Redeeming the Marquess by Laura Beers

 

1

England, 1814

Roswell Brooksbank,the Marquess of Bideford, found most people to be insufferable. It was a simple truth. Ever since he had inherited his title, someone always wanted something from him, and they wouldn’t leave him be. He found the best way to avoid them was to stay away from social gatherings of any kind. Which, quite frankly, he preferred. It was the best way to avoid unwanted matrimonial efforts, as well. He tired of the conspiring matchmaking mothers with their snares and traps, determined to see their daughters wed.

How had it reached this point? He was miserable, and he found very little joy in his life. Every day felt just like the one before. It was a never-ending cycle, one he did not enjoy. He needed to find a purpose in his life, something that would give him a reason to carry on.

His dark-haired valet held up two cravats for his inspection. “Would you care for the white cravat or an ivory one, my lord?”

“The white one.”

Benham bobbed his head in approval. “As you wish,” he said as he extended it towards him.

Roswell accepted it and placed it around his neck. As he began to tie the intricate knot, he asked, “How has your sister adapted to employment here?”

“Teresa has adapted well, and she is most grateful for the opportunity to work as Lady Emma’s lady’s maid,” Benham said.

“I am pleased to hear that.”

Benham retrieved his black jacket. “I cannot thank you enough for speaking to Mrs. Noelle about the position.”

“It was the least I could do, but I do hope she can handle the demands of tending my sister.”

Benham helped him into the jacket, speaking as he did so. “Teresa has informed me that Lady Emma is a delight compared to her former employer.”

“That doesn’t sound like my sister,” Roswell joked.

Benham nodded. “Teresa was in a home that only employed a few servants, so she was responsible for a myriad of tasks.”

Roswell adjusted his shoulders within the jacket. “That sounds awful.”

“I assure you it was.”

“I intend to go riding after the meeting with my solicitor,” Roswell informed the valet as he walked to the door.

“I shall ensure your clothing is readied, my lord.”

“Thank you.”

Roswell departed from his bedchamber and walked down the narrow hall towards the stairs. He descended them quickly and joined his butler, Thorne, at the base of the stairs. Thorne had been with the family since his youth and was quite efficient at his job. He could be fastidious, but he was also quick to smile. His black hair was quickly being replaced by white, marking his advancing age.

“Good morning, milord,” Thorne greeted him in a cordial tone. “I trust you slept well.”

“I did,” Roswell replied as he walked past. He did not enjoy chitchat.

He stepped into the breakfast parlor and sat at the head of the table. A footman promptly walked over and set a plate of food in front of him.

Roswell had just reached for the morning paper when his brother and sister stepped into the room. He couldn’t help noticing annoyance flash across Emma’s features when she saw him, but he gave it little heed. He rarely did. Everything he did seemed to frustrate his sister, and he wasn’t entirely sure why.

“Good morning,” his brother, Charles, said as he came to sit down. “Is there anything pertinent in the newspaper?”

“I couldn’t say,” Roswell replied. “I had just picked it up when you stepped into the room.” He met his sister’s gaze. “Good morning, Emma.”

She forced a smile. “Good morning, Roswell.” She leaned to the side as a footman placed a plate in front of her.

Roswell returned his attention to the morning newspaper and started perusing the articles, though nothing captured his attention.

As he folded the paper, his mother stepped into the room. “I just read the most interesting letter!” she exclaimed.

“You did?” Emma asked.

His mother sat down. “Yes, it was from Lady Worthington,” she replied.

Charles lifted his brow. “Have you spoken about Lady Worthington before?”

“I am sure I have, since she is one of my dearest friends,” his mother said. “We grew up in the same village, and we debuted at the same time.”

“I daresay that you have a lot of ‘dear friends’,” Roswell commented dryly.

His mother smiled. “That is true, but Alice is truly a dear.”

“What did Lady Worthington say in her letter?” Emma asked.

“Well, it appears that she has fallen upon hard times since her husband died, so she asked if I would host her daughter for the Season.”

“Absolutely not!” Roswell exclaimed.

Unperturbed by his outburst, his mother continued. “I am of a mind to accept her request.”

Roswell gave his mother a blank stare. “Does Lady Worthington have no other relations who could render her assistance?”

“She does not,” his mother replied. “She is very much alone in this world.”

“This is madness,” Roswell said.

“We are in a position to help her,” his mother commented.

Roswell frowned. “We are not running a charity service, Mother.”

Emma spoke up. “I think it is a wonderful idea.”

“You do?” Roswell asked.

Emma nodded. “It would be nice to have someone accompany me to social events.”

“But Mother and I accompany you to social events,” Charles pointed out.

“True, but I would enjoy having another young woman to conspire with,” Emma said.

His mother smiled approvingly. “This would be Miss Bentley’s first Season,” she shared. “She was in mourning last year due to her father’s death.”

Roswell was not ready to concede. “What of the new Lord Worthington?” he asked.

“She failed to mention him in her letter,” his mother replied as a footman poured tea for her. “I only know he is a distant relative.”

“Does she not receive a jointure?” Roswell questioned.

His mother shrugged. “I know not, but she doesn’t have the funds to accompany her daughter to Town.”

“Where are they residing?”

“They live in Maidstone, a town in Kent,” his mother shared.

Roswell lifted his brow. “What of Miss Bentley’s gowns and accessories?” he asked. “I spend a small fortune on all of Emma’s clothing each Season.”

“She can borrow my gowns from last Season,” Emma offered. “My new gowns have just arrived, and I have more than enough to share.”

“Delightful,” Roswell muttered under his breath.

His mother clasped her hands together. “That is most generous of you, Emma,” she remarked. “My lady’s maid can make the alterations, if needed.”

A bright smile came to Emma’s face. “It is all settled, then,” she declared. “Miss Bentley will spend the Season with us.”

Roswell had a sneaking suspicion that Emma was being so agreeable just to spite him. She couldn’t possibly think this was a good idea.

“I have no objections,” Charles said as he reached for his teacup.

“Wonderful.” His mother turned her attention towards her eldest. “Roswell?”

He shook his head. “I believe this to be a foolhardy idea,” he said. “We know nothing about Miss Bentley or her disposition.”

“Do you suppose Miss Bentley has evil intentions?” Emma asked, amusement in her voice.

“No, but she might not be as agreeable as you are hoping for.”

“It is a chance I am willing to take,” Emma replied.

Knowing he was outnumbered, Roswell conceded. “You can do as you please, but I have no intention of being involved in this madness.”

“I assumed as much,” his mother responded.

Roswell leaned back in his chair. “I worry this will fail spectacularly.”

“How so?”

“Does Miss Bentley even have a dowry?” he questioned.

His mother shook her head. “I must assume not, given the circumstances.”

“Who would marry a young woman with no dowry?”

“There are gentlemen in possession of sizeable incomes who might be willing to overlook Miss Bentley’s lowly status,” Emma argued.

“That is rare, and you know it,” Roswell pressed.

Emma jutted out her chin. “I contend it is not impossible,” she declared. “Love matches do still exist in our circles.”

Roswell stared at his sister in disbelief. “You truly cannot be that naïve.”

“You are just being a naysayer,” Emma said. “Miss Bentley is still the daughter of a viscount. That must account for something.”

“I contend that you are giving Miss Bentley false hope.”

“In what way?” his mother asked.

“Miss Bentley should be aspiring for a position as a companion,” Roswell said. “No sensible man will marry a woman without a dowry.”

“I hope to prove you wrong, brother,” Emma stated.

Roswell cast a frustrated gaze towards Charles. “Please say you agree with me on this.”

Charles put his hands up. “I’m staying out of this one.”

His mother’s voice drew Roswell’s attention back. “Regardless, I already wrote a letter to Alice and informed her that we will host Miss Bentley for the Season.”

“You already wrote the letter?” Roswell repeated in surprise.

“Of course,” his mother replied. “I was confident that everyone would be in agreement on the matter.”

Roswell shoved his chair back and rose. “I want no part of this.”

“You already said that,” Emma remarked as she brought her teacup up to her lips.

“That makes it no less true.” He tossed his napkin onto his plate. “If you need me, I will be in my study.”

As he headed towards the rear of the townhouse, Roswell felt himself growing increasingly annoyed. He didn’t want anything to do with this Miss Bentley. He had no doubt she would be intolerable.

Miss Elizabeth Bentley laid on the grass and stared up at the clouds in the sky, enjoying the warmth of the sun on her face. She couldn’t quite believe how different her life had become in the past year. She used to dress in the finest gowns, be invited to every social gathering in town, and spend her days however she saw fit. It had been a sublime life, and she had taken it for granted until it all came crumbling down after her father died.

How she missed him. There was not a day that went by that she did not think of him. She missed the little things he used to do, like the way he said her name, or how he was always willing to speak to her, even if he was busy with his work.

After his death, his title was passed to a distant cousin, and the new Lord Worthington came to take up residency at the manor. He was an awful man, and she was wary of him. She always felt a sudden, soul-shattering chill whenever she met his gaze that caused her not to trust him.

Her mother’s voice broke through her musings. “Ellie!” she called from the cottage.

Sitting up, Ellie reached for the basket of eggs next to her and sighed. This was her life now, though it wasn’t a terrible one. She didn’t mind her daily chores, but at times she did miss her carefree days.

She rose and smoothed her blue cotton dress, then walked the short distance to the thatched-roof cottage.

“There you are,” Mrs. Webster declared as Ellie entered. She walked over and reached for the basket of eggs. “If you sit, I will prepare your breakfast.”

“I don’t mind helping.”

Mrs. Webster gestured towards the table. “Nonsense,” she said. “I need to earn my keep.”

Ellie smiled, knowing Mrs. Webster was downplaying her role as housekeeper. She fed them, cleaned for them, and still managed to complete all other necessary tasks.

The door opened and Ellie’s mother walked into the room, wearing an ivory cap over her brown hair. “You must have slipped past me,” she observed.

“I am rather crafty,” Ellie joked.

“I see you collected the eggs.”

“I did.”

“After breakfast, we need to go over your Latin, and I want you to practice the harp for at least an hour,” her mother instructed.

Ellie groaned. “I am terrible at Latin.”

“I know,” her mother replied. “That is why we need to continue practicing it.”

Ellie glanced at the harp in the corner of the room. “I am surprised that Lord Worthington allowed us to move the harp to the cottage.”

“As am I,” her mother agreed. “Which is why we must take advantage of it; in case he decides to change his mind.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time,” Ellie commented.

“Precisely my point.”

Ellie slumped her shoulders slightly. “I wish I could go to the manor and practice on the pianoforte.”

“I hope you won’t do something as foolish as that,” her mother chided. “It is not safe for you to visit the manor without me.”

“I understand.”

Her mother walked over and placed a hand on her shoulder. “I did receive the most wonderful news.”

“You did?” Ellie asked, perking up. She hadn’t heard her mother say those words since before her father passed away.

Removing her hand, her mother sat next to her. “I received a letter from Lady Bideford,” she revealed.

“What did she say?”

A slow smile came to her mother’s lips. “She has agreed to host you for the Season.”

Ellie’s brow shot up. “Truly?”

“Yes, and she is expecting you shortly.”

Ellie felt excitement building up inside of her until she glanced down at her cotton gown and realization dawned. “I can’t go to London for a Season.”

“Whyever not?”

“What will I even wear?” Ellie asked. “Most of my muslin gowns have been replaced with cotton ones.”

Her mother reached into her pocket and pulled out a handful of bills. “You won’t need to worry about that,” her mother said. “I sold off a piece of my jewelry for this specific purpose.”

“Which one?” Ellie asked.

“You don’t need to concern yourself with that,” her mother answered dismissively. “What is important is that you can acquire new dresses with this money.”

Ellie shook her head. “I think this is a bad idea,” she said. “I don’t belong in Town; at least, not anymore.”

“That is nonsense,” her mother declared. “You are the daughter of a viscount. If you don’t belong, then who does?”

“I don’t have a dowry, Mother.”

Her mother gave her a sad smile. “I thought about that, and I don’t want it to stop you from enjoying yourself.”

“What man would want me without a dowry?”

“Your father married me without a dowry,” her mother reminded her.

Ellie sighed. “I daresay I will not be as fortunate.”

Her mother leaned closer. “You are a beauty in your own right,” she said. “Any man would be fortunate to have you as his wife.”

Mrs. Webster spoke up from the hearth. “I agree with your mother. You are beautiful, on the inside and out.”

“Thank you, but—”

Her mother spoke over her. “More importantly, you must leave Maidstone.”

“Why?”

With a frown, her mother said, “I fear for your future if you don’t.”

“You need not fear on that account,” Ellie assured her. “I have no intention of accepting Lord Worthington’s offer.”

Mrs. Webster interjected, “You mean ‘offers’, dear. He has been relentless in them.”

“Lord Worthington has already made our life rather difficult,” her mother said. “I fear that it might get worse as time goes on if you don’t accept his offer.”

“How is that even possible?” Ellie asked in disbelief. “He has relegated us to this small cottage and has only given you a small portion of your jointure.”

“I am well aware, but we still have a roof over our heads and a housekeeper,” her mother said. “We should be grateful for what we have.”

“Father would be mortified by the way Lord Worthington has been treating you.”

Tears came to her mother’s eyes, but she blinked them away. “Regardless, I am more concerned about your future prospects.”

Ellie shifted her gaze towards the window. “How will I even travel to London?”

“I have secured your passage on the mail coach leaving today,” her mother said. “With any luck, it will only take a few hours to arrive in Town.”

“Will you come with me?”

Her mother shook her head. “It will be best if I stay behind so Lord Worthington doesn’t suspect you have left.”

Ellie blew out a puff of air. “I’m not sure this is a good idea.”

“In due time, you will recognize the validity of this plan,” her mother insisted. “You just need to trust me.”

“I do.”

Her mother smiled. “It is my greatest hope that you make a brilliant match and we can both rise above the squalor we find ourselves in now.”

Ellie squared her shoulders. “I will do my best.”

“That is all I can ask from you.”

A knock came at the door, bringing their conversation to an abrupt halt.

Ellie rose and walked over to the door. She opened it, revealing the short, balding Lord Worthington. He was rather unfortunate looking, with his round face and large nose.

She dropped into a curtsy as she greeted him. “My lord,” she murmured.

He smiled as his eyes perused the length of her, lingering on her round neckline.

Her mother spoke up from behind her. “Good morning, Lord Worthington,” she said. “Would you care for some breakfast?”

Lord Worthington shifted the riding hat in his hand. “Thank you for the offer, but I have breakfast waiting for me at the manor.”

“Would you care to come in?” Ellie asked, opening the door wider.

“Thank you.” Lord Worthington stepped into the room. “I have come to see if you had a chance to reconsider my offer, Miss Bentley.”

Ellie brought a smile to her face. “I’m afraid I must decline again, but I do thank you for your kind offer.”

“I see,” he said, clearly displeased. “I still contend that we would suit well.”

“I do credit your feelings, but I respectfully disagree.”

Lord Worthington frowned. “I beg you to think it over. I could offer you the life that you deserve,” he said. “After all, it would be a shame if Mrs. Webster came back to work at the manor. Wouldn’t it?”

Ellie clasped her hands in front of her. “That it would,” she agreed.

Lord Worthington placed his hat on top of his head. “I shall come by in a few days for your decision,” he said. “I hope you take the time to thoughtfully consider my offer.”

“What an insufferable man,” Mrs. Webster muttered after he departed.

Ellie’s mother stepped to the window and stared out. “We must get you away from Lord Worthington as quickly as possible.”

“I couldn’t possibly leave you, Mother.”

Her mother walked over to her and placed a hand on her sleeve. “Do not fret about me,” she said. “My only dream is for you to become the woman that you are supposed to be.”

“But—”

“No ‘buts’. You have a wonderful opportunity, and I know that Lady Bideford will treat you with exceptional kindness.”

Ellie pressed her lips together, then said, “I will marry well, and I will come back for you.”

“I know you will,” her mother replied, “but you must promise me that you will enjoy yourself.”

“I will try.”

Her mother cupped her cheek. “You are the most precious thing in the whole world to me,” she remarked. “You are all I have left since your father died.”

“I feel the same way about you.”

Her mother smiled tenderly. “I will help you pack your valise after breakfast.”

Ellie nodded. “I will make you proud, Mother.”

“You already have, my dear.”