Mary Balogh: Gentle conquest

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Mary Balogh Gentle conquest
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    Gentle conquest
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    It should have been the perfect marriage for beautiful young Georgiana Burton. The husband her parents bad Picked for her, Lord Ralph Chartleigh, was wealthy, handsome, noble, and kind.     Unfortunately, he did not measure up to Georgian's notions of what a man should be. He was uninterested in society, impervious to fashions, had the worst of tailors, knew little of women - and was wary of the little he knew.     Clearly Georgiana had to teach him a great deal about life and even more about love… forgetting until it was almost too late how much she had to learn herself…

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Mary Balogh

Gentle conquest


"I HAVE SAID IT a hundred times, but I shall say it again," the Countess of Chartleigh complained, picking a speck of lint from the skirt of her black dress with two plump fingers. "I shall never forgive myself for having given birth to Ralph before Stanley."

This strange utterance was received without a flicker of surprise or amusement by her two companions. Obviously they had heard the same sentiment expressed on at least one other of those one hundred occasions. Lady Beauchamp was sitting very upright on the edge of a deep chair in the Chartleigh drawing room, sipping tea from a Wedgwood china cup. Only a close observer would have seen the family resemblance of feature between her and her sister, the countess. Lady Beauchamp was slim almost to the point of thinness and impeccably elegant.

The other occupant of the room could easily have been mistaken for the daughter of Lady Beauchamp rather than the niece. But Lady Gloria Middleton, like her mother, the countess, was dressed in unrelieved black. She looked up from her embroidery, her expression cheerful.

"It is all very well to say so, Mama," she said. "But the fact is that Ralph is the elder by three years, and no amount of wishing is going to change that."

"Well, I consider it most provoking that it has to be the elder son that always succeeds to his father's title," Lady Chartleigh said, fumbling in the pocket of her dress for a handkerchief and dabbing at her moist eyes. "It is not that I dislike Ralph. He is my own son and I nursed him at my breast. And who could dislike the boy? He is sweet-natured and always did well at his lessons. But how can he possibly take poor Chartleigh's place now that he is of age?"

"The boy is well enough, Hilda," her sister said somewhat impatiently. "One must give him a chance to prove himself now that he has passed his one-and twentieth birthday and is to take over his duties as earl. What was so great about the late Chartleigh, after all? When he was alive you were forever complaining that he was a spendthrift among other things."

"But, Elspeth," Lady Chartleigh said, her handkerchief poised halfway to her eyes, "Chartleigh was at least a man. You have to admit that. All real men drink and gamble and, well, have other weaknesses."

"And are likely to come to premature ends like my brother-in-law," her sister commented acidly. "He would probably not have broken his neck at that fence, Hilda, if he had not been in his cups at the time. None of the other hunters had any difficulty clearing it."

Lady Gloria Middleton dropped her embroidery in a heap on the table beside her and crossed the room swiftly to her mother's side. "Aunt Elspeth!" she admonished the other lady. "Do please have a care. Mama is still very sensitive on the topic of Papa's accident, even though it happened more than a year ago. Come, Mama, here is your vinaigrette. Do take it from me, and I shall ring for a fresh pot of tea. Pray do not take on so."

"Oh, what a wretched creature I am," the countess wailed. "My poor Chartleigh dead in his prime; my dear Stanley, who resembles his Papa to the very letter, with the misfortune to be a younger son; and Ralph a dear, sweet weakling about to try to step into his papa's shoes."

"Hush, Mama," Gloria said, clearly distressed. "You are being unfair to Ralph. It is true that he has always been a sweet and quiet boy and that he dislikes hunting and gambling and such. But he is certainly not stupid. Why, that professor at Oxford who likes him so much made the effort to travel all the way to Chartleigh last year to persuade Ralph to complete his studies before taking on his new duties. And we do not know for certain that he has not matured in the year since Papa's death. He came home from university only yesterday. And, Mama, do please remember that he is barely one-and-twenty now. He is very young to bear so much responsibility. As Aunt Elspeth says, we must give him a chance to prove himself."

"Stanley is only eighteen," the countess pointed out with a sniff, "but he could take his father's place at a moment's notice. What good is an Oxford education when one is to be an earl?"

"The boy will do well enough," Lady Beauchamp said, placing her cup and saucer on the table beside her and clasping her hands in her lap. "He needs a wife, that's all. There's nothing like family responsibility to turn a boy into a man. I wish I had insisted on Roger marrying when he was as young."

"Well, bless my soul," her sister replied, looking at her in some shock. "Ralph is barely more than a child, Elspeth. How would he know what to do with a wife?"

Lady Beauchamp pursed her lips. "He would soon learn," she said.

Gloria bent her blushing face over the embroidery that she had picked up again.

"Do you really think it would be a good idea?" Lady Chartleigh asked doubtfully.

"It would be the making of him," her sister assured her. "What man likes to appear weak before his own wife? I shouldn't wonder if he doesn't take up hunting and gaming and all those other activities you seem to think so important, Hilda, just to impress her."

"But where is he to find a suitable bride?" the countess asked. "There are no very eligible girls around Chartleigh except the Horsley sisters, and I always felt they were appropriately named, poor dears. They are distinctly horsey in appearance."

"Who says the girl must come from the country," Lady Beauchamp asked reasonably, "just because the last two earls chose brides from their own neighborhood? Here we are in London, Hilda, the Marriage Mart itself. It is true that you have not gone about in the last year because of your mourning and do not know many eligible parties, but there are any number of suitable girls. There would be more here if it were the Season, of course, but even so you will have a considerable choice. I tell you what I shall do. I shall call on Eugenia tomorrow. She knows positively everyone who is anyone. She will name us some likely prospects."

"She must be a girl of firm character," Lady Chartleigh said. "I fear that Ralph will need a strong woman behind him if he is to perform his duties at all well."

"I shall mention that to Eugenia," her sister assured her.

"Is that Lady Sheldon you speak of, Aunt?" Gloria asked. She added rather timidly, "Is it quite right, do you suppose, to entrust the finding of a bride for Ralph to a stranger?"

"Gracious, child," her aunt replied, "who better to find a bride for any young man than someone with Eugenia's connections? Your brother is the Earl of Chartleigh and the owner of Chartleigh. He owes it to his position to marry well. Just any girl will not do, you know."

"Oh, why did I not produce Stanley first?" Lady Chartleigh said on a sigh.

It was not clear whether her elder son heard this. statement or not as he entered the room. Certainly he gave no sign of having done so, and his mother quickly erased the stricken look that his unexpected entrance had brought to her face.

The Earl of Chartleigh smiled at the three ladies and crossed the room to kiss each on the cheek. "Are you comfortable enough, Aunt Elspeth?" he asked. "Shall I fetch a cushion for your back?"

"Absolutely not," his aunt assured him, lifting her cheek for him to kiss. "It is very bad for the posture, my boy, to be forever propping oneself up."

Ralph grinned, picked up the teapot to refill his mother's empty cup, and seated himself beside his sister. She smiled across at him.

"Were you out riding?" she asked. "I saw you go downstairs in your riding clothes after luncheon."

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