The Marquess and the MaidenBy: Robyn Dehart
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.
He dropped his gaze to her and frowned, then tapped his cane on the floor.
Her eyes widened, then she winced. “What a goose I am. Of course, you can’t dance. It matters not, I’m not very skilled at it myself.”
Had she always been this talkative? He didn’t think so. She was obviously nervous. He made her nervous. He likely scared the hell out of her as he seemed to do most people. She was willing to overlook her aversion to him because she was desperate, or because her mother was forcing her.