The Perfect Arrangement – Annabelle Anders

Christian Masterson, the newest duke of Warwick, and youngest on record, swallowed a healthy pour of brandy in hopes of subduing the anxiety he’d been experiencing for the last eight weeks. Alcohol had always had a pleasant numbing effect on both his body and mind, but on this occasion, the substance failed to do anything at all to combat the fear churning in his gut, especially not at one o’clock in the afternoon. Even if the liquor was an excellent vintage and he was surrounded by his closest friends, at Whites, the perfect Gentleman’s haunt. “My sister mustn’t be left unprotected upon my death.” Christian insisted. “I won’t allow my father’s cousin to take over her custody. I cannot. He’d make her life a living nightmare. I cannot allow that to happen. One would think the good lord might take this into consideration when calling me home.” At the age of five and twenty, these unwelcome responsibilities had fallen upon Christian all too soon. Only three days after his twenty-eight birthday, the previous duke, his last remaining brother, had died rather suddenly. “Why don’t you marry quickly and set up your nursery? Any number of the chits who came out this past spring would pounce on the notion of becoming a duchess.” Corny guffawed. “Even if the Grim Reaper is chasing you down.

” “Impossible,” Christian wouldn’t do that. “Come now, you won’t have to exert yourself at all. Send a notice to one or two of the mothers, have them return to London with their chits, and then decide which of them suits you best. Better yet, flip a coin and only invite one,” Corny pointed out with no reverence at all. The second son of the Earl of Hastings, and one of Christian’s oldest friends, Cornelius White was the proverbial spare and had no such worries. Christian hadn’t either, until the passing of both of his brothers within a scant amount of years. Christian pushed away the ever-present ache of loss and instead focused on the wellbeing of his last remaining sibling. Bernadette was only seven and ten and if anything was to happen to him, her only living brother, she’d be left to endure the bitter mercy of a distant cousin of his father’s. Christian had met the man but a few times and his revulsion had only grown upon familiarity. Great-uncle Liverman was an immoral blackguard of the worst kind.

Christian forced himself to relax the grip he had on his glass before it shattered. He would go to great lengths rather than leave his gentle sister dependent upon such a villain. What he wouldn’t resort to, however, was willingly hurting some other unsuspecting young lady just like her. What kind of a man would that make him? He removed his spectacles and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Marry some innocent, have conjugal relations until she’s carrying my heir, and then abandon her when I meet certain death? How does that make me any better than Liverman?” “Come now, this entire conversation is ridiculous,” exclaimed the third fellow in their party at White’s that evening—Oxley, the Marquess of Middleton. “Your fears are illogical at best.” “What’s ridiculous is the life expectancy of the men in the Masterson line!” Christian snapped as he slid his spectacles back into place. “I need to do something. I can’t simply wait around to die without provisions for her.” “You could always marry Bernadette off.

” Cornelius shrugged. “She’s just turned seven and ten,” Christian growled. Such an option was equally repugnant to him. “She’s still a child.” Oxley rolled his eyes heavenward. “By George, I’ve the perfect solution.” Corny snapped his fingers. “Place an ad in one of the broadsheets.” He pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Wanted: Independent woman willing to bear me an heir who won’t be devastated upon my death.

” If only such a woman existed. Christian could promise her lifelong security, not to mention nearly unmatched social standing as a duchess. If she married him knowing what was in store, Christian needn’t worry that she’d be overcome with grief when the Grim Reaper stole him away. “Best not to use your title in such an ad though. That would stir up far too much commotion, I expect, and defeat the purpose all together.” Corny reached for a nearby piece of foolscap, pen, and inkwell. “Which is?” Oxley queried with the lift of his left brow. Nicholas Oxley would one day make a fine duke. At the age of six and twenty, he’d already managed to affect more arrogance than most titled men in London. “Haven’t you been listening, Ox?” Corny scoffed.

“To set Warwick here up with a woman willing to bear him an heir. A woman without expectations of love and all that nonsense. A noble purpose, indeed.” Christian smiled grimly as his outrageous chum thoughtfully dipped a quill into the ink and then allowed it to hover over the paper. The paper, as well as Corny’s fingers, would likely be covered in ink before he finished. Corny somehow managed to bring chaos into most situations in one way or another. “Do you suppose she’d need to be one of the upper classes? I doubt her lineage ought to matter at this point.” He side-eyed Christian. “Beggars can’t be choosers, you know. You must, however, require that she be healthy and intelligent.

You won’t want your heir to be born a simpleton.” Christian winced even as he laughed at the details one would consider for such a ridiculous advertisement. Better to laugh than cry. “Merchant class,” Cornelius continued. “Nothing lower. And she must have some looks to speak of. You wouldn’t want your heir to come out looking hideous.” Cornelius crossed a line out and then added another to his nonsensical advertisement. “Remember, Christian, you will have to bed her… possibly several times. It would be a shame if you couldn’t engage your sentiments enough to… perform.

” Christian shook his head but laughed again and poured another splash of brandy into his glass. “Old enough to know her mind. That’s the trouble with all the debs who come to London… they’re essentially children dressed up as ladies.” Yes, if Christian could have a say in such a matter, he’d not marry some naïve little girl. He’d want a woman who understood the ramifications of her decision. Cornelius held up his document and read it aloud: “Applicants are to present themselves for consideration, with references, at 312 Chesterfield Hill promptly at… Say, what time would you like these chits to start coming ‘round?” “Very funny, Corny.” But Christian appreciated his friend’s attempt to cheer him up. “I think ten in the morning is reasonable. Early enough that the chit will have to show some initiative but not so early as to force you out of bed at too ungodly of an hour.” He wrote some more before blowing on his handiwork and then dusting it with sand.

“Here you go, Christian, the answer to all of your troubles.” Christian accepted the mock advertisement and managed to read it through despite the crossed-out words and occasional ink droplets. Wanted: Intelligent female between the ages of 25 and 32 in good health to perform task of a sensitive nature, in exchange for lifelong security. Present yourself for consideration at 312 Chesterfield Hill in Mayfair this Thursday morning at exactly ten in the morning. Squeamish ladies need not apply. Christian folded the paper in quarters as he rose from his chair. Placing an advertisement in the Daily Gazette was most definitely not the answer. “It’s quite obvious I won’t find any help here.” Christian signaled to one of the club attendants who promptly retrieved the hat and coat Christian had checked earlier. “Come around to Master’s House if you come up with any rational suggestions.

” “What’s not rational about placing the ad?” Cornelius had the temerity to look hurt at Christian’s casual dismissal of his handiwork. “What can it hurt?” Which gave Christian pause, if only for a fraction of a second. “If word got around that I’d resorted to something so desperate, I’d have even more troubles to contend with. Besides, it could harm Bernadette’s reputation if her brother did something so mercenary.” Corny raised his brows and gave another of his impudent shrugs. “Let this be the end of it.” As long as he’d known Cornelius, he’d had a tendency to act first and consider the consequences later. Christian slipped the mock advertisement into his long coat and placed the tall hat atop his head. “Good afternoon, gentlemen.” He bowed mockingly before heading for the exit.

More liquor wasn’t going to solve any problems. He’d stroll on over to Bond Street instead and meet with his solicitors for the hundredth time this month. There had to be something he could do. As he walked along the street, tipping his hat at a few acquaintances and swinging his cane with enthusiasm he didn’t feel, he searched his mind for any other solution to his troubles. Nearly everything he owned was entailed, but even if it wasn’t, Bernadette and any assets placed in trust for her would become the legal responsibility of the heir until she reached the age of five and twenty. Liverman could wreak all sorts of havoc in her life before she could claim her independence. Christian would have cursed out loud if he’d been alone. But not ten feet ahead of him, a delightfully pretty blonde lady had stepped out of a storefront carrying several bags and hatboxes presumably filled with frivolous purchases. As she turned to make her way onto the sidewalk, she began juggling them somewhat precariously and, before Christian could reach her, sent her unstable pyramid of packages tumbling onto the pavement. “Feck and fiddlesticks!” she muttered to herself.

Grinning at her choice of words, Christian crouched down beside her as she hastily scooped a few lacy garments back into their boxes. “Allow me to assist you, Madam.” He reached for a purple feathered… hat? And then a slip of material… a silk stocking. A small, pale hand snatched it away and the lady damn near growled, “It’s not necessary, Sir. Thank you all the same.” Coffee-colored eyes glanced over at him in exasperation. “My apologies,” Christian responded. A crimson hue had flushed her cheeks, making it obvious she wasn’t only irritated but embarrassed. At the same time, slightly crooked but pearly white teeth worried her bottom lip… Cherry red lips that were quite plump and soft looking. “I ought to have had them delivered.

It’s just that my mother wanted them for this evening.” She’d stuffed the items back into the boxes, but she’d stacked the smallest of them on the bottom, and they would have toppled over again if Christian hadn’t reached out to prevent them from doing just that. He caught a subtle scent of lilacs as he did so— pleasantly feminine without being overpowering. “Perhaps if we move this one…” He rearranged the order while she looked on, creating a more stable platform, placing the largest on the bottom and the second largest next, and so forth, until he topped them off with the smallest of the lot. “Are you going far, Madam? I’d be more than happy to assist you to your coach.” She shook her head and, in doing so, dislodged a blond curl from beneath her jaunty hat. The silky golden curl managed to frame her heart-shaped face almost perfectly on one side. “I’ve not far to walk. I’m quite capable.” Except when she rose to stand, the top box slid backward and tumbled over her shoulder, causing her to growl again.

Christian collected it, along with the newspaper they’d both missed, and jammed them into one of her bags, amused again at the choice words she breathed just loud enough for him to hear. “Thank you, again.” She gathered herself enough to address him politely. “You are quite certain?” He itched to reach out and take the packages from her, giving her no choice in the matter, rather than watch her struggle along the street to eventually injure herself or another pedestrian. If she was Bernadette, he would have done just that. Christian brushed at his own jacket instead. She was no responsibility of his. He had more than his fair share without taking on even more. “I will be fine.” And then she smiled sheepishly at him over the top of her packages.

Although her hair partially covered her face, the apologetic glance she sent had something warm shooting through his veins. “Have a good day, Sir.” She dipped her chin and then turned and continued along her way. “You as well.” He wanted to ask her name but before he could think of an appropriate reason for doing so, she was already carefully making her way along the walk. Which, he reminded himself, was just as well. He had no business flirting. He straightened his jacket and continued toward his solicitor’s offices. A slight twinge of regret struck, however, when she turned off his route at the next corner, disappearing completely. Perhaps Cornelius had been right in his first suggestion.

Perhaps Christian should settle upon one of the ladies he’d met earlier that year—before Calvin’s death. He hated not having a plan. Despite his best efforts, by the time he’d nearly arrived at The Law Offices of Smythe and Smith, he’d failed to conjure a single female who might be capable of coping with what lie ahead. Christian planted his cane on the walkway with more force than necessary and frowned. Not a moment later, the sound of thundering hooves caught his attention. A runaway coach was careening along the street and the driver was standing and yelling at the two unruly horses pulling it. Heading directly for Christian. In one swift move, he jumped up and over a vender’s cart and he and the vendor backed up against the storefront behind them. The horses swerved, but the coach smashed into the poor vender’s cart, sending various fruits and vegetables onto the walkway and into the street. But for a few inches to spare, both Christian and the man tending the cart would have been in the same condition as the hundreds of smashed tomatoes strewn at their feet.

Black edged Christian’s vision and his heart felt as though it had jumped into his throat. But for the vendor’s cart, he would have met his demise today. He needed to protect Bernadette, by God, and he needed to do something soon. TWO DAYS LATER, Christian laid in bed staring at the blurred colors of the ornate ceiling he’d not yet become accustomed to. Sleeping in this room felt all wrong. It was his father’s room, or one of his older brother’s. It was never meant to have become his. He closed his eyes and raised one arm to shut it out. The solicitors hadn’t come up with any new fail-safe plan for Bernadette. He was of a mind to hire someone new, as they’d all but dismissed his fears as baseless.

Christian wished he could dismiss them so easily as well. As a result of the runaway coach incident, he’d not stepped out of the house even once since arriving home that evening. The event had been a harsh reminder of the fate he faced and although he knew he could just as easily be killed in a household accident, he’d felt some semblance of safety locked away inside of Master’s House. He’d have to force himself outside today, however, as he’d promised Bernadette he’d escort her to a particular museum exhibition she was interested in. That was, unless he could persuade her to postpone the excursion. He’d speak with her right away, before she was dressed and became too set on going out. Lunging forward, he tossed back the counterpane. “Simmons!” he called out. “Has my sister taken breakfast yet?” “Your Grace.” The short but stout valet entered as though he’d been standing at the ready.

“I believe she is doing so this very moment. There is another matter—“ “I need to speak with her at once.” Christian hopped to the floor and reached for the linen shirt he’d worn yesterday, pulling it hastily over his head.


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