“You cannot force me to marry.” Cornelia planted her feet wide apart. “Papa, why now?” Her heart thudded. “George and Suzanne have married, you have grandchildren. You know that marriage for me is…ill-advised.”
Her father’s eyes softened. “You deserve happiness. Can you not see that is all we want for you?”
Happiness? Her heart twisted. Marriage…children were not to be for her. “You would have me lie to my husband, pass myself off as something I am not?”
“You are a beautiful, intelligent woman,” he replied. “There is no untruth in that.”
“You know perfectly well that is not what I am talking about, Papa. You know I cannot have children.”
“Nonsense,” he replied. “That is a notion you have concocted in your head. There is no danger in you having children.”
“Concocted? I did not concoct the fact that we do not know my father’s identity—or that he was part of a mob who murdered Maman’s family.”
Her father scowled. “Cornelia, we have been beyond patient with you. A sensible daughter would have reconciled herself to the idea long ago, if only for her mother’s sake.”
Her mother mopped tears from her eyes with an embroidered handkerchief. The one that a ten-year-old Cornelia had worked for her as a birthday present,
A knot formed in the back of Cornelia’s throat. “Maman…”
“Non!” Her pocket-sized mother threw down the handkerchief and rounded on her much larger husband. “I will not have it, Cornelius. My daughter will not be compelled to marry against her will.”
The admiral shook his head. “Our daughter, Léonie, remember?” He took his wife’s hands in his and drew her into his arms as a tear slipped down her cheek. “She is our first-born and is very much loved and cherished.” He held out an arm to Cornelia. “You know that, do you not, Daughter?”
She did know. Love had enveloped her from the day of her birth, and, blithely, she accepted her role as Papa’s favorite—even after the arrivals of her younger siblings, George and Suzanne. How she’d wished she’d been born a boy, so she could go to sea as he had at age twelve and follow him as a successful navy officer. To his credit, her father had never once expressed disappointment with any of his children, not even when George had eschewed the sea for a legal career. “The sea isn’t for everyone,” Papa had said. “It takes a certain type of man to endure the long absences from home and family.”
Most important, as a man, being born a bastard was little more than an inconvenience. As a woman, however…
She released a sigh. Her father, Admiral Hardcastle, had recently been appointed to the position of Governor General of British North America, which required a move to Canada. He wanted his wife with him—and Cornelia knew how much she wanted to go—but Léonie had stubbornly refused to leave.
“I do not understand why your mind is fixed on marriage,” Cornelia said for the umpteenth time. “I have no suitors at present. Do you truly mean for me to wed a stranger?”
Her mother wept noisily into her father’s coat.
The admiral shook his head. “Of course not. All we wish is for you to go out into the ton and make a sincere attempt to meet eligible young men. A lovely young lady such as you should have no trouble finding admirers. Why, I know of a dozen unmarried officers who would jump at the chance—”
“Oh no, dear, not a naval man,” cried her mother. “I would not wish my daughter to suffer such loneliness as I have.”
Cornelia drew a breath. An idea began to form. She smiled. “Very well, I will look for a husband.” She approached her parents. “As soon as I am married, Maman, you must join Papa in the provinces.”
Her mother threw her arms around Cornelia. “I will, I promise I will.”
Over her mother’s shoulder, Cornelia met her father’s gaze. He lifted a brow that said, I know you too well, Daughter, to be fooled by your easy acquiescence.
She would have to tread carefully if her plan were to work.
* * *
Three weeks later
Cornelia’s dance with Lord Fenchurch came to a halt, and she glanced at her mother, who rested with a few of her friends on chairs lined up against the red silken walls to her right.
Lord Fenchurch bowed. “Thank you for the honor of dancing with me, Miss Hardcastle. I daresay I have not enjoyed a dance so much in all of my life.”
“It was my pleasure, Lord Fenchurch,” lied Cornelia.
When his lordship did not take his leave, Cornelia’s hands grew clammy. If he were to formalize his intentions or, even worse, ask to take her for a drive in the park—well, she had exhausted her excuses. Word had spread that she was seeking a husband, and a staggering number of potential suitors had appeared. Many more than she could have anticipated.
Oh, she’d had beaux before. She had inherited her mother’s dark, exotic beauty and slim figure. But at five-foot-nine inches, she was taller than most women and even some men, which could be off-putting. Although she held no title, she had a respectable dowry and desirable connections—if one discounted her true parentage. Her father being a near-legendary admiral in the Royal Navy, she had danced at Almack’s and even at Carlton House with the Prince Regent. But after her third Season, when she’d curtailed her social activities in favor of charitable work at the Foundling Hospital, the flock of gentleman callers diminished significantly, to her great satisfaction.
Practically on the shelf at age four-and-twenty, she had not expected to be in such demand. Of course, she had not considered that her age and maturity might be an asset to some of the older gentlemen, particularly widowers with motherless children. There were half a dozen of those, plus a greater number of younger, perfectly respectable gentlemen in the queue. Rogues and rakes dared not apply; her father discouraged them with one terrible scowl.
Thus far, however, not one of the gentlemen who approached her met the criteria she had set the day she’d agreed to seek a husband. Each was like Lord Fenchurch—respectable, unobjectionable, and unlikely to leave her for a life at sea.
“Good evening, ladies and gentleman.” A newcomer inserted himself into their group and nodded at Lord Fenchurch, who promptly excused himself and departed.
Cornelia let out a breath.
Tall and handsome, with an air of supreme confidence, the newcomer bowed and looked expectantly at her mother, who beamed with pleasure.
“Sir Stirling! How delightful to see you this evening. My husband warned—er—informed me you might stop in tonight.” She smiled at her daughter. “Cornelia, this is Sir Stirling James. Sir Stirling, this is my daughter Cornelia.”
Cornelia looked sharply at her mother, then offered him her gloved hand. “A pleasure to meet you, Sir Stirling.”
He grasped it and kissed her fingertips. “The pleasure is mine, Miss Hardcastle.”
“Sir Stirling is in the shipping business. From Scotland, I believe?”
“Indeed. Inverness, to be precise,” he said. “Have you ever been?”
“My husband and I were there on holiday once. The scenery is simply spectacular.”
“Indeed, it is.” He turned to Cornelia. “And you, Miss Hardcastle? Have you had the opportunity to visit my fair country?”
“I have not had that pleasure, sir.”
She lowered her eyes and willed him to leave. Do not ask me to dance. Do not ask to call upon me. Do not make me invent some pretext to discourage your courtship.
“Did Lady Chastity accompany you this evening, Sir Stirling?” her mother asked. “Sir Stirling is recently married, Cornelia—and he has a new daughter. Oh, say you brought them to England, Sir Stirling. We would love to see them.”
Cornelia smiled at Sir Stirling—the first genuine smile of the evening.
“Alas, Chastity decided it best to stay in Inverness with Ella,” he said.
“My felicitations, Sir Stirling,” Cornelia said. “I hope I shall have the pleasure of meeting them one day soon.” She beamed. How refreshing to have a conversation with someone who did not have ulterior motives.
He returned her smile. “I am sure you will have that opportunity. But for now, I wonder if you will take a turn about the room with me, Miss Hardcastle.”
She glanced at her mother, who nodded. “I should enjoy that, Sir Stirling.”
Anything to avoid the hordes of suitors.
He guided her away from the dance floor, toward the less crowded refreshment room, then asked, “Do I sense a hint of relief, Miss Hardcastle?”
She looked up and smiled when she saw the amusement in his eyes. “You are very perceptive, Sir Stirling.”
“Do you not enjoy social events in general, or is it this one in particular?”
She laughed. “I enjoy a good ball or rout now and then, but I am no social butterfly.”
He looked at her quizzically. “I understand you have better things to do with your time.”
She blinked. “You know of my work with the Foundling Hospital?” She couldn’t understand why her parents would have mentioned such a thing to a new acquaintance.
He took her hand and gently squeezed. “Your parents are very proud, you know.”
Pulling her hand away, she stopped in front of a potted palm. “I suppose they told you about the rest, too.”
He steadied his gaze on her. “About your promise to wed? Indeed, they did.”
Her nails bit into her palms. “Why do such a thing? This is a family matter.” She glared at him. “Who are you really?”
“I am Sir Stirling James, businessman. Some call me The Marriage Maker.”
Cornelia stepped back and nearly fell into the potted palm.
My parents contacted a matchmaker? God have mercy!