The Viscount’s Sinful Bargain – Kate Archer

THE SİX DUKES gravely sipped their port. Or, in the case of the Duke of Wentworth, gulped it. That particular duke stared glumly at his bandaged foot, which was just now elevated on a stool. He was eternally gouty and though his physician blamed it on port, the duke was equally certain port was the only thing that soothed that blasted appendage. The six gentlemen had entered the realms of late middle age, that time period when a reliable body begins to betray in surprising and unwelcome ways. Youth had fled and they had resigned themselves to it. At their time of life, they looked forward to doting on grandchildren. Specifically, a male grandchild born of their eldest son, and a spare for good measure. A man could not be satisfied to consider departing the world until his line was secure for generations to come. Though they looked forward to that blessed state of finding grandsons all round, it seemed always to be far ahead of them. Not a one of their rogue sons had managed to marry. In truth, every damn one of them had studiously avoided the state. “Gentlemen,” the Duke of Gravesley said, “while we are grateful beyond measure that we still have sons to carry on for us, the war is over. A new war, a more personal war, is set to begin.” “Hear, hear,” the gentlemen murmured.

“If we do not force these scoundrels to marry,” His Grace continued, “we are in danger of never setting eyes on a grandchild.” “Dash it!” the Duke of Dembly exclaimed, as if the idea had just occurred to him. This drew various looks from the others, as the matter had been the subject of their discussions for some months. “We did our duty in producing these scoundrels,” the Duke of Carlisle said, “and now it is time for them to do their duty.” At the mention of duty, which was an idea that greatly stirred the dukes’ hearts, there was a gentle stamping of feet in approbation. Even the Duke of Wentworth stamped his good foot. “The time has come, my friends, to take steps,” the Duke of Gravesley said. “Dire steps.” One by one, the men nodded. They had debated for weeks on the correct course, now it was time to act. “We are agreed,” His Grace said. “We enter into a formal pact and swear that none of us will fold under misplaced affection.” And so, the six dukes took dire steps to secure their respective lines for generations to come. Very dire steps. Chapter One “ALL HAİL THE pact.

Absolutely everybody was talking of it,” Lady Marksworth said, buttering her toast with relish. The breakfast room, filled with sunshine that morning, had also been filled with Lady Marksworth’s various comments. It might have been Greek for all Cassandra understood it. Cassandra Knightsbridge, only daughter of the Viscount Trebly, had been sent out of the quiet environs of Surrey to live with Lady Marksworth for her first season—her father was certain Cass would do far better under her aunt’s guidance and tutelage. After all, if anybody knew how to avoid a misstep in London, it was Lady Marksworth and if anybody needed to know the same, it was Cassandra Knightsbridge. Cassandra’s life in Surrey had not been typical or usual or regular or whatever society would term the proper mode of going on. Growing up in a house with no mother, and dominated by a practical, no-nonsense father, had given her a latitude that most young ladies could not dream of. Despite her governess complaining endlessly, Cassandra rode to the hunt on a sidesaddle specially modified for jumping, it would not be unusual to find her in the stables at midnight, assisting in bringing a foal into the world, and rather than carrying around a precious lap dog, she was the owner of a great beast of a mastiff named Mayhem. Perhaps most surprising, her father had gone so far as to allow her to shoot pheasant and she had not shied away from the opportunity. Cassandra was not entirely unaware that some of the particulars of her upbringing would shock those in a London drawing room. She understood her little corner of Surrey, but navigation through the opportunities and pitfalls of a season was needed, and Lady Marksworth would expertly steer the ship. Her aunt had already got her through her curtsy to the queen, an experience Cass likened to finding herself a pheasant flying by the throne and hoping not to be bagged. “Has anything more divine ever occurred to launch a season?” Lady Marksworth said. “An actual pact.” “I am sorry, Aunt,” Cassandra said, “what is the pact?” “The pact,” Lady Marksworth said.

“Little else was spoken of last evening.” “Nobody said anything to me about a pact,” Cassandra said. Lady Marksworth’s forehead wrinkled, as it was wont to do when she considered her niece. Then it quite suddenly cleared. “Ah! I see, of course nobody would have discussed it with you. I sometimes forget—while to me you are wise beyond your years, to others you must appear a very innocent young lady.” “I hope I may be considered innocent,” Cassandra said, in some alarm that anybody should think otherwise. “Yes, yes,” Lady Marksworth said, waving her hands. “In any case, I suppose Lady Blanding’s guests would have avoided the topic with you and Sybil, as it may have caused you both some embarrassment.” “I, embarrassed? How?” Cassandra said. “It is just this—six dukes have conspired together to cut their eldest sons’ funds off if they do not marry. They’ve got two seasons to do it, and no more. I heard the gentlemen were all informed by letter, and the letters were nearly identical. Apparently, there were threats of living forever to encourage those sons to consider how many years of poverty they might face if they do not comply. As well, it was suggested the young men might tour Cheapside to have a look at their future accommodations if they defy their fathers.

” “Goodness,” Cassandra said. “Not goodness,” Lady Marksworth said, “good is the term better suited.” “How so?” Cassandra asked. “Do you have an argument with any of those gentlemen, that you should wish to see them so harried by their fathers?” Lady Marksworth’s forehead wrinkled to such a degree that Cassandra was certain she’d gone wrong somewhere. “Cassandra,” Lady Marksworth said, sounding very much like she talked to a small child. “Six gentlemen destined to become dukes must marry in all haste. Here you are for your first season. You see?” Cassandra suddenly did see, though the idea was preposterous. Her aunt would have her set her cap on one, or all, of the gentlemen before she’d even set eyes on them. It was perfectly ridiculous, and in any case, she had no great wish to find herself a duchess. She was certain the role was one of tedium. She’d much rather marry some middling sort of gentleman—not too poor, but not so elevated that they did not have the freedom to live as they pleased. If one went too high in society, the many eyes upon oneself made life constrained and far too regulated. She had seen for herself how it was every time she’d visited Lady Melby—the marchioness’ house was a tomb of discretion and reserve. She could barely breathe until she’d got out of it.

For a moment, Cassandra thought she might apprise her aunt of these well-considered opinions, until she noted the eagerness with which Lady Marksworth awaited her reply. She supposed she ought to keep her thoughts to herself, but she could not allow her aunt to go on deluded into thinking she would throw herself at the nearest would-be duke. “I suspect,” Cassandra said boldly, “that the gentlemen named in the pact have all fled to the countryside to hide from the circling wolves.” “If, by circling wolves, you mean mamas across London,” Lady Marksworth said, “you can be assured that claws are being sharpened in every drawing room. Those young gentlemen may wish to flee the specter of determined mothers, but they cannot. I have it on good authority that the letters they received outline very strictly how they are to conduct themselves, and one of the stipulations is that they accept every worthy engagement that arrives at their door. I had hardly dared hope to land so many single gentlemen of excellent prospects for our own ball, but I think we have a very good chance of it.” Though her aunt was enthusiastic in considering this pact, Cassandra saw nothing but trouble ahead. The circling wolves, and that was just what they were as far as she could divine it, would make the season almost perilous. She’d gone to her first ball, which had been an experience so far removed from a local Surrey assembly as to be almost unrecognizable. Gone were the casual proceedings of Guildford, and in were the formal rules of town. She’d kept her eyes wide open and took in everything. One of the most alarming sights was of various mamas’ hawk eyes scanning the ballroom and none too subtly sizing girls up, as if they were all some sort of impediment to their own daughter’s happy future. If there had been some undercurrent of desperation among ladies whose daughters were out, that undercurrent would transform itself into a North Sea storm when six gentlemen destined to be dukes were dangled as bait. She wondered to what lengths some of those mamas might go to land a large fish at the banks of their daughter’s hopes.

For that matter, she was rather afraid of what her aunt might do. “I am only glad,” Lady Marksworth said, “that I had the foresight to order all of your dresses early. Every decent dressmaker in town will be hired before noon today.” “Certainly,” Cassandra said, “it will not suddenly occur to anybody that they need more dresses on account of this pact.” “It most certainly will. Wardrobes will be declared woefully inadequate. It is the fathers, you see, my dear. A once firm amount to be spent on clothes will have tripled when they consider the chance their daughters may have. Depend upon it.” Cassandra did not know if she should depend upon it or not. She could not quite envision her own father opening the purse strings to secure a duke for his daughter. On the other hand, her father generally did not open purse strings for anything that did not support his estate—it had been her aunt who’d supplied most of her clothes. She’d come with one trunk and Lady Marksworth had examined the contents of it. After much head shaking and sighs, she’d called in her favorite dressmaker. Her father would stagger at the array of dresses she now called her own.

The Viscount was perfectly well off and her dowry was respectable, but he did not go in for frippery. As much as she adored her new wardrobe, she suspected her father to hold a sensible opinion on such matters— nobody in the history of England had ever married a dress. * EDWİN WESTON, VİSCOUNT Hampton and eldest son of the Duke of Carlisle, brushed his dark hair from his eyes and stared morosely into the fire. His coat was off, his shirt sleeves rolled up, and his long legs were propped on the desk in front of him. He’d sat in his library in Carlisle House, sometimes with brandy and sometimes without, for the better part of two days. His mastiff, Havoc, lazed at his feet, delighted to have his master to himself. The confounded letter that had caused him to closet himself away lay on the desk in front of him. He’d read it a dozen times, each time hoping it would say something other than what it did. His blasted father! Now was to be a time of freedom. The war had ended, he’d served well, and he should be rewarded, not punished with a wife. He blamed the Duke of Gravesley for this. The man was always an agitator on the subject. Still, those old men might think they’d outfoxed him, but he was certain some solution would present itself. As he knew from fighting the war, there was a slim way out of every lost cause. He must just find it.

Edwin snatched up the letter and read it once more. Hampton, It is with a heavy heart that I must force you to do your duty. Take this letter as a directive from me, outlining various steps to be taken and various consequences if you refuse. You will have two seasons to wed a lady of suitable background. The timeframe I give you is most generous as you could easily get the thing done in a month if you wished. I will grant much latitude on the subject of the lady’s dowry, so that it may not present a hindrance to you. (I think of Lady Isabella, fine background but dashed little money.) Should you fail, the consequences to your way of life will be considerable and swift. At the end of this season, if there is no engagement, your funds are cut by half. At the end of next season, if there is no engagement, it is cut to nothing and you will be forced to vacate Carlisle House. If you intend on ignoring this directive, you might consider putting money aside now for payment later to your future landlord in Cheapside. Otherwise, you will need to find employment for your daily bread, perhaps as a valet to a gentleman with more sense? Should you be so obtuse as to run through the two seasons with nothing to show, you will be cut of for a period of one year, and then you may begin again, under the same terms. Do not hope to be released by my early demise, I am in splendid health. Do not bother to importune your mother, I have given her my decision and she will abide by it. If you were to be so foolhardy as to go to your grandmother, I’ll cut you of this instant.

The Dowager Duchess is long in years and I will not have her aggravated. Though I have returned to the country, I have a far reach, my boy. If you are not attending balls and routs and other likely places to meet your intended, I will know it. Gird your loins and do your duty. By the by, jolly clever of you to make it through the war unscathed. Your mother is pleased as punch over it. Carlisle Edwin could see the old man had put a lot of thought into how he might box his son in, though some of it seemed thin. Painting the Dowager Duchess as a poor old thing who should not be bothered bordered on the ludicrous. His grandmother was more energetic, and more opinionated, than either of his parents. Still, it might not be wise to appeal to the Dowager. For one thing, a gentleman ought not go running off to a grandmother in the face of a difficulty. For another, one never knew precisely what the Dowager would do about any little matter coming to her attention. Should she fall on his father’s side of things, he would have a far fiercer opponent than he currently had. Edwin’s butler, Dreyfus, softly knocked and opened the door. “Lord Lockwood to see you, my lord,” he said in the low voice he used when he was not certain what sort of mood his master was in.

Edwin waved, which Dreyfus knew to be a signal to show Lord Lockwood into his lord’s presence. Lockwood, never one to wait to be shown in, strode past the butler and into the library. He was not as tall and lean as Edwin and his hair was a deal lighter, but he was powerfully built. The men of his regiment called him the pile of bricks. Lockwood threw himself into a chair and pulled a letter from his pocket. “I suppose you got one, too? Blasted business.” “I suppose I can thank your father for this,” Edwin said drily. “He’s been whipping the old boys into a frenzy for months.” Lockwood had the good manners to flush, as he knew perfectly well that His Grace had been the instigator. “Why could not some other unlucky gentleman have been swept up in this madness?” Edwin said. “But then I suppose it does not pay to be too well-acquainted with you.” Lockwood peered at him. “I see you have not heard. We’ve all been swept up in the thing, with the exception of Burke. His father belongs to Brook’s and was well away from those conniving old schemers.

” “All?” Edwin asked. “All. You, me, Ashworth, Dalton, Cabot and Grayson. You must have been living in a dressing room these past days to not have heard. Somebody in Grayson’s household copied his letter and it’s being sold all over town. Worse, word got out on who the letters were sent to, most likely by some curious ears at White’s. We are the talk of every drawing room, my friend.” “Lord help us.” Lord Lockwood had poured himself a brandy and now propped his feet on Edwin’s desk. “You might appeal to the Lord, though I am not expecting any particular help from our heavenly father. No more than I would get from my own not-so-heavenly father.” “What are we to do?” Edwin asked, not that he thought Lockwood would have some brilliant plan. His friend’s style was more “fight one’s way through” than anything with finesse. “Dashed if I know,” Lockwood said. “We’re all right for now, so I say we enjoy ourselves to the hilt and pay the price later.

Let’s take ourselves off to some interesting hell and throw dice like madmen. We’ll live as if we head for the gallows in the morning.” The idea was tempting, but Edwin thought it would not advance their cause. “For one thing,” he said, “we cannot afford to throw away vast sums just now, which you invariably do. We may need the funds to pay for a garret in Cheapside if it comes to it. For another, we must appear to play the game, lull the old fellows into a sense of complaisance.” “Calm them down until we think of a way out,” Lockwood said. “It sounds dead dreary, but I suspect you are right.” “I am right. Especially now, when they will be watching what we do like hawks circling a field mouse. In truth, all of London will be watching. The Bergrams’ ball is tonight and if we do not appear, it will be widely noted.” “By God, I cannot countenance those people,” Lockwood said. “He’s a stuffy old thing and she’s a nervous slip of a creature. I always think he’s about to transform into a statue and she’s about to fly off like a bird.

” “Nevertheless,” Edwin said, “we’d better go. Best to stare down the gossipers now and get it out of the way, rather than allow the rumors to expand and take flight. If we arrive and appear as if nothing at all is the matter, we will take some air out of the talker’s lungs.”


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Updated: 2 March 2021 — 07:44

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