The Earl's Inconvenient Wife

The Earl's Inconvenient Wife

March 2019

Angered by Society’s treatment of her mother and unfounded suspicions about her character, Temperance Lattimar dreams of exploring the world, gathering treasures for her father. Hiding a dark secret, she’s determined never to marry—until her father’s restrictions on her fortune induce her to suggest a marriage of convenience to her brother’s rakish best friend, Gifford Newell. If he’ll allow her to travel as she wishes, he can use her money to further his career in Parliament.

Then a tragic accident turns this “mister” into an earl, upsetting the comfortable terms of their “marriage blanche.” Temper knows an earl needs an heir, while Gifford finds himself increasingly tempted to renegotiate their bargain of a marriage in name only--for the hoyden he once knew has become a seductively beguiling woman...

London, early April, 1833


“You’re certain you won’t come with me?” Temperance Lattimar’s twin sister asked as she looked up from the trunk into which she’d just laid the last tissue-wrapped gown. “I know Bath isn’t the center of Society it used to be, but there will be balls and musicales and soirées to attend. And, with luck, attend without whispers of Mama’s latest escapade following us everywhere.”

Temperance jumped up from the window seat overlooking the tiny garden of Lord Vraux’s Brook Street townhouse and walked over to give Prudence a hug. “Much as I will miss you, darling Pru, I have no intention of leaving London. I won’t let the rumor mongers chase me away. But I do very much hope that Bath will treat you kindly—“ though I doubt it, London gossips being sure to keep their Bath counterparts updated about the latest scandal—“and that you will find that gentleman to love you and give you the normal family you’ve always wanted.” Letting her sister go, Temper laughed. “Although, growing up in this family, I’m not sure you’ll recognize ‘normal’ even if you find it.”

“You mean,” Prudence asked, irony—and anger—in her voice, “not everyone grows up with a father who won’t touch them, a mother with lovers tripping up and down the stairs every day, and rumors that only their oldest brother is really the son of their father?”

“Remember when we were little—how much we enjoyed having all those handsome young men bring us hair ribbons and sweets?” Temper said, trying to tease her sister out of her pique.

Pru stopped folding the tissue paper she was inserting to cushion the gowns and sent Temper a look her twin had no trouble interpreting.

“I suppose it’s only us, the lucky ‘Vraux Miscellany,’ who fit that sorry description,” Temper said, changing tacks, torn between sympathy for the distress of her twin and a smoldering anger for the way Society had treated their mother. “Gregory, the anointed heir, then you and me and Christopher, the…add-ons. Heavens, what would Papa have done, had Gregory not survived? He might have had to go near Mama again.”

“Maybe if he had, they’d have reconciled—whatever difficulty lay between them, and we would have ended up being a normal family.”

Temper sighed. “Is there such a thing? Although, to be fair, you have to admit that Mama has fulfilled the promise she made to us on our sixteenth birthday. She’s conducted herself with much more restraint these last six years.”

“Maybe so, but by then, the damage was already done,” Pru said bitterly. “How wonderful, at your first event with your hair up and your skirts down, to walk into the drawing room and hear someone whisper, ‘There they are--the Scandal Sisters.’ Besides, as this latest incident shows, Mama’s reputation is such that she doesn’t have to do anything now to create a furor.”

“Not when there are always block-headed men around to do it for her,” Temper said acidly. “Well, nothing we can do about that.”

After helping her twin hold down the lid of the trunk and latch it, she gave Pru another hug. “Done, then! Aunt Gussie collects you this morning, doesn’t she? So take yourself off to Bath, find that worthy gentleman, and create the warm, happy, normal family you so desire. No one could be more deserving of a happy ending than you, my sweet sister!”

“Thank you, Temper,” Pru said as her sister crossed to the door. “I shall certainly try my hardest to make it so. But…are you still so determined not to marry? I know you’ve insisted that practically since we were sixteen, but…

The dark memories struggled to surface, and Temper forced them down. “You really think I would give up my freedom, put myself legally and financially under the thumb of some man who can ignore me or beat me or spend my entire dowry without my being able to do a thing to prevent it?”

“I know we haven’t been witness to a…very hopeful example, but not all marriages are disasters. Look at Christopher and Ellie.”

“They are fortunate.”

“Christopher’s friends seem to be equally fortunate—Lyndlington with his Maggie, David Smith with his duchess, Ben Tawny with Lady Alyssa,” Pru pointed out.

Temper shifted uncomfortably. If she were truly honest, she had to admit a niggle of envy for the sort of radiant happiness her brother Christopher and his friends had found with the women they’d chosen as wives.

“Besides,” Pru pressed her point, “it’s the character of the husband that will determine how fairly and kindly the wife is treated. And we both know there are fair, kind, admirable men in London. Look at Gregory—or Gifford!”

Gifford Newell. Her brother’s best friend and carousing buddy, who’d acted as another older brother, tease, nag and friend since she was in leading strings. Although lately, something seemed to have shifted between them…some sort of wordless tension that telegraphed between them when they were together, edgy, exciting…and threatening.

She might be inexperienced, but with a mother like theirs, Temper knew where that sort of tension led. And she wanted none of it.

“Very well, I grant you that there are some upstanding gentlemen in England, and some of them actually find the happy unions they deserve. I…I just don’t think marriage is for me. “ Squeezing her sister’s hand, she crossed to the doorway. “Don’t forget to come say good-bye before you leave! Now, you’d better find where your maid has disappeared with the rest of your bonnets before Aunt Gussie arrives. You know she hates to be kept waiting.”

Pru gave her a troubled look, but to Temper’s relief, did not question her any further. She kept very few secrets from her sister, but this one she simply couldn’t share.

Tacitly accepting Temper’s change of subject, Pru said, “Of course I’ll bid everyone goodbye. And you’re correct, Aunt Gussie will be anxious to get started. She’s hoping to travel most of the way to Bath today, so we might arrive in good time tomorrow. Anyway, since you can’t be presented this year, what do you mean to do in London?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Temper replied, looking back at her from the doorway. “Maybe I’ll create some scandals of my own!”

Trying to dispel the forlorn feeling caused by the imminent departure of the twin who had been her constant companion and confidante her entire life, Temper closed the door to the chamber they shared, then hesitated.

Maybe she should gather her cloak, find her maid, and drag the long-suffering girl with her for a brisk walk in Hyde Park. With it being already mid-morning, it was too late to indulge in riding at a gallop, and as restless and out-of-sorts as she was this morning, she wouldn’t be able to abide confining herself to a decorous trot. While she hesitated, considering, she heard the close of the entry door downstairs and a murmur of voices going into the front parlor.

One voice sounded like Christopher’s. Delighted that her brother might be paying them a visit, Temper ran lightly down the stairs and into the room.

“Christopher, love, it is you!” she cried, spying her brother about to seat himself on the sofa. “But you didn’t bring Ellie?”

“No, my wife’s at her school this morning,” Christopher said, walking over to give her a hug. “Newell caught me as we were leaving Parliament, and learning I meant to visit you and Gregory, insisted on tagging along.”

Belatedly, Temper turned to curtsey to the gentleman lounging at the mantel beside her older brother Gregory. “Giff, sorry! I heard Christopher’s voice, but not yours. How are you?”

“Very well, Temper. And you are looking beautiful, as always.”

The intensity of the appreciative look in the green eyes of her brother’s friend sent a little frisson of..something through her. Temper squelched the feeling. What was wrong with her? This was Giff, whom she’d known forever.

“Blonde, blue-eyed, and wanton—the very image of Mama, right?” she tossed back, hiding, as she often did, uncertainty behind a mask of bravado. “I suppose you’ve heard all about the latest contretemps.”

“That was the main reason I came,” Christopher said, motioning her to a seat beside him on the sofa. “To see if there was anything I could do. And to apologize.”

“Heavens, Christopher, you’ve nothing to apologize for! Ellie is a darling! We would have disowned you if you hadn’t married her.”

Her brother smiled warmly. “Of course I think so. I’ve been humbled and gratified by the support of my family and closest friends, but there’s no hope that Society will ever receive us. And wedding a woman who spent ten years as a courtesan wasn’t very helpful to the marital prospects of my maiden twin sisters, who already had their mother’s reputation to deal with.”

“Society’s loss if they refuse to receive Ellie,” Temper said. “To punish forever a girl who was virtually sold by her father…well, that’s typical of our world, where gentlemen run everything! Which is why we need to elect women to Parliament!” She gave her brother and Newell a challenging look.

Rather than recoiling, as she rather expected, Christopher laughed. “That’s what Lyndlington’s wife Maggie says. Since their daughter was born, she’s becoming quite the militant.”

“Maybe I can join her efforts,” Temper replied. “If you and the other Hellions in Parliament are so sincere about reforming society, you could start with the laws that make a married woman the virtual property of her husband.”

“Maybe we should. But the only earth-shaking matter I wanted to address today was find out had been decided about you and Pru,” Christopher replied. “So Aunt Gussie agreed that, in the wake of the scandal, presenting you in London this year wouldn’t be wise?”

“Temperance might prefer that you not discuss this with me present,” Newell cautioned, looking over at her. “It is a family matter.”

“But you’re practically family,” Temper replied, and had to suppress again that strange sense of tension—as if some current arced in the air between them—when she met Gifford’s gaze. If she ignored it, surely it would go away.

“I don’t mind discussing ‘The Great Matter’ with you present,” she continued, looking away from him. “Since you are outside the family, you might have a more disinterested perspective.”

“The situation has improved a slight bit since last week,” Gregory said. “It appears that Hallsworthy is going to recover after all, so Farnham should be able to return from the continent.”

“Stupid men,” Temper muttered. “It would have been better if they’d both shot true and put a ball through each of their wooden heads. Honestly, in this day and age, dueling over Mama’s virtue! You’d think it was the era of powdered wigs and rouge! It’s not as if she’s ever spoken more than a few polite words to either of them.”

“Having them both dead would hardly have reduced the scandal,” Gregory observed.

“Perhaps not, but the population of London would have been improved by the removal of two knuckleheads who’ve never done anything more useful in their lives than swill brandy, wager at cards, and make fools of themselves over women!”

“Such a dim view you hold of the masculine gender,” Newell protested. “Come now, you must admit not all men are self-indulgent, expensive fribbles.”

Fairness compelled her to admit he was right. “Very well,” she conceded, “I will allow that there still are a few men of honor and character in England, my brothers and you, Giff, included.”

“My point exactly,” he said, leveling those dangerous green eyes at her. “I could also point out a number of the fairer sex who aren’t exactly paragons of earthly perfection.”

“Like the Society dragons who won’t accept Ellie? Yes, I’ll admit that, too. But you, Giff, have to admit that though the ladies and their acid tongues may control who moves in Society, it’s women who are punished for any infraction of the rules, while men are…mostly exempt from them.”

“We concede,” Giff said. “Life isn’t fair.”

“Shall we move from the philosophical to the practical?” Gregory said briskly. “As you may know, Christopher, since a presentation in London this Season would be…awkward at best, Aunt Gussie offered to take the girls to Bath. Where at least they could go out a bit in Society, maybe even meet some eligible gentlemen.”

“I have no desire to wed some elderly widower and spend the rest of my husband’s life feeding him potions and pushing his chair to the Pump Room,” Temper declared.

“And as you might suspect,” Gregory continued after Temper’s interruption, “practical Pru agreed, but intransigent Temper insists on remaining in London and brazening it out. Much as I love you, sis, I really would like to see you out of this house and settled into your own establishment.”

“Since I don’t plan to marry, why must I even have a Season?” When none of the gentlemen bothered to reply to that, she sighed. “Very well, but if I must have one, I’d rather have it straightaway, and not delay yet another year. Most females make their bows at sixteen, and what with one catastrophe or other occurring to forestall a presentation, Pru and I are pushing two-and-twenty, practically on the shelf! The Season will be a disaster, of course, but maybe after that, everyone will leave me alone and allow me to do what I wish. Honestly, to not be able to go to the theatre on my own or speak to gentlemen at dinner, because I’m not out. It’s so entirely ridiculous.”

“Are you sure you want to press forward this year?” Gifford said. “If you are cut by most of Society, you will have few invitations to balls or entertainments or dinners where you might speak with those gentlemen. Wouldn’t it be wiser to wait another year, and try then, after the hubbub has died down, this scandal buried under a host of new ones?”

“What’s to say there won’t be a new scandal next year?” Temper objected. “Paying court to Mama’s beauty is practically a…a rite of passage among the idiots coming down from university. Though she doesn’t go about in Society nearly as much as she used to, she’s still as beautiful as ever. And as fascinating to gentlemen.”

“Perhaps even more so, since she doesn’t encourage any of them,” Gifford acknowledged with a wry smile. “The lure of the Beauty Unattainable.”

“The lure of knowing she hasn’t always been ‘unattainable’ and the arrogance that makes some man think he might be the one to succeed with her,” Temper corrected.

“Let’s get back to the point,” Gregory said. “I’d just as soon not wait to settle your future until next year, either. But if you insist on having your debut here, we shall need some eminently respectable female to sponsor you, since Aunt Gussie will be in Bath with Pru. Obviously, Mama can’t do it.”

“I’d almost like to see her try,” Temper said with a laugh. “But even I have to admit that would be tweaking the tail of the Society tiger a little too much.”

“Ellie is out, too, for equally obvious reasons,” Christopher said. “But…I could ask Maggie. As the daughter of a marquess and wife of a viscount, she might have enough influence to manage it.”

“No, Christopher, I wouldn’t want to ask her, even though she would probably agree. She’s still fully occupied with the baby and let’s be honest, attempting to sponsor one of the ‘Scandal Sisters’ won’t enhance the social standing of whoever attempts it. Maggie is too important as a political hostess for Giles, helping him in his efforts to move the Reform bills toward passage, to risk diminishing her effectiveness, tarnishing her reputation by sponsoring me.”

“You know Maggie wouldn’t worry about that,” Christopher argued.

“Maybe not—though Giles might. ”

“I think you wrong him. Besides, Society knows how close we are all, almost as close as family. They will understand the loyalty that would have her stand by you.”

“They might understand her loyalty, but they’d certainly question her judgment. No, if I press forward with this, I shall need a sponsor whose reputation is so unassailable that no one would dare oppose her.”

“How about Lady Sayleford?” Gifford suggested.

“Maggie’s great aunt?” Temper said, frowning. “That connection is a bit remote, don’t you think? I don’t doubt that Maggie would take me on, but why should Lady Sayleford bother herself over the likes of me?”

“Maybe because I ask her.” Before Temper could sputter out a response, he grinned. “She’s my godmother. Didn’t you know? My mother and her daughter were bosom friends.”

While Christopher and Gregory laughed, Temper shook her head. “I didn’t know, but I’m not surprised. How incestuous are the liaisons of Society! Thick as a den of thieves, the Upper Ten Thousand. And just as determined to destroy those they deem unworthy interlopers into their precious territory.”

“You can’t deny she has the social standing to carry it off,” Gifford said.

Temper smiled. “If Lady Sayleford couldn’t get her protégé admitted wherever she chose, London Society as we know it would cease to exist. But even she would have to expend social capital to achieve it. I wouldn’t want to ask it of her.”

“Knowing Lady Sayleford, she might see it as a challenge. She’s never marched to anyone’s tune, knows everything about everyone, is beholden to no one, and has fingers in so many pies, no one dares to cross her.”

“I’ve never met her, but she sounds like a woman I’d admire,” Temper admitted.

“If you could secure her agreement, Lady Sayleford would be an excellent sponsor,” Gregory said, looking encouraged. “If anyone can find an eligible parti to take this beloved termagant off my hands, it’s the Dowager Countess.”

“Need I repeat, I have no intention of ending a Season, even one sponsored by the redoubtable Lady Sayleford, by marrying?”

When the gentleman once again ignored her comment, Christopher agreeing with Gregory that Lady Sayleford would make an excellent sponsor and asking Gifford again if he thought he could coax her into it, Temper slammed her hand on the table.

“Enough! Very well, I admit that Lady Sayleford has a better chance of foisting me on Society than any other matron I can think of. But don’t go making your plans yet, gentleman. Let me at least approach Papa, and see if I can convince him to release funds from my dowry for me to set up my own establishment—and get out of your house and hair, dear brother.”

The men exchanged dubious glances.

“If I can persuade him to release my dowry,” Temper persisted, “You’ll have no ‘situation’ to discuss.”

“Yes, we would,” Gifford said with an indulgent smile. “We’d be figuring out a way to rein you in before you organized an expedition to the Magreb or India, like Lady Hester Stanhope.”

“Riding camels or wading in the Ganges.” Giving him a beaming smile, Temper nodded. “I like that prospect far better than wading through the swamp of a Season.”

“Well you might, but don’t get your hopes up,” Christopher warned. “You know Papa.”

Despite her bold assertion, Temper knew as well as Christopher how dim were her chances of success. “I do,” she acknowledged with a sigh. “I’ll be lucky if he even acknowledges I’ve entered the room, much less deigns to talk with me. At least he’s unlikely to bellow at me or throw things. With all the sabers and cutlasses and daggers he’s in the process of cataloguing now, that’s reassuring. Well, I’m off to pin him down and try my luck.”

“If I leave before you get finished, let me know what happens,” Christopher said. “I’ll be happy to return for another strategy session.” Planting a kiss on her forehead, he gave her a little push. “You better go now, so you won’t miss saying goodbye to Pru.”

“You’re right,” Temper said, glancing at the mantle clock. “Aunt Gussie could arrive at any minute. Very well—I’m off to the lion’s den!” Blowing the others a kiss, she walked out—feeling Gifford Newell’s gaze following her as almost like a burn on her shoulders.

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