What a deuced pickle John Beauclerc, the 11th
Earl of Finchley, had gotten himself into. The higher he climbed the
stairs to his Grandmere's drawing room, the lower he felt. Had he
not sworn to that dear lady a mere ten weeks previously that he
would curtail his attraction to high-stakes play? Yet here he was
like an errant schoolboy, preparing to once again vow that he would
change his wicked ways—while begging for a few hundred quid to tide
him over to the next quarter.
He needn't tell her he owed every bit of it to
Lord Bastingham because of a disastrous turn of bad luck. Nor need
he tell her how many tradesmen were dunning him. Nor how he'd been
forced to find new positions for his groom and coachman because he
lacked funds to continue keeping horses.
Before John reached the landing, he passed the
Romney of his late grandfather. His step slowed as his gaze raked
over the old fellow. John was certain Grandpapa's eyes had been
green, but the paint had darkened over the years to a murky brown.
From beneath the elderly man's prim white wig and bushy gray brows,
those dark eyes seemed to be glowering at his grandson. A shudder
rippled down John's spine, and he looked away.
Good lord, even the dead must know about John's
A few moments later he threw open the doors to
Grandmere's drawing room. Seated upon a sofa, a slant-top portable
desk balanced on her lap, she was scribbling on paper, then she
looked up at him with a twinkling gaze.
Though she could be an excessively stern
matriarch, Grandmere had the looks of an angel. At present, her pink
mouth lifted into a smile that accompanied the sparkle in her pale
blue eyes. She was small and round and fair and was possessed of
fluffy white hair. For as long as he could remember, her cheeks had
been pink, but his Mother—God rest her soul—had said Grandmere's
cheek colour came from French rouge.
He strode to her, bowed, and kissed her hand.
"It's good to see you, Grandmere."
Her brows lowered. "Don't pretend you've come
just to see your grandmother, John Edward. I know you've been
He stifled a groan. Ten-year-old boys were
naughty. When one was six and twenty, he was . . . well, he supposed
dissolute described the man he'd become. "I protest. Guilty I
may be to the naughtiness, but I am hardly guilty of neglecting my
She frowned. "I am your only
"And do I not call on you at least once a
"Your attentions to your grandmother may be the
only admirable trait you possess."
So she had heard about the gambling. And
perhaps even worse. "Can I help it if I am my father's son?"
A shadow of sorrow swept across her aged face.
"My life's hope was that my grandson would be the man my son could
He sighed. "I am truly sorry to be such a
"But not sorry enough to do something to change
His countenance brightened. He offered her a
broad smile. "I haven't been to Newmarket since the last quarter!"
Perhaps he should not have referenced a Newmarket racing meeting.
After all, that is where Papa had met his demise when, under the
influence of vast consumption of brandy, he was trampled to death
when he attempted to mount a horse during the race.
"And,” he added brightly, “My valet will verify
that the number of mornings in which I awaken snoggered have been
greatly reduced." Remembering his father's unfortunate end, John was
being somewhat mindful of lessening his own consumption of spirits.
Except, of course, when he was with his fellow bloods. One couldn't
look like a jessie.
She continued to scowl. "Even your father never
used such a word in my presence!"
He effected a contrite look. "Forgive me."
"You might as well sit down."
He would rather not. It made him feel small in
the presence of his steely grandmother. He needed all six feet, two
inches to gather his courage. "Actually, I cannot stay."
"So you've just come to see that I haven't died
in my bed?"
His brow lowered. "I beg that you never speak
"Then, as I have suspected all along, you're
seeking a loan—a loan you promise to pay back when the new quarter
He could not meet her gaze. "You know me too
"Sit down, my boy."
He had never been able to refuse her a request
(except the request for his reform). He settled awkwardly upon a
silken sofa across from her, fully expecting to be subjected to a
long lecture on his evil ways. His eyes trained on the Aubusson
carpet beneath his feet, he waited. And waited. Grandmere harrumphed
but said not a word.
After a moment, he looked up. This stern look
upon her face was unexpected.
"I'll not give you a farthing."
His eyes widened. Never before had she flat out
"It has been nearly a decade since you left
Oxford, and your habits remain those of a lad getting his first
taste of wine, woman, and faro!"
Every word she said was true. He still
remembered the joy of leaving Oxford behind and re-opening Finchley
House on Cavendish Square, of meeting with other like-minded young
men at White's for brandy and faro and any other manner of betting,
and . . . of the ladies! Could one ever grow tired of such
By God, after all those years of awakening to
cold stone floors at six in the morning to eat grub and face his
lessons, he cherished every moment in the Capital now. He'd never
been happier. He rose when he wanted, and not one night of the week
was he home and idle. He and Christopher Perry, David Arlington, and
Michael Knowles—chums since their Eton days—were always ready for a
lark. The four of them loved the ladies, too. (Not that one would
actually refer to the opera dancers and members of the demimonde
precisely as ladies.) John had not the slightest desire to be
shackled to some prim and respectable wife.
His gaze returned to the carpet. "You are—as
"It's time you settle down."
"Why can I not wait until I reach thirty?"
"At the rate you're going, young man, I'm
afraid you won't reach thirty."
Were all women prone to such sweeping
statements of gloom? 'Twas another very good reason to avoid
parson's mousetrap. "I'm very happy with my life as it is." He
glared up at her. "Besides, I've yet to meet the woman to whom I
wish to be sha- - -, er, married."
"Of course, you haven't! You have no interest
in honorable ladies. Have you even once attended the assemblies at
He grimaced. "Why would I wish to go to that
devilishly boring place? They serve nothing stronger than tea!"
She glared at him. Grandmere, who'd always
treated him with the most tender of hearts, had never glared
at him. "My resolve is inflexible. I had hoped one day to settle the
entirety of my own personal fortune on my only surviving kin, but I
will not do so until you demonstrate more maturity than you have
heretofore." She sighed. "It is your good fortune that my Papa did
not not die and will his money to me whilst your wastrel grandfather
and father were alive for they would have squandered every last
'Twas such pity that the Earls of Finchley did
not have a feather to fly with and were dependent on the fortune of
John's maternal great grandfather, who'd been the wealthiest brewer
in the British Isles. And despite what Grandmere said, John wished
to God the old brewer had died whilst his son-in-law was
alive so the money would be the property of the Earls of Finchley.
"Don't know why it's my good fortune if I can't
lay hands on it," he protested like a recalcitrant lad.
"One day, when you find a wife and start your
own family, you'll be thankful."
"But I've no desire for a wife and children."
Her eyes narrowed as she regarded him. "Man is
not always aware of what he wants. They're creatures highly
resistant to change. But I know when you do settle down, you will
make a fine husband and a good father. Ever since you were a wee
lad, I've seen something in you that was absent in both your father
His brows arched in query. "Pray, what could
* * *
As much as she loved fashion, Lady Margaret
Ponsby was growing tired of the never-ending ritual of dressing and
primping and attempting to display oneself to advantage in search of
a husband. There were morning calls, and routs, and musicals, and
assemblies, and Almack's.
She was now two and twenty and, sadly, she had
not taken. Her eldest sister had been happily married for several
years. Her next eldest sister was on the verge of plighting her life
to the distinguished Parliamentarian, Richard Rothcomb-Smedley. And
her youngest sister, Caro, had turned down eleven offers of
marriage. (Everyone said she was holding out for a duke.)
It was an acknowledged fact that she and Caro
looked almost like twins, but it was Caro and her brilliance and
sparkle that captured the hearts of all the men they met.
Not like unfortunate Margaret, who was
incapable of holding an intelligent conversation with a gentleman.
It wasn't that she was stupid; she was merely excessively shy. Mama
had said one of her sisters was the very same. The sole sister who
Her sister-in-law, the Duchess of Aldridge,
swept into Margaret's bedchamber, met her gaze with a gentle smile,
and softly closed the door behind her. "Before we go to Almack's I
wanted to speak to you." She came to sit on the edge of Margaret's
tall tester bed. The blonde duchess was already dressed and looked
radiant in an ivory frock which perfectly displayed the Aldridge
"I don't mean to pry, dearest," Elizabeth
began, "but it's time I have the same talk with you that I had with
Clair last year."
Margaret gave her a quizzing look. "I did not
know- - - oh! Now I understand! It wasn't until you married our
brother that Clair began to take an interest in her appearance.
Whatever did you say to her to bring about such a transformation?"
"I asked her a question."
Now Margaret looked even more perplexed. "What
"I asked what it was she wanted from life."
"Even though I'm her flesh-and-blood sister, I
had previously thought she was happy with spinsterhood."
"She was." A smile softened Elizabeth's pretty
face. "But she wanted a home of her own, children of her own, and
lastly, a husband to fulfill those desires."
"Methinks her last desire is now first."
Whenever Clair was with Mr. Rothcomb-Smedley she . . . well, she'd
actually learned how to engage in a flirtation—something they had
thought never to see Clair do.
"My dearest sister, I have seen how wonderful
you are with the children at Trent Square. I've seen your keen
interest in Lydia's devotion to her son. No one is better suited to
motherhood than you."
Margaret was powerless not to observe the baby
bulge in the duchess's midsection. "I happen to think you'll make a
very fine mother." Elizabeth was a natural matriarch. She had single
handedly established the rambling Number 7 Trent Square as a home
for the destitute widows of and children of officers killed in the
"Your brother said the same thing. I do hope to
"Oh, me too! It's very sad to me to think most
aristocratic mothers give off their children to wet nurses, nurses,
and governesses. I want to be like Lady Lydia."
"So I am right. You do want to marry and become
"More than anything." For some unknown reason,
she felt she could reveal more of herself to this woman—a sister by
marriage—than to Caro, the sister she’d been closest to throughout
her life. “I’ve often been seized with envy of poor widowed Mrs.
Elizabeth nodded. “I know you’ve grown much
attached to her baby boy.”
Margaret nodded. “I’m so wicked I’ve lamented
over why I can't have him when she already has four others.”
“You’ll have one of your own. To attract a
husband you shall have to abandon your shyness when you're in the
presence of men. They'll mistake your reticence for aloofness. You
are, after all, the daughter of a duke, and everyone thinks there’s
nothing loftier than a duke."
"Would that I had schooled myself better when I
was younger. I fear it is now too late to teach an old dog new
tricks. I seem incapable of making sparkling conversation –or any
conversation—when a man is present."
"Is there not some man whom you admire?"
Margaret thought of the unvarying group of
indistinguishable young men who moved in her social circles. Not a
one of them had ever elevated her heartbeat in the least. The fact
was, she had never met a man who affected her in such a way.
For some peculiar reason, her mind flitted to
the old Dowager Finchley's opulent house opposite theirs in Berkeley
Square. Why was it Margaret was so fascinated over the woman's
rakish grandson? She had never exchanged a single word with him. He
eschewed Almack's and other such bastions of respectability. His
name was forever being dragged through the newspapers, linked to the
most disreputable sort of woman. And the company he kept! His
friends were just as profligate as he.
Yet she exercised a fascination over the tall,
lanky young earl. She tended to race to her bedchamber window
whenever she heard a lone horse trot up to the old dowager's, just
in the hopes of feasting her gaze on the man. She had become nearly
obsessed over his dark good looks.
It was the same kind of compulsion which had
her searching through her brother's newspapers each day, searching
for news of the young earl's escapades.
Her gaze met Elizabeth's. "No. I know no man
who's ever appealed to me."
"Oh, dear. No one?"
Margaret sadly shook her head. "It appears I am
not attracted to respectable men."
Elizabeth gave her a quizzing look. "Surely you
cannot mean you are attracted to an ineligible man? I would
find that difficult to credit, given your . . . well, your
"You might as well say it. I'm mousy. Methinks
the dullest stone will always be attracted to that which shines the
"You are not a dull stone." The duchess's gaze
went to the window, and she was lost in contemplation for a moment.
"Is there a . . . a rake who’s captured your attention?"
"There could possibly be, but I've not had the
opportunity to make his acquaintance."
"Dear God, you cannot be referring to the Earl
Margaret's mouth gaped open. "How did you
"I. . . I didn't. But I have observed you
standing before this window for long hours."
"Please, do not spare another thought on this
ridiculous attraction. It will never come to anything. I've never
even spoken to the fellow."
"And I hope you never do! He’s completely
ineligible.” Elizabeth's face softened. "You deserve someone much
finer than he."
* * *
John's solicitor, a grave expression on his
face, looked up. "In my five decades of practicing law, I've never
been asked to draw up such a document." His thick silver brows drew
together. "Does your grandmother know about that advertisement?"
"Not yet, but she's the cause of it. If my
grandmother insists upon my marriage, then marriage she will get.
She never said I had to be in love with the bride. Nor must we live
beneath the same roof."
He smiled to himself as he read over the
newspaper advertisement that had drawn more than three dozen
Gentleman of modest means seeks a
gently-bred woman to enter into matrimony. The prospective wife will
receive the one-time sum of £100 but will hereafter maintain
separate abode from the prospective groom and make no further claims
upon the husband.
"As irregular as it is, I can assure you the
marriage contracts I've drawn up are perfectly legal. I've put in
the bride's name of . . ." Mr. Wiggington consulted a letter. "Miss
Margaret Ponsby of Windsor."
"I selected her because her name sounded like a
name for which my grandmother would approve."
“I’ve been to Windsor and obtained the lady’s
signature on the contracts.”
John was most pleased with himself.
* * *
No matter what straights John steered himself
into, he’d always made it a point to never borrow money from his
friends. He had no greater friend than Christopher Perry, who
happened to be as wealthy as a nabob. As the only son after five
daughters, Christopher Perry’s parents had lavished him with
affection, attentions, and anything that their fortune could
John had always known he could depend upon
Perry to help him in any financial difficulties, but it was a line
he had always preferred not to cross. In his mind, it was as if
crossing that line would part him from Perry as effectively as a saw
parts a limb from a tree.
An efficient, thoroughly English butler
answered the door of the Perry’s fine mansion on Piccadilly and,
immediately recognizing John, showed him into the library. “I will
inform Mr. Perry that your lordship is here.”
A moment later, Perry strolled into the
chamber. He was a fine looking fellow who always dressed with
impeccable taste. If one looked close enough at him one might detect
a few hints of the Perry family’s origins as jewelers of the Jewish
faith—a religion long ago abandoned by the family. There was the
olive complexion associated with those in Mediterranean countries,
and the prominent nose also hooked in the same manner as those whose
ancestors had come from Biblical lands.
The Perrys had adopted thoroughly English ways.
Perry’s late father had even won a seat in the House of Commons.
“I am surprised to find you out and about so
early,” Perry said, by way of a greeting. “It is but two in the
afternoon. Do you not usually sleep until four?”
“I had to see my bloody solicitor today on a
matter of importance.”
Perry quirked a brow.
“I’ve decided to get married.”
Perry’s dark eyes widened. “The hell you say!
Who in the bloody hell do you plan to wed? Mind you, if it’s Mary
Lyle, I’ll tie you to that bloody chair and not allow you to leave
He had been moving toward John but upon hearing
the announcement altered his path and went to snatch a bottle of
port. “This calls for a bloody drink. Join me?”
“Don’t mind if I do.”
After Perry poured two glasses and handed one
to his friend, John said, “It’s not Mary Lyle. Haven’t seen her in
more than a month—not since I had to sell my carriage.”
Perry, nodding knowingly, dropped onto a chair
near John. “A title can only go so far in impressing the ladies.”
Now John raised a brow. “I wouldn’t actually
call her a lady.”
“No, I don’t suppose one would.” Perry took a
long swig of the port. “I know you too bloody well. You can’t be
marrying because I would know it if there was an interest in that
direction.” He gave an exaggerated shudder. “Beastly business.
John downed half his glass. “You’ll get no
argument from me on that.”
“Then what, pray tell, are you referring to
with this talk of marriage?”
John sketched out the details of his plan. “So
you see, old boy, I’m going to ask that you be my best man in this
bogus marriage. And, I shall need you to supply the promised hundred
quid to the obliging bride. I’ll repay you as soon as my grandmother
makes a settlement on the mature man she thinks marriage will
“Of course, dear fellow. Anything for a
John got up and shook his hand.
“What if the lady’s a real dragon?” Perry’s
face screwed up as if he’d just sucked rotten lemons.
“I pray I only have to see her once.”
Perry stood and showed him to the door.
“Will you meet me at St. George’s tomorrow
morning?” John asked.
“St. George’s Hanover Square?”
John nodded. “And bring the hundred quid to pay
“What a wretched word. Bride. Makes me
feel like the morning after imbibing two bottles of brandy.”
“It’s not a real bride.”
"Tell me, Finch, is your grandmother to join us
at St. George's in the morning?"
"I invited her but did not tell her what was
going to occur."
* * *
The following morning, the unfortunate
spinster, Margaret Ponsby, stood in front of St. George's Chapel
within the grounds of Windsor Castle. The wedding day she had
awaited for six and forty years now looked as if it was nothing more
than a cruel hoax. Her bridegroom, Mr. Beauclerc, was to have met
her here more than an hour ago. At first she thought someone had
played a heartless joke upon her, but no one had forced her to
respond to the notice in the Morning Chronicle. There was
also the fact that the solicitor's clerk had gone to considerable
trouble to obtain her signature upon the marriage contract.