Book 3 of Bridal Discipline
When her home situation becomes unlivable, Lydia hopes to escape through a marriage and her qualifications for her new husband are not long. She's not looking for love, passion, or even fidelity but just a man who won't abuse her. When she overhears the Duke of Manchester declare to his brother that he doesn't care who he weds, it seems like her prayers are answered. The Duke is powerful enough to protect her, has a reputation as a good and honorable man, and doesn't care who he marries. Unfortunately she's a too-old bluestocking with nothing to tempt a duke into wedding her, and desperate times call for desperate measures.
When Isaac finds himself trapped into marriage with a grey-eyed beauty who used underhanded and dishonorable means to secure his hand, at first he's not quite sure what to think. His new wife is a study in contradictions and, even worse, she's keeping secrets. His carefully controlled world is making less and less sense, and his duchess is spending more time over his lap - in a distinctly un-fun manner - than he would like.
Lydia wasn't looking for love, but the more she comes to know her husband, the more her own feelings grow for him.
Isaac could never trust a woman who trapped him, but what if she had good reasons for doing so? What if, despite her secrets, he fell in love with her?
Did debutantes use a collective brain? Isaac wondered. It didn't seem as though a single one of them could converse about anything interesting or useful. As if he wanted to know about who Lady March's latest lover was or discuss which color would be the most in-fashion next Season. Hell, he didn't know which color was in fashion this season. The milk-and-water misses all blended together in a pastel blur; he truly couldn't even remember which was which after talking to them. They might have different physical attributes, but their personalities might as well have been copies of each other. Very bland copies of each other. Any spark of individuality was quickly smothered by the eagle eye of a debutante's watchful Mama.
And he was supposed to choose one of these women to be his Duchess?
There might be some intelligence somewhere among them, although he'd be hard pressed to discern which had any. One of them, a delightful but far-too-young, young lady had told him to seek out her elder sister when he tried to engage her in a more intellectual conversation. She claimed she'd learned everything she knew from the elder... Feeling almost desperate, Isaac had requested an introduction, but, alas, the paragon was not to be found.
It was a sad state of affairs when the most interesting conversationalist he could find was just barely out of the schoolroom. Isaac had found himself wondering if she were even truly old enough to debut. While her company was certainly the most enjoyable (even Arabella didn't seem to dislike her, despite still doing her best to chase the young miss away, as she had all the others), he couldn't countenance the idea of marrying one so young. Other men did it, but whenever he looked to his own sister and thought of her marrying a man with such an age difference, he shuddered.
Yet he'd told Benedict that he would make his decision by tomorrow.
Unable to think too much about the rest of his life, leg-shackled to a chit who only cared for fashion and malicious gossip, Isaac had a drink.
And then another.
And then another.
"You might want to slow down on those, old chap, or none of these young ladies will want to be your bride," Benedict murmured to him, clapping him on the shoulder. No longer hiding in the ferns, Isaac was still lurking on the side of the room, practically glaring at everyone who dared approach him. Only his brother and his sister, accompanied by the irrepressible Countess of Spencer, had dared say a word to him in the past half hour. As soon as he was drunk enough that the thought of marriage no longer bothered him, he would quit the evening and stumble to his room.
Isaac scowled. "It might be the only way I could stomach any of them as a bride."
"Well at least you're talking sense now," his sister said, popping up on the other side of him and nearly making him jump in surprise. When Arabella wanted to, she could be quite nimble and silent. Too bad she didn't often want to. "I've been doing my best to meet the offerings, and so far I haven't met one of which I would approve."
Ah, no wonder Arabella was chasing off the debs. Isaac rolled his eyes. If his sister seriously thought he was going to allow her to help him choose a bride... he could just imagine what kind of wife she would pick for him. Either someone completely submissive so that she could run roughshod over the poor woman, or someone just like her. Impetuous and wild, and willing to join her in her escapades.
Although, so far he didn't think any of the women he'd met here would have a chance of keeping Arabella in line, which was one of his goals for marrying.
"Where's the Countess?" he asked his sister. The two of them were quite good friends and, as a married woman, the Countess was supposed to be keeping an eye on Arabella. Arabella's own chaperone, their rather elderly Great-Aunt Ida, was already in bed. After a debacle in London when Arabella had helped a friend attempt to elope with a fortune-hunter, Isaac had written to Aunt Ida, as their only living, older, female relative, hoping she could recommend someone as a chaperone for Arabella. To his dismay, she'd come herself. Although as sharp as ever when she was awake, she was also quite elderly now and became fatigued rather easily. She insisted that she would soon adjust to the hours they kept and wouldn't allow him to hire a companion (whom he hoped would also serve as a chaperone when Aunt Ida was indisposed), saying she only needed her maid Winnie. Winnie was a widow in her sixties, and unfortunately her station made her completely unsuited to be a chaperone.
So he was stuck relying on the help of friends and his brother to control Arabella. Unfortunately at this house party, the only friend also in residence whom he trusted to keep an eye on Arabella was the Earl of Spencer. He was quite reliable usually - and as a reformed rake knew all of the tricks - but his wife could be even more of a handful than Arabella, and the two of them together could be more trouble than it was worth. The Countess wasn't any older than his sister and to say that she had a liberal view of what constituted keeping Arabella out of trouble was overstating the case.
"She wasn't feeling well," Arabella said with particular emphasis, far too cheerfully, her dark eyes sparkling. "Nearly fainted actually. Lord Spencer stepped right in and swept her off to bed." She sighed happily. "Quite romantic really. The ton could use more men like him."
Ha. As if Isaac would have allowed the Earl within ten feet of Arabella before he was married. Not that he'd had a reputation for seducing innocents, but still, he would not have been acceptable company. His sister would do better to focus on the young gentlemen that he did allow to approach her, rather than mooning over the rogues and rakes that he and Benedict kept far away.
"Is she ah..." Benedict stumbled slightly, unable to find a genteel way to ask the question.
"With child? No, I don't believe so," Arabella said, giggling a little as she put her hand over her mouth. "We ah, may have indulged in too much champagne. And the punch. The Earl was a bit irate."
Isaac exchanged a look with his brother as they both realized that Arabella was more than a bit tipsy. She obviously had a higher tolerance for alcohol than Cynthia did, although that wasn't a surprise. Both he and Benedict knew that she snuck into the liquor cabinet at home whenever she wanted to. So far neither of them had actually caught her at it though.
"Lovely," he said dryly. Then chuckled a little. If Arabella thought the Earl's actions were romantic, she might change her tune after talking to Cynthia tomorrow. Isaac was well aware that quite a few of his married friends spanked their wives, and Wesley, Earl of Spencer, was among the most vocal about it. Even claimed his wife often sought out trouble if he let her go for too long without one. Isaac wasn't sure he believed that... but he wasn't sure he didn't either.
That brought his thoughts right back around to romance and wives, and his own looming self-imposed deadline, which made his mood darken immediately. Signaling to one of the footman, he took another glass of whiskey, downing it, before Benedict shoved him back out onto the dance floor with yet another twitted miss.
He imbibed more than evening than he had in months. It was the only thing that made the evening bearable. To call himself well-lubricated... well... truthfully he was sauced. The last thing he remembered before stumbling up to bed and passing out was a pretty grey-eyed thing offering him one last glass. Although he'd always been able to hold his liquor quite well, that last shot of whiskey set him spinning almost from the very start.
He woke up to a pounding headache, a woman's shrill screams, and a soft, warm body tucked in next to him.