A lady is nothing without her reputation. Jilted and humiliated by her once-betrothed, Lady Abigail Lacey is the laughingstock of London. Worse still, the humiliation is now reflecting badly on her family. Her brother, the Duke of Manchester, is desperate... until he finds a way to rescue his sister's damaged reputation, and remove her from the glare of disapproving society. He must marry her off. Quickly. When Rector Joseph Fox drops by the Lacey household, he certainly didn't expect to leave as a man engaged to a long-time family friend! Yet while he never could have aspired to have her, Lady Abigail always ignited a forbidden longing in him. But Abigail has one condition - their marriage is to be void of passion or physical pleasures, once she becomes with child. Faced with a platonic marriage of convenience, Joseph is dete
Lady Abigail Lacey sighed and rolled over on her bed, staring at the canopy above her. She was tired of feeling bereft. Tired of feeling sorry for herself, tired of hating her erstwhile betrothed, Darius, Earl of Redgrave, and the woman he eloped with two weeks ago. But most of all she was tired of her self-imposed prison. How had her sister Marion endured it for two years while she’d been grieving her husband?
She was much too energetic a person to spend her days in ennui. In the past two weeks, she’d gone through all the stages of hurt, rage, and depression. The heartbreak would be with her for a long time to come, but now she just wanted to get on with her life. Except there was no life to get on with. Her sisters had stopped in to visit with her, keeping her current on the mockery her reputation had become.READ MORE
Not that they did it to torture her, they loved her too much. But Abigail had insisted they tell her everything the ton was saying about her disgrace. She huffed. Her disgrace? She’d done nothing wrong, except pick a worthless bounder to become betrothed to.
Apparently the ton was rampant with jealousy over the Lacey girls. That one of them fell so low as to have a fiancé hie off with another woman, practically leaving her at the altar, was just too much. Ladies who had viewed the wealth, beauty, and success of the family with envy, now found it amusing to poke fun at one of them. It would be quite some time before this on dit was laid to rest.
Thinking of the cad at the center of this mess replaced her apathy with pain once again. She swiped at the lone tear that rolled down her cheek. Never would she have believed the man she had loved, indeed had waited for her whole life, would betray her in this fashion.
Well, one thing was certain. If she was able to get anyone worthwhile to offer for her in the future, she would grab the chance and never expect−or even want−love. No more waiting for the right man to come along and sweep her off her feet. She’d been swept off her feet, and dropped ignominiously on her arse.
Thank you, no.
Perhaps some shopkeeper or chimney sweep would be willing to take her off her brother’s hands—if he paid him enough. She rolled to her stomach and propped her head up with her hands, sighing once more at her returning self-pity. In any event, should anyone have her, she’d insist on a platonic marriage.
No, that wouldn’t work. If she couldn’t have love in her marriage, she would at least want a home of her own, and children. Unfortunately, offspring only came about if one allowed one’s husband to visit one’s bed. She’d have to think that one over more carefully. Except, with the shredded reputation she had right now, she doubted any worthwhile offers would be forthcoming, anyway. Back to the shopkeepers and chimney sweeps. Perhaps a Bow Street Runner or tavern keeper.
Restless, she rolled onto her back again. There was always next year. By then her scandal would have been replaced by something more exciting. Hopefully, that is. The ton had a long memory.
The Duke of Manchester slammed his palm down on the desk, causing his wife and mother to jump. “I will not have it! I refuse to allow another sister to lock herself away in her room. We put up with that nonsense for two years with Marion, and I will not permit the same situation with Abigail.”
“Drake dear, calm yourself. Please.” His wife, Penelope, rubbed gently on the infant’s back she held snug against her chest. “You’ll upset the baby.”
Drake blew out a huge breath of air and collapsed into his seat, running his fingers through his hair. “Sorry, my love. But it’s been two weeks.”
“Two weeks of pain and humiliation for your sister,” the Dowager Duchess of Manchester remarked.
“Damn that Redgrave. He had better not return to London from Gretna Green with his new wife, or I shall be forced to beat him to a pulp for what he did to Abigail.
“What are we to do? Her reputation is in tatters. She’ll never receive another suitable offer.” He turned, his jaw tightening. “She has become the laughingstock of the ton.”
“I’m sure it is not all that bad.” His mother’s pursed lips and strained countenance belied her words.
“Yes, Mother. It is that bad. Abigail has not had one decent caller since Redgrave absconded. If one more fortune hunter shows up on my doorstep I will personally grab him by the scruff of the neck and hurl him down the steps.” He shoved his chair back and began to pace, his insides in a knot at this latest problem with yet another sister under his guidance.
The relief at having at least one of them headed to the altar had been fleeting. Engaged one minute, abandoned the next.
“Apparently, the word being spread in the highest circles is that the only thing Abigail has to offer a man is her dowry. Damnation, the girl did nothing wrong! And now, Sybil and Sarah tell me they are beginning to notice a distinct drop in the amount of callers they have. Mary, too.”
“Well, there is only one thing to be done. And we all know what that is,” his mother said. “We must get Abigail married and out of London.”
“Madam, were you not fully engaged the last three seasons when your daughter turned down one offer after another? Do you not remember the numerous discussions over the dinner table where she waxed poetically about holding out for a love match? And where in heaven’s name am I to find this paragon—a man who doesn’t care about her predicament, isn’t only interested in her money, and will make her, if not happy, at least content?”
Drake sat slumped in his chair, and Penelope kissed him on top of his head. “Dear, you are getting yourself into a stew. It will all work out. You and I have a love match. Why shouldn’t your sisters hold out for the same thing?
“I am taking Robert upstairs. Then I will arrange for tea. Perhaps we can discuss this then, in a calmer manner.”
Drake’s gaze followed the gentle sway of his wife’s hips as she left the room, his lips twitching as she banged her knee on a table by the door.
“I do not understand why everyone keeps moving furniture about,” she mumbled as she hurried through the doorway, clutching her precious bundle tightly. He and his mother grinned at each other. Penelope’s clumsiness was legendary in the family.
“Is it so appalling that Abigail wanted for herself what you and Penelope have?” his mother asked softly.
“She just picked the wrong man. And when I get my hands on that . . .” Unable to express himself in words suitable for his mother’s ears, he clamped his mouth shut.
“It would do us well to begin a list of possible husbands for Abigail.”
“And what makes you think she will go along with this plan, given her attitude the past few years?”
“The situation has changed. Abigail is a smart woman. She knows her appeal has dropped significantly due to her circumstances.”
“Circumstances she had no control over.”
“Dwelling on that will do us—and her—no good. We must deal with the problem at hand.”
The Manchester House butler, Stevens, quietly entered the room, a small card in his hand. “Your Grace, a caller has arrived.”
Drake’s eyebrows rose as he read the card. “Of course, send him in.” He glanced up at his mother. “Joseph Fox. I haven’t seen him since before my wedding.”
“Didn’t you travel with him to Manchester Manor when Marion made her first trip from her room last year?”
Drake nodded. He had been accompanying his sister and his now-wife to the Manor when they had run into the rector at an Inn where they’d stopped for luncheon.
Marion had spent two years in her room mourning her husband. As a house guest for the Season, Penelope had befriended his sister, and with her encouragement Marion had taken steps to resume a normal life.
He frowned when he recalled how taken Joseph had been with Penelope during that visit to the Manor, and had, in fact, asked Drake’s permission to request her hand in marriage.
The memory of how angry he had been at Joseph’s request still made his muscles tighten. He should have realized then that he was already in love with Penelope. Although when Joseph had suggested such a thing to him, Drake had erupted in anger. Panic, most likely, since at the time he had had no use for love.
“Manchester. Good to see you.” Joseph entered the room in a swirl of energy and friendliness. He extended his hand. “I see married life agrees with you.”
“Indeed it does.”
Joseph turned and bowed before the dowager duchess, taking her raised hand. “A delight to see you again, Your Grace. You are looking well, as always.”
“Thank you, Joseph. You appear to be doing quite well yourself.”
Drake sat as he waved Joseph to a chair. “To what do we owe the pleasure of your visit?”
“I had some business in Town, and since I had a bit of free time, I thought to stop in and see how you are all faring.”
They turned as the door opened, and a footman carried in a tray laden with tea and small sandwiches.
“Will you stay for tea?” the dowager asked.
“Absolutely. I would love a cup, and how is your lovely wife?” Joseph asked Drake as he took a cup from the dowager’s hand. “I understand from my parents that you are the proud parents of a son?”
“Yes, indeed. Robert Cyril Lacey, Marquess of Stafford, made his presence known the third day of March this year. He and my wife are doing well.” He paused and glanced toward the doorway. “Ah, here is my duchess now.”
“Joseph!” In Penelope’s enthusiasm to hug the rector, she tripped on the claw foot of the dowager’s chair and crashed into Joseph’s chest.
“Oh, dear. Please excuse me.” She righted herself, smoothing her skirts and adjusting her spectacles, her face a bright red.
Accustomed to her lack of coordination, Joseph merely smiled and took hold of her hands. “You are looking quite lovely, Your Grace. And congratulations on the birth of the new heir.”
She patted her hair and took a seat next to her mother-in-law on the sofa. “Thank you. Unfortunately, you missed him. I have just now returned from settling him in the nursery.”
“Ah, yes. The family that deals with their own children. Most refreshing among the Quality.” Mirth danced in his eyes.
“What brings you to London?” Penelope asked.
Joseph placed his cup on the low table in front of him and leaned back in his chair, crossing a booted foot over his knee. “I have decided it is time our village children had a proper school. I realize most of the youngsters are needed at home to help, but I am hoping to establish a routine so they are able to come for at least a few hours each day.”
“That’s a wonderful idea, Joseph!” Penelope accepted the serviette Drake held out to her and wiped her bodice where her tea had dripped.
“Thank you. The only drawback, of course, is money to build a school. For now, I can certainly teach several of them in my home. However, a separate building that they know belongs to them would encourage parents’ acceptance of the project, and allow us to draw in more children.”
“I will be more than happy to make a donation.”
“Thank you so much.” Joseph nodded in Drake’s direction.
“I will have my man of business take care of it.”
“I have come to realize as I delve more into the project that a steady source of income will be needed to pay teachers−eventually−and supply books and necessary items for the students. I don’t want the parents to be burdened with the cost. I’m afraid if the choice between school fees and food for the table arose, like any sensible parent, food would come first.
“Although my maternal grandmother’s property provides a modest income to me, it will not be enough to keep the school afloat in the long run, without patrons.”
Joseph studied Penelope and Drake, and the glances they cast at each other, their love apparent to an observer. Some day he hoped to have a wife of his own. One who looked upon him as Penelope did her husband.
“How are all your sisters? Marion? Is she dealing better with her loss?”
“Marion has returned to a normal social life. Mary, Sybil and Sarah are still chasing away suitors.” Drake gave a half smile.
The silence in the room was deafening. The two women glanced furtively at each other, then became enthralled with their teacups. Drake cleared his throat and seemed to search for words.
Alarmed, Joseph asked, “Is Abigail ill?”
“No. Not ill.”
“Then what it is, man? Has she been injured?” He grew more concerned as no one in the room seemed able to form answers to his questions. He’d always considered Abigail the brightest star of the Lacey girls. Although he’d found her an annoying child when they were all growing up back in Donridge Heath, he had spoken with her several times in the last few years whenever the family had returned to the country. She was a lovely woman, always pleasant, with a sunny disposition. Had it not been for the difference in their station, he would have asked permission to court her.
“Abigail has had a bit of a problem.”
Lips tightened, Joseph eased to the edge of his chair and nodded at Drake to continue.
“She became engaged to the Earl of Redgrave in March.”
Joseph brushed aside the niggling of disappointment. “That is good news.” When no one acknowledged his remark, he added, “Isn’t it?”
“Not quite. It seems two weeks ago Redgrave eloped to Gretna Green with Lady Priscilla, Lord Rumbold’s daughter.”
“Say he wouldn’t do something so despicable!”
“Afraid so. He apparently had been,” Drake stopped and glanced at his mother and wife, “involved in a relationship with the girl before he became betrothed to my sister, and Lady Priscilla turned up in a family way.”
All the blood left his face, leaving Joseph a bit lightheaded at this news. As much as he didn’t like to think of Abigail betrothed to another, this was a terrible thing to happen to the girl. She must be devastated. “How is Abigail handling this?”
“Not well, I’m afraid. When she received the note from Redgrave, she retired to her room and has remained there since. Reclusion seems to be a favorite method of my sisters in managing pain.”
Joseph shook his head in disbelief. To so dishonor a lady—two ladies in fact—was abhorrent.
“I intended to call him out when he returned, but my intelligent wife reminded me of my duty to family which would be in jeopardy if I were dead or forced to flee the country. But that doesn’t mean I can’t find some way to pay him back for his perfidy.”
“I don’t know what to say. I feel absolutely horrible for Abigail. And I’m sure this has been the subject of much gossip.”
“Indeed. To put it bluntly, my sister’s prospects have dimmed. The only men who are now paying her mind are fortune hunters who believe they would do us a favor by taking her off our hands.” He smiled wryly. “By putting their hands on her money.”
“Perhaps you should send Abigail off to the country.”
“That would solve the immediate problem, but I need a long-term solution. I’m sure by next Season the gossip will have died down, but she would be one more year closer to being on the shelf.”
Joseph’s gut tightened at the thought of anyone considering Abigail on the shelf regardless of how many Seasons she saw. “Such a barbarous system we subject our young ladies to. Yet gentlemen are permitted years to avoid matrimony, with no consequences.”
“Good heavens, you sound like my sisters.”
“Your sisters are very intelligent young women, Manchester. But you’re right, of course. Abigail is in a bit of a dilemma. If there’s anything I can do to help, please let me know. Abigail has always been one of my favorite people.”
Manchester somberly studied his desktop for a few minutes, the only sounds in the room the clicking of china. Suddenly the man straightened in his chair and stared straight at Joseph with such a piercing look that he shifted in his seat.
“Mother,” Drake never glanced in her direction, “would you and Penelope mind leaving us for a few minutes?”
The dowager hesitated slightly, her eyes darting between the two men. “Of course, we wouldn’t mind.” She turned to Penelope, the women regarding each other with raised eyebrows.
They rose in unison, and adjusting their skirts, took their leave, their arms joined and heads together in a whispered discussion as they strolled to the door.
Once the door latch sounded, Drake left his seat, and clasping his hands behind his back, paced in a circle around his desk, causing Joseph to twist and turn to continue watching him.
“Manchester, you’re making me dizzy.”
Drake looked up in surprise. Almost as if he’d forgotten Joseph’s presence.
“Sorry. Woolgathering. Trying to settle things in my mind.”
“I assume there is a reason you asked your mother and wife to leave the room? Did you wish to say something about Redgrave that is unfit for ladies’ ears?” Trying to lighten the suddenly grim atmosphere, Joseph’s smile faded as Drake continued to study him as if he were a bug under a microscope.
“Tell me a little bit about your church.”
Of all the things he might have expected to hear from his old friend, this question was certainly not one of them. His church? What the devil was he about?
After studying Drake for a few moments, realizing the man was serious in his question, Joseph answered. “St. Gertrude is a thriving parish. It’s in Addysby End, which you know is the village south of Manchester Manor. Most of my parishioners are farmers and shopkeepers.” He stopped and narrowed his eyes. “What are you about? Why in the middle of discussing your family’s problems do you want to know about my church?”
Drake waved his hand. “Just bear with me for a little bit.” He returned to his seat, clasping his hand together, tapping his lips with his index fingers. “What about this school? How close are you to raising the necessary funds?”
“My benefactors are few. But I’ve just started to visit with potential patrons. If necessary, I could dip into my investments, although the bulk of the money is tied up until I marry, or reach my thirty-fifth year.”
Had these questions come from anyone but the Duke of Manchester, Joseph would have been sure the man had taken leave of his senses. But Drake was much too sharp to make inane conversation so shortly after revealing his family’s predicament.
“And I believe you mentioned needing a steady source of income to sustain the school?”
“Yes. Although I am sure my parishioners will contribute items that can be bartered for school supplies. They have too much pride to take something for free. In any event, I am confident it will all work out.”
When Drake continued to stare at the papers stacked on his desk, Joseph ventured, “May I ask why the sudden interest in my church and school?”
“In due time.” Drake leaned back. “Am I correct in assuming you have not married since I saw you last?”
Joseph frowned and shook his head.
“Noooo.” He dragged the word out, more confused than ever. Questions about his church, the school, now his marital status? If he’d been baffled before, now he was totally flummoxed. Unless Manchester was headed in a direction Joseph would never have guessed. Or hoped for. His heartbeat sped up.
“As you are aware, my family has always held you−and your parents−in high regard.”
Although his church was in the village about thirty miles south of Manchester Manor, Joseph’s father, the elder Mr. Fox, was rector to the Manchester family’s church in Donridge Heath.
Joseph hesitated. “I am pleased to hear that. And both I and my parents have always hoped you and your family regard us as friends. Despite our differences in rank.”
“Good, good. Glad to hear that.”
“What is going on here, Manchester?”
He looked up abruptly, obviously surprised to have his thoughts interrupted. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, you asked your wife and mother to leave the room. You’ve peppered me with questions about my church and the school I hope to build. Then you talk about the relationship between our families. I am wondering what it is that you’re trying very hard not to say.”
“Yes, you’re right. I should just get on with it.”
Drake fidgeted with his pen, taking it out of the holder, slipping it back in again. The man was obviously nervous. Definitely not usual circumstances for Drake. Dare he hope his childhood friend was about to suggest Joseph’s well-hidden desire?
“What do you think of Abigail?”
“I think she’s a wonderful woman, and I am distressed at her predicament.”
“Good. Because there’s something I want to ask you.”
Finally. His stomach in knots, he motioned with his hand for Manchester to proceed. Trying very hard not to anticipate Drake’s words, he held his breath.
Manchester leaned forward, his elbows on his desk. “Please give serious consideration to my suggestion.”
“I would like you to marry my sister.”
Joseph sat back, all the breath leaving his body. Exhilaration mixed with shock. Despite what he’d hoped Drake would say, he still would not have been any more surprised if the man had jumped up, taken off all his clothes, and dashed around the room spouting poetry.
Marry Abigail? The one woman he never thought would be his?
Mortimer's Friend, Apple Books wrote:
A very nice addition to the series. In this story the heroine has been dumped and is convinced to marry another guy, a church rector that she has known since childhood. They have to overcome misunderstandings and assumptions while it seems that someone wants to harm her. Joseph was a sweet, loving man, a true beta hero. Abigail was tough and kind, but emotionally confused. The villain was not much of a secret and, thank goodness, was not what I call "crazy bad." It was a nice, warm romance, very likable.
The Reading Cafe wrote:
I enjoy all of Callie Hutton's books, and this was definitely a good read for me. Having met the hero and heroine in a past book, I was happy to find the in their very own love story. Joseph Fox and Abigail Lacey are a perfect match. I was pleased with where the storyline took me, and Ms. Hutton's writing is wonderful as always. I would most certainly recommend any book by Callie to readers everywhere. I give it 4.5⭐️
I've come to the conclusion that Callie Hutton has a special knack for writing historical romance, and I've become a fan of hers. The humour, witty banter, romance and overall story line she creates before your very eyes sweeps you back in time and carries you away on a fun filled and sometimes dangerous adventure.