The grinding lock of the debtor’s prison was one of the worst noises Imogen knew, but she smiled at the guard. They had the power to make life difficult for her father, so it was important to keep them on side.
“Father,” Imogen said as she walked into his cell. In all, it was comfortable, if cold.
Her father rose from his chair. She hated seeing him in here, like this, in such reduced circumstances. Their fall had come so suddenly. Investments that had gone bad, and had taken the family wealth with it. It had been a shock that she was still reeling from, but the worst had happened to her father, who’d been taken to this prison until the debts were paid. How to pay those debts was something she couldn’t get a grip on.
“Don’t look so worried, love,” he said as he came over to peruse the basket she’d brought. “It’s all in hand, you’ll see.”
A wan smile graced her lips. She’d stopped believing her father’s assurances, suspecting he’d been hiding how bad their position had become for quite a while. It was getting more difficult to believe that this was a temporary setback. The house they’d had to move out of wasn’t coming back to them, and they were likely going to stay in the rented room in what could only be described as being in ‘an unfortunate part of town.’
If she’d known this had been coming, she would have made different choices—bought less gowns, for one—but she’d had no idea. She couldn’t even ask her father how long he’d been hiding their deteriorating position. He steadfastly refused to discuss things, and she was starting to worry that he couldn’t be depended on to stem the damage that was being inflicted on them due to these bad investments. There was no improvement in sight, and she had now come to expect that things only got worse.
“I brought a meat pie,” she said with a smile. “Mrs. Winters baked it especially for you.”
Although they’d had to let go of the staff one by one, a neighbor, Mrs. Winters, had taken pity on them and helped guide them with things, like taking the laundry out to the washerwomen, and sweeping the floor, which they could manage, but cooking was a mystery to both her and her mother. Her sister, Adele, out of all of them, seemed most naturally inclined to it, but had little interest. Mrs. Winters helped them significantly in that regard. She was the kindest woman. Perhaps it was a good skill for Imogen to learn, as their marriage prospects had more or less collapsed.
A great deal of Imogen’s time was now spent thinking about how they could reduce the damage for Adele. If only they could appeal to some distant relation to take her in and keep the scandal of the family’s misfortune from her. As for herself, she was too well known to even consider disassociating herself. She’d become a tale of woe—her absence whispered about in the corners of ballrooms. No invitations came now. She had no role in society. And she had no idea how to even make a role for herself outside of society—a world she didn’t know how to navigate.
Maybe once Adele was settled, Imogen could take a position as a governess somewhere. Maybe in the distant wilds of the country—where no one had heard the name Imogen Warkworth, who had once been seen as a beauty of the season.
“Ah, the mail has arrived,” her father said and walked to the bars, where the guard held a bundle of letters. “I’m hoping to receive some good news from my cousin,” he said.
“In what regards?”
“Never you mind, my dear,” he said reassuringly, but Imogen was not reassured. People had been kind, their family had been kind, but their needs exceeded the charity they could give. Most likely they had exhausted the charity of their kin by now.
“I’m still hoping one of the investments will come through. Forestry in Canada.”
Even Imogen knew that forestry investment took years to mature, because trees took years to mature. “I’m sure it will.”
Her father sat down in his chair by the meagre fire and read his correspondence, and Imogen tidied the cell. It caused her mother too much distress to come here. It was a rare occasion she left her room as it was.
“Oh my,” her father said.
“What is it?” Imogen said, feeling the tension in her shoulders clench with the surprised tone of his voice.
“A proposal. A marriage proposal. For you.”
“Me?” Imogen said with surprise. Who would propose to her? No one had actually liked her enough to take on the mess that her family was. Her suitors had been lovely, but they had disappeared the moment scandal had hit. “Who?”
“Lord Rosemache. Do you know him?”
Imogen searched her mind, but she couldn’t recall the name. “I don’t think I’ve met him. Have you heard of the family?”
“No. He says he is a man of means.”
Imogen didn’t know how to feel. It was as if a collage of different emotions hit her at once. Relief, because she’d given up on the prospect of marrying. But also worry. Everything worried her now. “I …” she started. A darker worry crept in. Why would a man of means seek her out as a wife? There had to be a reason. Perhaps he was disfigured, or deeply unwell.
Chewing her lips, she tried to think. Perhaps a scandal had left him as untenable in society as she was. In the past, there would have been people she could ask—ladies who knew everything about everyone—but they wouldn’t accept calls from her anymore.
“I think, my love, that we have to take this proposal seriously,” her father said. “There is a request that I call on him, but I cannot. Mother will have to do it.”
If any negotiation was to be made, her mother wouldn’t be very useful. Then again, she wasn’t really in a position to negotiate—unless this man’s circumstances were worse than hers. Perhaps he was very elderly. That was something she could deal with. As it was, there was little she couldn’t deal with.
Was there anything that would allow her to turn this proposal down? Or maybe she was just so suspicious now that she expected the outcome to be worse than it would appear. Little has proved her wrong of late. The last year had been brutal in teaching her what her value was in this world. Without her father’s wealth, she had none.
“I will send her a letter with this news and what she must do,” he said and sat down at his desk. Before long, scratchings from his pen echoed off the stone walls. A part of her felt it was wasteful to use parchment for this. That was the person she’d become now, the person who worried about the waste of parchment for information she was perfectly able to convey. Her father still didn’t trust her with such tasks, even as managing the family had largely fallen on her now.
“Here, take this,” he said. “Take it to your mother. She’d better not squander this opportunity.”
“But this is wonderful,” Imogen’s mother said as she finished reading the letter. “You must accept him.”
Imogen smiled weakly, noting how enthusiastically her mother embraced this development. Nothing more was needed, other than this man’s willingness to marry her. “Shouldn’t we exercise some caution?”
“I’m afraid we’re not in a position to. You must marry, and if he is a man of means, even with some things that need to be overlooked, it is the best you can hope for. One must always be forgiving with men. Marriage isn’t a fairytale. A decent offer is the best one can hope for. If a knight were to come to rescue you, he’d have done so already. No, we will meet with this man and accept his offer.”
This was such a stark contrast to the notion she’d marry for love she’d insisted on when considering suitors. All the offers she’d turned down because she hadn’t been in love. How secure she’d felt in her position in the world that she could insist on something like that. All the opportunities she’d had, and she’d bypassed all of them. Good men, some not so good, but they hadn’t been enough. Looking back now, she wasn’t sure it was youthful hope or arrogance to think she had the right to expect love.
Maybe she had been chasing fairytales. All those stories read to her as a child. Never had she expected her world would turn so dark. Now any marriage to a suitable man was out for her. And nowadays, the term suitable was increasingly lax. But a man of means had made an offer for her. Had she any reason to refuse? No matter how terrible the situation would be, she wasn’t in the position to. Because how long could they stay as they were, in these rented rooms? Their purse was dwindling every day, and the promises from her father that everything would be fine were increasingly hollow.
“Of course,” she said with a smile. “But perhaps we shouldn’t rush over in a sign of desperate greediness.”
“Posh,” her mother said and rose. “We’ll have to air one of your finest gowns.”
They hadn’t gotten to the point yet where they’d started selling her gowns, but she’d started to consider how to do it. The jewelry had been hawked already, along with all heirlooms.
“Marriage to this man could do wonderful things for your sister. It’d be a tremendous relief for your father to know you are both settled.”
Even if this man was a complete brute, Imogen thought to herself. No, her nerves were getting the better of her. There was something wrong with this man, that made him seek a wife on the brink of destitution, but she would have to accept him as he was—and whatever part of him was missing, be it pieces of his body, his reputation, or his heart. “Tomorrow,” she said. “We’ll go see him tomorrow.”
Valentine stared out the window at the cold, wintery street outside. The kind of cold where steam rose from the gutters as washerwomen and scullery maids did their work. The kind of day that suited him well, because Miss Warkworth would feel the bite of her position a little keener. It wouldn’t be long before they arrived, beating on his door after waiting long enough to avoid the worst whiffs of desperation.
“Should I prepare tea?” Mr. Trudy asked from the door in his usual reserved way.
“That won’t be necessary. Our guests won’t stay long.”
As expected, he saw two figures approach the house. By the look of it, they’d arrived on foot, suggesting their circumstances were indeed reduced.
The knocker sounded and he heard Mr. Trudy’s soft voice dealing with them. Feminine voices also filtered through.
“They are in the parlor,” Mr. Trudy said as he returned to the study.
Valentine looked over his shoulder, but wasn’t urged to move. But then this was something he needed to deal with. “I will see to them.”
“As you wish, my lord.”
Moving to the desk, he took a deep sip of whiskey before exhaling. Having this settled would give him little joy, but some satisfaction. No point putting it off. The sooner this was done, the sooner he’d have them out of his house, so he strode out of the study and across the grand entrance of his house to the salon doors.
The two women sat on the sofa at the end of the room, close to the fire, and they both looked at him as he appeared. There she was, eyes blue like a summer’s day in a pretty face. Blond hair artfully dressed. She looked the picture of health and innocence. The mother was an older version of her.
“Mrs. Warkworth,” he said as he approached and bowed sharply. “I’m sorry to see that your husband could not make it.”
“My husband is unavailable, but he’s delighted you’ve shown an interest in our lovely daughter.” The pleasant smile belied a shrewder expression in her eyes. As for her, Imogen Warkworth, she smiled pleasantly as she was expected to. “Please, let me introduce my daughter, Miss Imogen Warkworth.”
The girl rose and moved closer, offering her hand and curtseying as he took it. “My lord, it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” Her voice was clear and strong, which showed she wasn’t a shrinking violet—but then he already knew that.
“My letter outlines an offer of marriage,” he stated, more to the mother. “I have no expectations of a dowry. I am aware that Miss Warkworth’s circumstances don’t come with one. My expectation is that we marry as soon as possible. Do you accept this proposal?” His attention turned to the younger woman.
“We do,” the mother said before Imogen Warkworth had a chance to speak. “We are honored that you wish to make our daughter a part of your family.”
“If I may speak to Miss Warkworth alone,” he stated.
There was a moment of silence. “Of course,” the mother said with a smile, and rose to leave the room.
Miss Warkworth’s eyes followed her and returned to him. It was still hard to read her thoughts, as she showed little on her face other than the prettiness she was born with. It was hardly a surprise she’d been so successful in society, until she no longer was when her father’s financial situation collapsed entirely. The prettiness of her face counted for little then.
“Do you accept my terms, Miss Warkworth?” he asked.
For a moment, she opened her mouth, but nothing came out. “I must make decisions based not only for myself, but my sister as well.”
Valentine smile. She was negotiating with him. Right, what were the terms of sale for her virtue and future? “And what do you wish for your sister?”
“A suitable marriage. She is just coming of age.”
A suitable marriage could technically mean anything, but he knew she was referring to a society marriage that would keep her from falling to the depths Miss Warkworth had. It meant providing the girl with a dowry.
Part of him wanted to say no. She truly wasn’t in a position to negotiate with him. Perhaps she didn’t understand the position she was in. “This will not be a happy marriage,” he said. “There will be no children, but you will be comfortable. The country house will be at your disposal, and you may even use this townhouse provided I am not here.”
A frown furrowed her brow, showing her confusion.
“I am in need of a wife, but I don’t want one. I’m sure you can do your best to minimize the burden of having one. In return, I will provide your sister’s future as a gentlewoman. Do you agree to these terms?” he said a little sharper than he had the first time.
The girl blinked and looked around as if she’d find some answer, but even she had to know she wasn’t in a position to say no. Surely, she wasn’t stupid enough to have any delusions about it. No one accepted her into their house. There wasn’t a single salon open to her.
“Bath is lovely this time of year,” he said. “As a married woman, you can enjoy the delights of society.”
“Just not where you are?”
Small nods preceded her voice. “I accept.”
“As I said, I will organize the banns being read, and I’ll send a message to your rooms with the place and time of the wedding. I don’t see any reason why we should see each other until then.”
“As you wish,” she said. An unsure smile formed on her lips. “Lord Rosemarche,” she said with another curtsey. “I look forward to it.”
It seemed she knew how to fall back on unfaltering manners when she needed to.
“Until our wedding day,” he said with a curt nod. Granted, there was some grim satisfaction in those words. He hadn’t felt the need to mention that he would tolerate no dallying either. Affairs would not be in her future. It shouldn’t prove hard to convey to the men of society that there would be considerable consequences for anyone who tried to touch his wife, no matter their intentions.
Silently, she walked from the room, a slight scent of roses lingering in her absence. At no point did he turn to further acknowledge them.
The deed was done. His ‘wife’ was secured. What he’d said before about her prettiness meaning nothing wasn’t entirely true. Once the scandal settled, there were likely men in low positions who would still be interested in someone like her. A school master or a clergyman seeking a wife for a meagre but comfortable life. The kind of men who were accepting of their own position in society—men who had little interest in the benefits the marriage market could bring. They would be few, but Miss Warkworth’s loveliness would draw them.
“I must leave,” Valentine said quietly as he heard Mr. Trudy return. The banns needed to be posted. These weeks would allow Miss Warkworth to ponder and potentially change her mind, but as long as any marriage-minded clergymen were kept from her, the only conclusion she could reach would be to go through with the marriage. Additionally, he was the only one who offered a dowry for the sister. The chances were low that the marriage wouldn’t go ahead.
“Congratulations, my lord,” Mr. Trudy said.
The proposal had gone very much as expected. Miss Warkworth’s self-interest had propelled her to accept, and he had little doubt she wouldn’t be there on the wedding day. The prospect of it, however, didn’t leave him excited. It was a chore that had to be done. After the wedding, he would install her in the country house. A simple task. Once she was in place, he could simply get on with his life. She would be an expense, but it certainly wasn’t beyond anything he could manage.
“I’m going to the club, and I’ll probably stay there tonight. Don’t wait up.”
It was a relief to have this done. Now it was something he could stop thinking about—she was something he could stop thinking about. And now he intended to turn his thoughts to more pleasant topics.
The chair creaked as Imogen sat down by the small desk facing the window. The noise of the city seeped in, as they now lived on quite a busy thoroughfare. In the last thirty odd hours, her life had changed dramatically. She was engaged, to a man with a title and a fine townhouse, and apparently an accompanying country estate.
Physically, there had been nothing wrong with him. Very handsome, in actuality, dark blond with strong features. But the icy eyes revealed the coldness of him. He’d stated with absolute finality that it would not be a happy marriage, that there would be no children. That confused her more than anything, suggesting either an inability to produce children, or a lack of willingness.
By the coldness of his manner, she suspected it was the latter. This was not going to be the kind of marriage that had the intimacy required to produce a child. Perhaps he was indifferent to women, or worse, hated them.
He didn’t want to get to know her in any way, and he’d even stated that she was not to be where he was. That certainly suggested a hatred of women.
A tear rolled down her cheek. In her insistence on a marriage built on love, she had ended up with a marriage as far away from love as could be achieved. Her marriage would be both cold and barren. But maybe that was better that being married to a brute, or even living with the uncertainly of not knowing if the rent would be paid at the end of the week.
Lord Rosemarche openly stated to keep her in comfort, a country house for her to live in and manage, and a dowry for her sister. In all, things could be worse. It could even be said she had cause to be grateful. Of course, the reality of losing the kind of happy marriage she’d hoped for hurt, but there was still much to gain. Adele would be a gentlewoman, as would her children. Imogen could turn her attention to ensuring her sister’s marriage was happy. As a married woman, she could even sponsor her sister’s debut.
Although she didn’t know how her welcome would be back into society. These circumstances could besmirch her even when she was safely settled into a marriage. And she would be a lady. That would take some getting used to. It could well be that she could help her father too. While Lord Rosemarche didn’t seem set on kindness, it couldn’t suit him to have a father in law in debtor’s prison. Perhaps there would be a cottage somewhere on the estate where she could place her parents. It would be a significant relief to know they didn’t have to worry about anything. Somehow, she would make that happen.
No, this marriage was a stroke of fortune. It required putting her childish hopes for marriage to one side, but it would serve her whole family.
A future without children was harder to contemplate, but there would be nieces and nephews. It was a price worth paying, because there was no viable path out of their troubles without this marriage.
Sniffing, she pulled herself straighter. It had to be said, she was proud of herself for the things she was able to bear. A year back, she’d been a very different person, one who hadn’t ever faced adversity. That person’s future had been bright and assured. Then things had changed so terribly and disastrously. For a while, she had even worried that a person could succumb from worry.
It had caused her to see the world differently. She now saw the strain in people’s lives, the landlady across the street who carefully counted every penny given to her. The man who’d diligently picked up apples that had fallen off a cart.
The lesson taught to her in the last year was that the world was a far crueler place than she’d seen. Before, her life had been about gowns and parties, and who had slighted whom in Lady so and so’s parlor.
Saying that, she wouldn’t go so far as to say she was better off with this understanding. It made the world large and overwhelming. Life had been so much simpler, and enjoyable, when she’d been blind to the realities of the world—and how cossetted she’d been within it.
“The banns are published,” her mother said, bursting through the door with the morning’s paper. Imogen quickly wiped away any evidence of her unhappiness and smiled.
“He was true to his word, then.” A small part of her had expected he would change his mind—that maybe his lack of enthusiasm for the marriage would make him think it was a bad idea. But the banns were published. The betrothal was real and announced to the whole of society. No doubt she was the topic of conversation around many breakfast tables that day. The gossip would likely continue for the rest of the day. A caper, some would say. An inconceivable stroke of luck, others would insist. And hopefully there would some who were truly pleased for her. Generally, though, society wasn’t forgiving of losers.
“I think it’s important that we be seen somewhere,” her mother said, rushing to her closet.
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” Imogen replied.
“Nonsense. This has you right back into society, my dear. And it’s a good marriage.”
Imogen hadn’t told her mother about Lord Rosemarche’s prediction of how the marriage would be. She’d seen no point in worrying her mother over a choice they simply had to make. “I worry that perhaps it would upset Lord Rosemarche.”
Although she didn’t know the man well, she was wary of incurring his ire at this point. Her mother must have understood her point, because she froze in her examination of Imogen’s dresses. “Yes, I see. You might be wise.”
“I simply don’t know him well enough to know how he wants me to act in society.”
“No, very wise. We should perhaps wait until he escorts you. I’m sure he wants to introduce his bride to his friends.”
Imogen had other expectations. Lord Rosemarche had said he wouldn’t see her until the wedding day, but again, it was better to avoid her mother’s questioning. “We’ll see,” she said brightly. “I think perhaps as I never saw him during either of my seasons that he might not be a man who readily embraces an active role in society.”
“Yes, some men are like that. They prefer their clubs and the quietness of the country.”
“So it is probably best not to give the impression that marrying me would prove trying on his preferences.”
In all honestly, Imogen wasn’t sure why she was so adamant not to be seen in society. At least not as an unmarried woman, albeit engaged. Partially, it felt a little as if she’d be jinxing this, but there was also an anger in her at how she’d been treated by people she’d thought were her friends. It was hard to forget how quickly she’d been seen as a leper, who had to be avoided in case her contagion pulled them down too.
Adele bounced into the room and collapsed onto the bed they shared. “Will I have this room all to myself when you’re married?”
“Hush,” Mother said.
“I don’t know. I hope you’ll come stay with me, but these things are still to be determined.”
“Initially, Lord Rosemarche will likely wish for privacy,” Mother pointed out. From what he’d said, that would be entirely unnecessary, but Imogen kept quiet. “Now you need to finish your needlework.”
Adele’s education had been one of the expenses they’d had to cut, so between herself and her mother, they taught her the skills she needed. It gave them something to focus on during the day, and had served to be a change from worrying.
But now the worry was over, largely, except the possibility that this man might change his mind. If not, this was a way out of their troubles, for all of them.
“Maybe we should plan a trip to the museum,” Imogen suggested. “We could spend some time in the Byzantian wing.”
“Not more pottery,” Adele complained.
“Would you prefer needlework?” their mother asked pointedly.
“No,” Adele relented.
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