The Honorable Jeremy Malcolm, second son of the Earl of Kilbourne, was the biggest catch of the season the year of our Lord 1818. It was true he had no title of his own and was only a younger son, but his aunt on his mother’s side had left him the bulk of her sizeable fortune and a large country house in Kent.
He also had his considerable personal assets to recommend him. Only the most ambitious of young misses would overlook the handsome Mr. Malcolm in favor of the Marquess of Mumford, who was at least fifty and had no chin, just for the privilege of hearing herself called “my lady.”
For what woman would choose to be called “my lady” when she might enjoy the sole honor of being called “Malcolm’s lady?”
But it was beginning to look as if no woman was ever to enjoy that inestimable privilege.
For, though he was by no means a hermit, and attended Almack’s along with various other balls, routs, and assemblies, Mr. Malcolm was earning a reputation as a Trifler, a Breaker of Hearts, a Destroyer of Young Ladies’ Dreams.
“A what?” Malcolm asked his friend Lord Cassidy, upon being told of the latest gossip concerning him.
“A Destroyer of Young Ladies’ Dreams,” Cassie told him, enunciating slowly and carefully.
“What rot,” Malcolm replied, turning to survey the ballroom, and one beautiful debutante in particular.
“Perhaps the gossips are correct. You paid very particular attentions to my cousin Julia, and now have not been to call in over a week.”
Malcolm turned to look at his friend, one eyebrow raised. “I escorted your cousin to the opera. Once. I did not pay her ‘very particular attentions.’ ”
“What actually occurred is beside the point. It’s what people say that matters. And when you did not call again, how did that make Julia look? She spent two whole days locked in her bedchamber because she did not want to face anyone.”
“If that is typical of Miss Thistlewaite’s behavior, she has no cause to complain when people speak ill of her.”
Cassie did not reply, letting his silence on the subject speak for itself. He assumed a wounded expression and, although Malcolm staunchly defended his friend whenever it was remarked that Lord Cassidy closely resembled a hound, Malcolm could not deny the likeness was particularly strong when Cassie was sulking.
sorry, Cassie, that your cousin has become the target of gossips.” The large brown eyes continued to stare at him reproachfully. “I did not set out to distress her, but neither am I going to propose marriage to a woman merely because I took her to the opera.”
“No one said you had to,” Cassie said.
“Perhaps not, but it is what they want. What are those dreams that I am accused of destroying? They are dreams of wedding the ‘catch of the season’ purely for the sake of my fortune and holdings. The only way I could fulfill the numerous expectations I have excited is to become a polygamist. If I even speak to a young lady, she is envisioning a trip down the aisle.”
“So why not just choose some girl and make an end of it?” his friend asked.
“Why do you think I am here tonight? I am very anxious to find a suitable bride.”
“What’s wrong with Julia? She’s generally acknowledged to be a handsome girl,” Cassie said, though he couldn’t quite meet his friend’s eyes. Julia had harangued Cassie into discovering what she’d done to earn his friend’s displeasure. Cassie was trying to do his cousinly duty by suggesting Julia as a suitable bride, but he felt uncomfortable doing so. He knew better than anyone just how annoying she could be.
“Your cousin is handsome enough,” Malcolm agreed, “but she’s not the girl for me.”
“Why not?” Cassie asked.
“I don’t know,” Malcolm said, shrugging his shoulders. “She flutters her eyelashes too much.”
“What? She flutters her eyelashes too much? That
is the reason you did not call on her again?”
“It was very distracting. I thought a few times she was dozing off. Once I thought she was about to swoon, so I grabbed her arm. That
made her eyes open quickly enough. I think she believed her quivering eyelashes had incited me to make her an offer of marriage.”
Cassie just shook his head, those canine eyes of his expressing disappointment.
“Don’t look at me like that, Cassie. That was not the only thing that decided me against Miss Thistlewaite.” Malcolm reached into his waistcoat pocket and withdrew a piece of paper. He unfolded it while Cassie attempted to look at it over his shoulder. It appeared to Cassie to be a list of some kind. Malcolm perused it carefully while Cassie strained to see what it said. He saw “Possesses musical or artistic talent” and “Has genteel relations” before the paper was waved triumphantly in front of his face, Malcolm apparently having discovered what he was looking for.
“Here it is. Item four: ‘Converses in a sensible fashion.’ The only type of conversation Miss Thistlewaite enjoys is one composed entirely of flirtatious remarks or flowery compliments. When I asked her what opinion she held about the Corn Laws, she replied that restraint in one’s diet was bound to have a healthful effect.”
Cassie did not express any amusement upon hearing of his cousin’s faux pas. He hurriedly changed the subject, as he did not want to become involved in a dull political discussion. “What is that, Malcolm? Is that a list?” Cassie tried to remove it from Malcolm’s hand, but Malcolm hurriedly folded it and returned it to his waistcoat pocket.
“Yes, it is.”
“You have some sort of list of qualifications for a bride?” Cassie asked, his voice higher than usual.
“So, that is demmed arrogant of you, if you ask me. No wonder you cannot settle upon anyone. You want them to meet some catalog of requirements, like, like . . . a tandem horse you’re purchasing from Tattersalls.”
Malcolm seized upon his friend’s analogy. “Exactly. I have definite requirements when filling my stable. Why should I not have even more stringent requirements for a bride? It is absolutely absurd to spend more time examining a horse than a wife, a lifelong companion you will see morning, noon, and night.”
Since Cassie was of that breed of Englishman that considered a horse
a lifelong companion to be seen morning, noon, and night, his friend’s argument may not have carried the force it was meant to. He just muttered, “Next thing you know, you’ll be putting her through her paces and checking her teeth.”
Cassie avoided Julia for nearly a week after his conversation with Malcolm, but upon receiving her third missive, he presented himself at his aunt’s town house. In her letter Julia had declared her intention of calling on him herself, unescorted, and he was well aware that his cousin was hotheaded enough to embroil them both in scandal if pushed too far.
He awaited Julia in the drawing room, looking about him in disapproval. Everything was in the first style of elegance, but his aunt seemed to have gone too far in following the Prince Regent’s latest taste for chinoiserie. Every sofa or chair handle had a dragon’s head, and one cabinet was filled to overflowing with pieces of pottery, glazed ceramic animals, and stone carvings. He was examining one objet d’art closely, a figurine of a lion with its mouth open wide in a snarling grin, when his cousin spoke in his ear.
“He does not bite, you know.”
He started violently at the sound of her voice, and she laughed at the success of her surprise. “You have the manners of a Billingsgate fishwife,” he told her, waiting for his cousin to sit before trying to fold his lanky body into one of the uncomfortable chairs.
“I would not know, as I do not keep the low society you do.” She waved away his indignant rebuttal, saying, “Do not worry; I shan’t tell anyone that you find a small piece of pottery so intimidating.” Cassie began sputtering again, but Julia hurried to the point. “What did Mr. Malcolm say? You promised you would speak to him at Lord Wesleigh’s ball and I have not heard from you since.”
Cassie eyed his cousin in irritation, cursing the fates for making it necessary for him to claim kinship with such a selfish, spoiled girl. Neither of them had siblings and they were only a few years apart in age, so their parents had forced them into each other’s company from childhood on. Cassie’s conciliatory, easygoing disposition was no match for Julia’s more forceful nature, so from an early age he’d become accustomed to acceding to all but her most outrageous of demands. Julia had been an attractive child and had grown into a pretty young woman, with auburn hair, light green eyes, and delicate features. Her air of innocent fragility still managed to deceive most people as to her true nature, but Cassie was not fooled. There was nothing fragile about his cousin’s will.
“Well?” she asked, drumming her fingers impatiently upon a dragon’s head.
“Yes, well, Malcolm agreed you are a handsome girl—”
“Did he?” Julia asked, an expression of pleased surprise on her face. “That is good news. I must say, I thought I had displeased him in some way. This is better news than I’d hoped for—”
“Wait,” Cassie said, interrupting her exultations. “He is not at all interested in you.”
Cassie had not meant to make such a blunt pronouncement and felt a twinge of guilt when his cousin’s face fell. He could not bear to see any lady cry, and so hurried to stave off the tears he thought he saw gathering in her eyes. “He’s got this list, you see, and you did not meet the fourth qualification. I would have failed it as well, as I have no interest in politics and have always found the Corn Laws particularly confusing. I mean, what difference does it make if they grow the corn in Berkshire or France?”
Julia didn’t answer, but Cassie was pleased to see there didn’t appear to be any danger of her crying any longer. In fact, she looked almost ferocious. “He has a list?” she asked, in a voice that was far too calm.
“Yes, well, I must say I did not care for the idea at first myself, but when he explained it to me, I could see his point. What if the girl has some odd kick in her gallop?”
Julia ignored this seeming non sequitur and tried to return to the point of the discussion. “I would like to know what is on this list, Cassie. Did you see it?”
“Yes, but it would do you no good. No good at all. Even if you’d passed the Corn Laws test, your eyelashes irritate him to no end.”
? Is the man deranged?”
“No, not at all. You just cannot fool him with those tricks you pull. He despises flirtatious games.”
Julia rose from her seat to pace furiously about the room, muttering things like: “The unmitigated gall!” and “What conceit!” Cassie rose when his cousin did, but she waved him back into his seat, where he shifted nervously, suddenly aware that he had said far too much.
When Julia halted abruptly in her pacing and started smiling, Cassie became even more apprehensive. He had seen that expression on Julia’s face more times than he cared to remember, and it always boded ill.
“I have an absolutely brilliant idea,” she announced.
“Somehow I doubt it,” he replied.
Copyright © 2020 by Suzanne Allain. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.