Julian Ferris, Viscount Stanton, tooled his high-perch phaeton expertly through the narrow space between an old-fashioned landaulet and a hackney carriage and swept into Grosvenor Square without appearing to even slightly check his pair. His perfectly matched bays were well known in London, and today he was counting on them to rescue him from what he knew would be a long and tedious conversation with his godmother.
This formidable lady, the Dowager Duchess of Kern, would be incensed to find he had driven himself in answer to her summons, but even she would not expect him to keep his horses standing long in the high wind of a chill September day.
Lord Stanton leaped gracefully down from the carriage as his groom ran to the horses' heads.
"I do not plan to be long, Jenkins, but if I am above fifteen minutes, walk 'em." He spoke over his shoulder as he sounded the knocker and a moment later was admitted to the house by a portly and disheveled butler. Stanton gave his caped driving coat into this worthy's hands, along with his high-crowned beaver and gloves, and found himself wondering if his godmother kept any servants under the age of sixty. If there were some younger ones, he mused, they would appear sadly out of place, for the whole musty heap spoke of a bygone era.
Twenty-five years ago the London town house of the Duke and Duchess of Kern had been a showplace for the aristocracy, and invitations to any function there were jealously coveted by the haut ton. Everyone who was anyone could be seen strolling the gracious rooms, conversing with only the cream of London society. But it had been many years since any strain of music rumbled through the formal reception rooms, and longer still since the ballroom had been closed for the last time. Even in those rooms the duchess now used there were unmistakable signs that time marches relentlessly on, leaving nothing untouched. Once bright carpets and window hangings were dulled by exposure and age. Vaulting molded ceilings showed peeling gilded paint, and on many of the high walls priceless portraits hung in dusty frames, too high and too numerous for the hands of elderly servants to tend.
The viscount knew his way well and did not stand upon ceremony with his godmother, but he permitted the butler to lead him upstairs to the drawing room and announce him properly.
"Lord Stanton, Your Grace."
The dowager raised her head as the viscount entered the room, and a smile lit her heavily wrinkled face. "Well, Stanton, you have been prompt. I sent my note only yesterday."
Stanton eyed the frail, white-haired lady with patient indulgence. She vexed him with her efforts to direct his life, yet he held her in considerable affection. "I fancied your need to see me was urgent, ma'am, and I had no desire to keep you waiting."
He crossed the room to her as he spoke, and she noted with approval his claret-colored cutaway coat and dove gray skin-tight pantaloons. As he seated himself in a chair she indicated near the fire, a reflection of the flames danced in the polish of his Hessian boots. He was a strikingly handsome young man, but the duchess realized he would not consider himself so, for vanity was not one of Stanton's vices.
"It is fitting you should call today, Stanton. You have given me an opportunity to offer my felicitations." As his brows drew together in inquiry, she knew she had guessed correctly, and he had forgotten. "You are eight-and-twenty today. Never tell me you have forgotten your own birthday!"
"I am afraid I have," he admitted ruefully. "But it is not at all surprising. Such milestones mean little to me."
"Well, you may believe me when I say they are not so meaningless to others of your family."
"Yes, I know, Godmother. Eight-and-twenty and still unmarried. At my age my father and grandfather both had children in leading strings. How remiss of me."
"Sarcasm ill becomes you, and I cannot believe you are as indifferent to this subject as you pretend. You must have some thought for what is due your family and your noble ancestors. For over two hundred years, the title you bear has passed from father to eldest son in an unbroken chain. Is it your intention to destroy such a proud heritage?"
"I have never understood why so much attention is paid to that accident of history," he replied. "Sooner or later, one of the Viscounts Stanton will die in a war, or sire only girls, and then the chain will of necessity be broken."
"Nonsense. The Ferrises always produce sons--strong sons. And so also will you, if you will convince yourself it is time to take a wife."
This was not the first time he and his godmother had had this conversation. Since his return to England in the spring, she had taken every opportunity to introduce the subject. The theme was always the same; only the characters changed. She was relentless in urging him to marry and never met an eligible debutante without considering the girl as a possible candidate for the future viscountess.
"I know your feelings in this matter, Godmother. You have made them plain enough. But I cannot think marriage is the answer for me. Henry would make a much better husband than I, or even Giles, when he is older."
"That may well be, but neither of your brothers is the head of this family. You are. And the responsibility is yours."
"I would not wish to see any wife of mine trapped in the existence my mother had to bear," he responded.
"Your mother had too much sensibility for her own good, which was undoubtedly the result of her being a Frenchwoman. But I agree she received very shabby treatment from your father, very shabby indeed. He did not comprehend the meaning of the word discretion, a fault that you, my dear Stanton, have not inherited. He married on a whim and for love--or call it passion if you will--and he found that passion soon dies. If you wish for a sensible marriage that you can be comfortable with, then you must carefully choose the proper woman. You insist you are not a romantic. Very well. Choose a woman who is not desirous of having your heart at her feet. You must find a girl who is willing to fill the position of wife and mother and accept that you would not be constantly dancing attendance upon her."
The duchess paused for a moment, and when he did not speak, she continued cautiously. "My niece by marriage, Louise Sherwood, has two charming daughters. The elder, Charlotte, is an exceptional girl. She is twenty-one and has had several seasons. An excellent family, good connections, and the girl is handsomely dowered."
"I believe I have met Miss Sherwood, Godmother, but I assure you, the thought of making her an offer has never crossed my mind."
"Then let it cross your mind," she snapped. "You cannot remain a bachelor forever. Marry you must, sooner or later. Now that the war is over and you are finished with soldiering, the time is ripe. Charlotte Sherwood is a sensible girl, with no silly romantic notions in her head. She is also remarkably lovely. It would be no penance to take such a girl to wife."
Stanton turned away impatiently, walked to the brandy decanter, and poured himself a liberal portion. He had every right to be annoyed with his godmother for this meddling in his private affairs, but he found he couldn't blame her. Her feelings were, after all, in harmony with those of most of his family and friends, and indeed with society in general. A man of his age and social standing was expected to marry and produce an heir to secure the direct line. But even though he accepted these things, he still found the idea repellent.
Stanton had been to his share of weddings, and he knew the vows as well as any man, but regardless of his godmother's wishes, he had no intention of taking them. Perhaps he was a romantic after all, for he could see no sense in promising faithfulness and then breaking faith at the first convenient moment. His strong innate sense of fairness rebelled at the unwritten social ethic that expected wives to remain faithful while husbands could philander at will, so long as they were discreet. He had watched his mother suffer endless humiliation as his father flaunted one mistress after another before the ton. Better not to marry at all than to involve oneself in a situation where pledges were made to be broken and honor sacrificed to desire.
His godmother implied that Miss Sherwood, if he married her, would be sensible. In other words, she would be willing to accept his behavior even if she were disapproving or resentful.
Is that what he wanted for his life? Marriage to a woman who would not be particularly concerned if he shared another woman's bed? Such a marriage was a sham--meaningless promises, empty vows, hollow honor. He wanted no part of it. He had known his share of women, and he would be content to continue as before. When an interlude ended, when interest flagged and attraction faltered, he would walk away--no commitment, no ties, no disillusionment, and, most importantly, no guilt.
The dowager duchess was beginning to lose hope that her godson would ever marry, and she was distressed for more than one reason. She wanted the family name protected, it was true, but she also wished to leave her not inconsiderable personal fortune to Stanton and had convinced herself she would not change her will in his favor until he should be safely wed. She had not previously mentioned this subject to him, but she had decided that today she would put her last card on the table and hope it would be enough to force his hand.
"I am an old woman, my boy, and not in the best of health," she continued. "It would please me to see you comfortably settled."
The viscount smiled tenderly at the old lady and took her frail hand in his. "I have always thought you would outlive us all, my dear."
"Don't speak nonsense, Stanton. Only a fool would wish to live forever. But you change the subject. I wish not to speak of me, but of you, and of those who will come after you."
"But I am a ramshackle fellow, Godmother. We both know I would make the deuce of a bad husband."
"I am not convinced of that," she argued. "A wife and family could have a steadying effect on you, bring some sense of purpose to your life. I am a wealthy woman, as you know. I am willing to settle my entire estate on you if you will please me in this matter."
The smile instantly disappeared from Stanton's lips, and he dropped her hand as his brows drew together sharply. "A bribe, ma'am? This is not in your style, surely?"
She could not miss the clipped resentment in his words. "Not a bribe, rather an inducement. I know you have no need of my money, but few prudent people would refuse a large inheritance out of hand. I ask only that you choose a suitable girl and marry; I place no other condition on the bequest."
Stanton turned away and crossed to the windows overlooking the square below. The dowager maintained a prudent silence. She knew he was not pleased, but she had said all she intended and was now willing to allow the matter to rest. She could see he was eager to be off, but she had not dismissed him, and his manners were too pretty to allow him to offer her any slight. She knew he cared for her in his way, and for herself, she had loved him all his life.
The duchess had never borne her husband any sons, but Stanton was a perfect example of the son she would have liked to have had. He was of moderate height with a quick, athletic figure, fine shoulders and a good leg. The tight-fitting styles of the day suited him well. His handsome features were topped by a head of thick, medium brown hair that curled slightly. His slate gray eyes were fathomless to most, but the dowager had learned over the years that they were her best means to discover what he was thinking. He had a fine, passionate mouth, which, unfortunately, rarely smiled.
As he turned now to face her, she focused her eyes on the grim lines of that mouth as she forced her own into a smile. "Will you be attending Lady Selfridge's ball tomorrow night, Stanton?"
"Yes, ma'am, I had planned to go."
"Then, no doubt I shall see you there."
Recognizing his dismissal, Stanton made the proper farewells and took himself off. He saw no sign of his carriage in the street and knew he had taken longer than the prescribed fifteen minutes. His groom, walking the horses as instructed, soon reappeared, and as the viscount mounted onto the driver's seat, Jenkins handed over the reins.
The dowager stood at the window overlooking the square and watched her godson drive away. Lord Stanton was a nonpareil with the ribbons, and seldom a week went by when he was not challenged by one man or another to race one of his teams or pairs. She knew his name often appeared in the betting books, for he could never resist the opportunity to race his bloodstock. This partiality for racing did not concern his godmother, for his wagers were never outrageous, and he seldom lost.
The dowager sighed and turned from the window as Stanton disappeared. He had grudgingly given her less than half an hour of his time but now would go on to White's and amuse himself for hours on end. If he was to be at Caro Selfridge's tomorrow, the dowager had every intention of making a push at least to see that he and Miss Charlotte Sherwood should become better acquainted.