When the Marquess Met His Match
In the first of a dazzling new series, USA Today bestselling author Laura Lee Guhrke introduces London’s most renowned matchmaker—and a scoundrel intent on seducing his way to the altar.
She’s the matchmaker…
Lady Belinda Featherstone’s job is to guide American heiresses to matrimony, and away from men like Nicholas, Marquess of Trubridge. But the charming, disreputable marquess needs a wealthy bride, and he hires Belinda to help him find one. Her task seems easy: find that scoundrel the sort of wife he so richly deserves. But Nicholas’s hot, searing kiss soon proves her task will be anything but easy.
He’s the perfect match…
Nicholas plans to wed a rich, pretty young darling to restore his fortune, and he’s happy to pay a marriage broker to help him. But one taste of Belinda’s lips, and Nicholas’s sensible scheme to marry for money goes awry, and he yearns to show his beautiful matchmaker he’s the perfect match…for her.
Belinda hung back as the waltz came to an end, waiting just long enough for him to return Rosalie to the care of her mother before she came to his side. At once, before he could engage the girl in further conversation, she latched onto his arm.
“You haven’t yet danced with me, Trubridge,” she said, forcing out a laugh. “There is another waltz beginning, and I love the waltz. Shall we?”
She gave him no chance to think of an excuse to refuse. Her arm through his, she turned, pulling him with her and practically dragging him toward the dance floor. To her relief, he allowed himself to be dragged.
“Lady Featherstone, you honor me,” he said as he faced her and gave a bow.
“Honoring you is not what I feel like doing at this moment, believe me,” she answered, smiling at him through clenched teeth as she sank down in a responding curtsy. “I am contemplating homicide or torture,” she went on as she caught up her train and straightened with its loop around her wrist. “But I can’t decide which appeals to me more.”
“You can make up your mind while we dance. Speaking of which,” he added as she lifted one of his gloved hands in hers and slapped the other to her waist, “do you lead when you waltz, too, or merely during the preliminaries?”
“That depends,” she countered sweetly. “Can I waltz you straight to hell?”
“I’d adore it, since it’s a place I confess, I’ve wished you to once or twice during the past two days. But if that happens,” he added with an apologetic look, “you’ll have to spend eternity with me.”
She shuddered visibly. “Perish the thought.”
The waltz began, and though it occurred to Belinda how gratifying it would be to tread on his feet in her high-heeled slippers, she resisted the temptation. Instead, she racked her brain for ideas, but she knew there was really only one option. She would have to retract her refusal and help him find a wife. If she did, some other girl’s heart, fortune, and virtue might be at risk, but she’d have to worry about that later. Right now, Rosalie was her most important consideration. “All right,” she said. “You win.”
“I win?” he echoed. “What does that mean, exactly?”
“I mean the war is over. I…” She paused, hating that she had to give in. “I surrender.”
“Do you, now?” His gaze roamed over her face. “And in this surrender, what shall you yield to me?”
Lord, she thought, this man could make anything sound naughty. At that thought, an inexplicable heat curled in her belly, but she dampened it at once and spoke again. “If you leave Rosalie alone, and if you swear you won’t risk placing her or any other innocent girl in a compromising situation, I will use my influence to help you find someone else.”
“I see.” He tilted his head as if considering it, but if she’d hoped steering him away from her friend would be as easy as that, she was mistaken. “I don’t see why I need your help at all, now that I’ve met Miss Harlow.”
“It’s because of me, isn’t it?” She stared at him, dismayed. You’re taking revenge on me because I went to that newspaper.”
His fingers tightened at her waist, pulling her an inch closer as they danced. “I have my flaws, Lady Featherstone, but exacting vengeance upon women is not one of them.”
“Then why her?”
“Why not her?” he countered. “She’s quite pretty, amiable—a delightful girl all around.”
“Well, yes,” he said, sounding nauseatingly agreeable. “We’ve already established I can’t afford to marry a poor girl.”
“Would I? Being such a jaded—and apparently ancient—fellow, I might find Miss Harlow’s youth and innocence to be charming, refreshing qualities. Why, she might even make me feel young and spry again.”
Belinda gave him a wry look in answer to that bit of nonsense. “Don’t be absurd. You know as well as I do that she’s too young for you. And her youth, her background, and her temperament make her ill-prepared to be a duchess.”
“Ah, but she won’t be a duchess yet. Plenty of time for her to learn how it’s done while she’s merely a marchioness.”
“Is there plenty of time? Your father could die tomorrow.”
“A delightful prospect, I grant you, but—alas—one unlikely to happen. I wouldn’t be that lucky.”
“Will you please stop making jokes?”
“What makes you think I was joking?” His voice was still lighthearted and jovial, yet even as he spoke, she watched something flicker in those warm, tawny eyes, something dangerous that reminded her of the lion about to spring, and she realized he wasn’t joking at all.
Belinda wondered what could have caused the enmity that existed between him and Landsdowne even as she reminded herself that it was none of her affair. “The fact that you regard your father’s death as a fortunate circumstance is something I do not wish to explore. Let’s return to the point at issue, which is that Rosalie is not for you.”
The dangerous glimmer vanished from his eyes, like a candle snuffed out, but she knew she had not imagined it. “Tell me, are you always this sure of yourself and your assessments?”
“Well, I do this sort of thing for my living, you know.”
“Granted, and if you had pegged me accurately, I might place more value upon your opinion. But as it is…” He shrugged. “You’ll have to do better than this if you want me to eliminate Rosalie from consideration. Aside from her youth and her inexperience with future duchess duty, do you have any other reasons why I should not pursue her?”
“You haven’t spent enough time considering other women?” She winced at her own words even before he began laughing.
“Is there no way to satisfy you, Lady Featherstone? A day ago, you accused me of having too much experience with women. Now, you say I haven’t enough?”
Belinda gave into temptation and stepped on his foot.
He grimaced, but he didn’t miss a step. “Careful,” he warned. “Causing me pain won’t help convince me.”
“Then stop toying with me.”
“I’m not. The fact is, I like Rosalie, and I see no reason why my affection for her should not continue to grow. It might even become genuine love. And she seems fond of me. You said yourself that fondness is a solid foundation for matrimony—”
“Yes, yes, I know what I said,” she interrupted, not in any mood to have her own words used against her. “But this fondness you speak of is superficial at best. The two of you aren’t well acquainted enough for anything deeper. Not yet. If you were to withdraw now, no one’s feelings would be hurt. And as I said, I will help you find someone else.”
“I’m still not sure that’s enough to persuade me.”
Belinda began to feel truly desperate. “For heaven’s sake, what else do you want?”
His lashes lowered, and the slow gaze he ran down her body was as tangible as a caress. “What else do you have to offer?”
Her heart slammed against her ribs, and stupidly, she stumbled.
“Steady on.” His hands tightened, keeping her upright until she could regain her balance. “For someone who moves in high society, you don’t dance very well. You keep treading on my feet.”
“Your feet aren’t the only parts of your anatomy I’d like to tread on,” she muttered.
That made him smile, the wretched man. “All the reasons you offer could apply just as well to every other wealthy American debutante in town. By your reckoning, I ought to steer clear of any woman who is under thirty, sweet, rich, and who might have the slightest chance of falling in love with me.”
That, she thought, would be ideal, but she refrained from saying so. “Rosalie is my main concern.”
His smile faded to a serious expression and he eyed her thoughtfully. “What’s really behind this?” he asked. “You hardly know me, yet you are convinced my marriage to your friend would be disastrous. What makes you so sure? If you explained your reasoning, if you told me the truth, I might be persuaded to consider someone else.”
“The truth?” As she repeated those words, something inside Belinda snapped. “You want the truth?” She jerked out of his hold, grabbed him by the arm, and started off the dance floor with him in tow.
“Leading again?” he asked as she propelled him toward the French doors that opened onto the terrace. “I suppose next you’ll be wearing trousers and petitioning Parliament for the right to vote.”
Belinda didn’t respond to that. She couldn’t. She was in no frame of mind for his nonsense. She was having enough difficulty keeping her temper in check long enough to get him outside where they could have a flaming row without being observed by all of society. She dragged him through the open doors and out into the cool night air. Fortunately, no one else was outside at present, and she only had to pull him a few yards away from the open doors before she could let fly.
“If you want the truth, I shall be happy to give it to you.” She yanked her arm out of his and faced him. “I don’t want you to marry Rosalie because you’ll hurt her, damn you! You’re handsome, you’re glib, you’re witty, you can be even—sometimes—be charming, and you’re a man of vast experience who knows a great deal about women. You’re far out of Rosalie’s depth. She’ll fall madly in love with you, only to discover after you’ve married her that you never loved her.”
He didn’t reply. He didn’t even try, and his silence only flared her temper higher.
“She’ll realize you never cared for her at all and wanted her only for her money. She’ll learn you never had any intention of honoring the marriage vows you took, and that the promise you made to love and cherish her was a lie. And the part about forsaking all others? When you return to whichever mistress you happen to have at the moment, she’ll realize that was a lie, too.” She could hear her voice shaking, but she pressed on. “At first, she’ll hope her love will change you, and when that doesn’t work, she’ll be heartbroken and disillusioned, with no choice but to stand by, powerless, expected to be a good and proper wife while you spend her money on your pleasures and she tries to convince herself that your behavior is just something all British lords do and she has to accept it because she’s stuck with you for good. Now are my reasons clear?”
She stopped, out of breath, and they stared at each other as the lilting strains of the waltz gave way to the lively cue of a polka. It seemed an eternity before he spoke.
“I never realized Featherstone was such a bastard.”
She blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“I didn’t know him all that well, granted, but I always thought him an amusing, delightful fellow. I knew about his women, of course, but I didn’t know you, or why the two of you were estranged, and I didn’t really dwell on Featherstone’s qualities as a husband. If someone had asked me to consider him in that light, I daresay I’d have offered a different opinion of the man.”
Belinda lifted her chin a notch. “Leave my late husband out of this. He has nothing to do with it.”
“He has everything to do with it, when I’m being tarred with the same brush. You don’t know me well enough to judge what sort of man I am or what sort of husband I would be, but you’ve formed a very definite opinion on the subject. You think I’m like him.”
“Are you saying you would be any different?”
“Damned right I’d be different. As I told you, I’m prepared to make any woman I’m considering fully aware of my situation and the financial aspects of our union beforehand. And I would never expect fidelity from my wife without offering it in return. And when a man has a beautiful woman who adores him waiting at home, he’s not only a prize bastard for going elsewhere, he’s also a fool.”
“Oh.” Belinda didn’t know what else to say. She’d probably said far too much already. She bit her lip, assailed by sudden doubt, something she didn’t often have cause to feel, and she looked away.
“You sized me up before I’d even set foot inside your drawing room,” he went on, “and I’ll wager that not once since then have you wondered if your assessment might be inflexible, unfair, or just plain wrong.”
His words echoed Nancy’s from earlier in the evening, but this time, she could not dismiss the notion so easily. Was she being unfair? There was only one way to find out. “You think I’m wrong about you? Then prove it. Agree to my proposition, and show me you’re not the man I’ve pegged you to be.”
“I’m not sure that’s possible. You’ve buried your knife so deep in my back, I’m not sure I can get it out again.”
“Take it as a challenge. You said yourself you can never resist a challenge.”
A wry smile curved his mouth at having his own words used against him. “So I did. Very well, I’ll veer off Rosalie if you agree to help me find someone more suitable.”
“And will you promise not to place any young woman at risk to be compromised?”
The smile widened into a grin. “I promise no one will catch us.”
“That’s not the same thing!”
“That’s the most I’m willing to offer. Take it or leave it.”
“Very well.” As she put her gloved hand in his, she met his amused gaze with a meaningful one of her own. “But whenever I introduce you to a young lady, I’m not letting either of you out of my sight.”
He chuckled. “Fair enough. How do we begin this sort of thing?”
“Call upon me tomorrow at two o’clock and I shall interview you as I would any potential client.”
“Interview me?” He seemed surprised. “What on earth for? You know quite a bit about me already.”
“But I don’t know what sort of woman you would wish to marry. Do you prefer a quiet woman, or one who carries the conversation? Do you find women with brains attractive? Or does an intelligent woman intimidate you?”
That made him laugh. “I’ve only been intimidated by one woman in my life.”
“What woman is that? Your mother?”
“No. I don’t remember my mother. She died when I was a small boy. The only woman who has ever been able to intimidate me was Nana.”
“My nanny. She weighed probably eighteen stone, could wield a knitting needle like a weapon, and always managed to know when I was lying. She was the kindest, most wonderful woman I’ve ever known.”
“Was?” Belinda echoed. “What happened to her?”
Not a muscle of his face moved, he continued to smile, but something she couldn’t quite pinpoint changed in his expression. It was as if he’d just donned a mask. “My father sacked her when I was eight.”
“I don’t know. But if I were to guess—” He broke off and looked away. “I think it was because I loved her too much.”
“But that’s ridiculous.”
“Is it?” He looked at her again, his smile still in place. “You don’t know much about Landsdowne, do you?”
She frowned, uneasy, not liking the strange, masklike quality of his smile. She wasn’t sure she wanted to pull back the mask and find the man beneath.
“I already told you what I’m looking for,” he went on, and she forced herself to stop speculating about his deeper qualities. “It isn’t complicated. I need a wife with a dowry, I’d like one who is pleasant company, and I’d prefer one who is pretty.”
“And that’s all you require?”
He considered. “If she were American, or any other nationality other than English, that would be good, too.”
“Other than English?” she echoed, not certain she’d heard him right.
He nodded, confirming that there was nothing wrong with her hearing. “And if she’s Roman Catholic, or Jewish, or Methodist, all the better. Any religion but Church of England.”
Belinda was beginning to feel as if she’d stepped through Alice’s looking glass, for there were things here she simply did not understand. “But your family is Church of England.”
“Yes,” he agreed with a chuckle. “Exactly so.”
He gave her a penitent look, but she greatly feared he wasn’t the least bit chastened by her lecture. “Belinda, I fear my interests and pastimes don’t quite come up snuff for a man of my lauded upbringing. I have no desire to graft the world’s first blue rose, for example, or write perfect poetry, or breed a superior foxhound. Grafting roses takes far more patience than I possess, I think worrying about tercets and quatrains is just plain silly, and I hate riding to hounds. Why, the fox has almost no chance of getting away, which I’ve always found terribly unfair. There’s a requirement, if you like: a wife who doesn’t care for foxhunting.”
She shook her head in disbelief. “You truly expect no more of your wife than that?”
“I try not to have expectations about anything, to be honest.” His amusement vanished, his expression hardened. “Nothing causes more pain and disappointment than unfulfilled expectations.”
“That may be, but it’s hardly helpful,” she grumbled. “What about her appearance? Are there certain physical traits you prefer? What are your interests? Your pastimes? Your politics? What?” she added as gave an unexpected laugh. “What is so amusing?”
“You make finding a wife sound like visiting the tailor. No, not this one. The wool’s a bit too coarse. No, that one’s too tight in the shoulders. And the sleeves on this one are too long. My politics, my pastimes…are any of those things important?”
Belinda decided it would be easier if she accepted that everything about this man was going to defy her conventions. “I take it you think they are not important?”
He shrugged. “Not really, no. Until I’ve met her, any considerations other than the ones I’ve given you don’t matter.”
“How can you say that? Why would a potential bride’s personal attributes, interests, and character not matter?”
“I said they don’t matter until I’ve met her,” he corrected. “You could find dozens of women who meet all the qualifications I could possibly require and who possess all the attributes I would most prefer, but if I don’t feel something passionate when I look at her, if I don’t want to yank her into my arms and kiss her breathless and pull her clothes off, none of those requirements will mean a thing.”
Belinda stared at him, an image flashing across her mind of him with his face buried against some woman’s neck, his arms around her, and his hands unlacing the stays at her back.
Her throat went dry.
“Is something wrong, Lady Featherstone? You look quite flushed all of a sudden.”
The amusement in his voice shattered the picture in her mind like a rock thrown at a mirror, and she strove to recover her poise. “I’m quite well. I’m still a bit warm from the dancing, that’s all. And if I am to assist you,” she added with some asperity, “I would ask you to refrain from these lurid descriptions of your animal passions. It’s most unseemly.”
That got a genuine smile from him. “I already told you passion was important to me.”
“So you did, but in finding the perfect wife for you, such a criterion is hardly help—”
She stopped, her own words presenting her the perfect way to handle this situation, a way that would not only give him what he wanted and get him out of her hair, but do so in a way that would save any worthy young ladies of London from life with a fortune hunting rakehell.
“Lady Featherstone?” he prompted in the wake of her sudden silence. “Is something wrong? Have I shocked you beyond speech?”
Belinda gave up on discerning his preferences. “Not at all,” she said, returning her attention to him even as her brain worked furiously. “Far be it from me to make my task more difficult than it needs to be.”
His eyes narrowed a fraction in suspicion, and it took everything she had to keep her expression bland and innocent, even as her idea made her want to chortle with glee.
“You are prepared to be so open-minded,” she said with a shrug, “this ought to be the easiest match I’ve ever brought about. Meet me at Claridge’s tomorrow at five o’clock. There, I shall introduce you to a girl I believe just might meet your exact requirements.”
With that, she decided to depart before he could ask any questions, and she turned to walk back toward the ballroom, but his voice stopped her before she’d taken three steps.
She turned and looked at him over her shoulder. “Yes?”
“There is one thing.” He paused a moment, then went on, “Despite what’s been said of me, and what you think of me, I am not like John Featherstone. I wish you could believe that.”
“I’m not the one you have to convince, Lord Trubridge. And you’ll have every chance to demonstrate to your future wife that I’ve been mistaken about your character. That’s what those tedious courtship rituals are for.”
He groaned in protest, and Belinda smiled as she walked away. Now that Rosalie was safe, she was going to enjoy this.