The Temporary Wife/A Promise of Spring

It being not quite the thing to advertise in the London papers for a wife, Anthony Earheart, Marquess of Staunton, eldest son and heir of the Duke of Withingsby, advertised instead for a governess.

He advertised in his own name, with the omission of his title and connections, to the decided amusement of his friends and acquaintances, who rose to the occasion with marvelous wit.

"How many children do you have, Staunton?" Harold Price asked him at White's the morning of the advertisement's first appearance. "Would it not be more appropriate to hire a schoolteacher? One capable of managing a full schoolroom?"

"What you should do, Staunton," Cuthbert Pyne added, "is hire a full staff. For a whole school, I mean. One would not wish to jeopardize the education of the budding scholars by crowding too many of them into one classroom."

"Are all their mamas to come and fetch them each afternoon, Tony?" Lord Rowling asked before inhaling the pinch of snuff he had placed on the back of one hand. "Do you have a salon large enough to hold them all while they wait? And will they wait amicably in company with one another?"

"Are you sure you wish to educate them all, Staunton?" Colonel Forsythe asked. "Do you have enough estates needing stewards and managers, old boy? Does England have enough estates?"

"You have forgotten Wales, Forsythe," Mr. Pyne said. "And Scotland."

"But it is hardly fair to everyone else's by-blows if all the positions are filled by Staunton's," the colonel said, speaking with an exaggerated whine of complaint.

"I believe Tony is not in search of a governess at all," Sir Bernard Shields said. "He is in search of a new mistress. I hear you dismissed the delectable Anna just last week, Tony—with rubies. You have decided to look elsewhere for her replacement than the green rooms of London? You have decided to search for someone who can provide conversation as a diversion while you are, ah, at work?"

"Or someone who can offer instruction," Lord Rowling said. "It is said, you know, that one is never too knowledgeable to stop learning. And who better to learn from than a governess? And in a schoolroom with all its desks and tabletops on which to practice one's lessons. The mind boggles."

"I daresay," the very young and earnest Lord Callaghan said, "Staunton is hiring a governess for one or more of his nieces and nephews and we are slandering him by imagining otherwise."

The Marquess of Staunton did not participate in the conversation beyond the occasional lifting of an eyebrow or pursing of the lips. He looked on as if he were nothing more than a mildly interested observer. He had no children as far as he knew. He had no estates—yet. He had tired of Anna after only six weeks and was in no hurry to employ a replacement. Mistresses, he was finding, were less and less able to satisfy his jaded appetites. He knew all their tricks and skills and was bored by them—Rowling was wrong about there being more to learn. He had no dealings with any of his nieces—or nephews either, for that matter.

No, he was not in search of either a governess or a mistress. He was choosing himself a wife, as he made clear to Lord Rowling when the two of them were strolling homeward later.

"Is that not usually done at Almack's or in someone's ballroom or drawing room?" Lord Rowling asked, chuckling as if he believed the whole matter was a joke devised for his amusement. "And without the necessity of an advertisement, Tony? You are Staunton, after all, and will be Withingsby one day. You are as rich as Croesus and have the looks to turn any female head even if you were a pauper. Yet you have advertised for a wife in the guise of a governess? What am I missing, pray?" He twirled his cane and touched the brim of his hat to a lady whom they were passing.

"I cannot find what I am looking for at Almack's," the marquess said, no answering amusement in his face. He had the grace to continue when his friend merely looked at him with raised eyebrows. "She must be a gentlewoman—I'll not go lower than that, you see. She must also be impoverished, plain, demure, very ordinary, perhaps even prim. She must have all the personality of—a quiet mouse."

"Dear me," Lord Rowling said rather faintly. "A quiet mouse, Tony? You? Do you feel such a need to dominate the woman you will take to wife?"

"The Duke of Withingsby has summoned me home," the marquess said. "He claims to be ailing. He reminds me that Lady Marie Lucas, daughter of the Earl of Tillden, is now seventeen years old—old enough, in fact, for the match arranged for us by our families at her birth to be elevated to a formal betrothal. He informs me that the eight years of my absence from home have given me sufficient time in which to sow my wild oats."

Lord Rowling grimaced. "Your father is not displaying a great deal of wisdom," he said. "You have amassed a sizable fortune during those eight years, Tony." But he grinned suddenly. "As well as acquiring a well-deserved reputation as one of London's most prolific rakes. You plan to marry your quiet mouse merely in order to embarrass his grace, then?"

"Precisely," the marquess said without hesitation. "I did consider merely ignoring the summons, Perry, or answering it but refusing to wed the child who has been carefully chosen and groomed as the next Duchess of Withingsby. But this idea of mine will be infinitely better. If his grace is not already ailing in all truth, he soon will be. If he has not yet got the point of the last eight years, he soon will. Yes, I shall choose my wife very carefully indeed. I daresay there will be a number of applicants."

Lord Rowling looked aghast, perhaps only now understanding that his friend was in deadly earnest. "But, Tony," he said, "you cannot marry the dullest creature you can find merely to annoy your father."

"Why not?" Lord Staunton asked.

"Why not?" His friend made circular motions in the air with his cane. "Marriage is a life sentence, old chap. You will be stuck with the woman for the rest of your life. You would find the situation intolerable."

"I do not intend to spend the rest of my life with her," the marquess said. "Once she had served her purpose, she will be pensioned off—a governess could hardly ask for a better fate, could she?"

"And she might live to the age of ninety," Lord Rowling pointed out. "Tony, you will want heirs. If you get them on her, she will wish—and quite reasonably so—to be a mother to them. She will wish to live in your home while they grow up."

"I have an heir," the marquess said. "My brother William, Perry. And he has sons—or so Marianne informs me. One can only hope that they are sturdy."

"But a man craves heirs of his own body," Lord Rowling said.

"Does he, by Jove? The Marquess of Staunton looked surprised. "This man certainly does not, Perry. Shall we change the subject? This particular one grows tedious. Do you go to Tattersall's tomorrow? I have my eye on a promising-looking pair of grays."

Lord Rowling would have liked to continue the original conversation until he had talked some sense into his friend, but he was soon conversing about horses. After all, he had known the Marquess of Staunton long enough to understand that he had a will of iron, that he said and did exactly what he wished to say and do without reference to other people's preferences or to society's dictates. If he had decided to choose a wife in such an unconventional manner and for such a cynical, cold-blooded reason, then choose her he would, and marry her too.

The Marquess of Staunton meanwhile, although he talked with enthusiasm about horses and then the races, inwardly contemplated with some satisfaction his return to Enfield Park in Wiltshire and the effect of that return on the Duke of Withingsby. It would be the final thumbing of the nose to the man who had begotten him and made his life miserable for the twenty years following his birth. For eight years, ever since he had left home after that final dreadful scene, he had lived independently of his father, refusing any financial support. He had made his own fortune, at first by gambling, then by reckless investments, and finally by more prudent investments and business ventures.

His father had clearly not got the point. But he would. He would understand that his eldest son was once and for all beyond his power and influence. Oh, yes, marrying imprudently—and that would be an understatement for the marriage of the Duke of Withingsby's heir to an impoverished gentlewoman who had earned her living as a governess—would be the best possible thing he could do. He longed to see his father's face when he took his bride to Enfield.

And so he waited for replies to his advertisement, replies that began coming in the very day after its first appearance in the London papers and kept coming in for several days after that in even larger numbers than he had expected. He rejected several applicants, sight unseen-all those below the age of twenty or above the age of thirty, those with particularly impressive recommendations, and one young lady who so particularly wished to impress him with her knowledge of Latin that her letter was written in it.

He interviewed five candidates before discovering his quiet mouse in the sixth. Miss Charity Duncan had been shown into a downstairs salon and had chosen to stand in the part of the room that was not bathed in sunlight. For one moment after he had opened the door and stepped inside the room he thought she must have changed her mind and fled. But then he saw her, and it struck him that even her decision to stand just there was significant. In addition she was dressed from head to toe in drab brown and looked totally self-effacing and quietly disciplined. She was the quintessential governess—the sort of employee even the most jealous of wives would not object to having in the same house with her husband.

"Miss Duncan?" he asked.

"Yes, sir." Her voice was quiet and low-pitched. She curtsied to him without once raising her eyes from the carpet before her feet. She was on the low side of medium height, very slender, perhaps even thin, though her cloak made it impossible to know for sure. Her face looked pale and ordinary in the shadows. The brown of her hair blended so totally with the brown of her bonnet that it was difficult to know where the one ended and the other began. Her garments were decent and drab. He was given the impression that they were not quite shabby but very soon would be. They were genteel-shabby.

She was perfect. His father would be incensed.

"Please be seated," he said, indicating a chair close to where she stood.

"Yes, sir," she said and sat down, as expected, with a straight spine that did not touch the back of her chair. She folded her gloved hands in her lap and directed her gaze modestly at her knees.

She was the picture of prim gentility. She was quite perfect! He decided there and then that she would do, that his search was at an end. He was looking at his future wife.


A Promise of Spring:

When the Reverend Paul Howard, rector at the village of Abbotsford in Hampshire, died at the age of two-and-thirty years, his death caused considerably more stir than his life had ever done. He had been a gentle, studious man, revered as a saint, honored as a guest, coveted as a visitor to the sick, and largely ignored as a preacher. It was the least of their troubles, the elder Miss Stanhope had once remarked to Mrs. Cartwright, to be forced to sit through the hour-long sermon each Sunday when one only had to look at the reverend's face to know that the Almighty had sent them one of his blessed angels in disguise.

In death the rector was lifted once and for all beyond the ordinary. Mrs. Cartwright told several of her acquaintances in some awe that Miss Stanhope's words had been prophetic. The Reverend Howard was walking home after visiting one of the cottages beyond the village, his nose in a book as usual, when the screaming of children had penetrated his consciousness and he had looked up to see one small child in a forbidden field, cornered by a bull that someone had obviously been annoying.

The rector hurled his precious book to the dust, roared with greater ferocity than anyone would have guessed him capable of, vaulted over the wooden fence with more agility than he would have thought possible, picked up the child and lowered him gently over the fence to join the other screaming youngsters, and turned to face the bull—for all the world like David about to take on Goliath, Mr. Watson, the farmer poet, said afterward, though Mr. Watson had not been present to witness the incident. Only the children had.

Unfortunately, the Reverend Howard did not possess a slingshot as David had done. He was dead probably even before the terrified children turned and ran screaming toward the village and help. He became an instant martyr, a man who had given his life for a child. The poor bull survived him by only a few hours.

But the people of Abbotsford and the surrounding countryside were not allowed to bask in the glory of such a sensational tragedy. They were faced with a very practical problem. Their rector had left behind him an unmarried sister. A destitute sister, as far as anyone knew. She had come with her brother five years before to live at the rectory as his housekeeper. Neither had spoken of any other family members. It was assumed that there were none. And the Reverend Howard had not been a wealthy man. He had been in the habit of giving away almost more than he possessed, so that Mrs. Courtney and Mrs. Cartwright were agreed that it was a wonder Miss Howard found anything in the rectory kitchen to cook. Perhaps like angels the two of them lived on air.

In the days following the death of her brother, Grace Howard seemed unaware of the unenviable position in which his heroism had placed her. Always quiet and dignified, she seemed now wholly turned to marble. Paul had been all she had left. Now she had nothing. No one. She could not think beyond that deadening fact to consider also that she now had nowhere to go and no means by which to live.

But the people about her were by no means so unaware or so apathetic. Miss Howard's brother had died in order to save one of their children. Miss Howard must be looked after.

"She could come to live with us," Miss Stanhope said to a small gathering of ladies in her parlor the day before the funeral. "Letitia and I are all alone here since Mama and Papa died and dear Bertie moved away. There is plenty of room for all three of us. But will she be willing to come? Or will she see our offer as charity?"

Most of the ladies nodded to indicate that, yes, indeed, Miss Howard might be too proud to accept such a generous offer.

"She is a dear lady," Miss Letitia Stanhope added in support of her older sister, "and would not at all upset our routine, I am sure."

"Mr. Courtney has said that I might ask her to be governess to our Susan," Mrs. Courtney said. "But Susan is fifteen already and not much longer for the schoolroom. And what is to happen to Miss Howard then? The other four are all boys." She added absently, "And they are all older than Susan anyway."

The poorer people of the village, those who worked as laborers for the Earl of Amberley, took up a collection of food and money, which they planned to present to Miss Howard after the funeral. But they knew that such a gift, although a sacrifice to them, would not solve her problem for longer than a week or two at most.

The Countess of Amberley broached the subject to her son the earl as he sat with her in the conservatory at Amberley Court after they had returned from a visit to the rectory.

"The poor lady," she said. "One can clearly see, Edmund, that she has not yet quite comprehended either what has happened or what her predicament now is. She is in a daze. And Doctor Hanson swears that she has not even cried yet. I am so glad, dear, that you thought to offer to send Mrs. Oats and a couple of the other servants over tomorrow to help when the bishop arrives for the funeral."

The Earl of Amberley sighed. "We are very privileged, Mama, are we not?" he said. "We know very well that no matter what disaster befalls us, materially we may live still with great comfort. I shall have to find a situation for Miss Howard. I don't suppose she will accept a pension from me, will she?"

"It is unlikely," his mother replied. "Perhaps the bishop will have the inspiration to appoint a new rector who will need a housekeeper. But perhaps she would not choose to stay at the rectory, with her brother gone. I have been thinking of offering her the position of companion. What do you think, Edmund?"

"Companion?" he said with a frown. "You mean to you, Mama? You would hate to have such an employee, would you not?"

"Oh, dear," the countess said, "I am afraid I would, Edmund. But what else is one to do? I feel very deeply for Miss Howard. I know just how it feels to lose someone who is everything to one. I ache with memories of Papa at a time like this."

The Earl of Amberley reached out and touched his mother's hand. "Let me talk to her first, Mama," he said. "Perhaps she has some idea of what she would like to do. Perhaps you will not have to make the sacrifice of burdening yourself with a companion."

"It would not be a burden, Edmund," she said. "Miss Howard is a sensible lady."

The earl smiled fleetingly. "Perry is taking this death hard," he said. "He was a very close friend of Howard's, you know. I was even somewhat jealous of the fact until I realized that being a friend of one person does not exclude one from being another's too. Perry and I have been friends for as long as I can remember."

Sir Peregrine Lampman did not consult with anyone on what should be done about his friend's sister. He paid a call on her the morning after the funeral, after the bishop had left and before his neighbors and friends could put into effect any of their less-than-satisfactory suggestions for Miss Howard's future. And he asked her to marry him.

© Mary Balogh