welcome to Cantham Manor,” the older man said as he raised himself back up straight. “I trust your trip was a smooth and pleasant one?”
“Indeed, Corbin, it was,” Edwin replied with a smile and nod. He made his way to the front door, Habtage beside him, Corbin right behind him. The other servants bowed and curtsied as he moved past them. He gave them each a tilt of his chin, his smile remaining in place. When he crossed the threshold into the manor, he stopped to remove his gloves and hat.
“As impressive inside as it is outside,” he heard Habtage murmur in awe. Marble floors and columns framed the large foyer of the house. A grand staircase led up to the second floor, and a landing encircled the top half of the room. Fresh flowers stood on nearly every surface in delicate china vases, and portraits in elaborate frames hung on the walls.
Edwin chuckled softly as he turned back to Corbin. “Is all prepared for us, Corbin?”
The butler nodded. “Yes, My Lord. As per Her Grace’s instructions, we have prepared the blue and green rooms for each of you in the west wing. We are fully staffed, and the kitchen has been stocked.”
“Excellent.” Edwin handed his gloves and hat to Corbin. “Our wagon will be along shortly. My valet, Harrison, will assist you in unloading and will handle unpacking my own luggage.”
“Very good, My Lord. Shall I show you to your rooms?”
“Yes, thank you. It has been sometime since I have been in this house, and I fear I may get us lost if left to my own devices.” The interior of the house was a maze of corridors and rooms of various use. He had always enjoyed finding different hiding spots as a boy and making the rest of the household search for him. He had never had to hide in the same place twice.
Corbin turned and took Habtage’s riding gloves and hat, then handed them off to a waiting footman before leading the gentleman through the cavernous foyer toward the grand staircase. They made their way up to the second floor, and Corbin took them in the direction of the west wing. They first reached the green room, which was reserved for Habtage.
“Ah, it will feel good to shed these filthy clothes,” he said, stepping through the door that Corbin opened for him. He moved further into the room, toward a bureau with a wash basin and pitcher atop it. “Look here! Hot water, ready and waiting.”
Edwin smiled as he stepped from the threshold of the room. Corbin shut the door behind him, then led him down the hall to another door. Opening it ahead of the gentleman, the butler stepped aside to allow Edwin to enter. The blue room lived up to its name perfectly. The wallpaper was a light blue with a darker floral print. There was a deep blue rug spread across the floor, and the bedding of the large four-poster was a lush cerulean.
The butler bowed his head before backing out of the room, pulling the door closed as he went. Edwin released a sigh of relief when the latch clicked shut.
At last…some true peace.
He wandered to the room’s large window and push the thick, blue curtains aside to gaze out at the estate. His room overlooked the garden, with its thick hedges and bushes on the verge of bloom. Several stone fountains stood guard throughout the area, though their spouts had yet to be turned on. There wasn’t a soul in sight and he took comfort in that fact.
Here, he would not be plagued by the scrutiny he had endured in the city. No one would bother him. No one would whisper about his misdeeds or force their matchmaking schemes upon him. Edwin looked forward to his summer of near solitude. He had left his scandal behind him in London. There was no need for more drama or excitement in his life.
He was confident he would find none in quiet Laurelborough.
“Oh, Tabitha! Guess who has come to call on you again!”
With a small groan, Tabitha Walters raised her gaze from the pages of the book she had been consumed by to glower at her youngest sister, Sophia. Her other sister, Unity, was at her side as they hurried to where Tabitha sat on a bench in their garden. She felt a flare of annoyance and dread as she had a very good idea of who it was they had come to warn her of.
“Please do not tell me Lord Burrows has returned,” she said as her sisters came to a stop before her.
The two girls exchanged a glance.
“Very well…we will not tell you,” Unity replied, her gaze sympathetic.
Tabitha snapped her book closed. “Why does he keep up his pursuit? I have turned him down so many times now, I have lost count.”
“The gentleman is smitten,” Sophia shrugged, as if his behavior was normal. “He believes himself in love with you.”
“Well, he had best recognize the futility of such belief before he makes a further fool of himself,” Tabitha grumbled. She pushed to her feet with a deep sigh. “Where is he?”
“Unity had him escorted to the parlor,” Sophia replied.
“Does Papa know he is here?” Tabitha asked, praying he did not.
Unity shook her head. “No, Papa is in his study, and I gave the servants strict orders not to tell him.”
“Thank you for that.” Tabitha patted her sister on the shoulder and attempted to smile to show her appreciation. She did not think she succeeded.
“I will come with you,” Unity said, grabbing her hand and giving it a squeeze. “You need a chaperone, after all.”
“Yes, thank you. That will make this encounter somewhat more bearable.”
“I will make sure Papa does not leave his study,” Sophia piped in, her desire to be useful as well clear.
Tabitha looked from one sister to the other, so grateful for them both. She could not imagine what it would be like to deal with the Viscount on her own. The gentleman was relentless in his pursuit of her, and no matter how hard she worked to dissuade him, he continued to pester her. It was as if he believed he could wear her down into accepting his hand if he dogged her enough.
“All right, it will do us no good to keep him waiting,” she said, looking toward Unity. Her sister nodded and offered her a reassuring smile.
“Good luck!” Sophia called as the other two sisters made their way back into the house.
“You know he continues to come back because you are the beauty of the county,” Unity said as they walked through the garden door into the kitchen. “If you were only a bit uglier, you would not be plagued by so many ill-mannered suitors.”
Tabitha grinned at her sister’s teasing tone. “It is a burden I must bear. I try to make myself as unappealing as I can. I avoid pretty dresses and baubles, and bury myself in books and art. How could any gentleman find me attractive?”
Unity giggled and rolled her eyes. “Your apparent disinterest in all things feminine I believe only adds to your appeal to the gentleman of the county. Not only are you beautiful, but you are an anomaly as well. They are fascinated by you.”
Some of Tabitha’s good humor dissolved at the truth of her sister’s words. Unlike her sisters, Tabitha was not interested in what was fashionable or fascinating for other young ladies. That included marriage. At one-and-twenty years old, she appeared destined for the shelf. She did not mind, in truth, though she knew her potential spinsterhood was an issue of grave concern for her papa.
The fact of the matter was that Tabitha was not necessarily opposed to marriage. She was simply opposed to the wrong marriage. An avid lover of romance novels, she had determined long ago that she would not settle for a loveless match of convenience. There would be passion between her and her husband, or she would rather not wed at all. Multiple gentleman had tried to pursue her, but none had held her interest.
Lord Burrows was the only one to not give up, and it was grating on her nerves. For three summers, she had been forced to endure his unwanted attentions, no matter how coldly she rejected him. The gentleman disturbed her, and neither of her sisters cared overly much for him either. Sophia was slightly more sympathetic to his plight, but she was only fifteen and too young to understand the intricacies and pitfalls of courtship.
She will learn soon enough, though. Most gentleman are dullards who only care for our beauty and wealth, not our souls or minds.
When she and Unity reached the parlor door at the front of the house, they paused before going inside. Tabitha dreaded this encounter, as she did every interaction she had with Lord Burrows. The issue was that he never did or said anything that stepped out of the bounds of propriety, but he was always just…strange. It was subtle things about him that had the hairs on the nape of her neck standing up whenever he neared.
The tone of his voice was always a little too intimate.
The gleam in his eyes too eager and greedy.
The things he said to her overly polite or flattering.
There was something else that hovered over his person like a dark cloud. Something she could not quite put a name to, but it made her nervous. She never felt completely safe with him, even though she was never alone with him.
“It will be all right,” Unity said, reading Tabitha’s worry. Her sister had a talent for knowing exactly how someone was feeling at any given moment. “I will be in there with you. You need only tell him no to whatever he asks of you and ask him to leave. Nothing more.”
Tabitha nodded, drawing strength from her sister’s words and presence.
“You are right. I will reject him once more and send him on his way. No reason to extend the visit any longer than that.”
“Exactly.” Unity offered an encouraging smile and squeezed Tabitha’s hand.
Taking a deep breath, Tabitha threw back her shoulders and pushed open the parlor door. She maintained her grip on her sister’s hand as they walked inside. Lord Burrows stood by the fireplace, studying the various trinkets displayed on the mantel. When he heard the sisters enter, he whirled toward them with a wide smile.
“Miss Walters! It is so good to see you again,” he declared in a voice so cheery, it pained Tabitha’s ears. “I have only just arrived back in the area for the summer, and knew I must immediately make my way here to see you. I have missed you so.”
And I have developed a deep fondness for the winter when you are safely tucked away in town.
Tabitha did not bother to smile, but she nodded her head in greeting.
“I hope you have been well, My Lord. I am flattered you would think to visit me so soon after your arrival. I am far from worthy of such attentions.”
The gentleman’s face fell slightly. “Why would I not visit you? I have been eager to see you again for months.”
“You are most kind, My Lord.” She did not bother to echo his sentiments. Tabitha was not usually so curt with her would-be suitors, but Lord Burrows had trampled over her last nerve long ago.
To her utter shock and frustration, he grinned.
“Oh, my darling, you have such a sense of humor. It is one of the many things I so admire about you.”
She stared at him, mouth agape.
Is he so intent on ignoring my feelings? Or is he truly this delusional?
“My Lord, I can personally assure you, my sister has no sense of humor,” Unity said in a dry tone.
The blasted fool only chuckled and shook his head.
“I believe I am acquainted with Miss Walters well enough to know better, Miss Unity.” His gazed bounced between the two sisters before settling back on Tabitha.
Tabitha shared a baffled look with her sister before meeting his eyes.
“My Lord, I do not know how I can make myself more clear to you. I have no interest in courtship or marriage, with you or anyone else at present. You waste your time in coming here. It would be better for you to pursue some other lady.”
The merriment faded from his eyes, and she thought that he at last was comprehending that she was not speaking in jest.
“Oh, my apologies, Madam,” he hurriedly said. “I did not mean to give you the wrong impression. Of…of course, you have made you disinterest perfectly clear. I merely wish to…to maintain a relationship of pure friendship with you, that is all.”
Tabitha did not believe that for one moment, and when she heard her sister’s soft tsk, she knew Unity did not believe him either. Still, she thought she might test him a bit. See if his resolve to maintain his ruse held strong, or if he crumpled when more closely scrutinized.
“Pure friendship? That is truly all you wish, My Lord?” she asked in a voice dripping with skepticism.
He nodded vehemently. “Yes, Miss Walters. I swear to you I have no other intent.”
“Would remaining friends with my sister not cause you unnecessary heartache, My Lord? Why would you wish to put yourself through such misery?” Unity’s tone was gentle and curious, but Tabitha was well-tuned enough to her that she could pick up the subtle hint of scorn underlying her words.
“You are kind to consider my feelings, Miss Walters,” Lord Burrows replied, resting his hand over his heart. “However, I am most certain that the greater agony would be to go without your sister’s presence in my life completely.”
Tabitha ground her teeth together.
Would nothing she said to him convince him to abandon his pursuit? She may have been impressed by his stalwart dedication had it not disturbed her so. It was growing increasingly clear that they would get nowhere with him this day. She needed to bring his visit to an immediate end.
“My Lord, was satisfying your desire to see me your only reason for coming here today?”
His mouth opened and closed like a fish as he scrambled for some response. She could only imagine what his true intent had been, before she and Unity had once again thwarted his hopes of securing courtship with her.
“I…I…I suppose it is, Madam,” he answered at last, with an air of defeat.
“Then I am happy we could meet again. Unfortunately, my sister and I cannot linger any longer. We have another pressing engagement, but perhaps we could have you for tea sometime?” She didn’t wait for a reply and dipped into a shallow curtsy, pulling Unity down with her, then turned with her sister to make a hasty retreat.
“Madam, wait!” Lord Burrows cried as if panicked.
Strong fingers curled around her upper arm and yanked her to a stop. Shocked, she whipped her head around to stare at his with wide eyes. His own expression was wild and desperate.
“My Lord, I beg you remove your hand from my person,” she spoke in a tight voice, anger and fear making her blood boil. That he would dare touch her, manhandle her, in her own home was beyond inappropriate. It was also frightening, in that it demonstrated how little he cared for the boundaries of propriety when it came to getting his way with her.
As though shaken from a crazed haze, Lord Burrows blinked and stared at her in surprise that she could not tell was real or not. He released her immediately and took a hurried step back.
“I am so sorry, Madam. I am not sure what came over me.”
She glared at him as she clutched her sister’s hand with her own shaking one.
“I would suggest, until you are able to determine what exactly came over you, you do not come around here again,” she snapped. “I do not think even friendship is possible between the two of us until you have better control of yourself.”
“But, Miss Walters…”
“Good day, My Lord,” Unity said curtly, turning from him and tugging Tabitha after her before he could try and stop them again.
Out in the hall, they came upon a maid who stopped and curtsied as they neared.
“Find Mr. Neil, please, and have him make sure Lord Burrows finds his way out,” Unity quickly ordered before pulling Tabitha further away from the parlor. The maid hurried to obey and find the family’s butler.
Unity dragged Tabitha back the way they had come earlier, through the kitchen and out into the garden without slowing. When they had reached the bench Tabitha had occupied before, Unity finally came to a stop, though she did not yet release her sister’s hand. She turned to face Tabitha, her expression one of concern as she studied her older sister’s face.
“Are you all right?” she asked at length.
Tabitha released a shaky sigh, nodding.
“Yes, I…I think I am,” she answered honestly. She was shaken, but well, overall.
“Tabitha, we should tell Papa what happened…”
Tabitha shook her head. “No, I do not want him to worry for me more than he already does. Please, Unity, keep this between us. I do not think Lord Burrows will cause us further issue.”
Unity stared at her, her uncertainty clear in her bright blue gaze.
“Are you sure, Tabitha? He startled me greatly. I do not think we should so readily act as though he did not pose a threat to you.”
“To acknowledge it further would only make the matter worse, and perhaps anger Lord Burrows. Please, Unity, swear you will say nothing.”
Her sister hesitated a moment more, and looked as though she wished to argue further, but Tabitha gazed at her pleadingly.
At length, Unity sighed. “Very well. If that is your wish, I will honor it.”
Tabitha released a breath of relief. “Thank you, sister. I just want to put this unfortunate situation behind us.”
It was obvious Unity was still unconvinced, but she was at least willing to respect Tabitha’s wishes, and that was all the mattered. Forcing a smile, Tabitha pushed her feelings of anxiety and unease back into the corner of her mind. She was determined to ignore them and forget about Lord Burrows’s behavior. He had been horrified by his actions, and she was certain he would leave her alone now.
Tabitha refused to acknowledge the tingling of doubt that flitted along her spine.
“My Lord, you really must meet my granddaughter. She is such a treasure, and so beautiful! I am sure you would find no fault in her whatsoever.”
Edwin forced a painful grin as he tipped his teacup up to delay responding for several moments. It was only the second day of his and Habtage’s stay in Laurelborough, and already he was realizing how naïve he had been to think he would find complete peace and quiet here. News of the two bachelors’ arrival had apparently spread through the county like wildfire, and they had been issued an invitation to tea that very morning.
The Countess of Brookshire, who had declared herself a dear friend of the Duchess, had bid them attend her at her neighboring estate. She had claimed to merely want to acquaint herself with her new neighbors, and assist them by introducing them to the local ton. Upon their arrival to her manor, it had taken her all of ten minutes to bring up the fact that she had a very lovely, and notably single, granddaughter ripe for the plucking.
“I am sure that must be true,” Habtage said with a charming grin. He had always been much more skilled than Edwin at dodging and deflecting aggressive matchmaking plots. “Are there many young ladies of her station here in Laurelborough?”
“Oh, indeed there are, My Lord,” Lady Brookshire said with a wide grin and enthusiastic nod. “Though none holds a candle to my lovely Lady Jane.”
“Indeed, I have no doubt,” Habtage nodded.
How he is able to handle such mindless babble is beyond me.
Edwin had no patience for it, and less so here, in the place he thought he would finally be able to escape the grasping claws of over eager mothers and grandmothers. He supposed matchmaking ambitions were not limited to the ladies of town, however. There were mothers and grandmothers out in the country who wished to see their girls married off to the most illustrious gentleman they could manage.
“What else should we know of the social life here, Lady Brookshire?” Habtage asked, smoothly transitioning the conversation away from the lady’s granddaughter.
“Oh! Well, I am happy to say we have very robust social life here in Laurelborough. Of course, we cannot compete with the grand balls and banquets in town, but this county is a very wealthy one with very high-class occupants to provide various entertainments.”
“Indeed? I had not realized Laurelborough was so influential,” Habtage said, genuine interest entering his tone. “Though I suppose I should have suspected that, as the Duchess spends so much time here.”
“Ah, but even the Duchess is not the wealthiest resident of the county,” the lady replied, her tone taking on a note of excitement. “That designation goes to the Baron of Narnwood.”
“A Baron?” Edwin’s own curiosity was snared by the news. “What did the gentleman do to have amassed greater wealth than my godmother?”
“The Baron owns a very lucrative shipping company,” Lady Brookshire explained. “He has gained a fortune through his endeavors. It is somewhat odd, however.”
“What is odd, My Lady?” Habtage questioned.
“Well, the Baron could easily spend most of his time in town, but he elects to stay out here in the country for most of the year. It is rumored he does so to keep his three daughters from running afoul of trouble.”
“Really? Are they so difficult that he cannot control them?” Edwin knew of a young lady or two who had been banished to the countryside by her family in order to avoid some scandal or another.
Lady Brookshire shook her head. “It is nothing of the sort. Each girl is an angel, and all so lovely. The eldest is especially beautiful, though rather strange in some ways. No, I believe the reason he does not take his girls to town is because he is a widower and does not know how to conduct their socializing among the ton. The poor doves have had no mother to guide them through their formidable years.”
A pang of sympathy made Edwin’s heart ache. He knew the unique pain of losing a parent. In his case it was both, but he could not imagine what it must be like for a young lady to grow up without her mother. He would not have the faintest idea of what to do with a young lady in society. Edwin sympathized not only with the man’s daughters, but with the Baron himself as well.
“Are any of the gentleman’s daughters married or engaged?” Edwin glanced toward Habtage, curious as to the reasoning behind his question.
“Sadly, no.” Lady Brookshire released a heavy sigh, as though personally affected by the marital status of the Baron’s daughters. “The youngest is but fifteen, so still too young. Her older sisters are well into marriageable age, however. Miss Unity, the second born, I believe is eighteen, and the eldest Miss Walters is one-and-twenty.”
“Have there been no prospects for the young lady?”
Edwin could not understand his friend’s sudden fascination with the Walters sisters. What did it matter to them if the ladies were married or not? He had not come to the country to find a wife. He had come to the country to escape such topics, not pursue an innocent country girl who had no experience with London high society.
“Oh, there have been plenty.” Lady Brookshire appeared to be warming up to the topic. Edwin guessed she was among the most prolific of the county’s gossipers. “The eldest Miss Walters appears to have no interest in marriage whatsoever. Truly, she seems uninterested in much of what we of the fairer sex hold dear. She has turned down every offer for her hand that has come along.”
Edwin felt a grin tug at his lips. He was not sure why, but he found Miss Walters’s apparent aversion to marriage amusing. It was very unusual for a young lady to actively avoid the institution, especially one who seemed to have no difficulty securing a husband if only she gave one poor bloke a chance. She sounded like a very interesting individual indeed.
“My Lords, I almost forgot! Have you yet heard about the soiree Lord and Lady McKenzie are hosting this Saturday?”
Of course we have not. We have only just arrived in the area, after all.
Edwin did not continue to listen to the lady’s incessant chatter, leaving the responsibilities of polite socializing to Habtage. As he sipped his tea, his mind wandered back to the Walters sisters. Particularly the eldest Miss Walters. Something about what the Countess had said about the lady held his interest. Most ladies he knew could think of little else but marriage and frivolous things, like fashion and pretty ornaments.
To meet a lady whose mind was not consumed by the pursuit of a wealthy husband could be a very refreshing change of pace.
“Lady Brookshire was a rather pleasant hostess, do you not think?” Habtage asked later as he and Edwin rode back to Cantham from Brookshire estate.
Edwin scoffed. “I think she enjoys the sound of her own voice a great deal.”
“Do not be so unkind. She was merely excited to have two new neighbors to entertain. I am sure most everyone else she knows already has heard all the gossip she possesses.” Habtage could not stop the chuckle that burst from his lips.
“I am sure she was very excited to get to know the two wealthy bachelors taking up residence next door. Mark my word, Habtage, now we shall be bombarded by ambitious mothers and their daughters seeking introductions. We will have no peace whatsoever.”
“I suppose we will have to reinforce the gate,” Habtage said drily, casting a grin toward his friend. “Prepare the servants for the imminent invasion of perfume and silk.”
“You jest, but I saw how the Countess was looking at you. She was already sizing you up for wedding clothes and planning your future with her granddaughter.”
Habtage’s eyes went wide in mock horror. “Then my fate is surely sealed. Do not try to free me from my shackles, my friend! I am a lost soul. You must save yourself!”
Edwin shook his head but could not help smiling at his friend’s teasing.
“Habtage, if you are not careful, you will one day find yourself married to a lady who nags you until your ears bleed.”
“Would that truly be so terrible?” his friend asked, his curiosity genuine. “Are you that opposed to marriage, Morrington, that the very idea of it seems like a prison sentence?”
Edwin sighed and shook his head. “No, in truth I am not. I would actually like to marry one day, I believe. The steadfast companionship is very appealing, and I understand my responsibilities in producing heir for my family line. I simply do not like being pressured into marriage. Should I enter the institution, I want to do so of my own free will with a lady of my own choosing, one whom I can care for.”
“I had not known you were such a romantic.”
Edwin rolled his eyes. “Romance is hardly the issue. Compatibility is the key in a lasting marriage, as well as mutual respect and admiration.”
“You are right. That does not sound romantic in the least.”
Shooting a glare toward his friend, Edwin replied, “And what of you? Are you so eager to love your spouse that you rush headfirst into any match presented to you? Are you not the least bit discerning?”
“Of course I am,” Habtage answered with a shrug. “I just do not see the benefit of dismissing every option that comes my way.”
“I have noticed that most of your options tend to be young widows,” Edwin pointed out. “You do not appear to engage with many young, innocent ladies.”
Habtage shot Edwin a cocky grin. “I suppose I find the heartiness of widows a more appealing characteristic than the shyness of the innocent.”
Edwin knew his friend all too well and knew his interest in young widows had much more to do with the ease in which he could sneak into their beds. Habtage was a good man and a loyal and true friend, but he readily indulged in his desires in a way that even Edwin sometimes found gluttonous.
Though his words gave the impression that he eagerly sought a wife, Edwin knew deep down his friend was as tired of the matchmaking schemes of the ton as he was. No lady pursued them because they cared for the gentlemen themselves. All they saw were titles and fortunes. It was enough to make even the most romantically inclined jaded.
“I pray you find your match, Habtage, if only to keep you from running afoul of an angered brother, father, or son.”
Habtage threw his head back and laughed.
“And I pray you find yours, Morrington, if only to erase those scowl lines between your eyes.”
The two continued on, talking and laughing, until they reached Cantham. Leaving their horses in the care of waiting grooms, they entered the manor and were immediately greeted by Corbin.
“Welcome back, My Lords,” the old butler said with a bow. “I hope your outing was an enjoyable one?”
Edwin nodded. “Indeed, we both found it exceedingly entertaining.”
He exchanged a look with Habtage, who grinned mischievously in return.
“Lord Morrington, a letter arrived for you while you were out, delivered by private messenger.” Corbin held out a sealed envelope. Edwin took it, a bit surprised to be receiving messages so soon upon his arrival.
“Thank you, Corbin. That will be all.”
“Very good, My Lord.” The butler bowed again and turned to leave Edwin and Habtage alone.
Once the butler was out of sight, Habtage asked, “Who is it from, Morrington?”
The seal was a plain lump of wax with no distinguishing markings. Turning the letter over, he saw only his name written on the front, though the hand was familiar. Breaking the seal, he opened the letter. Glancing at the signature at the bottom, he frowned.
“Morrington? What is it? Who sent you this letter?”
Edwin did not answer immediately, as he tried to make sense of it all.
At length, he finally said, “It…it is from the Countess of Pimperton.”
Habtage stared at him in disbelief. “Merciful Lord, what has happened now?”
Edwin was afraid to find out.
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