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Countess by Coincidence excerpt

 Chapter 1

 What a deuced pickle John Beauclerc, the 11th Earl of Finchley, had gotten himself into. The higher he climbed the stairs to his Grandmere's drawing room, the lower he felt. Had he not sworn to that dear lady a mere ten weeks previously that he would curtail his attraction to high-stakes play? Yet here he was like an errant schoolboy, preparing to once again vow that he would change his wicked ways—while begging for a few hundred quid to tide him over to the next quarter.

He needn't tell her he owed every bit of it to Lord Bastingham because of a disastrous turn of bad luck. Nor need he tell her how many tradesmen were dunning him. Nor how he'd been forced to find new positions for his groom and coachman because he lacked funds to continue keeping horses.

Before John reached the landing, he passed the Romney of his late grandfather. His step slowed as his gaze raked over the old fellow. John was certain Grandpapa's eyes had been green, but the paint had darkened over the years to a murky brown. From beneath the elderly man's prim white wig and bushy gray brows, those dark eyes seemed to be glowering at his grandson. A shudder rippled down John's spine, and he looked away.

Good lord, even the dead must know about John's rakish ways.

A few moments later he threw open the doors to Grandmere's drawing room. Seated upon a sofa, a slant-top portable desk balanced on her lap, she was scribbling on paper, then she looked up at him with a twinkling gaze.

Though she could be an excessively stern matriarch, Grandmere had the looks of an angel. At present, her pink mouth lifted into a smile that accompanied the sparkle in her pale blue eyes. She was small and round and fair and was possessed of fluffy white hair. For as long as he could remember, her cheeks had been pink, but his Mother—God rest her soul—had said Grandmere's cheek colour came from French rouge.

He strode to her, bowed, and kissed her hand. "It's good to see you, Grandmere."

Her brows lowered. "Don't pretend you've come just to see your grandmother, John Edward. I know you've been naughty."

He stifled a groan. Ten-year-old boys were naughty. When one was six and twenty, he was . . . well, he supposed dissolute described the man he'd become. "I protest. Guilty I may be to the naughtiness, but I am hardly guilty of neglecting my favorite kinsperson."

She frowned. "I am your only kinsperson."

"And do I not call on you at least once a week?"

"Your attentions to your grandmother may be the only admirable trait you possess."

So she had heard about the gambling. And perhaps even worse. "Can I help it if I am my father's son?"

A shadow of sorrow swept across her aged face. "My life's hope was that my grandson would be the man my son could never be."

He sighed. "I am truly sorry to be such a disappointment."

"But not sorry enough to do something to change it."

His countenance brightened. He offered her a broad smile. "I haven't been to Newmarket since the last quarter!" Perhaps he should not have referenced a Newmarket racing meeting. After all, that is where Papa had met his demise when, under the influence of vast consumption of brandy, he was trampled to death when he attempted to mount a horse during the race.

She scowled.

"And,” he added brightly, “My valet will verify that the number of mornings in which I awaken snoggered have been greatly reduced." Remembering his father's unfortunate end, John was being somewhat mindful of lessening his own consumption of spirits. Except, of course, when he was with his fellow bloods. One couldn't look like a jessie.

She continued to scowl. "Even your father never used such a word in my presence!"

He effected a contrite look. "Forgive me."

"You might as well sit down."

He would rather not. It made him feel small in the presence of his steely grandmother. He needed all six feet, two inches to gather his courage. "Actually, I cannot stay."

"So you've just come to see that I haven't died in my bed?"

His brow lowered. "I beg that you never speak of such!"

"Then, as I have suspected all along, you're seeking a loan—a loan you promise to pay back when the new quarter rolls around."

He could not meet her gaze. "You know me too well."

"Sit down, my boy."

He had never been able to refuse her a request (except the request for his reform). He settled awkwardly upon a silken sofa across from her, fully expecting to be subjected to a long lecture on his evil ways. His eyes trained on the Aubusson carpet beneath his feet, he waited. And waited. Grandmere harrumphed but said not a word.

After a moment, he looked up. This stern look upon her face was unexpected.

"I'll not give you a farthing."

His eyes widened. Never before had she flat out refused him.

"It has been nearly a decade since you left Oxford, and your habits remain those of a lad getting his first taste of wine, woman, and faro!"

Every word she said was true. He still remembered the joy of leaving Oxford behind and re-opening Finchley House on Cavendish Square, of meeting with other like-minded young men at White's for brandy and faro and any other manner of betting, and . . . of the ladies! Could one ever grow tired of such pleasures?

By God, after all those years of awakening to cold stone floors at six in the morning to eat grub and face his lessons, he cherished every moment in the Capital now. He'd never been happier. He rose when he wanted, and not one night of the week was he home and idle. He and Christopher Perry, David Arlington, and Michael Knowles—chums since their Eton days—were always ready for a lark. The four of them loved the ladies, too. (Not that one would actually refer to the opera dancers and members of the demimonde precisely as ladies.) John had not the slightest desire to be shackled to some prim and respectable wife.

His gaze returned to the carpet. "You are—as always, Grandmere—right."

"It's time you settle down."

"Why can I not wait until I reach thirty?"

"At the rate you're going, young man, I'm afraid you won't reach thirty."

Were all women prone to such sweeping statements of gloom? 'Twas another very good reason to avoid parson's mousetrap. "I'm very happy with my life as it is." He glared up at her. "Besides, I've yet to meet the woman to whom I wish to be sha- - -, er, married."

"Of course, you haven't! You have no interest in honorable ladies. Have you even once attended the assemblies at Almack's?"

He grimaced. "Why would I wish to go to that devilishly boring place? They serve nothing stronger than tea!"

She glared at him. Grandmere, who'd always treated him with the most tender of hearts, had never glared at him. "My resolve is inflexible. I had hoped one day to settle the entirety of my own personal fortune on my only surviving kin, but I will not do so until you demonstrate more maturity than you have heretofore." She sighed. "It is your good fortune that my Papa did not not die and will his money to me whilst your wastrel grandfather and father were alive for they would have squandered every last penny."

'Twas such pity that the Earls of Finchley did not have a feather to fly with and were dependent on the fortune of John's maternal great grandfather, who'd been the wealthiest brewer in the British Isles. And despite what Grandmere said, John wished to God the old brewer had died whilst his son-in-law was alive so the money would be the property of the Earls of Finchley.

"Don't know why it's my good fortune if I can't lay hands on it," he protested like a recalcitrant lad.

"One day, when you find a wife and start your own family, you'll be thankful."

"But I've no desire for a wife and children."

Her eyes narrowed as she regarded him. "Man is not always aware of what he wants. They're creatures highly resistant to change. But I know when you do settle down, you will make a fine husband and a good father. Ever since you were a wee lad, I've seen something in you that was absent in both your father and grandfather."

His brows arched in query. "Pray, what could that be?"


* * *

As much as she loved fashion, Lady Margaret Ponsby was growing tired of the never-ending ritual of dressing and primping and attempting to display oneself to advantage in search of a husband. There were morning calls, and routs, and musicals, and assemblies, and Almack's.

She was now two and twenty and, sadly, she had not taken. Her eldest sister had been happily married for several years. Her next eldest sister was on the verge of plighting her life to the distinguished Parliamentarian, Richard Rothcomb-Smedley. And her youngest sister, Caro, had turned down eleven offers of marriage. (Everyone said she was holding out for a duke.)

It was an acknowledged fact that she and Caro looked almost like twins, but it was Caro and her brilliance and sparkle that captured the hearts of all the men they met.

Not like unfortunate Margaret, who was incapable of holding an intelligent conversation with a gentleman. It wasn't that she was stupid; she was merely excessively shy. Mama had said one of her sisters was the very same. The sole sister who never married.

Her sister-in-law, the Duchess of Aldridge, swept into Margaret's bedchamber, met her gaze with a gentle smile, and softly closed the door behind her. "Before we go to Almack's I wanted to speak to you." She came to sit on the edge of Margaret's tall tester bed. The blonde duchess was already dressed and looked radiant in an ivory frock which perfectly displayed the Aldridge diamonds.

"I don't mean to pry, dearest," Elizabeth began, "but it's time I have the same talk with you that I had with Clair last year."

Margaret gave her a quizzing look. "I did not know- - - oh! Now I understand! It wasn't until you married our brother that Clair began to take an interest in her appearance. Whatever did you say to her to bring about such a transformation?"

"I asked her a question."

Now Margaret looked even more perplexed. "What question?"

"I asked what it was she wanted from life."

"Even though I'm her flesh-and-blood sister, I had previously thought she was happy with spinsterhood."

"She was." A smile softened Elizabeth's pretty face. "But she wanted a home of her own, children of her own, and lastly, a husband to fulfill those desires."

"Methinks her last desire is now first." Whenever Clair was with Mr. Rothcomb-Smedley she . . . well, she'd actually learned how to engage in a flirtation—something they had thought never to see Clair do.

"My dearest sister, I have seen how wonderful you are with the children at Trent Square. I've seen your keen interest in Lydia's devotion to her son. No one is better suited to motherhood than you."

Margaret was powerless not to observe the baby bulge in the duchess's midsection. "I happen to think you'll make a very fine mother." Elizabeth was a natural matriarch. She had single handedly established the rambling Number 7 Trent Square as a home for the destitute widows of and children of officers killed in the Peninsula.

"Your brother said the same thing. I do hope to emulate Lydia."

"Oh, me too! It's very sad to me to think most aristocratic mothers give off their children to wet nurses, nurses, and governesses. I want to be like Lady Lydia."

"So I am right. You do want to marry and become a mother."

"More than anything." For some unknown reason, she felt she could reveal more of herself to this woman—a sister by marriage—than to Caro, the sister she’d been closest to throughout her life. “I’ve often been seized with envy of poor widowed Mrs. Leander.”

Elizabeth nodded. “I know you’ve grown much attached to her baby boy.”

Margaret nodded. “I’m so wicked I’ve lamented over why I can't have him when she already has four others.”

“You’ll have one of your own. To attract a husband you shall have to abandon your shyness when you're in the presence of men. They'll mistake your reticence for aloofness. You are, after all, the daughter of a duke, and everyone thinks there’s nothing loftier than a duke."

"Would that I had schooled myself better when I was younger. I fear it is now too late to teach an old dog new tricks. I seem incapable of making sparkling conversation –or any conversation—when a man is present."

"Is there not some man whom you admire?"

Margaret thought of the unvarying group of indistinguishable young men who moved in her social circles. Not a one of them had ever elevated her heartbeat in the least. The fact was, she had never met a man who affected her in such a way.

For some peculiar reason, her mind flitted to the old Dowager Finchley's opulent house opposite theirs in Berkeley Square. Why was it Margaret was so fascinated over the woman's rakish grandson? She had never exchanged a single word with him. He eschewed Almack's and other such bastions of respectability. His name was forever being dragged through the newspapers, linked to the most disreputable sort of woman. And the company he kept! His friends were just as profligate as he.

Yet she exercised a fascination over the tall, lanky young earl. She tended to race to her bedchamber window whenever she heard a lone horse trot up to the old dowager's, just in the hopes of feasting her gaze on the man. She had become nearly obsessed over his dark good looks.

It was the same kind of compulsion which had her searching through her brother's newspapers each day, searching for news of the young earl's escapades.

Her gaze met Elizabeth's. "No. I know no man who's ever appealed to me."

"Oh, dear. No one?"

Margaret sadly shook her head. "It appears I am not attracted to respectable men."

Elizabeth gave her a quizzing look. "Surely you cannot mean you are attracted to an ineligible man? I would find that difficult to credit, given your . . . well, your meekness!"

"You might as well say it. I'm mousy. Methinks the dullest stone will always be attracted to that which shines the brightest."

"You are not a dull stone." The duchess's gaze went to the window, and she was lost in contemplation for a moment. "Is there a . . . a rake who’s captured your attention?"

"There could possibly be, but I've not had the opportunity to make his acquaintance."

"Dear God, you cannot be referring to the Earl of Finchley!"

Margaret's mouth gaped open. "How did you know?"

"I. . . I didn't. But I have observed you standing before this window for long hours."

"Please, do not spare another thought on this ridiculous attraction. It will never come to anything. I've never even spoken to the fellow."

"And I hope you never do! He’s completely ineligible.” Elizabeth's face softened. "You deserve someone much finer than he."

* * *

John's solicitor, a grave expression on his face, looked up. "In my five decades of practicing law, I've never been asked to draw up such a document." His thick silver brows drew together. "Does your grandmother know about that advertisement?"

"Not yet, but she's the cause of it. If my grandmother insists upon my marriage, then marriage she will get. She never said I had to be in love with the bride. Nor must we live beneath the same roof."

He smiled to himself as he read over the newspaper advertisement that had drawn more than three dozen responses.

Gentleman of modest means seeks a gently-bred woman to enter into matrimony. The prospective wife will receive the one-time sum of £100 but will hereafter maintain separate abode from the prospective groom and make no further claims upon the husband.

"As irregular as it is, I can assure you the marriage contracts I've drawn up are perfectly legal. I've put in the bride's name of . . ." Mr. Wiggington consulted a letter. "Miss Margaret Ponsby of Windsor."

"I selected her because her name sounded like a name for which my grandmother would approve."

“I’ve been to Windsor and obtained the lady’s signature on the contracts.”

John was most pleased with himself.

* * *

No matter what straights John steered himself into, he’d always made it a point to never borrow money from his friends. He had no greater friend than Christopher Perry, who happened to be as wealthy as a nabob. As the only son after five daughters, Christopher Perry’s parents had lavished him with affection, attentions, and anything that their fortune could purchase.

John had always known he could depend upon Perry to help him in any financial difficulties, but it was a line he had always preferred not to cross. In his mind, it was as if crossing that line would part him from Perry as effectively as a saw parts a limb from a tree.

An efficient, thoroughly English butler answered the door of the Perry’s fine mansion on Piccadilly and, immediately recognizing John, showed him into the library. “I will inform Mr. Perry that your lordship is here.”

A moment later, Perry strolled into the chamber. He was a fine looking fellow who always dressed with impeccable taste. If one looked close enough at him one might detect a few hints of the Perry family’s origins as jewelers of the Jewish faith—a religion long ago abandoned by the family. There was the olive complexion associated with those in Mediterranean countries, and the prominent nose also hooked in the same manner as those whose ancestors had come from Biblical lands.

The Perrys had adopted thoroughly English ways. Perry’s late father had even won a seat in the House of Commons.

“I am surprised to find you out and about so early,” Perry said, by way of a greeting. “It is but two in the afternoon. Do you not usually sleep until four?”

“I had to see my bloody solicitor today on a matter of importance.”

Perry quirked a brow.

“I’ve decided to get married.”

Perry’s dark eyes widened. “The hell you say! Who in the bloody hell do you plan to wed? Mind you, if it’s Mary Lyle, I’ll tie you to that bloody chair and not allow you to leave this house.”

He had been moving toward John but upon hearing the announcement altered his path and went to snatch a bottle of port. “This calls for a bloody drink. Join me?”

“Don’t mind if I do.”

After Perry poured two glasses and handed one to his friend, John said, “It’s not Mary Lyle. Haven’t seen her in more than a month—not since I had to sell my carriage.”

Perry, nodding knowingly, dropped onto a chair near John. “A title can only go so far in impressing the ladies.”

Now John raised a brow. “I wouldn’t actually call her a lady.”

“No, I don’t suppose one would.” Perry took a long swig of the port. “I know you too bloody well. You can’t be marrying because I would know it if there was an interest in that direction.” He gave an exaggerated shudder. “Beastly business. Marriage.”

John downed half his glass. “You’ll get no argument from me on that.”

“Then what, pray tell, are you referring to with this talk of marriage?”

John sketched out the details of his plan. “So you see, old boy, I’m going to ask that you be my best man in this bogus marriage. And, I shall need you to supply the promised hundred quid to the obliging bride. I’ll repay you as soon as my grandmother makes a settlement on the mature man she thinks marriage will make me.”

“Of course, dear fellow. Anything for a friend.”

John got up and shook his hand.

“What if the lady’s a real dragon?” Perry’s face screwed up as if he’d just sucked rotten lemons.

“I pray I only have to see her once.”

Perry stood and showed him to the door.

“Will you meet me at St. George’s tomorrow morning?” John asked.

“St. George’s Hanover Square?”

John nodded. “And bring the hundred quid to pay my bride.”

“What a wretched word. Bride. Makes me feel like the morning after imbibing two bottles of brandy.”

“It’s not a real bride.”

"Tell me, Finch, is your grandmother to join us at St. George's in the morning?"

"I invited her but did not tell her what was going to occur."

* * *

The following morning, the unfortunate spinster, Margaret Ponsby, stood in front of St. George's Chapel within the grounds of Windsor Castle. The wedding day she had awaited for six and forty years now looked as if it was nothing more than a cruel hoax. Her bridegroom, Mr. Beauclerc, was to have met her here more than an hour ago. At first she thought someone had played a heartless joke upon her, but no one had forced her to respond to the notice in the Morning Chronicle. There was also the fact that the solicitor's clerk had gone to considerable trouble to obtain her signature upon the marriage contract.

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