The Fourth Marchioness – Jayne Davis

James Broxwood, the 8th Marquess of Harlford, shivered in the early evening chill as he descended from the hackney in Cavendish Square. It had been a tiring day, and he was looking forward to his dinner and a few quiet hours to go over his notes. His butler awaited him at the front door. “Good afternoon, my lord. Lady Harlford wishes to see you. As soon as you came in, she said.” His voice was barely audible. James raised an eyebrow. “Her ladyship is in the rear parlour,” the butler added. “Thank you, Haversham,” James said, his voice as quiet as Haversham’s. “Send Mitton up, could you? And bath water.” He wasn’t ready to hear Mama’s demands, and he needed to get rid of the faint smell of sulphur that always clung to his clothing after a trip to the laboratories at the Warren. “My lord.” The butler bowed and headed through the baize door to the servants’ quarters. James gave a wry grin and followed him, then used the servants’ stairs, which guaranteed he would not encounter his mother until he had warmed up, bathed, and changed.

He’d been doing this since boyhood, so the servants were never surprised. Belatedly, he thought he should have ordered something to eat, but when his valet appeared, a footman also arrived bearing a tray with tea and sandwiches. He really must check that Haversham was being paid enough. Nearly an hour later, James entered the parlour clad in his normal, comfortable daytime dress of buckskin breeches tucked into top boots. Cassandra Broxwood, relict of the 6th Marquess of Harlford, sat in a chair near the fire, back stiffly upright and a novel in her hands. She wore an evening gown of crimson silk, embroidered all over with entwined flowers and lavishly trimmed with lace. At his entrance, her carefully shaped brows rose. “Why are you dressed like that, James? We will be leaving shortly.” “Good evening to you, too, Mama,” he said politely, knowing the irony would escape her. “You wished to see me?” She looked him up and down, lips pursing in annoyance.

“I asked to see you as soon as you came in.” “Mama, last time I came to see you straight from Woolwich you complained because I had not changed first. Do make up your mind.” “Well, you’re here now. You will be ready in time if you hurry. The Cardingtons are expecting us for dinner before the ball.” “I don’t recall accepting an invitation.” “I accepted on your behalf, naturally. Left to yourself, James, you’d never mix with other people.” “I go to White’s often, and to Jackson’s,” he protested.

“Gentlemen’s clubs and boxing salons are not what I mean, and you know it. Go and change; I don’t wish to be late.” “No. I’m tired, and in no mood to attempt polite conversation with people I hardly know.” He needed to write up today’s meetings while the discussions were still fresh in his mind. His mother’s foot began to tap on the floor. “You put me in a difficult position—at such late notice your absence will upset Lady Cardington’s numbers for dinner.” “In that case, perhaps in future you would do me the favour of not accepting invitations on my behalf?” He didn’t try to keep irritation out of his voice. “I am only acting for the good of the family. It’s time you married and produced an heir, and if you don’t attend social functions you will never meet a suitable girl.

” He sighed—this again. It wasn’t that he had any objection to marrying—as long as he found an acceptable woman. He had taken a full part in the last season, but his priorities had changed since then. The country had now been at war with France for more than a year and his research was more important than ever. “You wasted your time last year—it was a shame I was unwell and unable to assist you.” “I did propose to a young lady, Mama, but she did not accept my offer.” Amusement took over from annoyance as he regarded his mother’s stunned expression. “Rejected you? You are a marquess! You must have been the highest-ranking bachelor of last season. Who was she?” Phoebe Deane was the only woman who had managed to talk about anything other than the weather, gowns, beaux, or the current gossip. Although she was the niece of the Comte de Calvac, her father had been a mere surgeon.

Mama would not have approved. “Who was she?” his mother repeated, more sharply. “It’s past, Mama.” Miss Deane was married now. He hadn’t loved her, but he had liked her. Her refusal had hurt him more than he’d expected, and dented his pride sufficiently to make him give up on the marriage mart last year. Lady Harlford rose and sat at her escritoire in the corner of the room, taking out what looked horribly like a stack of invitations. “Are you engaged tomorrow evening?” Could he claim to have engagements every evening for the next fortnight? No, that would not stop her; the only escape was to return to Herefordshire. He would do that soon enough, but he had to remain here until his next meeting at Woolwich, not to mention the business with his contacts in France, so he was stuck in Town for the moment. “No, Mama.

” “Good.” She laid the pasteboard rectangles out on the writing flap. “These are the invitations you have received. There is a rout tomorrow, and a ball. Then the next day a musicale, and then—” “No.” “What do you mean, ‘no’? James, you need a wife!” “There is no hurry. I won’t be thirty for several years yet.” “You never know what fate has in store. Look at what happened to poor Robert!” She dabbed her dry eyes with a corner of her handkerchief. Of course.

He spared a thought for his older brother, dead after attempting a hedge too high for his horse. While trying to catch up with the hunt, it was said, but more likely he’d been returning from visiting his mistress in the next village. “There’s always Uncle David.” Who was living somewhere in Italy. James envied him at times. “Nonsense—he wasn’t brought up to be the next Mar—” “Neither was I.” “Nor does he have any sons.” She had a point. Unfortunately. “One engagement per evening, Mama.

That is all.” He almost told her he would be returning to Harlford Castle within a couple of weeks, but thought better of it. “You may choose—except I will not sit in a stuffy room listening to some soprano screeching, or young ladies trying to play the piano.” Or the harp; that was worse. “No musicales.” To his relief, she nodded and picked up the invitations, arranging them in rows. She looked like a fortune-teller laying out the cards that foretold his doom. Once in his study, he poured a brandy and stood by the fire. Damn Robert for dying without securing the succession. It wasn’t only that his death had made James the focus of his mother’s matchmaking efforts, but he still missed his brother.

He missed the friendly rivalry at riding and cards, the mutual teasing, and even telling Robert about his work. Robert hadn’t been interested, really, but he listened because that’s what brothers do. Now it was his duty to find a wife. He’d rather be left to make his choice in his own time. But as Mama was likely to nag him into attending the events she selected, he might as well go and make an effort to get to know a few of this season’s young ladies. As well as one could in the noise and crowds of a ballroom. He swallowed his drink and spread his papers out on the desk. The scribbled notes he’d made during the day’s discussions would make no sense in a few weeks’ time, so he needed to write them up properly now. He surfaced for a while when Haversham placed a tray of food on his desk, then again when the butler came back to remind him to eat it. At that point he decided enough was enough and his brain would work better after a good night’s sleep.

Alice Bryant paid off the hackney and turned to gaze at the façade of Montagu House. The rows of tall windows and the wings that flanked the courtyard spoke of wealth, but gave no clue to the vast amount of knowledge stored within its walls. Her young charge set off at a brisk pace across the courtyard towards the main entrance. “Can we look at the cannibal pictures again? And the mummies from Egypt?” Alice strode after him. “We’ve come to learn about natural history, Georges. If you pay attention, we will ask our guide to take us to the exhibits from Captain Cook’s voyages afterwards.” Georges scowled for a moment, then his naturally sunny disposition took over once more. Alice regarded him with affection—she was lucky in her position. Georges’ father, the Comte de Calvac, was a generous and considerate employer, and Georges was an intelligent lad, even though his enthusiasm for learning currently leaned mostly towards the gruesome and warlike. “Come, let us show the porter our tickets.

” The porter looked down his long nose at Alice’s plain pelisse and bonnet, but the comte’s name on their tickets persuaded him that they were worthy to enter the hallowed halls of the museum. “Wait here, miss, until the other visitors arrive. Someone will come to show you around.” “I believe Monsieur le Comte made a particular request that we be allowed some time to examine the specimens in the natural history rooms.” Alice had brought Georges to the museum before, and the guide had rushed everyone past the displays at a pace that allowed no time for learning. “Could you consult your list for the day?” The porter sniffed, but before he had time to reply two more visitors walked up the steps. From the deep bow the porter gave to the elderly man in a full wig, he must be someone of importance. The other man was much younger, with a lean face and aquiline nose. His black hair was unpowdered and tied back with a plain ribbon that matched his unornamented coat. He looked familiar… “Hello, Lord Harlford,” Georges said.

“Have you come to look at the exhibits, too?” Of course—the marquess on whom Georges’ sister, Hélène, had set her sights last year, but who had offered for their cousin instead. Phoebe had refused Lord Harlford in favour of the man she loved. Although the letters describing her new, adventurous life were entertaining, Alice missed her company. “You took me to see a balloon ascension last year.” Georges spoke before the marquess had a chance to reply. “Georges,” Alice hissed, embarrassed at his forwardness. But, to her relief, the marquess’ serious expression lightened. He had some tiny scars around one eye that she didn’t recall, but she hadn’t been this close to him before. “How could I forget? No, young man, I am not here to tour the galleries. This gentleman is one of the trustees.

He has agreed to let me inspect some of the objects they have stored here.” He glanced towards Alice, a slight crease to his brow. “Is there a problem, Miss…?” Alice curtseyed. “Bryant, my lord. I’m Georges’ governess.” He had spoken only a few words to her last spring—she would have been surprised if he’d remembered meeting her. “Monsieur le Comte arranged for me to show Georges the natural history specimens.” “The book has no record of a request for an officer to explain the exhibits, sir,” the porter said. “But—” The trustee cut off Alice’s words. “There is no need for you to waste your time over this matter, my lord.

If you will come this way.” He raised a hand in the direction of the staircase. Lord Harlford ignored the man’s gesture. “I’m sure Miss Bryant will not interfere with the exhibits if she is allowed to examine them. Why do we not escort the visitors there on our way to your Chinese store?” The trustee frowned, but Lord Harlford merely raised a brow and waited. “Oh, very well. This way, if you please.” Ignoring Alice completely, the trustee headed for the stairs. Alice was grateful for the unexpected help. “Thank you, my lord.

” She nudged Georges. “Yes, thank you, Lord Harlford.” He marched up the stairs next to their benefactor. “Have you seen any more balloons, sir? Have you been up in one? I asked Papa, but—” “I’m afraid I haven’t, no.” The interruption was firm, but not unfriendly. “Don’t bother his lordship, Georges. Look, here we are at the display of birds.” “They are labelled,” the trustee said sourly. “I will see if I can find someone to explain them to you.” Alice put her chin up.

“I am perfectly capable of explaining Linnaeus’ binomial system of classification.” “It is a rather complex subject for a woman.” “Not at all.” Alice looked through the door—the nearest cases held swallows and swifts. “The genus Hirundo, for example, includes the species urbica, apus, and rustica, commonly known as the house martin, the common swift, and the swallow. They are part of the order Passeres, based upon the characteristics of their—” “Hmph.” The trustee scowled. “Have I made an error, sir?” Alice took a deep breath—she had let her annoyance show, but a curl to Lord Harlford’s lips indicated he might be amused rather than irritated. “I think Miss Bryant has ably demonstrated her ability to educate the Comte de Calvac’s heir.” Lord Harlford laid a slight emphasis on her employer’s rank.

The trustee’s scowl deepened. “Very well. This way, my lord.” He stalked off along the corridor. Lord Harlford inclined his head at Alice, that trace of amusement still on his face, and walked off before she had time to thank him. She felt a flash of envy at the privilege given by a title, but she suspected the attitudes of the porter and the trustee had as much to do with her being female as with her position as a governess. “Do I have to learn all that you said?” Georges asked, his tone doubtful. “We are here mainly for you to understand the principles behind the system.” They entered the room, stopping at the first case. The specimens, although competently stuffed, always looked sad to Alice.

She’d prefer to study animals in their natural habitats, but here it was easier to show Georges the features common to the different species and orders so he could understand how the classification system worked. And seeing them in the flesh—in a manner of speaking—was more interesting than merely examining drawings in a book. “Let us look at these birds first, then we may see if there are crocodiles or tigers.”

.

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