A Countess of Convenience
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by Sarah Winn
Category: Romance/Historical Fiction
Description: In Victorian England, Anthony Fairchilde, the earl of Malvern, is tricked into a compromising position with a tradesman's daughter and must marry her to prevent a scandal. He's determined it will be a true marriage of convenience, but she's so unimpressed by his rank and yet so responsive in his bed, that she's soon the only woman he desires. Prudence Crump has dreamed of finding love, but faced with the threat of a scandal that will make her unfit for respectable employment, she's forced to agree to the earl's arrogant proposal. She's determined to keep her side of the bargain and not develop feelings for him, but he stirs surprising emotions within her. Prudence begins to hope for something more than a marriage of convenience, but first she must teach him that rank has responsibilities as well as privileges, and he must convince her that his love is real.
eBook Publisher: Whiskey Creek Press, 2012
eBookwise Release Date: May 2012
12 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [383 KB]
Reading time: 240-336 min.
Hyde Park, 1845
"Are you still miffed over Monique's defection?" Foster asked with an air of disbelief.
The Earl of Malvern glanced at his riding companion with annoyance. Surely Foster understood no man enjoyed being made a fool of. "She wheedled diamond earbobs out of me three days before she left."
Foster poorly concealed a grin. "Ah, well, consider those a wedding gift."
Malvern huffed indignantly. "Obviously, she was seeing that penniless Frenchman while accepting my largess. Women have no honor."
Foster threw his head back and guffawed. "Not women who become mistresses," he finally choked out. "Why don't you keep your dalliances down to brief encounters, as I do? The hunt for new quarry is the real sport."
Malvern told himself to drop the subject. This was the first warm day of summer. He should concentrate on the lush greenery the wet spring had left, but he couldn't stop himself from asking, "Don't you find hopping from bed to bed rather tedious?"
The bridle path opened onto Serpentine Road, and they had to stop and wait for an opening in the stream of carriages and single riders who had crowded into the park to enjoy the weather.
Foster arched one eyebrow. "Don't you find the same woman night after night tedious?"
Malvern started to tell him that a peer of the realm couldn't risk the scandals unwise dalliances might cause, but he didn't want to emphasize the differences between his friend and himself. After all, Foster had been elected to Parliament, even though his father was nothing more than a common tradesman.
There was a break in the traffic and Malvern led the way onto the road. When the two horses were again side-by-side, he said, "Until you get to know a woman, she's pretty much like all the others."
Foster looked at him with a frown. "The only woman I need to know is the one I marry. Are you thinking of settling down?"
Malvern stiffened. "Certainly not. A man who marries before he's sown his wild oats will never be a faithful husband."
"What about your title? You need an heir."
"There's no hurry on that score. Lord Halsey is nearly sixty and his young wife just had a baby."
Foster smirked. "I hope you haven't told your mother you intend to imitate Halsey."
"I'm not foolhardy." Malvern chuckled at the thought of his mother's reaction to such an announcement.
Something in the road ahead caught Foster's attention. "Is Weathersby driving that cabriolet?"
"Weathersby doesn't own a carriage."
"Well, he must have rented one. Who's the beauty with him?"
Malvern scanned through the traffic until he spotted the drab, single-seated vehicle pulled by a sway-backed horse.
After satisfying himself that his friend, Neil Weathersby, was indeed driving, he swung his attention to the passenger. Her black clothing suggested she was in mourning, but the white of her collar and of the rucking that lined the brim of her bonnet showed it was not the deep mourning of a widow.
The white material surrounding her face gleamed in the bright light, forming a halo around her delicate features. Her lips moved as she spoke to Weathersby and her smile broadened at his reply.
Malvern knew she must be laughing and wished he could hear her. Who was this lovely young woman and where had Weathersby found her? Anxious for an introduction, he tightened his knees against his horse, urging it into a canter.
The carriage jerked to a stop, and Malvern shifted his attention back to the driver. Through the traffic separating them, Weathersby met his gaze but instantly looked away, yanked on his reins, and turned the cabriolet hurriedly, causing several riders to scramble out of its way.
Malvern stopped his horse and stared after the disappearing carriage in amazement. He looked over and saw a stunned expression on Foster's face too. "By God, the man cut us!" Malvern said.
Foster shrugged. "Evidently, Weathersby didn't want to introduce the lady. Perhaps he feared a rich earl would outshine a duke's poor relation."
Feeling a twinge of regret, Malvern asked, "Do you think she's the heiress he's been looking for? I didn't recognize her."
"That doesn't mean much. You tend to avoid entertainments that include marriageable women. Besides, hasn't Weathersby been out of town lately? Maybe he found a rich, country squire's daughter."
Foster twitched his reins and started his horse forward.
Malvern followed his lead. He hoped Weathersby had found an heiress. The man was a good companion when men were out and about, but his lack of blunt could be awkward at times. He needed a rich wife, while Malvern didn't want a wife of any kind in the near future. Still, the sunshine didn't seem quite as bright as it had while shining on the unknown woman's angelic face.
That night, Malvern went to the Carlton Club. He preferred to keep up with the doings of the Conservative Party through the club founded for its members rather than spending long hours listening to boring speeches in the House of Lords.
He moved about the hazy smoking room, joining one group after another, seeking an interesting conversation, but tonight everyone seemed to be talking about some new blight attacking the potato crop. Malvern tried to pay attention. Some of his fellow Members of Parliament said the blight presaged a famine, especially if it reached Ireland. The opinion seemed extreme to him.
Actually, he couldn't get involved in the conversations swirling around him because he kept glancing at the doorway, looking for Weathersby. Why had his friend avoided him this afternoon, and who was the mysterious lady?
At last Weathersby stood in the doorway, glancing about the room as if searching for familiar faces. Malvern stepped into his line of vision, determined to see if Weathersby would snub him again.
With a small nod, Weathersby acknowledged Malvern and started toward him.
Foster materialized at Malvern's elbow. "Now we'll find out who the beauty in the park is."
Weathersby's steps slowed as though he knew an inquisition awaited him. He'd barely reached them when Foster blurted out, "So, where have you been, and who is your new ladylove?"
Weathersby's face reddened. "I--I don't know what you're talking about."
"Come now, old sport," Foster said in a teasing voice. "We saw you in the park this afternoon and from the way you avoided us, it's clear you want that little plum all for yourself."
Weathersby's neck stiffened. "The lady is my sister. I brought her up from the country to see the city. That's why I've been away."
Foster raised his eyebrows. "What's this? Aren't we good enough to be introduced to your sister?"
"Of course, you are. I truly didn't see you," Weathersby replied too earnestly.
Malvern chuckled in disbelief. "Didn't see us? You almost turned your rented rig over avoiding us. If you had told us she was your sister, we would have behaved ourselves."
Weathersby didn't quite look him in the eye as he said, "Prudence suddenly decided she wasn't feeling well, and the carriage was unfamiliar. That's why I botched the turn."
Malvern knew that was a lie.
Foster assumed a thoughtful expression. "Prudence--fresh from the country. Sounds sweet. But I didn't know you had a sister."
"She's his half-sister," Malvern supplied, to let Weathersby know he hadn't forgotten any of the confidences they'd shared while deep in their cups.
Weathersby nodded. "Yes. She's a Crump, by my mother's second husband."
"So how do you intend to entertain her while she's here?" Foster asked. "It's rather late for a season."
"Oh, she's not here for a season. Our mother passed away only six months ago. So we're still officially in mourning. I'll take her to museums and art galleries, perhaps the theater. Pruddy's been staying with our aunt, Lady Agatha Weston, so I decided to rescue her from the old dragon."
Foster sighed as though already bored with the conversation. "It's still fairly early. Shall we play a few hands of whist?"
Malvern shook his head.
"I'm really not in the mood for cards, tonight," Weathersby muttered.
"I'll go to the card room then. See if anyone's looking for a fourth." Foster left them.
Malvern gestured toward a couple of empty chairs. "Why don't we sit and get the steward to bring us brandies. I had a dull dinner this evening at my mother's."
As they moved to the chairs, Weathersby asked, "How is Lady Caroline?"
Malvern signaled the steward. "Her usual indomitable self."
"Still pushing you to marry?" Weathersby asked, after they were seated.
Malvern ordered two brandies and then looked at his companion levelly, intent on keeping him from changing the subject. While Malvern preferred to spend most of his time with actresses and opera dancers, he knew how to treat ladies. So he meant to find out why Weathersby thought his half-sister, whose father had been a tradesman, was too good to meet him.
As if he had read his mind, Neil smiled weakly. "Sorry about the park. I handled it badly."
"I presume you're talking about something other than the cabriolet."
Weathersby tugged at his collar as though it were too tight. "The truth is I didn't want to introduce Pruddy. I should have known you fellows would be out on such a splendid day. I just didn't think."
Malvern was truly offended. "What kind of atrocious behavior did you fear we'd commit in front of your precious sister?"
Weathersby's eyes opened widely. "Oh, no, that wasn't it."
The steward returned with their drinks and Weathersby sat quietly until the man left.
After taking a hurried sip from his glass, he said, "I'm just--just embarrassed about her." He glanced around, making sure no one was near enough to overhear. "You won't say anything about this, will you?"
His interest piqued, Malvern leaned forward. "Of course not."
"Well, you see, Pruddy sent for me. Lady Agatha threatened to throw Prudence out after hearing gossip about her. During Mother's long illness, Pruddy had a bit too much freedom, if you take my meaning?"
"She didn't get herself in a family way, did she?"
"No, thank God. But her behavior was noticed and gossip flies through those country villages. Now it's reached her aunt, and well, I'm afraid the girl's ruined."
"Can't the man be persuaded to do the right thing?"
"Hardly. He's already married."
Malvern gasped. That fresh-faced little innocent involved with a married man--he never would have guessed. "Too bad, but what does she expect from you?"
Weathersby hung his head. "She wants me to help her find a protector," he muttered.
"My God!" The nerve of the chit to ask her brother, well, half-brother, to do something like that. "What are you going to do?"
"I don't know," Weathersby replied in an anguished voice. "I brought her to London thinking I could talk her out of it. In the park, when I saw how eager she was to meet my friends, I panicked. I mean, what if she'd tried to lure one of you into a liaison? I'd have been mortified."
Malvern formed a steeple with his fingers and stared into the distance as he recalled his brief glimpse of Prudence Crump. He hadn't seen much, golden curls peeking from under her bonnet, a straight back, a long, slender neck. Her smile had impressed him the most. It had seemed genuine, as though she thoroughly enjoyed the simple pleasure of riding in the park on a sunny day. No artifice, no pretension. She had looked like an honest, English country lass. So different from the women he was accustomed to.
He cleared his throat and brought his gaze back to Weathersby's face. "Perhaps you should turn to your friends with this problem."
Weathersby's head jerked back in surprise. "You can't be serious. Unlike you, I'm eager to marry. If it's even rumored I'm arranging an illicit alliance for my own sister, I'll be as ruined as poor Prudence."
"But if you don't help her, and she sets out on her own, there's no telling what mischief she might get into in a city like London."
Weathersby's brow twisted with concern. "You're right. She might end up in..." He chewed his lower lip. "What should I do?"
Malvern paused, asking himself if he were about to make a foolish misstep. What could go wrong? He needed a new mistress and was fed up with greedy sophisticates. Even if she had strayed from the straight and narrow, Prudence Crump was obviously a long way from being world-weary. She'd be thrilled a man like himself even noticed her. And it would be nice to have a woman show him a little gratitude for a change.
"A friend, who found your sister to his liking, would take proper care of her," Malvern said.
Now Weathersby looked shocked. "I can't allow her to become the mistress of one of my friends. Wouldn't a gossip like Harry Cartland delight in telling that story in every parlor in Mayfair?"
"I mean a friend who would handle the situation discretely, perhaps buy your sister a little place of her own where she could build up a nest egg and secure her future."
Weathersby studied him for a long moment. "Who do you have in mind, Malvern?"
"Well, I'm in the market since Monique left me."
"You? Why, Pruddy's spent most of her life in a country cottage in Lancashire. This is her first visit to London. She wouldn't hold your interest for an hour."
Malvern smiled wearily. "After the way that French bitch lied and stole from me, I'm re-thinking my taste in women. I'd find one who still has a few things to learn about life quite refreshing."
Weathersby stared at him for a moment and then shook his head. "I don't know. I still feel it would be wrong to arrange such a thing for a sister--even a half-sister."
"She seems to have taken a very sensible approach to her situation. Why don't you?"
"Well," Weathersby paused and took a deep breath, "I could introduce you. Most likely you two will not suit."
"Absolutely," Malvern replied. "How about the theater tomorrow night? I'll get a box and reserve a private dining room for a late supper."
Weathersby looked at Malvern as though truly shocked. "I can't just hand her over to you."
"Of course not; you'll have to come along in case we do not suit. If I like her, and she likes me, you can excuse yourself during dinner. I assure you, I'll do nothing without her full consent."
Weathersby drained his glass. "How will I know if you like her?"
"Why, I'll give you a signal. Say something about hunting in Hamptonshire."
"Hunting in Hamptonshire?"
"You don't like that?"
Weathersby sighed in resignation. "It will do."
Prudence finished brushing Neil's coat and hung it back in the armoire. She picked up the items that needed mending and went to her room. Good thing she'd brought her sewing basket. Although Neil's clothes were, as always, fashionable, she had found loose buttons and frayed seams. Perhaps he had let his valet go because of the man's slovenly service.
Still, there could be no doubt Neil was short of funds. The neighborhood he lived in and the sparse furnishings of his rooms clearly pointed to it. So why had he insisted she visit him at this time? She could keep his rooms in order, even cook for him, but her presence surely added to his expenses. He'd even rented a carriage to take her for a ride in the park. What a silly extravagance.
But that was Neil--determined to keep up the appearances of his rank. Sometimes she considered herself lucky to be a tradesman's daughter. Of course, if her father had been a nobleman, he might have taken better care of his daughter's welfare. But she wouldn't fret about that.
She heard a key in the lock, and then Neil called, "Pruddy? Where are you?"
"In my room."
He stopped at her open doorway.
She looked up. "Good heavens? What do you have there?"
He dropped a large, paper-covered bundle on her bed. "I had a stroke of luck today. Passed a little shop that sells slightly used clothing. Saw a perfect dress for you in the window."
"Oh, Neil! You know I'm in mourning. I must wear black."
"This dress is black. But it's much nicer than those drab things you wear."
"Aunt Agatha had these dresses made for me. Black bombazine is what everyone wears." Prudence snipped the string around the package with her scissors. Yards of lustrous black silk erupted as she pulled the paper back.
She found the bodice beneath the skirt and held it up. "Goodness!" Her eyes widened as she saw the revealing neckline trimmed with jet beads. "But this gown is much too fancy for mourning. Where would I ever wear it?"
Neil extended his arms as though about to make a grand announcement. "Tonight. When we attend the theater as the guests of my friend, the Earl of Malvern!"
"Are you jesting? The theater? I can't go. Mother's only been dead for--"
"Don't start on that. I didn't rescue you from the mausoleum our aunt calls a home to imprison you in my cramped rooms. This is London. Things are different here. You'll still wear black, just as I'll continue to wear my armband, but no one expects us to make ourselves miserable for a whole year."
Prudence shook her head. "We must honor our mother's passing."
He plucked the bodice from her, threw it on the bed, and caught her hands in his. "You faithfully took care of Mother throughout her illness. You deserve a little gaiety in your life. Let me give it to you, Pruddy." He tipped his head to one side and assumed a pleading expression. "Please."
She felt a smile pulling at her lips. She'd never been able to say "no" to her big brother, a fact that had gotten her into trouble when she'd served as his accomplice in childhood pranks.
This visit to London would probably be her only chance to have any adventure in her life. After seeing the state of Neil's affairs, she knew she must either return to Aunt Agatha or accept Uncle Oscar's offer to live with his family in Manchester. She had no idea what life there would be like, so she'd better enjoy herself while she could.
"I'll go," she said, "on one condition. You mustn't use that horrid nickname while we are with your important friends."
He chuckled. "But Prudence is such a stern name. Not at all like my sweet little sister."
"Well, I'd rather sound stern than like a fat puppy. Now let me try on this dress. It will undoubtedly need alterations, and you'll have to pin it for me."
He drew back in mock horror. "I'm a gentleman of rank. I can't serve as a lady's maid."
She placed her hands on her hips. "Well, someone must do it."
"All right," he said with reluctance, "but you must promise never to mention this to any of my friends."
"I won't, as long as you don't call me Pruddy."
He struck the bargain by ceremoniously shaking her hand.
Prudence stared into the oval looking glass at a woman she did not know. After her hurried alterations, the bodice of the black dress minimized her waist and maximized her bosom, while the silk ruffles of her skirt billowed around her like dark smoke. Seeing Neil's smiling face over her shoulder, she asked, "Are you sure this dress is proper?"
He gave an exaggerated sigh. "Would I let you wear it if it weren't?"
"If I could just add the fichu--"
"Absolutely not!" He pulled the lace trimmed neck scarf from her fingers and dropped it on his bed with a grimace. "It spoils the style of the dress. And stop pulling at the neckline. You're in London and the ladies of society all show decolletage in the evening."
"I can't help being nervous. I'm going to the theater for the first time and meeting an earl. How do I address him?"
"Say 'Lord Malvern' or 'my lord' unless he suggests you call him something less formal. He's had his title for so long all of his friends call him Malvern."
"Is he elderly then?"
"Of course, not. I don't think he's thirty yet."
"So he came into his title as a child?"
"And what do I call his wife?"
He shook his head. "He doesn't have a wife."
She gasped in alarm. "Do you mean I'll be the only woman in the party?"
"I'll be there. A brother can serve as a chaperone."
"But if I'm the only woman present, I'll have to converse with the earl. What on earth will I say to him?"
Neil grimaced with impatience. "Stop being a silly goose, Pru. Remember your mother was a duke's niece. At least half of your blood is as blue as Malvern's. Hold your head up, look him in the eye and don't be afraid to speak your mind."
She sighed. No matter the color of her blood, having lived quietly in the country since she was twelve years old had not prepared her to hobnob with nobility.
The bell on Neil's front door trilled. "There he is. I'll get the door. You stay in here for a few minutes. Then join us in the parlor." He hurried from the room.
Obviously, Neil was embarrassed by her lack of polish. Then why had he agreed to this evening? Perhaps he had to accept the invitation or risk offending his friend.
She looked into the mirror and pinched her cheeks to redden them. No need to be nervous. In all probability, the earl would pay scant notice to a woman so far beneath his rank. But noting her image in the new black dress, she couldn't help but hope someone would notice her. Surely in a city the size of London, there was a man who could overlook the fact she was a tradesman's daughter without a dowry and make her one dream, a home of her own, come true.
Remembering she had to greet her host for the evening, Prudence squared her shoulders, lifted her chin, and called on her mother's blood to get her through the ordeal.
As she entered the parlor, the two men standing in the middle of the room turned toward her. Prudence stared agape at the tall, handsome, perfectly dressed man who smiled at her with brilliantly white teeth. He might be an earl, but to her he looked like a prince straight out of a fairy tale.
Neil said something. She had no idea what.
The earl's lips moved. "...Miss Crump."
Speak. Say something. "Ah--pleased to meet you, Mis--ah--Lord Malvern."
Neil frowned at her, but the glorious Earl of Malvern continued to smile as if stuttering were perfectly normal. Neil dropped her shawl around her shoulders, and she gratefully lapped it over her partially exposed bosom, wishing she could pull it over her head as well.
"Shall we go?" The earl extended his elbow. Prudence felt a bit faint, but managed to lay her hand on his forearm with barely a tremble.
The coach that awaited them had a crest on the door and a footman to carefully hand her inside. She sat on the forward moving seat and the two men faced her. Rather than converse with Neil as she wished he would, the earl looked at her and said, "And how do you like London, Miss Crump?"
"I've only been here a few days, but it seems quite...large."
He nodded and continued smiling warmly. "I believe your brother said you are from Lancashire?"
"Yes, in the countryside near Huffington. But I no longer live there."
"Yes, may I extend my sincerest condolences on your mother's passing?"
"Are you planning to live in London now?"
Prudence fingered her shawl's fringe. "I'm not sure. I have an aunt in Northamptonshire and an uncle in Manchester. I'll live with one of them."
Undeterred by her halting replies, the earl pressed on. "Did you like living in Lancashire?"
She looked up from the fringe. "Oh, yes. We had a lovely cottage and a large garden, and there were woods nearby."
Neil sighed and she smiled at him. "Of course, Neil hated it. But he was away at school much of the time. Then he took up residence in London."
"I can see why Weathersby wouldn't have liked it. He craves the city's excitement. Didn't you find the bucolic life dull?"
"There were always things to do and neighbors to visit. And I could go about with far more freedom than I can in a city."
The earl's eyes narrowed and the hazel color seemed to deepen. "How did living in the country give you more freedom?"
"I had my own pony cart and could drive myself to the village or to neighbors' houses. A woman wouldn't dare do that in a city like London."
"Certainly not a lady," the earl agreed with a half smile.
Was he implying something with his smile? She stared at him in perplexity, but he resumed asking questions about her life in the country until she forgot her shyness. When she mentioned raising partridges, he seemed genuinely interested. He even chuckled when she told about the brick-like scones she had baked when she had used the tiny partridge eggs.
As their carriage moved into the queue in front of the theater, Prudence marveled over being able to converse so easily with a handsome, titled man like the Earl of Malvern.