Married by Christmas–Chapter 1

Married by Christmas is available on Amazon in the Christmas boxed set Yuletide Happily Ever Afters.

Chapter 1

London November, 1816

“Another Season over, and what do I have to show for it, William?” Miss Marianne Covington settled heavily as a lump—a very disgruntled lump—of coal in the swift curricle as her friend and neighbor, Mr. William Stanley, expertly sent his cattle through their paces in the sharp breeze. Tufts of dead grass were scattered over the usually lush green lawn of Hyde Park and the bare, skeletal branches rose over them, stark against the pale gray sky. November was not the prettiest month in which to take a curricle ride.

“I’d say at least four rather fetching bonnets.” Slowing the pair of matched grays to allow a large carriage, filled with three giggling young ladies and their chaperone, to pass in front of them, William turned to her with a raised eyebrow. “Certainly no woman needs more than that.”

“Little you know, dunderhead.” She elbowed him, just as she used to do when they played together back at Bramblewood Manor, his family’s estate in Shropshire. Ostensibly, she’d gone to play with his sisters; however, William always seemed to be underfoot whenever they engaged in running games or sports, like bowls or archery. “I had six hats bespoke before we left for London in April and have acquired at least five more since arriving in Town. After attending three sisters and me during the past two Seasons, I’m amazed you do not know more about fashion necessities.”

Laughing as he turned the team toward the gate that led home, William shook his head. “The less gentlemen know about ladies’ fashion, the better off they are. That’s the soundest wisdom being bandied about in all the clubs.” He looked her up and down. “All gentlemen need to ascertain is that a young lady looks well in what she wears. The rest of the details can wait until they are married.”

“With that attitude, Will, you’d best hope the lady you marry has little interest in fashions, else you’ll never have a feather to fly with. While you’re not looking, your wife will fill her dressing room with gowns and hats and all manner of folderols.” Marianne tucked the lap robe firmly beneath her chin, covering her spencer, which matched the elegant blue wool carriage dress with the bright gold trim. She’d dressed in the first stare of fashion all Season long, and what good had it done her?

Now finished with two London Seasons, she had nothing to show for it, save a trio of proposals from men she’d rather die than marry, and four gowns she’d worn to her friends’ weddings to be refurbished for next Season. All her best friends had married by the end of the past Season. Even Lady Libby Francet, who could barely speak two sentences to a gentleman without turning red as a rose, had managed to bring Mr. Henry Brunson up to scratch. Not the most stellar match, perhaps, but she’d gotten a husband, by Jove, and that was more than Marianne could say.

“I’ll do all right. I daresay Father will take care of the settlements, make sure of things like her pin money and expenses and such, so I won’t have to be bothered about the monetary arrangements. Besides, a wife is years off at any rate.” He chuckled as he tooled the curricle along at a fast pace. “And I certainly can’t be bothered with courting ladies at the moment. I’m off to the last races at Melton tomorrow. I’ll be heading there in the morning.” A grin split his face. “What a thrill to watch, Marianne. You have no idea.” He ducked his head and looked abashed. “I’m sorry, Mari. Of course you don’t. I do wish you could come.”

“If wishes were horses, Will.” She sniffed. The fact that she couldn’t accompany him to the races irked her. Will always seemed to be taking himself off for a good time. How unfair could life be? Not only was her friend a gentleman and therefore allowed to go to racetracks and all sorts of frightfully interesting places, he was a popular and rather handsome man into the bargain. All her friends had swooned over him when he appeared to help escort her this past Season, citing his dark brown hair and intriguing amber eyes, as well as his broad shoulders and lithe frame, as the model physique for a husband.

At first she’d been flattered, though she’d told them straight off that he wasn’t a suitor, simply a friend from home. As the weeks wore on, however, the teasing remarks had grown thin. In fact, during the Little Season, she’d had to speak sharply to Lady Charlotte Nolan, who kept asking if Will had proposed.

However, that wasn’t the problem foremost on her mind at the moment. “If I had a wish, I’d ask for a husband for myself. I’m tired of being the odd one out in our circle now. Julia is betrothed, and your other two sisters are married, as are two more of my closest friends.” She pursed her lips and sighed, trying to blink back tears. “And I simply cannot go through a third Season. Especially without any of my friends there for support. I’ll be all alone.” It wasn’t fair at all. “Why can I not find one gentlemen to marry in the entire ton? All the truly good ones have been taken.”

“No gentlemen to marry?” Scowling, Will neatly turned the corner into Mayfair. “What do you mean you cannot find one to marry? I know tons of chaps who’d make excellent husbands.”

She turned her head, suddenly more absorbed in what went on outside the curricle than in it. The foot traffic on the pavement had picked up this late in the evening, thick with servants hurrying home with a meal or to a meal. Carriages rolled briskly along. The lamplighter had just begun his rounds, leaving a cheery glow wherever he stopped.

She caught a glimpse of a gentleman assisting his lady from their carriage, escorting her up the steps of their townhouse. In April, at the beginning of the Season, she’d believed that would be her, accompanied by a husband, riding about the city, talking and laughing. That she’d quickly find a particular companion with whom to share her life. Her tastes in gentlemen weren’t unusual. She’d no requirement that he not drink or wager or must have blue eyes and a small nose. Truly, some of the constraints her friends had imposed on the type of men they wished to marry were idiotic. As long as the gentleman was tolerably handsome, of good character and sufficient income, and possessed of a crisp wit, she would likely say yes. Unfortunately, no gentleman fitting that description had yet to propose to her.

So here she sat, next to William, not one whit closer to finding a husband than she’d been six months before. “Well, I wish you would introduce me to them then. I am all but out of options. Father’s going to start hinting that he’ll find a husband for me, and at that I will put my foot down.”

“I say, have you met Lord Cranmont? Tall, thin chap. Curly blond hair? He’s at White’s with me. Sits a horse splendidly.” Will pulled his team to a stop in front of Constantine House.

“Yes, we danced several times this Season.” Marianne gathered her reticule and sighed. “I thought for a time he might suit. As you say, he does sit a horse excellently. But before I could make my affections known, Lady Catherine Armstrong swooped in like a crow after a kernel of corn.” She hadn’t had a true tendre for Lord Cranmont, but she quite likely could’ve been reasonably comfortable married to him. If not for his and Lady Catherine’s scandalous kiss in the garden at Lady Wilmot’s musical evening. “Didn’t you hear? Their betrothal was announced the very next day after they…came to an understanding at Lady Wilmot’s. The marriage was performed a scant two weeks later, on the day the last of the banns were read.”

Settling the horses, who tossed their heads and seemed to want another turn in the park, Will’s mouth curved downward, giving him the expression of a mischievous cherub. “No, I hadn’t heard that.” The frown continued while he seemed to rummage through the names of all the eligible partis in London. “What about Lord Eastbourne? Capital fellow with a cricket bat at school, so the legends had it.”

“I’ve met the gentleman, briefly. However, I have no interest whatsoever in cricket or other sports of that sort, Will,” she said crisply. “Does he have anything else to recommend him as a husband?”

“Uh, he’s very well set up.”

“Money is not a major point with me, although it may be with Father.” Scowling, Marianne shook out the carriage blanket. What did she want in a husband? “Is he interested in literature or music? Does he ride well? That, I fear, may be a sticking point.”

With a shrug, Will turned away from her and fussed with the ribbons. “I seriously doubt he has any interests of an artistic nature. He does ride. However, he prefers a carriage to a mount.”

“There it is.” How could Will think for a moment she’d marry a man she could outride? “I certainly will not place my future in the hands of a gentleman who has so little to recommend him. You know that well enough. I want to at least have interests in common with the man I marry. Otherwise, how would we get along together?” She’d been introduced to Lord Eastbourne last Season and met him this year as well. A trifle overeager, in her estimation, and with good reason, for the man was in his late thirties, so her mother said, and in dire need of a wife and heir. Why he’d remained eligible for so long also made him suspect in her eyes. Marianne had informed her father she’d rather remain a spinster all her life than marry such a man. She’d not be sold into marriage merely as a brood mare. “Lord Eastbourne is not the man for me, I fear.”

“Well, if you’re going to be picky, I doubt I can help you.”

“If your prospective suitors are so lackluster, I doubt you can as well.”

Throwing her an exasperated glance, Will wrapped the ribbons around the whip socket and jumped to the ground. “I know plenty of splendid fellows you would find acceptable.” He rounded the curricle and took her hand, assisting her from the carriage. “If you give me leave, I’ll wager I can make the match by…by Christmas Day.”

Eyebrows raised, Marianne took his arm and let him lead her to her father’s London townhouse. The warmth of his arm penetrated the sleeves of her pelisse and gown. Will had always been such a wonderful friend, irritating and comforting by turns. At his boast, she giggled. “I’ve been scouring the ton for two years for the perfect man, and you think you can find one to suit me in four weeks?” The giggle turned to laughter. “I’d like to see you try.”

“Done, then.” His countenance had darkened, perhaps a tinge of red in his cheeks. “I will see you married by Christmas or…or I’ll—”

“Eat an entire mincemeat pie?”

Will stopped, one foot suspended above the top step. “I hate mincemeat pie!”

“I know.” Marianne giggled again and propelled them toward the door. “It will serve as a great incentive for you to find me a husband.”

“Rather.” He swallowed and turned pale. “I don’t know that I could eat an entire minced pie without casting up my accounts.”

“All the more reason to win that wager.” Rising up on tiptoe, she stretched and kissed his cheek. “You are terribly sweet, Will, to agree to help me. Especially with such dire consequences should you fail.” She knocked on the door. “Join us for dinner? I know Mama and Papa would love to see you. A face from home would be a cheery addition. We’ve been in London so long.”

Shaking his head, he untwined her arm from his and stepped back. “I’d best be about winning this wager. I’ll just pop around to my club and see who turns up.”

“I give you warning, I’ve met just about every gentleman this Season and last. I don’t know where you’re going to come up with new prospects in London.”

“Who have you already stricken off your list? No good for me to be proposing gentlemen you’ve deemed unsuitable.” Looking stern, he crossed his arms and leaned back.

Marianne glanced around. No need to give the neighbors an on-dit for the morning newssheets. She grasped his arm and vigorously propelled him through the heavy mahogany door the butler had just opened. “We’re going to need more time and a private place for me to give you all the names.”

“That many?” Will whistled as he doffed his hat and handed it to the butler. “Pray, just what are you looking for in a husband?”

“Honestly, you’re such a nitwit.” Grabbing his arm, she dragged him into the nearest receiving room, furnished in blue and green with a merry fire at one end, and shut the door.

“You’d best leave that open at least a crack or you’ll find yourself compromised and married to me.” Will suited the action to his words, pulling the door inward several inches.

“Huh. You won’t find yourself winning your wager so easily.” A flutter in her stomach caught her off guard and she sat down hard on the small, blue, flowered chaise. He was right. They couldn’t be completely alone without jeopardizing her reputation. Even old family friends didn’t have that privilege. “Come sit beside me, and I’ll give you a list of the gentlemen I’ve already either declined or would if they asked.” She patted the seat beside her. “Get sufficient paper and a pencil from the escritoire.”

Dutifully, yet with a long-suffering air, Will took a pen and paper from the desk, not pausing to mend the pen. “All right, approximately how many men do I write down on this list? Will three sheets be enough?”

“Do not be rude, William.” She settled into the cushion, wishing for tea. “Would you mind ringing the bell? I think tea would warm us perfectly.”

Smiling, Will pulled the tapestry rope then went to sit at the opposite end of the settee from her. “I’m still taking no chances, Mari.”

“Oh, very well.” Casting her mind back to her first Season, she began to tick off on her fingers the gentlemen who’d married. “Lord Rycroft, Lord Ellicot, Sir Roger Cheevers, Mr. John Wythe, Mr. Silverton. I forget his first name.” She began on her other hand. “Lord Pye-Whealton, Sir Alexander Montmorency.” She paused, shuddered, and turned to him. “I could never have married him and become Lady Montmorency. It would simply have been too much.”

“I believe I take your point,” he said, though his mouth had puckered suspiciously.

“You’d not find it funny if men had to change their names when they married. How would you like to suddenly have to be called Lord Skiddaw or Lord Douthwaithead?”

“Not much, I grant you.” He averted his eyes then glanced back at the paper. “So, unless we’re to go through a roll call of every gentleman in London, may I suggest I prepare a list of the fellows I think might suit you? Then you can look them over, select several you believe might be promising, and I will bring about an introduction.”

“That would be much more efficient. I’ve not even finished the gentlemen who’ve married since I came out.” Marianne shook her head. So many gentlemen and ladies had found happiness while she’d merely had her toes trod upon a thousand times, it seemed. “So will you come to dinner? We can plan strategy.”

“Much as I would love to, I’d best go round to my club and gather inspiration for my list.” With a rueful grin, Will rose. “I’ve only a month to save myself from the poisonous mince pie.”

Sighing, Marianne rose and walked with him to the doorway. “Do remember he must be a pleasant gentleman, and if at all possible, a good rider.”

“And as handsome as Captain Granville?”

Heat pricked Marianne’s cheeks. “What makes you say that?”

Will chuckled, making her want to hit him as she had when she’d been ten and he’d been an all-knowing sixteen-year old. “He was all the rage among my sisters last year. I assumed you swooned as well over his Byronic locks and ‘gorgeously smoldering dark eyes,’ as Eliza always put it.”

“Eliza would swoon over a goose.” Marianne looked away. Will would remember such embarrassing things. “And yes, I did find Captain Granville rather attractive, but as he is now married, I suppose I will have to sigh and move on.”

“But you don’t deny you would like to marry a handsome fellow?” Grinning, Will headed for the door.

“Well, naturally, I would like to sit across the breakfast table from someone with a pleasant face.” Now she’d like to push her friend out the door. “Unlike yours, sir.”

“Another narrow escape for which to give thanks.” The wretch laughed and opened the door, bringing in a gust of cold air. He touched the brim of his fashionable tall beaver hat. “I’ll call round tomorrow with my list, if that’s all right?”

Marianne narrowed her eyes. “That will be fine. As long as it has gentlemen on it with better manners than you, William Stanley!”

He continued outside, his laughter lingering in her ears even after Collins had shut the door. Will could be as infuriating as any of her brothers, but he’d been a good ally in the past. Pray he proved a savior this time or she’d end up a spinster for sure.