Let It Be Love
“We are a rather grim group today,” Oliver Leighton, the Earl of Norcroft, noted to no one in particular and gazed idly at the usual gathering of his closest friends in the lounge of their favorite club.
“What’s not to be grim about?” Nigel Cavendish, son of Viscount Cavendish, stared at the brandy in his glass. “Life is moving at a remarkably fast clip. Yet another year is drawing to an end. We are all another year older and another step closer to the inevitable doom that lies in wait for us all.”
“I hate arriving in the middle of a conversation.” Jonathon Effington, the Marquess of Helmsley and heir to the Duke of Roxborough sank down in the lone unoccupied chair and grinned at his friends. Today, as always, Helmsley exuded jovial good spirits and an unrelentingly cheerful nature that charmed men and women alike. It could be most annoying. “Yet the expressions on all your faces are as easy to read as the Morning Times. I gather doom is in reference to the prospect of marriage?”
“What else would make grown men cower in such a fashion?” Gideon Pearsall, Viscount Warton, drawled in the cynical manner he had honed to a fine art.
“What else indeed,” Cavendish muttered.
Helmsley raised an amused brow.
“Certainly, we have all accepted that is it our duty to marry and provide an heir to our titles, estates, fortunes, to carry on the family name and so forth but acceptance and eagerness are two entirely different matters. Marriage is a daunting prospect relished by no sane member of the masculine gender.” Warton signaled to an ever vigilant waiter for another round of refreshment. “And a prospect none of us will be able to avoid much longer.”
Warton alone among them had not avoided it entirely but that was a subject that by unspoken agreement was not—was never—to be discussed.
“I don’t know that I still wish to avoid marriage,” Helmsley said mildly.
“Of course not.” Oliver snorted. “Precisely why we have noted you loping down the aisle at breakneck speed.”
Helmsley accepted a glass from the waiter. “I simply haven’t found the right woman yet.”
“The right woman?” Warton rolled his gaze toward the ceiling. “You mean the woman who will set your heart aflame?”
“Not to mention your loins,” Cavendish said.
“A woman who will challenge your mind,” Oliver added with an overly dramatic flourish. “As well as the rest of you.”
Helmsley’s amused gaze slid around the circle. “Have I mentioned this before then?”
“Each and every time the topic turns to potential brides.” Warton sighed. “Let us see if we can remember all the requirements for the future Lady Helmsley. There are a fair number if I recall.”
“As well there should be,” Helmsley said, his voice firm. “My wife shall one day be the Duchess of Roxborough. Such a position is not easy to fill.”
“Nor is the position of perfect wife,” Oliver said.
“Perfect is relative,” Warton said, “the perception of which is highly individual. I, for one, do not find his qualifications culminate in perfection at all.”
Helmsley raised his glass in a toast. “To whatever passes for perfect then.”
“Perfect?” Oliver snorted. “Your idea of perfect is more in tune with what rational men would call difficult.”
Warton heaved a long suffering sigh. “All that spirited nature nonsense.”
“Sounds like a lot of trouble to me,” Cavendish said darkly.
“It does doesn’t it?” Helmsley frowned in a good natured manner. “Was I drinking excessively at the time?”
“Probably.” Warton shrugged. “Such discussions on the relations between men and women and what we do and do not desire generally come toward the end of a long evening of excess. Usually after we have thoroughly dissected the sorry state of contemporary politics and preceding the inevitable pondering of the true meaning of existence in the world.”
“That does seem to require excessive drinking,” Cavendish murmured.
“Although we must note, Helmsley’s requirements do not vary considerably whether he is inebriated or cold sober. There is something to be said for consistency, I suppose, or perhaps it’s simply obstinacy.” Oliver studied his friend.
One wouldn’t note his stubborn nature simply to look at him. Jonathon Effington was an attractive sort, his good looks accentuated by his confident friendly air. Add to that his title, his prospects and his family wealth and one could only wonder why he hadn’t yet found the bride who would perfectly fill his expectations. Certainly there was no lack of eager candidates vying for the position of the future Duchess of Roxborough. But Helmsley had long ago made it clear he did not wish for the type of submissive, well behaved, proper bride English society was so adept at producing. He claimed such a wife would bore him to tears and Oliver wasn’t sure he wasn’t right. Still, Cavendish was right as well: such a wife would be a great deal of trouble.
“As foolish as it sounds to the rest of us, Helmsley has declared he does not wish for a wife who is overly docile or blindly obedient.” Oliver raised his glass to his friend. “God have mercy on him.”
“God had better,” Warton said, “a woman of that nature certainly wouldn’t.”
“I wouldn’t mind blind obedience myself.” Cavendish paused for a moment as if debating the merits of obedience, blind or otherwise. “A woman who would do precisely as I wished, when I wished without asking annoying questions. I should think that would be an excellent quality in a wife. “Yes I quite like that.” A frown creased his brow. “Still, I should be willing to sacrifice a certain amount of obedience for the sake of appearance. She should definitely be pretty. I would not like an ugly wife. And she should be of good family, of course, with a respectable dowry.”
“None of which is of true importance when one is deciding upon a woman to spend the rest of one’s life with,” Helmsley noted in an annoyingly lofty manner then grinned. “Admittedly pretty and the rest of it is preferable.”
“One does have to bed her after all.” Warton sipped his brandy in a thoughtful manner. “Although an enormous fortune would certainly make a less than attractive face and figure more palatable.”
Helmsley raised a brow. “I would not have thought it possible but you are more cynical than unusual tonight.”
“‘Tis the undue influence of the season. All this good will toward men, urchins singing in the streets, high spirits run amuck.” Warton shuddered. “It quite goes against my nature.”
It was a lie and every man present, including Warton himself, knew it but he did so love playing the role of jaded cynic. And who would tell him otherwise? It was part of an unspoken agreement among the long time friends not to shatter anyone’s illusions about himself unless it was of the utmost necessity to do so.
To all appearances, they were an odd group to have formed such a bond. While they shared a similarity of position and age, they were as disparate as if they were from different civilizations. Warton with his dark handsome features and brooding nature was given to cynicism in direct contract to Cavendish’s boyish good looks and penchant for getting into scrapes. Helmsley was the true optimist among them and liked little better than a good joke or a good wager or a good investment. As for Oliver himself, well, he wasn’t entirely sure how he described himself save that he thought in some odd way, he shared some of the characteristics of each of the others for good and ill.
The men had attended school together but had not truly become friends until recent years when they found themselves frequenting the same clubs and same social events. Oliver’s friendship with Helmsley had begun when he had enthusiastically and futilely, pursued the hand of Helmsley’s youngest sister. How all four of them had drifted into friendship as fast and firm as this had become was still a matter of some debate. And there were moments when nothing but honesty between them would serve. Certainly there had been any number of occasions through the years when the group had been forced to make one of its members—usually Cavendish—face unpleasant facts about himself for his own good. Generally in situations that had involved the fairer sex, the potential for extreme embarrassment and an excess of alcohol.
Oliver wondered if, in the spirit of the season which did seem to call for a fair amount of honesty, this wasn’t one of those moments.
“You, Jonathon Effington, Lord Helmsley, heir to the Duke of Roxborough,” Oliver aimed an accusing finger, “are a nice man.”
“Women like you,” Cavendish added.
“Yes, I know. It works out rather well to my way of thinking.” Helmsley grinned. “What’s wrong with being nice?”
“For one thing, it makes every other man look bad in comparison. Beyond that,” Warton’s eyes narrowed, “it drives the rest of us mad.”
Helmsley laughed. “Don’t be absurd.”
Oliver leaned closer. “Do you realize when you end a liaison with a woman or a flirtation with a young lady they never seem to hate you?”
“Well, of course not. Why would . . .” Jonathon paused, “what exactly do you mean?”
Oliver lowered his voice in a meaningful manner. “Have you ever infuriated a woman to the point where she flung a vase at your head?”
“Or slapped you across the face?” Warton asked. “Hard?”
“Or thrown your clothes into the fire so that you were forced to make your way to your discretely waiting carriage clad in nothing more than a flimsy woman’s dressing gown?” Cavendish said.
At once all eyes and an corresponding number of raised brows turned toward him.
“Perhaps that’s only happened to me,” Cavendish said under his breath. “Nonetheless, Helmsley, you do see the point, do you not?”
“I don’t know that I do. I consider myself a gentleman,” Helmsley said staunchly. “And yes, I suppose I am nice. I see nothing wrong in that.”
“Except what one has sacrificed for nice.” Warton sipped his liquor in a sage manner.
“Sacrificed?” Helmsley’s brow furrowed in suspicion. “What have I sacrificed?”
“Passion.” Warton’s voice was smug.
Helmsley snorted. “Nonsense, I—”
“There’s never been passion in any of your relationships, old man,” Oliver said, “beyond the obvious sort of passion that is.”
“That’s ridiculous.” Indignation rang in Helmsley’s voice. “I’ve experienced no end of passion. Why, I reek with passion. Passion practically follows me down the street. I’ve certainly never had any complaints about a lack of passion.” He threw back the rest of his drink. “Lack of passion, hah!”
“Not that kind of passion,” Oliver said. “We’re talking about passion of the spirit. Of the heart.”
Warton nodded. “Love if you will.”
Cavendish raised his glass. “Love.”
“Love, Jonathon.” Oliver eyed him. “Or passion. Whatever you wish to call it. You are never carried away. Never overwhelmed. Which is precisely why you and whatever lady has caught your eye for a time can go your separate ways without recrimination on either side.”
“Or promises of undying affection on her part.” Warton waved blithely. “Even threats—”
“Or family members vowing to track you to the ends of the earth to carve you like a goose if you so much as . . .” Cavendish paused then winced. “Only me again?”
Warton eyed the other man with equal parts awe and disbelief. “One does wonder where you find the time.”
Cavendish grinned wickedly. “One makes the time.”
“This is not the least bit amusing.” Helmsley’s tone was mild. “I am as passionate as any of you, probably more. I simply pour most of my passion into my prose.”
Oliver bit back a grin. Helmsley fancied himself the next Charles Dickens but he had yet to publish so much as a single verse. His failure to do so was in many ways a credit to his integrity. Helmsley’s godfather was a well respected publisher and his mother wrote novels of adventure and romance. He certainly could have had his work published but he preferred to submit his offerings under an assumed name, wishing his writing to succeed on its own merit rather than his family connections. Thus far, his integrity remained intact although his pride was sorely tested.
“Perhaps,” Helmsley considered his friends thoughtfully, “it is not my lack of passion that has prompted this charge against me but my skill and, I might add, success, in dealing with the fairer sex.”
Oliver and Warton traded glances.
Cavendish snorted in disdain. “Just because you have never been involved in a scan—”
“Nor shall I. I,” Helmsley got to his feet and bowed to the others with a dramatic flourish, “am a true gentleman. That coupled with my charm and an innate understanding of the nature of women is why, when a lady and I decide to part company, it is without recrimination, frenzied promises and,” he glanced ruefully at Cavendish, “threats of dismemberment. As for the question of a perfect bride, I make no apologies for knowing precisely what I want and knowing as well that when I find it I shall waste no time in making the lady in question my wife. And furthermore I admit that knowledge brings me a great deal of satisfaction as does knowing,” he flashed a triumphant grin, “that it drives the rest of you mad.”
“One day, old man, that confident nature of yours will be your downfall.” Warton’s manner was ominous.
It wasn’t that Helmsley was especially better behaved than the rest of them it was just that he had never actually been embroiled in a situation he could not talk his way out of. That, coupled with the annoying tendency of women to immediately forgive him for whatever transgression had occurred because he was so blasted nice and a fair amount of luck, had kept his public reputation, if not completely spotless, at least eminently respectable.
“Take for example, that rendezvous you have every year at your family’s Christmas Ball.” Warton studied Helmsley curiously. “Have you no concern as to the consequences should someone uninvited stumble upon that little assignation?”
Helmsley thought for a moment then shrugged and grinned. “No.”
It was common knowledge among the men that Helmsley had a Christmas tradition of sorts—a private meeting with whatever woman had captured his fancy at that particular Christmas in the library at Effington House at some point during the annual Effington Christmas Ball. Helmsley claimed the encounters were relatively innocent consisting merely of conversation, champagne and perhaps an embrace and a kiss or two. Nothing, he insisted, that would provoke a true scandal, no ruination of virgins or writhing about on the library rug. Still, such claims were made with a distinctly wicked twinkle in his eye and as much as Helmsley prided himself on his honorable nature and his position as a true gentleman no one—save the ladies involved—was especially certain exactly what did transpire in the Effington House library during the Christmas Ball each and every Christmas Eve.
Jonathon Effington, the Marquess of Helmsley, heir to the Duke of Roxborough had never been caught. That too drove his friends mad.
“I say, just out of idle curiosity, mind you,” Cavendish started in a casual manner, “who is the lady this year?”
“Yes, Helmsley, do tell,” Warton drawled. “Who is this year’s lucky miss?”
“I cannot believe you would ask such a thing. A gentleman never reveals the name of a lady under such circumstances.” Helmsley shook his head in a mock mournful manner. “Besides.” An altogether ungentlemanly grin flashed across his face. “There’s more than a week until the ball.”
Oliver chuckled. “So there is no lady as of yet.”
“Ah but there will be, old friend.” Helmsley paused. “Would you care to make a small wager on it?”
Oliver shook his head. “No.”
“We might as well throw our money into the streets,” Warton added wryly. “If nothing else, you do have our confidence.”
Helmsley laughed. “And on that note I shall bid you all a good day. Christmas is but a week away and I have a great deal to accomplish between then and now.”
“Go then.” Warton waved him off. “And take that nauseating good cheer with you.”
“I do wonder though,” Warton studied Helmsley’s retreating figure thoughtfully, “exactly what would happen if Helmsley did find a women who met all his qualifications.”
Helmsley laughed again, the friends made their farewells and a moment later he was off, the faint whistle of a Christmas carol lingering in his wake.
“A women with spirit to challenge his mind.” Oliver chuckled. “I daresay such a woman would have no end of other qualities Helmsley might not find as enchanting.”
“In my experience, spirited women tend to be stubborn and single minded. And not overly concerned with propriety. Not at all the type of woman who could be a duchess. Of course, he might well enjoy that.” Cavendish thought for a moment. “Or.” He grinned. “She would drive him mad.”
It was a delightful thought.
For a long moment, the trio was silent.
“It’s really rather a pity . . .” Warton began.
“Precisely what I was thinking,” Oliver said slowly.
Warton’s brow furrowed. “Of course, no one in particular comes to mind.”
“No one he hasn’t met.” Oliver shook his head. “Therefore it would have to be someone entirely unknown.”
“It would be the least we could do—”
“In the name of friendship and in the spirit of the season–”
“What?” Confusion rang in Cavendish’s voice. “What is the least we can do in the name of friendship and the spirit of the season?”
“Why give Helmsley precisely what he wants of course.” Oliver grinned. “The woman of his dreams.”
“It’s a brilliant idea.” Warton heaved a resigned sigh. “It’s a shame we can’t do something about it.”
“I do have a cousin who should be arriving from Italy any day now,” Oliver said slowly.
“A cousin?” Warton brightened. “Is she the type of woman to appeal to Helmsley?”
“I have no idea.” Oliver thought for a moment. “My mother corresponds with her regularly but we haven’t seen her for years. My recollection of her is of a somewhat plump, freckled, red haired, quiet creature. Not an especially attractive child but pleasant enough in nature as I remember.”
“Perhaps she’s changed?” Cavendish said.
“Perhaps. She’s five-and-twenty now—”
“And not yet married?” Cavendish asked.
“No. Indeed, her father’s displeasure at her failure to wed is the one item Mother has repeatedly mentioned to in regards to my cousin’s letters.”
“Not wed at five-and-twenty?” Cavendish winced. “That’s a bad sign.”
“I doubt she would serve our purposes.” Oliver shrugged. Fiona’s letter announcing her imminent arrival was brief and contained no sense of the young lady’s character. Or why she had decided to return to England after nearly a decade. Of course, her father had died several months ago and perhaps she simply wanted to at last return home. “Besides, I would hesitate to offer up a family member in this cause.”
“Pity. I should love, just once, to see Helmsley head over heels for a woman who is precisely what he claims he wants. It would be the quintessential Christmas gift.” A slow grin grew on Warton’s face. “And it would indeed drive him mad.”
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