Book 8 in the >Heart of a Duke Series
Marcus, the Viscount Wessex has carefully crafted the image of rogue and charmer for polite Society. Under that façade, however, dwells a man whose dreams were shattered almost eight years earlier by a young lady who captured his heart, pledged her love, and then left him, with nothing more than a curt note.
Eight years earlier, faced with no other choice, Mrs. Eleanor Collins, fled London and the only man she ever loved, Marcus, Viscount Wessex. She has now returned to serve as a companion for her elderly aunt with a daughter in tow. Even though they’re next door neighbors, there is little reason for her to move in the same circles as Marcus. Just in case, she vows to avoid him, for he reminds her of all she lost when she left.
As their paths continue to cross, Marcus finds his desire for Eleanor just as strong, but he learned long ago she’s not to be trusted. He will offer her a place in his bed, but not anything more. Only, Eleanor has no interest in this new, roguish man. The more time they spend together, the protective wall they’ve constructed to keep the other out, begin to break. With all the betrayals and secrets between them, Marcus has to open his heart again. And Eleanor must decide if it’s ever safe to trust a rogue.
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Marcus Gray, the Viscount Wessex, had been betrayed by his mother.
Oh, it was not the first time he’d been so horribly deceived by a woman. It was just the first time that the woman who’d given him life had been guilty of that crime.
Marcus skimmed the front page of The Times, where it appeared the most pressing, important news and gossip members of the ton now woke to this day, pertained to two nonconsecutive dances he’d danced with Lady Marianne Hamilton and what that indicated for his marital state. He glanced up from the page and found his mother at the opposite end of the breakfast table, smiling as she buttered a piece of bread.
“You did state your intentions,” she said, not taking her gaze from that well-buttered piece.
Marcus narrowed his eyes. “To you. I suspected, as such, that information was, at the very least, safe from gossips.”
He caught the eye of his sister Lizzie. She gave him a do-you-really-not-know-our-mother-look?
“Come, Marcus, you are thirty. It is hardly a shock to Society that you are in the market for a wife,” his mother chided.
“I told you,” his sister’s whispered words reached his ears. She popped a bite of sausage into her mouth.
Their mother eyed her flaky bread in a studious manner, gave a pleased nod, and dismissively returned to eating her breakfast. As though she’d not chattered his plans to at last fulfill his obligations to Lady Jersey and, through that indiscretion, to all of Society.
Marcus tossed down the paper and it hit the table with a soft thump. “I assured you I would see to my marital responsibilities in the near future.” Never had he indicated an immediacy to those intentions. “Did you fear I’d change my mind?”
Reaching for her cup of tea, his mother paused mid-movement and then gracefully picked up the delicate porcelain cup. “Yes, yes I did.”
With a growl of annoyance, Marcus grabbed his cup of coffee. His empty cup. A servant rushed over and filled it to the brim with the steaming, black brew.
Interrupting his murmured thanks, his sister leaned over and spoke in hushed tones. “Am I a horribly disloyal sister for being grateful that Mother’s intentions have been securely settled on your marital aspirations?”
“Yes, the worst.” To temper that lie, he leaned over and ruffled the top of her head. He didn’t bother to point out that he didn’t truly have marital aspirations that existed beyond a coldly emotionless bride who’d be content with the title viscountess and a rogue for a husband. Such a woman would fail to rouse grand passions and drive him to a maddening inability to think of any other.
On the heel of that flitted in a face from his past; the first woman to betray him. He tightened his mouth. That particular lady had been anything but dull and polite. Mayhap the title of viscountess had never been enough for that one. Marcus stared within the contents of his cup. Then, all these years later, there was still no knowing. The lady hadn’t felt leaving after those fleeting, but meaningful to him months, merited much of an explanation.
Lizzie smiled. “I am ever so happy that you’ve selected Marianne as your future viscountess.”
Selected Marianne? His mind muddied from thoughts of the past, it took a moment for Lizzie’s words to register. In an unlikely pairing, Lady Marianne Hamilton had attached herself to his marriage-avoidant, wallflower by choice, sister.
Lady Marianne, The Incomparable of the Season, was lush, with sultry smiles, and rumored to be in the market for a wealthy husband. A marriage to that one would be about lust, power, and not the dangerous emotion called love that had nearly destroyed Marcus eight years earlier. Yes, Lady Marianne fit the proverbial bill in terms of his future viscountess. Nonetheless, his palms grew moist at the prospect of forever binding himself to one woman. Even if that fate was inevitable. His mother and sister proceeded to casually indulge in their morning meals while they flippantly discussed his future. He gave a tug at his suddenly too-tight cravat. Lest his sister believe his intentions for her friend were already decided, he pointed out, “I’ve hardly selected Lady Marianne for my future bride.” He’d indicated an interest in the lady, but he’d not selected her. Not yet.
Lizzie froze with the fork midway to her mouth. “You danced with her, Marcus.” She set the silver utensil down and gave him a meaningful look. “Twice.”
“They were nonconsecutive,” he felt inclined to point out.
Then like the veriest determined matchmaker, Lizzie proceeded to tick off on her fingers. “She comes from a respectable family.” It wouldn’t do to point out to his innocent sister that Lady Marianne’s brother was a letch in dun territory that no respectable mama would see their daughter wed—even with his marquisate as a prize. The man was now reliant upon his sister to make a match and save his finances. A flash of pity filled him at the lady’s unfortunate connections. “She is kind and clever and exceedingly lovely.” With midnight black hair and a generously curved figure, Lady Marianne was unlike most of the porcelain, golden-haired ladies of Society. The perfect counterpart to those blonde English misses.
Say, a Miss Eleanor Carlyle, that temptress from long ago with sun-kissed hair and too-full lips. The woman who’d won his heart, and broken it, in short order.
Yes, midnight hair would be preferable—
His sister clapped her hands once. “Do attend me.”
Marcus thrust memories of Eleanor to the furthest recesses of his mind. “Forgive me.” He inclined his head. “You were saying?”
Lizzie let out a beleaguered sigh, and continued. “You are in want of a wife. She is in need of a husband.” Ah, so his sister did know of the dismal financial circumstances her friend’s family faced. Lizzie beamed. “Isn’t that how most wonderful, romantic tales begin?”
“I would not know,” he said, droll humor creeping into his tone. “I’m not in the habit of reading your gothic tales of forbidden love.” He’d tried love in real life once and that foray had proven a remarkable disaster.
Lizzie gave a roll of her eyes. “It is not always forbidden love.” She brightened. “Why, more often, it is a wealthy duke and an impoverished young lady coming together and finding love. Why, what is a more romantic match than that?”
“Indeed,” he drawled.
Lizzie swatted his arm.
Pointedly ignoring her daughter, Mother turned her attention to Marcus. She folded her hands primly before her and spoke like all the tutors she’d personally hired for him through the years. “I do not merely want my children to make a suitable match, though I do. I care for you to make a love match.”
His sister was nothing if not tenacious. “Oh, he could very easily love Marianne.”
He scrubbed his hands over his face. He’d not disabuse his romantic sister of her naïve notions. After Eleanor’s betrayal, he’d learned the perils of trusting his heart to a woman. No, when he ultimately married, it would not be because any emotion was involved—which was why Lady Marianne represented the ideal match. Emotionally aloof, she seduced with her eyes, and revealed a jadedness that matched his own. He could easily imagine that temptress in his bed, but there was little risk of his heart being involved.
“Oh, do stop scowling, Marcus,” his mother said patting her mouth with a crisp white napkin, bringing him back to the present. “You’ll hardly catch any young lady with that terrible glower.”
He sat back in his chair and propped his elbows on the arms. “Oh, and are there young ladies expected or hiding even now in this house who I need worry about at this given moment?” he drawled.
His mother promptly choked.
He narrowed his eyes. “Mother?”
“Do not be silly,” she squawked and in an entirely un-viscountess like move, she shoveled a heaping pile of eggs into her mouth.
“She is lying,” his sister said under her breath.
Marcus cast a glance over at his sister.
“But as long as she is parading ladies before you, I needn’t worry of her parading prospective bridegrooms before me.”
Temporarily distracted from his own impending dire situation, he gave Lizzie a wry grin. For the almost twelve years between them, they’d always been remarkably of like thought where their mother was concerned. It appeared those likenesses extended to the realm of marriage. “Never tell me you are the only lady in the kingdom to not want a husband,” he said from the corner of his mouth.
“Very well, then I shan’t tell you.” Lizzie grinned.
“What are you two whispering about?”
Brother and sister spoke in unison. “Nothing.”
His mother muttered something under her breath about the woes of being a poor mama to troublesome children. Fighting a grin, Marcus took another swallow of the contents of his glass. As annoyed as he was with her for sharing his marital plans with the whole of the ton, she was a good mother determined to see him happy. As such, it was hard to—
“All children require a bit of guidance on the path to marital bliss,” the viscountess persisted.
Marcus promptly spit out his brew. At his side, Lizzie’s slender frame shook with mirth and servants rushed forward with cloths to clean the mess. “M-marital bliss?” he sputtered. Good god, is that what she would call it?
“Marcus,” his mother scolded. “Oh, do not look at me like that, Marcus. I daresay I prefer you charming to bitter.”
Scolding, she was always scolding. Since he’d been a boy of three pilfering pastries from the kitchen to a man of thirty. “You know it is my expectation that you’ll find a young woman who makes your heart happy.”
He sighed. Even when he’d stated his intentions to wed. No, one could never please a mother. “I will tell you clearly what would make my heart happy,” he mumbled.
His sister snorted and then at their mother’s pointed stare, promptly buried the sound into her palm. Perhaps she would be suitably distracted by mention of Lizzie’s unwed state.
“Must you be so cynical?” the viscountess scolded. Again.
Marcus swallowed back the bitter rejoinder on his lips. He’d not discuss the reasons for his cynicism before his mother, his sister, or anyone. No. No one knew the foolish mistakes of his past and the reasons he’d no intentions of trusting his heart to a headstrong, passionate lady—not again. “I am a rogue,” he said instead, managing his patented half-grin. Yes, he’d been the rogue for so many years. So many that he no longer knew any other way, nor did he care to.
“You are hopeless,” his mother sighed. “Surely you’ve a desire to know even a dash of the love your father and I knew.”
He’d not so shatter her with the truth. The last thing he desired was love. “I’ve a desire to visit my clubs,” he said with a wink.
Lizzie’s lips twitched. “I do wish I had clubs to visit.” She let out a beleaguered sigh. “Alas, there is no escape for an unwed, eighteen-year-old lady.” From behind her wire-rimmed spectacles, a flash of regret lit her eyes.
A twinge of guilt needled him. He didn’t need to read the gossip columns or attend all the ton functions to know his sister’s Come Out had been a rather dismal showing. For her earlier protestations on marriage, he’d wager all his holdings as viscount that his painfully shy in public sister’s viewpoint was a mere façade; a means to protect.
Then, weren’t they all protecting themselves, one way or another?
“They’re all a bunch of foolish arses,” he said quietly. “You’re better off without most of them.”
Lizzie laughed. “Just most of them?”
“All of them,” he replied with an automaticity born of truth.
Swatting his arm, Lizzie gave another roll of her eyes. “Oh, do not look at me. I would far rather be attending your marital prospects.”
“Yes, Marcus,” their mother called out, tapping the table. “Let us do attend your marital prospects.”
He winced. Bloody infernal perfect hearing. She would have impressed a bat with that heightened sense.
“Sorry,” his sister mouthed once more.
He waved off the apology, finished his drink and then set his cup down with a hard thunk. “I am attending my marital duties,” he said matter-of-factly. “I have stated my intentions to wed and do right by the Wessex line. You will have your nursery of little future heirs and spares running about.”
His sister gave him a pointed frown.
“And troublesome sisters to those heirs and spares,” he added with a half-grin.
Lizzie laughed and shook her head. “No wonder you are the charmer throughout.” Then with an implacable look in her eyes, she settled her elbows on the table and leaned forward. “As for Marianne…”
Oh, bloody hell. The last thing he cared for or required was Lizzie’s interference. “I do not need—”
Their mother banged her fist on the table. “Lizzie, that will be all. Marcus,” she turned to him. “I see you require my further help.”
“Your further help?” Marcus winged an eyebrow up.
Lizzie scooped up the forgotten copy of The Times and waved it about. “I believe she references her sharing of your marital intentions.”
Their mother nodded. “Indeed, Lizzie,” she said with the same pride she might reserve a child who’d solved a complicated riddle. “For which you still haven’t thanked me, Marcus.”
Ah, yes. Of course. “Yes, well, there is no surer way to assure a love match than to bandy about my fifty thousand pound worth,” he said dryly. He inclined his head. “Thank you.” For making every last lady in the realm know I’m in the market for a wife. For single-handedly shifting all the desperate matchmaking mamas’ consideration to me.
She fluffed her hair. “You are quite welcome.”
He consulted his timepiece and gave silent thanks for his previously scheduled meeting with his longtime friend, the Duke of Crawford. Marcus shoved back his chair. “If you’ll excuse me,” he said, hopping to his feet.
The viscountess let out a startled shriek. “Wherever are you going?”
He stifled a shudder. Goodness, it was moments such as these that made him long for the bachelor suites at his clubs. “I am going to my clubs,” he reminded her. As though following his unspoken thoughts, Lizzie gave him a don’t-you-dare-abandon-me-with-her look. “I am meeting Crawford at White’s.” Any other moment, a meeting with the illustrious, powerful, and entirely proper Duke of Crawford would have appeased his mother.
Not on this day.
Which could only indicate… “Surely not…”
She had prospective future brides assembled and ready for a morning visit.
“Surely,” he said quickly. “Business to discuss. The estates. Investments.” Anything. Everything. As long as it wasn’t Marcus’ impending marriage, to an as of yet unselected young lady.
“Do promise you’ll attend The Duchess’ dinner party next week.”
Those words froze him mid-movement. Blast, damn, and bloody hell. He’d quite forgotten the Duchess of Devonshire’s annual, intimate, dinner party. His mother’s lifelong friend who also happened to be Eleanor Carlyle’s aunt. “Er…”
His mother’s mouth fell agape. “You forgot.” She slapped an indignant hand to her chest.
“I…” Forgot. Put it from my mind, just as he did every year, all things and anything, including anyone connected with Eleanor.
“He forgot,” his sister supplied unhelpfully for him.
Marcus yanked at his cravat. “I had other plans for that evening.” Plans, which included avoiding that blasted garish, pink townhouse. Just as he did. Every year.
He made to go when his mother called out in a panicky voice, staying him.
“Marcus,” she said with a smile he’d learned long ago to be leery of. She clasped her hands in front of her. “Promise me you’ll be there.”
He rolled his shoulders. God, she was more tenacious than she’d been in the past five years combined of his avoiding the infernal dinner event. “I will try,” he hedged.
By the narrowing of his mother’s eyes, she detected his deliberate attempt at evasion.
His sister whipped her head back and forth between them, taking in the volley-like quality of the exchange.
Mother pounced. “At the very least, stay for this morning’s visit—”
“If you’ll excuse me?” He paused. “Again.” Ignoring his mother’s sputtering, Marcus sketched a quick bow, gave his sister a commiserative wink, and then hurried from the room, with a speed the god, Hermes, would have been impressed with. He moved with a single-minded purpose through the halls, boot steps muted on the carpeted, corridor floors.
He’d convinced himself that in simply assuring his mother he’d see to his responsibilities as viscount that she would have been as appeased as any other proper English mama in the kingdom. He gave his head a wry shake. He should have known better where the lady was concerned. After thirty years of sorting through his mother’s peculiarly blended romantic spirit with her English peer’s sense of obligations, it was his mistake. He made a sound of disgust. A mistake, that by the front of The Times and every other gossip column, would prove a damaging one.
Marcus turned the corridor and collided with a voluptuous figure. The young lady stumbled back on a gasp and that abrupt movement sent several midnight curls spilling over her shoulder. He shot his hands out and steadied her. “Lady Marianne,” he said politely. The lady whose Come Out had been delayed by the death of first her father and then her mother had taken Society by storm and for very obvious reasons. “Forgive me.” She possessed a dark, wickedly suggestive smile that set her apart from the other debutantes.
“Lord Wessex.” Lady Marianne spoke in beguiling tones better reserved for skilled courtesans and not just out on the market debutantes. She collected those two loose tresses and toyed with them. “I could forgive you anything.”
Unbidden, he dropped his gaze lower, lower to the generous cream white mounds spilling over the top of her dress. Marcus swallowed hard. No respectable miss had a place wearing such a gown. And no respectable gentleman had a place studying her so. Yet, this woman who exuded sexuality and tempted with her lips and eyes, bore no traces to the long-ago innocent who’d betrayed him.
He hardened his heart and appreciated Lady Marianne with renewed interest; for with her seductive offer and veiled words, she was still more sincere than the last lady he’d ever trusted. Marcus picked his gaze up.
By the narrowing of her cat-like eyes and her suggestive smile, Lady Marianne thrilled at his notice.
“If you’ll excuse me.” He dropped a bow and made to leave.
“Lord Wessex,” she called after him in sultry, inviting tones that brought him slowly around. The lady fingered the trim of her bodice. He gulped. “I have heard splendorous things of your secret garden and would very much welcome a tour about the grounds with you.”
He’d not met another lady in a garden after Eleanor. Nor did he intend to. The memories of her were too potent in those floral havens. “Perhaps another time,” he managed, his voice garbled. Spinning on his heel, he continued his retreat. As he entered the foyer, he shot a glance back to see if the determined seductress followed.
His butler, Williston, strode to meet him. “Your mount is readied.” The ghost of a smile played on his wrinkled cheeks, indicating that word had, no doubt, traveled about the viscountess’ impending visitors.
“I am doubling your wages, Williston,” he muttered.
A footman rushed over with Marcus’ hat and cloak. With murmured thanks, Marcus jammed the black Aylesbury hat atop his head. “Good man, Williston,” he said, shooting a glance over his shoulder as he shrugged into his cloak. No doubt, the ladies lined up by his determined mother would be arriving…
“Any moment, Lady Elliot is to arrive.” Williston paused and gave him a pointed look. “With her daughter, my lord.”
Marcus inclined his head. The man was worth more than all the king’s staff at the Home Office, in his ability to ferret out information. “Good day, Williston.”
A twinkle glinted in the older servant’s eyes. “The same to you, my lord.” He sketched a bow and then walked to the door with an ease possessed of a butler thirty years younger and pulled it open.
Hurrying outside, Marcus bound down the steps. When presented with one’s pestering mama, a gentleman had little choice but to retreat.
At one time, he’d been unable to glimpse the neighboring ridiculously pink façade of the townhouse adjoining his own. He accepted the reins from a waiting groom and then effortlessly mounted his horse. Somewhere along the way, on his path to becoming a rogue, that pink façade had tortured him less and less, so that all the old hurts and regrets and fury had faded enough that he could move through life with a practiced grin and not as the heartbroken, shattered fool he’d been in the immediate aftermath of Eleanor’s parting. Marcus nudged his mount, Honor, onward through the crowded cobbled streets of London.
How easy it would have been to let her betrayal destroy him. Though he would never again be the trusting man of his youth, he’d carved a new existence for himself without Eleanor in it. As Marcus rode, he lifted his head in greeting to passersby. Aside from his mother and sister, he took care to not love, to trust few, and to always be the blithe charmer Society saw him as. Life was safer that way.
Marcus brought his horse to a stop outside the hallowed walls of White’s. He quickly dismounted and tossed the reins to a waiting servant. As he strode up the handful of steps, the door was thrown open and he stepped inside. Lifting his head in greeting to the patrons who called out, Marcus hurried to his table. A servant immediately rushed over with a bottle of brandy and a snifter. With murmured thanks, Marcus waved him off and proceeded to pour his glass to the brim. He took a long swallow and swirled the contents of his drink.
Today was very nearly the anniversary of their first meeting. Is that why Eleanor Carlyle owned his thoughts this day?
His lips pulled in a grimace. What a pathetic moment of one’s life to commemorate year after year. In a world in which he’d come to appreciate, expect, and demonstrate order, the nonsensical habit of marking the day he’d met Miss Eleanor Carlyle was perhaps the antithesis of everything he valued in terms of order. Their meeting, in the real scheme of life, had been nothing more than a mere two months…just sixty days, one-thousand four-hundred and forty hours. When a gentleman was approaching his thirty-first year, why, the span of time he’d known Eleanor was insignificant. Yet, there was no explaining the heart.
“With that scowl, are you sure you are desiring company?”
He stiffened and glanced up at his closest, only living friend in the world. Auric, the Duke of Crawford, stood impeccably cool and perfectly ducal, as he’d been since the day their friend, Lionel, had met his end. Marcus jerked his chin to the opposite chair.
Wordlessly, Crawford slid into the vacant seat, waving off the bottle Marcus held out as an offering. “No,” he declined. Instead, he sat there and drummed his fingertips on the immaculate, smooth surface of the mahogany table. “A bit early for brandy.”
“Is it?” Marcus took a sip to demonstrate his thoughts on Auric’s opinion on drinking spirits in the morning. To stem the argument on the other man’s proper lips, he used the best diversionary topic at hand. “How is Daisy?” Formerly Lady Daisy Meadows, now Duchess of Crawford, the young lady was also the only sister to their now dead friend, Lionel.
Just like that, the hard, austere lines of the other man’s usually unflappable face softened, demonstrating a warmth he’d never imagined Crawford capable of. “She is well,” he said quietly. He glanced about as though ascertaining their business was their own and then looked to Marcus. “She is expecting.”
Marcus stared blankly at him. “Expecting what?”
A dull flush marred Crawford’s cheeks. “A child. We will be retiring for the country within the next fortnight.”
Another child? The couples’ first babe, a girl, Lionella, was just one. Despite himself, a vicious envy cloyed at Marcus’ insides; it ripped at him like a thousand rusty blades twisting inside. For, if life had proceeded along a different path, even now he’d be a father to some, no doubt, precocious child. And if he were honest to himself in this instance, with Crawford’s revelation laid out before him, Marcus could acknowledge—he wanted to be a father. Not the aloof, distant noblemen who turned a son’s care over to stern nursemaids and tutors, but rather the manner of sire his own father had been. A man who personally taught Marcus how to ride and shoot. A man who’d bloody senseless anyone who dared hurt his children and who loved them fiercely.
Crawford stared expectantly at him and Marcus cleared his throat. “Congratulations.” He forced a smile. “I am happy for the both of you.” He toasted Crawford with his glass.
His friend trained a familiar ducal frown on Marcus’ nearly empty snifter.
Likely, his friend saw the same indolent, bored lord as the rest of Society, more interested in spirits and cards than in the happiness of his friend. In truth, Marcus would slice off his smallest fingers to have a family of his own and, through them, a purpose in the efforts he put into running his estates. Oh, he’d never begrudge Crawford and Daisy their deserved joy. With the heartache of loss they’d known in Daisy’s brother, no people were more deserving of happiness. Marcus passed his glass back and forth between his hands, eying the still unfinished amber contents within the snifter.
Some of the tension ebbed from Crawford’s shoulders. “I understand congratulations are in order.” The ghost of a smile played on the other man’s lips.
Marcus looked at him quizzically. What was he on about?
“The Times, and your,” he winged an eyebrow up, “intentions toward a particular lady.”
Of course the ton would remark upon his declarative interest in the ladies. “Bugger off,” Marcus complained. “Two dances hardly constitute an offer of marriage.” Rather, it constituted a desire to possibly pursue more with a lady. He proceeded to pour his snifter full and then took a sip.
“Ah, so it is merely gossip then,” Crawford said, his tone more matter-of-fact, always the coolly analytical of their unlikely pair.
“It is certainly gossip,” Marcus said with droll humor, taking another swallow. It just wasn’t necessarily untrue gossip.
Crawford reclined in his chair and continued to study Marcus in that assessing manner. Unable to meet his friend’s probing stare, he absently skimmed his gaze over the club. “Daisy wished me to inquire as to whether the gossip is true.” Ah, Daisy, the consummate romantic. Was every blasted body in the whole of England a romantic spirit? Even Crawford, now?
Marcus chuckled at the other man’s bluntness. Then, when one was a duke just a step shy of royalty, there really was no need to prevaricate. He gave his head a despairing shake. “I’ve no immediate plans.” He smiled wryly. “Despite my mother’s best machinations.” After all, with a lifelong friendship and a bond built on unimaginable tragedy—the murder of their best friend—he at least owed Crawford that truth.
Crawford studied him across the table in that very ducal manner so that all he was missing was the monocle, and then he gave a slow nod. “My wife wants your assurance that you’ll settle for nothing other than a love-match.
And Marcus, once more, promptly choked. By God, between his mother and his best friend’s words this day, they were going to drown him. He lifted his glass in salute. “Assure our girl of the flowers that I am grateful for her concern.” Marcus gave his shoulders a roll. “When I do wed, however, it will be for the same reason every young nobleman inevitably marries.” Or will it be when I’ve finally let go of the past? He gave his drink another slow swirl. “I’ll wed a proper lady,” like Lady Marianne. “And produce the requisite heir and a spare, and then the Wessex line is secure, while I’m free to carry on as all the other peers present.”
Silence met his response and he looked up to find Crawford’s pitying stare on him. Marcus’ neck heated and his fingers twitched with the urge to tug at his cravat. When Crawford at last spoke, he did so in hushed tones. “Surely you want more than that?”
“No,” he said with an automaticity born of truth. “I surely do not.” He flexed one of his hands. “I’m quite content just as I am.” Marcus downed the contents of his glass. No, he’d tried love once before and the experience was as palatable as a plate of rancid kippers. “Though I applaud you and Daisy for finding that very special sentiment.”
Alas, after Eleanor’s deception, he’d never been able to fully erase the bitter tinge in his words when speaking of love and romance, and any other foolish sentiment that schemer had ultimately killed.
Marcus skimmed his gaze over the crowd. Several affirmed bachelors tipped their heads in a conciliatory manner. No doubt, they saw another member of their respected club prepared to willingly fall. He sighed. Except after years of visiting scandalous clubs and carrying on with paramours, courtesans, and widows, he was quite…tired of it all. Oh, he’d never admit as much. To do so would hopelessly ruin his name as rogue. But it had begun to feel as if he moved through life with a dull tedium, with a restlessness that dogged him.
Not that he expected a wife to cure him of that boredom. But that woman would serve a perfunctory purpose that went with his title.
Crawford’s frown deepened and he shifted. No doubt his desire to make sense of Marcus’ reasoning was born of years and years of being a duke beholden to no one. His friend’s chair groaned in protest as he settled his arms on the table and leaned forward. “I do not doubt you will find a woman who will value you as you deserve.” A woman like Lady Marianne who valued his fortune and title. How very empty such an existence would be and yet far better than this hell Eleanor Carlyle had left him in. Crawford cleared his throat. “A woman who will also help you…forget…” Forget.
Crawford spoke of a world of hurts that existed beyond Eleanor. For not a soul truly knew of the two fleeting months of madness and his subsequent broken heart following the lady’s betrayal. Even his mother, who’d celebrated in their whirlwind courtship, didn’t know the extent of the hole left in his heart with Eleanor’s parting.
Unnerved by the fresh remembrance of Eleanor Carlyle, Marcus shoved lazily to his feet. “If you’ll excuse me? I have matters of business to see to.” It was quite enough having to deal with a mother spouting of love and dying devotion of a worthy lady, that he didn’t really require it from his closest friend, too.
“Oh?” Crawford drawled and in a manner befitting the once grinning, mischievous youth he’d been before life and loss had shaped him, he tipped back on the heels of his chair. “The whole wife-hunting business?”
He made a crude gesture that roused a chuckle from his friend. Marcus tempered that rudeness with a grin and then started back through the clubs with his patented smile firmly in place.
It would seem when a nobleman demonstrated interest in a lady, it signaled his intentions to wed, and there really was no escaping that news a