The Diabolical Baron
Caroline Hanscome, who dreams of music more than men, is offered marriage by a jaded lord, Jason Kincaid. Jason had drawn her name from among those his friend had offered. Though Caroline’s parents are thrilled, she herself finds her fiancé alarming. And when Jason meets up with his first love, he questions whether he should have been more sober before choosing a bride. Regency Romance by Mary Jo Putney; originally published by Signet.
“Fine color this wine has, George,” said Radford as he held the glass up to the candlelight. “I’m glad I laid in several cases’ worth. By the way, I believe I’ll be getting married.”
“I say, Jason, perhaps we’ve had enough to drink. It sounded distinctly like you said you were going to marry, and when one starts hearing voices it’s time to lay off the wine. Otherwise, I’ll have a headache that would flatten a plow horse on the morrow,” said Mr. Fitzwilliam with owl-like solemnity.
The friends did not much resemble each other. Lord Radford associated with the sporting Corinthian set and affected an elegantly simple mode of dress which perfectly suited his athletic form. Shorter, fair-haired and slighter in build, the Honorable George Fitzwilliam looked much younger than Radford, though in fact only three years separated them. While be was described by some as a “fashionable fribble,” it was an unjust accusation that would have wounded his sensibilities. Since he was charming and correct in his manners, hostesses always welcomed him for his willingness to dance with even the most regrettable female guest with never a loss of good nature.
“You heard me correctly, George. As my Aunt Honoria has kindly pointed out, it is time I married. So I shall do the deed.”
“How splendid! What lovely lady has consented to be be your bride?”
“None yet. That’s why I wanted to talk to you. “You’re much more au courant with the fashionable world than I. What is the selection this Season?”
“Do you just mean to choose one, like a horse at Tattersall’s?”
“George, you do me an injustice! I spend considerably more thought on selecting my horses.”
“But…but what about love?” The Honorable George was something of an authority on the subject since he succumbed to the emotion at least half a dozen times a year.
“Bah, love is an illusion of the young and feckless, an illusion maintained by lady novelists for their own enrichment. How many couples of our order have you know to stay ‘in love’ for any length of time?”
“Well…there are the Grovelands…no, he’s taken to keeping opera dancers again. Lord and Lady Wilberton…no, I heard they had a flaming row at a ball last month and haven’t spoken since. And…well, my own parents are dashed fond of each other. You see?”
“On the contrary, you confirm my point. Surely theirs was an arranged marriage? A system that has gone out of style, but which had much to commend it. A rational analysis of family background, fortune, and station in life is surely the best foundation for a successful union.”
“I very much doubt it,” George said boldly. “And even if you don’t believe in love, young ladies do.”
Lord Radford’s mouth crooked cynically. “I’m sure any young lady will find it easy to fall in love with my title and fortune even if my person fails to please. I have been defending myself from matchmaking mamas and ambitious debutants for years. Now that I am ready to throw down my handkerchief, I should have my pick of the available fillies.”
“Jason, hasn’t there ever been anyone that you wished to marry”
“Well…once when I was very young,” Lord Radford said with a softening of his eyes. He gently swirled the wine in his crystal goblet, divining the past from its burgundy depths. “I was just down from Cambridge, and I was in the shires when I met her. I thought she was the most dazzling female I’d ever laid eyes on. Rode like Diana, hair like flame, and a figure that would keep a Cyprian wrapped in jewels for the rest of her life. It appeared to be love at first sight, but when I offered her my hand, my not inconsiderable fortune, and my honorable name, she threw them back in my face.”
“You actually made an offer for her, and she turned you down?” George gasped. Having seen women languish after his friend for years, he was hard put to imagine so firm a rejection. “Was she attached to someone else?”
“She gave every evidence of returning my feelings,” Radford said, then stopped in mid-sentence at an unexpectedly vivid stab of long-buried pain. A gentleman could not talk about it, but he had never forgotten those forbidden kisses stolen in the garden one magic night. Such sweetness, and such fire…. He had searched in many places for their equal, but without success. And finally, of course, he had ceased searching.
He shook off the memory and continued. “And one would have thought she would welcome the match. Her birth was unexceptionable, but her father had gambled away his fortune and they were living in reduced circumstances. She was due to be presented the next Season, but it’s doubtful the family could have afforded to have done the thing in style. It would be hard to catch a duke if looking shabby genteel.”
“Do you think she would have accepted you if you’d been Lord Radford instead of a younger son?”
“I have to say she probably wasn’t hanging out for a title. I’m not even sure she knew my father was Lord Radford; it all happened so quickly. I later heard she married a military man and went off to India. No doubt she has long since succumbed to fat and freckles, if what I heard about the Indian cuisine and climate is true.”
“But surely that proves that not all women are mercenary.”
“It proves women are incomprehensible. At least the mercenary ones are easy to understand. Since they are the vast majority, I shouldn’t have any trouble selecting the future Lady Radford. To get back to my earlier question, who is available this Season who would be suitable? You are much more in touch with the Marriage Mart than I—choose the future Lady Radford for me.”
“Jason, do you seriously think that any girl you offer for will accept you?”
“In a word, yes. Or to be more accurate, she’ll accept my fortune and title.”
“Would you care to wager on that—staking your team of grays on it?”
Radford considered for a moment, then drawled, “It depends. What is your stake, and what are the conditions?”
“Let’s see…what if I bet a season of salmon fishing at my Scottish uncle’s estate? He allows only a dozen guests a year, and I’ll give you my position if you win.” George made the offer with a touch of guilt. He wasn’t overfond of fishing himself, but since Jason was addicted to all forms of sport, the incomparable Craigmore waters would make a desirable prize. And if Jason lost the wager, his magnificent team of grays would allow the Honorable George to cut a considerable dash at the fashionable park promenades.
“As to conditions,” he continued, “give me a list of your requirements in a wife, and I will write down the name of every eligible lady who fits them. Then we’ll put the names in a bowl and you can draw one out. You must take the chosen lady to the altar within six months to win the wager.”
“Done! It is as good a way of choosing a wife as any other. Now, my requirements: She must be of good birth, naturally, and with no madness, serious health problems, or really offensive behavior in her family.”
“You’ve just eliminated half of the ton!” George chuckled. “Still, not an unreasonable requirement. What else?”
“She must be passably good-looking—no sour-faced antidotes. After all, I shall have to see her in the daylight sometimes. And I don’t want any spoiled, petulant Beauties who are used to having odes written to their eyebrows and who expect men to languish at their feet.”
“Right, no Beauties. Is there anything else you particularly want? Think carefully, you are choosing your life’s companion here, Jason.”
“No need to make a great drama of this—any well-brought-up, docile maiden of average looks will do. How many can you come up with?”
The next half-hour was punctuated by the scratching of a pen and George’s muttering of such phrases as, “No, Miss Emerson-Smythe won’t do, she has a distinct squint,” and “Hamilton’s run off his legs and would demand some ridiculous settlement for that frumpy daughter of his.” A bottle of wine later, he had twenty-some names ready for the drawing.
“There you are, Jason, a careful selection of the most eligible young ladies the polite world can offer. Choose your future!” Mr. Fitzwilliam dropped the slips of paper in a bowl, first dumping the nuts it contained on the table, then swirled the bowl ceremoniously and held it well above his head.
Lord Radford also stood, carefully adjusted his cuffs, and reached into the bowl. A moment’s fumbling, then he pulled a slip out, opened it, and stared at the name.
“Well, who is she?” George said eagerly.
“Caroline Hanscombe. The name is unfamiliar to me. What can you tell me about her?”
His friend looked a bit disappointed as possession of the coveted team of grays became unlikely. “She shouldn’t be too much of a challenge. She’s a quiet little thing with not much conversation. Not unattractive, but two or three years older than the average debutante. Almost on the shelf. Her parents kept her back to present her with a younger sister. Her father, Sir Alfred Hanscombe, is a bit of an oaf but wellborn enough. The sister, Gina, is a jolly strapping wench, much livelier—but she’s nearly betrothed. Still, I’m sure Miss Hanscombe will make you a fine, tractable wife, or I should have entered her name.”
“Caroline Kincaid, Lady Radford. It sounds well enough. I suppose she’ll be at Almack’s tomorrow night with the rest of the husband hunting maidens. Lord, I haven’t been to one of those stuffy assemblies in years—courting has hazards I hadn’t anticipated. Shall we drink to my future wife?”
Raising their glasses, they solemnly clinked them together. “To Lady Radford!”