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Miss Jane Matthews feels completely out of place amongst the finery of theton. She’s the daughter of a country vicar, for goodness sake, and nearly a spinster to boot. Frankly, she would prefer to stay that way. How can a lady of Quality start up her own modiste shop, after all? But when her distant cousin—the Dowager Duchess of Somerton, of all people—offers to sponsor her for a Season in London, she agrees, but only so she can take the opportunity to search for a storefront for her business. Perhaps, in that regard, the Season won’t all be in vain.

The widower of a loveless marriage, Peter Hardwicke, the Duke of Somerton, has already done his duty and provided an heir for his dukedom, so he sees no reason whatsoever to remarry. Even if, heaven forbid, something should happen to his son, he still has three younger brothers who are each quite capable of inheriting. Taking a wife would only mean adding a new responsibility to his already too-full schedule. He’s more than busy enough keeping his mother, siblings, and children in line—not to mention sorting out the myriad problems plaguing one of his estates.

But when Lord Utley, one of Peter’s childhood friends and a man who has been on the wrong side of Peter’s ire for many years now, takes an unlikely interest in Jane, he has to intervene. Peter will be damned if he’ll allow Utley to ruin yet another life. But will rescuing Jane from Utley’s clutches land Peter with another loveless marriage?

London, 1815

 

A shrill, female voice that could only belong to his mother demanded entrance just as a rather loud thud sounded against the door. “His Grace is not to be disturbed, ma’am,” came the gruff, masculine response of his footman.

Peter Hardwicke, Duke of Somerton, could almost feel the commotion outside the doors of his library, not just hear it. Clearly unimpressed by the footman’s response to her command, Mama pushed the door open and nearly burst it free from its hinges.

Forrester’s jaw fell open from across the great oak desk. He stared at the dowager as she disrupted their business meeting. One look back at Peter, however, had the secretary snapping his mouth closed so fast he might have bitten off the end of his tongue.

The Dowager Duchess of Somerton might disregard her son’s edicts, but no one would disrespect her and live to tell the tale. At least not if Peter knew anything about it.

Henrietta Hardwicke—lovely, still, with her rich auburn hair streaked with only a bit of white, and quite a lovely figure, despite having borne six children—pushed the doors wide as the bedraggled butler, Spenser, and Peter’s baffled footman followed in her wake.

“Your Grace, I apologize,” Spenser stammered. “We informed Her Grace that you required privacy, but she would not take no for an answer.” His beleaguered butler looked ready to rip his hair out in frustration and, indeed, a few stray grays stood on end.

Peter could understand the sentiment.

He needed to sort out these matters with Forrester and send the man on his way. Then he could better focus on the day’s true agenda: examining the ledgers from his various estates. Only that morning, he had held his quarterly meeting with Yeats to receiving his accounting. Peter’s man of business held no small amount of concern over Carreg Mawr, Peter’s Welsh estate. It seemed that Turnpenny might be losing his touch with the staff, at least if Yeats’s hunch was correct.

Yeats was rarely wrong with his hunches. It was a seminal talent.

Peter’s talents, however, lay in finding proof of his hunches by poring over the accounts. Doing so would require time, though, and a bit of silence in his house.

Neither of which was he currently being granted.

“That is correct, I will not accept no for an answer.” His mother, ever forthright, smoothed the lawn fabric of her gown with her one free hand (the other being occupied with a note of some sort) and moved further into the library. “You may all leave now. I should like a word with my son alone.”

All three servants waited for his signal before departing. At least they would respect his authority in this house. A throb formed behind Peter’s eye.

He loved his mother—he truly did. In fact, he loved all of his family a great deal. It was because of that great love for them that he overlooked it when they treated him with somewhat less respect than his position in society demanded.

It was also because of that love that he needed to complete his current task. After all, one must always fulfill one’s duty to those one loved. Peter’s duty to his family was to assure their wellbeing. Doing so required the incomes from his properties. And maintaining such an income from said properties required his utter diligence and devotion.

He shook his head. Sometimes it felt as though no one else understood how great his responsibilities were. This was one of those times. He took a glance at the stack of papers toppling over his currently cluttered but normally tidy desk and awaiting his attention, then up at Mama’s fierce determination—the firm set of her jaw and the slight rise of a single eyebrow. He tried to mask his annoyance as he waved the servants away and escorted his mother into a chintz armchair near the large and piteously over-cluttered desk.

His mother would always be granted his time, when he could make it for her.

Peter waited until the door closed behind the men before he asked, “What can I do for you today, Mama?” He said a silent prayer for patience.

She looked across at him with a deadpanned gaze. “To start, you can find a wife.”

Good God. Again?

“I see.” Of course, he plainly did not see. This was the last thing he had been expecting to come from her mouth. He pushed at the unrelenting ache in his temples, hoping the pressure might ease the pain. “A wife?” He had no time for this. Not this discussion, not this business with Carreg Mawr—none of it. The Parliamentary session would begin in short order. That’s where his attentions needed to be. He needed to meet with a few of the other Lords so they could decide what to do about Napoleon. The man could only stay put on Elba for so long, after all, and Prinny was counting on Peter and his group to determine what, specifically, should be done with him. “And why, precisely, should I find a wife?”

“Why should you not? Peter, I want you to be happy. I want all of my children to be happy. Don’t you want what Alex and Grace have found together? They are so very much in love.” She gave him a pointed look. “You could be too.”

Good Lord in heaven, why should he want that for himself? It was all fine and well for Alex, but Peter and Alex were hardly the same. He’d hoped that when Alex had married, Mama’s matchmaking schemes would have come to a close.

They clearly had not.

“I already had a wife, or have you forgotten? Mary was everything a duchess should be. She provided me with two children—two beautiful children.” He walked to the hearth, rubbing his right hand absentmindedly over his jaw. “I couldn’t secure happiness with her, so why should I expect a different result simply from taking another wife? Your expectations are unreasonable, Mama.”

She let out a huge sigh. “Mary was a good woman, but she was entirely wrong for you. You and I both knew that before you ever offered for her. Even your father said as much.”

Not that he had had any choice in the matter.

“And you think someone else could be a better duchess for me than she was?”

“I’m more concerned that she be a better wife for you.”

He chose to ignore that particular remark. After all, if one was a good duchess, one must also be a good wife. The idea that the two were not interchangeable was simply unfathomable. “I see.”

She huffed at him. “Enough with the ‘I see’ business. You clearly do not see, or you would have already put yourself back on the marriage mart and be well on your way to having more children in your nursery.”

“You think you can find someone to replace her?” Mary had fulfilled every obligation of the station with elegance and ease. Not just any lady could have handled the position with her degree of finesse. “No. I have more than enough responsibilities to fill two lifetimes. I won’t even consider adding to them in such a way.”

“Responsibilities? I do love you, as I love all of my children, but you are not always the brightest, are you?” Mama softened her rebuke with a smile. “Can’t you see that if you loved your wife, she wouldn’t be another burden for you?” She reached across his desk and squeezed his hand. “I only want to ease some of your worries, not add to them.”

He looked at the pile of paperwork waiting on his desk—two large stacks of the ledgers from his various accounts, another, equally large stack of correspondence awaiting his response, and a book of proverbs.

Those proverbs were his one diversion these days, the one manner he allowed himself for spending his rather limited idle time. He refused to see such a pastime as wasteful, since at least the proverbs allowed him to grow in wisdom. However, he likely wouldn’t be able to study them again for weeks, at the current rate, and longer than that if he agreed to whatever harebrained scheme his mother was currently concocting.

“Another person to feed, clothe, entertain, and see to their happiness would not add to my duties? I wish I could see the world from your perspective, but the reality is I’m responsible for you, five siblings, two children, and five estates, along with seeing to my duties to the crown. When am I supposed to find time for a wife amongst all of that?”

Not to mention he had absolutely no desire for one. There were plenty of women prepared to satisfy his sexual needs who didn’t insist upon the commitment a wife or even a mistress would require. Peter failed to see what purpose taking a new duchess could possibly serve.

“You could see life from my perspective if you fell in love. Try it.” Her eyes didn’t ask for his cooperation; rather, they commanded his obedience.

He felt like a little boy again, one who’d just defied his mother. Mama could always do that to him, even as a grown man, even now that he was the Duke of Somerton. He was one of the most powerful men in the entire kingdom, for God’s sake. “And just how, pray tell, do you propose I try it?” Why had he even bothered to ask? He dreaded her answer. Of course, he didn’t have to agree to whatever her plan was. There was always another option, even with Mama.

“Make it clear you’re back on the marriage mart. Let the ton know you’re looking for a wife. And humor me by following through with it and attending balls, going to the opera, and actually looking for a bride.” She neglected to crack even the barest hint of a smile.

He groaned. “Mama, I attended a number of balls last Season. I found no one suitable at any of them.” The docile debutante daughters of meddlesome Mamas always filled the blasted affairs. An unsightly combination of unhappily married ladies and lonely widows were continuously on the prowl, on their salacious hunt for male companionship. For some reason, all of these females typically marked him as their primary target any time he attended such a rout.

Who was he fooling? He knew precisely why they marked him as their sport.

Sometimes he wished didn’t not carry any of his titles, that he was simply Peter Hardwicke and not the Duke of Somerton. Then, perhaps, he could prove their attentions hinged only on a desire for station and not on a desire for him.

That, however, could never be. Like it or not, he had been born with the knowledge that he was destined for this position. He had been brought up with this singular purpose forever in his mind.

One simply could not escape fate, no matter how hard one might try.

“You attended a grand total of three balls last Season,” Mama countered. “I expect far more effort than that this time around.” She pushed a stray piece of hair behind her ear before resuming her position, regal as the queen herself.

His eyes narrowed to slits. “How much more effort?” He doubted he could bear more than four or five balls at the most. The Season only lasted a few months, after all.

“Total.” Mama raised a single eyebrow, daring him to defy her.

He groaned aloud. With that determination in her eyes, the woman would stop at nothing less than insisting he attend at least two or three soirees for every week of the Season.

She frowned across at him. “You and Sophia will each find an eligible match before the year is out, so help me. She’s already on the shelf despite my best efforts, the stubborn girl, though she thankfully still has a number of gentlemen admirers. If only she wouldn’t keep running them all off! I honestly have no idea why she can’t find a single gentleman suitable. And you, my dear boy, are hardly better off than she. As such, I intend to have you escort your sisters and me to every ball of consequence.”

“Every ball of...?” Peter raked a hand through his short hair, sending it into disarray. Good God, his mother was relentless. He knew her well enough to know she would never give in until she had her way. “Fine. You have this one Season, and one only, to find me a bride. If I haven’t found a suitable match by the end of the summer, you’ll leave me in peace as the widower I am.”

Damnation. He really needed to keep a better check on his temper so he wouldn’t be so sorely tempted to speak before he thought. Fiend seize it, had he truly just agreed to attend entertainments every night for months on end? He must be barking mad. They should lock him in an asylum and toss the key into the fiery pits of hell.

Mama smiled at him. “Excellent. But mind you, I intend to see to it you hold to your end of the bargain. You must do your very best to fall head over ears in love with some proper and eligible young miss? I’ll hear of no less.”

“And what, precisely, shall I gain in all of this, Mama?”

“Why, happiness and love, of course!” Her hands fiddled with the note she’d been holding since she first burst through the doors of his library. “Now, there is one other piece of business I wanted to discuss with you.”

Wonderful. How could things possibly get any worse? “What might that be?” he drawled. Peter saw no reason to feign excitement over any part of this conversation.

“I’ve been corresponding with my third cousin, Barbara Matthews, do you remember her? The vicar’s wife? I’m certain you must. She’s really a dear, sweet lady. Anyway, she has a daughter with no dowry, and they’ve been so unfortunate as to be unable to provide her with a come-out either. I should very much like to invite her to stay with us this Season so I can sponsor her. Will you allow it?” Yet again, her tone challenged him with an order more than asked a question.

“So you propose I should have three young, unmarried misses in my home partaking in the marriage mart while you force me to participate as well? I can think of nothing I would enjoy more, Mama.” He couldn’t hold back the sarcasm. Not that he had tried, precisely.

First there was Sophie, who’d already been on the marriage mart for close to a decade. Now Charlotte was due for her come-out. With the addition of this long lost cousin, Peter thought he might drown in silks and lace before he could even contemplate doing what his mother had asked of him.

She narrowed her eyes at him for a moment but didn’t comment on his rudeness. “Yes, that’s precisely what I suggest. How else will Jane ever find a husband? The poor girl has no true prospects where they live. It’s the least we can do for her. We are her relatives, after all.”

“Since you will sponsor her come-out, I suppose you expect me to give her official debut ball, as well.” He waited for Mama’s nod. “Will you at least allow me to combine Miss Matthews’s ball with Charlotte’s? These balls will be the death of me,” he said, grumbling the last bit beneath his breath and certain she would still hear it.

“That would be quite all right, sweetheart. I’m sure Charlotte and Jane will be quite content to share their ball.” Mama stood and began to gather her belongings. “Splendid. I’ll send my cousin a response today and leave to collect Jane tomorrow. Might I use your carriage for the journey? They live in Whitstable, you know, and I can’t imagine traveling to fetch her in something less comfortable.”

Tomorrow? They would be back within less than a week. How would he possibly get through his ledgers in such a short amount of time? But it would be almost impossible to sort out the problems with Turnpenny at Carreg Mawr once they returned and he began to fulfill his newfound societal obligations.

He needed Mama out of his library, and the sooner the better. Every moment he could spare would be necessary. “Of course you may take the carriage. I’ll have a room prepared for Miss Matthews before your return.”

“That won’t be necessary. I’ve already ordered it done.”

Why had she even bothered seeking his permission then, if she’d seen to all of the details? Clearly, she had already made up her mind, no matter his wishes.

“Is there anything else? I have a great deal of work to accomplish this evening and would like to get back to it if possible.”

“No, dear, that’s all.” She stood to leave the library, but turned just before reaching the doors. “And Peter? Know that I only ask this of you because I love you and want what’s best for you.”

“Yes, Mama. I know.” If only she would trust him to know what was best for himself. He had been the Duke of Somerton and the head of the Hardwicke family for over five years now. Yet still she treated him like a little boy, for Christ’s sake.

“Good. I’ll inform Forrester which of those invitations he should accept before tea.” Mama rubbed her hands together with a broad smile. “We’ll be quite busy this Season.”

Too bloody busy for Peter’s comfort. He settled at his desk and opened the first ledger for his Welsh estate before checking the clock on the far wall. There was no time to waste on Mama’s distraction of searching for a wife, but what else could he do? If he neglected to follow through with it, she’d badger him for the rest of eternity. One Season—one silly, fussy little Season—would surely not kill him. It might make him itch to strangle a libidinous widow or two at times, after they had attempted to work themselves into his bed, or perhaps wish to jump from the window of the highest floor at Hardwicke House, but it wouldn’t kill him of its own accord.

Mama returned to his library only a moment after she’d left. “One more thing, and then I’ll leave you to your business. Jane’s dowry. What can you do about that?”

Why would she not leave him be? “Her dowry?” he drawled.

“Yes, her dowry. She needs one. You have more than enough to provide her with one. And she is a relative, however distant. How much will you offer her suitors?”

“As much as it takes to unload the blasted woman as soon as possible and convince you to leave me alone, that’s how much.”

For the first time that day, Peter earned his mother’s smile.

 

~ * ~

 

Jane set aside the gown she had been sewing and chose a book from Mrs. Zachariah’s collection on the nearby bookshelf. “How does Pride and Prejudice sound for today? It’s high time we start with a new book.” She leafed through the pages, desperate to lose herself in the story. Of course, the village matron would agree to whatever book she selected—their reading sessions were merely a means to achieve Mrs. Zachariah’s afternoon nap.

“Oh, yes. That sounds truly lovely, dear. Why don’t you begin?” Mrs. Zachariah pulled a quilt high about her shoulders and struggled to keep her eyes open while the late afternoon sun warmed her gray, papery skin.

Jane wondered how much they would read before her friend nodded off from the lull of her voice. She returned to her seat near the lounging chaise where the older woman rested. A large ball of orange and white fluff leapt into her lap almost as soon as she was seated. “All right, let’s begin. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. What a terribly odd sentiment.” Mr. Cuddlesworth purred his agreement as he kneaded his paws against her bosom.

“Was that in the story? Jane, do please try to keep your thoughts to yourself. My feeble mind doesn’t need any more distraction than it already has.” Mrs. Zachariah coughed and cleared her throat, then settled in again.

Jane pushed the cat’s paws away from their inappropriate behavior and tried to readjust him in a more decorous position curled up on her legs. Try as she might, she’d never managed to break her cat from drawing attention to her more-than-ample bosom with his antics. At least no one here cared how thoroughly unacceptable the Mr. Cuddlesworth’s behavior was, whether they were in company or not.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” she said once he was resituated “I’ll try to do better.” After only a few pages, Mrs. Zachariah’s all-too-familiar snores reached her ears, so she continued to read to herself. She could always read it again to the older woman tomorrow—and she likely would.

Several chapters later, she was fully engrossed in the tale and had lost all track of the time. The housekeeper poked her head into the drawing room. “Miss Matthews? Your mother will be missing you if you don’t leave soon, ma’am.”

Jane looked at the Bornholm clock by the double French doors. “Drat!” She was more than an hour late. Jane rushed to tidy the room and return things in their proper places. Mr. Cuddlesworth grumbled at her from his new position on the floor where she’d unceremoniously dumped him. “Thank you so much, for the reminder, Mrs. Dennison. You are most dear.”

Mother would be furious at her tardiness. They had a guest arriving, some distant cousin or something. A dowager duchess, no less. One would think she was the blasted Queen of England herself, the way Mother droned on and on about the Dowager Duchess of Somerton.

Why should a title matter one whit? The woman was only a relative, and one who had never bothered to visit before, at that. Nor had she invited any of them to visit. She probably looked down upon them, because Jane’s father was merely a country vicar and he held no title.

With the room set back to rights and her sewing packed away, Jane carefully moved Mr. Cuddlesworth to his well-worn (or rather, so terribly old and used it was falling apart) basket. She wished he’d find something else to sleep in, but her sweet cat was very set in his ways. The basket had been his since the very first day she sneaked him into the house. She’d tucked him in her skirts when she was only nine years old to accomplish the feat. He didn’t seem to care how it was too small to house his body or how hideously the wicker broke about him. It was his, and he would use it until the day he died. Jane rather thought he might tell her as much himself, if he could speak.

Or if she could understand his cat language.

Once he was settled, she gathered her belongings and rushed out the door, the cat’s basket tucked snugly under one arm and another with her sewing notions in the other hand.

She trudged through the muddy lane separating their two houses. At least the rain had finally stopped. Mr. Cuddlesworth hated to get wet. They always fought an epic battle when he needed a bath, though it was usually quite unclear in the aftermath which of them had come out the victor.

As she turned the corner toward her parents’ home, she realized things were far worse than she expected.

Double drat.

A huge, crested carriage waited before the front door. At least four men accompanied it, each of them at work caring for the team of six horses.

Six horses! Oh, dear Lord.

Jane rushed past the carriage on her way to the house, ducking her head as she passed the team so as not to draw their attention. One horse reared back and whinnied, and her heart palpitated. Breathing became almost impossible. She froze where she stood, so that perhaps the beast would calm down.

Only a few more steps to the kitchen door.

One of the men waiting with the carriage grabbed hold of the horse’s reins and calmed it, and Jane took that opportunity to dart the rest of the way. Thank heavens. She hoped she could clean up before being spotted by anyone. Mother would be livid if Jane came in to be introduced to the dowager with a muddy hem and shoes. She threw open the door and scurried inside.

And ran straight into the lion’s den.

Drat, drat, drat.

Mother’s eyes dropped to the floor and her cheeks filled with color. Oh, dear. She hated to embarrass her mother. Jane had always hoped that, perhaps as she grew older, she would find a way to stop being so clumsy—that she could manage to behave appropriately more often than she behaved inappropriately.

Fortune had not been so kind as to grant her that favor.

She set her baskets down on the floor and brushed a hand over the wild mass of blonde hair falling out of place on her head. Nothing could be done about the state of her attire at this point, but at least she could try to straighten her hair. The damp air was causing her curls to run riot, though, and they quickly bounced back to their original position.

Blast, why had she worn the green cotton? It always made her skin look sallow. Not only that, but it had far more pulls from Mr. Cuddlesworth’s claws than any of her others. She really ought to make herself some new gowns sometime soon. Her current dresses were all too worn, too faded.

Too late to do anything about that, at the moment.

With a sheepish grin, Jane tried to execute a proper and polite curtsy to the dowager, but her muddy shoes slipped on the hardwood floor and she fell forward. Thwack! Her nose smacked hard on the floor just beside the dowager’s feet.

“Oh, that hurt.” Her pride, more than anything.

Mrs. Childress, the family’s maid of all work, rushed to her side and helped her to her feet. A tiny pool of blood pooled on the floor just where her nose had been, and a few droplets fell forward and landed on the dowager’s gown as Jane straightened. She took a seat across the table from the two older women. That was not quite the elegant entrance she’d hoped for.

Mr. Cuddlesworth jumped into her lap and shoved his head into her hand repeatedly, forcing her to pet him just as he wanted, and entirely oblivious to the scene his favorite person had just caused.

“Your Grace, oh goodness, I am so terribly sorry,” Jane’s mother interjected. “My daughter is quite the clumsy fool at times.” Mother’s voice trembled with misery as she sprinted about to dab a wet cloth on her cousin’s gown. “I certainly would understand if you’ve changed your mind after the behavior she has just displayed.”

“Changed your mind about what?” Jane tried to ignore the hurt tone of her mother’s voice. She pressed another wet cloth, brought over by Mrs. Childress, against her bloody nose with her unoccupied hand and hoped the flow would cease soon. If it didn’t, she would likely get blood all over Mr. Cuddlesworth and then have to give the poor dear a bath.

A chore neither of them relished. She might end up bloodier than she started.

“Gracious heavens, girl, I’ve taught you better manners than that. I apologize for my Jane’s impertinence, Your Grace.”

Jane frowned. “Mother, I can certainly apologize for my own impertinence. There’s no need for you to do so for me.” She looked the dowager full in the face. A glint of amusement settled deep in the woman’s eyes and the tiny upward curl of her lips intrigued her. “Changed your mind about what, Your Grace?”

She was a grown woman, by God, and not some silly girl still in leading strings. She would speak when she wanted to speak, and question when (and whom) she wanted to question, regardless of rank or station. Jane purposefully left the apology out of her question, choosing instead to simply add a proper styling for the woman’s rank.

Mother’s gaze hardened in outrage, but the dowager laughed outright. Her blue eyes twinkled with delight and soon her fair skin flushed to almost match the rich reddish hue of her hair. “Miss Matthews, I do believe I like you.”

She turned to Mother and took the cloth from her hands. Then she took over the task of blotting the bloody spots from the fine yellow muslin of her gown. It was quite the fashionable gown, too, with subtle yet intricate stitch-work along the seams. It took every ounce of restraint Jane owned to keep from leaning closer and examining that gown down to the last inch. She wanted desperately to recreate it—only in a blue shade, something more akin to the sky on a sunny, spring afternoon.

“Your mother hopes I haven’t changed my mind about returning you to London with me and sponsoring you for a Season,” the dowager said with a faint smile. “She can breathe freely, because I most certainly haven’t. I daresay you’ll breeze into those ballrooms and clear the air considerably.”

“A Season in London?” Jane ignored the dowager and turned to her mother. “But we can’t afford such an extravagance. And is it necessary? I can’t envision a reason to go to such lengths, when there is always so much work to be done here, and all of the boys have their own homes now, and wives and children, and can’t help you with the gardens any more, and—”

“And nothing. You have no marriage prospects remaining in Whitstable, thanks to your silly ideas. That’s unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. If you are to have any chance at a future other than being a spinster living forever with your father and me, this is what must take place.”

Oh, heavens. She knew Mother had been horrified all those years ago when she’d refused Mr. Thornhill’s pursuit. Whitstable didn’t boast many other prospects in general, and the few that did remain at that point had all since married. None of which had bothered Jane in the least—but clearly it bothered Mother more than she’d realized.

“But why must I marry at all? What’s so wrong with staying here with you and Father? You need help with the gardens and the cleaning. Mrs. Childress can’t do it all, you know. I can earn a living with my sewing, and—”

“Enough with this foolishness of sewing! Jane, the Dowager Duchess of Somerton has made an offer to you that you simply cannot refuse. You will not refuse.” Mother looked close to tears. “You’ll go. You’ll do everything in your power to be charming and to find a husband. You simply can’t fail again.” She stopped on a sob and took a moment to recompose herself.

The incident between Jane and Mr. Thornhill was most certainly not a failure, at least not in Jane’s estimation. She wouldn’t marry him if he were the last man in all of England. Not five years ago, not now, not in another ten years.

Not ever.

“Is that understood?” Mother stood with her hands firmly planted against her hips, the outrage which had colored her cheeks finally fading. “I can’t live with myself if we fail to at least give you one more chance at finding a husband, Jane. Promise me you’ll try. That’s all I ask.”

The dowager gave her an encouraging smile, and Jane couldn’t bear to blatantly ignore her mother’s request. Besides, she need only go to London and try to find a husband. She wasn’t promising to actually take one.

Added to that, if she went along with her mother’s request, she could even look around for a place to set up a shop—and take a look at some of the already established modiste shops there, to see what her competition might be. She hadn’t yet worked out the logistics of having a storefront in London while working in Whitstable, but surely it would be easier to work all of that out in Town.

After giving marriage this one last opportunity, she might finally be free to do what she wanted with her life. She squared her shoulders, resigning herself to her decision. “Very well, Mother. I’ll try.”

Mother heaved a sigh of relief and Jane returned her attention to the dowager. “Ma’am, how soon will we travel? I’ll have to prepare Mr. Cuddlesworth for the journey and pack some food for him.” He raised his head at the mention of his name and looked up at her with adoring, amber eyes.

Her mother’s jaw fell open. “You what? Jane, you can’t be serious. Leave the cat here. He’ll be just fine. Your Grace, my daughter most certainly will not bring that ball of fur to your home, there’s no need to worry.”

Goodness. Her mother really needed to stop trying to speak for her. “I most certainly will take Mr. Cuddlesworth with me, or I refuse to leave at all. Mother, he’s never been without me. And he is so old now, just a little old man, surely he wouldn’t do well if I left him here, no matter how well you took care of him. He has to go or I can’t. There can be no compromise on this point, I’m afraid.”

The dowager eyed the cat purring contentedly on Jane’s lap. “No, I can see there’s no compromise at all. Cousin Barbara, I’m afraid Mr. Cuddlesworth will simply have to come with us.” She reached a hand across and brushed it gently over his coat, coaxing him to roll over and bare his belly to her ministrations. “Jane, will he do well on our journey, do you believe?”

“Yes ma’am, I think he’ll do quite nicely, so long as he’s with me. He’ll be no trouble, I can promise you.”