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London, October 1816
“You heard me, Owen, and this time I’m putting my foot down.” The stamp of a boot lent credence to that particular claim.
Owen tugged at his sleeve and did his best to keep from rolling his eyes. He’d been summoned to his father’s study for what was likely the sixth time in as many months. Only this time, Owen had the misfortunate to be completely … sober. Blast, he should have stopped at the club and been even later than he already was to his father’s favorite pastime, dressing down his son. At least it would be more palatable if he were half in the bottle.
“I understand,” Owen drawled, standing up from the leather-upholstered chair that sat in front of his father’s large mahogany desk. Owen inched toward the door. He had learned over years of such meetings that it was best to get out quickly before his father had a chance to toss more empty threats at his head.
“No. I don’t think you do understand,” the earl said, stamping his foot against the wooden floor again.
Owen pressed his lips together to keep from saying something he’d regret. Which was usually everything he said. “I understand perfectly. You’re tired of my drinking?”
“My fondness for light skirts?”
Owen picked an imaginary bit of lint from the front of his impeccably tailored blue coat. The garment had cost a small fortune, but then again, high fashion didn’t come cheap and Owen prided himself on being well dressed. Well dressed, well fed, well entertained. Well everything. He focused his gaze on his father’s red face. “There, you see? I’ve cataloged all my faults. You want me to find a wife and ‘settle down.’ I understand entirely.”
“No. You don’t understand, Owen.” His father clutched at the lapels of his own burgundy coat and tugged viciously. Owen winced. There was no need to take it out on the garment. “You don’t understand at all,” the earl continued. “How many times have we had this discussion?”
“Too many to count,” Owen muttered under his breath. He was already thinking of the hand of cards he’d be playing tonight at his favorite gaming hell.
“What was that?” His father narrowed his eyes on him.
Oh, devil take it. His father had heard his mutter. “Quite a few,” Owen answered in a clearer voice.
“And how many times have you left here and done absolutely nothing to comply with my wishes?” his father replied, still tugging on his lapels.
“Too many to count,” Owen muttered again, glancing down at the tabletop so he wouldn’t have to witness the assault on the garment.
“You’ve never complied with my wishes!” The Earl of Moreland banged his large fist against the desk. The inkpot bounced. “Damn it, Owen, you’re to inherit the title one day. You’re to be an earl, for heaven’s sake. You’re to take your seat in Parliament and be a productive member of Society. You cannot continue to comport yourself as if you’re nothing more than a gadabout.”
“But I am nothing more than a gadabout.” Owen sighed and scratched at the underside of his chin. “Haven’t you told me that ever since my days at Eton?”
“We’re not going to talk about that again,” the earl replied, a thunderous expression hovering across his brow.
That’s right. His father had never even asked him what happened. Just assumed the worst about his son. And Owen had set about proving him right ever since.
“And you’re not a gadabout,” the earl continued. “Or you won’t be.” He banged his fist on the desk again. At least he’d surrendered the poor, blameless lapels. “I’m tired of having this conversation with you to no avail. I’m tired of seeing you while away your days drinking and gambling. I’m tired of hearing stories about your exploits all over town.”
Owen rubbed a knuckle against his forehead. “Oh, come now. They aren’t all over town, are they?”
His father’s jowls shook as he clutched his lapels even more tightly again. “Don’t be impertinent.”
“I’ve long since passed impertinent. And please have a care for your jacket, Father.” Owen smoothed a hand over the thigh of his coffee-colored breeches. Also not cheap. Living the lifestyle to which he’d grown accustomed was, in fact, quite expensive, and his monthly allowance from his father was the means by which he maintained his lifestyle. Hence Owen’s willingness to come here regularly and receive his dressing-down. It was a means to an end. He kept his father happy, and a large bank draft was deposited into his account each month. Of course, he sent a sizable portion of his allowance each month to an orphanage near one of the gaming hells he frequented, but he’d never tell his father that. Why spoil the man’s bad opinion of him? Besides, Owen wasn’t in the business of untarnishing his reputation. In fact, he’d been doing the exact opposite for years. It was a sport for him, really, much like training his beloved horses.
“Damn it, Owen. You must care about something.”
Owen did care about something. He adored his younger sister, Cassandra, and his horses. In that order. Neither had ever let him down. Neither had ever believed the worst of him. “I care about the damage you’re wreaking on your lapels,” he drawled.
The earl lifted his chin. “That’s it. I’ve given you plenty of opportunities. I’m officially finished putting up with your behavior. You will return here one month from today with an affianced bride or else!”
Owen’s gaze flicked over his father. Was that spittle on his chin? The old blighter really had his back up this time, didn’t he? But Owen couldn’t help himself. “Or else what?”
“Or else … or else I will cut off your allowance. Yes. That’s it. I should have done it long before now. I am not giving you another pound until you are properly engaged.”
Owen arched a brow and picked another invisible piece of lint, this time from his coat sleeve. “That’s a bit dramatic, don’t you think?”
His father’s face turned even redder, if that were possible. “No. I don’t.”
Owen studied his father’s countenance. By God, the old man was actually serious. Or at least seemed to believe he was serious. His face was a mottled purplish color and his neck was bulging beneath his neckcloth. Yes, Father was serious, indeed. Owen groaned. He’d always known this day would come. The day when his father insisted he take a wife. He supposed he couldn’t escape the parson’s noose forever. He’d had a good run, actually.
Owen shrugged. “Fine. If I must choose a wife, I’ll pick one out. Someone biddable, willing, quiet. One who’ll look the other way. Someone passably pretty and exceedingly meek.”
His father shook his head. “You don’t understand, Owen.”
Owen flicked at his cheek. “Understand what?”
“I’m not asking you to choose a wife. I’m telling you whom you’ll marry.”
Owen’s head snapped up. “You mean to say you’ve already got a candidate in mind?”
His father nodded, his jowls shaking vigorously once more. “Yes. Her father and I have already been discussing the contract.”
Owen leaned back into his seat, the wind knocked from his lungs. Well, he hadn’t seen this coming. Not at all. And he was rarely caught by surprise. He leaned far back in his chair, stretched out his long legs in front of him, and crossed his feet at the ankles. Perhaps this was even more serious than he’d guessed. “Discussing the contract? Good God. Who is it?”
His father cleared his throat, released his beleaguered jacket, and calmly folded his hands on the desk in front of him. “Lady Lavinia Hobbs. The Duke of Huntley’s eldest daughter.”
Owen scanned his memory. Hobbs? Lavinia Hobbs? The name was familiar, but he couldn’t recall a face. Blast. There were far too many pretty little daughters of overly entitled aristocrats to remember them all. And they were certainly not the sort of company Owen preferred to keep. The Duke of Huntley owned land adjacent to Father’s in the country. He knew that much. He’d been to parties at the duke’s country estate countless times. But none of that mattered to him at present. What did Lavinia Hobbs look like? More important, what did she act like? Was she biddable? Was she meek?
He couldn’t recall and he wasn’t about to ask his obviously enraged father. No matter. One eligible innocent was as good as another, Owen supposed. What did it matter whom he married? He’d stop his merrymaking long enough to participate in a wedding, get an heir or two off her, and then resume his style of living. It was more the norm than the exception among his set. It signified little. This was nothing to worry about.
“I’m certain she’s fine, Father. Whatever you say.” Again, Owen stood to make his way to the door. He’d simply go to the club and get a good drunk going, and then he would continue to live his life exactly the way he had been doing for the last thirty-one years. A sennight or so before his next visit to his father, he would track down this Lavinia Hobbs, toss around a bit of charm, smile at her, kiss the back of her hand, and finally ask her to marry him. She’d jump at the chance, of course, because despite his sullied reputation, he was still one of the most eligible bachelors in the ton. Inheriting an earldom tended to whitewash even the most tattered reputation. Then, he’d return here in a month’s time, announce his success to his father, secure his allowance, and go about his routine, while Lady Lavinia planned a wedding worthy of a future earl and the daughter of a duke. After the wedding, he’d install the chit in one of their homes in the country, and that would be that until it was time to beget an heir. Not so difficult, really. He shrugged.
“You agree so easily?” His father’s bushy eyebrows flew to the top of his forehead.
Owen grinned at his father. “Yes. Lavinia Hobbs it is. I’ll see you in a month, Father.” He made his way toward the door.
“Not so fast.”
Owen paused, his fingers resting on the door handle. He turned slowly and arched a questioning brow in the earl’s direction. “Yes?”
The earl cleared his throat. “There is a catch.”
“A catch?” Owen echoed. He didn’t quite like the sound of that. “What catch?”
“Her father insists that she should choose you.”
Owen’s hand fell away from the door. He turned to fully face his father. “Choose me? What do you mean?”
“Apparently, the girl’s got it in her head that she will marry only for love.”
Owen scowled and rubbed a hand across his forehead again. “Love? What nonsense is that?”
“Her parents value her highly and are quite indulgent of her. They’ve promised her she can marry for love. Until she fancies herself in love with some chap, she won’t accept his suit.”
Owen did roll his eyes this time. “How droll. Good God, Father, why this girl of all girls?”
“Because she comes from impeccable lineage. And once the match is made, the combination of our lands will secure the future of the title for centuries. She’s the perfect mate for you. But you are going to have to be the biddable, willing one. You are going to have to be the meek one. You are going to have to court this girl. Make her see your, ahem, assets, however questionable they may be.”
Owen snorted. “Your faith in me is truly astounding, Father.”
“Be that as it may, you’re going to have to convince her not only to marry you but fall in love with you as well.”
Owen’s grin widened. “I doubt it will be as difficult as you believe. I do possess a modicum of charm, you know?”
His father’s face adequately reflected his skepticism. “There’s one other thing.”
Owen groaned. “Dare I ask?”
“You cannot tell her that we are already planning a contract.”
Owen rubbed his temples. He wished he hadn’t had quite so many brandies last night at the club or quite so few earlier this afternoon. “Seems the whole thing could be put to rights with just coming out and telling her we’re to marry.”
“Absolutely not. Her father will stop the proceedings if she is made aware. She’s a bit, er, excitable, it seems.”
Owen scowled. “Excitable?”
“Gets her back up about certain things if she’s not happy.”
“Fine. Whatever you say. I’ll think of something. I’ll manage it.” Owen turned again, wrenched open the door, and took a step into the corridor.
“You have a month to get her to agree to your proposal, Owen,” his father called.
Owen turned his head and grinned at his father. “That should be plenty of time.” He strolled off down the corridor, whistling to himself. A month to get a Society miss to fancy herself in love with him? How difficult could it be?
Copyright © 2016 by Valerie Bowman