Jessica Franklin came to Bath to marry a rich man--and she was delighted to find handsome Matthew Walsingham with every qualification. Matthew, however, had come to Bath for the same purpose, regarding Miss Franklin as the perfect wife--wealthy and beautiful. When they discovered the truth, they had to reassess the situation--and their hearts. Originally published by Harlequin
Jessica gazed unseeing at her plate. "Mr. Scunthwaite wants to marry me."
After a moment of heavy silence her brother said tentatively, "I don't suppose..."
"Nathan, he's fifty and fat!"
"And shockingly vulgar," Miss Tibbett added.
"I see. Then of course that's out of the question." This time he took her hand. She knew the despair in his hazel eyes was mirrored in her own.
"Marriage!" said Miss Tibbett in a portentous voice. They both turned and stared at her. The long, narrow face bore a look of excitement usually reserved for the acquisition of a new volume of some obscure treatise on Roman Britain. As she nodded meaningfully, her spectacles, perched on top of her head, slid down to entangle themselves in loops of iron grey hair and the ribbons of her plain cambric cap. "That is the answer," she continued, fiddling in an absentminded way with the eyeglasses which now dangled over one ear. "I wonder that I did not think of it sooner."
"But Tibby, you agreed that I cannot possibly marry that dreadful man." As she spoke, Jessica moved around the table to assist in the disentanglement, a task she performed so frequently as to make it automatic.
"There is more than one fish in the sea. Thank you, dear." She returned the spectacles to her nose and peered over them as Jessica resumed her seat. "One of you must find a wealthy spouse."
Sunk in gloom, Nathan did not respond.
"That is all very well," Jessica objected, "but, though I don't mean to boast, most of the eligible gentlemen in the county have been my suitors at one time or another and the few rich ones are already wed."
"County Durham is a desert. We must go to Aquae Sulis!”
"To Bath? It's true that the heroines of novels are forever finding husbands there. I suppose there is no other reason for choosing that city?"
Miss Tibbett blushed. "I cannot deny an ulterior motive," she said guiltily. "I have longed this age to see the Roman remains. However, Bath has other advantages. The London Season is almost over, and besides, London is bound to be more expensive."
"And it is easier to gain entrée to Bath Society, I believe." Jessica was beginning to consider the suggestion seriously. "The cost of post horses would be prohibitive, but we could go on the stage, and there must be cheap lodgings to be found."
"Oh dear no, that will never do. If you wish to attract the right sort of person, you must keep up appearances."
"Yes, of course. I shall sell Great-Aunt Matilda's diamonds and we shall do the thing in style."
"No!" Nathan exploded. "I cannot allow you to sell your most valuable jewels for my sake."
"They are too hideously old-fashioned to wear," Jessica pointed out. "Besides, it will be for my sake, too. I have no objection to catching a wealthy husband, just so he be amiable, and even if we fail it will be a famous adventure. You have been all the way to America, but I have never gone farther afield than Eboracum and Hadrian's Wall."
"Eboracum?" Nathan looked blank. He had spent fewer years under Miss Tibbett's tutelage than his sister.
"The Roman name for York," the governess reminded him.
He made an impatient gesture. "If you are willing to sell the diamonds, Jess, will they not bring enough to pay for the lease?" he asked.
"No, I had already thought of that and had them valued in Durham, but they would pay for a few weeks in Bath and even enable us to cut a dash." Jessica's hazel eyes sparkled at the prospect.
"I cannot countenance such deceit!" cried Nathan. "To put on a show so as to lure innocents into our net would be utterly dishonourable. I had rather resign myself to living in genteel poverty."
"So should not I." The sparkle in her eyes was now militant. "I don't mean to suggest that you should elope with an heiress without her parents' permission. If I am so lucky as to receive an offer from the right sort of gentleman, you may be sure I shall not accept it without revealing my true circumstances. Think of Langdale, Nathan. Can you bear to let it go, after it has been in the family for two centuries, without making every effort to keep it?"
"Of course not," he said wretchedly. "If only there was another way! Surely it would be enough for one of us to marry?"
"To be sure, but if we both make the attempt it will double our chances. You might succeed where I fail. On the other hand, if I am betrothed before you, then you can withdraw from the hunt. The search, I mean," she amended. "Hunt" sounded shockingly mercenary, and her brother's tender sensibilities must be spared.
"I wish I had not sold out," he groaned. "Perhaps I should re-enlist and dash over to Belgium to fight Boney."
"Nathan, no!" Jessica was aghast. "You have done your duty for your country and now it's time to think of yourself and your family."
"Don't worry, Jess, I'm tired of fighting." He managed to smile. "All I want is to settle down and raise sheep. It did not seem too much to hope for."
His aunt patted his arm. "I have often thought that your enthusiastic embrace of the amusements of Town was more of an attempt to forget the horrors of war than a defect of character."
He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it. Half his friends dead in the Peninsula and himself laid up for the better part of a year, not knowing if he would ever walk again—yes, the horrors of war was one way to describe it. "Dearest Aunt, you may just be right." His smile was crooked. "However, it's past time to put the wretched business behind me. I shall strive to become a useful citizen."
"That seems to be your best course," she said, laughing at his dismal tone, "unless you can find an heiress to marry."
His fork half way to his mouth, he stopped with an arrested look. "Now there is a famous notion. It will take some time to set up as an architect, so I might as well look about me for a rich bride in the meantime."
"Why not? Bath was said to be a fertile ground for fortune hunters in my youth. The living was cheaper and the competition less than in London."
She was teasing, but the more Matthew thought about it the more it seemed an excellent solution. At worst. Bath would provide superb buildings for him to study in pursuit of his new profession.
"And it's only fifteen miles," he said, "so I shan't spend a penny on post horses getting there."
"You really mean to do it?"
"Don't look so worried. Aunt. I've no intention of abducting my heiress should I be so lucky as to find one. All fair and square and above board." Well, nearly, he admitted to himself. If he was perfectly honest about his comparative poverty he would never meet an heiress in the first place. He'd have to put up a show. "I don't suppose it would be possible to stay at Uncle Horace's house on North Parade?"
"He never goes there," she said doubtfully, "since he blames the waters for ruining his digestion. Certainly they always made him bilious. He has really only kept the house because when there are no tenants I like to spend a few days there occasionally. In fact he was talking of selling it, and it is not let at present, I believe."
"Be a dear and give me a letter to the housekeeper," he coaxed. "Is it still the same woman?"
"Yes. She always had a soft spot for you and never fails to ask after you. Very well, Matthew, I shall aid and abet you in this horrid scheme, and we must hope that my brother never comes to hear of it."
"On the contrary. I cannot think of anything more like to persuade him of my respect for money than to turn up with a wealthy wife on my arm."
"Possibly." She shook her head wryly. "I can let you have twenty pounds to keep the wolf from the door for the present."
"Bless you, but if I am to save the cost of lodgings by staying in North Parade, I can manage until quarter day. That's what is so infuriating about the whole business," he added with a rueful grin. "Uncle Horace is on his high ropes because of that wager—and I won it!"
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