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of Contemporary Women's Fiction, Romantic Comedies, and Historical Romances

 

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Who Will Take This Man?

Prologue
 

    Dear Philip,
    Due to your continued refusal to see to your own arrangements, I am writing to inform you that your damn wedding has been planned.  Precisely whom you will be marrying has not yet been determined, but rest assured, the nuptials will take place in London on September first, and unlike the last damn wedding I arranged for you three years ago, I expect you to show up this time.  Indeed, I demand it.   While you’ve been traipsing about Egyptian sand dunes in search of rusty relics, my health has fallen into a decline.  According to Doctor Gibbens I have less than a year left, and I’ll see you married and assuming your proper place in Society, perhaps even with an heir on the way, before I cock up my toes.
    As you no longer have the luxury of time to engage in a lengthy courtship, I have hired a matchmaker to find you a suitable wife.  Unfortunately, given the scandal that ensued when you failed to appear for your last damn wedding, Miss Chilton-Grizedale faces a daunting challenge.  However, she is a formidable negotiator and has promised to find a chit who will make you an admirable viscountess.  With Miss Chilton-Grizedale overseeing the wedding arrangements down to the last detail, all you need to do is show up.  Make damn certain you do.
    With regards,
    Your father
 
 

 
Chapter 1
 
     Meredith Chilton-Grizedale pursed her lips and stroked her chin as she slowly circled Lady Sarah Markham, who stood upon the dressmaker’s platform.  Meredith’s gaze critiqued the slender form garbed in the elegant, pale blue wedding gown, noting every detail, from the demure square neckline to the elaborate ruffled flounce.  A satisfied smile threatened to curl her lips upward, but she staunchly subdued it.  One could not afford to be too effusive when dealing with Madame Renee, Oxford Street’s most exclusive milliner.  For every compliment Madame received, she clearly felt compelled to increase her already exorbitant prices.
     “You look lovely, Lady Sarah,” Meredith said.  “Lord Greybourne will be besotted the moment he sees you.”  A tiny flutter of something that felt suspiciously like envy rippled through Meredith, surprising and irritating her.  She slapped the feeling aside like a bothersome insect and gazed at the beautiful young woman standing before her.  Pride instantly supplanted her errant twinge of envy.
     Oh, she had indeed arranged a brilliant match on Lord Greybourne’s behalf.  Lady Sarah was a diamond of the first water.  Sweet, innocent, amenable, possessed of a gentle temperament, lively conversation, a singing voice that could rival the angels, and a formidable talent for the pianoforte.   The negotiations, which Meredith had handled between Lady Sarah’s father, the Duke of Hedington, and Lord Greybourne’s father, the Earl of Ravensly, had proven quite delicate and tricky, even for a matchmaker of her considerable experience.  What with the scandal that had ensued three years ago when Lord Greybourne had not returned to England from roaming the wilds of foreign locales to honor the marriage agreement his father had entered into on his behalf, coupled with the fact that he’d incomprehensibly walked away from the comforts of Society to live in uncivilized conditions where heathen traits abounded in order to study artifacts, only Lord Greybourne’s title and family connections kept him from being hopelessly unmarriageable.  Indeed, it had taken an enormous amount of time, flattery, and diplomacy on Meredith’s part to convince the duke that Lord Greybourne was the perfect match for Lady Sarah--a task made all the more difficult considering the hordes of eligible titled, and un-marked-by-scandal young men buzzing around her.
     But convince Lord Hedington she did.  A sigh of immense satisfaction eased past Meredith’s lips, and she was hard-pressed to not twist about and physically pat herself on the back.   Thanks to her--if she might say so herself--inspired efforts, the most anticipated wedding of the Season would take in two days at St. Paul’s Cathedral.  A wedding so grand, a marriage so brilliant, so talked about, that Meredith’s reputation as the foremost matchmaker in England was assured.
     Ever since the betrothal announcement two months past, anxious mamas were courting her attention, inviting her to tea and their musicales and soirees, asking her to whom their darling daughters would most be suited.   And which eligible bachelors were serious about choosing a bride this Season.
     As she had so many times over the past few months, Meredith again found herself wondering why a man born into the upper echelons of Society, the heir to an earldom, a man who would never have to spend his life doing anything save seek pleasure, spend a decade living in rustic conditions, digging up artifacts belonging to dead people?  Everything practical in Meredith revolted at the very thought.  Clearly Lord Greybourne harbored some very unusual beliefs and tendencies, and, she feared, his manners would most certainly need some dusting off.   Even his father had hinted that his son might require a bit of “polishing.”
    Even so, she did not doubt that she could shine him up enough to make a grand showing at the wedding.  After all, her reputation, her livelihood depended upon the success of this wedding.  She could only hope that after the ceremony he would prove to be an affable and kind husband.  Because, based on the enormous gilt-framed painting of him hanging in his father’s drawing room, Lord Greybourne had not been blessed with a bounty of physical attractions.
    An image of that painting flashed through her mind.  Poor Lord Greybourne.  Where his father, the earl, was quite handsome, Lord Greybourne was…not.  His painting depicted a pale, pudgy-faced, unsmiling countenance decorated with thick spectacles magnifying unremarkable brown eyes.  Definitely not the most attractive of fellows.  Of course, the painting had been commissioned fourteen years earlier, when he was but a youth of fifteen.  Hopefully his years abroad had improved him somewhat, although it did not really matter.  In addition to being a Paragon, Lady Sarah did not, like many young women her age, harbor unrealistic romantic notions regarding marriage.  Thank goodness.  Because the dear girl is taking on more the frog than the prince, I’m afraid.
    Yes, Lady Sarah knew it was her duty to marry, and marry well, according to her father’s dictates.  Meredith blessed the fact that Lady Sarah was not difficult like a growing number of modern young ladies who professed to want their marriages to be love matches.  Meredith fought the urge to snicker at such nonsense.  Love matches indeed.  Love had nothing to do with a successful marriage.
     Meredith looked up at Lady Sarah, who, based on her expression, was not as happy as she should be.  “Now don’t frown, Lady Sarah,” Meredith scolded gently.  “You’ll wrinkle your forehead.   Is something amiss?  The dress--“
     “The dress is fine,” Lady Sarah said.  Her huge pansy-blue eyes, reflecting unmistakable distress, met Meredith’s in the mirror.  “I was just thinking about what you said…about Lord Greybourne being besotted the moment he sees me.  Do you truly think he will be?”
     “My darling girl, you cannot doubt it for a moment!   I shall need to be standing by with the hartshorn to revive him when he falls prostrate at your feet.”
     Lady Sarah’s eyes widened.  “Oh, dear.  Whatever shall I do with a husband who swoons?”
     Meredith barely refrained from looking toward the ceiling.  Lady Sarah possessed many admirable qualities.  Unfortunately, a sense of humor was not amongst them.   “I was speaking figuratively, not literally, my dear.  Of course Lord Greybourne is not prone to swooning.”  I hope.  “Why, with all his traveling about and exploring, he is of course the most hale and hearty of men.”  I can only hope and pray.
     When Lady Sarah still appeared concerned, Meredith grasped her hands--her icy cold hands, she noted.  “There is nothing to worry about, dear heart.  Feeling a bit anxious in the days before your wedding is completely natural and quite expected.  Just remember this:  you are going to be the most beautiful bride, your groom shall prove to be the most gallant and exciting of men, and your wedding shall be Society’s most talked-about event for years to come.”  And will insure my reputation and future.
     Instantly her imagination took flight, and in her mind’s eye she saw herself in the future, ensconced in a modest cottage in Bath, or perhaps Cardiff, taking the waters, enjoying the sea air, basking in the admiration and respect of everyone she met…her squalid past so deeply buried that it could never again be resurrected.   This match represented the culmination of her hard-fought battle to make a place--a respectable place--in the world for herself, but it was only the beginning.  Her services as a matchmaker would be the most sought-after, her opinions the most respected, her financial future set, all the while providing a service that she felt compelled to provide.  Every woman deserved the protection and care of a kind, decent husband.  How different her life would have been if Mama had found such a man…
     “Father received word that Lord Greybourne’s ship was scheduled to dock this morning,” Lady Sarah said, pulling Meredith from her reverie.  “He sent ‘round an invitation for Lord Greybourne and his father to dine with us this evening.”  A becoming blush suffused Lady Sarah’s satiny-smooth cheeks.  “I am most anxious to meet the man who will be my husband.”
     Meredith smiled at her.  “And I am certain he cannot wait to meet you.”  Of course, with the wedding only two days away, that did not afford Meredith much time to reacquaint Lord Greybourne with any rules of Society he may have forgotten during his travels, but she was comforted by the fact that he had spent his first twenty years amongst the ton.  True, he was a bit of a diamond in the rough, but at least he wasn’t a lump of coal in a cave.  Hopefully.
     But even if he were, she’d make him into a presentable groom.  After the ceremony, well, then he would be Lady Sarah’s problem, er, project.
     A loud commotion sounded from outside.  “What do you suppose that is?” Lady Sarah asked, craning her neck to peek beyond the forest green curtain separating the dressing area from the front of Madame Renee’s shop.
     “I’ll see,” Meredith said.  Walking into the front of the shop, she peered out the front picture window.   A row of stopped carriages lined the street, and a crowd of pedestrians milled about, blocking her view.  Rising onto her toes, she noted a lopsided bread cart at the front of the traffic snarl--clearly the source of the problem.  She was about to turn away when she noticed a giant of a man standing near the overturned cart raise his ham-sized fist which clutched a whip.  Good lord, he meant to strike that man holding that puppy!   Meredith’s hand flew to her lips, but before she could even emit a gasp, another man, whose back was turned toward her, executed a lightning fast maneuver with his walking stick and fist, whereupon the giant went down like a tenpin.  The savior then tossed what appeared to be a coin up to the man still standing upon the lopsided cart, then calmly tucked his silver-tipped walking stick under his arm and strode away, disappearing into the crowd.
     Hoping to catch another glimpse of the brave man, Meredith craned her neck, but he was lost in the crowd.  An odd flutter shivered through her, settling in her stomach.  Heavens.  What an extraordinary, brave man.  And he moved like…like a swift, sleek, predatory animal.  Graceful.  Strong.  Heroic.  His knowledge of fighting marked him as a ruffian--completely unrespectable, but still…what did such a man look like?  He’d used his walking stick like a weapon.  Perhaps it was a weapon as the silver tip bore some sort of unusual design unfamiliar to her.   Another flutter quivered down her spine, and looking down, she realized her palms were pressed to her chest.
     Shaking her hands as if to rid them of dirt, she frowned in annoyance at her fanciful thoughts.  Botheration.  It mattered not what he looked like.  What mattered was Lady Sarah and the wedding.  Weaving her way amongst the rows of bolts of colorful silks, satins, wools, and muslins, she pushed back the curtain leading to the dressing area.  And discovered Lady Sarah on her hands and knees on the floor, struggling to rise.
     Meredith rushed forward.  “Lady Sarah!  What happened?”  She extended her hands to help the young woman gain her feet.
     Lady Sarah’s beautiful face puckered into a rueful grimace.  “I wanted to see what all the fuss outside was about, but when I attempted to step down from the dressmaker’s platform, I tripped on my hem and fell.”
     “Are you hurt?”
     “I don’t believe so.”  Lady Sarah gingerly shook both arms and legs, then her features relaxed.  “Nothing’s damaged.  Except my pride, of course.”
     Before the relief at that statement could take hold of Meredith, Lady Sarah pressed one hand to her brow, and clutched at Meredith’s sleeve with the other.  “Oh, dear.  I fear I suddenly have the most dreadful headache.”
     “Did you strike your head when you fell?”
     “No…at least I do not recall doing so.”  She closed her eyes.  “Oh, my.  I believe I need to lie down.”
     Meredith immediately led Lady Sarah toward the chintz-covered chaise in the far corner of the room, helping the young woman recline against the pillows.
     “Mon Dieu,” came Madame Renee’s voice from the doorway.  “What has happened?”
     “Lady Sarah is feeling unwell,” Meredith reported, trying to keep her voice calm.  She touched her hand to Lady Sarah’s brow, relieved when she discerned no signs of fever.  “She’s suffering from the headache.”
     “Ah, do not be concerned, Mademoiselle Meredith,” Madame said.  “I see this always with zee nervous brides.  I shall brew her my special tisane and she will feel tres magnifique this quickly.”  She snapped her fingers.
     Meredith looked down at Lady Sarah’s waxy complexion, and prayed Madame’s assessment was correct.   But at least the wedding was still two days away.  Surely that would be more than sufficient time for Lady Sarah to recover.
    Surely it would.

 
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