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Merely a Marriage
Author: Jo Beverley

Chapter 1


   November 1817

   The family parlor at Boxstall Priory was an intimate space amid grandeur, furnished for comfort rather than fashion, and easily warmed by one crackling fire. The room held many happy memories for the Boxstall family, but on this rainy November day it was a scene of discord.

   A young man and woman had surged to their feet and now stood nose to nose.

   “If you’re so sure that making a marriage is nothing,” the Earl of Langton snarled, “then you do it.”

   “That’s outrageous!” Lady Ariana Boxstall took a step back from her brother.

   “No more outrageous than you ordering me to marry.”

   “I didn’t order you, Norris. I explained why it was necessary.”

   “Ha! Talking about it as if it were no greater matter than choosing a new pair of boots.”

   Both were tall, with curling amber-colored hair. Their mother formed an audience of one, observing with concern from a chair near the fire. The world openly wondered how such a tiny lady had produced two such strapping children, but so it was.

   Norris, Lord Langton, was a Corinthian—a gentleman dedicated to the sporting life—and, at six foot two, built for it. He was famous for his daredevil ways.

   Lady Ariana Boxstall was made along more feminine lines, for which she was grateful, but she almost matched him in height. She was sometimes described as an Amazon, or even called Hippolyta, which she deeply disliked. Her name was a variant of Eirene, the Greek goddess of peace, and she was beginning to think she should have taken a more peaceful approach.

   It might have been a mistake to put the matter to her brother as soon as he arrived to celebrate their mother’s birthday. Anxiety had been building in her for two weeks, however, ever since the shocking death of Princess Charlotte in childbirth had plunged the nation into mourning. Ariana and her mother wore black, and Norris sported a black cravat and armband. The Windsor funeral had occurred on the previous Wednesday and the bells of Saint Ethelburga’s had tolled across the valley at the same hour.

   Ariana had wept for the young mother and all who loved her. Everyone worried about the succession to the throne, for the princess had been the Regent’s only child. It had been a more direct succession that had given Ariana sleepless nights. Norris’s death without a son would trigger disaster, so he must marry, and soon.

   “Here’s an idea,” he said, his sudden mildness a warning. “You prove to me that it’s an easy business and I’ll do it.”

   “You’ll marry?” Ariana asked warily.

   “That’s what I said.”

   “But how can I prove it?”

   “You go first. If you marry before the end of the year, I’ll wed before the end of January. There’s no shortage of women eager to wear a countess’s coronet.”

   Suddenly breathless, Ariana turned to their mother. “Mama?”

   “You did say it was a simple matter to choose a marriage partner, dear.”

   “For him! As he’s just admitted, he could pick a plum off the tree whenever he wanted.”

   “But I don’t fancy any of the plums, Mama,” Norris said, “and I’m only twenty-three. The likelihood of my dying soon is small as a shrimp.”

   “I certainly hope so, dear.”

   Ariana faced her brother, who clearly hadn’t grasped the key point. “Princess Charlotte was two years younger than you.”

   “I’m not about to endure childbirth!”

   “But you engage in any number of risky activities.”

   “And have hardly ever suffered a scratch.”

   “Yet! Remember the Merryhews.”

   His brow wrinkled. “What about them? Lady Carsheld died of a carriage accident, but she was gone fifty. The old marquess was, well, old. Roger Merryhew died young, but he was in the war.”

   “You’ve forgotten Jermyn Merryhew!” Ariana reminded him. “He would have been marquess when his father died instead of that distant relative who crept in to take everything.”

   “There wasn’t much to take.”

   “Stop harping on irrelevancies! The point is, Jermyn dillydallied about marrying, assuming he’d live to a good age, and then popped off from eating bad shellfish.”

   “I don’t like shellfish.”

   “As a result,” Ariana persisted, “my friend Hermione lost her home. If Jermyn had done as he ought and married and had a son, all would have been well.”

   “If, if, if! If I had younger brothers, you wouldn’t be raking me over the coals.” Then he looked uncomfortably at his mother.

   “Don’t be crestfallen, dear. I would have welcomed more children, but God did not provide. In this case we must trust in his benevolence.”

   “We should be able to trust in Norris’s good sense.”

   “Then we should be able to trust your willingness to sacrifice in the cause.”

   Her brother’s triumphant smirk made Ariana want to hit him, which wasn’t unusual. Only eighteen months lay between them, but she was the older and he the male and heir. There’d been rivalry between them all their lives. Typical of Norris to extend it into a matter of life and death.

   Mother and brother were now both looking at her.

   “It’s not up to me,” she protested. “Only you can produce the necessary heir, Norris. Can you truly bear the thought of Uncle Paul succeeding you? Can you? He’d evict Mama from her home, and then loot Boxstall of everything of value to throw away at the gaming tables. He might even find a way to break the entail and sell it entire.”

   “That might be the best outcome,” Lady Langton said sadly. “I could abide our home belonging to another, but I would very much dislike to see it pillaged.”

   Ariana hurried to sit beside her and take her into her arms. “Neither will happen, Mama. I promise. We only need Norris to marry.”

   “Which now lies in your hands,” her brother said, arms folded.

   Ariana knew the signs. He was generally of an amiable disposition, but he could be intolerably stubborn. Tears wouldn’t move him, and she’d hate to try them. He heeded their mother, however, so Ariana decided to leave the field to her. She rose, saying, “I will leave you to come to your senses,” and made as dignified an exit as she could when tears of fear and frustration threatened.

   She paused in the corridor to blow her nose. How could her brother be so blind? Boxstall was so beautiful and full of treasures, but above all, it was their home. This part of the upstairs corridor was open to the hall below, with its gleaming wooden floor and walls loaded with paintings purchased by her ancestors, every picture an old friend.

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