Read The Sweet and Spicy Regency Collection Online
Authors: Dorothy McFalls
Tags: #Sweet and Sexy Regency
The Marriage List
Lady Iona’s Rebellion
Taken by Moonlight
* * * * *
THE MARRIAGE LIST
Bath, England 1813
Radford, the fourth Viscount Evers, dismissed Bannor, his irritatingly efficient man-of-affairs, and eased his aching foot onto his study’s massive tiger maple desktop. The wretched appendage throbbed like the devil all the way to the tips of his toes whenever the weather turned soggy. Which meant in dreary, sodden England his foot pained him nearly all the time. And the unrelenting patter of rain against the windowpane promised nothing but misery for the next several hours.
A year, three months, and twenty-five days had passed since his foot, his leg, and part of his chest had been crushed under the weight of his horse on the Peninsula. The days ticked by like the second hand on his father’s weighty pocket watch he’d begun to twirl between his fingers.
“Taking this man-of-leisure lifestyle a little far, eh, Evers?” Lord Nathan Wynter intruded on Radford’s self-loathing without the decency of an invitation. In fact, Wynter, Radford’s fair-haired boyhood friend and the second son of the esteemed Marquess of Portfry, had burst into the study without even giving the Longbranch House’s stoic butler the opportunity to deny him entrance.
Having awakened in a particularly aggravated mood, Radford had given his butler very specific instructions to turn all visitors away . . . especially Wynter.
For the past several days he’d shied away from prolonged visits with his friends. Wynter’s presence served as an agonizing reminder of the healthy man he was before that cursed Frog murdered his horse out from under him in the middle of that miserable Battle of Salamanca. Not a day passed when he didn’t long to turn back time and live as he once had—to savor the kind of reckless living Wynter freely enjoyed.
Days like today he felt as if he was nothing more than his injuries. Trapped.
His friend laughed, his ruddy cheeks brightening as he turned a deaf ear to Radford’s vile curses and most ungrateful attempts to turn him away. There was no hope for it. Radford’s foul mood only evoked a cheerier Wynter.
“Missed you at the Pump Room this morning.” Wynter dropped into a heavily cushioned chair near the fireplace and plucked at the finely laced doilies covering the seat’s wide arms.
A flare of anger surged in Radford’s chest. “I’ve no interest in parading my lame leg around in public anymore. And those foul waters aren’t doing a bloody thing.” He folded his arms like a disobedient child and lifted his gaze to the ceiling. The blasted plaster needed repair.
“That tedious ritual of taking the waters is supposed to speed your recovery, Evers. But I had thought there might be another allure. A certain Lady Lillian Newbury noticed your absence. Her sunny smile faded to a petulant pout when she saw I was making the rounds alone.” Wynter shivered dramatically. “Damaged my fragile male pride, she did.”
Radford grimaced. Lady Lillian paid far too much interest in his recovery. Lovely as a spring flower, she followed him around the Bath events with the most piteous look clouding her crystal blue eyes.
He had no use for pity, especially not from a mere slip of a woman. Of course he’d no option in light of his recent revelation but play the grateful courtier to her demure interests. He’d do well to remember that damaged specimens such as himself weren’t the choicest morsels on the marriage block.
Wynter didn’t seem to mind Radford’s brooding silence. His lips twitched while a wry look of amusement danced in his eyes. An outsider might say Wynter was on the verge of laughing at his friend. If he dared, Radford would boot him out on his ear. But he knew Wynter well enough to banish the thought. He trusted his friend as fiercely as Wynter trusted him.
“Since you seem to have planted yourself in my study, you might as well make yourself useful.” Radford dashed a glance toward the liquor cabinet.
That was all the encouragement Wynter needed. He wasted no time in pouring two glasses of Radford’s finest claret.
“Now tell me, Evers. What the devil has gotten into you today? You’re a hundred score ruder than usual.” Wynter sipped his claret and that look of amusement spread from his eyes to fill a good-natured grin. Only a long time friend would know Wynter planned to stand his ground and twist a confession from Radford’s lips.
Radford steepled his fingers and frowned. He’d learned on the Peninsula the hard way that some battles were not worth fighting.
“Mother arrived last night.”
.” Wynter leaned back in his chair and lazily propped one leg over the other.
“She’s reminded me how close I came to facing my own mortality. Reminded me how I was carried home on a litter, insensible, and how the local vicar had been called upon to perform last rites no less than three times.” He loathed the note of bitterness in his voice. Bitterness was below him, below the proud line of heroes he’d been born into.
“I suppose your loving mamma had a reason for dredging up that unhappy time from this past year?”
Radford nodded and then drained his glass. “She’s reached the conclusion I myself have refused to face.”
“Good Lord.” Wynter took a deep sip of his own drink. “This sounds serious.”
“It is serious. I have a responsibility to my family and my title that has been long neglected. In short, it is past time I get myself a wife and start producing heirs.”
The very thought of tying himself to a flitting, muslin-draped, empty-headed lady for the rest of his days turned his stomach.
“In all my experience,” Radford said, “I’ve never known a woman to tax her silly mind long enough to think of anything beyond fashion, gossip, and the financial security only a man can provide.”
“Gad, Evers, marriage can’t be as bad as all that. We’re talking about finding you a gently trained lady, not some harridan.”
Radford sighed. Wynter was right. “I suppose it can’t be worse than picking through the nags at Tattersall’s to find a truly superior piece of horseflesh.”
A blond brow rose. “Finding a wife isn’t like purchasing a new mare for your breeding program.”
“And why not? It
simply a breeding program I am looking to begin, is it not? Besides, what in blazes makes you an expert? You’re blissfully unattached . . . with no plans to tie yourself up in the foreseeable future.”
“True, true, I do try to avoid the curse of such an attachment,” Wynter admitted with a lazy wave. “But a lady, Evers. Their natures are more sensitive than even your highest-strung Arabian. And ten times more unpredictable.”
“Bah! I wish to make a list of qualities I should consider—a marriage list, I suppose. Make yourself useful for a change. Play the part of secretary.”
“I don’t know about this—” Wynter muttered.
“Just fetch a pen and a scrap of foolscap. I feel a burst of inspiration emerging.”
* * * *
“Oh please do stop fidgeting, Iona.” The generally fearless May Sheffers thought her rebuke rang hollow even to her own ears. Especially when her heart was thumping in her throat. It took all her resolve not to pull out her lace handkerchief and tug it to bits, her nerves were so overset.
This is truly the only way.
The writ of eviction had arrived in the morning post. Luckily, May had caught sight of the letter and whisked the offensive missive from her ailing Aunt Winnie’s frail fingers. The dear woman, who’d nurtured May from her fourth year forward, didn’t need to know of the heartless treatment that wiry Mr. Bannor sought to bear upon them. Imagine, being tossed out of their home of the past two years like an unwanted pair of worn boots. She’d do anything to protect Aunt Winnie from having to worry about something as horrid as that.
May had spent the past month trying to solve the problem. She’d petitioned Mr. Bannor on several occasions to plead her case, only to find her explanations and promises of payment falling on ears made of stone. And that, along with the finality the writ of eviction presented, had forced May to take this outrageous course of action.
She had no other choice but appeal to the man who paid Mr. Bannor’s salary, the owner of the small cottage she and Aunt Winnie currently rented. That was why she’d borrowed Iona’s family carriage and was presently on her way to pay a call on the baffling Viscount Evers.
May could only pray Evers would sympathize with her plight.
“It’s not as if we deliberately failed to pay the rent these past three months,” May said sharply as the carriage swayed up Sion Hill toward their destination. Working up her ire helped sooth her jumpy nerves. “I never asked for Papa’s money to be tied up by the courts. He’s not dead! Neither is Mamma! Uncle Sires has gone too far. Trying to declare them dead just because he hadn’t heard word from them for the past seven years, indeed. I remember a time when eight years passed between correspondences. They are busy with their investigations, Iona. Not dead.”
“Yes, May,” Iona said in her proper tone that always grew more subdued, more silent whenever May lapsed into one of her loud outbursts. “I am certain you are correct. But paying a visit on a gentleman and a bachelor? We don’t even have a male escort, May. I wish you had allowed me to let my father handle this matter for you. Surely this action steps far beyond the bounds of—”
“Lady Iona Newbury. Do you or do you not still subscribe to the Mary Wollstonecraft school of thought?”
“I do. But—”
“And where does the indomitable Miss Wollstonecraft endorse handing our problems over to a man simply because we were born women?”
At that very moment, Iona’s family carriage pulled to an abrupt stop, sending May’s heart into another flutter of nervous activity. She fiddled a moment with her russet curls made impossibly unruly by the drenching weather. Her peacock blue walking dress, last year’s muslin and design, was slightly faded, but neatly pressed. Her oilskin cape had a small rip in the shoulder.