Fool for Love Excerpt from A Husband for Mary…
“Why can’t I go with you?” Mary Vine stomped her foot and instantly regretted the petulant and childish gesture she hadn’t made in years. However, her brother Douglas was beyond frustrating this season. She only ever lost her sense of decorum around him.
“Because you are still a child,” Douglas replied in the same condescending tone he’d adopted when he’d reached his majority last year. “The Fenwick Masquerade is no place for a properly bred young woman.”
“But you go every year, and you are only a year older than me. And Worth attends, and he’s younger than I am.” She glanced in Mr. Ellis Worth’s direction but didn’t expect support from that quarter. Her brother’s friend sat up suddenly, looking somewhat guilty at his inclusion in the argument. Worth was a mere week her junior and yet he could do anything he liked without his age ever being brought up in conversation.
It was not fair, and Mary hated being thwarted. She was desperately looking for a husband who would take her away from this suffocating life under her brother’s stern control. The Fenwick Masquerade might be Mary’s last chance to meet someone new before she was relegated to being utterly on the shelf.
Her brother sorted through the day’s mail. “Worth is related to a duke.”
Mary dismissed that argument with the wave of her hand. Worth was hardly likely to inherit that exalted position. He was very far down the line of succession and had infrequent contact with the duke. “That hardly signifies. Why can’t you take me and be my chaperone for an hour?”
“We have other plans for the night.”
She glanced at Ellis Worth, saw a flush of color fill his cheeks and concluded they were probably scandalous plans indeed. He squirmed under her scrutiny and looked away.
Mary was not friends with Ellis Worth. He had a terrible reputation. He was considered a rake—by Mary and many others. She tolerated him because he was unfailingly polite to her mama and had never overstepped with her. He would not help her. Only her brother could do that. She was trapped at home for yet another night unless he could be persuaded to see reason. “Please,” she begged.
“Gentlemen of means do as they like, and attending Fenwick’s amusements is most certainly not the place for you,” Douglas remarked, smiling at an invitation in his post. “A rakish reputation only ever adds to a gentleman’s esteem, but where you are concerned, attendance would make you utterly unmarriageable. Isn’t that right, Worth?”
She glanced to the side again, but Worth wisely kept his mouth shut and paid strict attention to the tip of his left boot.
“Quite right,” Douglas continued on, ignoring the fact he’d not been answered by his friend. “A lady should not attend such a party—or am I to believe that I have wasted considerable funds to give you this third season to find a spouse?”
He had her there. Mary did want, no long, for a husband. She’d been searching three years, smiling at toads, suffering sweaty hands and fetid breath, inhaling the stench of too much cologne, all in the hope of finding the one man she could be herself around.
She was twenty years old and had not found the right gentleman yet. Anxiety over her spinster state had already begun to make her shrewish. Time was running out, judging by the lack of admirers adorning their drawing room today. Douglas was not keen to fund a fourth season, and she was worried. She had such high hopes the masquerade would be the answer to all her problems.
And Mary really wanted to meet a gentleman with whom she might share all sorts of adventures.
Even the wicked ones proper ladies were not supposed to think about.
Since she had not found her husband so far by being a perfect miss, she had concluded that she might have to be a little reckless to make her perfect match. What Mary wanted in a husband could not be discovered in a proper society setting. The masquerade provided ample opportunity to see a little bit of the real world, and she had so hoped Douglas would be her guide and a willing chaperone.
“Please, Douglas,” she begged again. He had to help her.
“No,” Douglas barked, and Mary knew better than to protest again. She turned away.
Dispirited, Mary sank down onto the chaise, ignoring her brother’s conversation with Mr. Worth as they discussed the merit of attending another event that would undoubtedly exclude her too. She should have known better than to ask, but she had to try.
She was losing faith. In men, and in her own appeal. Her red hair was her most appealing feature, and her skin was flawlessly pale. She enjoyed the outdoors and exercise, but the older she got, the more times it was suggested she should not. She was afraid that her already full figure was in danger of becoming too round and unappealing. She may not have eyes to beguile an army, but she was willing to flutter her lashes a bit for the right man as long as he might make an honest woman of her in the end.
She would have to find another way to attend. She could not risk going alone. That would be madness and lead to her ruin, and yet…
The masquerade was tonight, on the eve of Valentine’s Day, and she had everything she needed already to attend. A hooded cloak, her mother’s old mask and costume, and the three gold crowns required for the entrance fee by the hosts.
Yes, she could still go even without Douglas’s approval or protection, but she would have to be very brave and discreet.
“Whatever you’re thinking, stop,” Ellis Worth said suddenly, making her jump.
She took a deep breath, praying she’d not been talking out loud, and looked at him. He was widely considered a very handsome gentleman. Mary was not entirely immune, but she had sense enough not to fall for his charms. Ellis Worth was a heartless rogue. “What was I thinking?”
“To go without your brother’s protection,” he suggested in a soft voice that often caught her off guard. “I would not defy him on this.”
She lifted her chin and smiled with as much frost as she could muster. “I did not ask for your opinion Mr. Worth. Should you not be with my brother rather than lingering to bother me? It is hardly proper for us to be alone together.”
Mr. Worth sat forward, staring hard at Mary. “If you had been listening, you would have heard him suggest I could remain right where I am until his return at any moment. You’ve never complained about my company before.”
True. Mary’s family had never been far away when Mr. Worth came to call. He was so very wicked, but she’d always felt protected in this familiar setting. “You have never stuck your nose where it does not belong before either.”
His eyes darkened. “Going to the Fenwick Masquerade won’t solve your problem.”
She frowned at her brother’s friend. “I don’t have a problem.”
“The husband problem,” he suggested. “Douglas believes you set your sights too high.”
Douglas should have kept his opinions to himself instead of confiding in a rake like Ellis Worth. Mary straightened her spine. “No matter what my brother has suggested, my requirements for a husband are very reasonable. I am no more demanding than many young women in a similar situation.”
He scowled. “You want a wealthy husband and to advance the family in society like everyone else.”
Yes, wealth and good standing were important factors, but that wasn’t all she wanted in her future. Ellis Worth would laugh if she told him she also hoped to fall in love with the man she gave her hand to. Given all she knew of a bachelor’s life of excess in Town, Ellis Worth would never realize what was missing from his. She did not bother to explain. He’d hold the same opinions as her brother and dismiss her dreams of romance out of hand. She wouldn’t waste her breath on so futile an explanation.
She smiled again, wishing Douglas would hurry back. “What else could be more important than making a good match?”
Worth shook his head, frowning down at his hands. “The Fenwick Masquerade offers every imaginable pleasure a body could want. Any woman there is considered equally interested in wickedness and available for the evening. You should not go. Not if you expect to make an impeccable match. The women who attend care for naught but their own pleasure. Many an innocent has been ruined by foolish dreams.”
Now she really wanted to attend the Fenwick’s Masquerade, but Mr. Worth did not need to know that his words of caution had fired her interest to a higher level. “I assure you, Mr. Worth, that should I require guidance, I will ask my mother and my own brother in future for their opinion and advice.”
Mr. Worth pressed his lips together and then speared her with a sharp glance. “I hope you are as sensible as your words suggest.”
She fanned her fingers over her chest to attempt to appear innocent. “You doubt me?”
A smile quirked his lips. “I know you.”
“What does that mean?”
“You like a challenge.” He glanced toward the door. “And I also know how little you think your brother cares to hear your opinion. He means well, but he’s not going to suddenly see things your way. Any scandal would break your mother’s heart too.”
She stared at him, wondering how this man had come to know her and her family so well. To bring up her mother’s heart and hopes was far too close to the truth. Mama would never find out that she went, though. “My mother wants for me what I want.”
“Finding a gentleman to marry should not depend on his connections or the size of his bank account alone, as you claim. It is how he treats you that you should be more concerned about. Any man you engage in a dalliance at the masquerade could never have marriage on his mind.”
Her eyes widened at the heat behind his words, and she gave up any pretense of civility between them. It was utterly reckless, but she stood and stepped closer to him. He rose to his full height, staring her down. Dear heavens, he was tall. “How dare you think you know me and what’s best for me?”
“I know what it’s like to be alone in the world, without family to depend on. You don’t. You have everything, and you’ll lose it all over a silly whim just to prove your brother a blithering idiot about a trivial ball.”
Mary poked him in the chest. “Searching for a husband is not a whim, you… you… despicable rake! I never said I was going to the ball without a suitable chaperone anyway. I want to marry a man I admire. Someone I might come to love. I assure you, ladies of sense do not want a rake as a suitor. I’m not about to be tempted to throw away my life because a scoundrel smiled at me at a silly ball.”
He stared at her hand on his chest until she removed it. “See that you don’t.”