Miss Marie Cunningham's mind reeled. She sat heavily on the divan. "Peter, what you ask--it's rather personal."
"Forgive me, Miss Cunningham, we never should have come. If I'd known the request Master Peter would make, I would not have allowed it." Mrs. Clumly blushed furiously and blinked her eyes over rapidly forming tears of mortification, if Marie didn't miss her guess.
"I'm happy to see Peter. Please don't apologize for bringing him here. As it happens, I am in London for the season under the sponsorship of Lord and Lady Rochester for just such a purpose. But Peter, you ask me to coax Lord Marby into marriage? It's quite unheard-of," Marie said.
"At the Worthington orphanage, you once promised to marry me when I was full grown. It's two years later, and I'm older now, Miss Cunningham. But you did say so. If you marry Lord Marby, it would be near the same result," Peter pleaded in earnest.
"Oh heavens," Mrs. Clumly exclaimed. Peter had clearly set his governess in a spin.
"I did. You are quite right," Marie hedged. "I hadn't expected to be held to it, though. Marrying your guardian--" Here she stopped to shiver as every childhood horror story about the evil Lord Marby replayed through her mind. "--is not the same as marrying you."
"I'm twelve. I can't expect marriage for some time yet," he argued.
Marie laughed uncomfortably. "Of course not. But, I suspect Lord Marby can find his own wife."
"You're afraid of him, too," Peter declared as though suddenly realizing the purpose for her wariness.
"I've never met him." It was true she hadn't met him, but there wasn't a child in Worthington who had not been threatened with Lord Marby by exasperated parents.
Eat your recognize the tales as superstitious lore, but that didn't mean she would willingly leap into marriage with the beast at Peter's request, either.
"I still think you are afraid," Peter groused.
Marie could see he didn't relish spending time with his guardian. "Why is this matter so urgent to you? You already said he's come to London to take a wife. Why not allow him that freedom and welcome her as a new addition?"
"Because she won't be you, Miss Cunningham. Lord Marby is dour in the extreme and only looks to marriage for my benefit. He believes I need a mother." Peter squirmed uncomfortably beside her. "Lord Marby seems in a rush to see the job done. At least in marrying him, you would return to Worthington. Don't you want to return to your home and continue visiting the orphanage?"
She did, but at what cost? To marry a man without love had not been something she desired for herself. With little troth of her own, she wasn't much of a catch in London, even with the backing of the earl and his wife at some of the functions in town. And who was to say Lord Marby would consider it? He may not choose to marry for love, but surely her humble lineage and meager dowry wouldn't entice him.
"I miss the orphanage," Marie confessed. "However, I don't see how I could possibly convince Lord Marby to take a fancy to me."
Peter's eyes pleaded with her. "He wants a mother for me. If I convince him you are the perfect choice, I doubt he will give more thought than that to making a selection."
"Rather astute for twelve years," Marie said, looking at him askance.
"Miss Cunningham, I'm sure Master Peter only means to put your mind at ease should Lord Marby approach you at a social gathering. I know Master Peter is fond of you. That in itself would interest Lord Marby," Mrs. Clumly said.
Marie blinked at the woman. Had she joined in on the plea? Was Lord Marby indeed so horrid in person that both his ward and the governess pleaded for Marie to offer leniency? Peter was growing into a fine young man with curly brown hair and clear blue eyes. The freckles spotting the bridge of his nose were fading, and Marie could already see he would make the girls swoon when he reached an age. He returned her frank look without guile.
If Lord Marby were as cold as she had been led to believe, what type of life would Peter have? Would he be starved for comfort and love, no better with his guardian than he had been, a young boy forgotten in the orphanage? She couldn't stand to consider it. Peter, like all those children, deserved better. They deserved a family and love and comfort and shelter from the evils of the world.
"Please," Peter begged quietly.
She gave him a weak smile and reached to pat his hand. "I promise to think on it. I'll be at many social occasions during these next weeks. I will look for him and observe his character for myself."
Peter seemed at peace with her decision and released a breath as though he'd been holding it. "When will I know your decision?" he asked.
"I suspect you'll know when I have one."
"Mrs. Clumly and I frequent the park. May I come upon you there or shall I call?"
"Mrs. Clumly must be in agreement with you, given her willingness to hold this discussion. I would welcome the company in the park, and if I have an answer, I will give it."
"Thank you," Peter said. He threw himself at Marie, nearly taking her to her side. "I knew I could depend on you."
"Master Peter, restrain yourself." Mrs. Clumly leaped to her feet in a dither about how to calm Peter's exuberance.
His gratitude gave Marie pause as she watched them leave the sitting room. Was Peter so desperate in his new situation? The children of the orphanage meant a great deal to her, but Peter most of all. Were there others in his predicament, strained in their new homes by cool receptions and unwelcoming hearts? She had only pictured warm familial drives in the country, happy nuncheons al fresco, and giggling children. This was a side of adoption she had not foreseen.
Lord Marby was wealthy enough to have adopted any child. If he didn't care for Peter, why had he chosen this boy, nearly grown, when there were so many others who wouldn't have a family to call their own?