“Marina has made a great deal of progress this summer.” Mrs. Juno Langton smiled brightly at her employer, Lady Wetherby. “I daresay she could attempt a short stint in York this fall.”
With a wide, furrowed brow and pursed lips, Lady Wetherby didn’t appear convinced. But why should she? Her daughter, Marina, was a social disaster. Was. Juno’s job was to fix that, and she had made some progress. However, perhaps describing it as “a great deal” was a slight exaggeration.
“In what specific ways has she improved?” the countess asked from the opposite chair in her private sitting room, where they met weekly to discuss Marina.
“Her dancing.” Because they practiced over an hour every day. “Her ease at conversation.” Also because they practiced over an hour every day. And Juno wasn’t shortsighted about it—she knew Marina’s comfort had increased with her, but would take some finessing once they got to London. Or York, which would be an excellent rehearsal for London.
“What about smiling?” Lady Wetherby asked. “I haven’t seen her smile any more than she did before. Which was hardly at all.” She gave her head a tiny shake.
“That is also improving.” Again, Juno had found success with Marina, but couldn’t be certain her charge would smile with other people. At least not at first. That was the problem. Until Marina got to know someone, she was completely uncomfortable in their presence. She didn’t make eye contact, she fidgeted, and she barely said a word. Juno could well imagine how it was that no gentleman danced with her a second time—not at a single ball but during the entire Season.
“I’m not seeing it, but then I think Marina takes pleasure in behaving in an especially surly manner with me.” Lady Wetherby’s lips pursed even more. Juno wondered if they might shrivel up and disappear.
“I don’t believe that’s true, my lady,” Juno said with a reassuring smile. “I think, with respect, that Marina wants to please you and knows she hasn’t.”
Lady Wetherby’s nostrils flared. “Are you saying it’s my fault she’s cold and awkward?”
“Not at all.” Though she wasn’t terribly wrong… “Perhaps if you gave her more encouragement, you might be rewarded with her demonstrating the progress she’s made.” Juno offered her widest smile, which typically thawed even the most frigid people. Not that Lady Wetherby was frigid. Well, perhaps she was when it came to her eldest child. Juno had seen the countess with her younger children, and she seemed far more relaxed.
“I’ll do that,” Lady Wetherby said before exhaling a rather beleaguered sigh. “I’m sure you’re right that she is making progress. That is the reason we hired you after departing London early.”
Juno had finished her prior contract of employment sooner than she’d planned when her former charge had snared an earl. The family had been overjoyed with Juno’s tutelage, and Juno had been thrilled to take some time for herself, adjourning to Bath, where she’d spent a lovely fortnight in the strong arms of a charming captain. It might have been longer except she’d received the offer from the Wetherbys to attend their daughter, who was in dire need of refinement after a disastrous first Season. Unable to resist the challenge—or the pay—Juno had left her captain and traveled north to Yorkshire.
“I do fear she is destined for spinsterhood,” Lady Wetherby said with a frown, drawing Juno back to the present.
“I am confident we can avoid that. The right husband is out there for Marina. We just have to find him. I do think a short stint to York may be just the thing.” Juno wanted Marina to be able to practice her newfound skills in social settings outside the bustle and pressure of the Season.
“I agree,” Lady Wetherby said, clasping her hands in her lap. “Not about York, but that the right husband is out there. To that end, we’ve been invited to a house party next month. The Duke of Warrington will be in attendance. He is rumored to detest the Marriage Mart, but is also in need of a wife. It’s the perfect opportunity to secure a match between him and Marina.” Her blue eyes positively glowed with anticipation and confidence. As if the betrothal between Marina and the duke were a fait accompli.
Juno was only vaguely aware of the duke. He did not seem to be a social sort, which made it easy to believe that he didn’t care for the Marriage Mart. Matching someone like him with someone like Marina would be…challenging.
Juno absolutely loved a challenge. That was how she’d embarked on this career of helping young ladies bring their natural confidence and charm to the fore following the death of her husband. Dashing Bernard Langton had swept a naïve young Juno into a mad love affair and marriage, shocking her parents and prompting them to disassociate from their only daughter.
After less than a year, Bernard had died, leaving Juno without family or funds. She’d leapt at the chance to be companion to an elderly lady. When she’d helped that lady’s granddaughter secure an upwardly mobile marriage, Juno’s career as a companion, or more accurately “refinement tutor,” had been born.
“Shall I summon Marina to join us?” Juno suggested, hoping her charge would be up to the task of gaining her mother’s approval. That was, unfortunately, no small feat.
“I asked Dale to send her in after a while.” Lady Wetherby directed her gaze to the doorway, which was behind Juno. “Here she is.”
Juno turned her head to see Marina walk cautiously into the sitting room. Dressed in a simple pale blue day gown, Marina fidgeted with her fingers as she approached, her blue eyes downcast.
“Look up, dear,” Lady Wetherby said with a bit of snap to her tone.
“Come and join us, Marina.” Juno stood and moved to a settee so Marina could sit beside her.
Marina’s gaze lifted to briefly meet Juno’s before she moved to the settee. Once seated, she plucked at the skirt of her gown.
“Do stop that.” Lady Wetherby frowned at her daughter.
Juno edged closer to Marina, hoping her presence would be a comforting influence. “We have exciting news to share.”
Marina glanced toward her as her fingers stilled. Straightening, she sat as Juno had taught her—shoulders back, spine stiff, chin up, slight smile in place. Pride shot through Juno, as well as glee that Marina had found the courage to do what she must in her mother’s presence.
Lady Wetherby’s features flashed with surprise and perhaps a dash of approval. “We are to attend a house party next month. The Duke of Warrington will be in attendance, and he is in search of a wife. My darling, you could snag a duke without having to suffer another Season.”
Juno felt a burst of tenderness at the warmth in the countess’s tone. She might be frustrated by her daughter—and certainly didn’t understand her—but she wanted the best for her, including the chance to avoid a Season, which she knew Marina had loathed.
Instead of responding with relief at this prospect, Marina crumpled, her face falling into a deep scowl. “Must I, Mother?”
“I’m afraid so.” The countess had stiffened, her face freezing in disappointment. “I do hope you can summon the appropriate enthusiasm.”
Turning toward her charge, Juno gently touched the young woman’s arm. “Just think, you’ll have a chance to practice everything we’ve worked on. A house party is the perfect place to gain confidence and hone your skills.”
“I barely have any of either,” Marina said quietly, shooting a perturbed look toward her mother. “But I suppose I have no choice.”
“That is correct,” Lady Wetherby said firmly. “We leave in a fortnight.” Her expression gentled once more. “The duke doesn’t care for the Marriage Mart either. Perhaps the two of you will find an accord. I think this could be just the match you’ve been waiting for.”
“I haven’t been waiting for any match,” Marina muttered. “May I go now?”
“Yes.” The countess looked rather despondent as her daughter stood and shuffled from the room.
Juno tensed as she readjusted herself on the settee to face her employer. “She’ll be ready for the house party. She just needs to acclimate herself. We’ve plenty of time to prepare.”
“I hope you’re right, considering what I’m paying you. In fact, if you can ensure this betrothal occurs, I’ll increase your pay twenty percent.” Lady Wetherby stood. “Do not let us down, Mrs. Langton.”
The countess swept from the room, and Juno narrowed her eyes in contemplation. A fortnight to not only ensure Marina was ready for a house party, but that she could snare a duke. It would be Juno’s most daunting challenge yet.
She leapt to her feet, eager to get started.
Alexander Brett, Duke of Warrington, stalked into the drawing room at precisely a quarter of an hour before six. His mother, seated serenely on the dark red settee, came from the dower house most evenings to dine with him.
She surveyed him as he went to pour a glass of her favorite madeira and a brandy for himself. “How was your day?”
After handing her the wine, he sat in the chair near her settee. Same drinks, same seating arrangement, same question to begin their conversation. He liked same.
“As always,” she murmured. “I don’t suppose anything exciting happened?”
“The post was greater than usual.” He sipped his brandy.
“Anything of interest?”
“Not to me, though you would probably find the invitation to a house party notable.”
His mother, in her early fifties with still-dark hair, save a few strands of gray at her temples, sat a bit taller. “What house party? When?” Her sable eyes sparked with enthusiasm.
“Doesn’t matter. I’m not going.”
She pursed her lips at him before relaxing. He could see she was choosing her words, lining up her soldiers for the coming battle. “But you should. I realize you don’t care for social situations; however, this is a small gathering, not at all like the events of the Season.”
Dare, the name he’d been called his entire life, which was a shortened version of the courtesy title he’d held—Marquess of Daresbury—before his father’s death three years earlier, narrowed his eyes at his mother. “You’re behind this invitation.”
“What makes you think that?” She tried to sound innocent, but her gaze darted to the side and her voice rose. When he said nothing, she looked back to him and exhaled. “Fine. Yes.”
“Am I to understand you convinced Lady Cosford to host a house party so that I might attend?”
“Of course not. I merely made a few well-placed comments to friends in recent months.”
“What sort of comments?”
“That you are in search of a wife.” She gave him an exasperated look. “Well, you are.” Frowning at him, she took an irritated sip of madeira.
“And that somehow led to an invitation to a house party that I have no desire to attend.” He made a sound low in his throat before taking another drink of brandy.
“Don’t growl. It’s so off-putting.”
“I don’t growl.”
His mother arched a thick, dark brow, then shook her head, apparently deciding that was a battle she didn’t care to wage. “You should accept the invitation. You do need a wife, and I should think finding one at a small house party in Warwickshire would be far more appealing than attempting the Marriage Mart in London come spring.”
Dare shuddered. He couldn’t think of anything he’d rather do less. His mother was, unfortunately, correct. He did need a wife. Furthermore, he’d been lamenting how he might find one given that he hated, as his mother had put it, social situations.
What if there wasn’t anyone at the house party he would consider marrying? He scrutinized his mother and gave her the credit she was due. “What is the young lady’s name?”
She looked at him in surprise, as if he couldn’t guess she was scheming a particular match. Faint pink brightened her cheeks, but the color was fleeting. “Lady Marina Fellowes, eldest daughter of the Earl of Wetherby. I’m sure you know him.”
They worked together in the House of Lords. Wetherby didn’t care for idle chatter and always got right to the heart of things. Dare hadn’t even realized he had a daughter. Or a family, for that matter. Perhaps his daughter wouldn’t be the typical prattle basket that most young ladies were.
“What’s she like?” he asked cautiously.
The vigor with which his mother answered almost made him sorry he’d expressed even the slightest interest. “Very pretty and quite accomplished at needlework.”
“That tells me nothing. Is she a featherbrain or not?”
“I doubt it.”
That was not a promising answer. Perhaps his mother didn’t know her. “Has she even had a Season?”
“Yes, just this past one.” His mother’s features brightened. “You should like this bit. She returned to the country early. I’m not sure London—rather, the social whirl—is to her liking.”
“You should have started with that,” Dare muttered. If Lady Marina was cut from the same cloth as her father—and why wouldn’t she be?—this house party actually had potential. “I’ll go to the party to meet Lady Marina.”
“To see if you will suit?”
Dare glowered at his mother’s obvious glee. “Yes.”
She laughed. “You always try so hard to be brusque, even when presented with an opportunity that could help you achieve your aims without suffering that which you find utterly bothersome.”
Loathsome was a better word. Shopping for a wife made him itch.
Some of his mother’s enthusiasm dimmed. “Should I come with you? I think I sh—”
“No.” He didn’t let her finish. If she accompanied him, he’d go mad under her attempts to see him betrothed.
She glared at him, but only for a moment. “So dour,” she murmured. “Can you at least try to be charming? Perhaps smile a little?”
Smiling was for insincere people. When Dare smiled, he meant it. “Why pretend to be someone I’m not? My future wife should know precisely whom she’s marrying.”
His mother exhaled. “That’s what I’m afraid of.” She paused, rallying her troops once more before she entered the breach. “If you can’t be charming, you’ll need to be…something. You can’t expect to win Lady Marina’s hand if you don’t engage her somehow.”
“I suppose I’ll have to dance with her.” He detested dancing.
“You could promenade. I’m sure there will be plenty of activities. Perhaps you can go for a ride together.”
“That would be acceptable.” He would appreciate a wife who enjoyed riding. He imagined her touring the estate with him, speaking to the tenants, and offering assistance and support.
“I’m relieved to hear it.”
He shrugged. “Although, being a duke is likely enough to win the chit’s—or anyone else’s—hand.”
His mother stared at him, then took a long drink of madeira, nearly draining the glass. “If that’s what you think, you deserve a wife who only wants you for your title.”
It seemed the battle this evening would go to his mother.
“I am more than my title,” he said quietly, and not without a hint of irritation.
“Of course you are, and I hope you realize it. I also hope you find the woman who breaks through that rigid outer shell you wield so relentlessly. She won’t see your title at all, and she’ll warm to you, in spite of your efforts to keep her away.”
Dare blinked. “I won’t do that.”
“That’s all you do, my darling,” she said with a loving glow that slightly melted his hardened exterior. He did keep up a wall, and he liked it. Inside his fortress, things were orderly and expected. He hated mess and emotion and anything surprising. The woman for him would understand that and leave him be.
Perhaps his mother was right—he would hold his duchess apart. Was that so bad? “You are far too sentimental, Mother.”
The butler entered and announced that dinner was served. Dare finished his brandy, and his mother did the same with her madeira. After depositing their empty glasses on a table for the butler to sweep away, Dare helped the dowager to her feet and offered his arm.
She placed her hand on his sleeve, and they walked into the dining room as they did every night. Peace settled over him. Same.
“I love you, my boy,” she whispered just before taking her chair.
That was different. Dare was surprised that he didn’t mind.
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