The choice between adhering to a long-held pact and finally accepting love could prove Lady Tabitha Shelton’s unhinging. She is plump, plain, pleasant...and thoroughly unappealing to any of the men of the ton—apart from fortune hunters. A self-appointed wallflower, she has every intention of remaining one. Tabitha made a vow of spinsterhood with her cousins when they were girls, and she refuses to go back on her word. So far, she’s proven herself quite adept at warding off the blasted fortune hunters’ pursuits.
Noah deLancie, Marquess of Devonport, would prefer to marry for love and companionship—he’s a gentleman through and through—but circumstances have forced his hand: he needs money as badly as he needs a bride. When Noah’s brother-in-law suggests pursuit of his sister, Tabitha, a woman with a dowry large enough to cause even Croesus to blush and who is tantalizingly good company to boot, Noah stumbles into the future he hopes to secure. He’ll stop at nothing to convince Tabitha to marry him.
Nothing, that is, except perhaps the barrel of a dueling pistol, held to his face by his ladylove.
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“It’s obscene, really.” This came from Lady Kibblewhite, who leaned over until her near-bluish hair virtually assaulted her companion. The massive aubergine feathers adorning her headpiece finished the attack where her hair had left off. Not that she needed to lean in at all. Her wobbly voice carried halfway across Lord Scantlebury’s ballroom. One would have to exert a valiant and sincere effort in order not to hear the sprawling whine of a voice.
From Lady Tabitha Shelton’s chosen location, safely ensconced behind an array of potted plants and hidden from the view of the majority of the ballroom, she couldn’t possibly avoid the ancient society matron’s words. She was, after all, merely a few feet behind the two and several positions down the wall. Tabitha remained where she was for two reasons: first, to avoid the possibility of dancing with any gentleman whatsoever; and second, to avoid the notice of Lord Oglethorpe, the blasted fortune hunter currently attempting to pay her excessive attention of the unwanted variety.
As luck would have it, Tabitha had selected a green shade of silk for her gown that evening, one that fortuitously fell somewhere between the hues of the verdant ivies in pots before her and the somewhat softer Pomona green draped over the walls. She thought she blended in quite well, all things considered.
“Do keep your voice down. She’ll hear you.” And this came from said feather-assaulted companion, Lady Plumridge, as she searched about to find the obscenity in question. Lady Plumridge was younger, yes. And also much squatter.
She was no less a gossipmonger, however.
Lady Kibblewhite’s head popped up, with the feathers bashing around atop her head until they created a breeze almost strong enough to cause Tabitha to shiver. “I don’t care one whit if she does. Even she couldn’t deny the indecent dimensions her dowry has taken on this Season. How disgraceful, that Lord Newcastle has had to resort to such measures. Pathetic, really...if one should ask me, that is.”
“And we all know that one ought to do precisely that,” Lady Plumridge said with far more gusto than Tabitha thought necessary.
The two dragons were right, of course. Tabitha harbored no disbelief that she was the subject of their current discussion, and she was also forced to agree with them—at least on one point. Father had, yet again, increased her preposterously large dowry to near epic proportions.
He was desperate to find her a suitable husband before she reached her thirtieth birthday—a feat his brother-in-law, Viscount Hazelwood, had not managed with Tabitha’s cousin, Jo. This was likewise a task in which he was certain to fail, however much it pained Tabitha to disappoint him with regard to any matter.
Sadly, Father refused to listen to her arguments. The way he continually increased her dowry did manage to attract a potential suitor or two from time to time. Regrettably, these gentlemen all held one commonality which Tabitha simply could not abide: a propensity for fortune hunting. They wanted her for her money, not for herself. Who would want her for herself, after all? Certainly not Oglethorpe or any of his ilk.
At less than a month shy of nine-and-twenty, she had never been considered an Incomparable. Tabitha could not boast excellent skill at playing the pianoforte, or an aptitude for painting watercolors, or cleverness in embroidery or stitchery, or expertise in any other traditional feminine pursuit. Additionally, she was rather more plump than could be considered fashionable and rather more plain than pretty, with straight hair of some muddy, brownish hue and eyes of a lackluster grey that turned downright stormy when she was in a temper, as Jo was frequently keen to inform her.
There was, to be blunt, nothing to recommend her save her disproportionate dowry and a superb proficiency at remaining a wallflower. Tabitha couldn’t convince even herself otherwise, so how on earth could she be expected to convince the beau monde? It was simply one of the sad facts of who she was.
“If her mother were still alive,” Lady Kibblewhite intoned, “I daresay she would have had an apoplectic fit by now for not securing a husband for her only daughter. At least one of Newcastle’s sons has married—the heir. Heaven knows if anyone can ever bring the spare to heel.”
Someone bring Toby to heel? Tabitha had to tamp down on a fit of missish giggles at the absurdity of the thought.
Suddenly, she felt parched—almost desperately so. But if she were to move from her spot, she would alert the Ladies Kibblewhite and Plumridge of the fact she’d been eavesdropping. Not only that, but she would also make it much easier for Lord Oglethorpe to resume his attentions. Blast. So a wallflower she must remain. It ought not to be difficult—at least not overly so. She’d graced the edges of ballrooms for twelve Seasons running. Why break the streak?
Lady Plumridge nodded frantically. “Mr. Shelton has become quite the rogue. Newcastle seems to have lost his rein on the lad.”
The lad, indeed. Tobias Shelton, Toby to those who knew him well (which admittedly one could argue would include the majority of Britain and a good half the Continent), was mere minutes younger than Tabitha—and therefore far past the age when a gentleman was expected to cease sowing his wild oats and become a respectable member of society. Toby, however, had no intention of becoming anything close to resembling respectable. He made certain to inform Tabitha of this fact on every occasion he could, just in case she had somehow forgotten.
He’d been graced with a dashing figure that set all the young, unmarried ladies’ hearts aflutter, complete with rich brown hair that glistened in the sun, laughing blue eyes that always bespoke some devilry or another, and pristine, straight teeth. He could charm the stockings off anyone he chose. (Thankfully, she had not yet heard tell of his charming the stockings off an innocent. She could only hope she wouldn’t.) Essentially, Toby was quite Tabitha’s opposite in every way but age.
Which only served to prove God’s sense of humor. Blast him. Toby, not God.
Lady Kibblewhite shook her head forcefully. “He is a lost cause. No lady will tame the rascal he has become.”
But then Tabitha’s attention was drawn to her cousin, Jo, making her way through the throng toward her. Jo wore her blonde curls down in waves that bounced about her shoulders against a bold blue satin gown that highlighted the particular shade of her eyes. And, bless her, she carried two glasses in her hands.
The matrons ceased their gossiping long enough to watch Jo’s progress, too. For that matter, it seemed nearly every eye in the ballroom was trained upon her. Unlike Tabitha, Jo had been an Incomparable. In fact, were she not already so firmly entrenched in her position upon the shelf, Jo might still be considered an Incomparable to this day.
For a moment, Tabitha silently cursed her cousin for drawing attention to her position of safety—in particular because Lady Plumridge and Lady Kibblewhite looked over at Tabitha with heated disdain. Her eavesdropping had been discovered. Perfect. She feigned a smile and waved before whipping her fan out.
Tabitha’s despair could only last a moment, however, because she was in dire need of whatever drink Jo was carrying. She said a silent prayer for sherry, though she doubted the Scantleburys had provided anything of the sort.
“How did you know?” Tabitha asked. She had barely strangled the words out before snatching a glass from her cousin’s hand. Her voice even cracked from how dry her throat had become. She took a long sip then grimaced. “Lemonade?”
“It was all they had,” Jo replied. “How did I know what? That you were thirsty, or where to find you?” She took a tiny and elegant sip from her own glass.
“Both, I suppose.”
Jo smiled, a cat-that-caught-the-canary sort of grin, and raised a brow. “The answer to both is the same. You’re predictable.” At Tabitha’s huff of indignation, Jo allowed a small laugh to break free. “Predictably reticent, Tabby. Retiring. Always hiding from the finer things in life. And it didn’t hurt that Lord Oglethorpe had just sought me out while I was at the refreshment table, hoping I could direct him to where he could find you. He hopes to claim your hand for the supper dance. I assume you already knew that.”
Tabitha nodded, her eyes wide. Surely Jo wouldn’t have directed the fortune hunter her way. She’d strangle her cousin for that.
“I thought as much,” Jo said. “So I knew you would be in hiding somewhere. When I didn’t find you in the retiring room, I merely had to search the walls for a spot of brown hair amongst the plants.”
Thankfully, Lord Oglethorpe did not seem to have deduced as much as Jo had. At least not yet. Tabitha stole a furtive glance around the ballroom to locate him.
“I directed him to the pond in Lord Scantlebury’s park. He’ll be searching for you out there for at least the next two sets. Perhaps three.” Jo paused a beat, taking a sip from her lemonade. Then she winked. “You can thank me tomorrow.”
A grin overtook Tabitha’s face. “Have I mentioned recently that you’re one of my favorite cousins?”
“One of?” Jo replied with as much haughty condescension as she could muster. “I should think I would be your absolute favorite by now.”
“You and Bethanne are essentially in a tie, and you well know it. You wouldn’t have it any other way. And besides, both of you have yet to challenge a scoundrel to a duel in order to protect the honor of someone we both love,” Tabitha said. “Isaac has you bested on that score.”
Jo frowned ferociously. “But only just. I would have done it if he hadn’t. I’m still sore with him for not allowing me the opportunity. I’m the better shot.”
Of that, Tabitha held no doubts. There was nothing she would put past Josephine Faulkner, including a duel. Jo likely would have managed it with more finesse than their mutual cousin Isaac had, too, taking a clean shot that might not have killed the lecherous bastard. But that was another matter entirely.
“Yes, only just,” Tabitha murmured with a jump when a loud bark of masculine laughter caught her unaware, coming from just beyond the Ladies Kibblewhite and Plumridge. Tabitha dared a surreptitious glance in order to confirm that Lord Oglethorpe had not somehow already returned to the ballroom. Alas, the gentlemen involved in the raucous discussion were all related to her in some manner. Or as good as related to her, at least.
Her brothers, Owen and Toby were conversing rather loudly with Jo’s older brother and his longest friend, the Earl of Leith—a man so close to the Faulkner family he might as well have been one of them. Owen’s brother-in-law, the Marquess of Devonport, was also included in the conversation. From this distance, she could not make out the subject. However, based on Toby’s level of animation, it likely had something to do with horse racing or something else upon which he might have placed a bet.
They ought to keep such discussion to their clubs. It was unseemly to deport themselves so, with innocent young misses strewn about. Not that Tabitha would include herself and Jo in the ‘innocent young misses’ category. Misses they may be, but young was debatable and innocent wouldn’t be an appropriate description for either of them.
But then Owen raised a hand and said something to the others, in particular to Toby, and the laughter died down. Good. Marriage to Lord Devonport’s sister, Elaine, had done wonders for Owen over the last couple of years. He was much more manageable as a brother of late, and Tabitha believed beyond any doubt that Elaine’s influence had played a large part in the change.
Toby could use a hefty dose of the same. Perhaps Lady Kibblewhite had been onto something earlier. Taking a wife would do Toby a world of good. And a bride could take him off Tabitha’s hands, leaving her with only Father to worry about.
“What was that?” Jo asked sharply, pulling Tabitha out of her ruminations.
“What was what?” Tabitha’s eye traveled deliberately from her brothers and their masculine counterparts to her terribly feminine cousin. Jo was a walking contradiction, feminine to a fault in appearance and demeanor, but any man’s equal at the same time.
“You mumbled something about Toby and a bride and Lady Kibblewhite, all in the same worrisome breath. Please don’t force me to explain how very, very bad such an idea would be.” An almost imperceptible shudder coursed through Jo’s lithe frame, visible only to Tabitha.
Waving an impatient hand through the air, Tabitha said, “I didn’t think I’d said anything aloud. But honestly, I think it would solve a world of problems.”
“Lady Kibblewhite is already married,” Jo countered, “so I cannot imagine how her marriage to Toby would do anything but produce even more hindrances than you already have. Particularly since she is as old as Moses and as attractive as an ape. An old, scraggly ape.” Jo scrunched up her nose. “With blue hair.”
The lady in question turned and shot a murderous glare in their general direction. Then she returned to attacking Lady Plumridge with the plumes shooting off her head in a flurry of heated whispers, this time with far more vigor than before.
Tabitha had to curb a snicker. “Please be serious. You cannot think I meant for her to be Toby’s bride. I simply mean that he needs one, something to the effect of which Lady Kibblewhite mentioned earlier.”
“Toby? A bride? You must be feeling ill, Tabby.” Jo whipped her fan to life and waved it dramatically before Tabitha’s face. “Perhaps you ought to step out onto the veranda for some air. It would not do for you to have a fit of the vapors. I didn’t bring my vial of hartshorn with me tonight, and the clamor over such an event would surely alert Lord Oglethorpe to your whereabouts. Or have you forgotten the reason for your current position?”
Just then, Toby and the other gentlemen turned and faced Jo and Tabitha, with Toby rather uncouthly pointing straight at her. The look upon his face was almost...dare she call it gleeful? Owen seemed somber, no less than his norm. Jo’s brother Christopher, Baron Claremont, had an amused quirk to his lips while Lord Leith grinned widely, his piratical grin opening to polished, white teeth which seemed a stark contrast to the rest of his dark features.
But Lord Devonport...something was rather unusual in the manner in which he was looking upon her. He seemed intrigued. Interested, even. His blue eyes sparkled in the candlelight and he smiled at her, his usual cheerful smile, only somehow laced with something more knowing. Not carnal, per se. Certainly not lusty. (Tabitha had to tamp down on a laugh at the mere notion that a gentleman might someday look upon her with lust. Apart from the usual money-lust, of course.) But his look held an air of appreciation. He’d never looked at her in such a way. Not even once, in all the years they’d known each other.
Toby was up to something. Tabitha couldn’t be certain what he was up to, but obviously he was behind this change in the way Lord Devonport was observing her. Tabitha would wager her life on it. Or at least her pin money for the Season.
There was nothing else to be done for it; she would have to strike first.
Waving away the fan Jo was fluttering furiously in her face, Tabitha straightened her spine and stood as tall as she could. Which, admittedly, was not all that tall. Particularly not when standing next to Jo. “I’m perfectly all right,” she said. “In fact, I’m splendid.”
Jo’s eyes brightened considerably. “You look devious all of a sudden. Oh, do tell me what you’re planning.”
Of course she would tell Jo. After all, Tabitha would need assistance to pull it off. If only Bethanne were in Town, she could be in on the plan as well. Alas, their younger cousin was busy taking care of Aunt Rosaline in Derbyshire. Tabitha and Jo would have to manage without her assistance.
Tabitha took one last look at her brother, started briefly when Lord Devonport locked his gaze with hers, and then pulled Jo closer to the wall. “I have a project for this Season. I’m going to find Toby a wife.”
Jo chuckled. “You do realize that your twin is the most consummate of all the confirmed bachelors in Town, do you not?”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Tabitha rushed on. “But that hardly signifies. He’ll be powerless once we find the right young lady for the position.” That would be the key to the plan. Finding the right young lady. Toby had a very particular type, so she would have to meet his requirements. Otherwise, he wouldn’t come close to falling head over ears.
“But why would you even want to attempt such a thing?” Jo’s expression was full of dubiousness.
Why? Had Jo gone daft? “Because he drives me to the brink of insanity at every opportunity he gets! Even now, he is over there plotting something. I can see it in his eyes.” Which, at the moment, were glinting across at her with some devilry or another. “You have to help me. You know as well as I do how much better a married brother is to have around than an unmarried brother. Isn’t Christopher more manageable now than either Graham or Patrick? And it’s obvious to anyone with two eyes that Owen is far more biddable these days than Toby.”
“And so you think to force him into something he is altogether set against?” Jo asked dryly.
“Of course.” Tabitha eyed her cousin resolutely. “After we finish with him, we can move on to your younger brothers, if you want.”
Lord Leith winked at Jo then—he actually winked at her. In front of an entire ballroom full of people. How entirely too familiar of him. Tabitha frowned across at him. “Or perhaps you would prefer to focus on Lord Leith before your brothers, since he behaves in a thoroughly inappropriate manner around you all the time.”
“We’ll do no such thing,” Jo replied. “I can handle Leith. As to Graham and Patrick, why don’t we ascertain how your efforts with Toby will progress first?” She didn’t sound convinced that it would work out the way Tabitha had it all planned.
Still, waiting to deal with Jo’s brothers suited Tabitha perfectly well. After all, Toby was the biggest nuisance of all of the men in the family. Even adding up the troublesome qualities of all the other men combined wouldn’t create a sum that could rival Toby’s vexing potential. He was the greatest single source of irritation in Tabitha’s life, with his constant attempts to interfere and his reminders of her status as an overweight spinster.
Granted, her choice to remain a spinster was a purposeful one. She’d made a pact, and she wouldn’t break her word for anything. But he needn’t know that. And if she could somehow occupy him with focusing on his own marital prospects, then maybe, finally, she could be free of his meddling.
“Perfect,” Tabitha said. “Now, let us find our first victim.” She had to restrain herself from rubbing her hands together in glee at the prospect.
Jo chuckled despite her attempted frown.
“Fine, our first project,” Tabitha amended.
This Season could turn out to be rather enjoyable, as long as things went according to her plan and not according to her father’s. Or Toby’s.