The Missing Marquess of Althorn(2)

By: Chasity Bowlin

His father waved his hand dismissively. “Girls are fine to be married so young! They don’t have the same sort of needs that men do that require living a bit before settling into marriage! The younger you marry, the more likely you are to have many healthy children to carry on the family line.”

“Sons,” Marcus corrected. “You could not care less whether or not we have healthy children… only healthy sons to carry on the name. Your morals may permit it, but mine will not! I will not force myself on a child for the sake of conception and the continuation of our apparently corrupt line!”

The older man ran his hands through his hair in frustration and spoke from between clenched teeth, his anger evident in every gesture. “I’m not happy about it either, really. This girl has no rank and only the most limited of connections socially. She’s barely considered gentry! But needs must, my son! Financially, we had no other choice but to agree to the match. It is to our benefit to keep Barrett happy!”

“You had no other choice, Father!” Marcus had rarely openly defied his father. He’d certainly never raised his voice at the man. Yet they were shouting, the both of them. “I have choices and I will not be forced to wed a child!”

The duke sighed heavily and settled into his chair. “It’s Barrett who is pushing for the marriage. He wants the girl out of his home so that he can wed again. Apparently, his bride-to-be is less than pleased at the notion of having a nearly grown stepdaughter in the house. She feels that the servants will be divided in their loyalty to her if they are still pandering—her words, mind you! I have it in a direct quote from Barrett himself—to her predecessor. If you don’t wish to consummate the marriage until she is older, fine. Wed her, set her up in a house in the country and continue sewing your wild oats in the city. Discreetly, of course,” the duke suggested. “There’s no reason marriage should interfere with your living your life just as you please. In truth, we’d have more readily available funds and you could, if you chose, live it up quite right!”

Marcus couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He had no particular affection for Jane Barrett. In truth, they hardly knew one another beyond exchanging greetings when both families were gathered in the same location, but that didn’t mean he lacked a certain degree of sympathy for her. A more unpleasant, cold-hearted and tight-fisted man than William Barrett he’d never encountered. It was evident in the way he treated the girl that he harbored no great affection for his daughter. As for their impending marriage, she was locked into the same contract he was by their managing parents, and by virtue of being female, had even fewer options available to her. “Lock her away to rusticate in the country? Marry her and abandon her immediately? Is no one else capable of seeing just how grossly unfair this is to Miss Barrett?”

The duke made a pshawing sound. “Since when did you care so much for her feelings? Normally, you can’t even be bothered with her!”

“Because she’s a child!” Marcus protested. “I know nothing about children, much less one that I find myself betrothed to! I will not do it. I will not be some monster who weds a child bride and then locks her away somewhere while I rut my way through society.”

“This isn’t some ridiculous novel by that Radcliffe woman!” the duke snapped. “This is about our lands, Marcus, our tenants and all those who depend upon us for their livelihoods. Can you imagine the shame if we were to begin selling off parcels of it? All of society would know that we are in dun territory!”

“Where we’ve landed precisely because you and your own father chose to marry unwisely and then philander your way through the ton!” Marcus retorted hotly. It was a well-known fact that his grandfather had married a penniless woman for love. That love had faded quickly in the face of his infidelity and gambling, but the pennilessness had remained a constant thorn in his grandparents’ tumultuous marriage. She’d left him eventually, and her children as well, and fled to Spain with her lover. As far as scandals went, even fifty years on, it was still whispered about. His own father was no better, having married a woman with a small annuity and then living in excess of it as if he’d filled the family coffers to overflowing. With his mother gone, then his stepmother having sought an early grave via laudanum, ostensibly by accident, and now a new stepmother on the horizon, one with apparently very outlandish taste, their financial ruin was a forgone conclusion.