First Comes Scandal | Julia Quinn

First Comes Scandal

Book 4 in the Rokesby Series

She was given two choices…

Georgiana Bridgerton isn’t against the idea of marriage. She’d just thought she’d have some say in the matter. But with her reputation hanging by a thread after she’s abducted for her dowry, Georgie is given two options: live out her life as a spinster or marry the rogue who has ruined her life.

Enter Option #3

As the fourth son of an earl, Nicholas Rokesby is prepared to chart his own course. He has a life in Edinburgh, where he’s close to completing his medical studies, and he has no time—or interest—to find a wife. But when he discovers that Georgie Bridgerton—his literal girl-next-door—is facing ruin, he knows what he must do.

A Marriage of Convenience

It might not have been the most romantic of proposals, but Nicholas never thought she’d say no. Georgie doesn’t want to be anyone’s sacrifice, and besides, they could never think of each other as anything more than childhood friends… or could they?

But as they embark upon their unorthodox courtship they discover a new twist to the age-old rhyme. First comes scandal, then comes marriage. But after that comes love…

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First Comes Scandal

Chapter One

Kent, England 1791

At least no one had died.

Beyond that, Nicholas Rokesby had not a clue why he’d been summoned home to Kent.

If someone had died, he reasoned, his father would have said as much in the message he’d dispatched to Nicholas in Edinburgh. He’d sent it by swift rider, so it was obviously a matter of some urgency, but if someone had died, surely Lord Manston would have written more than:

Please return to Crake with all possible haste. Your mother and I must speak with you on a matter of some urgency.

My regrets for interrupting your studies.

Your loving father,

Manston

Nicholas glanced up at the familiar canopy of trees as he embarked upon the final leg of his journey. He’d already traveled from Edinburgh to London by mail coach­, London to Maidstone by stagecoach, and was now completing the last fifteen miles on horseback.

The rain had finally stopped—thank the good lord—but his mount was kicking up a bloody ridiculous amount of mud, and between that and the pollen, Nicholas had a feeling that by the time he made it home to Crake he’d look like he had impetigo.

Crake. Less than a mile to go.

Hot bath, warm meal, and then he’d find out just what had his father in such a lather.

It had better be something serious. Not death, of course, but if he found out that he’d been called across two countries merely because one of his brothers was getting an award from the king, he was going to take someone’s bloody arm off.

He knew how to do it, too. All of the medical students were required to observe surgeries when the opportunity arose. It was not Nicholas’s favorite part of the program; he much preferred the more cerebral aspects of medicine—assessing symptoms and solving the ever-changing puzzles that led to a diagnosis. But in this day and age it was important to know how to amputate a limb. It was often the doctor’s only defense against infection. What could not be cured could be stopped in its tracks.

Better to cure, though.

No, better to prevent. Stop problems before they started.

Nicholas gave a mental eye-roll as Crake finally came into view. He had a feeling that whatever problem had brought him down to Kent on this rainy spring day, it was well underway.

Also, his brothers weren’t getting awards from the king. They were stand-up gentlemen, all three of them, but really.

He slowed his horse to a trot as they rounded the final corner of the drive. The trees slipped from his peripheral vision and suddenly there was his home, stately and solid, all two and a half centuries of it rising from the earth like a limestone goddess. Nicholas had always marveled at how such a large and ornate building could be so well hidden until the final moment of approach. He supposed there was something poetic about it, that he could continually be surprised by something that had always been a part of him.

His mother’s roses were in full bloom, red and pink and riotous, just the way they all liked them, and as Nicholas drew close, he felt their scent in the damp air, drifting lightly over his clothes and under his nose. He’d never been particularly fond of the smell of roses—he preferred his flowers less fussy—but when everything came together in moments like this: the roses and the mist, the damp of the earth…

It was home.

It didn’t seem to matter that he hadn’t meant to be here, at least not for another few weeks. This was home, and he was home, and it set him at peace, even as his brain pricked with unease, wondering what manner of disaster had called him back.

The staff must have been alerted to his impending arrival because a groom was waiting in the drive to see to his mount, and Wheelock had the door open before Nicholas even took the front step.

“Mr. Nicholas,” the butler said. “Your father would like to see you immediately.”

Nicholas motioned to his mud-spattered attire. “Surely he will want me to—”

“He did say immediately, sir.” Wheelock’s chin dipped, almost imperceptibly, just enough to indicate the back of the house. “He is with your mother in the gold-and-green.”

Nicholas felt his brow draw down in confusion. His family was less formal than most, especially when they were here in the country, but a greatcoat streaked with mud was never acceptable attire in his mother’s favorite drawing room.

“I’ll take that,” Wheelock said, reaching for the coat. The man always had been a freakishly good mind-reader.

Nicholas glanced down at his boots.

“I would just go,” Wheelock said.

Good God, maybe someone had died.

“Do you know what this is about?” he asked, turning so that Wheelock could take the coat from his shoulders.

“It is not for me to say.”

Nicholas glanced back over his shoulder. “So you do know.”

Sir.” Wheelock looked pained.

“I would have been down in less than a month.”

Wheelock avoided Nicholas’s gaze as he made a show of brushing dried bits of mud off the coat. “I believe time is of some essence.”

Nicholas rubbed his eye. Good God, he was tired. “Do you enjoy being cryptic?”

“Not particularly.”

Which was a bald-faced lie. Wheelock loved the special brand of understatement that was available only to butlers who were very secure in their positions. But Nicholas could tell that Wheelock was not finding anything to love in this particular conversation.

“I’m sorry,” Nicholas said. “It is badly done of me to put you in such a position. No need to announce me. I’ll take my muddy boots and find my parents.”

“Gold-and-green,” Wheelock reminded him.

“Of course,” Nicholas murmured. As if he’d forget.

The entrance to the gold and green drawing room was at the end of the hall, and Nicholas had spent enough time making that short journey to know that his parents had to have heard him enter the house. The floors were marble, always polished to perfection. Stockinged feet slid like skates on ice and shoes clicked with enough volume to percuss a small orchestra.

But when he reached the open doorway and peered inside, neither of his parents were so much as glancing in his direction. His father was by the window, staring out over the verdant lawn, and his mother was curled in her favorite spot on the mint green sofa.

She’d always said the left side was more comfortable than the right. All five of her children had tested this hypothesis, scooting from one side to the other, and no one had managed to reach the same conclusion. To be fair, no one had reached any verifiable conclusion. Mary had declared that both sides felt the same, Edward pointed out that the only way to be truly comfortable was to put one’s feet up, which was not generally permitted, and Andrew had hopped back and forth so many times he’d busted the seam on one of the cushions. George had declared the entire exercise ridiculous, but not before making his own perfunctory test, and as for Nicholas…

He had been but five during this family experiment. But he’d sat himself down in every spot before rising back to his feet and declaring, “Well, we can’t prove her wrong.”

That seemed to cover a lot of life, he’d come to realize.

Proving something right wasn’t the same as proving the opposite wrong.

And if the left side of the sofa made his mother happy, who was he to say otherwise?

He hesitated for a moment in the doorway, waiting for one of his parents to notice his presence. They didn’t, so he stepped inside, pausing at the edge the rug. He’d already left a trail of mud in the hall.

He cleared his throat, and finally they both turned.

His mother spoke first. “Nicholas,” she said, stretching her arm in his direction. “Thank God you’re here.”

He looked warily from parent to parent. “Is something wrong?”

It was the stupidest of questions. Of course something was wrong. But no one was wearing black, so…

“Sit down,” his father said, motioning to the sofa.

Nicholas took a seat next to his mother, taking her hand in his. It seemed the right thing to do. But she surprised him by tugging it away and rising to her feet.

“I will leave the two of you to your discussion,” she said. She laid her hand on Nicholas’s shoulder, signaling that he did not need to rise. “It will be easier if I am not here.”

What the devil? There was a problem that needed sorting and his mother was not just not taking charge, she was voluntarily exiting the scene?

This was not normal.

“Thank you for coming down so quickly,” she murmured, bending to kiss him on the cheek. “It comforts me more than I could ever say.” She looked back at her husband. “I will be at my writing desk, should you need me to…”

She seemed not to know what to say. Nicholas had never seen her so uncomposed.

“Should you need me,” she finally finished.

Nicholas watched as his mother departed, silent and likely slackjawed until she shut the door behind her. He turned back to his father. “What is going on?”

His father sighed, and a long, heavy moment passed before he said, “There has been an incident.”

His father always had been a master of polite understatement.

“You should have a drink.”

Sir.” Nicholas didn’t want a drink. He wanted an explanation. But this was his father, so he took the drink.

“It concerns Georgiana.”

“Bridgerton?” Nicholas asked in disbelief, as if there was another Georgiana to whom his father could possibly be referring.

Lord Manston nodded grimly. “You haven’t heard, then.”

“I’ve been in Edinburgh,” Nicholas reminded him.

His father took a sip of his brandy. A rather larger sip than was normal this early in the morning. Or any time of the day, for that matter. “Well, that’s a relief.”

“Respectfully, sir, I would ask you to be less opaque.”

“There was an incident.”

“Still opaque,” Nicholas muttered.

If his father heard him—and to be honest, Nicholas rather thought he had—he made no reaction. Instead he cleared his throat and said, “She was kidnapped.”

“What?” Nicholas sprang to his feet, his own glass of brandy sliding from his fingers to the priceless carpet below. “You didn’t think to begin the conversation with that? Good God, has anyone—”

“Calm yourself,” his father said sharply. “She has been recovered. She is safe.”

“Was she…”

“She was not violated.”

Nicholas felt something unfamiliar slide through his veins. Relief, he supposed, but something else along with it. Something acrid and sour.

He’d met women who’d been forced into sexual congress against their will. It did things to them. To their bodies, which he thought he might understand a little, and then to their souls, which he knew he could not understand at all.

This feeling inside… it was sharper than relief. It had teeth, and it came with a slow thrum of rage.

Georgiana Bridgerton was like a sister to him. No, not quite a sister. Not exactly. But her brother Edmund was like a brother to him, closer than his own, to be honest.

Lord and Lady Manston had thought they were finished having children when Nicholas happened along. He was a full eight years younger than his next closest sibling; by the time he was old enough to do more than toddle about in nappies they were all off at school.

But Edmund Bridgerton had been around, just a few miles away at Aubrey Hall. They were almost precisely the same age, born just two months apart.

They’d been inseparable.

“What happened?” Nicholas asked his father.

“Bloody fortune-hunter went after her,” his father bit off. “Nithercott’s son.”

“Freddie Oakes?” Nicholas said, with no small amount of surprise. They’d gone to school together. For a few years, at least. Freddie hadn’t finished. He was popular, personable, and insanely good at cricket, but it turned out that the only thing worse than failing one’s exams was cheating on them, and he’d been booted from Eton at the age of sixteen.

“That’s right,” Lord Manston murmured. “You know him.”

“Not well. We were never friends.”

“No?”

“Never not friends,” Nicholas clarified. “Everyone got on with Freddie Oakes.”

Lord Manston gave him a sharp look. “You defend him?”

“No,” Nicholas said quickly, although without any facts, he had no idea what had truly happened. Still, it was difficult to imagine a scenario that involved Georgiana being at fault. “I’m just saying that he was always very popular. He wasn’t mean, but you didn’t really want to cross him.”

“So he was a bully.”

“No.” Nicholas rubbed his eyes. Damn, he was tired. And it was near impossible to explain the intricacies of school social hierarchy to someone who wasn’t there. “Just… I don’t know. As I said, we weren’t really friends. He was… shallow, I suppose.”

His father gave him a curious look.

“Or maybe he wasn’t. I honestly could not say. I never really spoke with him about anything more than what was for breakfast or who was going home for half term.” Nicholas thought for a moment, sifting through his memories of school. “He played a lot of cricket.”

“You played cricket.”

“Not well.”

It was a sign of his father’s distress that he did not immediately leap to correct him on this. In the Earl of Manston’s mind, all four of his sons had been made in his image—splendid athletes who dominated the sporting fields of Eton College.

He was only twenty-five percent wrong.

Nicholas was not an incompetent athlete. To the contrary, he was a rather fine fencer, and he could outshoot any of his brothers with either rifle or bow. But put him on a field with a ball (of any sort) and a few other men and he was hopeless. There was a skill to knowing where one was in a crowd. Or maybe it was an instinct. Regardless, he did not have it. Cricket, the Field Game, the Wall Game…

He was terrible at them all. All of his worst memories of school were on the playing fields. That sense of being watched and found wanting… the only thing worse was waiting while teams were chosen. It did not take boys long to figure out who could kick a ball or throw a googly.

And who could not.

He supposed it was the same in academics. He’d only been at Eton a few months before everyone knew he was the one with the perfect marks in the sciences. Even Freddie Oakes had come to him for help from time to time.

Nicholas knelt to finally retrieve the glass tumbler he’d dropped. He regarded it for a moment, trying to decide if the moment required a clear head or a softening around the edges.

Probably something in between.

He looked at his father. “Perhaps you had better tell me what has happened,” he said, crossing the room to refill his glass. He could decide later if he wanted to drink it.

“Very well.” His father set his own glass down with a heavy clunk. “I’m not sure when they met, but Oakes had made his intentions clear. He was courting her. Your mother seemed to think that he was likely to propose.”

Nicholas could not imagine why his mother thought she could read the mind of Freddie Oakes of all people, but this was clearly not the time to point this out.

“I don’t know if Georgiana would have said yes,” Lord Manston continued. “Oakes gambles too much—we all know that—but he’ll eventually have the barony, and Georgie’s not getting any younger.”

At twenty-six, Georgie was precisely one year younger than Nicholas, but he was well aware that women did not age at the same rate as men, at least not as pertained to the customs and mores of English marriage.

“Anyway,” his father continued, “Lady Bridgerton and your mother were up in London—shopping, I suppose; I didn’t ask—and Georgiana went with them.”

“But not for the season,” Nicholas murmured. As far as he knew, Georgie had never had a proper London season. She’d said she hadn’t wanted one. He’d never inquired further. A season in London sounded as appealing to him as having his teeth pulled, so who was he to question her?

“Just a visit,” his father confirmed. “I’m sure they went to some event or another. But nothing official. Season’s almost over, anyway. But Oakes called several times, and he took Georgiana out.”

Nicholas splashed a bit of brandy into his glass and turned back around to face his father. “With Lady Bridgerton’s permission?”

Lord Manston nodded grimly. “It was all as it should be. Her maid accompanied them. They went to a bookstore.”

“That sounds like Georgie.”

His father nodded. “Oakes snatched her on the way out. Or rather, he made off with her. She got into the carriage willingly, because why shouldn’t she?”

“What about the maid?”

“Oakes pushed her to the pavement before she could get into the carriage.”

“My God, is she all right?” If she hit her head, it could be quite serious.

Lord Manston blinked, and it occurred to Nicholas that his father probably hadn’t considered the question of the maid’s health. “She’s probably fine if you haven’t heard anything,” Nicholas said.

His father was silent for a moment, then said, “She is home now.”

“Georgie?”

His father nodded. “She was in his custody for only a day, but the damage was done.”

“I thought you said she wasn’t—”

His father slammed his glass onto the side table. “She doesn’t have to have been violated for her reputation to be destroyed. Good God, boy, use your head. It doesn’t matter what he did or didn’t do to her. She’s ruined. And everyone knows it.” He looked up at Nicholas with a withering expression. “Except, apparently, you.”

There was an insult there somewhere, but Nicholas decided to let it slide. “I was in Edinburgh, sir,” he said, voice tight. “I did not know that any of this had transpired.”

“I know. I’m sorry. This is very distressing.” Lord Manston raked his hand through his hair. “She is my goddaughter, you know.”

“I do.”

“I swore an oath to protect her. In church.”

As his father wasn’t a particularly religious man, Nicholas wasn’t certain why the location of the vow held such importance, but he nodded all the same. He brought his glass to his lips but did not drink, instead using the tumbler to partially obscure his own expression as he watched his father.

He had never seen him quite like this. He was not sure what to make of it.

“I cannot see her ruined,” his father said firmly. “We cannot see her ruined.”

Nicholas held his breath. Later he realized his lungs knew what his brain did not. His life was about to take a drastic turn.

“There is only one thing to be done,” his father said. “You must marry her.”


Chapter Two

Quite a few things looped through Nicholas’s mind upon his father’s announcement.

What did you just say?

Are you mad?

You must be mad.

Yes, I’m sure you’re mad.

Wait, did I hear that correctly?

All culminating in: ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR BLOODY MIND?

What he said, however, was, “I beg your pardon?”

“You must marry her,” his father said again.

Proving that A) Nicholas had not misheard him and B) his father was indeed out of his bloody mind.

Nicholas downed his brandy in one gulp. “I can’t marry Georgiana,” he said.

“Why not?”

“Because—Because—” There were so many reasons Nicholas could not possibly coalesce them into a single statement.

His father raised a brow. “Are you married to someone else?”

“Of course not!”

“Have you promised to marry someone else?”

“For the love of God, Father—”

“Then I see no reason you cannot do your duty.”

“It is not my duty!” Nicholas exploded.

His father stared at him, hard, and he felt like a child again, scolded for some minor infraction.

But this was not minor. This was marriage. And while marrying Georgiana Bridgerton might—might—be the right and honorable thing to do, it certainly was not his duty.

“Father,” he tried again, “I am not in a position to marry.”

“Of course you are. You are twenty-seven years old, of sound mind, and in good health.”

“I live in a rented room in Edinburgh. I don’t even have a valet.”

His father waved a hand. “Easily remedied. We can get you a house in the new part of town. Your brother knows several of the architects involved with the planning. It will be an excellent investment.”

For a moment Nicholas could only stare. His father was talking about property investments?

“You may consider it a wedding gift.”

Nicholas brought his hand to his forehead, using his thumb and middle finger to press into his temples. He needed to focus. Think. His father was still talking, going on about integrity and duty and 99-year leases, and Nicholas’s brain hurt.

“Do you have any idea what is involved in the study of medicine?” he asked, his eyes closed behind his hand. “I don’t have time for a wife.”

“She doesn’t need your time. She needs your name.”

Nicholas moved his hand. Looked at his father. “You’re serious.”

His father gave him a look as if to say, Haven’t you been listening?

“I can’t marry someone with the express intention of ignoring her.”

“I hope that does not prove to be the case,” his father responded. “I am merely trying to point out that your cooperation in this matter does not have to adversely impact your life at this crucial juncture.”

“That was an awful lot of words to tell me, in effect, to be a bad husband.”

“No, it was an awful lot of words to tell you, in effect, to be a young woman’s hero.”

Nicholas rolled his eyes. “After which I can go and be a bad husband.”

“If that is your wish,” his father said quietly.

Nicholas wasn’t sure how long he stared at his father in disbelief. It was only when he realized he was slowly shaking his head that he forced himself to turn away. He walked to the window, using it as an excuse to set his attention elsewhere. He did not want to look at his father right now. He didn’t want to think about him, or his mad proposition.

No, it wasn’t a proposition, was it? It was order. His father had not said, “Would you marry Georgiana?”

He’d said, “You must marry her.”

It was not the same.

“You can leave her in Kent,” his father said after whatever he must have deemed an appropriately considerate stretch of silence. “She doesn’t need to accompany you to Edinburgh. In fact, she probably doesn’t want to accompany you to Edinburgh. I don’t think she’s ever been.”

Nicholas turned around.

“It would be up to you, of course,” his father said. “You’re the one making the sacrifice.”

“It is so odd to think that this is how you mean to convince me,” Nicholas said.

But it was clear they were having two separate conversations, because his father then said, “It’s only marriage.”

At that, Nicholas full-on snorted. “Say that to Mother and then come back and say it again.”

His father’s expression grew peevish. “This is Georgiana we’re talking about. Why are you so resistant?”

“Oh, I don’t know…Perhaps because you summoned me away from my studies, across two countries, and then when I arrived, you did not suggest that I might have the means to solve a difficult situation. You did not ask me how I felt about the idea of marriage. You sat me down and ordered me to marry a woman who is practically my sister.”

“But she is not your sister.”

Nicholas turned away. “Stop,” he said. “Please just stop.”

“Your mother agrees that it’s the best solution.”

“Oh my God.” They were ganging up on him.

“It is the only solution.”

“A moment,” Nicholas muttered. He pressed his fingers to his temples again. His head was starting to pound. “I just need a moment.”

“We don’t have—”

“For the love of God, could you be quiet for one bloody second so I can think?”

His father’s eyes widened, and he took a step back.

Nicholas looked down at his hands. They were shaking. He’d never spoken to his father in such a manner. He wouldn’t have thought it possible. “I need a drink,” he muttered. A proper one this time. He strode back to the sideboard and filled his glass, nearly to the brim.

“The entire journey down from Scotland I wondered,” Nicholas mused, “what on earth could be the reason for such a mysterious yet blatantly unignorable summons. Had someone died, I wondered.”

“I would never—”

“No,” Nicholas interrupted. He did not desire his father’s commentary. This was his speech, his sarcasm, and by God he was going to get through it in his own good time.

“No,” he said again. “No one could have died. My father would never compose such a cryptic note for that. But what else could it be? What could possibly have led him to call me down at such an astoundingly inconvenient time?”

Lord Manston opened his mouth, but Nicholas quelled him with another hard stare.

“Although inconvenient doesn’t really quite cover it. Did you know I’m missing my exams?” Nicholas paused, but not for long enough to indicate that the question was anything but rhetorical. “My professors agreed to re-administer them when I return, but of course I had to admit to them that I didn’t know when I would return.” He took a long drink of his brandy. “Now, that’s an awkward conversation.”

Nicholas looked over at his father, almost daring him to interrupt. “I don’t think they wanted to grant the delay,” he continued, “but this is one of those cases where being the son of an earl does come in handy. Not to make friends, of course. Because no one really likes the fellow who pulls rank to get out of exams. Even if that fellow has every intention of taking those exams at a later, although as I may have already mentioned, unspecified, date.”

“I have already apologized for pulling you away from your studies,” Lord Manston said in a tight voice.

“Yes,” Nicholas said blandly, “in your highly detailed letter.”

His father stared at him for a moment, then said, “Are you finished with your petulance?”

“For the time being.” Nicholas took a sip of his drink, then reconsidered. He still had one last thing to say. “I will tell you, though, of all the scenarios that played through my mind on the journey home, I never dreamed that I would arrive to find my father had all but promised my hand in marriage.”

“Your hand in marriage,” his father repeated with a slightly uncomfortable huff. “You make yourself sound like a girl.”

“I rather feel like one right now, and I have to tell you, I don’t like it.” He shook his head. “I have new respect for all of them, putting up with us telling them what to do.”

Lord Manston snorted. “If you think I have ever managed to tell your mother or sister what to do, you are sadly mistaken.”

Nicholas set down his glass. He’d had enough. It wasn’t even noon. “Then why are you doing so with me?”

“Because I have no other choice,” his father shot back. “Georgiana needs you.”

“You would sacrifice your son for the benefit of your goddaughter.”

“That’s not at all what I’m doing, and you know it.”

It felt like it, though. It felt like his father was choosing a favorite child, and it was not Nicholas.

It was not even a Rokesby.

But even Nicholas had to admit that the lives of the Rokesbys and the Bridgertons were thoroughly entwined. They had been neighbors for centuries, but it had been this current generation that had truly cemented the bond. The lords and ladies were the closest of friends, and each had been entrusted with a godchild in the other family.

The whole thing had been made even more official when the oldest Rokesby son married the oldest Bridgerton daughter. And then the third Rokesby son had married a Bridgerton cousin.

Honestly, give someone a ball of yarn and family tree and one could make quite an incestuous cat’s cradle out of the whole thing.

“I need to think about this,” Nicholas said, because it was clearly the only thing he could say at the moment that would put a temporary halt to his father’s pressure.

“Of course,” his father said. “I do understand that this comes as a surprise.”

To put it mildly.

“But time is of the essence. You’ll need to make your decision by tomorrow.”

Tomorrow?”

His father had the grace to sound at least a little bit regretful when he said, “It can’t be helped.”

“I have traveled for nearly two weeks, through at least six torrential downpours, cut short my studies, and been all but ordered to marry my neighbor, and you cannot even give me the courtesy of a few days’ time to think about it?”

“This isn’t about you. It’s about Georgie.”

“How is this not about me?” Nicholas all but roared.

“You won’t even know you’re married.”

“Are you bloody gone in the head?” Nicholas was quite sure he’d never spoken to his father in such a way; he’d never have dared to. But he could not believe the words coming forth from his father’s mouth.

His father had to have gone mad. It was one thing to suggest he marry Georgiana Bridgerton; there was a quixotic sort of logic to it. But to suggest that the act was meaningless… that Nicholas could carry on as if he had not taken her hand in marriage…

Did he know his son at all?

“I can’t talk to you right now,” Nicholas said. He stalked to the door, suddenly glad he’d never removed his muddy boots.

“Nicholas…”

“No. Just, no.” He laid one hand against the frame of the door, pausing to take a steadying breath. He did not trust himself to look back at his father, but he said, “Your concern for your goddaughter is commendable, and I might—I might have listened to you had you framed your wishes as a request.”

“You are angry. I understand.”

“I don’t think you do. Your utter disdain for the feelings of your own son—”

“False,” his father snapped. “I assure you that your best interests have never been far from the forefront of my mind. If I have not made that clear, it is because I am worried for Georgiana, not for you.”

Nicholas swallowed. Every muscle in his body felt ready to snap.

“I have had a great deal longer to become accustomed to the idea,” his father said quietly. “Time does make a difference.”

Nicholas turned around to face him. “Is this what you would hope for me? A loveless, sexless marriage?”

“Of course not. But you already have affection. And Georgiana is a fine girl. I have every confidence that in time the two of you will find that you’re very well suited.”

“Your other children married for love,” Nicholas said quietly. “All four of them.”

“I had hoped for the same for you.” His father smiled, but it was a sad, wistful thing. “I would not rule it out.”

“I’m not going to fall in love with Georgiana. My God, if I were, don’t you think it would have happened by now?”

His father gave him an amused smile. Not mocking, just amused.

But Nicholas wasn’t having it. “I can’t even imagine kissing her,” he said.

“You don’t have to kiss her. You just have to marry her.”

Nicholas’s mouth fell open. “You did not just say that to me.”

“Very few marriages begin with passion,” Lord Manston said, suddenly all friendly, fatherly advice. “Your mother and I—”

“I do not want to hear about you and Mother.”

“Don’t be a prude,” his father said with a snort.

It was at that moment Nicholas wondered if he were, in fact, dreaming this entire conversation. Because he could not conceive of any other scenario that involved his father sharing any sort of intimate details about his mother.

“You’re going to be a physician,” his father said dryly. “Surely you know that your mother and I could not have produced five childr—”

“Stop!” Nicholas practically howled. “My God, I don’t want to hear about that.”

His father chuckled. He chuckled!

“I will think about it,” Nicholas finally said, not bothering to mask the sullen tone of his voice. “But I cannot give you an answer tomorrow.”

“You must.”

“For the love of God, are you listening to me?”

“We don’t have time for me to listen to you. Georgiana’s life is ruined.”

They were talking in circles. It was like they were out on the lawn, treading the same path until the grass was worn down to dirt. But Nicholas was too weary by this point to try to break free of the circuit, so he just asked, “And this is going to change if I take a few days to think about it?”

“If you don’t marry her,” Lord Manston said, “her parents need to find someone who will.”

Which led to a terrible thought. “Have you discussed this with Lord and Lady Bridgerton?”

His father hesitated a moment before saying, “I have not.”

“You would not lie to me about this…”

“You dare to question my honor?”

“Your honor, no. Your judgment, I no longer have any idea.”

His father swallowed uncomfortably. “I would have suggested it, but I did not want to raise their hopes in the event you refused.”

Nicholas eyed him skeptically. “You did not give the impression that refusal was an option.”

“We both know I can’t force you to marry the girl.”

“You’ll just be profoundly disappointed in me if I don’t.”

His father said nothing.

“That’s answer enough, I suppose,” Nicholas muttered. He sank back into a chair, exhausted. What the hell was he going to do?

His father must have realized that he’d had enough, because he cleared his throat a few times, then said, “Why don’t I get your mother?”

“Why?”

Nicholas hadn’t meant to sound quite so truculent, but really, what was his mother going to do?

“She has a way of setting me at ease when I’m troubled. Perhaps she can do the same for you.”

“Fine,” Nicholas grunted. He was too tired to argue any longer.

But before Lord Manston could leave the room, the door opened, and Lady Manston stepped quietly inside. “Is it settled?”

“He’s going to think about it,” her husband replied.

“You did not need to leave the room,” Nicholas said.

“I thought it would be easier if I was not here.”

“It was going to be difficult either way.”

“I suppose that is true.” She laid her hand on his shoulder and gave it a little squeeze. “For what it is worth, I am sorry that you have been put into this position.”

Nicholas gave her the closest thing he could manage to a smile.

She cleared her throat. It was an awkward sound. “I also wanted to inform you that we are having dinner at Aubrey Hall tonight.”

“You have got to be joking,” Nicholas said. Aubrey Hall was the home of the Bridgerton family. He could only assume that all the Bridgertons would be in attendance.

His mother gave him a regretful smile. “I’m afraid not, my son. It has been planned for some time, and I did mention to Lady Bridgerton that you would be home.”

Nicholas groaned. Why would his mother do such a thing?

“She’s terribly eager to hear about your studies. Everyone is. But you’re tired. It’s your choice.”

“So I don’t have to go?”

His mother smiled sweetly. “Everyone will be there.”

“Right,” Nicholas said, in a voice just one shade shy of bitterness. “So really, no choice at all.”

Sounded just like the rest of his life.

End of Excerpt