Home > To Marry and to Meddle

To Marry and to Meddle
Author: Martha Waters

 


Prologue


London, 1813

In retrospect, things might have gone better if Julian hadn’t been drunk.

Oh, he wasn’t well and truly foxed; it was, after all, midmorning, and he’d been able to catch at least a few hours of sleep in the wake of a round of energetic if ultimately uninspiring bedsport, so he was reasonably coherent. But he was quite certain that there was still a fair amount of brandy sloshing around in his head, which might explain why it took him several repetitions to understand his father’s demand.

“I want you to sell the Belfry.”

An incredulous laugh escaped Julian, causing the lines on his father’s face to deepen. They were in the study of Julian’s recently purchased home on Duke Street—one of the only rooms in the house, in fact, that was fully furnished and decorated. There was an empty drawing room, and a dining room with only half the chairs that the table required, but at least this room offered him a quiet, peaceful place to retreat, to read, to attend to his correspondence.

At the moment, however, it was not feeling terribly quiet or peaceful—not with his father seated on the opposite side of his desk, frowning at him in that way he had done since Julian was a boy. The frown indicated severe displeasure with whatever happened to be Julian’s latest indiscretion (these had ranged from being sent down from Eton for distributing lewd pamphlets—twice—to attempting to elope with the stablemaster’s daughter, to name a couple).

Today, though, Julian wasn’t even certain he knew what specific indiscretion had prompted this rather extraordinary demand, so he merely said, “You cannot be serious.”

“I assure you, I am.” His father, the Marquess of Eastvale, was a handsome man in his mid-fifties, his dark hair liberally streaked with gray, his blue eyes an identical shade to those of all three of his children. Those blue eyes currently regarded his youngest son with displeasure. “You’ve had your fun—and, in truth, you’ve turned the Belfry into a more profitable establishment than I would have thought possible when you purchased it. But enough is enough.”

The Belfry was Julian’s theater, purchased in a fit of youthful impetuousness (fueled by more than one bottle of brandy) five years earlier, when he’d finished at Oxford. At the time, it had been a derelict building with an appalling reputation, employing a company of actors whose enthusiasm vastly outstripped their talent. Julian—being a second son, and therefore mercifully free of the responsibilities that plagued his elder brother Robert—had hired a manager, invested a sizable portion of his inheritance in restoring the building, and then sat back and watched the gentlemen of the ton flood through the doors. Occasionally, when the fancy struck him, he went so far as to appear onstage himself, which had the added benefit of scandalizing the mamas of the ton sufficiently to prevent them from flinging their eligible daughters at him.

The venture had, in other words, overall proved to Julian to be entirely satisfactory. The tic in his father’s jaw at the moment, however, indicated that he might feel otherwise.

“Your sister is about to make her debut into society,” his father continued, leaning forward to rest an arm on the desk, tapping the wood with an index finger for emphasis. “The Belfry has been subject to more and more gossip of late—as has your ridiculous insistence on appearing onstage from time to time—and whilst your mother and I have been more than tolerant of this little lark of yours, we’re not prepared to allow any gossip surrounding you to ruin your sister’s chances.”

Julian stiffened at those words: this little lark. He had always known, on some level, that this was how his parents viewed the Belfry—indeed, he’d initially had cause to be grateful for this fact, since it prevented them from getting too worked up when informed of its purchase. But now he bristled to hear it described so dismissively.

“The Belfry is my business, Father,” he said, taking care to enunciate, as he always did when he was a bit the worse for drink. He spared a moment to cast a dark thought at the Julian of twelve hours earlier, who had cheerfully consumed “just one more glass” for several hours running. Had he realized he’d be meeting with his father—and therefore needing all of his wits about him—he certainly would have gone to bed sometime before dawn.

“The Belfry is turning into little more than a brothel, Julian,” his father shot back.

“That’s hardly a fair—”

“The Duke of Wildermere cavorting with an Italian opera singer in plain sight—not even in the privacy of a box,” his father interrupted. “Lord Henry Cavendish reportedly appearing with a set of triplets—”

“They were twins,” Julian said wearily. “The third lady was their cousin, I believe—they all evidently found it amusing that she resembles the other two so strongly.”

“Oh, of course,” the marquess said politely. “Then in that case, there was nothing at all untoward about the fact that he was seen kissing all three of them at various intervals throughout the evening.”

Julian sighed. “I’ll grant you, we’ve attracted our fair share of rowdy behavior—but that’s why the gentlemen like it, don’t you see? A place they can come with their mistresses, where there’s no danger of running into friends of their wives?”

“I understand that it’s a profitable venture,” his father continued, and Julian momentarily brightened—perhaps this entire conversation could be wrapped up neatly, and he could see himself back to bed—“which is why I’ve no qualms about asking you to sell it.”

“Father—”

“You’ve made a tidy profit already—more than recouped your initial investment, I should think. So there’s no reason not to sell it now, and find some way to occupy your time that doesn’t threaten your sister’s matrimonial prospects.”

“Frannie is going to be the most beautiful debutante of her year,” Julian said quite truthfully. Eight years his junior, and now eighteen, his sister Frances was about to make her curtsey before the queen. Given her beauty—and the size of her dowry—he was not losing much sleep about any harm to her reputation a slightly scandalous brother might cause. “And furthermore, she’s the daughter of a marquess who also happens to be one of the most respected men in England. I hardly think she’ll be lacking in suitors.”

“Julian, you seem to misunderstand the conversation we are having,” his father said pleasantly. “I am not making a request—I am telling you that you will sell the Belfry.”

“And what occupation do you have in mind for me, then?” Julian asked. “I’m a second son, in case you’ve forgotten—I’ll need one.” This was not entirely true—he had a sizable inheritance from a great-aunt who’d had an inexplicable fondness for her scapegrace of a nephew; furthermore, any profit he saw from selling the theater would likely have been sufficient to support him for years.

But Julian didn’t want to become an idle gentleman of the ton, spending his days reading newspapers at White’s and discussing horseflesh at Tattersall’s. While he’d had enough good sense to immediately hire a manager upon acquiring the Belfry, he still enjoyed maintaining an active role at the theater, giving his days some shape, lending himself some sense of purpose.

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