Gentleman Seeks Bride by Megan Frampton

Chapter One

Life was always easy for Thomas Sharpe.

He was witty, gracious, and unexpectedly charming. He didn’t enter a room so much as owned it; women wanted to be seduced by him, and men wanted to be him. He was tall, handsome, and excelled at everything he did.

Life was easy.

Until it wasn’t.

He could recall, to a second, the moment when things shifted. When his father entered the family dining room, his hat in his hands, his face ashen.

When his mother half rose from her chair, one hand to her throat.

It was a cold, dreary day; one where the idea of the sun was just that—an idea, not reality. A day when you looked outside and imagined all the ways the world could go wrong, secure in the comfort of your home and the knowledge that what you were imagining was just your imagination.

Unless it wasn’t.

His father looked directly at his mother. “It’s gone, Matilda. All of it. Gone.”

His mother’s eyes widened, and she slumped back down in her chair, her hand now clutching her heart. And then her expression changed from one of despair to one of desperate hope.

Thomas watched, a growing sickening feeling in his throat as his mother’s gaze shifted to him. She had a fierce look in her eye, a look that demanded attention.

“It’s up to you,” she said. She nodded toward his younger sisters. “What will happen to them? To us?”

Thomas glanced at them, at Julia, who was just about to make her debut, and had been talking about nothing but for weeks. At fourteen-year-old Alice, who was excruciatingly shy because of a bad stammer, who would likely never want to be seen in public, but would need to be cared for for the rest of her life.

At his parents, who were already old. Their children had come late in life, and this investment—the one they’d staked everything that wasn’t already entailed on—was supposed to see them through to the ends of their lives. Provide a dowry for Julia, who wasn’t blessed with Thomas’s good looks. A poor, plain debutante from a respectable family had as much a chance at making a good marriage as Thomas had of going unnoticed at a social gathering.

It was up to him. It was all up to him.

He didn’t need her to explain; after all, Alice had pointed out, ladies had done the same thing for their families for centuries: marry someone wealthy to enable the family to survive. They had even joked about it, back when it seemed an impossibility that they would come to this point.

And now the joke had become reality, and it was all up to him.

How could he refuse his mother’s plea? There was no other choice, not one that would provide for his family. Even though it made a fierce anger burn in his chest. The inequity of it, having to sell himself in order to ensure his family survived.

He nodded as he took a deep breath. “I’ll do it.”

And so, with those three words, Thomas set off on an heiress hunt.

It was nearly two years after he’d accepted his future and Thomas was no closer to finding the woman of his dreams. Specifically, an unmarried woman with enough of a fortune to keep his family in relative comfort. His earlier dreams—dreams where someone would keep his attention long enough for him to develop a lasting affection for them—had fizzled at the same time as his family’s money.

Julia had made her debut, and had thankfully married a baronet’s third son, a man who had secured himself a vicarage. She seemed happy, and had one child with another on the way. She was taken care of.

But his parents and Alice were not. And things were only getting worse. Alice was sixteen now, and still painfully shy. His father now walked much more slowly, while his mother had never been able to shake last winter’s cough.

Doctor visits. Upkeep for the estate, which provided land for the farmers who paid rent, the family’s only source of income now that they had no investments. No money in savings. A few nice things for Alice, who never asked for anything, and who was clearly terrified at having to survive alone when their parents died.

It all cost money. Money that was just out of reach of Thomas’s grasp. Money that went to other, less comely gentlemen in as desperate straits.

Despite—or perhaps because of—his undeniable charm, he hadn’t been able to get a lady to commit to him for life.

He was someone with whom they flirted, or sometimes more, but take him as a permanent partner?

No.

It seemed that they thought that he might be so irresistible as to be irresistible to everyone. That a vow of marriage wasn’t enough to halt the perpetual interest he seemed to attract wherever he went.

It was wearisome, frankly, to be charming but not too much so; to be witty without being too clever; to be as well garbed as any other gentleman without seeming to make it apparent he was far better looking than any other gentleman.

Which was why he was on the hunt. Again.

The room was full to bursting with the best Society had to offer: ribald chaperones who insisted on cavorting, drinking, and gambling more than their demure charges; patriarchs who had been forced to attend by their insistent wives and then quickly escaped into a back room to smoke cigars and inhale port; the demure charges whose sole goal was to attract a gentleman they could tolerate for the rest of their lives, and vice versa; and the eagle-eyed mothers, who could sniff out, to a penny, just how much a prospective husband had. The night air was crisp and refreshing, but inside it was stiflingly warm, a testament to the party’s success.

And Thomas was in the middle of it, navigating through the party’s rough course, adjusting his behavior depending on who he was talking to.

“Miss Porter,” he said as mildly as he could. The lady stood alone at the edge of the dance floor close to a cluster of chatting debutantes. She glanced wistfully toward them as they burst into laughter. One of Miss Porter’s hands held a shaky glass of punch, while the other adjusted her hair behind her ear, feeling her necklace, scratching her nose, or simply dangling in the air as though waiting for the next task its owner assigned.

Miss Porter reminded him of his sister Alice—clearly shy, obviously in a form of mild agony at being in such a large company.

Unlike Alice, however, Miss Porter was of age to make her debut in Society, and she had, it sounded like, several sisters who needed their eldest sister to hurry up and get married so they could also make their debuts.

This evening she wore the pristine white favored by most of the young ladies in attendance, a signal to the single gentlemen that they had not yet been matrimonially acquired. Rather like waving a red cape toward a bull.

Thomas had responded to her signaling with paying her particular attention at parties, but not so much that other ladies believed he was taken.

But Miss Porter either hadn’t noticed or was ignoring Thomas’s gentle hints, and he didn’t want to overwhelm her with his attentions or force her into anything just because she was naturally timid.

Yes, he needed a wife, and Miss Porter’s family definitely came with enough money, but if she wasn’t in complete agreement with his suit, if it wasn’t what she wanted, then he would not pursue her.

It shouldn’t matter, the lady’s happiness, not if it meant he could rescue his family, but Thomas wasn’t able to completely lose his humanity in search of a bride. In that he differed from other gentlemen in his situation; he’d lost a few potential wives to more aggressive suitors, ones who didn’t seem to care if the lady they’d chosen actually liked them. And had seen as those wives had been worn down by their husbands’ indifference, or worse.

He would not be that kind of husband, even if his motivations for marriage were the same.

“Yes, Mr. Sharpe?” Miss Porter spoke at last.

“May I take that? I would not want your lovely gown to be ruined.” He gestured toward the hand holding the punch, which wavered even more as he spoke.

She nodded, a shy smile crossing her face.

Another burst of laughter. Another longing look.

And not at him. Not what he was accustomed to, but it was almost refreshing not to be the focus of attention for once.

“Miss Porter, might I introduce you to Lady Emily?” Thomas nodded toward the clear ringleader of the group, a young lady who was already betrothed to a gentleman back home, but was in London so she “wouldn’t miss out on anything.”

Thomas had deduced that Lady Emily enjoyed being admired, meaning she had something in common with everybody else in the world, but she had a very specific limit to said admiration. Thomas usually counted his compliments on the fingers of his left hand; if he reached his thumb, it was likely one compliment too many.

“Oh yes, please,” Miss Porter said.

“A moment, Miss Porter.” Thomas lowered his head so he could speak close to her ear. “If you want to tell Lady Emily she looks splendid, or any such words to that nature, please observe the rules.”

“Rules?” she replied back in a puzzled tone.

“No more than four such thoughts. Otherwise, Lady Emily gets snappish. Rather like when you feed too many treats to a dog.”

She smothered a giggle, turning bright eyes up to him. Thank goodness—she seemed much more relaxed, much less susceptible to being unfortunately judged by the group of ladies, some of whom he knew could be quite critical.

Thanks to his mission, he’d paid scrupulous attention to each of the possible candidates that might save his family.

Lady Emily was off his list, but she was a valuable asset. Miss Hemingsworth would settle for nothing less than a title, which he did not have. Ladies Thomasina and Theodora were nearly indistinguishable from one another, even though they were not related.

He’d confused one with the other too many times for either to believe he was serious in his admiration. Both were inordinately silly, so a part of him wondered if he had confused them deliberately, so as to avoid having to possibly marry one of them.

He held his arm out for Miss Porter, who took it with her hair-adjusting hand.

“Thank you, Mr. Sharpe,” she said again.

“Of course.” He patted the hand that rested on his sleeve.

“Ladies,” Thomas began as they drew up to the group, “might I have the honor of introducing Miss Porter? Miss Porter is desirous of making the acquaintance of the most beautiful and charming ladies in London. Naturally I brought her to you.” He accompanied his words with a bow, keeping his eyes on Lady Emily, knowing how she reacted would dictate what the rest of the ladies would do.

“Oh, Mr. Sharpe,” Lady Emily replied with a knowing smirk, “you are too kind.”

“I am not being kind, merely truthful,” Thomas said smoothly.

“Miss Porter, do not believe a word this rascal says,” Lady Emily said. “Come here, let me speak to you a moment. I do not believe we have met.”

Miss Porter released her hold on Thomas’s arm, but not before mouthing thank you to him as she turned toward her new friend.

“If you will excuse me,” Thomas said. “I will leave you to discuss my various attributes.”

Smiles all around, and then Thomas strode over to a more discreet corner than the one Miss Porter had been hiding in, taking a deep breath as he allowed himself to relax.

It was exhausting. He was exhausted.

He turned to see Miss Porter with a delighted smile on her face. His task was arduous, but if he could help someone along the way, it was nearly worth it.

And he’d promised himself a night off the next day.

He stood at the entrance to Miss Ivy’s, a gambling club that had lately begun to host special evenings. Evenings, such as tonight, where everyone and anyone could attend, provided they had money to spend and a mask to wear.

Thomas relished the feeling of anonymity, even though he knew it was a facade; after all, there weren’t many men in London who had his height and grace. He wasn’t vain—it was a simple fact, a fact that was supposed to have gained him a wealthy wife long before now.

“Good evening,” a voice said as he entered.

Thomas turned and smiled as he saw his friend Octavia. She ran the day-to-day of Miss Ivy’s now that her sister—the titular Miss Ivy—was managing the books and the buying and all the other behind-the-scenes work.

Since that fateful day two years ago, he’d found himself to be overly cautious, at least in financial terms. He’d seen men gain and lose fortunes through gambling, so rescuing his family that way had never crossed his mind. Too risky. Much easier to marry well, he’d thought. He would rely on his appearance before he’d count on his luck.

Though now his odds on doing that were increasing. Perhaps he should just wager everything as his father had done.

Though he was already doing that, wasn’t he?

Goddamn it, but he was in a foul mood.

“Thomas?” she asked, sounding amused.

“Good evening,” he replied with a bow. “I need a stiff drink and a moment where I’m not obliged to make conversation.”

“Poor you,” Octavia replied in a wry tone. “To have to be charming wherever you go. How is the hunt going, anyway?”

Thomas shrugged.

“That well, hmm?”

He and Octavia were two of a kind: charming, gracious, and sometimes reckless. They had had a brief flirtation, one that had even included a few kisses, but they both knew their relationship wasn’t sustainable. They were both flints, capable of striking sparks, but unable to manage a true fire.

But where Thomas had lost a potential lover—since Octavia wasn’t wealthy enough for him to marry, and she was far too determined to remain independent—he had gained a friend. One who understood him, who knew what it was like to have fallen in status. Before she was the face of Miss Ivy’s, she’d been a lady, living in the country with her older sister.

But things happened, as they did, and now she was here flouting respectability with zeal. He knew it would take a remarkable gentleman to get her to give up even a tiny measure of her independence—she was a whirlwind of forthright opinions and plain speaking.

Octavia took his arm and led him to the other end of the club to the bar.

The club was decorated in vibrant shades of fuchsia and gold, a bold testament to the Duchess of Malvern, who was one of Octavia’s best friends and a woman who appreciated the value of audacious color combinations. The entire effect was both inviting and challenging. The guests, for the most part, wore masks that ranged from a simple scarf with eyeholes to a far more complicated contraption that looked as though Marie Antoinette might have donned it at the Tuileries.

“If only you had enough to afford me,” Thomas said mournfully as he and Octavia walked through the crowd.

“I don’t know that I’d wish to buy you,” Octavia replied. “You’d be far too difficult to maintain.”

Thomas paused, putting his hand to his heart in an exaggeratedly shocked gesture. “I am wounded to the core.” He pointed to himself. “All I need from a wife is a healthy bank account, not too many bothersome relatives, and who is a pleasant companion.” He paused. “In that order.”

“As I said,” Octavia replied archly. “Too difficult to maintain.”

Thomas laughed, as he was meant to, as they reached the bar.

The bartender nodded at him and began to pour him his drink—whisky with a splash of water—and set it on the bar.

He was bringing it to his mouth when he heard Octavia’s intake of breath, and turned to see what had managed to startle his unflappable friend.

And then he saw her.

Dressed in a gown more suited for a court presentation than a gambling establishment, her golden hair gleaming in the candlelight, her enticing lips curling in a delighted smile, her mask barely concealing the beauty of her face and doing nothing to hide her identity.

Lady Jane Capel, daughter of the Earl of Scudamore. The sister of his best friend. A woman blessed with both beauty and wealth, who’d seemed to be on the verge of becoming a duchess two years ago—the same time Thomas’s fortunes had changed so dramatically—when her sister had married the duke unexpectedly and Lady Jane had gotten engaged to her next-door neighbor.

Jane was still unmarried. Two years ago her life had been upended. Or more accurately, she had upended her own life after her fiancé had broken their engagement. She’d left her family home and taken lodgings with her half brother, Percy Waters, Thomas’s closest friend, rather than hide out in the safety of her parents’ home until someone else was lured in by her beauty and quiet disposition.

Thomas had met Jane over the years, of course, but Percy’s sister was far more likely to spend time with a book or at the park than carousing with Thomas and Percy. Plus her occasional presence now at social events invariably caused comment, because of how she lived, and he could not afford to have anyone question his reputation by spending time with her.

It wasn’t fair, but it was their world.

He admired her for her bravery, rejecting the well-trodden path of other aristocratic ladies. He wished he could do the same, but his path was what hers had been—marriage to a stranger in an arrangement that would be as transactional as it was based on any kind of emotion. A charming husband in exchange for enough money to keep her charming husband’s family afloat.

“What is someone like her doing here?” Octavia asked, echoing the question dancing in his mind. People of all sorts came to Miss Ivy’s, of course, but few of them were quietly demure bookish ladies. It was as jarring to see her in this setting as it would be for Thomas to appear at a meeting for Somber Sorts Who Much Preferred Staying at Home Reading to Going Out.

Otherwise known as the Lady Jane Club, if she had one.

Lady Jane was seated at one of the gaming tables, a half dozen or more gentlemen surrounding her. She reached out to pick up the cup of dice, shaking it with that same delighted expression on her face. As though the cup was a new book and she was just diving into its pages.

The men around her wore expressions ranging from fascinated to intrigued to plain lustful, their emotions not at all disguised by the masks they wore.

It was the last one that made Thomas place his drink, untouched, back down on the bar, turning to walk toward her. He owed it to his friend to watch out for his little sister, even though the little sister appeared to be having a wonderful time.

But Thomas knew, more than most, that appearances were deceiving.

He reached her table just as she had tossed the dice, her eyes wide behind the mask as the counters tumbled onto the green felt.

“Lucky seven!” the dealer called, pushing the stack of chips toward Lady Jane. She leaned forward to gather them toward the stack she already had in front of her.

“Congratulations,” one of the gentlemen said, placing his hand on the back of her chair in a proprietary gesture. “Let me escort you to where there are other, more interesting wagers.”

Thomas recognized him as Lord Joseph Callender, another gentleman on the heiress hunt, a handsome man who needed money to maintain his lifestyle of expensive horses, expensive women, and expensive wine.

In a few years, Thomas forecast, Lord Joseph’s looks would have succumbed to his various vices so that now was his only chance to take advantage of his appearance.

Not that Lord Joseph likely realized that. He was just desperate for funds and, like Thomas, had recognized that his best way out of his financial hole was to marry well.

And Lady Jane was no longer an heiress, thanks to being disowned by her parents when she had moved in with Percy.

So Lord Joseph’s intentions were definitely not honorable. Which meant that Thomas would have to intervene.

“My lady,” he said in his smoothest tone as he reached her side, “I believe you have promised to allow me to show you around Miss Ivy’s.” He caught Octavia’s eye and gestured toward the door to her private office. She nodded in understanding, withdrawing a key from her bodice and holding it toward him.

Lady Jane’s blue eyes blinked up at him in confusion. “I did?” she began, and then her expression cleared as she recognized him. At which point she began to scowl. “I did not,” she continued, her gaze returning to the table. “You have done your duty. Thank you, Mr. Sharpe.”

Thomas froze, unaccustomed as he was to being refused.

“You heard her, Mr. Sharpe,” Lord Joseph added. “I’ll take care of Lady Jane.”

Lady Jane turned her head sharply toward Lord Joseph. “Not you, too,” she said in an aggrieved tone. “I will not be taken care of, thank you very much.” She rose from the table, dropping her chips into a small bag she wore on her wrist. “I believe I will try my luck at another table.”

Instead of moving to another table, however, she walked briskly to the bar, nodding at Octavia whose face wore the same startled expression Thomas knew was on his own.

“Let me handle this,” he murmured to Octavia, taking her key. She nodded, and he made his way to the bar, dropping himself beside Lady Jane, who seemed determined to ignore him.

Fine. As long as she didn’t disappear to back rooms with random scoundrels, he didn’t care.

His drink appeared in front of him, and he reached toward it, only to have her snatch it away.

She lifted her chin in defiance, keeping her eyes locked with his as she began to drink.

And then broke the gaze as she began to cough, one hand going to her throat, the other one placing the glass firmly back on the table.

He suppressed a smile as well as an “I told you so,” because he hadn’t actually warned her against the whisky. He hadn’t had the chance—she’d snatched it too quickly.

“Well,” she said, when she was finally able to speak, “that was unexpected.” Her eyes were watering, and she removed the mask to wipe them. Despite her reaction to the whisky, her expression was gleeful.

“Allow me to escort you home, Lady Jane,” Thomas said, placing his fingers on her elbow as he rose.

“Home?” she replied, scowling in displeasure. “No, this”—she gestured to the glass on the bar—“means I am definitely not done here. I’ll need another, please,” she said to the bartender with a warm smile.

And before he could speak, before he could do anything, she picked up the glass again and drank the balance of the whisky, slamming it down on the bar with a flourish. This time with no coughing.

“There!” she exclaimed triumphantly. “That was much better.”

Thomas could only stare at her, wondering what the hell had happened to turn the meek Lady Jane into this gambling, drinking flirt.

 

Jane had to bite her lip from laughing in his face. The unflappable Thomas Sharpe, perpetually suave, determinedly pleasing, was staring at her as though he had never encountered her like before.

Perhaps he had not.

Certainly it had never seemed as though he had seen her, truly seen her, even though they had been in the same house several times—he was Percy’s best friend, his accomplice in all the disreputable ventures Percy indulged in. Jane wasn’t certain just what those ventures were—Percy refused to share, irking her by telling her she was far too naive to understand—but she had gotten the impression that they involved things like alcohol, exuberant parties, and plenty of things young unmarried ladies were supposed to know nothing about.

To Jane’s great annoyance, she was one of those ignorant unmarried ladies.

Which was why she was at Miss Ivy’s, tossing dice and drinking whisky. Learning things she didn’t know. Trading her naivete for something more worldly.

And unfortunately running into her brother’s best friend. He was definitely going to put a crimp in her plans if she didn’t figure out how to thwart his Lancelot tendencies.

“Mr. Sharpe,” she began as the bartender placed another drink in front of her, “there is really no need to keep me company. I am doing perfectly well on my own.” She spoke with an assured tone that she’d stolen from one of her mother’s many harangues about how Jane had to marry well and soon.

Two things she would not be doing. But the tone itself was effective. At least she hoped so.

One of his wickedly intriguing eyebrows shot up from under his mask in a clear expression of doubt. Damn it, why wouldn’t he listen to her when she’d insisted she was fine?

And why did he have to be so remarkably good-looking? She’d just barely learned how to control her breathing when he visited Percy, and then she’d always had time to prepare.

His arrival now was so unexpected she had no time to brace herself for the impact. Of those knowing dark blue eyes that were both intense and seductive; of the casual grace of his body; of his strong jaw and sensual mouth. Even his hair was alluring: dark brown, with a few wavy curls that brushed his shoulders and dangled impudently over his forehead.

Sometimes her fingers tingled with the urge to sweep those curls back, and she had to remind herself that it would be exceedingly odd for her to actually do such a thing.

But she certainly thought of it.

The mask he wore did nothing to hide his allure; if anything, it only enticed someone to see if she could be the one to get him to remove it. To reveal himself to her, and only her.

She should not be thinking this way about her brother’s best friend. Especially not when said brother’s best friend was trying to shepherd her like a lost lamb.

She was done being a lamb.

“Does Percy know you are here?” he replied, not responding at all to her explicit request to leave her be. “Because I am guessing he does not,” he continued, not waiting for her answer. Perhaps the answer to her fascination with him would be him trying to control her. That would remove any kind of curl-sweeping impulse.

“Of course he does not,” Jane said heatedly. “Because,” she said, jabbing an accusing finger toward him, “my brother is a perfectly grown person, as am I. I do not ask him where he is going when he is with you, do I?” She crossed her arms over her chest and mimicked his eyebrow look.

Only if she had to guess, she thought she probably didn’t look as mocking as he did. Lady Jane Capel did not mock, after all; she was accommodating, quiet, acquiescent, modest, and well behaved.

She did not, as it turned out, like Lady Jane Capel very much. At least not that iteration of her.

“The two things are entirely different,” he replied in a condescending tone. A tone that bothered her so much she did forget, for a moment at least, how handsome he was.

“Because I am female?”

His jaw worked, and she suppressed a cheer at finally getting him to notice her—even though he seemed to be noticing she was aggravating. But still.

“Could we discuss this more privately?” he said, glancing around the club. She saw his eyes narrow, and she turned to look. Lord Joseph, accompanied by a few of his friends and a look of determination, was heading their way.

“Oh lord,” she said in exasperation. She tossed a few chips on the bar. “Fine.”

Anything to avoid causing another scandal where she was helpless to do anything.

If there was a scandal to be had, she wanted to be the one doing it.

Not standing by as the man she thought she was in love with jilted her. Not standing by as people gossiped behind their hands about her, and about how she was living. Not standing by as men she’d always thought were gentlemen made inappropriate suggestions to her now that they believed her to be vulnerable.

Mr. Sharpe got up as well, gesturing toward a door to the left of the bar. She walked ahead of him, slightly placated that he hadn’t taken her arm to guide her, or otherwise asserted his right to dominate.

She stepped to the side as he withdrew a key from his pocket, unlocking the door and following her into the room, then closing the door behind them.

It was a small office with a tidy desk and several bookshelves lining the walls. Instead of books, however, there were bottles of liquor on the shelves. A candle was burning on the desk, but otherwise the room was dark.

It was shockingly intimate. More so because Jane realized that this was the first time she’d been alone with a man since Mr. McTavish, the rat in sheep’s clothing who’d broken her heart a few years ago. Though she might want to thank him—if he hadn’t jilted her, she’d be married to him, sheep-like.

But the intimacy wasn’t anything she needed to worry about. She knew full well—and felt somewhat chagrined—that Mr. Sharpe did not view her as anything other than his friend’s sister. He’d made that absolutely clear on all of their previous encounters, and his motivation now was simply that: he felt some responsibility for her as she was his best friend’s sister, but nothing more.

She should have been relieved at his lack of interest. After all, she’d been getting noticed by gentlemen since the age of sixteen. Her mother had assured her she would make a spectacular marriage, and that all she needed to do was appear. To stand by, so to speak.

And being the demure Jane she now so desperately wished to shed, she had.

Which had resulted in her getting humiliatingly thrown over by a man who didn’t come close to deserving her.

“Well?” she said in an impatient tone.

“I am genuinely curious,” he said, removing his mask as he moved closer. To see her more clearly in the dim light, she knew, though her treacherous heart fluttered. “What made you decide to come to Miss Ivy’s? Alone?”

The annoying thing was, he did sound genuinely curious. Not judgmental, or lecturing, or condescending.

She paused, then lifted her chin to stare into his eyes. “I don’t want to be me anymore,” she said simply.