Wager for a Wife – Karen Tuft

THE HONORABLE WİLLİAM BARLOW BECAME the fourth Viscount Farleigh in the usual way—with the death of the third viscount. That the deceased third viscount was William’s father was also usual in such situations. What was less than usual was the complete apathy William felt about both the title and his father’s death. Nonetheless, his life had irrevocably changed as a result. It remained to be seen if it had changed for the better or the worse. If he were a betting man, which he emphatically was not, he would bet on the latter. The carriage in which he rode was taking him closer and closer to the family home he’d avoided for years. There was no avoiding it now. He folded the missive his father’s solicitor had sent and that had eventually found its way north to Edinburgh, where William had been for the past few years, and slid it into the breast pocket of his coat. He’d read it several times already since receiving it yesterday morning. He could recite it all by heart now. Lord Farleigh, the letter began—as if that alone hadn’t been enough to enlighten William as to the letter’s contents—Lord Farleigh, I regret to inform you of the untimely passing of your father, William Barlow Senior, the former Viscount Farleigh. William stared out the carriage window at the passing scenery. It was a particularly gray April day. Gusts of wind battered the hedgerows and whipped the trees alongside the Great North Road, bruising the young spring foliage already sodden from the slanting rain.

It matched his mood entirely. I regret to inform you of the untimely passing of you father, William Barlow Senior, the former Viscount Farleigh. His passing confers the title of viscount on you as his only son and heir. It would behoove you to return to Farleigh Manor as soon as you are able so that pressing concerns related to the viscountcy can be dealt with expeditiously. Your servant, Richard Heslop, Esquire. It was worded in Mr. Heslop’s typically overwrought manner—oh, yes, he’d had dealings with Heslop before now—but in simple language, the solicitor was telling him the viscountcy and its associated properties, that were now William’s responsibility, were in a desperate state. But of course they were; that came as no surprise. The only real surprise in all of this was that his father had managed to live for as long as he had, all things considered. William settled back into the corner of the carriage the solicitor had sent along with the letter to bring him to Buckinghamshire, and he planted his feet firmly on the floor for balance.

He slid the brim of his hat down, folded his arms across his chest, and shut his eyes, willing the motion of the swaying carriage to soothe him. He mentally recited as many verses from the plays of Sophocles as he could remember from his school days, but as they were all tragedies, they only added to his overall sense of gloom. He tried to take a nap. Despite his efforts, his mind kept returning to the letter in his pocket—or, more precisely, to Farleigh Manor. Farleigh Manor, the seat of the viscountcy and William’s childhood home, was filled with ghosts. Haunting memories. William hadn’t been there, hadn’t returned home, since he’d left for Oxford. He’d rarely gone home during his time at Eton before that, having left for school at the age of ten. His mother was long dead—buried in the family graveyard there, next to the little chapel, along with other deceased viscounts and viscountesses and assorted Barlow family members. He wondered if Matthew, the groundskeeper, was still there and if he was keeping her grave well tended.

It belatedly occurred to him that his father would have a grave to be tended now as well. The father William remembered would have insisted his final resting place look distinguished, as befitting a member of English nobility. His mother would have cared only that any flowers planted there were treated well and allowed to flourish. And what of Mrs. Holly, the housekeeper? Or Grimshaw, the butler? Good heavens, the man had seemed ancient to William when William was a boy. Was he still alive? And then there was Samuel, who’d been stable master and had taught William to ride. Those dear people—the servants of Farleigh Manor who had remained faithful to the viscountcy and to William—had made his boyhood more bearable. He had thought of them frequently over the years, but to what end? The last time he had confronted his father about Farleigh Manor, its tenants and servants and the general state of its finances, he had been ordered to leave and never return. William had obliged him and had moved to Scotland. It had been the ideal location—the intellectual community in Edinburgh had kept his mind occupied, and the distance between him and Farleigh Manor had kept his longing for the good people of Farleigh Manor at bay—not that he had been entirely successful.

William knew from his last encounter with his father that if things had continued on the course his father had set, Farleigh Manor would most likely be bankrupt. The man’s unwillingness to change would have seen to that. William would need all his wits about him when he reached the manor and came face-to-face with the challenges he had newly inherited. He pulled the brim of his hat farther down over his eyes. The movement of the carriage had finally done its work and had lulled him into a drowsy state. Sleep was preferable to the painful, nostalgic shards he was feeling with each servant and tenant he remembered. There was nothing he could do from the interior of a carriage anyway. Farleigh Manor and its troubles lay ahead, so for now, William slept. * * * The Wilmington ball was this evening, and Lady Louisa Hargreaves had received an invitation from Lady Wilmington herself. It was the first grand ball of the year and Louisa’s first ball of her first Season, so she had chosen her gown with extreme care—after consulting with her mother, the modiste, her personal maid, her mother’s personal maid, and even a chambermaid who’d happened to enter the room right after she’d donned the gown just minutes ago.

Presenting oneself to London Society was a greater ordeal than Louisa had imagined it would be. Assured by them all that the gown was exquisite and would cut a fine dash, she took a deep breath and left her dressing room. It was time to join her parents and be on their way. “Good heavens, Louisa, what is that thing you’re wearing?” her eldest brother, Alexander, said as he watched her descend the main staircase of their London home. Louisa came to an abrupt halt halfway down the staircase. “It is not a thing, Alex,” her brother Anthony said in a decidedly condescending tone, taking Louisa completely by surprise. It was so unlike Anthony, who was just older than she, to come to her defense. If there was one thing she had learned over the years, it was that both brothers could be terrible nuisances. “It is clearly a cloud of one sort or other,” he finished. Louisa fought the urge to growl.

“The question we must then ask is what kind of cloud is it? Is it a cirrus cloud?” Anthony mused, tapping his chin in thought. “But no, the dress is too”—he made circling gestures with his hand —“too . puffy. Yes, that’s the word. Too puffy to be cirrus clouds, which are ethereal in nature.” “Our sister is definitely not what I would call ethereal,” Alex said. “She planted me a facer once, and there wasn’t anything ethereal about it.” “I was nine at the time, if you’ll recall,” Louisa said in her own defense, feeling quite proud of herself because Alex had been all of thirteen, not to mention a foot taller than she. “You had a black eye for a week,” Anthony said. “I did at that.

” Alex rubbed his cheek at the memory. “Now, back to the subject at hand: cirrostratus clouds have more substance than cirrus clouds do.” He came up the stairs toward her, leaning closer and raising his quizzing glass to study her appearance more thoroughly. He ran the flounce on her sleeve through his fingers. “Cirrostratus, hmm.” Louisa glared at him and swatted his hand away. He grinned. “Look at that frowning face of hers, Tony,” he said. “A storm appears to be brewing after all.” “A cumulus cloud, then,” Anthony said.

“She’s all puffy clouds with the threat of foul weather. We are at your service, Lady Cumulus.” He bowed theatrically to her as Alex offered her his hand. She pretended to ignore them both, raising her chin as she took her last few steps down to the entry hall—and then she couldn’t help herself. She giggled. Their parents entered the hall from one of the adjoining parlors at the same moment, obviously overhearing the exchange. “What a vision you are, Louisa,” her father, the Marquess of Ashworth, said, taking both her hands in his and kissing her cheek. “Don’t listen to those rapscallion brothers of yours. They wouldn’t know a diamond of the first water if she were to stand two inches from their noses. One would think I had never taught them to admire beauty.

” “Don’t worry, Papa,” she replied archly. “They were merely discussing the weather.” Alex laughed. “You look absolutely exquisite, my darling,” Mama said, giving Louisa a hug, careful not to wrinkle either of their gowns. “The gown is divine and is the perfect choice for this evening.” “Thank you, Mama.” Drat her pesky, adorable brothers! “I assume the two of you are planning to make an appearance tonight since this is your sister’s first ball of the Season,” Papa said. “Certainly, Father. We would never wish to disappoint our little sister. But does that mean I must also dance with her?” Anthony asked, rubbing his leg for effect, an innocent look of inquiry on his face.

“Sore knee, you know. Boxing mishap at Gentleman Jackson’s the other day.” “You never mentioned a sore knee to me,” Mama said, raising an eyebrow. Alex was biting his lip to keep from laughing again. “I didn’t wish to worry you unduly, Mama,” Anthony replied meekly. “That is most unfortunate,” Papa said smoothly. “Because I expect you both to dance at least once with your sister and introduce her to some of your friends. The reputable ones, that is. And as for you, Anthony, I suggest you rub liniment on that knee before you arrive at the Wilmingtons’. Hopefully the smell of it won’t put off the other guests.

” “If those guests include the young ladies in attendance, that makes liniment a plus in my book,” Alex whispered loudly to Anthony from behind his hand. “Parson’s mousetrap and all that. Wouldn’t want to end up leg shackled before I’m ready, you know. Perhaps I’ll discover a sore knee, too, before we make an appearance.” “Halford,” their father said, calling Alex by his title, which meant the words to follow were ones he intended to be taken seriously. “I expect you to lead your sister out for her first dance. See that you are there and on time, whatever plans you do or do not have for later in the evening.” “Certainly, Father. I wouldn’t dream otherwise.” He waited a beat before continuing.

“Nothing more fun than dancing with one’s baby sister, after all.” He winked at Louisa. “You are incorrigible,” Louisa said, fighting back more giggles. Alex only laughed. “I suppose I must dance with Louisa as well,” Anthony said with a huge sigh, “despite my sore knee. I am that thoughtful of a brother, you know.” “Your chivalry knows no bounds,” Papa said dryly. “I am quite certain Louisa shall have no problem finding dance partners,” Mama said. “She has caught the eye of several young men already, including the Earl of Kerridge.” “Unless she begins talking any of them into a stupor,” Alex said.

“Halford,” Papa scolded. Louisa could feel her cheeks turn red, but really, Alex spoke the truth. Louisa knew that she occasionally had the tendency to rattle on in conversation. “Nevertheless,” Mama said in a tone that brooked no argument. “It is always good to have one’s brothers there to make sure things go off smoothly at the beginning of one’s first official ball, is it not?” “Of course, Mama,” Louisa’s brothers said almost in tandem. “Good. It’s settled, then.” Gibbs, the head butler at Ashworth House in London, silently materialized and helped the ladies with their wraps while Papa donned his hat and took up his walking stick. “Have a good evening, your lordship, milady,” he said, opening the door for them. “And the very best to you, Lady Louisa.

” That was quite a speech, coming from Gibbs. “Thank you, Gibbs,” Louisa said, touched. Papa turned back to her brothers. “We shall see you two shortly, then.” “Don’t worry, Father,” Alex said. “Additionally, I shall introduce Louisa to every gentleman of my acquaintance this evening and then threaten them with bodily harm if they should choose not to invite her to dance, regardless of the menacing glances they get from the illustrious Earl of Kerridge.” “Alex!” Louisa exclaimed with a gasp. “It would certainly add spice to an otherwise tedious occasion,” Anthony remarked. “Not too much violence, please,” Papa said. “Very well.

Let’s be on our way, Lady Ashworth, Louisa. The Wilmington ball awaits, and your mother seems to think it’s time you got yourself a husband.” “I didn’t put it quite like that, Ashworth,” Mama said. “What I actually said was more along the lines of taking your time and choosing wisely, Louisa. We want you to be happy, above all else.” Louisa had made several good friends and already had more beaux than she could have imagined, one or two of whom she found quite interesting. She really had no idea what Lord Kerridge’s intentions were for her. The earl had paid her particular attention the past few weeks, and his doing so had generated a bit of a buzz amongst the ton, Louisa knew, but he had made no declaration to her of any sort, regardless of his attention to her. It all seemed very confusing at times. She needn’t place her hopes or expectations solely upon the Earl of Kerridge, however.

There were parties and routs and musicales and, oh, lots of events to look forward to and many, many young gentlemen and ladies with whom to become acquainted. She would concentrate on enjoying herself, making friends, and practicing her flirting skills. She would stop fretting about marriage, starting now. And if the Earl of Kerridge decided to make an offer, she would consider it. Of course she would. “Thank you, Mama,” Louisa said. “But you needn’t concern yourself unnecessarily. After growing up with these two for brothers, everyone else will be an improvement, by comparison.” Her father barked out a laugh while he handed her mother into the carriage. Her brothers, who stood in the open doorway in order to bid them farewell, also laughed.

“Touché, little sister,” Alex said, offering her a jaunty salute. “Adieu, Lady Cumulus,” Anthony added, grinning. “We shall see you soon and vow to do our very best not to be embarrassed by the puffiness of your gown. Try not to rain this evening.” Louisa waved to them and climbed into the carriage, straightening her gown once she was seated. Her not-at-all-puffy gown, the silly wretches. Oh, but she loved her brothers, terrible teases that they were. She recalled a time when she was eight that she’d managed to retaliate against their constant teasing by sneaking frogs into their beds. That had been one of her crowning accomplishments, especially when she’d been able to hear Anthony shrieking from his bedroom. It hadn’t mattered that she’d gotten a talking to from Papa or that her brothers had tossed her into the lake the following day.

She settled back into the comfortably upholstered seat of her father’s carriage as the horses leapt into action. As they moved forward, she gazed out the window at the fashionable homes of Mayfair, appreciating the architecture, the flower gardens, and the lovely weather, her mind humming with excitement, a little apprehension—and hope. * * * The Wilmington ball was always one of the first of the Season, and Lady Wilmington, Louisa knew, went to great lengths to assure its success each year. Louisa could see rows of carriages awaiting their turns to deposit their passengers at the door, confirming that the ball was going to be a crush. The cream of Society milled about on a red carpet, of all things, waiting to enter the Wilmingtons’ expansive London home and greet their host and hostess before making their way to the ballroom. Soon it was their turn. Louisa exited the carriage, assisted by her father, who’d preceded her, and then waited, pulling her wrap a bit more tightly around her, as her mother descended the carriage steps. The sky held the last vestiges of twilight, and the dewy spring air was chilly, creating a blurry halo around the moon in an otherwise cloudless sky. It appeared Louisa’s dress was the only cloud venturing out tonight. In contrast to the nighttime sky, the entrance hall of the Wilmingtons’ residence was ablaze with light, and Louisa found herself having to blink until her eyes adjusted.

A grand chandelier hung overhead, and silver sconces adorned the walls. Perfumes and beeswax mingled together, creating a heady fragrance, and the hum of conversation echoed through the marble hall. The gowns and turbans and plumes of the ladies provided a vivid counterpoint to the formal black the gentlemen wore. Louisa shivered with excitement and anticipation and a touch of nervousness as well. After what seemed an age to Louisa, she and her parents finally made their way through the crush to Lord and Lady Wilmington. “I daresay you are destined to break many a poor gentleman’s heart this Season, Lady Louisa,” Lord Wilmington said. He was a short, round man with a genial nature, and Louisa had always liked him. “What a dashing young lady you have become. But then, you were always a pretty little thing.” “You are too kind, Lord Wilmington,” Louisa said, offering a demure curtsy.

“Your gown is exquisite,” Lady Wilmington said. She was as short and round as her husband, but the plumes attached to the turban she wore gave her a decided advantage in height over her husband this evening. She leaned in closer to Louisa, causing the purple silk of her gown to rustle and the feathers atop her head to flutter precariously. “I rather like the gauzy fabric, my dear. Rather fluffy and cloud-like. Very becoming.” Louisa’s hand darted to her bodice. Had her exasperating brothers managed to arrive ahead of her? Had her mother said something to Lady Wilmington? They couldn’t have; they wouldn’t have. Would they? She looked carefully into Lady Wilmington’s face but could see only the same good-hearted amiability the lady always exuded. “Thank you, Lady Wilmington,” she managed to say in a rather strangled voice.

Lady Wilmington took Louisa’s hand and patted it. “Are you quite well, my dear?” “Yes.” She swallowed. “I’m fine. Thank you for asking.” Since Lady Wilmington didn’t add anything to her earlier cloud reference, Louisa decided—hoped, rather—that it must have been a coincidence. A coincidence she had no intention of sharing—especially with her brothers, who would never let her live it down. Couples were already taking their places on the floor by the time Louisa and her parents arrived at the ballroom, and the musicians were warming up their instruments on the dais. The first dance of the evening would soon be underway. The murmur of conversation filled the room, and as Louisa looked around the room for familiar faces, all thoughts of clouds faded from her mind.

Lord Kerridge would be here tonight, and he had asked her to reserve a dance for him. The evening would be filled with dancing, and that meant she would most likely have many dance partners, for Lord Kerridge wouldn’t be able to dance with her more than two dances. She had already penciled his name on her card for one dance. Would he ask her for a second later in the evening—perhaps the supper dance? Were there other gentlemen here tonight she would find as charming as he? What if no one else asked her to dance? The thought hadn’t occurred to her before, but it was entirely possible she could end up a wallflower, sitting with Mama and her friends and fanning herself out of embarrassment and boredom. How mortifying that would be if, at her first real ball, she turned out to be an utter failure. Could a worse thing imaginable ever happen to her? She doubted it. “Would you care to dance with me, Lady Ashworth, before you settle in with your friends and fret over which young suitors are paying court to your daughter?” Papa asked Mama, interrupting Louisa’s stream of thought. Goodness, she was so nervous she was babbling in her head now. “You mean before you discreetly head in the direction of the card room, Ashworth?” Mama replied with a coy smile. “Precisely, my love.

” “I would enjoy such a dance, provided your daughter is not left on her own as a result.” Ashworth glanced around the ballroom. “You needn’t worry. Halford will show his face at any moment if he knows what’s good for him.” As if on cue, Alex and Anthony materialized at the ballroom door, both looking like lambs being led to the slaughter. Louisa hid a smile behind her gloved hand as her brothers spotted the rest of the family and made their way toward them. “I’m off to search the ranks for willing—I mean suitable—dance partners,” Anthony announced. “You shall not be left wanting, little sister.” Louisa barely had time to register what he’d said before he was off like a shot and disappeared into the crowd. “Lady Cumulus,” Alex said, bowing theatrically to Louisa, a twinkle in his eye.

“How soon we meet again! I would be honored to dance the first dance with you, provided you do not become thunderous during our time together.” She laid her hand on his arm and allowed him to lead her onto the dance floor. “Did you or Anthony say something about my gown to Lady Wilmington?” Drat. She’d told herself she wasn’t going to say anything about that. “Don’t be silly,” Alex said absentmindedly. “Wait.” He stopped walking. “Are you telling me she actually called your gown a cloud?” “Something like that,” Louisa answered, feeling rather grumpy about the entire business. Alex grinned. “Stop it,” Louisa said, rapping Alex on the arm with her fan, which caused both of her parents to turn and give her reproving looks.

“Stop it,” she repeated in a quieter tone, trying her best not to giggle. It was all so ludicrous. “I chose this gown with extreme care, you know. Does it really make me look like some sort of weather phenomenon?” “It’s a very delightful, very fluffy gown, Weezy—much better than the monstrosity you wore when you were presented at court last week.” Louisa shuddered. “That gown was a monstrosity—all hoops and brocade and ostrich plumes, with that horrid train I barely avoided tripping over as I backed away from Queen Charlotte after curtsying nearly all the way to the floor.” “I don’t envy you at all. In fact, I applaud your ability to stay on your feet.” The music began at that moment, and Louisa turned her attention to the steps of the lively country dance. Throughout the remainder of the evening, she found herself engaged to dance with a number of her brothers’ friends: Christopher “Kit” Osbourne, the eldest son of the Earl of Cantwell; his brother Philip; Sir Richard Egan; and Hugh Wallingham, to name but a few.

Obviously, her brothers had listened closely to their father’s orders and done their duty in seeing Louisa had a full dance card for the evening. But they were friends, young gentlemen she’d met before, not suitors, really; at least, they didn’t seem that way to her. She could hardly be interested in someone who felt forced to bestow his favors on her, now could she?

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