Bluestocking Lady Elise Smith is a very content spinster. She holds intellectual gatherings and attends poetry readings, mind-improving lectures, and art shows. She runs her father’s household with quiet and determined efficiency, which is why she is absolutely stunned when Papa informs his three daughters that until Lady Elise is happily settled with—gasp—a husband, he will not consider offers for his two younger daughters.
Lord Simon St. George has happily watched one friend after another become leg-shackled, taking pride in the fact that his title is secured by a brother and nephew, so there is no reason to seek a wife for himself. When he sees a woman previously unknown to him at a ball, who seems to be hiding from the rest of the attendees, he is intrigued enough to introduce himself.
Simon sees a lovely, intelligent woman to pass the time with. Elise sees a man who can help her thwart her father by pretending they are courting. But even the best plans can go awry…
The Right Honorable, the Earl of Pomeroy, sat at the head of his dinner table and smiled at his three lovely daughters, who smiled back at him. Three unmarried lovely daughters. Each one was charming and pretty in her own way. And each one needed to find a husband and remove herself from his benevolence before he went broke.
The bills continued to pile up on the desk in his study. Bonnets, gowns, gloves, slippers, ribbons. The list was endless. While he had no doubt his two youngest daughters, Lady Juliet and Lady Marigold, would one day find their way to the altar, he had no expectations that his eldest, Lady Elise at three and twenty, would ever wander in that direction. Without a little push, that was.
Which he was about to give.READ MORE
“My dears, I would like your attention, if you please.” He smiled at the loves of his life. Obedient as ever, they all gave him their utmost attention. One pair of blue eyes, two hazel.
“Yes, Papa?” Elise, one of the pair of hazel eyes, said.
He cleared this throat. “It has come to my attention that perhaps I have been remiss in assuring all of you secure the best in life. Everything that your blessed mother—“ he made the sign of the cross “—and I, had together. Love, marriage, children.”
Julie and Marigold continued to smile, but Elise stiffened and a frown marred her comely face. Ah, yes. That was expected.
“Of course we wish that for ourselves as well,” his youngest darling, Lady Marigold, said. A true treasure, and the image of her exquisite mother.
“Papa, I believe we spoke of this before.” Elise patted her mouth with her serviette and laid it alongside her plate. “Marigold and Juliet are well suited to marriage, but I thought we agreed I would continue on here with you. You know I do an excellent job of managing your house.”
“And my life as well, my dear.” He gave her a well-rehearsed fatherly smile.
“What did you have in mind, Papa? The Season is just starting, and I hope to find my true love this year.” Juliet, at nine and ten years, brought sunshine and happiness to his life. Along with a pile of bills for jewelry and shoes. Lord, the girl loved shoes and dance slippers. She must dance every dance at every ball since she went through two pairs at each event.
“I believe the best way to assure each of you has what every woman dreams of is a sensible method I have spent many a night deciding on.”
Two of his daughters stared at him with excitement since it sounded as though this was a plan to help them obtain their wishes and hopes. Alas, Elise apparently found the conversation disturbing. She did not look in his eyes when he gazed at her. He was aware his normal look of adoration had a bit of determination in it.
“What have you decided, Papa? Since I have no interest in marriage—as you well know—this plan is most likely for my sisters. I want to be sure it will be the best idea for them.” She wagged her finger at him. “You do come up with a scheme that is less than ideal on occasion, in which case I have needed to direct you toward another avenue.”
Yes the love of my heart, you spend a great deal of time directing.
The moment had arrived. “It seems fair to me that you should all find your husbands in order.” He sat back and beamed as if he’d discovered the secret of longevity.
His beloved Elise frowned. “In order of what?”
Elise continued to stare at him, her mouth agape.
Juliet asked, “Birth?”
“Yes, my dear hearts. We will spend the next weeks seeing that our darling Elise finds her perfect match, as she is the firstborn of my delightful progeny.”
Juliet and Marigold gasped in horror and looked at their sister. Elise had made it known quite loudly, and often, that she had no intention of marrying. Ever.
Elise cleared her through. “Papa, I assume you are joking with us.”
He turned his attention to her, forcing his steely determination to overwhelm the adoration. “No, my precious. It came to me in a dream where I saw your beloved mother who took me to task for allowing you to flounder when I should be guiding you.”
“Flounder? Guiding?” His poor girl’s face was pale, her breathing rapid.
She seemed to steady herself and put forth her brightest smile. “Oh, Papa. While I appreciate your concern for my future, I believe we can turn our efforts and attention to Juliet.” Her lips tightened, and she glared at her sister, apparently looking for support.
“I agree, Papa. I would love to have help from all of you in securing my future.” His sweet second eldest nudged Marigold with her elbow.
“Ouch. Yes, Papa, I think Juliet is definitely the one we should be focused on. My turn will be next year.” Marigold rubbed her side and cast a reproving glance at her sister.
“Oh, my enchanting offspring, how I love you so. However, my mind is made up. We will see Elise a happy bride this year.” He beamed at them, looking from one cherished daughter to the next. ’Twas time for others—with hefty bank rolls—to cherish them as well.
“Papa, suppose I refuse?” Elise had never gone against his wishes in her entire life. She had always been able to persuade him to see things her way. Which was another advantage to his plan. She would be directing someone else’s life.
“Then, my dear, I am afraid it will take longer for your sisters to find their own true loves. You see, I will be unable to accept suitors for them until you are safely settled in your own little love nest.” With that pronouncement he stood and gave them a slight bow. ”Now if you will excuse me, I will retire to my library and enjoy a brandy before bed.”
Three girls sat opened-mouth as he smiled at them and left the room. He strode down the corridor, lighthearted. He’d put his plan into action, and soon he would be free of bills. Not that he begrudged his treasured daughters their fribbles, but a man could not watch his fortune dwindle every day without concern.
Although he had no son to whom he would pass along his title and money, it still disturbed him to watch his balance shrink monthly.
Grinning to himself, he poured a brandy and sat by the fireplace, raising a toast to freedom.
Elise stood in front of the full length mirror in her bedchamber and stared at herself. The deep green silk gown with gold trim looked stunning on her. Charlene, the lady’s maid she shared with her sisters, had managed to fix her usual unruly hair and arranged it in some sort of topknot type thing.
Long white satin gloves covered her hands and arms, and lovely green satin slippers peeked out from under the hem of her gown. Her mother’s pearls surrounded her throat, with the matching earbobs dangling from her ears.
She felt utterly ridiculous.
This woman in the mirror was not Lady Elise Smith, accepted bluestocking, sworn spinster, and hostess of well-respected gatherings of the intellectual elite of London. This woman was on the prowl for a husband. Something she never, ever wanted.
She still could not believe she couldn’t persuade Papa to dispense with this crazy idea. She’d laughed, cajoled, teased, and even—God help her—stamped her foot like a child. He was adamant.
Her, married! Married women had no freedom. They did what their husbands decided they should do. They bore children and held balls and soirees. They made morning calls where they shared the latest gossip.
Never did any married woman she know browse the shelves of Hatchard’s bookstore in anticipation of a lively debate later that evening with knowledgeable friends.
And to hold her sisters’ happiness as a threat if she did not consent to this ridiculousness was the absolute worst thing Papa could have done.
Elise had been mother and sister to Marigold and Juliet from the time they were five and six years, when their mother had died from consumption. She’d taken over the mother role, and by four and ten years, the well-being of her father, also. It was she who kept track of his social calendar, who met with Cook and the housekeeper to make certain his home ran smoothly, and assured his cigars were always available and his brandy at his fingertips.
And now he was throwing her to the lions. Not well done, Papa.
“Elise, you look fabulous.” Juliet burst into her room with Marigold following, both of them full of excitement and happiness. Charlene had apparently finished with them, also, since they were both dressed in beautiful gowns with becoming hairstyles.
“I look ludicrous.” She turned from the mirror and faced her sisters. “And I feel silly.” She pinched the sides of her gown and held her hands out. “This is not me.”
Marigold sat on her bed. “I know, but you do look wonderful.”
Elsie reached for her fan, shawl, and reticule. “What I am hoping is I will attend a few of these affairs and after receiving no attention—which I am counting on, by the way—Papa will understand this whole idea of me marrying is as foolish as I look.”
Marigold and Juliet looked at each other.
“I really don’t think with the way you look that you won’t receive any attention,” Juliet said. “Also, you are what the ton calls new blood. You have not appeared in a ballroom in a few years.”
“Smartly so, I might add.” Elise walked to the door and opened it. “We might as well move along. This disaster of an evening will not commence until I get there to make it happen.”
“Papa!” Elise stopped at the bottom of the stairs and regarded her father. He had not attended a ton ball, as far as Elise knew, for several years. Yet here he stood in formal clothes, looking very handsome, she might add, ready to escort his daughters to the Cummings’ ball.
“Papa, you look splendid.” Juliet walked up to him and kissed him on the cheek. “You are such a fine escort for us.”
“I asked my cousin, Florence, to again act as chaperone for the Season, but she was unable to take up those duties, so I am afraid you are stuck with me and whoever else I might coerce into the role.” He looked at Elise. “My dearest Elise, you are a vision of loveliness.”
It was hard to remain angry with Papa. He was such a sweet man and merely wanted what was best for his daughters. The only way she could persuade him away from this benighted plan was to not encourage any men and spend her time as close to a potted plant as she could. Once he realized the likelihood of her attracting men was hopeless, he would abandon his scheme and all would return to normal.
In a flurry of gowns, laughter, and teasing, the family descended the stairs and entered the Pomeroy carriage. Elise stared out the window, annoyed at herself for the feeling of anxiety churning in her stomach. She had no reason to be nervous. The people who attended these functions, and their opinions, meant nothing to her. Of course she wouldn’t measure up. She was Lady Eloise, the bluestocking, most likely the joke of polite society.
That was fine with her. She had her purpose in life, and it did not encompass being a flighty debutante in search of a husband. She was respected and well thought of. In her circle of friends, of course. Those who believed flaunting oneself dressed like a peacock for the sole purpose of dragging some poor bloke to the altar was derisory.
The carriage drew up to the front door of the Cummings’ townhouse, and Elise’s dinner seemed to want to make a reappearance. She tamped down her foolishness. She was an earl’s daughter. A person in her own right, with friends, and held in high regard.
Papa stepped out and turned to assist his daughters. He did look wonderful tonight. He was still a handsome man, a devoted father, and in some cases—like now—a stubborn, unreasonable man.
He tucked her arm into his, and, with Juliet and Marigold following behind them, he led them up the path and to the door where the butler took their invitation. They joined the queue of guests as they were announced. Once their names were called, they descended the steps. Elise felt as though she were going to faint.
There were so many people! And they were all staring at the four of them. Her mouth dried up, and she gripped Papa’s arm so tightly, it would be a wonder if he didn’t have bruises in the morning.
He patted her hand “Relax, daughter. ‘Tis only a ball.” He led them through the throng, stopping on occasion to talk with a friend, and each time introduced Elise, who was mostly unknown to the Quality crowd. Several women stepped into his path and bantered with him, which startled Elise. He wrote his name on a few dance cards, which stunned her further.
Marigold and Juliet had left them as soon as they reached the ballroom to visit with their friends. Elise, of course, had no friends here. Her friends were busy with important things, not dressing up in silly clothes and bowing and curtseying left and right.
“I am placing you and your sisters into the hands of Lady Dearborn for the evening, my dear. She will act as chaperone, since I will be visiting the card room in between the dances I have promised.” Papa presented her to an older lady who stood with other matrons and regarded Elise through her quizzing glass. From the expression on her face, she did not seem to find her wanting. She hated that the woman’s apparent approval relieved her.
“Go on to the card room, my lord. I will be happy to watch over the young ladies.” Lady Dearborn actually cast him a saucy look, and Elise almost made the faux pas of snorting. To think women wanted to flirt with Papa!
Then she gave him a second glance and saw what perhaps a lot of women had seen since they’d arrived. Tall, handsome, light brown hair with a bit of silver, piercing blue eyes, and a genuine smile. She shook her head. Here she was at her first ball since her come-out season and she was having ludicrous thoughts. That was what polite society did to one’s brain.
“My dear, why is it I have never met you before?” Once again the quizzing glass rose to Lady Dearborn’s eye.
“I have not moved about in Society for a few years, my lady.”
“Indeed? And why is that? Have you been unwell?”
Good lord, was she going to be questioned on end by the woman? How would she escape this interrogation without giving offense?
“No. I just prefer other types of pursuits.” When the older woman continued to stare at her, she added, “I enjoy reading, the museums and art galleries, small gatherings, and poetry readings.”
Lady Dearborn’s eyes grew wide. “A bluestocking?”
Elise raised her chin. “Yes, my lady. I am afraid that is what I am.”
To Elise’s surprise, the woman actually chuckled. “And your father intends to marry you off?”
Elise winced at the forthright question. “I am afraid that is his plan.”
“I sense you are not in agreement with his plan.” Lady Dearborn’s eyes shifted and she looked over Elise’s shoulder. “Ah, good evening, St. George.”
A young man stepped into view. He was tall, almost a foot over Elise’s five feet four inches. His reddish brown hair brushed his forehead and teased the edge of his cravat at the back of his neck. Although he directed his question to Lady Dearborn, his deep blue eyes regarded Elise. “May I have the pleasure of an introduction, Lady Dearborn?”
“Of course, my dear. Lady Elise Smith, eldest daughter of Lord Pomeroy, may I present to you, Lord Simon, Viscount St. George.”
Elise curtsied and St. George bowed. “May I add my name to your dance card, my lady?”
Flustered at being asked to dance so soon when she was fully expecting to hide behind furniture all evening, she fumbled until St. George caught the card dangling from her wrist and quickly added his name. By this time she was flushed and remembered precisely why she hated these events. She always felt out of place.
Simon tried not to grin at Lady Elise’s obvious agitation. He’d never seen her before and was curious, since she was apparently several years out of the schoolroom. Beautiful was a fitting word, although her face also showed strength and intelligence. Her chestnut brown hair had been drawn back, with curls already escaping the intricate style.
Warm hazel eyes revealed poorly hidden annoyance. This was a woman who was not in her usual environment and she did not like it. Curiosity turned to intrigue. Although Simon had no interest in marriageable ladies, since he had no intention of ever marrying himself, something about this woman called to him to know more.
Giving her time to compose herself, Simon turned to Lady Dearborn. “My lady, you are looking splendid, as usual.”
“Don’t turn your charm on me, dear boy. Save it for the young ladies.” Her slight blush belied her words. Simon had found ladies liked compliments, no matter how old they were. It was a trait that made him quite popular with the female set.
“Are you new to London, Lady Elise? I am acquainted with your sisters.” Now that she had stopped fussing with the dance card, he turned his attention to her.
“Not new to London, but certainly new to these types of events.” She waved her hand around, smacking Lord Nettleson, who stood behind her, in the arm with her fan. “Oh, please forgive me, my lord.”
The man had walked up behind her, most likely looking for an introduction, as well. Nettleson bowed. “No forgiveness needed, my lady.” He bowed to Lady Dearborn. “May I beg an introduction to your lovely companion?”
And so it began. Before the orchestra played its first note, Lady Elise had several names written on her dance card. Simon refused to relinquish his spot next to her, though, as the men came and went. A few lingered, but he saw no reason to move on since his was the first dance of the evening. Which he hoped was a waltz.
As luck would have it, the first dance was a country reel, hardly giving him the opportunity to discover why Lady Elise did not usually attend these events and how she came to be here tonight.
It was a question he asked of himself many times. Since balls, assemblies, routs, and the like were known to be the hunting ground for husbands, one would think he would stay far away. But he actually enjoyed these affairs. Dodging marriage-minded mamas had become a game with him. But rarely did he meet a woman who actually made him want to know her. Not just to dance and banter with, but learn about her, the woman.
Good grief, next he would be spouting philosophy, or worse yet, writing bad poetry. He extended his hand. “My lady, I believe this is our dance.”
She took his hand, but instead of tucking it under his arm, she continued to cling to it. They joined the line of dancers and faced each other. Before the music began, she leaned toward him and whispered, “It has been quite some time since I danced, my lord. I am terribly afraid I will make a muck of it.”
The steps of country reels could be quite intricate, so he understood her anxiety. “’Tis amazing how these things come back to you when needed. However I will help you, so no worries.”
Seldom had he been so wrong about something. The music began, and after only a few minutes, it was quite obvious not only was Lady Elise making a muck of it, she was confusing those next to them on either side. Curious glances in their direction turned to tightened lips and sotto voice comments as the dance continued, and Lady Elise stumbled her way through it.
After several more minutes of watching his partner suffer, he took matters into his own hands. Once again they came together and joined hands, but instead of walking in a circle, he tugged her away from the line and practically dragged her toward the French doors. She giggled as they wove their way through the crowd. Not the silly, high-pitched giggle of the young debutants, but a rich, deep sound that went straight to his cock.
Once they were outside, she leaned against the balustrade and, clutching her middle, released a full-throated laugh. Unable to resist, he joined her until they were both wiping tears from their eyes.
“That was terrible,” she gulped, still trying to catch her breath.
Who was this woman with the ability to laugh at herself? There wasn’t one debutante he could think of who would not have collapsed into a fit of tears and hysteria if that had happened to her on the dance floor. “You were quite serious when you said it had been a while since you danced.”
“Yes. Indeed.” She stood upright and pushed away from the balustrade. “I apologize for embarrassing you, my lord.”
“No apology needed. You have given me the best laugh of the month—perhaps the year.” He extended his arm. “How about a stroll in the garden?”
“Yes. I think I can manage that since I’ve been walking for a number of years now.” She took his arm and they made their way down the steps and into the gas-lit garden. She inhaled deeply. “I love the smell of flowers after rain.”
“And we have had enough of that lately.” Hell, he did not want to discuss the weather with this unique woman. “Why is it you have not been in Society for some time?” He imagined family deaths and illnesses.
“Polite society would be shocked, and I should probably not tell you this, but I am a bluestocking.” She lowered her voice and glanced from side to side, even though there was no one else about.
He found her delightful and himself enchanted.
“Through and through. A committed spinster and a lover of books, intellectual gatherings, and the museums.” She smiled. “There you have it. Lady Elise Smith with all her foils and foibles.”
He stopped and turned her toward him. Reaching out, he tucked a curl behind her ear. “Not foils and foibles to my way of thinking.” Before he could do something stupid, since they’d only just met, he resumed their walk. “So why is it you are here tonight? Is it not the social whirl where ladies attempt to snare husbands?”
She let out a deep sigh. “Papa.”
Lady Elise moved them toward a stone bench under an oak tree. He sat alongside her, feeling the warmth of her body next to him, but missing the contact of her arm nestled in his. “Papa has always allowed me my freedom and never questioned my decision to not marry. For some ungodly reason, he decided quite recently that unless I marry, he would not consider offers from gentlemen for my two younger sisters.”
His brows rose. “Not well done of him, I’m afraid.”
“Indeed. You see, our mother passed away when I was ten years and my sisters were six and five. I’ve been the only mother they’ve known since them. Papa knew the best way to have me agree to his plan was to threaten my sisters’ happiness.” She shook her head, the curls at her temples dancing. “So I agreed to attend social functions with the intention of finding a husband.”
He grinned. “A change of heart?”
“No.” Her eyes grew wide and she drew back, looking as though he’d asked her to dance another country reel. “Not at all. I do not want a husband. Ever. From what I’ve seen, they direct their wives’ lives, still maintain their own freedom, and a woman must bear it all with a smile.”
“So I take it your plan is to confuse and cripple every dance partner you have so no one will offer for you?” He grinned, unable to help how easy it was to do so in her company.
She tapped her finger on her chin, pretending to consider it. “That would be a good idea, but no.” She glanced sideways at him, a devilish smile on her lovely face. “What I have decided is to avoid notice by spending time at balls hiding behind potted plants and taking a number of breaks in the ladies’ retiring room.”
“No. It won’t work.”
She eyed him with raised eyebrows. “Why not?”
He touched her cheek. So soft. “You are too beautiful to hide behind anything.”
Lady Elise stilled, and then a slight blush rose from her neckline to her hairline. Had no one ever told her of her arresting appeal? Did she not have a mirror in her bedchamber? No woman who looked like her could avoid men. In fact, were she to dress in ashes and sackcloth, he doubted she would go unnoticed.
“Thank you for your kind words, my lord. But that is still my plan.” She shrugged. “I have no other.”
“Please call me Simon. ‘Tis my given name and my friends use it.” He took her hand in his. “I hope we can be friends.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Only friends.”
Friends it would have to be. Although he’d felt a pull toward Lady Elise from the time he’d first laid eyes on her, he also was not interested in marriage. If not the wedded state, one did not have any other type of relationship with a gently reared woman, except friendship. “Yes. Agreed. You see I have been dodging the marriage-minded mamas of the ton for a few years myself. I know how to hold their darling daughters at arm’s length. I could give you some tips and be your cohort in crime, as it were.”
“Why would you do that?”
“Because I love a challenge,” he gave her a wink, “and keeping away the hordes of men who will descend upon you is a true test of my abilities.”