“I have to find a fiancée.”
“Did you lose one?” Myles spoke around his pipe stem as his friend joined him.
“I’m quite serious.” Damion Templeton, Viscount Woodhurst, took a seat opposite Myles Grisham, fourth earl of Cantwell, and signaled for a bottle of hock. “And I’ve only got about a fortnight to find her.” He shrugged out of his coat, which was efficiently retrieved and whisked away by one of the club’s footmen.
“Two weeks? More than enough time for a well-heeled lad like you to reel one in. Hmm ... if you had my good looks as well, I’d have wagered one.” Lord Cantwell sat forward in anticipation of an entertaining tale. “Why two?”
“My grandmother arrives for a visit in a fortnight.”
Myles took the pipe from his mouth and poked the air for effect. “Isn’t this the granddame who has been insisting for the past six years that it’s time for you to marry?”
“That would be the same grandmother, yes.”
“Then why should this year be any different from the other years you’ve chosen to ignore her?”
“That’s what’s odd.” Damion paused when the drinks and rummers were delivered. Contemplating his glass, he rubbed a thumb over the cut crystal facets. “This time, she isn’t demanding. In fact, she promises she shall not even broach the subject of marriage. Says she’s coming simply to visit, and we needn’t discuss it—” He took a huge swallow and looked solemnly at his friend’s smiling face. “She’s dying, Cantwell.”
His friend’s smile dropped upside down. “I’m so sorry. When did you learn?”
“Just today.” Damion dug into a vest pocket and waved a folded sheet of paper. “In a blasted letter.” He jammed it back with a sigh of frustration. “I immediately sent off a letter to my parents, asking why I’m hearing it from Grandmother, and not from them.”
“May I?” Myles held out a well-manicured hand.
Damion retrieved the note and watched as his friend unfolded it gently.
Myles glanced at the first line, then turned it over, noting the Posthorn watermark. “Woodhurst, is this the correct letter?” He read the salutation aloud:
He snapped his eyes to his friend. “Who is Edmund? I’m already confused.”
Damion laughed, a sad sound. “I’m Edmund.”
“Should I have guessed that? I’ve only known you ... what—fifteen years?” Myles returned his perusal to the paper, as if the explanation would appear between the lines.
“I suppose I’ve never mentioned it. It’s quite typical of Grandmother.” Damion rubbed a hand through his hair. “When I was born, father wanted me named after his brother Damion. My grandmother insisted they name me after her father—Edmund. Did I mention my grandmother is stubborn? She’s called me Edmund my entire life. We’ve given up.”
“Ah.” Myles hardly heard; his attention had returned to the letter:
I sit here thinking about how tentative life is, and decided to pick up pen and write you. I’ve had bad news recently. Sad news. And it made me realize how short and precious our time together is. Death is an inconsiderate visitor, you see; no warning.
I know I nag you terribly about getting married, but you’ll be delighted to know I’m not sending this letter to nag you, Grandson. I promise. I’ll be leaving soon, and it makes me think how I shall miss you. I should very much like to see you while I may, dear boy.
Please don’t go to any extra effort for my sake, but do say you shall accept a visit from me. I plan on arriving in a little more than two weeks, on St. Georges Day, unless I hear otherwise from you.”
Love and Rgds.
“She’s dying, yet she’s coming to visit you—should she be traveling?”
“Exactly my reaction,” Damion said. “I began a note, suggesting I come to her instead, but ...I suspect she is coming for the memories. She’s long given up the manor at Fern Crest, but she loves that part of the country, and always insists our longer visits should take place there. My youngest memories are of Fern Crest Hall, when she and Grandfather were in residence there.” He stared at those remembrances in his glass, swirling the clear liquid without taking a drink. “He’s gone—it’s been many years. Though it’s now my home, still I see the two of them in every corner. They were always laughing, appeared to delight in one another’s company. So in love ... At their age, if you can imagine.”
Myles looked away in embarrassment, leaving Damion to his thoughts, before asking, “I wonder why she didn’t wait to tell you her sad news until she arrived to visit? I mean, why put this kind of news in a letter?”
Damion shrugged. “Don’t know. I suppose I was too upset to wonder at it myself.”
“You’re close to her, then, Woodhurst?”
He nodded. “Very. She may pester me once a year to marry, but she’s a grand woman. The best grandmother a man could have.” He drank a silent salute.
“But I’m still missing something. She told you she’s not going to badger you about marriage. So why are you looking for a wife?”
“Think of it, Cantwell. Wouldn’t that make her happy?” Damion cocked his head to the side as he eyed his best friend. “Isn’t that the least I can do for her?”
Myles stared at Damion as if he had a fever. “Well ... I’m sure it would please her. But what about you? You said you’d not marry until the perfect woman came along.” His head jerked slightly, in realization. “Ah, I see now: you wanted a love match—the same as your grandparents had.” He shook his head. “Yet you’re willing to marry the first woman you stumble across in the next two weeks? That doesn’t make sense.”
“It’s only a fiancée, Cantwell!” Damion laughed. “It’s not as if I’m going to marry the chit.”
Myles started. “Woodhurst, I hate to shock you, but that’s what a fiancée is—someone you promise to marry.”
“Don’t be dense. I’m not about to marry. I’m simply going to make Grandmother think I’m marrying. If I set the engagement period long enough, then after Grandmother ... departs this Earth, we cry off the engagement.”
“That’s cold. But—smart.” Myles nodded. “However, there is one sticky detail. What lady of our acquaintance will go along with a scheme such as that?”
“Ah, there’s the rub. Which is why I sought you out.”
“Sorry. I’m not on the market for marriage. Especially not to you.”
Damion kicked his friend’s boot from where he sat. “That’s all right then, as you’re not my type. So...” He grabbed several pasties in his large hand from a passing waiter’s tray, “How do I go about finding a fiancée in the next week or two?”
“Do you wish to run through the list of this season’s eligible young debutantes?”
“No, I think your initial observation is right. No proper lady looking for a husband on the mart is likely to go along with this sham.”
Myles’s eyes widened. “You’re not thinking of an improper lady, are you?”
“Good God, Cantwell, I’m not going to introduce my grandmother to a demimonde ... though that might be fun.” He grinned mischievously.
“Then I confess you’ve lost me.”
“I was, of course, thinking about a respectable lady ... So, no ladies of our circle, you think?”
“I certainly believe the ladies of our circle would not only refuse to go along with this scheme, but their papas would not be amused either.”
“Then—” Damion eyed his friend speculatively. “What about a shopkeeper?”
Myles shook his head. “Have you met any shopkeepers who speak like a lady? That’s not been my experience.”
“Don’t think of a flower-cart Nelly. What if our shopkeeper were to work in a bookshop? Wouldn’t she be well-read?”
“Well-read is not well-spoken.”
“If you and I rack our brains, Cantwell, I know we can find a solution. Think, man.”
Both men sank further into the plush armchairs, seemingly hypnotized by the fire.
Damion straightened. “Milliners? They cater to ladies of quality. They have to be able to hobnob.”
Myles took a thoughtful draw of his pipe. “Yes. But I hear the really good ones are French. How would your grandmother feel about a French granddaughter-in-law?”
Damion visibly shuddered. “Scratch that.” He refilled their glasses.
Two refills later, Myles said, “Perhaps Chloe would be willing to go along with this. Has your grandmother met my sister? Chloe’s a good sport, and loves getting into mischief.”
“No. Much as I think she’d be perfect for the part, I expect my parents will most likely make an appearance at Fern Crest as well, and they know Lady Chloe and your parents too well. I need them to believe in this sham engagement, as they’d never be able to keep a secret from Grandmother.”
“What did you say?” asked Myles.
“I said my parents have already met Lady Chloe.”
“I said your sister would have been perfect for the part.”
Myles snapped his fingers. “Precisely. For—the—part,” he repeated slowly. “You need someone who can play—a part.” He spread his hands as a magician would, the solution obvious by his upturned palms.
“An actress!” Damion sat up swiftly. “Why didn’t I think of that? An actress will be able to mimic a lady’s tone.”
“And she can dress the part.”
“And act the part, if she’s paid well.” Myles shrugged. “It’s just another play to her.”
“You, Cantwell, are a genius. What theatres would you recommend I visit? For a classier type of actress?”
“Let’s ask Chloe. She’s up on all of that.”
“I’d certainly appreciate it. It would save me some precious time.” Damion rose, signaling to a footman for his coat. “That’s resolved, then. I’m off to the estate, to begin preparations for Grandmother’s visit. I should return in a few days. As soon as I’m back in town, I’ll get in touch, and hopefully Lady Chloe will have some good leads for us.”
Myles stood, sucked on his pipe. “You know, you may need Chloe yet. Won’t your fiancée require a lady in attendance during her visit?”
“I wasn’t planning on staffing—” Damion colored. “Oh, I see. Yes, I suppose I must also conjure up a pretend companion for the fiancée. At least until Grandmother is settled in, or until my mother arrives.”
“Well, be sure to think these nettling details through. You may also need gowns for this fiancée. And a carriage for shuttling her and Chloe from Town to Fern Crest. And ... maybe some props. Musical instruments? Sewing baskets? Books on etiquette? That sort of thing.”
“Egad. What a lot of work it is harboring a fiancée.” Damion looked tired.
“A pretend fiancée,” confirmed Myles. “From what I observe, the real ones are even more annoying and expensive. And that’s nothing compared to what a wife should demand!”
“I’ll take your word on it. It’s not something I plan to find out for myself.” Damion shrugged into his coat. “I do like this plan. It sounds natural: the two ladies visit my home, so that my fiancée can get to know my grandmother, before she—so that my grandmother can get to know the young lady. It will please Grandmother to have her there.”
“And, very properly chaperoned by my sister—”
“Will she do it?”
“Chloe? For you? She’ll be thrilled.”
* * * * *
“You what?” Lady Chloe Grisham’s screech could be heard in the next townhouse. “How dare you make a commitment for me to do something so foolish, so inane!”
“Calm down, little sister. It’s for Woodhurst. I thought you worshipped the ground he walked upon.”
“If he wants to ask me to be his wife, I’ll seriously consider a sojourn in the country. But I’ll be scoured if I’ll play companion to some other woman who’s got her hooks in him.”
Myles tucked his chin into his chest in surprise. “You? Interested in Woodhurst? Seriously?”
Chloe blushed. “Of course not. It was a jest. Besides, one of my good friends is still enamored of him. How could I be interested when she plans to have him for herself? Drat. She’s going to be devastated.”
“Really? Who is it?”
“Oh, no. I’m not going to give you that ammunition to hand over to Lord Woodhurst.”
“Hmm. Well, don’t get any ideas yourself, as I’d never allow it.”
She put her hands on her hips and scowled at her brother. “Why ever not?”
“You don’t know him as well as I do, Chloe. He’s a rake. I wouldn’t want my sister to marry someone such as him.”
“He’s considered the catch of the Season. Besides, I thought he was your best friend.”
“He is. What does that have to do with his suitability as my sister’s husband?”
Chloe frowned as if doubting her brother’s sanity.
“Anyway, I can’t believe we’re having this discussion,” said Myles. “Because we need you to only pretend to be a companion.”
“What are you saying?”
“There is no real fiancée.”
Chloe’s expression went from despair to hope. “He’s not truly engaged?”
“It’s a sham engagement.” Myles eyed his sister sternly. “You mustn’t let on. It’s to fool his grandmother and his parents. And it’s only for a short while. Then they’ll cry off.”
She looked to be considering it.
Her brother played his trump card. “Just think. You’ll be at his manor for a few weeks, escorting this lady as she visits with Woodhurst and his grandmother every day. You’ll have lots of information to pass along to your ‘friend.’ ” His suspicious look said he was not sure she told the truth.
Chloe smiled evilly. “This might be fun. Perhaps I’ll even make him realize he does want a proper fiancée.” She was already scheming.
“No scheming. I can see in your eyes when you’re scheming.”
Chloe looked at her brother, all innocence in her wide eyes. “Not me, Myles. I’m going to be the perfect, feminine companion.”
She practically floated from the room, rehearsing already.
What have I done? wondered Myles.
<END> of Chapter One