At twenty-three, Charlotte Grenville has resigned herself to spinsterhood. With no dowry, she works as a lady’s companion to support her widowed mother and younger siblings who live in the country town of Marlborough in Wiltshire. When family friend Anthony Wallace proposes to her out of the blue, she is perplexed.
Not only does Anthony have the habit of ordering everyone around, convinced it is in their best interests, but he is also devoted to his Anglo-Indian partner and estate manager, Simon Walker.
Lottie is aware this prospective marriage is purely a business arrangement to rescue her and her family from financial hardship. But should she accept? And will her growing attraction to Simon destroy the delicate balance between the trio?
Simon knocked on the door and as he entered, Anthony was muffled in a clean shirt. Simon had a tantalising glimpse of his lover’s taut pale belly, that tempting arrow of dark hair leading down to his breeches before it was covered with the linen garment and Anthony’s head emerged.
Simon leaned against the bedpost as Anthony reached for a fresh neckcloth.
“How are the Grenvilles?” He asked.
Anthony frowned. “Well enough, but the cottage is in a poor state. There’s still damp in the parlour and Mrs. Grenville says the roof is leaking again.”
Simon made soothing noises. “We don’t have to rush away, do we? Even if I have to return to the manor, you can always stay for a while longer to organise repairs.”
Anthony grunted something that might have been assent as he concentrated on his reflection in the mirror. While tying the knot in his cravat he said, “Lottie’s home again.”
Simon smiled, “How lovely. It will be good to see her.”
Anthony finished the straightforward arrangement of his neckcloth and frowned. “She’s looking hagged,” he said. “That succession of awful women she’s been attending has dragged her down. I’m surprised she hasn’t been foundered under it all.”
Simon opened his mouth to voice his concern when Anthony blithely continued, “So I’ve asked her to marry me. It seemed the best solution.”
Simon was initially stunned. Then, as so often following his beloved’s more outrageous statements, he closed his eyes and counted to ten. When he opened them, Anthony was grappling with the buttons of his waistcoat.
“The best solution for what?” he asked with deceptive calm.
Anthony turned to look at him with that direct blue gaze. “For the whole family,” he replied impatiently. “Lottie won’t have to exist in servitude any longer. She’ll only be twenty miles away from Marlborough so she can visit her mother whenever she wants. Finally, no one can object if I move Mrs G. and the children away from that poky cottage and into a suitable house. There’s one available just off the High Street that I have in mind.”
Simon resisted rubbing his hand wearily over his eyes. “So where are you going to put Lottie once you’ve married her?”
Anthony looked perplexed. “What do you mean? She’ll be in the manor house with us, of course.”
“Doing what?” Simon persisted.
Anthony looked uncertain for a moment and then his expression brightened. “She can reorganise the family library. Father left it in an awful state and it requires someone with a good mind like Lottie to sort it out.” He looked extremely pleased with himself at that suggestion.
“Marvellous,” Simon said flatly. “That will keep her busy for a year. And what is she expected to do for the following fifty-nine?”
Anthony looked blank as Simon inexorably continued, “And naturally, Lottie will want children.”
With a horrified countenance, Anthony exclaimed, “Oh no! There won’t be any of that!”
“Have you informed Lottie?” Simon asked sharply before carrying on in the same tone, “Then, of course, I will have to hand in my notice and look for a new situation as it would be unfair on Lottie for me to crowd your new marriage.”
For the first time, the consequences of his rash proposal seemed to permeate and Anthony appeared almost scared. “You can’t leave me, Simon,” he said. “I can’t manage without you,” he almost pleaded.
Simon relented and sighed. “My dear Tony,” he said more mildly. “You can’t move people about like they are collections of statuary or pieces on a chessboard. We do have our own opinions, you know.”
Anthony said nothing, gazing anxiously as Simon continued, “I can see that, in theory, your marrying Lottie would be a way out of the Grenvilles’ problems. No one could doubt your good intentions. But you haven’t considered what this would mean for Lottie. She might be more comfortable and secure than in her current situation, but would she be happy in the kind of marriage you are suggesting?”
Anthony frowned before saying, “Well, she refused me anyway.”
“I always knew she was a sensible woman,” Simon said with a wry smile.
Anthony blinked at him uncomprehendingly then was saved by St. Mary’s Church clock striking two.
Snagging his coat and making his escape from the uncomfortable conversation, he said, “We’d better be going. They’re expecting us.”
“This is not finished. We will speak about it later,” warned Simon at Anthony’s back as he reached the door.