With the dowries of all the season’s debutantes exposed in its scandalous pages, The Bachelor’s Bible is a handy tool for an Earl in need of an heiress . . .
Edward Lovell, newly minted earl, bears a weighty responsibility: to restore his family’s estate to its former grandeur. The task requires not simply a wife, but a wealthy one. Thanks to The Bachelor’s Bible, he already has a particular lady in mind. He has only to convince her sponsor that he will make a suitable husband. There’s just one complication: the sponsor is none other than the only woman he’s ever loved—and inexplicably lost. Now a young widow, Lady Anne Howard is more beautiful than ever.
Anne is not about to be taken for a fool a second time. When they last met, Edward was Lord Bredon, the man she adored—the man who destroyed her dreams of a happy future. Now he is pursuing the hand of the young lady Anne must keep safe from unscrupulous suitors. But who will protect Anne from the earl who still possesses her heart?
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A drizzly Tuesday afternoon in London, 1817
Lady Daly studiously avoided looking at the coffin at the far end of the parlor and concentrated instead on the mourners milling about the dead man. She leaned toward the woman next to her and whispered, “What did he die of?”
Her friend did not bother to whisper. “It wasn’t of loneliness, of that you may be certain.”
No one would fail to recognize the snide voice of the second speaker. It belonged to Lady Ackworth, the self-appointed arbitress of good behavior and the general terror of the ton. She kept a running account of all the rakes and roués making the rounds of the great houses and delighted in naming and shaming their hapless conquests. She knew who owed whom exorbitant gambling debts and whose credit was no long welcomed at fashionable establishments. It was generally accepted that if Lady Ackworth didn’t know of something, it couldn’t be of much import, and, in fact, had probably never happened.
“Sir Erasmus Howard rarely suffered from the lack of feminine companionship,” Lady Ackworth went on more softly, “especially when Lady Howard was not in Town.”
It was only a whisper, but the unkind accusation seemed to swirl in the air currents above their heads. However, if the gathered crowd of mourners in Sir Erasmus’s London town house heard the gossip’s unkind patter, they were too well-bred to show it. Shortly, the entire assembly would form a procession from the Howard residence to St. Thomas-By-The-Way, a small church on the next block. St. Paul’s was only a few more streets over, but St. Thomas’s was where a brief service would be held, followed by immediate interment in the churchyard.
It wasn’t usual for ladies of quality to complete the entire ritual, the graveside being considered too stark a reality for their delicate constitutions, but Lady Daly and her friend were not the sort to do anything by halves. They’d see Sir Erasmus firmly in the ground, no matter how soggy the walk to his yawning grave.
How else could they speak with authority on the event in the days to come?
“Sadly, infidelity is not an exceptional failing among gentlemen nowadays.” Lady Daly eyed a few peers she suspected of the fault.
“It has always been thus, and frankly, I can’t imagine what gentlewoman would have it otherwise. Once one has had children, one needn’t be troubled with that marital duty, and good riddance to it, say I.” Lady Ackworth made a small moue of distaste. “However, Sir Erasmus would have done well to be more discreet.”
Other than that all- too-common fault, the gossips agreed that Lady Howard had little room for complaint in her marriage. Sir Erasmus had provided lavishly for her during their short union. His young wife never wanted for jewels or a wardrobe cut in the first stare of fashion. If Lady Howard wished to improve her husband’s home, he apparently trusted her judgment on the matter, for he opened his purse wide to let her spend whatever was necessary.
“In many respects,” Lady Daly said, “Sir Erasmus Howard was a fine husband.”
“Indeed. But was Lady Howard a fine wife?”
“She’s managed his funeral well enough.” Lady Daly fingered the delicate black gloves tied up with a sprig of rosemary and a long length of ebony ribbon. Quite correctly, she’d been given the mourning token when she arrived, as had Lady Ackworth. The gentlemen assembled had all been presented with black hat bands and handkerchiefs. The house was draped with ebony bunting, and the servants presented appropriately somber expressions while they offered refreshments which were routinely ignored. No one could fault Lady Howard for not following the prescribed mourning rituals.
At that moment, the widow appeared at the head of the long staircase and made her way sedately down. She seemed to be floating, for her head of raven hair didn’t bob a bit and there was a becoming sheen to the whites of her dark eyes, evidence, no doubt, of private grief.
Lady Daly nodded in tacit approval. It was beyond distasteful to express strong emotion in public, but a hint of contained sadness was wholly proper.
The widow didn’t smile to acknowledge the presence of the other mourners. At least, not by conscious volition. Everyone who knew the lady was aware that, by a trick of musculature, the corners of her mouth naturally turned up ever so slightly.
The effect was reminiscent of the Mona Lisa, of whose enigmatic smile Lady Daly had only heard rumors. She found it charming. Lady Ackworth, on the other hand, always held that the tiny expression revealed a bit of smugness, as if Lady Howard were keeping a delicious secret and the slight smile betrayed her.
“She looks terribly pale, doesn’t she?” Lady Daly said.
“Black will do that to a body.” Lady Ackworth smoothed the skirt of the bombazine gown she kept at the ready for just such occasions. “It makes everyone appear wan, which equals boring. Look at me. I’m positively peaked.”
However, Lady Daly didn’t think Lady Howard appeared wan or boring. She looked far lovelier than a widow ought. There was a huge difference between pale and listless, and pale and . . . mysterious.
“I’ve heard her new situation means she’ll have to come down in the world quite a bit,” Lady Daly leaned in to whisper.
“I should say so. Not only is Sir Erasmus’s mother still living, which means there will be two dowagers splitting that portion, but her step-son, Sir Percival, has considerable debts. Now that he’s inherited the baronetcy, his creditors will make short work of the estate’s assets, so the dowagers’ due will be smaller yet.” Lady Ackworth made a tsking sound. “This may very well be the last time London Society sees Lady Howard.”
Threadbare gentility loomed in the widow’s future. For the first time since Lady Daly arrived to join the mourners, real tears of sympathy pressed against the backs of her eyes. Too many gentlewomen were reduced to penury by the untimely demise of their men. Fortunately, her own husband—such a clever man—had arranged to die before he could accumulate too much debt. Lord Daly had left their son with a solid estate in Surrey and her with a lavish annuity that was the envy of the ton.
“It’s a pity all around. Sir Erasmus was quite a bit older than Lady Howard, but he was certainly no dotard,” she said. “Had he been ill long?”
“No. Death came to him suddenly.” Lady Ackworth narrowed her eyes at Lady Howard, who was accepting condolences with an air of gracious resignation. “It does seem odd, doesn’t it?”
“Was it apoplexy that carried him off?”
“Not that I’ve heard.”
“A weakness of the chest perhaps?” Lady Daly wondered aloud.
“The Howards have always had the constitution of a horse.”
A ghastly thought crossed Lady Daly’s mind. “You don’t suspect . . . foul play, do you?”
“Did I say so? What a distasteful idea!” Lady Ackworth whipped out the ornate black fan she kept specifically for funerals and beat the air with it. “I’m surprised at you for broaching such a disturbing topic when we are practically at the gentleman’s graveside.”
Severely chastened, Lady Daly bit her lower lip.
“Still . . .” Lady Ackworth cocked her head to one side, as she always did when deciding to appropriate someone else’s idea and make it her own. “For a gentleman as hale and hearty as Sir Erasmus to be stricken so unexpectedly . . . it does make one wonder if he was hastened to his death somehow.”
Lady Daly glanced across the room at the widow, who was seated near the wide front window, looking out into the deepening twilight. A small frown drew Lady Howard’s delicate brows together, and combined with that mysterious smile, hers was a face at war with itself. Less charitable souls might misconstrue the expression entirely.
“I wonder what Lady Howard is thinking.”
If she could have peeked into the lady’s mind at that moment, she’d have been more than disturbed. Only one thought was singing through Lady Howard’s whole being.
I’m finally free.