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The Marquess and the Maiden

By:Robyn Dehart

Prologue


London, 1845

Harriet Wheatley grabbed onto the bedposts and sucked in a breath. Her  eyes fluttered closed, and she did her best to suppress a groan. She  felt the hands at her back and winced as her ladies' maid tightened her  corset.

"I don't think I can do this," she whispered as the lacing continued.

"Don't be ridiculous," her mother said. "Of course you can. This is what  we've been hoping for. An opportunity such as this. The Marquess of  Davenport is in need of funds, and your dowry is substantial."

This wasn't what she'd been hoping for, but she wouldn't say that to her  mother. When she'd debuted two years before, she'd expected to readily  find a love match the way her sister had. She was not the great beauty  that Helen was, still Harriet had hoped to find her perfect match. One  party after another proved that would not happen for her.

Everything her mother said was true. Harriet hadn't had one single  suitor in the two years since her debut. At least not anyone who wasn't  twice her age. She wasn't certain what was wrong with her, but she  suspected her lack of appeal with the younger lords was that she became  so awkward around them she couldn't stop talking. Their eyes would widen  and then they'd make excuses and walk away. Her family had been waiting  for such a chance-to marry her off any way they could.

"You've known Oliver nearly your entire life," her mother said, softening her voice.

"Simply because you and Lady Davenport have been friends my entire  life." Oliver had never so much as dropped a glance her way. But hard  times had changed everything for him, and it would seem that she was to  be his savior. Lottie, her maid, gave her a sympathetic look, then moved  her over to the dressing table and began the arduous work of taming her  curls into some manner of fashionable coif.

"You cannot deny that the man is handsome," her mother said.

"I'm not blind, Mother. Every girl in London knows that Lord Davenport  is handsome." Sinfully so, which made this all the worse. She lost her  ability to speak as a normal person when faced with extreme male  attraction. She supposed, because of that, it was best that men, for the  most part, had come to ignore her. Unless they needed to inquire about  one of her friends.

"Yes, well, since his accident, the rest of the girls in London haven't seemed to notice that."

Harriet smirked. "That makes no sense. He has a limp and walks with a cane. His face is without a blemish."

Her mother's brows rose in a question.

"Whether or not I find him handsome matters not when he is accustomed to a different type of woman."

Her mother's lips disappeared into a thin line. "That terrible woman … "  She shook her head. "You do not even think about her." She grabbed onto  Harriet's shoulders, standing behind her so that Harriet could see their  reflection in the mirror. "This is the perfect solution to both your  problems. You have been unsuccessful in securing a husband, for whatever  reasons, and Oliver finds himself in desperate need of funds."

Meaning only a man in sheer desperation would agree to marry her. She  understood what her mother was saying. It stung, but it was the truth.  "Is Lady Davenport going over the plan with him?" Harriet asked.

"She said that approaching him about it would take a delicate hand. It  is why tonight's ball is perfect. All you need to do, my sweet girl, is  smile and be yourself."

"That hasn't worked thus far to gain me any suitors," Harriet said.

Her mother waved her hand as she stepped away from the mirror. "Men see  you as Malcolm's younger sister, that is the problem. It was easier for  Georgia to find her match. She debuted before Malcolm inherited the  title."

She appreciated her mother's words but felt certain that being Malcolm's  younger sister had nothing to do with her near spinsterhood.

Her older sister, Helen, was beautiful in the way that men craved. She  was delicate and graceful, whereas Harriet was too short and too  voluptuous. While her figure might have inspired Flemish painter Paul  Rubens to put her form to canvas, by today's standards she was overly  endowed.

A union     between her and Lord Davenport would be denying herself a  chance for a love match. But he'd be sacrificing, too, so a marriage  between the two of them made sense.

She supposed she should be happy that the Marquess of Davenport was so  desperately in need of her funds else she might never find a husband.

 …

Oliver Weeks, Marquess of Davenport, stared at the floor. Would that he  could, he would not have even shown up this evening. But damned if he  didn't have a soft spot where his mother was concerned. She'd endured  much at the hands of his father, and therefore Oliver typically indulged  her.         

     



 

She rarely asked for anything; escorting her to the Whitmore soiree  didn't seem to be too much to do, despite the fact that this was the  first time he'd been out in proper Society in more than six months. Not  since his accident. Not since his nearly betrothed had abandoned him to  marry a man who could walk normally. His mother stood on his left side,  while he hobbled on his right with the assistance of his cane.

Now that they were here, he realized there had been more to her request,  something she'd left unsaid, because she'd known he never would have  agreed.

His mother's ulterior motive became clear the moment they entered the  ballroom. She led them directly to her closest friend, the widowed  Duchess of Lockwood and her youngest daughter.

"Oliver, dear, you remember Harriet," his mother said.

He glanced from one set of female eyes to another. This was no mere  accompaniment to a ball; this was an ambush. He settled his gaze on  Harriet. It had been a while since he'd seen her, or perhaps he hadn't  been this close to her, because he was certain he would have remembered a  bosom like hers. Her pale pink gown left her creamy shoulders uncovered  and the bodice molded to her torso, bringing attention to the indention  at her waist. But her breasts were spectacular, and the fabric that sat  between them dared anyone to look away. The lovely mounds rose and fell  with each of her breaths, and he realized that they would more than  fill his hands.

He shifted uncomfortably. It would do him no good to ogle her while  their mothers stood and watched. He bowed over her hand as best he was  able with his damned leg. "Lady Harriet." He was going to throttle his  mother when they returned home. He shifted his eyes to her, not even  trying to hide his anger.

"Lord Davenport," Harriet said.

He could not miss the way her mother cleared her throat and gave her daughter a slight nudge.

Harriet blushed but still stepped forward. "Would you care to escort me  to the portrait hall? I'm told it is something one truly must  experience."

He shot another quick glare in his mother's direction. Declining  Harriet's shy request would only punish her, and this brazen setup that  their mothers had orchestrated was not any more Harriet's fault than it  was his. He reluctantly held out his arm for Harriet and let her lead  them away.

"It's been unusually cold as of late, wouldn't you say?" she asked.

"I hadn't noticed."

She chuckled lightly. "I'm not complaining; I do enjoy a brisk breeze."

He grunted noncommittally.

"I've been eagerly reading about the upcoming votes on the railroad expansions. It's all very exciting," she said.

He didn't think she actually required him to participate in this  conversation. She babbled about some vase that had been broken a few  months before at the British Museum.

Harriet had a mouth on her, he'd give her that. His family had known the  Lockwood family forever, it seemed. They were one of the few families  in London who hadn't abandoned them when his father had lost nearly  every penny they had. Even now when he and his mother had little save  their names and ancestral estate, the Lockwoods remained friendly. Yet  even having a predetermined fondness for them because of this, Harriet  was so bloody cheerful, and talkative, she was driving him to madness.  At the moment, she was blathering on about the heavy gilded frame  holding the portrait of a soldier upon a large black steed.

It was quite evident that their mothers had designed this entire evening  solely for the purpose of putting him and Harriet together. Harriet's  fortune could, no doubt, save him and his mother.

The tour of the portrait hall didn't take very long, thankfully, and he  led her back toward the ballroom. He had to rid himself of her before he  did something drastic to shut her up.

His gait paused as he saw the tall woman across the ballroom. Catherine.  Her pale, nearly silver hair was piled artfully atop her head, leaving  her long, graceful neck exposed. She was as stunning as she'd been the  last time he'd seen her-when she'd walked away from him. On her arm  stood her equally attractive husband. They cut a striking couple. Anyone  could see that.

"I still have several dances that haven't been claimed," Harriet said.

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