Seducing an Heiress on a Train – Lauren Smith

The ticking clock in the corner of the waiting area counted down the seconds toward Oliver Conway’s doom. Each second sounded like a hammer fall in the interminable silence. He clenched his worn black gloves in one hand and held his hat in the other as he waited to be summoned. Finally, the door to the bank president’s office opened, and a portly man with kind eyes glanced down the hall to find him. “Lord Conway, I will see you now.” Oliver swallowed and stood, then straightened his shoulders and entered the office of Mr. Kelly, president of Drummonds Bank. “Please, sit, Lord Conway.” Mr. Kelly waved at the pair of leather chairs facing the desk. Oliver sat, his hands trembling a little. At the grown age of one and thirty he had few reasons to be afraid, but today this man held the fate of Oliver’s family’s future in his hands. Mr. Kelly removed a pair of spectacles from his coat pocket and nestled them on the bridge of his nose. He pulled a stack of papers toward him.

“I’ve reviewed all of the accounts this morning, my lord, and I’m afraid the loans your father extended two years ago are past due. I received the payments you’ve been sending, but it barely covers the interest currently owed.” Oliver’s heart sank, and a bitter taste filled his mouth. “And the stock he purchased? We authorized the bank with permission to sell. What amount did it bring in?” Mr. Kelly sighed, and his gray eyes, still showing that damnable sincerity and kindness, only increased Oliver’s fears. “The stock was worthless after the businesses your father invested in went bankrupt. I was able to recuperate a small amount, but it covered only the interest owed for the next month’s payment.” Panic spread through Oliver. He had been fighting for over a year to save his family and his home from ruin after his father’s death, and now all he had was his name and the title of Viscount Conway, which at the moment was a burden almost beyond what he could bear.

“Mr. Kelly, is there no way…?” The banker removed his spectacles and set them on the desk. He leaned forward, his voice lowering. “I have so few options, Oliver. Your father was a dear friend and…” Mr. Kelly paused, collecting himself. “But my hands are tied by bank regulations and investor expectations.” “So that’s it, then? Astley Court, all of the tenancy properties and everything we own…” “Will be property of Drummonds in thirty days,” Mr. Kelly finished. “You’ve done a commendable job, but the debts were simply too great.

The only way to…” Mr. Kelly stopped and shook his head. “What?” Oliver pressed. “What were you about to say? I will do anything.” “The only option I see as a way out of this mess is to, shall we say…marry advantageously?” Oliver didn’t quite comprehend the banker’s words because they were so unexpected. “Pardon?” “An heiress, dear boy,” Mr. Kelly said, forgetting their difference in social standing for a moment, not that Oliver cared. “An heiress,” he muttered, finding the implication distasteful. “Yes. Find a pretty young lady with a fortune to her name and secure her hand in less than thirty days, and you will have access to money.

I could get around some of the resistance here if you returned before the middle of January with a rich bride upon your arm.” Oliver stared down at his worn-out gloves and top hat, which rested in his lap. So it had come to this. Sell himself to the highest-bidding lady in London and find himself saddled with a wife, one he might not like, let alone love—all to save his home and family. “Do it for Astley Court. Do it for your mother.” The thought of his mother, his younger brother Everett, and his sister Zadie all depending on him. It was all it took to make him decide. “Thirty days,” Oliver said, as if sealing the pact. Still feeling like a man doomed and facing the gallows, Oliver thanked Mr.

Kelly and shook his hand before he exited the office. He pulled on his gloves and cursed as he found yet another small hole in the leather. He had spent the last year putting every bit of coin he had toward the business debts his father’s investments had accrued. The cost of his efforts, aside from his pride, had been clothing three years too old, and showing every day of it. His mother and sister had suffered more, being forced to wear gowns well out of fashion. He and Everett were able to get by on what they owned since men’s fashions changed far less and more slowly than the fashions of ladies. Zadie had held her head high, even when other girls had mocked her during her debut this season when she’d worn an outmoded gown. His family had also reduced the staff at their country estate by half and had sold their large townhouse in London six months ago. Now they only rented rooms when in town for the season. Oliver didn’t want to think about what cuts they would have to make if he wasn’t able to save Astley Court.

A man without land and without a fortune… He shuddered, but resolved himself to the idea of learning a trade. He was not opposed to it, but the social circles his family ran in would surely find it distasteful, which meant he put Everett’s and Zadie’s futures at risk. But if he could find an heiress… No. He would find an heiress. He would do his duty, in whatever form that required. As he left Drummonds and stepped out into the streets, someone called his name. “Conway!” He spun to find a man striding toward him, waving his arm. The tall, dark-haired fellow had the same green eyes as him. “Cousin!” He laughed as he shook Devon St. Laurent’s hand.

Devon was second in line to become the Duke of Essex. Oliver’s great-grandfather, Godric St. Laurent, and his wife Emily had had four children, and Devon’s grandfather, second eldest of the brood, was the current duke. “Care for a drink? I was heading to Berkley’s.” “I would love to, but I surrendered my membership three months ago.” It was one of the many frivolous luxuries both he and Everett had removed to slim down their family’s expenses. “What? Why?” Oliver sighed. “It is a long story.” His shoulders ached now. He had been waiting to see Mr.

Kelly for over an hour, and he had been strung tighter than an archer’s bow the entire time. Devon smiled and clapped a hand on Oliver’s shoulder. “Come on, we’ll drink at a pub nearby, and you can tell me this long story.” Half an hour later, the two of them were two pints into a nice afternoon. “All right, Oliver, tell me what’s the matter.” Devon’s expression was back to that of concern. And like they had been as boys, Oliver found his trust in his cousin well placed as he shared his family’s dire financial straits. “Lord, Oliver, that’s dreadful. Why don’t you speak to my grandfather? I’m sure he wouldn’t mind helping you out. You know how he loves Astley Court.

” “I know,” Oliver admitted. His great-uncle, the Duke of Essex, was a loving man, openhearted and kind, but even he did not possess the funds to help the Conways out of their massive debt. “Why not?” Devon pressed. He rolled his half-empty pint glass between his hands. “It wouldn’t be enough. The amount we need to pay… It would put Essex House at risk. I cannot ask that.” Devon’s eyes darkened. “It’s truly that bad?” “It is,” Oliver replied numbly. He glanced around the pub, noting the men who sought to escape the winter chill.

Most were laughing and talking, all in seemingly good spirits. It only served to deepen his melancholy. “I feel I’ve failed,” Oliver whispered. “You haven’t.” Devon leaned forward and set his glass down on the table. “Debts happen, businesses fail. Your father made these choices, and they seemed good and sound at the time. It isn’t your fault they failed. The world changed, and we’re all still trying to catch up with it.” Oliver drained the rest of his pint, letting the stout ale go to his head.

His stomach was empty, and his head ached from the lack of food. He had done his best not to eat at too many restaurants while he was in London. The expense was one more thing he couldn’t afford. “The banker said I need to find an heiress. Can you believe that? It was his professional advice.” “An heiress?” Delight suddenly burst on Devon’s face as he grinned. “That may be something I could help you with.” “Oh?” “You remember Adelaide Berwick?” “The Earl of Berwick’s daughter?” He nodded. He had spent much of his youth around the girl. She chattered endlessly and could be quite mean-spirited sometimes.

“She still wants you, Oliver. I know you didn’t offer for her when she came out last year, but she is still hoping you’ll change your mind. Her father has settled a hefty sum on her as a dowry and a large sum to be given as an inheritance if he approves of the match. Old Berwick always liked you.” The Earl of Berwick was a good fellow, but his wife and his only daughter could both be unbearable. Still, Oliver considered it. “Adelaide is a bit…much, don’t you think?” he asked his cousin. Devon shrugged. “Yes, I suppose she is. But she’s as rich as Croesus, and that’s what you need, isn’t it?” His cousin chuckled.

“Besides, if she truly drove you mad, you could always live apart in separate homes. That seems to be quite acceptable these days with those who marry out of necessity.” “I suppose you’re right. I could stomach it. For Astley Court.” “There you are then. Cheer up. You’re coming to Lady Poole’s ball tonight, aren’t you? Adelaide will be there. Propose to her, and I’ll go with you to procure a special license. You’ll be married by Christmas.

” “Married to Adelaide Berwick by Christmas…” Oliver shook his head, trying not to laugh at the maddening twist his life had taken. “Married, at least,” Devon replied. “That ought to be some consolation.” They finished their drinks, and Devon paid the barman. They then donned their gloves and hats before embracing the chill outside. “Shall I see you tonight?” “You shall.” Oliver shook Devon’s hand and parted ways with his cousin. He walked to the hotel his family were renting rooms at while they were in town. The Grosvenor Hotel on Buckingham Palace Road was an impressive structure modeled in the Baroque interpretation of French Renaissance architectural style. His father had been a good friend of the hotel’s current owner, and whenever they stayed in town, they were able to rent a room far cheaper than most guests, for which Oliver was extremely grateful.

It didn’t hurt that having a titled lord staying there caused a flurry of interest from other guests, which the owner thought was good for business. As Oliver entered its opulent entryway, his eyes rolled over the fluted twisting columns and the way the light from the chandeliers turned the white marble a soft gold. Bright-red roses filled half a dozen large crystal vases, and a group of young ladies in colorful gowns were gossiping as they donned their velvet manteaux, likely for an evening out at the opera or perhaps a ball. More than one lady in the group caught Oliver’s eye, offering him a blushing smile before they dissolved into giggles with their friends as he passed. In another life, Oliver would’ve enjoyed the attention. He was no fool. He had his mother’s fair looks as well as his father’s, and more than one young lady had thrown herself at him over the years. He had thoroughly enjoyed seducing a few, though never too far, just enough to please his ego and give the lady a breathtaking memory. But he was older now, and there was a part of him that did long to settle down. He wanted what his mother and father had, a marriage based on love and respect.

But I won’t have that with Adelaide. She will own me, and she’ll never let me forget it. He climbed the stairs to the third floor and then headed down the hall to the suite of rooms he’d rented. As he opened the door, he saw his mother and sister in the sitting room, talking excitedly about tonight. “Oh, Oliver!” his mother exclaimed in joy as she saw him. She rose and came over to embrace him. “How was Mr. Kelly? Did he give us a very long extension?” Oliver’s gut knotted as he carefully planned his response. He saw his little sister, Zadie, who was only eighteen, watching him with anxious eyes. She knows.

She’s always been able to read me like an open book. “Mother, perhaps you should sit down.” His mother, still lovely even at fifty-two, now became concerned. “Oliver… What’s the matter? What did Mr. Kelly say?” Zadie gently ushered their mother into a chair, and then she stood behind it, as strong as a soldier in Her Majesty’s army. “Where is Everett?” he asked. “Here.” His brother stepped out of the nearest bedroom. Everett could be Oliver’s twin, though he was three years younger. He’d removed his coat and was waiting for Oliver to speak.

They all were. “Mr. Kelly could not grant us an extension. The entire amount of the debt has been called in, and we are destitute. We have thirty days to set our affairs in order and arrange for the sale of Astley Court and all of its sub properties, as well as the furnishings in the house.” That bitter taste had returned, and it broke his heart to see his mother wipe the tears in her eyes. No matter what Devon had said, he knew he had failed his family. “I haven’t given up,” Oliver told them. “I have one last chance. Mr.

Kelly suggested it, and I shall endeavor to do my best.” “What is it?” his mother asked. Even though her husband had passed more than a year ago, she, like Her Majesty, still mourned her husband and had not shed her widow’s weeds. Her black silk gown whispered against the carpets as she stood and faced him with a strength that made him proud. “If I can marry an heiress before the middle of next January, we’ll be able to save the house, tenancies…all of it.” “An heiress? Oh, Oliver, no.” His mother shook her head. “I’ll not have you become some dreadful fortune hunter.” “I won’t be, Mother. I already know the woman I’m choosing, and she won’t require any hunting.

” He tried to smile, but he knew the expression failed to reach his eyes. “You could even say that she’s been hunting me.” “Who would be…?” Zadie asked, and then her eyes widened with horror. “Oh no, Oliver, not her. Anyone but her.” “Zadie.” He held up a hand, trying to reassure her. “She’s not that terrible.” “Not that terrible? She covered my hair in tar when I was twelve, Oliver. Mother had to cut it all off.

I looked like a boy for almost a year!” “Bloody hell,” Everett said, then whistled. “I forgot Adelaide did that.” “She was just a girl then,” Oliver said. Everett shook his head in disgust. “Choose anyone but that one. There must be other heiresses.” “Everett, heiresses do not grow on trees,” their mother said coldly. “If Oliver believes Adelaide is our only choice, then we must bear it.” When Everett made a gagging noise, she added, “Or you could marry her.” At which point, Everett turned as white as alabaster.

Zadie sank into the chair their mother had now vacated, while Everett shot Oliver a sympathetic look as their mother took his hands in hers and gave a gentle squeeze. “You truly want this?” Margaret asked him. Oliver squeezed her hands back. “Mother, it’s not what I want, but it is what must be done. I won’t lose our home, and I won’t put Zadie’s and Everett’s futures at risk. They need a stable life and a reputation unsullied by destitution if they are to make decent matches.” For a long moment, no one said anything. Then his mother cupped his cheek and tried to smile. “You are a wonderful son to make such a sacrifice. I would give anything to keep you from doing this.

” “I know, Mother.” He closed his eyes, drew a deep breath, and tried to summon a smile. “Now, we have Lady Poole’s ball tonight, and I for one would like to enjoy myself this evening before I propose.” He would not let himself think about what his future might be. Certainly not tonight with his last night of freedom before he shackled himself to an unwanted heiress.

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