“My father provided a dowry for me when I was ababy?” Bianca stared at Peavy in confusion and wonder. “Why wouldn’t he have mentioned this?”

“Mother says the earl wanted you to find a love match. She reminded Father that he wasn’t supposed totellpeople about your dowry, because Quinseley was so certain you wouldn’t need one. It was to be a wedding gift for the man who won your heart.”

“But… but… ” Bianca could think of no coherent words. “Then what are we doinghere?”

“We’re going to telleveryone!” Joy blurted out in excitement. “There’s no need to wait for Peavy’s father to rummage up an old copy of the terms. You’re anheiress, Bianca. They cannot ignore you now.”

Bianca glanced over her shoulder at the others. “Are you all hearing this?”

They were gone. Doc and Goose and Rosie and Miss Drowsy had scattered to the four winds, each spreading the delicious gossip of Bianca’s staggering dowry among the crowd like dandelion seeds scattering in the wind.

In no time, Bianca was beset by fashionable gentlemen dropping by to bid a good afternoon to Joy or Tina or Peavy, and… What’s this? A friend of yours? Do be so kind as to make an introduction. Oh, Miss White! The pleasure is all mine! Might I call upon you tomorrow?

Bianca’s head spun. Not just because of all the unexpected attention, but because of what the dowry would mean. Bianca needn’t spend the rest of her life as a maid-of-all-work, or an indigent burden camped in her friends’ guest rooms.

All she had to do was marry, and a large chunk of her father’s riches would be hers.

Technically, the money would belong to Bianca’s future husband. As would Bianca herself. But she would be twenty-one in two days. Once she had her majority, she could decide her future for herself. No one could force her into a loveless marriage. There would be no walking down the aisle unless she chose to do so of her own free will.

Unfortunately, the one man she’d hoped would chooseher…had already chosen someone else.


Harry tried and failed to keep his focus on the charts of accounts lying open on the desk before him. In theory, all his worries would soon be over. He need only slip a ring on Lady Regina’s finger… and then live with that decision for the rest of his life.

He couldn’t even bring Lady Regina’s face to mind. Every time he blinked, it was Bianca’s countenance that filled the canvas of his memory. How fetching she looked, drugged with passion, kissing him.

How hurt she’d looked when he’d spurned her and walked away.

It had taken every ounce of his will not to run back to her arms, to throw himself at her feet, to beg her not to let a measly little unhappy loveless marriage come between them.

But Harry believed in marriage. In the idea of it, in the promise of loyalty and monogamy and forever. Even if Bianca was willing to be his mistress indefinitely, as her mother had been for Lord Quinseley, such an arrangement was not good enough for Harry.

It wasn’t good enough forBianca.

If he couldn’t offer her all of him, then he had no business offering any part of himself at all.

Harry pushed away the ledger of accounts. He removed his mother’s ring from his pocket and glared down at it with self-recrimination.

Wasn’t the same true for Lady Regina? Did he have any business offering any part of himself, when he already knew she would never have his heart?

Or was this just another high-handed, Harry-knows-best line of reasoning?

An hour ago, he had asserted that as long as Lady Regina entered into the bargain with open eyes, and not only knew precisely what she was getting, but also was satisfied with the trade… Then no one had any right to stop them.

By his own logic, then, if Bianca knew all she would ever have of Harry was a stolen night here and there, and nonetheless was satisfied with such an arrangement, who was he to limit what sort of liaisons she could or could not have?

The fact was, it was Harry who did not wish to share. He wanted Bianca all to himself. And he did not want Lady Regina at all.

Yet he knew his duty. Family came first. Or rather, according to the British aristocracy, family came second and the title came first. But the family finances had not deteriorated to this point from his father’s drinking habits alone. The marquess had inherited an already terrible situation from his own father, who likely had begun at a disadvantage from his as well.

One could regard such a history despondently… Or one could take a more hopeful interpretation, and conclude that even the worst offenders to mismanage the marquessate had not managed to ruin it. Father might have given up, but Harry had not. Marrying money was one way out of this hole, but who said it was the only way?

Perhaps Harry should start by questioning the assumption that living as lavish a life as the spendthrift Prince Regent was even the goal to aspire to.

Bianca would never be fully accepted by all of Polite Society. If Harry chose her, he would be unceremoniously barred from Almack’s. Was that so dreadful? Forgoing that subscription would save him ten guineas a year.

And then there was this town house. What a dreadful expense! The most fashionable neighborhood, a full battalion of servants. If he directed those funds toward the entailed estates instead, and rented a cheap room when Parliament was in session…

Tags: Erica Ridley Historical
Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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