I hope you enjoy this early free excerpt of
DANCING WITH LOVE,
Book 5 in The Academy of Love series,
which will be out December 2022!
Miles Ingram shivered beneath his worn overcoat. This was the coldest year in memory and he’d been frozen so long his extremities had become permanently numb. He might have worried that he’d lost all feeling in his hands and feet if he’d not spent the better part of the day having them tread upon by giggling schoolgirls stumbling their way through the quadrille.
Miles knew it could have been worse; he could have been teaching them the waltz, a dance that seemed to make most young females lose what little sense they had.
The only thing he wanted to do after walking the not inconsiderable distance from Grosvenor Square back to his part of town—a dirtier, more cramped section of London—was throw back a stiff drink or two and soak his aching feet in a basin of hot water.
He told himself he was lucky—this newest teaching position would be just enough to pay the next month on his lodgings and leave him a little to buy food. Finding work as a dance instructor had not been as easy as he’d hoped—especially when he had to avoid taking work in the great houses of the ton, where his name, if not his face, would be known.
That left him with the daughters of bankers, merchants, and captains of industry. But many a mama took one look at Miles and sent him packing. It seemed he was too attractive for wise mothers to trust with their wealthy daughters.
Miles gave a bitter laugh. Lord, as if dallying with young bits of fluff—rich or poor—was something he thought about these days. No, most of his minutes and hours were consumed with the struggle to survive. Day-to-day life had become a constant grind since the school where he’d taught for almost three years—the Stefani Academy of Music and Art for Young Ladies—had closed its doors.
The school’s closure should not have taken him by surprise as there had been signs of instability for some time, but his optimistic—or simply foolish—nature had stopped him from accepting the truth. If he’d been thinking, he would have saved some of his money from this past year instead of putting the bulk of his wages against his insurmountable debts: debts that had barely diminished even though he’d been paying on them for years. But he hadn’t noticed the worsening situation at the school and now he was skint. The only reason he’d been lucky enough to get this teaching position was because of Freddie—Lady Winifred Sedgwick.
Freddie had been a teacher at Stefani’s Academy—the mistress of deportment and elocution—along with Miles and five other instructors. In the aftermath of the school’s dissolution Freddie went back to finishing young ladies and launching them into the fashionable world.
“It’s a loathsome way to make one’s living,” Freddie admitted. “But I’ve been pitchforked into the world of commerce with nothing else to sell.”
Miles had grinned and eyed her tall, slender body up and down with a lascivious leer. “Well, not nothing…”
As usual, she ignored his randy innuendo. That was one of the many things he loved about Freddie: her unflappability.
“And what are you going to do to earn your bread, Miles?”
“What do I have to sell other than my dancing skills?” He gestured to his person, which had been sprawled over a ragged old wing chair in the parlor of the house Freddie shared with two teacher friends of theirs, Serena Lombard and Honoria Keyes.
“At least you are a man, and men have options.”
Options? Ha! He had only three as far as he could tell: marry a rich woman, teach dancing, or fling himself into the Thames.
Miles had kept those depressing thoughts to himself. “I suppose I could seek out a lonely widow and barter this fancy package of mine.”
Freddie looked up from her needlework, which she was never without, her expression dry as she eyed his fancy package. “I shouldn’t think that would bring you enough to live on.”
Miles had laughed and clapped his hand over his heart. “Freddie! You’re a cold-hearted wench. I guess there’s nothing for it but to marry you and let you take care of me. I’ve always fancied being a kept man.”
She made a sound that might have been a snort if it hadn’t been so delicate and feminine. “You shall have to marry eventually.”
“Why should I? My brother already has two daughters and his wife is young and fecund; there will be loads more children in their future. Besides, even if Bevan doesn’t have a son there’s always Crispin.” He shrugged. “I am merely one of the spares and completely irrelevant.”
Freddie had given Miles one of those looks and that had been the end of that conversation.
Miles skirted a steaming pile of horse dung and smiled at the thought of his dearest friend. Freddie, Freddie, Freddie: always trying to take care of him like a hen with one not particularly smart chick.
And thank God for her help. Because if Freddie hadn’t steered Miles toward this current job, he would have been forced to go to his brother, hat in hand, to get enough money to pay his rent.
He grimaced at the thought and shoved it from his mind. He hadn’t needed to go to Bevan, so why borrow trouble?
He trod on something hard and sharp and the worn sole of his shoe didn’t protect him.
“Damn it,” he muttered, giving an undignified hop as pain radiated out from the ball of his foot. His greatest fear these days was that his overworked feet and shoddy footwear would conspire to lose him the one job he had. Now he would need to beg a basin of hot water out of his landlord so he could soak his feet the moment he got home.
But when he reached his lodgings, it was to find his pinch-mouthed landlord, Mr. Fisher, waiting for him in the cramped, dingy entryway.
“Ah, there you are.” He glared at Miles as if he’d shown up two hours late for an important appointment.
“Yes, Mr. Fisher?” Miles used the weary, bored tone he generally employed to depress pretension and regarded the smaller man through narrowed eyes as he pulled off his gloves. They were the best pair he owned but were so thin and worn he could feel the cool breeze even when they were on his hands.
“You’ve got a visitor been waiting ‘ere for nigh on three hours.” Fisher sounded accusatory, as if Miles had done something heinous by having another human being actually visit him in his home.
Miles grimaced. Lord, was it more dunners? “Well?” he prodded. “Who is it?”
Mr. Fisher glanced around—as if somebody might be listening—and leaned closer, “’Ee looks to ‘ave been crying.”
That didn’t sound like a dunning agent. Miles removed his hat and dropped his gloves into it. “In the parlor?”
“No, I put ‘im in your rooms.”
Miles frowned. “Why?” He paid good money for use of the public spaces in the dismal building, such as they were.
“You needn’t get all snirpy wiff me!” Fisher drew himself to his full height. “’Ee said ee was your brovver.”
Miles pushed passed him without another word, taking the steps to his third-story rooms two at a time. His brain whirred so loudly with fear that he could barely hear the clatter of his feet on the wooden stairs.
If Bevan or Crispin had come all this way then something was wrong.
Eight Months Later
Mary had ignored her dead father’s meddling as long as she could. It was humiliating to even contemplate the terms of Lucas Barnett’s will, but time was running out. If she wanted to continue living her life the way she liked, then she would have to knuckle under and do her father’s bidding.
“Oh, Da,” she muttered. “Why did you do this to me?”
Mary knew her father had loved her more than anyone—even more than he’d loved her mother or Mary’s much prettier and sweeter younger sister, Jenny.
“I’ve got you, darlin’ and yer Ma has Jen, and we all have each other,” was how her folksy father had explained the complex tangle of family loyalty and love.
But as much as Lucas Barnett had loved his eldest daughter, he’d still put her in shackles before he’d died; shackles for which there was only one key: marriage.
Mary could still hear his words—his justification—spoken in his peculiar, blended accent, the last vestige of a boy who’d been raised by an itinerant tinker with no place to call home.
“It should be yer son—or maybe girl—who’ll take over one day, luv. I’ll see to it young Jen and her bairns are taken care of, but you, Mary? Yer a chip from yer Da’s block. When ye marry, ye and yer man will take charge and grow things ‘een bigger.”
Lucas Barnett had refused to heed Mary’s argument that she didn’t need a man, either to run his business or to marry.
“Everyone needs somebody, luv. Everyone.”
Well, that might be true, but Mary didn’t believe that person necessarily had to be a mate. Wasn’t loving her father, mother, and sister enough?
Mary chewed her lower lip in frustrated fury and sanded the letter she’d just written to a man she had only briefly met during her negotiations for a mine in Lanarkshire.
The letter was beyond improper, but she suspected that Mr. John Brown—a portly, raw-boned widower of fifty with no children—would look beyond the impropriety to the solution she offered for both of them.
During her business communications with Mr. Brown Mary had discerned that he was without humor, but kind and decent. He would be a stable workmate and they would likely rub along without any emotional turmoil. There would be no passion or love, which was exactly what she wanted if she were forced to take a husband.
Mary was searching the small desk drawer for a wafer when the door opened.
“Ah, there you are, my dear.” Louisa Barnett sounded annoyed at finding her daughter in her own study and Mary hastily dropped the letter into the open drawer and closed it before turning. If her mother discovered what she was proposing to Mr. Brown, her life would not be worth living.
“Did you need me for something, Mama?”
Mrs. Barnett frowned, her eyes flickering up and down Mary’s seated person. “I do wish you would not wear such a rag, Mary. Even at home.” She heaved a put-upon sigh. “But you don’t have time to change, I’m afraid.”
“Change? But why? We had no plans today.” Mary smoothed the light brown muslin skirt of her crisp, clean, and perfectly serviceable morning gown. She pushed a loose tendril of flaming red hair behind her ear and frowned. “Or did we?”
“Oh Mary, how could you forget? We are meeting with Lady Winifred Sedgwick today.”
“Lady Winifred Sedgwick?” Mary’s mind raced like a caged ferret. “Why?”
“About you and Jenny.”
Mary shook her head. “I’m sorry, but I have no idea what you are talking about, Mama.”
“You remember, I spoke to her about you and Jenny and the Season.”
Her and Jenny? The Season? What was—Ah. Mary closed her eyes and shook her head. Now she remembered. “Oh mum, I never agreed to this.”
Her mother flinched at the name, which she considered part of their commonplace past. “Why must you be so intractable when you know what your decision will be? We all know what you will do.”
Mary ignored both her mother’s scowl and the truth of what she was saying. She wondered what her mother’s reaction would be if she learned Mary had just offered marriage to a rough-spoken mine owner who was almost as old as she was. She smiled slightly at the thought but dismissed it all the same.
“I said I’d begun to contemplate marriage, Mama. I didn’t say I was prepared to engage a matchmaker.”
“That is a vulgar term, Mary.” Louisa Barnett’s pale skin colored.
Mary sighed rather than scream, which is what she really wanted to do. “What does a person call her, then?”
“Lady Sedgewick. She is a countess.”
Mary could only stare.
“Don’t give me that long-suffering look, my girl. The last thing in the world you would ever do is pass control of your father’s wretched companies to your cousin—even though that is what you should do. The only reason you’ve not capitulated until now is that you’ve been looking for some way around your father’s will. But there is no way around it. You will marry and we both know it’s just a matter of who and when. I shudder to think of what kind of fright you will end up with if I do not take a hand.”
“I’m glad you find it amusing,” her mother retorted, her hazel eyes snapping. “But I do not relish welcoming a stable hand or street sweeper into our family.”
What about an aged widower with a Lanarkshire accent so thick you’d need a shovel to shift it?
“I know you don’t care to join society.”
Now that was one of the world’s greatest understatements.
“If you won’t do this for yourself, then think of Jenny. Your poor sister is suffering greatly. She was not invited to the Harrington ball and there are only a precious few weeks remaining and her first Season will end in failure. She is heartbroken.”
Mary knew her mother spoke the truth. These blasted people and their petty cruelty. Oh, how she wished her younger sister was not so set on being accepted by people who would never love or cherish her as she deserved.
“I take it Lady Sedgwick is here to see that Jenny gets invited to such events?” Mary asked. “Is it even worth the effort with only five weeks remaining? Perhaps it might be as well if we wait until next Season?” Hopefully Mary would be living far from London and the social whirl by that time.
“Lady Sedgwick is here to address Jenny’s situation and more besides.”
“More besides? Why don’t I like the sound of that, Mama?”
“Oh, you are an unnatural daughter! How can you possibly not wish to take your pick of husbands from the finest men Britain has to offer?”
Mary snorted. “You mean aristocrats who are so hidebound by pride they wouldn’t lift even a finger to stop themselves from starving? Men who’d rather marry their way out of their problems?”
For once, her mother did not take the bait. Instead, she cast some bread on the water, herself. “I never thought I’d see you back away from a situation because you are afraid, Mary. You claim to be a businesswoman,” her mother spat out the word as if it were a fly she’d found in her tea. “Shouldn’t you want all the information you can acquire before you make any decision?”
“Have no fear, I am doing exactly that, Mama. It just so happens that I gather my information from sources other than aristocratic marriage-fixers.”
“You might be satisfied with some—some ironmonger from the provinces, but what about your sister?”
“An ironmonger from the provinces was good enough for you, was he not, Mama?”
Her mother’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t ever make the mistake of believing our lives are in any way similar, my dear. I was not given a choice of whom I would marry.”
Mary bit her lip, wishing she’d never broached this subject. “Fine, Mama. I am not standing in your way when it comes to this countess. If you wish to employ her for Jenny’s sake, do so. You do not need my approval.” Mary glanced at the pile of correspondence on her desk, impatient to finish her morning’s work. Impatient to put her letter in the post.
“You are afraid to meet this woman.”
Mary blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“You heard me.”
Mary didn’t care for her mother’s coy, sly look. It usually meant she was planning something: something that involved Mary.
“It’s not fear, Mama. I merely wish to avoid embroiling myself in pointless foolishness.”
“Marriage is not pointless foolishness.”
Mary sighed. “No, it isn’t,” she agreed. “But I don’t have any questions for her, Mama. If and when I decide to marry, I shall find my own husband.”
“I want you to at least meet Lady Sedgwick.”
“Why not? It shan’t take more than a half-hour of your time.”
Mary tapped her toe, scrambling for an excuse.
“Please, my dear. Just this one time. Jenny is not the only one who would benefit from her acquaintance. You have only two months before—”
Mary would get no peace until she’d appeased her mother. She stood. “Fine, I shall meet her.”
A beatific smile transformed Mrs. Barnett’s face far too quickly for it to have been lurking far away.
“But only to listen, and only about Jenny. I am my own mistress when it comes to my marriage and there is to be no mention of the terms of Father’s wretched will.”
Good God, that was the last thing Mary needed to get out. Not that people didn’t speculate about her already, thanks to her wretched cousin Reginald’s loose lips.
“Are we in agreement on this matter, Mama?” Mary demanded.
Louise’s head bobbed up and down like an excited pigeon’s. “I would never mention such a private matter, Mary.”
Mary bit her lip to hold back a snort of disbelief.
“Now, please, come along, she is waiting.”
Mary headed for the door and then stopped, narrowing her eyes. “Where is Jenny, since this is all about her?”
“Oh, she is a mere child and has no idea about such matters. Besides, she had an invitation to Mrs. Crenshaw-Holmes’s picnic. She could not pass up such an opportunity.”
Mary sighed but followed her mother from the room, gritting her teeth against the next half hour, wishing she had already sent the letter to Mr. John Brown in Lanarkshire.
Mary didn’t know what she thought a matchmaker would look like, but the woman in the Yellow Salon was a surprise.
Lady Sedgwick stood as they entered, displaying the ramrod straight spine of a woman who’d spent her formative years strapped to a plank.
Mary dropped a stiff curtsey, aware as she did so that an expert was appraising her awkward performance. “Lady Sedgwick,” she murmured.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Barnett.” The clipped words were as sharp as glass but not grating. Her voice was low, pleasant, mellifluous; it was the type of accent Mary could ape for a thousand years without ever mastering. Lady Sedgwick positively dripped aristocrat.
Mary glanced at the other woman while her mother ordered tea from the hovering servant. The noblewoman was watching her, her eyes coolly assessing.
Lady Sedgwick was beautiful in an icy, untouchable way. Her smooth, immaculately coiffured hair was pale blonde and her skin was the color of fresh cream. Her eyes were an unusual slate-gray that reminded Mary of a frozen lake in the dead of winter. She was all muted tones and understated elegance and yet she had more presence than any woman Mary could recall meeting. She held herself like a queen, her dove-brown clothing managing to appear rich rather than dowdy.
Mrs. Barnett lowered herself into the chair across from Lady Sedgwick and smiled. “Thank you so much for agreeing to meet us on such short notice, my lady.”
“It is my pleasure.”
The door opened and not one but three servants entered bearing a tea tray of monolithic proportions. Mary experienced a pang of pity for her mother; Louisa Barnett would never understand that more was not better in the eyes of these aristocrats: it was just more proof of their climbing, pushing, vulgar nature.
“Will you pour, my dear?” Mrs. Barnett asked Mary.
Ah. It was going to be one of those days. Mary was to be put through her paces like a performing circus animal.
She poured the tea, conscious of every clink and clatter. Good, it was just as well that Lady Sedgwick understood that she would have her hands full if she attempted to civilize a barbarian who couldn’t even pour tea without creating a racket.
Once everyone had tea and biscuits Mary decided to take a hand in things before any more time was wasted. “My mother tells me you are a matchmaker, Lady Sedgwick.”
“Oh, Mary.” Her mother’s voice throbbed with mortification.
But Lady Sedgwick smiled—an expression that seemed genuine—and it transformed her from an ice queen into a breathtakingly beautiful woman. “The term is as accurate as any other and a good deal more polite than some.”
Like her speech, the countess’s poise went well beyond anything Mary could ever hope to achieve. The woman was grace personified and Mary couldn’t help admiring her even though social elegance had never been something she considered important.
“I do facilitate matrimonial arrangements, Miss Barnett, and I also offer advice on navigating the somewhat treacherous waters of the ton.”
“Deportment? Elocution?” Mary suggested.
“Yes, those as well, when necessary.”
Mary quirked an eyebrow and the other woman looked amused.
“I do not think you require counseling in those areas, Miss Barnett.”
The frisson of pleasure Mary felt at the countess’s compliment was irritating. What did she care if this woman thought her manners socially acceptable? They were socially acceptable—and why wouldn’t they be? Mary had gone to the most expensive finishing school in the country. True, she’d left that same school before she turned fifteen, but if two years hadn’t been long enough to absorb the basics of polite behavior what kind of an idiot would that make her?
She set her cup in her saucer without making a sound. “I’m not sure what my mother has told you, my lady, but it is my sister who requires your assistance.”
“Yes, Mrs. Barnett said as much.”
Ah, what a relief that was. “Well then, you hardly need me here. Perhaps I should—”
“I am here today on a matter that does not concern your sister.” To Mary’s surprise Lady Sedgwick’s cheeks tinted a delicate shade of pink. The addition of this slight amount of color to her face made the countess look younger than Mary’s first impression of her. It also intrigued Mary more than a little: what subject could make a woman like this blush?
“Yes, my lady?” Mary prodded.
“Mrs. Barnett gave me reason to believe you were contemplating marriage.”
Mary shot her mother a poisonous look that was wasted because Mrs. Barnett was pointedly ignoring her.
“I have begun to consider marriage,” she admitted.
“I hope you will not consider me impertinent, but I have recently been engaged by a new client—a gentleman of excellent character and breeding—who wishes to make himself known to you.
Mary could not have heard that correctly. “I—I beg your pardon? To me? Are you sure it isn’t my sister he’s thinking of? I’ve not been to a social function of any kind for—” she broke off. Lord, when had she last been anywhere that didn’t involve work?
Lady Sedgwick smiled. “No, it is you, Miss Barnett.”
Against her will, Mary asked the question, “Who is your client?”
“The Earl of Avington.”
Mrs. Barnett made a cooing sound, as if somebody had just launched a particularly spectacular firework, and then turned as red as a brick when she realized what she’d done. “An earl,” she murmured, as if this would excuse her lapse in propriety.
Mary found the woman’s words difficult to credit. Even with her vast fortune she’d not been able to attract so much as a baronet during her one agonizing Season almost ten years ago. It had been a painful experience, but not a surprising one: not with her background, her less than inspiring person, and her deformity. She realized her hand was absently stroking the rough skin at her neck and lowered it, looking up to meet Lady Sedgwick’s unreadable gaze.
“Are you quite sure the earl doesn’t wish for an introduction to me so that I might make him known to my sister?”
“Mary,” her mother chided once again. But Lady Sedgwick chuckled. Lord. She even laughed with grace and charm.
“No, Miss Barnett. He wishes to meet you.”
“That makes no sense.” She hadn’t meant to say that out loud, but the countess merely smiled.
So, what if an earl wanted to meet her? It was surprising her name was still in circulation given her lack of socializing and excessively private nature, but she was, after all, one of the wealthiest unmarried women in England.
An earl? Likely he was ancient, pox-riddled, and one step ahead of the dunners, in such desperate straits that he was willing to suffer her appearance to get his hands on millions of pounds.
Mary straightened her shoulders, ready to be done with this. “I am not attracted by titles, my lady.”
“But Mary,” her mother pleaded, “think of Jenny. Why, with such connections she would be welcome everywhere—by everyone. She could have everything you did not, Mary. Just think—”
Mary narrowed her eyes at her mother.
Even Louise Barnett—who possessed the sensitivity of a warthog—knew when she’d pushed too far.
Mary turned to the beautiful stranger, “I don’t recall hearing about the Earl of Avington before.” Her words gave the false impression that Mary was conversant with societies’ luminaries when, in truth, she would have been hard pressed to name enough lords or lady to fill the fingers of one hand.
“He only recently inherited when his elder brother died this past Christmas. He is fairly young—not much past thirty.” She paused and gave Mary a speculative look, as if wondering how much information to convey. Mary could have told her it didn’t matter what she said, any man she considered marrying would undergo a complete investigation. Mary was not the kind of woman to leave anything to chance.
Lady Sedgwick continued, “In addition to his brother’s widow and three daughters, the earl is responsible for two younger sisters, a younger brother, and a number of other dependents.” Her forthright gaze flickered, as if something about this subject was uncomfortable or difficult for her.
If Mary had possessed antennae they would have been twitching. “Are you personally acquainted with Lord Avington, my lady?”
“I am,” the countess said, her expression once again unreadable.
Well, that was interesting, but hardly surprising—all these people were either related or knew each other.
So, an earl wished to meet her, did he? If she simply said, “Thank you, but no thank you,” she would appear to be a selfish spinster who did not care about her younger sister’s happiness. But if she said yes, wouldn’t this just complicate a decision that she had already made? Mr. Brown was a known quantity; this earl was not.
Mary opened her mouth to thank the woman for her time and take her leave. But instead, she said, “Can you tell me something about the earl’s family?”
It was Mary’s voice, so the question must have come out of her mouth.
“It is an extensive family that hails from Norfolk. They do have a London residence but it has been leased for years, as has another in Yorkshire. Avington Park is their family seat. You may have heard of it?”
Mary had not, but she could imagine it: enormous, ancient, and in wretched condition. It would require a sum equivalent to that spent on the Peninsular War to repair, maintain, and operate the behemoth. Falling agricultural prices would mean the land would be unlikely to support the property.
So, Lady Sedgwick was tactfully saying the earl possessed a ramshackle estate, was impoverished, burdened with a large family, and that every resource was spoken for. And why was that? Had the prior earl been unlucky? Reckless? Thoughtless? Was it the work of just one man or generations of wastrels?
What of this new earl? Was he a drunkard? A gambler? A philanderer? Why was he looking at Mary? A woman so reclusive as to be a hermit. A woman who was well-known to be hideously damaged.
“Miss Barnett?” Lady Sedgwick wore an expression of genuine concern. “Please do not feel compelled to grant introductions to anyone you do not wish to meet.”
Mary looked from the countess to her mother, who’d become even redder; Mary was amazed the older woman could blush after all her scheming. Mrs. Barnett seemed to have only two goals in her life—marrying off both her daughters—and she pursued her objectives with the relentlessness of a ferret tracking rats. Louisa Barnett might blush—embarrassed to be caught—but beneath that blush was iron-willed determination. If Mary did not agree to meet this earl, she would never hear the end of it.
“Why does his lordship not wish to meet my younger sister, who has only recently come out?” Mary asked bluntly, earning another scandalized look from her mother.
“The earl is disinclined to marry a wife just from the schoolroom.”
Mary knew the man would change his inclination quickly enough when he saw Mary and Jenny side-by-side. After all, what kind of man wanted an older, scrawny, and badly scarred heiress instead of a nubile, gorgeous, and charming one? Or perhaps he thought a damaged, older woman would be so grateful that she would be more tractable?
Mary allowed herself a small smile at the thought. Once again: what did she care what he thought? She might need to marry to gain control of her father’s empire, but she didn’t need to marry a title. Indeed, that was the one part of this appalling tangle she could be grateful for: her father—who’d been a tad bit obsessed with status—at least had not burdened her with stipulations on the type of man she had to marry.
But what about Jenny? Mary bit her lip; was it fair to Jenny to refuse such an opportunity? With the power of an earldom behind her, Jenny would not have to choose from the dissipated ranks of the aristocracy, nor would she need to look lower, to the people whom she was from, but no longer of.
And perhaps an earl might be useful in Mary’s upcoming canal negotiations?
She perked up at that thought.
Lady Sedgwick set down her cup and saucer and Mary realized the other woman was watching her, but not with impatience. Indeed, Mary thought she saw a glimmer of respect in her gray eyes. Or maybe she envied Mary her ability to make her own decisions—at least to a point. Because the truth was that Mary wasn’t free; she was bound by the strings of love.
Not just love for her sister, but love for the life she lived. She loved the richness of her days, the mental challenges of managing and growing her successful business, and she especially loved that she could pursue her ideas without having to seek approval from somebody else—from some man.
It had long been her dream never to be under the thumb of any man, and she’d lived that dream these past few years. How many women of her age, who were not widows, enjoyed such freedom? And all thanks to her beloved Da.
But then he’d snatched it away with his one final, wretched clause in his will.
Mary swallowed a bubble of bitter laughter as she considered how Da would have viewed her new opportunity. His Mary to become a countess? Lucas Barnett would have crowed it from the rooftops.
She looked up to find her mother staring, a deep groove of concern between her brown eyes, as if she dreaded what Mary might say next.
Lady Sedgwick’s expression was kind, patient, and—if Mary wasn’t mistaken—pitying.
Heat crept up her neck and face; if there was one emotion she absolutely loathed, it was pity. If this impoverished earl could be audacious enough to dangle after her fortune through a matchmaker, then Mary could be audacious enough to meet him face-to-face. She feared no man.
“I have no objection to meeting his lordship. We shall invite him to dine with my mother, sister, and I.”
His lordship would change his mind about which sister to marry quickly enough when he saw them side by side.