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Miss Fiona Hartley’s etiquette was far from flawless, but even she was not in the habit of writing letters to gentlemen who were of no relation to her. And she’d certainly never had occasion to propose marriage in such a letter.
Frowning, she sat at her desk and tickled her chin with the tip of the downy quill she held poised above a blank sheet of stationery. Miss Haywinkle’s School for Girls had neglected to cover the finer points of proposing to an earl. But then, the headmistress had failed to cover any number of topics that might have proven helpful, such as how to walk down the street wearing a ridiculous bonnet without feeling foolish. Or how to properly hit a cricket ball while encumbered by a gown and two petticoats.
And, regrettably, Miss Haywinkle had never offered the lesson Fiona needed the most: how a shy heiress might discern which of her gentlemen suitors was interested in more than her fortune. Alas, the men of Fiona’s acquaintance seemed unable to comprehend that she was a person first and foremost—that she existed wholly independently of her substantial dowry and the vast wealth she stood to one day inherit. Perhaps it was a naïve notion, but she’d always longed to marry a man who genuinely cared for her. Maybe even loved her.
At least now she needn’t bother continuing her fruitless search. The dream of a love match had flown out the window yesterday afternoon—with the arrival of a perfectly ordinary-looking letter in the regular post, addressed to her.
Curious, Fiona had lifted it from the silver salver, admiring the heavy paper and elegant script. But as she’d opened and read it, dread had seeped into her veins.
No one could discover the truth revealed in that letter—not her parents or her dearest friend, Sophie, or the authorities. Most certainly not her younger sister, Lily.
A shiver stole over Fiona’s skin despite the silk shawl draped over her shoulders and the cozy fire burning in her bedchamber’s fireplace. The scoundrel who’d sent the horrid note obviously knew she’d sacrifice anything to protect her sister and was demanding an exorbitant amount of money to keep Lily’s secret. But procuring such a large sum wasn’t easy—even for an heiress.
Papa was out of town and wasn’t expected back for at least a week. Even if time weren’t of the essence, Fiona didn’t dare tell him the shocking news for fear his weak heart would give out. After Papa collapsed in his office last year, his doctor had warned him to avoid undue stress. Fiona had already lost her real mother, and the thought of losing Papa terrified her.
She’d lain awake much of the night, debating what to do, and had reached the only logical conclusion. What she needed was a titled husband—and fast.
The Earl of Ravenport was the perfect candidate. His desperate financial situation was widely rumored, and though he’d once been engaged, his fiancée had called off their marriage a fortnight ago. His lack of fortune and his brooding personality kept most of the matchmaking mamas at bay, which reduced the competition and increased Fiona’s odds of success.
He’d come to mind for one other reason as well—on the most humiliating night of her life, the earl had shown her kindness. She’d tripped on the dance floor and landed among the musicians in the orchestra, sending their sheet music flying. Her dance partner had frozen, aghast. Other guests had snickered.
Only Lord Ravenport had stepped forward and offered his hand, effortlessly pulling her to her feet. Somehow, that simple contact—his large gloved hand enveloping hers—had managed to be simultaneously reassuring and thrilling. The brief encounter had meant a great deal to her, and yet she wasn’t at all certain that the earl knew her name.
The fact that the earl happened to be handsome was immaterial. Entirely irrelevant, really. But if his devil-may-care smile made Fiona’s stomach flutter now and again, she saw no harm in it. She deserved to glean something from the deal after all, and what girl wouldn’t enjoy having a tall, athletic, ruggedly attractive husband—at least in name? It wasn’t as though she intended to give him her heart.
Nevertheless, she’d enjoy sketching him … one day. She didn’t yet know him well enough to do him justice. Oh, she could recall his physical traits all too easily: the dark hair that spilled across his forehead, the slightly crooked nose, and the boxer’s physique. But in spite of his self-assured demeanor, he was more guarded than most—reluctant to reveal who he truly was. She, of all people, respected that.
Fiona tapped a fingernail on her gleaming mahogany desk, determined to forge ahead. How, precisely, did one broach the subject of marriage with a relative stranger? Shrugging, she dipped the nib of her quill and let the ink flow.
Dear Lord Ravenport,
We’ve not been formally introduced, but you may remember me from the Millbrook ball, where I tripped during the cotillion and tumbled headfirst into the musicians, knocking the violinist clear off his chair. Would you consider binding yourself to me in matrimony for the rest of your natural life?
A bit too honest, perhaps. And too direct. Miss Haywinkle would be utterly appalled by Fiona’s lack of decorum. Though the thought of shocking her former headmistress cheered her slightly, the letter would never do. Sighing, she tossed it in the dustbin, withdrew a clean sheet from the desk drawer, and began writing anew.
She took the most polite and businesslike approach she could manage given the rather forward nature of her request.
Dear Lord Ravenport,
I am writing to you with a proposal that is unconventional but quite sincere. After much deliberation, I’ve reached the conclusion that that each of us would benefit greatly if we were to ally ourselves through marriage. I possess a very large dowry which I’m certain you would find useful. In addition, I would promise to be a very undemanding wife. Indeed, you would be free—nay, encouraged—to pursue your own interests.
All I would ask in return is that you allow me to retain a small property with a cottage in Cornwall, five thousand pounds for my own use, and a reasonable yearly allowance. The stipulated monies shall be mine to spend as I please without any explanation or interference.
I do have one last requirement. We must wed within a fortnight. I understand that this may seem rash, but since our union would merely be one of convenience, I see no reason to delay. Please consider my proposal and provide your response at the first opportunity.
Miss Fiona Hartley
In the end, she was quite satisfied with the result. And yet her hands trembled as she folded the sheet and melted the sealing wax.
Once sent, the letter could not be retrieved; the words could never be taken back. There was no way to know how Lord Ravenport would react to the deal she’d proposed. He might tell all his friends and make her the laughingstock of the ton, or he might refuse to dignify her proposal with a response. But proposing to him was her best hope of sparing her sister, Lily, untold ridicule and pain. Fiona had no choice but to try.
A knock on her bedchamber door made her jump guiltily. She quickly hid the letter in the folds of her skirt. “Come in,” she said, attempting a breezy tone.
Her sprightly maid, Mary, bustled into the room, and Fiona released the breath she’d been holding. “Pardon the interruption, Miss Fiona. Miss Kendall came for a visit. She and Miss Lily are in the drawing room, and they’re quite eager for your company.”
“Please tell them I’ll be down momentarily. I require a few minutes to…” To contemplate the sheer madness of what I am about to do. To come to terms with my future, which most notably includes a cold, loveless marriage. “… to finish up a bit of correspondence.”
The maid set freshly folded linens on the damask-covered bed. “I’ll gladly tell them. But your sister is not a particularly patient person. Don’t be surprised if she insists on retrieving you herself.” Mary cocked an ear to the door and clucked her tongue. “Alas, it sounds as though she and Miss Kendall are heading this way now.”
Oh dear. Fiona sprang from her chair and, before she could change her mind, thrust the letter into Mary’s hands. “Would you please see that this is delivered immediately? It’s quite important,” she said, “and requires the utmost discretion.”
Before the maid could reply, Lily burst into the room, poor Sophie in tow. Propping her hands on her slim hips, Lily narrowed her eyes at Fiona. “Here you are. Why have you closeted yourself away in your room on this glorious day? Sophie and I had begun to despair of you ever making an appearance, and we’ve much plotting to do in advance of tonight’s ball.”
“Plotting sounds rather sinister,” Sophie said softly. “Perhaps you meant planning?”
“No, no, I meant plotting.” Lily swept the heavy velvet panels away from the window and shot a suspicious look at Fiona and the maid. “Have we interrupted something?”
“Certainly not,” Fiona said, a bit too brightly.
Mary whisked the letter behind her back and dipped a quick curtsy as she inched her way toward the bedchamber door. “I’ll leave you ladies to your own devices. Be sure to ring if you require anything.” She shot Fiona a reassuring smile before scurrying down the hall.
Fiona fought the urge to chase after the maid, seize the letter, and tear it into a thousand pieces. Instead, she greeted her friend with a warm hug and waved a hand at the armchair beside her bed. “What an unexpected pleasure, Sophie. Please, make yourself comfortable while Lily explains the nature of this apparent pre-ball emergency.” Fiona arched a brow at her sister. “No, wait. Allow me to guess. You tried on the blue silk this morning only to find the bodice has grown too snug?”
Lily grinned and launched herself toward Fiona’s bed, bouncing on the mattress in a most hoyden-like manner. “No, the gown is fine. Care to take another guess?”
Fiona tapped a finger against her lower lip. “You cannot find a hair ribbon in just the shade of sapphire to match your slippers?”
“Wrong again.” Lily sat up on the edge of the mattress, and the familiar gleam in her green eyes sent a chill down Fiona’s spine. “I realized something during my walk after breakfast. Here we are—the three of us—barely a month into our first season, and despite all we learned while we were away at finishing school, it seems we are woefully unprepared.”
Fiona wrapped an arm around the post at the foot of her bed and smiled. “I had a similar thought this morning. But I doubt Miss Haywinkle will agree to reimburse our tuition, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
Sophie smoothed a lock of golden blond hair behind her ear and tilted her head. “I found the headmistress’s lessons quite instructive. Perhaps I could have done without the endless French conjugations, but she did teach us how to avoid a myriad of social blunders.”
“You would have avoided them anyway,” Lily said, and Fiona agreed. Sophie possessed a natural grace, was unfailingly polite, and never uttered an unkind word about anyone. “Besides,” Lily continued, “I’m not talking about black-and-white matters, like which fork to use during the first course or the correct way to address a dowager duchess. I want to know … more important things.”
Copyright © 2018 by Anna Bennett