The Marquess and the Maiden

By: Robyn Dehart
Prologue


London, 1845

Harriet Wheatley grabbed onto the bedposts and sucked in a breath. Her eyes fluttered closed, and she did her best to suppress a groan. She felt the hands at her back and winced as her ladies’ maid tightened her corset.

“I don’t think I can do this,” she whispered as the lacing continued.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” her mother said. “Of course you can. This is what we’ve been hoping for. An opportunity such as this. The Marquess of Davenport is in need of funds, and your dowry is substantial.”

This wasn’t what she’d been hoping for, but she wouldn’t say that to her mother. When she’d debuted two years before, she’d expected to readily find a love match the way her sister had. She was not the great beauty that Helen was, still Harriet had hoped to find her perfect match. One party after another proved that would not happen for her.

Everything her mother said was true. Harriet hadn’t had one single suitor in the two years since her debut. At least not anyone who wasn’t twice her age. She wasn’t certain what was wrong with her, but she suspected her lack of appeal with the younger lords was that she became so awkward around them she couldn’t stop talking. Their eyes would widen and then they’d make excuses and walk away. Her family had been waiting for such a chance—to marry her off any way they could.

“You’ve known Oliver nearly your entire life,” her mother said, softening her voice.

“Simply because you and Lady Davenport have been friends my entire life.” Oliver had never so much as dropped a glance her way. But hard times had changed everything for him, and it would seem that she was to be his savior. Lottie, her maid, gave her a sympathetic look, then moved her over to the dressing table and began the arduous work of taming her curls into some manner of fashionable coif.

“You cannot deny that the man is handsome,” her mother said.

“I’m not blind, Mother. Every girl in London knows that Lord Davenport is handsome.” Sinfully so, which made this all the worse. She lost her ability to speak as a normal person when faced with extreme male attraction. She supposed, because of that, it was best that men, for the most part, had come to ignore her. Unless they needed to inquire about one of her friends.

“Yes, well, since his accident, the rest of the girls in London haven’t seemed to notice that.”

Harriet smirked. “That makes no sense. He has a limp and walks with a cane. His face is without a blemish.”

Her mother’s brows rose in a question.

“Whether or not I find him handsome matters not when he is accustomed to a different type of woman.”

Her mother’s lips disappeared into a thin line. “That terrible woman…” She shook her head. “You do not even think about her.” She grabbed onto Harriet’s shoulders, standing behind her so that Harriet could see their reflection in the mirror. “This is the perfect solution to both your problems. You have been unsuccessful in securing a husband, for whatever reasons, and Oliver finds himself in desperate need of funds.”

Meaning only a man in sheer desperation would agree to marry her. She understood what her mother was saying. It stung, but it was the truth. “Is Lady Davenport going over the plan with him?” Harriet asked.

“She said that approaching him about it would take a delicate hand. It is why tonight’s ball is perfect. All you need to do, my sweet girl, is smile and be yourself.”

“That hasn’t worked thus far to gain me any suitors,” Harriet said.

Her mother waved her hand as she stepped away from the mirror. “Men see you as Malcolm’s younger sister, that is the problem. It was easier for Georgia to find her match. She debuted before Malcolm inherited the title.”

She appreciated her mother’s words but felt certain that being Malcolm’s younger sister had nothing to do with her near spinsterhood.

Her older sister, Helen, was beautiful in the way that men craved. She was delicate and graceful, whereas Harriet was too short and too voluptuous. While her figure might have inspired Flemish painter Paul Rubens to put her form to canvas, by today’s standards she was overly endowed.

A union     between her and Lord Davenport would be denying herself a chance for a love match. But he’d be sacrificing, too, so a marriage between the two of them made sense.

She supposed she should be happy that the Marquess of Davenport was so desperately in need of her funds else she might never find a husband.



Oliver Weeks, Marquess of Davenport, stared at the floor. Would that he could, he would not have even shown up this evening. But damned if he didn’t have a soft spot where his mother was concerned. She’d endured much at the hands of his father, and therefore Oliver typically indulged her.

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