WEARY OF TRYING TO FIND an acceptable bride, Simon Garrison Nugent, Earl of Fielding, had ceased all attempts at marriage and was currently avoiding debutantes much as he would a leper. By keeping his distance. Instead, he chose to pass his evenings with friends. At his age of three and thirty, marriage was expected. He knew it had to happen soon if he was to maintain his dignity. After all, the longer he remained unattached, the more it looked like he’d not yet recovered from losing his fiancée to another man.
It had been three years since the incident yet it still rankled.
Gabriella, now the Duchess of Huntley, would have made the perfect countess. The very idea of her choosing an ill-bred ruffian, even if he did happen to have a prestigious title, was bad enough without Simon having to worry about what people would think of the next bride he picked. She would have to be at least as pretty, graceful, and accomplished as Gabriella. Preferably more so, which brought him back to the inadequacy of the women currently available for marriage.
Seated in a quiet corner of White’s together with Baron Hawthorne and the Earl of Yates, Simon sipped his brandy and tried to force his thoughts away from the past by focusing on what Yates was saying.
“It was never meant to get this out of hand,” Yates explained while looking precisely like the sort of man whose neck was being squeezed by a noose. He was a good fellow – one of the few who seemed to tolerate Simon’s company – though sadly too kind for his own good, seeing as he’d gotten tangled up with an untitled woman who lacked a dowry and connections. “All I meant to do was help the girl. She’s a friend of my sister’s after all.”
“If every man with a sister offered to step out with all her unremarkable friends, he’d have gotten himself engaged a dozen times over,” Baron Hawthorne muttered. He tossed back the remainder of his drink and poured himself another. “It’s your own damn fault for being too nice.” “He’s right, you know,” Simon said.
Stretching out his legs, he crossed them at the ankles and cradled his snifter between his hands while pondering Yates’s dilemma. Apparently there had been a compromising situation which just happened to have been witnessed by a group of matrons hoping to find a reprieve from the stuffy ballroom. Simon sighed. “The trouble is,” he said, deciding to meet Yates’s gaze dead on, “hell, the trouble has always been, that she’s not your equal. Socially, I mean.”
“Well done, Fielding.” Hawthorne said with a smirk. “It’s always good to know you’ll remind us of what’s acceptable.”
Simon fought the urge to roll his eyes. “Tell me I’m wrong.” His demand was, as expected, met by silence. Not even Yates attempted to argue. “Miss Harlowe is not countess material. This doesn’t mean she cannot be perfectly lovely, but no matter how you turn it, she’ll always be born into the wrong family.”
There was a heavy moment of silence, and then Hawthorne asked, “Has your outlook on life always been this sunny?”
Simon snorted. “I’m just trying to be realistic. If Yates marries Miss Harlowe, he will no longer be welcome in certain circles, people will talk, and his life as he knows it will be forever changed, which I very much doubt is something he wants.”
“From determined wife hunter to cynical loner,” Yates murmured, his narrowed eyes fixed on Simon with interest. “Don’t think I’ve forgotten your eager pursuit of Gabriella Matthews. Hell, you were even engaged to her for what, ten seconds or so, roughly four years ago?”
“The Duchess of Huntley?” Hawthorne inquired with wide eyes. “I don’t recall that at all.”
“Three,” Simon clipped. “It was three years ago.”
“You must not have been at the Coventry Ball that season,” Yates said to Hawthorne. “Fielding announced the betrothal – even kissed Gabriella before one and all – only to let the whole thing fizzle away into nothing. A short while later, Huntley and Gabriella were married and you,” Yates tilted his almost empty glass in Simon’s direction, “haven’t proposed to anyone since.”
“Perhaps because I haven’t met anyone else worth asking,” Simon said.
Yates leaned back, his expression suddenly distant and thoughtful. “I think you need to fall in love,” Hawthorne told Simon with a grin.
“God forbid,” Simon muttered. Worrying over his future was difficult enough without throwing love into the mix.
“I don’t think he believes in love,” Yates said.
Simon gave his friend a deadpan look. “Of course I do. There have been so many blissful unions of late, I’m inclined to believe we live in a world full of rainbows where cupids lurk behind every bush. Hell, even Carlton Guthrie, the Scoundrel of St. Giles – a man I would have sworn had no heart – is smitten with his young wife.”
“Sounds like an epidemic.”
Simon snorted in response to Hawthorne’s comment and took another sip of his drink.
“By the by,” Yates murmured in a more discreet tone than earlier, “I’ve promised Celeste I’d try and find her a new protector, in case this thing with Miss Harlowe doesn’t blow over and I end up marrying her.”
“I don’t understand why you’d want to give up your mistress if you’re not in love,” Hawthorne said.
“Out of respect for my wife,” Yates said. He emitted a heavy sigh and looked at Simon. “I don’t suppose you would be interested?”
“I’m afraid not. In my experience mistresses are demanding and hard to get rid of.” His last one had even made a spectacle, chasing after him on Oxford Street when he’d tried to end things with her. It had been most embarrassing.
“Celeste isn’t like that. She’s quite agreeable and sweet.”
“Nevertheless,” Simon said.
“No wife or mistress,” Hawthorne said with a pitying look that put Simon on edge. “You must be in need of a good tup.”
“It’s not so bad,” Simon said.
Hawthorne raised an eyebrow. “Really? How long has it been since you last had a woman?” Simon shrugged. He hated this – hated being made to feel lacking in some way. Attempting to show indifference, he busied himself with refilling his glass. “Three months or so.”
“Damnation,” Yates murmured.
“Hell, it’s no wonder you look so tense.” Hawthorne reached inside his jacket pocket, retrieved a card, and handed it to Simon. “If I may, I suggest you stop by Amourette’s on your way home tonight.”
“It’s a brothel, is it not?” Simon asked. When Hawthorne nodded Simon instinctively winced.
“I don’t think so.”