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Monday Puzzler > August 10, 2020: A Marriage of Convenience

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message 1: by Manda (new)

Manda Collins (manda_collins) | 1919 comments Mod
1888

It was love at first sight.

Not that there was anything wrong with love at first sight, but Heroine Surname had not been raised to fall in love at all, let alone hard and fast.

She was the only surviving child of a very prosperous man who manufactured tinned goods and other preserved edibles. It had been decided, long before she could comprehend such things, that she was going to Marry Well—that via her person, the family's fortune would be united with an ancient and illustrious title.
Heroine's childhood had therefore consisted of endless lessons: music, drawing, penmanship, elocution, deportment, and, when there was time left, modern languages. At ten, she successfully floated down a long flight of stairs with three books on her head. By twelve, she could exchange hours of pleasantries in French, Italian, and German. And on the day of her fourteenth birthday, Heroine, not at all a natural musician, at last conquered Listz's Douze Grandes Études, by dint of sheer effort and determination.

That same year, with her father coming to the conclusion that she would never be a great beauty, or indeed a beauty of any kind, the search began for a highborn groom desperate enough to marry a girl from whose family wealth derived from—heaven forbid—sardines.

The search came to an end twenty months later. Mr. Surname was not particularly thrilled with the choice, as the earl who agreed to take his daughter in exchange for his money had a title that was neither particularly ancient nor particularly illustrious. But the stigma attached to tinned sardines was such that even this earl demanded Mr. Surname's last penny.

And then, after months of haggling, after all the agreements had finally been drawn up and signed, the earl had the inconsideration to drop dead at the age of thirty-three. Or rather, Mr. Surname viewed his death a thoughtless affront. Heroine, in the privacy of her room, wept.

She'd seen the earl only twice and had not been overjoyed with either his anemic looks or his dour temperament. But he, in his way, had had as little choice as she. The estate had come to him in terrible disrepair. His schemes of improvement had made little to no difference. And when he'd tried to land an heiress of a more exalted background, he'd failed resoundingly, likely because he'd been so unimpressive in both appearance and demeanor.

A more spirited girl might have rebelled against such an unprepossessing groom, more than twice her age. A more enterprising one might have persuaded her parents to let her take her chances on the matrimonial mart for a more palatable husband. Heroine was not either of those girls.

She was a quiet, serious child who understood instinctively that much was expected of her. And while it was desirable that she could play all twelve of the Grandes Études rather than just eleven, in the end her training was not about music—or languages, or deportment—but about discipline, control, and self-denial.

Love was never a consideration. Her opinions were never a consideration. Best that she remained detached from the process, for she was but a cog in the great machinery of Marrying Well.

That night, however, she sobbed for this man she scarcely knew, a man, who, like her, had no say in the direction of his own life.

But the great machinery of Marrying Well ground on. Two weeks after the late Earl Hero's funeral, the Surname hosted his distant cousin the new Earl Hero for dinner.

Heroine knew very little of the late earl. She knew even less of the new one, except that he was only nineteen, still in his last year at Eton. His youth disturbed her somewhat—she'd been prepared to marry an older man, not someone her own age. But other than that, she dwelled on him not at all: Her marriage was a business transaction; the less personal involvement from her, the more smoothly things would run.

Unfortunately, her indifference—and her peace of mind—came to an abrupt end the moment the new earl walked in the door.

Heroine was not without thoughts of her own. She very carefully watched what she said and did, but seldom censored her mind: it was the only freedom she had.

Sometimes, as she lay in bed at night, she thought of falling in love, in the ways of a Jane Austen novel—her mother did not allow her to read the Brontes. Love, it seemed to her, was a result born of careful, shrewd observation. Miss Elizabeth Bennet, for example, did not truly consider Mr. Darcy to have the makings of a fine husband until she had seen the majesty of Pemberley, which stood for Mr. Darcy's equally majestic character.

Heroine imagined herself a wealthy, independent widow, inspecting the gentlemen available to her with wry, but humane wit. And if she were fortunate enough, finding that one gentleman of character, sense, and good humor.

That seemed to her the epitome of romantic love: the quiet satisfaction of two kindred souls brought together in gentle harmony.

She was, therefore, entirely unprepared for her internal upheaval, when the new Earl Hero was shown into the family drawing room. Like a visitation of angels, there flared a bright white glow in the center of her vision. Haloed by this supernatural light stood a young man who must have folded his wings just that moment so as to bear a passing resemblance to a mortal.

An instinctive sense of self-preservation made her lower her face before she'd quite comprehended the geography of his features. But she was all agitation inside, a sensation that was equal parts glee and misery.

Surely a mistake had been made. The late earl could not possibly have a cousin who looked like this. Any moment now he'd be introduced as the new earl's schoolmate, or perhaps the guardian Colonel Guardian's son.
“Heroine, let me present Lord Hero. Lord Hero, my daughter.”

Dear God, it was him. This mind-bogglingly handsome young man was the new Lord Hero.

She had to lift her eyes. Lord Hero returned a steady, blue gaze. They shook hands.

“Miss Surname,” he said.

Her heart thrashed drunkenly. She was not accustomed to such complete and undiluted masculine attention. Her mother had always been attentive and solicitous. But her father only ever spoke to her with one eye still on his newspaper.

Lord Hero, however, was focused entirely on her, as if she were the most important person he'd ever met.

“My lord,” she murmured, acutely aware of the warmth on her face, and the old-master perfection of his cheekbones.

Dinner was announced on the heels of the introductions. The earl offered his arm to Mrs. Surname and it was with great envy that Heroine took Colonel Guardian's arm.

She glanced at the earl. He happened to be looking her way. Their eyes held for a moment. Heat pumped through her veins. She was jittery, stunned almost.

What was the matter with her? Millicent Surname, milquetoast extraordinaire, through whose veins dripped the lack of passion, did not experience such strange flashes and flutters. She'd never even read a Bronte novel, for goodness's sake. Why did she suddenly feel like one of the younger Bennet girls, the ones who giggled and shrieked and had absolutely no control over themselves?

Dimly she realized that she knew nothing of the earl's character or temperament. That she was behaving in a shallow and foolish manner, putting the cart before the horse. But the chaos inside her had a life and a will of its own.

As they entered the drawing room, Mrs. Guardian said, “What a lovely table. Don't you agree, Hero?”

“I do,” said the earl.

His name was Hero—the family name and the title were the same. But apparently those who knew him well called him Hero.

Hero, her lips and teeth played with the syllable. Hero.

At dinner, the earl let Colonel Guardian and Mrs. Surname carry the majority of the conversation. Was he shy? Did he still obey the tenet that children should be seen and not heard? Or was he using the opportunity to assess his possible future in-laws—and his possible future wife?

Except he didn't appear to be studying her. Not that he could do so easily: a three-tier, seven-branch silver epergne, sprouting orchids, lilies, and tulips from every appendage, blocked the direct line of sight between them.

Through petals and stalks, she could make out his occasional smiles—each of which made her ears hot—directed at Mrs. Surname to his left. But he looked more often in her father's direction.

Her grandfather and her uncle had built the Surname fortune. Her father had been young enough, when the family coffer began to fill, to be sent to Harrow. He'd acquired the expected accent, but his natural temperament was too lackluster to quite emanate the gloss of sophistication his family had hoped for.

There he sat at the head of the table, neither a ruthless risk taker like his late father, nor a charismatic, calculating entrepreneur like his late brother, but a bureaucrat, a caretaker of the riches and assets thrust upon him. Hardly the most exciting of men.

Yet he commanded the earl's attention this night.

Behind him on the wall hung a large mirror in an ornate frame, which faithfully reflected the company at table. Heroine sometimes looked into the mirror and pretended that she was an outside observer documenting the intimate particulars of a private meal. But tonight she had yet to give the mirror a glance, since the earl sat at the opposite end of the table, next to her mother.

She found him in the mirror. Their eyes met.

He had not been looking at her father. Via the mirror, he'd been looking at her.

Mrs. Surname had been forthcoming on the mysteries of marriage—she did not want Heroine ambushed by the facts of life. The not-so-pretty reality of what happened between a man and a woman behind closed doors usually had Heroine regard members of the opposite sex with wariness. But his attention caused only fireworks inside her—detonations of thrill, blasts of full-fledged happiness.

If they were married, and if they were alone…

She flushed.

But she already knew: She would not mind it.

Not with him. (1)


message 2: by Manda (new)

Manda Collins (manda_collins) | 1919 comments Mod
The gentlemen had barely rejoined the ladies in the drawing room when Mrs. Surname announced that Heroine would play for the gathering.

“Heroine is splendidly accomplished at the pianoforte,” she said.

For once, Heroine was excited about the prospect of displaying her skills—she might lack true musicality, but she did possess an ironclad technique.

Mrs. Surname turned to Lord Hero. “Do you enjoy music, sir?”

“I do, most assuredly,” he answered. “May I be of some use to Miss Surname? Turn the pages for her perhaps?”

Heroine braced her hand on the music rack. The bench was not very long. He'd be sitting right next to her.

“Please do,” said Mrs. Surname.

And just like that, Lord Hero was at Heroine's side, so close that his trousers brushed the flounces of her skirts. He smelled fresh and brisk, like an afternoon in the country. And the smile on his face as he murmured his gratitude distracted her so much that she forgot that she should be the one to thank him.

He looked away from her to the score on the music rack. “Moonlight Sonata. Do you have something lengthier?”

The question rattled—and pleased—her. “Usually one only hears the first movement of the sonata, the adagio sostenudo. But there are two additional movements. I can keep playing, if you'd like.”

“I'd be much obliged.”

A good thing she played mechanically and largely from memory, for she could not concentrate on the notes at all. The tips of his fingers rested lightly against a corner of the score sheet. He had lovely-looking hands, strong and elegant. She imagined one of his hands gripped around a cricket ball—it had been mentioned at dinner that he played for the school team. The ball he bowled would be fast as lightning. It would knock over a wicket directly and dismiss the batter to the roar of the crowd's appreciation.

“I have a request, Miss Surname,” he spoke very quietly.

With her playing, no one could hear him but her.

“Yes, my lord?”

“I'd like you to keep playing no matter what I say.”

Her heart skipped a beat. Now it was beginning to make sense. He wanted to sit next to her so that they could hold a private conversation in a room full of their elders.

“I will keep playing,” she promised. “What is it that you want to say, sir?”

“I'd like to know, Miss Surname, are you being forced into marriage?”

Ten thousand hours before the pianoforte was the only thing that kept Heroine from coming to an abrupt halt. Her fingers continued to pressure the correct keys; notes of various descriptions kept on sprouting. But it could have been someone in the next house playing, so distantly did the music register.

“Do I—do I give the impression of being forced, sir?” Even her voice didn't quite sound her own.

He hesitated slightly. “No, you do not.”

“Why do you ask then?”

“You are sixteen.”

“It isn't unheard of for a girl to marry at sixteen.”

“To a man more than twice her age?”

“You make the late earl sound decrepit. He was a man in his prime.”

“I am sure there are thirty-three-year-old men who make sixteen-year-olds tremble in romantic yearning, but my late cousin was not one of them.”

They were coming to the end of the page; he turned it just in time. She chanced a quick glance at him. He did not look at her.

“May I ask you a question, my lord?” she heard herself say.

“Please.”

“Are you being forced to marry me?”

The words left her in a spurt, like arterial bleeding. She was afraid of his answer. Only a man who was himself being forced would wonder whether she too was under the same duress.

He was silent for some time. “Do you not find this kind of arrangements exceptionally distasteful?”

Glee and misery—she'd been bouncing between the two wildly divergent emotions. But now there was only misery left, a sodden mass of it. His tone was perfectly courteous. Yet his question was an accusation of complicity: He would not be here if she hadn't agreed.

“I—” She was playing the adagio sostenudo much too fast—no moonlight in her sonata, only storm-driven branches whacking at shutters. “I suppose I've had time to become inured to it: I've known my whole life that I'd have no say in the matter.”

“My cousin held out for years,” said the earl. “He should have done it sooner: beget an heir and leave everything to his own son. We are barely related.”

He did not want to marry her. Not in the least.

This was nothing new. His predecessor had not wanted to marry her either; she had accepted his reluctance as par for the course. Had never expected anything else, in fact. But the unwillingness of the young man next to her on the piano bench—it was as if she'd been forced to hold a block of ice in her bare hands, the chill turning into a black, burning pain.

And the mortification of it, to be so eager for someone who reciprocated none of her sentiments, who was revolted by the mere thought of taking her as a wife.

He turned the next page. “Do you never think to yourself, I won't do it?”

“Of course I've thought of it,” she said, suddenly bitter after all these years of placid obedience. But she kept her voice smooth and uninflected. “And then I think a little further. Do I run away? My skills as a lady are not exactly valuable beyond the walls of this house. Do I advertise my services as a governess? I know nothing of children—nothing at all. Do I simply refuse and see whether my father loves me enough to not disown me? I'm not sure I have the courage to find out.”

He rubbed the corner of a page between his fingers. “How do you stand it?”

This time there was no undertone of accusation to his question. If she wanted to, she might even detect a bleak sympathy. Which only fed her misery, that foul beast with teeth like knives.

“I keep myself busy and do not think too deeply about it,” she said, in as harsh a tone as she'd ever allowed herself.

There, she was a mindless automaton who did as others instructed: getting up, going to sleep, and earning heaps of disdain from prospective husbands in between.

They said nothing more to each other, except to exchange the usual civilities at the end of her performance. Everyone applauded. Mrs. Clements said very nice things about Heroine's musicianship—which Heroine barely heard.

The rest of the evening lasted the length of Elizabeth's reign.

Mr. Surname, usually so phlegmatic and taciturn, engaged the earl in a lively discussion of cricket. Heroine and Mrs. Surname gave their attention to Colonel Guardian’s's army stories. Had someone looked in from the window, the company in the drawing room would appear perfectly normal, jovial even.

And yet there was enough misery to wilt flowers and curl wallpaper. Nobody noticed the earl's distress. And nobody—except Mrs. Surname, who stole anxious looks at Heroine—noticed Heroine's. Was unhappiness really so invisible? Or did people simply prefer to turn away, as if from lepers?

After the guests took their leave, Mr. Surname pronounced the dinner a succès énorme. And he, who'd remained skeptical on the previous earl throughout, gave his ringing endorsement to the young successor. “I shall be pleased to have Lord Hero for a son-in-law.”

“He hasn't proposed yet,” Heroine reminded him, “and he might not.”

Or so she hoped. Let them find someone else for her. Anyone else.

“Oh, he will most assuredly propose,” said Mr. Surname. “He has no choice.” (2)


message 3: by Susan (new)

Susan (susaninaz) | 1025 comments Wow. I know Hero will disappoint her, but what a meeting!


message 4: by Stacey (new)

Stacey (staceyissassy) | 1280 comments I need to know more... the wait will kill me (slight exaggeration). 😉


message 5: by Manda (new)

Manda Collins (manda_collins) | 1919 comments Mod
This is one of the best MOC/friends to lovers/unrequited love romances I've ever read. Can't wait to tell y'all what it is!


message 6: by Daniellegn (new)

Daniellegn | 246 comments it sounds really good!


message 7: by Stacey (new)

Stacey (staceyissassy) | 1280 comments Manda wrote: "This is one of the best MOC/friends to lovers/unrequited love romances I've ever read. Can't wait to tell y'all what it is!"

...and we can't wait for you to tell us. 🙂


message 8: by Leigh-Ayn (new)

Leigh-Ayn | 1195 comments oh wow! this sounds so good!


Aly is so frigging bored | 857 comments Mod
It seems familiar, but I can't place it!


message 10: by Susan (new)

Susan (shaydock) | 725 comments Sounds delicious will put in kindle right away


message 11: by Chocolatesoup (new)

Chocolatesoup | 390 comments I want to keep reading LOL


message 12: by Stacey (new)

Stacey (staceyissassy) | 1280 comments Chocolatesoup wrote: "I want to keep reading LOL"

Me too!


Reader from Barcelona (readerfrombarcelona) | 4 comments Can't wait!


message 14: by Elena (new)

Elena | 29 comments Oh, this has picked my interest. Want to keep on reading.


message 15: by Kelly (new)

Kelly | 4 comments following


message 16: by Manda (new)

Manda Collins (manda_collins) | 1919 comments Mod
It's Ravishing the Heiress by Sherry Thomas. It's book two in a trilogy but it stands alone well. (I actually have only read this book of the three.) It's angsty and sexy and heartbreaking and wonderful.


message 17: by Manda (new)

Manda Collins (manda_collins) | 1919 comments Mod
Also slow burn.


message 18: by Stacey (new)

Stacey (staceyissassy) | 1280 comments Thanks for sharing Manda, I will definitely be checking this one out.


message 19: by Dls (new)

Dls | 2099 comments Mod
It’s funny, I was just thinking of this the other day. I liked the book a lot but I really disliked the hero. But part of what made tbe book good was that it was true to the mores of the time.

I love most of what Thomas has written. Not quite a husband is may be my favorite


Aly is so frigging bored | 857 comments Mod
I thought it was! I'm happy that I was right, but with a hand of Goodreads (I knew the author but needed a bit of help).
I haven't read this book or series since forever! After I finish my Hidden Legacy reread, I will def reread this one :D
Manda you are not good to my TBR


message 21: by Manda (new)

Manda Collins (manda_collins) | 1919 comments Mod
Not Quite a Husband is exquisite, Deb! I also read The Luckiest Lady in London after my reread of this one and it's well done too. Also if any of you read mysteries, her Lady Sherlock series is wonderful and has strong romance elements :)

Sorry not sorry, Aly ;)


message 22: by Susan (new)

Susan (susaninaz) | 1025 comments Wow. This was a puzzler in Aug 2014 as well. I loved it.


message 23: by Daniellegn (new)

Daniellegn | 246 comments I gave this four stars when I reviewed it in December of 2013. I am always impressed when an author makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts, I.e. some "unlikable" traits or actions that many view as unforgivable in a character are somehow overcome by the arc of the book in its entirety.

my review then:

This is a hard one to categorize, because a lot of characteristics/ actions of the hero I would normally find unforgiveable in a hero. However, the strength of the author's writing makes up for it, and her adherence to her characters' personalities allows the ending to be acceptable, even though there were aspects of both the heroine and hero that I didn't care for. She was a little too reserved, and I wanted her to speak up for herself more, but I can't accuse her of not having a backbone- hers was made of steel. I would say she has an old soul, and I think hero did, too, it just took his heart a little longer to figure it out. I would classify him as a typical obtuse male.


message 24: by Chocolatesoup (new)

Chocolatesoup | 390 comments Ha, I read this one years ago! I really struggled with the hero and his behavior and I believe that the heroine should have put him out with the trash but like the others, so admired the writing. I also really loved The Magnolia Sword/


message 25: by Susan (new)

Susan (shaydock) | 725 comments Put it in my to read list


Aly is so frigging bored | 857 comments Mod
I loved the series in 2013 and I loved it when I reread it now. I wanted to smack all the heroes and heroines though... If their pride and fear weren't so big, most of the conflict would have disappeared. At the same time, as all of you said, they were true to themselves so I couldn't not love the series.... I cried while I reread all the books :D


message 27: by Manda (new)

Manda Collins (manda_collins) | 1919 comments Mod
Yes! They're frustrating because you want so badly for them to realize how dumb they're being but if it was that easy there would be no books!


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