Book Blurb: Threatened with being cut off by his father, womaniser Maxwell Stark is forced to marry and he chooses the woman he secretly loves, Lucy Steed, his family's ward.
Lucy has been desperately in love with Max ever since she first moved in with the Stark family, but she’s convinced that he only loves her as a friend.
Although both are too afraid to admit their true feelings, the marriage is a happy one, until Max’s spurned mistress, Marie, decides that if she can’t have Max, then no one can.
They say that ‘hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’, and Marie is furious!
“Lucy, my dear girl, please, you must marry me!” Max implored.
Much like a marionette whose strings have been cut, Lucy sat down, grateful to find that there was a chair behind her, because she honestly hadn’t thought to check.
How had an ordinary gathering descended into this?
This was supposed to be a dance, much like any other and she had been anticipating it all week. Her long, sleek blonde hair had been coiled atop her head, a few tendrils curled and left to frame her face in a most pleasing manner. This was the first outing of her powder blue dress, which matched the light shade of her eyes and was most flattering to her figure; she had been looking forward to wearing it for weeks.
She looked good, she felt good and she had been enjoying the dancing immensely, until Maxwell came and pulled her away and into a side room where they could talk privately.
“Max, have you taken leave of your senses?”
“Of course not.” He dashed a hand through his hair and began to pace.
“Then I don’t understand-”
“Father wants me to marry Georgette Harrison and if I refuse, he’ll cut me off.”
He turned to her, hope shining in his eyes. “You mean you will?”
“No, I mean I understand the story so far.”
“What more is there to understand?”
“Why would you want to marry me? We’ve known each other for seven years and you have never shown that kind of interest in me. I can only assume that you wish to live off my fortune and that is no reason to marry anyone, even my best friend.”
“It’s not like that, Luce. Father isn’t set on Georgette but he knows how fond of me she is and that she’d accept in a heartbeat. As long as I ‘settle down’, to use his words, then he won’t cut me off. I simply can’t marry Georgette. I would rather spend my days wedded to Arthur.”
Lucy smiled at the thought of him marrying his horse, rather than the homey Georgette.
“Perhaps if you hadn’t already broken the heart of every beautiful young woman in Society, you would have more choice.” She sounded reproachful. He may be her best friend but she was under no illusions as to his character. She loved Max but she couldn’t deny that he was a little shallow and vain. He enjoyed beautiful women, fine wine and gambling; in that order. He might be three years her senior but she was far more mature than he.
“Well I can do nothing to change that now, can I? Please, Lucy, I cannot marry Georgette.”
“Are you certain that your father isn’t just bluffing? Perhaps if you stop gambling and womanising for a few weeks, he will relent?”
Max shook his head, looking like a lost puppy. “I fear I’ve gone too far this time.”
Her first instinct was to try and soothe him but she managed to repress it. She needed to think with her head rather than her heart.
“What have you done this time?” she asked with a sinking feeling.
“I had a run of bad luck at my club, that’s all.”
“Oh Max!” She shook her head. “How much do you owe?”
“Five thousand, give or take.”
Silence reigned for a moment, until Max got to his knees before her and took her hands.
“Please, dear Lucy, do not refuse me this.”
“You know I find it hard to refuse you anything, Max but…”
Lucy sighed. “I always assumed that when I got married, it would be for love.”
“My dear girl, everyone knows that you will never marry.”
Though his tone was teasing, his words stung her.
“Why on earth not?”
“Because no one is good enough for you. You possess a rare beauty and have been courted by men from the best families, only to turn your nose up at them. You are almost 21 now; past your prime in some peoples’ eyes.”
He was right, she hadn’t accepted any offers of marriage for the simple reason that she didn’t love those men. She couldn’t as long as she was madly in love with Max.
He was so handsome that it almost pained her to look at him at times. His dark, almost black hair constantly needed a trim and tempted her to run her fingers through it, his deep blue eyes had a constant twinkle in them and were framed with thick black lashes, which highlighted their colour and made her want to stare at them all day. Not to mention his full lips, which begged her to kiss them and his frequent layer of stubble, which gave him a slightly dangerous air.
They were an odd couple in looks, as different as night and day, for she was as pale and blonde as he was olive skinned and dark haired. Only in their height did they match, for although he was 6’1”, Lucy was abnormally tall for a woman and she thought their three inch difference to be perfect. It was strange to watch him have to contort himself when he tried to dance with certain women, some of whom were almost a full foot shorter than he.
“Even if I am ready to settle for someone, Max, I cannot see me enjoying married life with someone whose antics in the bedroom are practically legendary among Society. I had always assumed that at least I would have fidelity.”
“All gentlemen have mistresses; I am no different.”
But she was different, because he took great delight in confiding his antics to her, little knowing that each word was like a knife to her heart. It was hard enough to school herself not to react as his friend, how much worse would it be as his wife?
“And what of children?” she asked.
“I will need heirs,” he assured her, then offered her a teasing and cajoling smile. “And we already know that we’re compatible in that regard.”
She wasn’t sure that she could stand making love to him again, not when he didn’t love her in return. Two years ago, thanks to her overwhelming desire for him and the vague hope that she could let go of her love for him if she acted on her feelings, she had talked him into taking her virginity.
It had been the worst mistake of her life.
Afterwards she had lain awake for half the night, wishing that she could take her actions back, because her affection for him only seemed to have increased afterwards, and knowing that he didn’t love her in return hurt even more. To avoid more pain, she had left him in the middle of the night, unwilling to look into his eyes in the morning and see only friendship there.
She wasn’t sure if she could stand making love to him regularly; her already fragile heart would surely shatter.
“Max, I can’t-”
Max placed a finger across her lips, silencing her.
“I know this is a big request on my part, darling, and I would not impose on you if my future happiness didn’t depend upon it. I beg you please, don’t make any hasty decisions, at least consider it. I would be a good husband to you.”
“How?” she asked.
“How would you be a good husband?
“I…” he didn’t quite know how to answer. “We’re best friends, Lucy, and I love you.”
‘Like a sister,’ she added silently.
“I would never hurt you,” he assured her.
‘But your drinking and womanising and gambling already hurt me,’ she thought. ‘Only as my husband it will be my inheritance you gamble away and my bed you leave cold, while you warm someone else’s.’
“I beseech you, just consider my proposal. I will not interfere in your life in any way.”
Lucy sighed then squeezed his hands. “I will consider it, Max, you have my word.”
Max bestowed one of his brilliant smiles upon her, as if she had already agreed. Her heart swelled and for perhaps the thousandth time, she wished that he didn’t affect her so. He kissed her forehead, causing her heart to skip a beat.
“Go back to the party,” she told him.
“Come with me?”
“No,” she shook her head. “I need some time to compose myself first.”
“Are you sure?”
“Go!” she told him firmly, needing to be away from his all-consuming presence for a time.
“Very well.” He kissed her forehead again, unaware of the dizzying effect that it had on her, then he practically skipped from the room. He thought that he all but had her agreement.
‘And why wouldn’t he?’ she wondered. ‘Ever since I met him, I have done almost everything he asked of me, even if I did sometimes need some cajoling. I can’t even recall a single time when I have denied him anything.’
She sat there for a time, until she felt composed enough to return to her gathering, certain that she could conceal her emotions once more.
She didn’t venture to Max’s side as she might usually, to gossip and giggle about the other people present. Instead she maintained her distance and kept a watchful eye on him. She saw him flirt with the few pretty young girls who hadn’t yet fallen for his charms, she saw his father glaring at him from across the room and she noticed how he paled when it was time for him to dance with Georgette.
Could she condemn him to a life with a woman he clearly disliked, she wondered?
And if she couldn’t, could she condemn herself to a life of unrequited love and moreover, having that fact rubbed in her face almost daily?
She knew that she was a strong woman, she’d had no choice but to become one, but there was only so much that even she could stand.
She was quiet as she journeyed home that evening with Max and his parents, who had been her guardians since her own parents died seven years ago.
Having inherited a sizeable estate, she could have left them by now; she certainly had the means to. Most people assumed that she stayed because it was improper for a woman to live alone (servants didn’t count) so even although she could have hired a companion, they didn’t question her decision. The real reason she stayed however, was to be closer to Max.
Immature, irresponsible, irrepressible, Max.
She bid Mr and Mrs Stark goodnight as soon as they got home and headed to her rooms, where she allowed her lady’s maid to help her undress and climbed into bed. She knew she’d get little sleep though, for her thoughts were filled with Maxwell and his proposal; equal parts thrilled with and terrified by, the idea of becoming his wife.
Lucy still hadn’t reached any conclusions by the following day and part of the reason was that she was lacking facts. She headed out in the carriage shortly after breakfast, not telling anyone where she was going. However, her thoughts were still confused once she had found her answers.
She returned to the Stark house and looked up at one of the the places she had called home for the past seven years. Three stories tall and built of red brick, the Stark townhouse was elegant in its simplicity. It sat just off Piccadilly, four streets away from her own townhouse, which was being rented out while she didn’t need it. In Lucy’s mind however, her property was just a house. This was a home because a family lived here; a family who had, for the most part, accepted the little orphan girl with open arms.
Lucy went inside, not in the least surprised to find that Max was still in bed. He rarely arose before noon and it wouldn’t shock Lucy in the slightest if he had gone out again, after they had returned home last night.
As she approached the study, she could hear Charles Stark coughing and waited until he stopped before knocking. He bid her to enter.
“Lucy, come in, dear girl,” he said, tucking his handkerchief away.
She came in and sat opposite him at the desk. Although he was ailing in his twilight years, Charles still cut a fine figure of a man, with broad shoulders and a narrow waist, which his clothes did their best to flatter thanks to a skilled tailor. His dark hair was starting to grey, especially at the temples but it gave him a distinguished air, rather than simply ageing him.
“I have a letter for you from your steward.” He handed an envelope to her and Lucy thanked him.
Ever since her parents had died, Charles had been invaluable to her, putting men in place to look after her parents’ estate and in recent years, he had been teaching her to manage her affairs for herself. It was strange for Lucy to think that despite the disparity in their ages, she and Charles were of the same social rank, he the Earl of Rochester and she, by virtue of not having any living siblings, the Countess of Canterbury.
“So what brings you here with such a grave face?” Charles asked, leaning forward and placing his elbows on the desk.
“Max told me of your ultimatum.”
Charles nodded gravely. “I don’t know what else to do with the boy,” he admitted. “And for that matter, he isn’t a boy any longer. Even Michael has settled down in the Army, while Max refuses to grow up and accept his responsibilities.”
“No offence, Charles, but the laudanum does dull your reflexes by the evening. I was hoping that you might have reconsidered by this morning,”
“My words were said in haste, yes, but I haven’t reconsidered.”
To Lucy, Charles was a good man with the best of intentions and he had done his best to become a surrogate father to her. She knew however, that he was harder on his eldest son than he had ever been with her, pushing responsibility on to Maxwell from an early age.
Max had rebelled, as most children are prone to do but unlike most other children, Max had never faced the inevitable and grown up. It was almost as if he expected his father to be around forever and that he would never have to assume the mantle of Earl, nor the responsibilities that entailed.
She had understood how he felt, feeling terrified by the thought of managing her father’s estate one day but Charles had been gentle with her, introducing her to the intricacies of estate management slowly over the years.
With Max he had been much forceful, trying to insist that his son take an active role in managing the estate from an early age. Currently, Max did nothing to help his father run their estate, which he surely counted as a victory over his father.
“I know that Georgette isn’t an ideal match for him but he must realise that he isn’t a child any longer.”
“Can you afford to pay his debt?” Lucy asked.
Charles nodded. “It won’t be easy but yes, I will pay it if he settles down and takes some responsibility.”
“But is this really the best way to get what you want? Surely if you told him that-”
“No!” he said firmly. “The fact that you know pains me enough, I will not burden the rest of my family with this.”
Lucy nodded, knowing that she would lose this argument, as she had lost every argument about it to date.
“But Georgette would hardly be a good match for Max. Although I understand that her dowry is large, her parents are far too controlling for Max to ever be happy in a union with her.”
“You are right of course, but I must do something. And he is free to choose another bride, providing he can get her family’s consent.”
“He’s asked me to marry him,” she confessed.
Charles smiled. “My dear, that’s wonderful.”
“Is it?” she asked.
“Well, you couldn’t know each other any better than you already do and from my perspective, at least there will be one person I trust to manage my affairs after I’m gone.”
“And what of love?”
“Since you already love each other enough to trouble my wife on occasion, I will assume that you are talking of the all-consuming passion of Romeo and Juliet, or Anthony and Cleopatra but let me assure you my dear, that slow and steady love is the kind that keeps a couple together. Romantic love always fades in time.”
He didn’t understand that she was already in love, and she wasn’t inclined to enlighten him. It had been seven years now but still, her feelings for Max hadn’t lessened one jot. How could she be with someone who didn’t love her the same way?
“Thank you, Charles.”
“You’re very welcome, my dear, and I do hope that you will seriously consider my son’s offer. It would greatly ease my conscience to know that he had married someone as capable and intelligent as you.”
“I will consider it,” she promised, rising from her chair.
As she left she wondered if in all good conscience, she could refuse Charles. He wouldn’t be upset if she refused Max’s proposal but he would be disappointed. Knowing how it would set his mind at ease and after everything he and his family had done for her, she felt a little guilty at even considering denying his request.
She returned to her rooms and took out her journal, intending to pour her thoughts onto the pages. She usually found that writing things down helped her come to a decision.
She could vividly remember coming to live with the Starks after her parents died; she had felt so lost. She didn’t even know the Starks very well but she had little other family who wanted her, so she had been sent to her father’s closest friend and her Godfather, Charles Stark, Earl of Rochester.
Maxwell had been away at school when she got here and when he returned, he didn’t know what to do with the strange girl who had invaded his home so while he was polite, he largely ignored her.
She had been living with them for two months when his younger brother, Michael, had reduced her to tears once again, telling her that she wasn’t welcome here, that she should just run away and that her parents had only died because they were so desperate to be rid of her. That was nothing new for Michael, he had enjoyed torturing her since the first day she had arrived but that day was different, because Max overheard the mean-spirited diatribe. The sixteen year old Max had seemed so large and imposing to the thirteen year old Lucy, not to mention, very brave and noble. He was her knight in shining armour.
Happening upon them, Max had told his brother in no uncertain terms, that he would whip Michael to within an inch of his life if he should ever discover that he had insulted their guest again. Then, gathering the sobbing girl up in his arms, he had taken her to the kitchen, where he dried her tears as Cook found a slice of cake and glass of milk to cheer her. Max had assured her that Michael was just a bully and if he ever said anything even slightly disagreeable to Lucy again, she was to tell him and he would take care of it.
Between him and Cook, they had succeeded in stopping her tears, coaxed a smile and then a laugh from her and finally, Max had offered to show her around. Not like the adults had when she arrived, but showing her the things that a child needed to know, such as where the interesting books in the library could be found, where a child might spy on gatherings while remaining unobserved, which banisters were the best to slide down and the best riding trails around the estate.
Lucy couldn’t say when she had fallen in love with Max precisely; was it when he told Michael off, when he cradled her sobbing form in his arms, or when they became friends? Nevertheless, from that day onwards they were virtually inseparable. Even when Max was away at boarding school and university, they wrote to each other almost daily.
As Lucy had approached her 17th birthday, people had begun to speculate about them getting married, not least of who was Max’s younger sister, May.
Despite living together, they weren’t related after all, and they were so close to each other that it seemed inevitable. Lucy allowed herself to be swayed by their words a time or two, even though in her heart, she knew that Max saw her only as a sister and of course, no matter how much she wished it wasn’t so, she had been proved right.
Max was not a man who wanted to settle down, with anyone.
Only now that had all changed and he did want her, just not in the way that she had dreamed of for so long.
Will Lucy go through with it?
Will our lovers admit their true feelings for one another?
What is Marie planning?