You May Kiss the Bride(5)

By: Lisa Berne



In point of fact, his grandmother was not an easy person to be around. Both his parents having died in the typhus epidemic of 1791 that swept through Somerset, Grandmama had been his guardian since he was seven, and he remembered being secretly glad to have been sent away to Eton, and even gladder as a young man, after a few obligatory years spent in Society, to have seized the opportunity to travel across Europe as a member of the Diplomatic Corps. Between Grandmama’s relentless pressure to marry, and the brazen machinations of ambitious mothers and their wily daughters, he’d had enough of the so-called gentler sex. Experience among the ton had taught him that women were, evidently, crafty and manipulative creatures, vain, shallow, their heads full only of dresses, parties, gossip, intrigues, conquests.

All in all, a dead bore.

He had been happy to seek his pleasures elsewhere, sensibly, in the arms of well-paid courtesans, with whom there was no need to pretend he was interested in Lady Jersey’s latest on-dits about who had been dampening their petticoats, or how much the Regent (then still the Prince of Wales) had spent on new boots, and so on.

When finally the government had summoned him back to England, and released him from service with thanks, he’d been forced to admit that Grandmama was right—about one thing, at least. He was nearly thirty years old and he could no longer ignore the obligations of his station. He needed to marry and produce offspring. There was a nursery, long empty, at Surmont Hall.

Not that he had any particular intention of returning to the Hall. It was merely a place where he’d lived for a few years of his childhood. What would he do there, anyway? For a man used to active occupation, to utilizing his intellect each and every day, life in the country was bound to be unutterably dull. Besides, the bailiff—what was his name? Edwards? Eckers? No: Eccles. Eccles ran the place quite competently.

It all came down to one thing.

Choice.

He could certainly choose where he lived, but he couldn’t choose not to marry.

There had been a time, in his early twenties, after he’d nearly been maneuvered right into the proverbial ball and shackle . . . Good Lord, that fiendish Lady Washbourne, so mind-bogglingly determined that the world would have been an infinitely better place had she deployed her talents in the pursuit of something useful, like a cure for cholera. Her daughter, a beautiful half-wit, somehow ending up in his carriage made more than a little drunk and obediently prepared to yield up her virtue to him: It had been rather startling to discover in this way her ladyship’s estimation of his character, her assumption that he was so animalistic in his desires that he’d cheerfully ravish an innocent girl—one, moreover, who couldn’t even sit up straight on her own—and then, of course, marry her at once. What a tangle that had been, getting her safely returned home and himself neatly extricated from an absurd and awkward situation. He knew that any hint of scandal would enrage his grandmother; he didn’t fear her outbursts, but he owed her, at least, the courtesy of an unsullied reputation.

After that charming little debacle, he’d toyed with the idea of remaining unwed, and allowing the Hall to eventually pass into the hands of his cousin Hugo Penhallow. He was a nice young chap, good-tempered, poor as a church mouse, Army-mad. As soon as Gabriel had come into his inheritance he’d set up Hugo with an allowance and purchased his commission. The lad was now roiling about the so-called United States, happy as a lark.

But there was no certainty that madcap Hugo would return alive and whole, leaving open the ominous possibility of the heir being his distant Scottish cousin Alasdair Penhallow who, if the rumors were correct, was a most unsavory fellow as well as being irremediably stupid.

Before long, he’d come to accept his fate. The Penhallows had been arranging dynastic marriages for decades—centuries, really. He would wed and do his duty, but aside from the congress necessary to create progeny, he and his wife would lead separate lives. It was the Penhallow way, and he’d yet to hear anyone complain about it. Besides, he wasn’t in any danger of giving way to maudlin sentimentality about his lot in life. Generally speaking, he was a fortunate man, blessed with intelligence, good health, and a substantial fortune; too, he wasn’t some callow lad, pining away in the quest for some kind of grand idealized love.

No, he had business to transact.

And luckily, Grandmama had spared him the tedium of having to search for a bride.

Some months ago she had left Bath—where she’d been ensconced for many years—and made her way to London. There she had taken occupancy of the family townhouse in Berkeley Square and proceeded to spend the Season looking for a worthy young lady. Invited everywhere and universally fawned upon, she attended breakfasts, teas, dinner parties, assemblies, balls, Almack’s; indefatigably had she searched, interviewed, investigated. Her letters came to him bristling with detailed reports.

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