Someone to Romance – Mary Balogh

Lady Jessica Archer was traveling alone across England toward London. Alone was, of course, a relative term. If she had been born male, she could have left Rose Cottage in Gloucestershire that morning astride a horse or perched upon the high seat of a sporting curricle, ribbons in hand, and no one would have batted an eyelid. When one had the misfortune to be a woman, however, there were always enough people and enough eyelids to bat up a storm. She was seated inside the carriage of her brother, the Duke of Netherby, the ducal crest emblazoned upon both doors, with Ruth, her maid. A brawny footman was seated beside a burly coachman up on the box, both men clad in the ducal livery, which was not subdued in color, to say the least. It blared upon the eye like a clarion might upon the ear. And then there were the two carriages bowling along behind her. The first conveyed Mr. Goddard, the duke’s personal secretary, who had the whole of the duke’s authority vested in his person when he was acting on behalf of His Grace, as he was currently doing. The coachman and footman upon the box of that carriage were hardly less impressive in girth than the first two. The third carriage bore all the baggage, which could have been squeezed into and upon the other two conveyances with a little effort—but why crowd them when there had been the spare carriage taking up room in the ducal carriage house? There was only a coachman upon the box of the baggage coach, but that might have been because he was a former pugilist and so broad and so fierce-looking with his once-broken nose and one cauliflower ear and several missing teeth that no footman fancied climbing up beside him. And then there were the outriders, also in the ducal livery, all of them large men upon large horses and appearing as though they might also have been professional fighters in the not-too-distant past. There were eight of them, two for each carriage and two to spare. Any highwayman seeing the cavalcade make its colorful way east along the king’s highway, not even trying to hide itself or tiptoe past any dangerous stretch without being noticed, would have either died laughing or else taken mortal fright and moved his business permanently to another part of the country.

And this was what traveling alone meant when one was a lady. This was how it had all come about. Abigail Bennington, née Westcott, Jessica’s cousin and best friend, had given birth to a son, Seth, her first child, in late February, a little less than two years after her marriage to Lieutenant Colonel Gilbert Bennington. The Westcott family had been invited to the christening, a month later, in the Gloucestershire village outside which Abby and Gil lived at Rose Cottage, fortunately not really a cottage but more a manor. Even so, when a number of the Westcotts showed up, it was filled to the rafters, to use the phrase of Uncle Thomas, Lord Molenor. And it was a good thing, Aunt Viola, Abby’s mother, the Marchioness of Dorchester, had said, though a little sad too since neither Camille nor Harry, her other two children, had come, having decided to visit later, after the weather had warmed up a bit. Camille and Joel’s numerous children alone would fill a tent that would take up the whole lawn. Jessica had gone with her mother, the Dowager Duchess of Netherby—and a Westcott by birth— and with her brother and sister-in-law, Avery and Anna, the duke and duchess, and their four children. It had been a jolly week, the only real frustration for Jessica being that it had given her scarcely a moment to be alone with Abby. She had not seen her best friend for an age, though they exchanged long letters at least once a week.

Abby had been a bit disappointed too, but it was Gil who had suggested that Jessica stay on for a few weeks after everyone else returned home. Simple, right? Jessica silently addressed an invisible someone seated opposite her in the carriage. Wrong! She would remain at Rose Cottage to give Abby her company awhile longer, Jessica had announced to her family. She was twenty-five years old, after all, and no longer needed to be coddled like a girl. Gil would hire a post chaise for her when she was ready to leave, and she would have her maid, Ruth, for company. Her family, alas—at least the vocal part of it (which, interpreted, meant the female part)—saw things quite otherwise. Jessica, for all her advanced years, could not possibly be allowed to remain behind, since that would mean her returning alone. Poor Ruth, apparently, counted for nothing. All sorts of harm might befall Jessica in the form of footpads or highwaymen or rude hostlers at inns or wild beasts or broken axles or torrential storms. “Besides which,” her grandmother, the Dowager Countess of Riverdale, had pointed out as though to clinch the matter, “it simply is not done for any lady to travel alone, Jessica, as you must be well aware.

Even someone my age.” Grandmama was well into her seventies. Jessica’s protests had gone unheeded. “You cannot possibly stay here,” Jessica’s mother had said at last, a note of finality in her voice, “as much as I understand your longing to spend more time with Abigail—and hers to have you. I cannot possibly remain here with you. The Season is about to begin and I will need to get ready for the removal to London. So will you, Jessica. Perhaps we can arrange something for another time.” Jessica had cringed at the very thought of going back to London in order to participate in all the glittering entertainments of yet another Season—her sixth. Or was it her seventh? She had lost count.

It was not that she hated balls and picnics and concerts and all the other parties and such with which the ton amused itself during the months of spring, while Parliament was in session. But these entertainments could very quickly become repetitive and tedious. And one tended to see the same people year after year and wherever one went. Her continued single state was always more apparent in London than it was in the country. “Oh, Mama,” she had protested. Aunt Matilda had been smiling sympathetically at her, but it was not sympathy she had needed. It was a defender. That was when Avery—her brother, the duke—had come to her rescue. He had listened in silence to the family conference, sitting in one corner of Gil and Abby’s sitting room holding Beatrice, the newest addition to his family, while she sucked partly on her thumb and partly on one formerly pristine fold of his elaborately tied neckcloth. When he had spoken, it had been with what sounded like a sigh, as though he had found the whole proceeding excruciatingly tedious, as no doubt he had.

“I daresay,” he had said, “you would all consider Jessica both safe from harm and properly preserved from scandal if she were to travel home in the ducal carriage with her maid while Edwin Goddard followed close behind in another carriage, each conveyance manned with a coachman and a footman upon the box, and half a dozen outriders to serve as escorts.” The Marquess of Dorchester, Abby’s stepfather, had chuckled. “All of them clad in the brightest ducal livery, I suppose, Netherby?” he had said. “But of course.” Avery had raised his eyebrows as though surprised that the matter could even be in doubt. “It is a splendid idea,” Anna had said, beaming at her husband and her sister-in-law. “Avery will send them whenever you are ready to leave, Jessica. How lovely it will be for you and Abby to enjoy some time together after the whirlwind of the celebrations during the past week.” And that had settled it. Though Avery spoke only rarely during family gatherings, when he did speak no one ever seemed to question his pronouncements.

Jessica had never quite understood it. He did not look like an overwhelmingly powerful man or even behave like one. He was of only average height. He was also slight and graceful of build, with very blond hair and a face of angelic beauty. He might have looked . well, effeminate. But he did not, and somehow he wielded a great deal of power without ever having to bluster or bully or even raise his voice. Jessica suspected that most people outside his immediate family feared him but did not understand why any more than she did. The result of those few words he had spoken after the lengthy discussion that had preceded them was that now, three weeks after everyone else had left, she was on the road back to London, at the very heart of a cavalcade that drew astonished stares and awed scrutiny in every town and village or hamlet through which it passed. Being a woman—or, rather, being a lady—certainly had its frustrations despite the luxury of cushions that wrapped her in comfort and the springs that made the passage of the carriage over English roads almost a smooth one.

She knew she was being treated as a child, although she was not one. Mr. Goddard, Avery’s extremely efficient secretary, transacted all the business along the way, with the result being that Jessica had scarcely opened her mouth since the flurry of hugs and tearful goodbyes that had accompanied her departure that morning from Rose Cottage. Ruth was no real companion. Though excellent at her job and loyal to a fault, she had always insisted upon keeping a proper and respectful distance from her mistress. She never prattled on about anything and everything the way it seemed other ladies’ maids did. She rarely spoke at all, in fact, unless spoken to. It had been a very quiet journey. It had given Jessica far too much time to think. She had never dreamed, growing up, that she would still be unwed at the age of twenty-five.

Like most young girls, she had dreamed of growing up and falling in love and marrying and beginning a family of her own, all long before she was twenty. But when she was seventeen and within a year of making her longed-for come-out into society, the Great Disaster had happened. She always thought of it as though the words would have to be capitalized if written down. Her uncle, Humphrey Westcott, Earl of Riverdale, had died, and twenty-year-old Harry, his son, had succeeded him in title and property and fortune. Until, that was, the ghastly discovery had been made that Uncle Humphrey had already been secretly married to someone else when he wed Aunt Viola, Harry’s—and Camille’s and Abigail’s—mother, more than twenty years before. Aunt Viola’s marriage, unknown to everyone except Uncle Humphrey himself, had been bigamous. Harry was stripped of his title and everything else, and Camille and Abigail lost their titles and their dowries. All three lost their very legitimacy. They no longer belonged in the ton. The whole of the Westcott family had been thrown into turmoil.

But it had always seemed to Jessica that she suffered more than any of the others, except for Aunt Viola and Camille, Harry, and Abigail, of course. For Abby was her very dearest friend. They had always been more like sisters than cousins. They had dreamed of making their come-out together, even though Abby was one year older than Jessica. They had dreamed of falling in love and marrying at the same time, perhaps even in a dazzlingly grand double wedding. They had dreamed of living happily ever after, always as the dearest of friends. The Great Disaster had put an abrupt and cruel end to those dreams. Avery, Harry’s guardian at the time, had purchased an officer’s commission in a foot regiment for him, and Harry had gone off to Spain and Portugal to fight in the Peninsular Wars against the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte. Camille, in addition to everything else, had been rejected by her fiancé, the dastardly Viscount Uxbury. Abby never did have a come-out Season but went with Camille to live in Bath with their maternal grandmother.

Aunt Viola had fled for a while to live with her clergyman brother in Dorsetshire. And Jessica, untouched in all material ways by the disaster, had been left bereft. Alone and desolate, with crushed hopes and lost dreams. She had been uninterested in continuing with anything to which her privileged status as Lady Jessica Archer, sister of the Duke of Netherby, entitled her. She had lost all interest in a come-out Season of her own, in courtship, and in marriage. For Abby could not share any of the glitter and excitement with her but was rather incarcerated in her grandmother’s house in Bath. Incarcerated had not seemed too harsh a word. Perhaps worse for Jessica, though, than the lost dreams and the desolation had been the inexplicable sense of guilt, as though everything that had happened to her cousins, and particularly to Abby, was her fault. As though she had somehow wanted to assert her superiority over them. She had hated the fact that she remained unscathed, that her life and her smooth path forward to a dazzling future remained what they had always been.

There was nothing to stop her from making her come-out as planned. There was nothing to stop her from making a brilliant marriage or from living happily ever after. She could still expect to live a life of luxury and privilege for the rest of her days. Unlike Abby. It had seemed so, so, so unfair. She had never been able to do it, in fact, in the eight years since then. She had never found a man to tempt her into being selfish. She had chosen instead to stand in solidarity with her cousin, whom life had treated so unfairly. If Abby must be forever unhappy, as surely she must, then the least Jessica could do was be unhappy too. She had never fallen in love.

Now she doubted she ever would or could. Yet two years ago Abby had found both love and happiness with Gil Bennington. She lived in that spacious manor with its lovely name and its flower-filled garden on the edge of an idyllic English village. She had a husband she clearly adored, a stepdaughter she loved as her own—Katy, Gil’s daughter by a previous marriage, that was—a new baby who was plump and gorgeous, and . And Jessica had nothing. Even though she had everything. A strange paradox, that, and ridiculously self-pitying. Even more ridiculous was the fact that in unwary moments she found herself feeling a niggling resentment of Abby. As though her cousin had betrayed her by finding love and happiness when Jessica had sacrificed both for her sake. How foolish she had been.

And how very immature, something from which she had never quite recovered. She had made the sacrifice even against the pleas of Abby herself, who had a number of times right from the start tried to persuade Jessica that what had happened to her was hers alone to bear, that she would deal with it and find a new, meaningful path forward. As she had. The past few weeks had convinced Jessica, even if she had still had any doubts, that her cousin had not simply settled for something second best, but was actually deeply happy. As was her husband. They were both devoted to their children. Jessica had greatly enjoyed those weeks—and found them hard to bear at the same time. She had been left behind. By her own choice. Well, no longer.

She had made a decision while observing the quiet glow that seemed to emanate from her cousin. This year, this Season, her sixth—or was it the seventh?—she was going to choose a husband. She did not expect it to be difficult, despite her age and the fact that London would be flooded with a new crop of pretty young girls fresh from the schoolroom and eager to snatch up the best prizes the great marriage mart would have on offer. She had acquired a rather large number of devoted admirers during her first Season despite the fact that she had made no effort to attract or encourage them, and those numbers, against all reason, had swelled with every passing year, up to and including last year. All those gentlemen would not necessarily be eager to offer her marriage at the first sign of interest on her part, of course. Some remained in her orbit, no doubt, only because it was fashionable to sigh over Lady Jessica Archer and always be on hand to fetch her refreshments or dance with her or converse with her or simply be seen with her. It never hurt, after all, for a man to be seen in company with a duke’s sister and someone who had been dubbed for several years a diamond of the first water. Their interest did not necessarily mean they wished to marry her. But surely a few of those men would become serious suitors if given half a chance. She was, after all, extremely eligible.

And rich. And although she was not vain about her appearance, her glass told her that she still had whatever looks she had had as a girl—no wrinkles or gray hairs or faded complexion yet. She was only twenty-five, after all. She smiled slightly as she glanced at Ruth, who was still sitting very erect in her corner of the seat opposite, her head still turned toward the window. She was going to end up with a crick in her neck if she was not careful. One of the outriders rode past the window as though on a mission while Jessica was still looking. He remained in her line of vision for a few moments, apparently having a word with the coachman. If only, Jessica thought, her mind returning to her newly made resolution, there were someone among her admirers whom she wanted to marry. But there was no one, alas. There were several she liked.

Indeed, she did not dislike any of them. But . Well, she was going to have to make her choice based upon practicalities rather than partiality. Upon common sense. It was, after all, the factor upon which most ton marriages were contracted. Birth and fortune, followed by age and disposition. So much for the dreams of youth. So much for love and romance and happily-ever-after. Abby had been horrified. For of course Jessica had told her of her new resolution, assuming she would be pleased.

And as usual when they were together, her cousin had urged her to please find some happiness so that she could be finally and fully happy herself. “Birth and fortune, Jess?” Abby had said, frowning. “Age and disposition? What about love?” “I might wait forever,” Jessica had told her. “I have never felt even a spark of what other people describe as falling in love. I do not doubt them, but I do know that romantic love is not for me. Not at my age. So I—”

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