Admiral Lord Nelson’s tomb. She held her breath in ynette ran her fingers along the dark, black lines of awe as she imagined the hero, his voice echoing through the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral as he said his most famous words: “England expects that every man will do his duty.”
Every man, of course, included the women. And so she was doing her duty—to her father, who was now dead; to her family, which could no longer feed itself; and to her uncle, who did not want one more dependent relative than he absolutely had to have.
She clutched her bag tightly, feeling the tiny lumps that contained all her worldly possessions: two dresses and underclothes, two shillings, thruppence, and her Bible. If only the Baroness Huntley would appear, then Lynette could go on about the business of getting a wealthy husband.
Abandoning the spacious crypt floor, Lynette climbed the stairs to the main cathedral. She had thought to be inspired here and so had arranged with the Baroness Huntley to meet at St. James’s. In truth, beyond Nelson’s tomb, the great building intimidated her. The soaring lines of massive stone weighed down, making her feel dwarfed and small.
It did not bother her overmuch, or so she told herself. Her father had been a tall and massive man, well used to booming his sermons from the small parish altar. She was accustomed to feeling tiny beside him. She just had not expected the feeling to follow her here, to London, as she at last took matters into her own hands.
The baroness had promised her a Season in London, and a rich husband to boot. And so Lynette had stolen away from her family on the very day they were to pack up and leave for her uncle’s tiny estate. She had written a note to her mother, claiming to enter a nunnery so as not to overburden her uncle. And then she had come here, to begin this quest despite the misgivings in her heart, despite the nervousness that even now made her limbs shake.
Lynette climbed the last steps to the main floor, skirting the edge of the pews, trying to stop herself from hiding in the shadows. She apparently succeeded, for a broad, imposing woman stood in the aisle between the last pews and cleared her throat imperiously.
Lynette hurried forward.
“You are late.”
“My apologies.” Lynette stammered, doing her best to quiet the rapid beat of her heart. “I was viewing Lord Ne—”
“Come along, then.” The baroness—for surely that was who this woman was—didn’t look at Lynette, but let her gaze skim along the pews, nervously skipping past the altar.
“Where are we going?”
“Out of here,” the baroness snapped. Lynette recognized the symptoms: Obviously, the woman was uncomfortable inside a church, or at least one as large and awe-inspiring as this one. But the baroness’s discomfort was Lynette’s gain. Lynette had taken an enormous risk coming to London in this manner. She would not go further until she had a few of her questions answered.
“Before we leave,” she began, pretending to a confidence she did not possess, “I wish to know the details of our bargain. I was told you could find me a rich husband.”
The baroness’s eyes pinched down over her nose. “Nothing is for free, girl. I get a quarter of your marriage portion.”
Now it was Lynette’s turn to frown. “But I have no dowry.”
“Don’t be stupid.” The baroness practically growled as she turned toward the door. “Your husband will pay for you.” She stopped to glare at Lynette. “And it shall be a tidy sum if you do as you’re told.”
Lynette wanted to hear more, but the baroness had clearly reached her limit. The woman was leaving, her tall form covering distance fast. And yet Lynette hesitated. She had left her home in Kent full of confidence. She was going to London on a grand adventure, with no one to naysay her and everything to gain. But now that she was at last faced with her future—in the guise of a statuesque woman with beautiful skin but a sour expression—she felt all her fears rush to the fore. Her hands actually trembled, and she could not make her feet move.
Then she saw him: a man leaning with negligent grace against a column. He had dark hair and a brooding air, and when he noticed she was looking at him, he pushed away from the column, walking with a stride that seemed sinful, though Lynette could not say why. Perhaps it was the way his lips curved with feline cunning. Or perhaps because his steps seemed to stalk more than walk, prowl more than approach. And when he came near enough, she looked into his eyes and saw a blue so piercing she thought of morning sunlight through stained glass.
Her throat went dry, and instinctively her gaze skittered about her, looking for a minister or altar boy—anyone who might protect her, for the baroness had already pushed through the front door.
“You had best hurry,” the man said, his voice deep and low. It was musical, but in the way of a distant chime that one had to strain to hear. “She hates the church and will not wait long.”
“The baroness, you mean?” Lynette’s voice came out weak and high, and she swallowed, trying to calm her fears. This was just a man, she told herself sternly. And they were in a public place. A church, no less. And yet, for all her admonishments, her nerves still skittered and made her skin feel prickly.
“The baroness,” he acknowledged. “My aunt.”
She jumped as if pinched. “Your aunt?” She bit her lip, not knowing what to say but finding words nevertheless. “She is to find me a husband.” Then, for the oddest moment, she wondered if this man was her future bridegroom.
He smirked, as if reading her thoughts. “No, I am not the one for you. Your husband will be old and wrinkled with bad teeth and even worse breath. He will remind you of a shriveled prune, but he will be rich. And he will die while you are yet young.”
She stared at him in silence. Then she made her voice cutting. “I do not know you, sir, nor do I wish to.” And with that she meant to walk away, but his chuckle stopped her. It was low and warm, despite her coldness to him.
“You have spirit. Good. You will need it in the years to come.”
She wanted to leave, but her desperation to know her future overcame her anger. She could not stop her question.
“Years?” she echoed, hating the quiver in her voice.
“Six months to marry. Another ten years for him to die.” “Ten years,” she whispered softly. “I will be thirty-one.”
“An excellent age to be a rich widow.”
Suddenly, it was all too much. Grief welled up inside her. Unbidden, the tears came, spilling over her cheeks to drip silently onto her gloved, clenched hands. She tried to stop them, but the grief was too raw, the change in circumstance too new.
How could her father do this? She knew he had not intended to die. The sickness came upon him quickly, tearing through him in barely more than a week. But how had he not made provisions for them: his wife and three children? Why had he left them destitute and dependent upon a pinch-penny uncle?
It wasn’t right. It couldn’t be what God intended. And yet it had happened, and Lynette was here now, doing the only thing she could to restore the situation.
Then she felt the stranger, his touch warm and reassuring as he gently led her out of the church. “Come,” he said softly. “The baroness is waiting.”
He guided her until they stepped out into a gloomy London afternoon. The baroness had already hailed a hackney, and all three of them climbed in. The baroness’s nephew sat beside Lynette, his arm a firm, hot presence against her side. Rather than look at him, she turned to the window, watching the streets of London to block the flow of questions in her mind.
In the end, they came to a respectable neighborhood with modest homes that seemed dull in the gray light. They stopped in front of one, striking only in its absolute sameness to every other house on the street. As Lynette stepped out of the hackney, she couldn’t help but think of what all that sedate sameness was meant to convey: moral correctness, wedded bliss, glowing children, and the contented veneer of a happy, wealthy family.
Was all of it a lie?
Of course it was, she answered herself. The house, the neighborhood, even the stiff-necked baroness herself could not hide the truth from Lynette. What they were doing— this buying of a husband—was immoral. Marriage was for love, not commerce. Lynette had assisted her father in dozens of marriage ceremonies. She knew the liturgy by heart. And a common business arrangement was not what God intended.
And yet it was so common as to be expected. So typical, in fact, that she—a parson’s daughter who knew better— was already enmeshed in a devil’s bargain to buy herself a rich, old man. She would not have joy in her marriage. She would have to be content with wealth.
Her hands shook at the thought, but her back was straight and her shoulders square as she entered the baroness’s home. The interior looked much like the exterior—sedate and gloomy. The baroness did not stop, but went directly down a hallway to the back of the house. To her right, Lynette caught sight of a large, ugly butler, quickly introduced and just as quickly disappearing into a side parlor.
Unsure what to do, Lynette moved to follow the baroness. She was stopped by the nephew—she had no other name for him—who touched her arm and gestured upstairs.
“Let me show you to your room,” he offered.
She nodded, agreeing only because it would be rude not to. She followed him to a bedroom that had once been light, airy, even beautiful. The colors were a soft yellow, touched with splashes of green; but time had dulled the tones and fabrics to an insignificant whimper of color. The gray daylight merely highlighted the nicks in the simple furniture and the stains on the coverlet. Though she detected no dust, the simple ravages of time made the room seem forlorn.
Still, it was much better and larger than any room she had yet occupied in her life. She turned to her guide. “Is this my room alone? Or do I share it?”
She detected a slight lift to his lips, but his eyes remained remote, his tone distant. “It is yours alone.” Then he gestured to a doorway half hidden in shadow beside the bedpost. “That leads to my bedchamber. I will thank you to knock before entering.”
She stiffened, turning to him in shock. “I shall not enter at all, sir! I am to be married, and I shall enter that state with my purity and my honor intact.”
This time he did smile, though the expression seemed cold. He stepped into the room, folding his arms across his chest as he leaned negligently against the bedpost. “Your honor is not my concern. Your purity, however, shall be grossly torn by even the most lax standards.”
His words shook her. He spoke as if it were a foregone conclusion that she would be dishonored. But what were her alternatives? She could not run. She had no money to return to Kent, and even if she did, her family had already left for her uncle’s. They thought her safely ensconced in a nunnery. What would she say to them? That she had decided to take a jaunt to London? Alone?
Her reputation would be in tatters. She had to make the best of her situation here. So she lifted her chin, deciding to salvage her pride if nothing else.
“Sir, you are offensive,” she said stiffly.
He nodded, as if that, too, was a foregone conclusion. Then he abruptly sketched a mocking bow. “Please, allow me to introduce myself. I am Adrian Grant, Viscount Marlock, and this is my home.”
“Your home,” she echoed weakly. Her mind whirled. Had she heard tales of the Viscount Marlock? Even in Kent? Was he the one with a reputation for debauching young girls? She could not remember. So she took refuge in good manners, dropping into a demure curtsy.
“Perhaps you were told that I shall be assisting in your education,” he drawled.
Her gaze hopped to his face, seeing his lips curve into a sensuous smile. There was no doubt what he was suggesting, and yet it could not possibly be true. “I have been told nothing,” she said slowly. “Perhaps you could explain exactly what your duties will entail.”
He was silent as he stepped closer. She wanted to shy backward, but there was no room. She was already backed against the door. So she stood firm, holding her breath as he extended his hand and touched her cheek in a slow caress. “You were told nothing? But I understood that you arranged for this meeting.”
“Yes, my lord. A family friend recommended the baroness, and so I wrote to her.” In truth, he had been a friend of a member of her father’s congregation, visiting from London. The elderly man, the Earl of Songshire, had approached her quietly one evening as she performed her cleaning duties in the church. They had spoken at length, mostly about herself, her father’s death, and her family’s destitution. Then he had pressed the baroness’s address into her hand, urging her to inquire—secretly—into the woman’s services.
“What you do not know,” said the viscount, his smile growing, “is that all that the baroness does, she does at my bidding.”
Lynette was trembling. She did not know why, but she felt weakness in her limbs and was powerless to stop it. If only she understood what he intended. “You will not find me a husband?” she asked.
“Oh, yes. You will have a bridegroom, and a rich one at that. But it is I who shall be in charge of your education.
Not the baroness.”
“But why?” she cried out. Then she hastily moderated her tone, dropping her gaze until she appeared appropriately modest. “I mean, why should a gentleman of your obvious breeding concern yourself with my education?”
His sharp bark of laughter startled her, but when she lifted her gaze, the traces of humor were already fading. “You will find, little Lynette, that breeding, as you put it, does not fill one’s belly.” He made an expansive gesture indicating the house. “This and a moldering pile of rocks are all that are left of the family fortune. I cannot wed an heiress; my reputation is too unsavory. And so I market young brides instead.”
Lynette gasped in shock. He was the evil viscount. And she was here. With him. And if that was true…Her thoughts spun away. Good Lord, this whole scheme was impossible!
“You have a question?”
Her gaze lifted only to find that he was watching with the intensity of a cat staring at a mouse hole. “I…I have many questions,” she stammered.
He raised an eyebrow, neither encouraging nor discouraging her to continue. In the end, she felt compelled to speak. “If your reputation is unsavory, my lord, then I, too, have fallen by association.” She gasped, her gaze once more flying to the door that adjoined their two bedrooms. “My presence in this house has already ruined me!”
She had not meant to sound so dramatic, but if this scheme was doomed from the start, she had best do what was required to rectify the situation. She turned as if to leave, but he blocked her path.
“You are correct,” he said, his tone conversational. “Your reputation suffered the moment you entered this house. However, I will still find you a husband. Indeed, my fortune and yours depend upon it.”
She shook her head, denying everything he said. “But—”
He cut her off with a single raised finger. “Do you know what a courtesan is?”
She bit her lip, trying to decide how to answer. Her father would have flown into a rage if she confessed the full truth: that she had eagerly listened for any drop of gossip about such creatures. So, instead of a full confession she chose a partial truth. “I only know what little I have heard. I am sure none of it could be true.”
“Of course it could be true. That, and a great deal more,” he drawled, his amusement obvious. “No matter. You, my dear, will be educated very much like those wonderful creatures.”
She gaped at him in horror. Her, a courtesan? “But I was told—”
“Listen to the rest, Lynette. You will become a Marlock bride. Like a courtesan, you will be beautiful, accomplished, and knowledgeable in a variety of pleasures. But you will also be loyal, gentle, and, of course, presentable. And for this, some man—likely an older, experienced man—will pay a great deal to wed you. So that you may grace his table by day and his bed at night.”
“But, I don’t understand. Why would he marry me? When a…a courtesan’s pleasures can be had—”
“For a few gems? Until the man becomes bored? Or the woman unpresentable?”
She nodded. That was exactly what she meant. Why would a man wed what could be had for a few pennies?
“Because a smart man knows the value of paying once instead of monthly or at a lady’s whim. Of tying a woman to him for the rest of his life—assuming she is the right woman—rather than for a few months. Of finding a bride who will nurse him kindly in his old age, rather than
abandon him to seek her own pleasures.”
“But you cannot promise that—”
“Of course I can!” he snapped. “Because you will. Because I have done it before and my reputation stands on that promise.” He stepped closer, until he was looming over her, his breath hot on her face.
“My lord,” she gasped, wondering what she could say to make him retreat.
“Will you be faithful to your husband?” he asked. “Will you please him at night, care for him in his dotage, even if he is a hundred years old with cold hands and rancid breath?”
She blinked, wondering why tears blurred her vision.
“Will you, Lynette?” he demanded.
“Yes!” she gasped, knowing that was the answer he wanted. Knowing, too, that it was the truth. For whatever reason she wed, she would not dishonor the man she married. “I could not break a vow made before God,” she whispered.
He stepped back, his entire body suddenly relaxed, almost congenial. “Then I believe you shall be my best bride yet.” He reached out, gently stroking her cheek with an almost paternal air. “You will fetch a high price indeed.” She jerked backward, drawing her face away from him. “I don’t understand—” she began. But he cut her off.
“Enough questions. It is all too new for you.” He abruptly moved to the door. “There will be time enough after the initial evaluation.”
That drew her up short. “Evaluation?” she asked. But he was already gone.