A Duke for Miss Townsbridge by Sophie Barnes

Chapter One

IT WAS THE PERFECT day for an outdoor activity.

Just not this particular sort of outdoor activity.

Gripping her glass of lemonade as if her sanity depended on not letting the fine crystal slip between her fingers, Sarah Townsbridge tried to focus on what Mr. Hastings was saying. Something about how he’d once helped one of his tenants fix a broken plough – an account that could have been entertaining had he not veered off into a technical description comprising long lists of very confusing terms.

She nodded politely to feign an interest.

Her brother, William, had only just gotten married two days earlier, and already her mother had managed to pool together an astounding number of bachelors. It was what she’d threatened to do several weeks ago – before William’s return from Portugal. With her eldest sons, Charles and James, already settled and Will far away, Sarah’s mother had set her sights on her eldest daughter next.

But then, as if Lady Luck herself had smiled upon Sarah, Will had returned and quickly snatched all attention away from her by courting their mother’s new cook. The reprieve had been short lived however, and now the garden was filled with a wide array of gentlemen who seemed to have been let loose for her amusement.

It was without a doubt the most embarrassing experience of her life. Made more so a short while later when Viscount Belmont decided to ask who else might be coming.

“No one,” she said, her cheeks hot with mortification. “At least, not as far as I know.”

“I see.” Seemingly uncertain of whether to apologize for his blunder or try to pretend he’d not just insulted her, Belmont looked askance. “The weather is certainly fine this time of year.”

“Indeed it is.” Sarah offered a smile while thinking of all the ways in which she’d like to kill her mother.

“The sun is shining and the sky is blue.” Belmont returned his attention to Sarah. “It’s quite pleasant.”

She ground her teeth. “Indeed.”

“Sarah, dear,” her mother said as she strolled up with the sort of relaxed posture that only intensified Sarah’s murderous thoughts, “have you met the Earl of Penwood yet?”

“Yes. I do believe I’ve met everyone.”

“There’s also the Earl of Endry,” her mother said. “Perhaps if you will excuse us a moment, Lord Belmont?”

“Of course.” The earl practically sagged with relief.

Sarah glanced at her mother’s neck while the woman steered her away. How hard would it be to strangle her? “This is the worst event you’ve ever planned.”

“There’s also Mr. Cummings and Mr. Dunnings,” Mama said, clearly ignoring Sarah’s complaint.

“Am I your least favorite child? Is that why you’ve chosen to torture me this way?”

“Nonsense, dearest. I love all my children equally. You know that.”

Sarah did know that. She also knew it was why her mother was making her go through this horrid ordeal. Because she wanted Sarah to find the same happiness she’d shared with her husband - the sort Sarah’s brothers had all been blessed with in recent years.

With a sigh, she allowed her eager mother to lead her across the grass to where the aforementioned gentlemen had gathered. Like a lamb to the slaughter. “Honestly, Mama. I’m not sure your method is very effective.”

Mama drew to a halt and faced her. “Perhaps not, Sarah. But with six failed Seasons behind us, what else am I supposed to do? The time for you to marry is swiftly running out.”

It was a fair point. Especially since Sarah did not want to be a spinster. She desired a husband and children of her own - lots of them actually since her dreams for the future included a home similar to the one she’d been raised in. She wished for the sort of relationship her parents enjoyed – the closeness her brothers had found with their wives. In short, she wanted a love match which, as it turned out, wasn’t something one simply went out and found. Lord knew she’d tried. And given up. So here she was, two and twenty years old and well on her way to becoming an ape leader.

Sarah took a deep breath. Maybe Mama’s idea wasn’t too terrible. It certainly deserved thought. And there were a few gentlemen here with whom she’d never before conversed at great length. Perhaps she should make more of an effort to further her acquaintance with them.

“Remember,” her mother added while they walked across the grass. “All of these men are here to see you. This is your chance to shine.”