Janna MacGregor

Excerpt: A Simple Marriage

Book 2: The Millionaires of Mayfair

Chapter One

London, 1819

Only the thought of dresses could compel Lady Phillipa ‘Pippa’ Ardeerton to consider marriage. More specifically, a dress shop was the reason Pippa stood in Hyde Park, pretending to admire the lush trees before her as she waited for the first gentleman that she had invited to meet her so they could discuss marriage.

The dress shop in question belonged to Mademoiselle Mignon, who was soon to marry. Like a fairy godmother, she had offered to sell her dress shop to Pippa. It was an opportunity of a lifetime. Mademoiselle Mignon’s dresses were legendary. Women from all over the British Isles traveled to London to visit the talented modiste. To don one of her gowns for a ton event ensured that the wearer would be the center of attention. It was an understatement to say that her dresses were works of art.

But so were Pippa’s creations. To own this shop was her destiny.

To buy it, she needed her trust fund. To receive her trust fund, she had to reach the age of thirty and still be unmarried. Since she was twenty-four, that option was out of the question. But the trust provided that if she married, then the funds became hers on the day she said her vows. And she’d only consider marriage to a gentleman if he’d agreed to leave her trust fund alone after they exchanged “I dos.”

Her lady’s maid, Alice Robertson, stepped closer and looked over her shoulder. The movement reminded Pippa of a spy, one who was in the midst of some clandestine affair waiting for the enemy.

Well, this was a clandestine affair, but Pippa didn’t want to marry her enemy. All she wanted was one man, and she wasn’t picky. Practically, any man would meet her requirements if he agreed she would control her trust fund.

And he must not mind that his wife was involved in a trade.

“My lady, your first appointment should have been here by now,” Alice murmured.

“There’s no need to whisper. No one can hear us.” Pippa bit her lip to keep from laughing. Alice was a little sensitive at times if teased about being too dramatic. She patted her maid’s arm in comfort. “He’s only five minutes late.”

Alice pointed to her elbow. “You know how my elbow can predict things. Right now, it’s stiffening up on me. That’s a warning, my lady. It’s telling me that your idea to fetch a husband by writing him a letter isn’t going to work.” Alice shook her head in disapproval.

Pippa normally adored her lady’s lady maid’s antics. It helped keep the loneliness at bay. An affliction that had only become worse when her older sister, Lady Honoria Ardeerton, had married Marcus Kirkland, the Earl of Trafford, and had moved to his estate in Amesbury.

However, today was not the day for Alice’s elbow to start acting out. Uncannily, it regularly predicted when it would rain or if there was a change in the weather. But Pippa very much doubted that it could predict when things were set to go awry.

“Sweet Alice, it’s a perfectly conceived plan.” Taller than an average woman, Pippa smiled down at her maid.

The maid shook her head and looked about the park again. “Don’t you think your brother will think it’s a little suspicious that you’re going to Hyde Park for the next five mornings for exercise? His Grace is a wily thinker.” Alice tapped her finger against her temple. “His mind is always working. He’ll smell it. Mark my words.”

“Well, it’s a good thing he has the sniffles, then,” Pippa retorted. Her brother, Dane Ardeerton, the Duke of Pelham, was a problem. Uncommonly astute, he was the one who had sole discretion over her trust funds. She’d already asked him to release her funds early, and he’d declined.

While her brother was the biggest supporter of her art, he didn’t particularly care for her going into trade. He’d always declared, “A duke’s sister was a rare creature. To lower oneself into mixing with the masses and handling money was unseemly. It would be unheard of for the Duke of Pelham’s youngest sister.”

However, Pippa considered his thinking to be a tad myopic. His focus was running his millionaire’s club and his gambling hell disguised as a coaching inn, the Jolly Rooster. Pelham created the millionaire’s club one day at Eton to develop a group where men and women with self-made wealth had a place to discuss business.

In Pippa’s opinion there wasn’t much difference between a modiste shop and a gambling hell coaching inn. All were created to deliver a fantasy of sorts. The gambling hell promised that a man might win a fortune if Lady Luck sat beside him for the night. A dress offered something just as thrilling. The perfect dress could turn even the most ordinary event into something spectacular. It could also turn that same event into something magical just by the way it could make a woman feel.

Pippa’s plan was flawless and rather ingenious if she did say so herself. She’d picked five men from her brother’s millionaires club to meet and discuss her proposal of marriage. Once she picked a man, her brother wouldn’t object. He’d personally approved each of the members. It made little difference if they were titled or not. The only requirement? They had to have assets worth over a million pounds. They also had to be trustworthy and honorable. Pelham didn’t allow riffraff into his club even if they did possess a fortune. If the men were part of the club, then Pelham would approve them as eligible men to marry. She was certain of it.

“My lady, look over there.” Alice threw a furtive nod in the direction of the paved walkway. “He’s coming.”

Pippa lifted her gaze. The man walking toward them wore a striking blue morning coat that fit him like a glove and emphasized his broad shoulders. She had little doubt that underneath his apparel, his body was fit and trim. Her eyes swept over his buff-colored breeches, another immaculate fit as they framed his muscular legs. Even from this distance, his clothes were expensive and of the highest quality. She could always recognize such clothing. It was her special power.

Yet, Pippa couldn’t tell if it was Lord Bedford or not. She’d invited him to be her first bachelor to interview. She’d always found the viscount to be delightful. But she’d never remembered him being that muscular or tall. However, when they’d danced together at an event, he’d always found a way to amuse her. Humor was important in a marriage, more so than love.

As the man came closer, her confidence wilted like a cheese soufflé. The viscount possessed hair a tad darker than Pippa’s blonde mane. The man strolling toward her had locks the color of obsidian. Too long, it fell across his brow and brushed his shoulders. It was so dark that it blended into the black of his hat. She still didn’t recognize him as the brim shaded his face.

Alice clapped her hands together in glee. “Look, Lady Pippa, it’s Lord Ravenscroft.”

As her maid laughed in pure, unadulterated joy, Pippa gasped in horror.

Of all the men to meet in the park, it was just her luck it was Hugh Calthorpe, the Marquess of Ravenscroft.

He was her brother’s best friend. He was also confident, intelligent, and funny. When he shared something with you, he’d lean close and lower his voice. His green-eyed gaze always held yours. He made you feel as if he were sharing something extraordinary only with you. That made him dangerous. Pippa didn’t need intimacy with a man.

She needed friendship, and that was all.

Pippa patted her hair to ensure everything was in place, then smoothed her dress. She would not let the appearance of the marquess deter her. She had every right to be in this park. Women of her stature went for walks every day.

She stood tall and tilted her chin slightly when Ravenscroft drew to a stop in front of them.

“Good morning, my lady.” His gravelly voice reminded her of a cat’s tongue against the skin, a sign of affection that was unexpected.

Or a taste before a bite.

“Good morning, my lord,” she answered as he bowed before her.

A man in possession of consummate manners, Ravenscroft turned to Alice. “Good morning, Miss Robertson.”

“Oh, my lord, good morning,” Alice cooed. “Imagine meeting you here.”

That was the problem with her fifty-year-old maid. She adored Lord Ravenscroft. And always tried to find a way to see him when he visited Pelham which was practically an everyday occurrence. For heaven’s sake, the man had even bought an estate close to the Jolly Rooster just to be near her brother and their other best friend, the Earl of Trafford, her sister’s husband.

“Yes, imagine meeting me here.” Ravenscroft slowly turned his gaze to Pippa’s then smiled. The mirth in his eyes made them twinkle. It reminded her of pure mischief, the aggravating kind. The earl was a master at provoking her brother. Simply by throwing out a barb disguised as an observation was his modus operandi.

Whatever he said, she’d not take the bait. She smiled in return. “Are you just arriving?”

“Indeed,” he answered, never taking his gaze from hers.

“That’s such a shame. We’re leaving.” She nodded again in a show of manners. “Enjoy your walk, my lord.”

“My lady, how unfortunate that you’re leaving. I wanted to join you.” A wicked smile that emphasized his full lips tugged at one corner of his mouth. Fine lines fanned the skin surrounding his striking green eyes.

No doubt they were a direct result of his constant exultant temperament. Truly, she’d never seen him angry or bored. Everything seemed to amuse him, which suited him. It enhanced his extraordinary handsomeness if that were possible. In all her life, she’d only seen a few beautiful men. The Marquess of Ravenscroft was one of those rare individuals. His features were masculine and attractive. Sharp angles framed his cheekbones and square jaw. The only thing that wasn’t sharp about his features were his full lips.

Making her wonder if they were as soft as they appeared. She shook her head slightly to clear such thoughts. She had no business considering the man’s mouth. He was her brother’s best friend.

“How do you know I’m here for a walk?” His voice broke her out of her reverie. “Perhaps I’m here for an assignation of some sort…or another.”

The scoundrel winked at her.

“Seems to be the popular thing today,” Alice added unhelpfully.

Pippa drew a deep breath and released it. She’d learned early in life that it was best to put your adversaries on the defensive. “Well, we don’t want to keep you from your appointment.” She waved a gloved hand in the air. “Or tryst or rendezvous,” she said under her breath.

“It’s my lucky day. It just happens that my assignation is with you.” He held up his arm. “Walk with me.”

“I can’t…” She turned toward the entrance of the park. Bedford was nowhere in sight. Where was the blasted man? It wasn’t a good omen. Perhaps he wasn’t interested in her proposal.

The subtle fragrance of sandalwood mixed with a heavenly masculine scent wafted her way. Ravenscroft always smelled divine. That’s why he was one of her favorite dance partners at an event.

He leaned near, almost close enough to kiss her. Then, his whisky-dark voice teased her ear. “He’s not coming.”

* * * *

It was a wonder that Lady Pippa didn’t injure herself when she whipped her head to face him.

Hugh didn’t mince words this time. “You should walk with me. I think you’ll find it highly enlightening.”

Her eyes narrowed in wariness then blazed into anger. She wasn’t pleased. Normally, he never involved himself in others’ business, but this wasn’t anyone ordinary. It was Lady Pippa Ardeerton, his best friend’s little sister.

Honestly, she was also one of the most interesting people he’d ever met. Uncommonly beautiful with a rare wit, she could make anyone feel at ease, even Bedford, who was a nervous nelly.

Simply put, Lady Pippa was perfect. She’d make a perfect wife and partner.

If someone were looking for such a thing.

Slowly, she took his arm. As they strolled down the path, he chuckled to himself. They must appear as if they were two friends who, by happenstance, met at the park for an early bout of exercise. How wrong that observation would be. He’d purposely arrived at the exact time she was supposed to meet with Bedford.

When Hugh stole a glance at Lady Pippa, her eyes met his. They were royal blue, the same as her older brother’s. But he’d noticed that hers had flecks of gold sprinkled throughout the irises. When he’d first met her, he’d been taken aback at her beauty. Even today, she could steal his breath. In a silken green morning gown with a jaunty little hat with peacock feathers, she was confident, assured, and carried herself with a grace that others only wished to possess.

As much as he enjoyed counting her attributes, now was not the time. They had business to discuss.

With a quick glimpse, Hugh ensured that Lady Pippa’s maid was behind them. She was still within proper chaperoning distance but couldn’t hear their conversation. With his free hand, he pulled Bedford’s letter from the inside pocket of his waistcoat. “The reason your beau isn’t coming is because your letter was delivered to me.”

She stumbled for a second, and he instantly tightened his arm around hers to keep her steady. They’d stopped their casual stroll, and Pippa’s defiant chin was lifted as she stared straight into his eyes. How uniquely refreshing for him. He didn’t have to strain his neck when conversing. Normally, women peered up at him, but Pippa was only a half-foot shorter than him. The censorious look in her eyes was also refreshing. Most women, particularly ones looking for a husband, simpered and whispered around him as if he thought such behavior was enticing. There were all utterly boring. But he would never consider Lady Pippa as such, particularly when sparks of outrage flashed in her brilliant blue eyes.

“For your information, he isn’t my beau.” She snatched the letter from his hand and examined it. Her eyes widened in horror. “The seal is broken. You opened it?”

He winced at the incredulity in her voice.

“Not on purpose.” He closed the distance between them until a mere six inches were between them.

Alice loudly cleared her throat in warning that he was too intimately close. He nodded his acknowledgment and stepped away until a respectable foot separated them.

“When my mail arrives, my butler organizes it on a silver salver and then places it on my desk. All the correspondence is presented with the wax seal facing me. It makes it quicker to open the stack.” He shrugged slightly. “When I opened your letter and read it, I realized that it wasn’t addressed to me.”

“You even read it?” Heat bludgeoned her cheeks, and her voice had softened.

“I did.” Honestly, it didn’t feel as if he had anything to apologize for. She was on a fool’s errand that could end with her being ruined.

She flinched slightly before a mask of indifference fell across her features. With a stalwart gaze, she slowly surveyed the park, completely ignoring him for a moment. Ramrod straight and with a determined demeanor, she reminded him of Diana, the goddess of the hunt. A good comparison since, no doubt Pippa would like to shoot him with an arrow about now.

Eventually, she turned to him with a pleasant smile on her face. It was as bogus as the calves of the men who wore padded stockings to give the impression that their legs were a thing of beauty.

“I trust that you’ll be discreet and will keep the information in that letter secret.” She chewed on her lip and her delicate brow furrowed into perfect lines. “As an honorable gentleman, you should do that.”

He wanted to roll his eyes at that statement. As an honorable gentleman, he should have gone straight to her brother.

But out of respect for her, he decided to keep the appointment this morning. As an honorable man, he had to warn her about Lord Bedford. More importantly, as an honorable man, he couldn’t allow her to ruin herself.

Bloody hell, she’d asked the man to marry her.

And if that wasn’t enough, she’d written to four more men asking the same.

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