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Annelisa Fielding has had the blessings of wealth her entire life, thanks to her industrialist father. However, there is one thing even he can't give her: a title. So he arranges a marriage between his daughter and the Earl of Swindon, Thornton Sutcliffe. As long as his future bride is a virgin, the Earl will tolerate the marrying down because in return for taking Annelisa as his wife, her father will pay off his debts. Everyone wins, as far as the men are concerned, but Annelisa wants more out of marriage than a title and is willing to wait. But time is running out. If she doesn't find some way out of the marriage and fast, in one month she'll become Lady Annelisa Sutcliffe.
The solution to her problem? Count Nikolai Shetkolov, a diplomat in the service of the Tsar and stationed in England. Single, powerful, and sexier than any man Annelisa has ever laid eyes on, Nikolai is the perfect choice to help a young lady lose the one thing her odious future husband prizes most. But Annelisa will have to watch out or she may get more than she bargained for with Nikolai.
Annelisa concealed herself behind an enormous Oriental vase as she stood outside her father’s study spying on the meeting that had just begun inside. She knew exactly who he spoke to. Her future husband.
“My Lord, it is a pleasure to have you in my home.”
“Yes, I’m sure. Let’s dispense with the pleasantries and get to the situation at hand.”
“Yes, of course.”
Frustration boiled up inside Annelisa. How could her father be so obsequious and to Thornton, Lord Sutcliffe, no less? Cursing her father’s old fashioned ways, she struggled to listen as the two men carefully decided the particulars of her future.
“My daughter will make you a fine wife, my Lord. She’s had an excellent governess who has educated her well in many subjects, including French and Latin. Her intelligence is always cited as one of her finest qualities, of which she has many. And she is one of the most beautiful young ladies in all the county.”
“Then why does she remain unmarried at such an advanced age?”
Annelisa blanched at Lord Sutcliffe’s painfully rude question. To her, twenty-five wasn’t an “advanced age” and the disdainful tone of his question offended her. And he had a lot of nerve to refer to anyone’s age as advanced. He was twice her age!
“What I need to know, Mr. Fielding, is one very important fact. Is she a virgin?”
“You heard me. Is she still intact? It’s of the utmost importance that any wife I take be a virgin on our wedding night.”
“Yes, yes. I understand, my Lord. I can assure you that my daughter is still as pure as the day she was born.”
“Good. Your family will benefit a great deal from this marriage, Fielding.”
Frozen in place, Annelisa listened to the indelicate discussion of her virginity, part stunned and part furious. Lord Sutcliffe’s claim that her family would profit because of her marriage was only a half-truth, and she knew it. Despite his title as Earl of Swindon, he was nearly penniless. He’d squandered his family fortune in risky business ventures and what some gossiped was a gambling problem. By marrying her, he’d receive the benefit of her father’s substantial wealth, thereby solving his financial problems.
It was a situation common in industrialized England. Lord Sutcliffe had title and some possessions but little wealth. Her father had tremendous wealth from his chemical factories but no real social prestige. The one thing that could remedy both men’s deficiencies?
Her becoming Lady Sutcliffe.
But Annelisa didn’t want to marry Thornton Sutcliffe. In fact, she didn’t want to marry any man. While all her female cousins and friends had long ago found husbands, she’d been content to remain with her books and artwork. Yes, it was true that at one time a few years earlier she’d believed she would marry, just as it seemed every other young English woman did. Now, however, the prospect held no appeal for her, and the idea of marrying a fifty-year-old earl obsessed with her virginity practically disgusted her.
“Then we have a deal, Mr. Fielding?”
“Yes, my Lord.”
“Make sure she’s ready in a month from now. And I’ll expect those payments to begin then also.”
Before she could make a hasty escape, her father and Lord Sutcliffe exited the study, and she found herself face to face with them.
“Annelisa, you remember Lord Sutcliffe, the Earl of Swindon.”
“Yes, Father.” Turning to face the man she’d just been promised to, she smiled and feigned politeness. “My Lord. It’s lovely to see you again.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. As she examined the man who stood sullenly staring at her, she saw a thoroughly unappealing person. Thornton Sutcliffe was short, pudgy, and appeared almost as old as her father with his salt and pepper hair and overgrown sideburns. That he had the manners of a barnyard animal made him even worse.
With a grunt and a nod, he turned to her father and began walking to the door. Disgusted, Annelisa watched him leave, wishing she’d never have to see him again, and stalked into her father’s study.
“I know what you’re going to say, but let me remind you that I’m still your father,” Andrew Fielding said as he sat in the leather chair opposite Annelisa’s.
“Then as my father, how can you marry me off to that...that....cur! Please reconsider, Father.”
“You know in the long run this will be a wonderful thing for you. By marrying him, you’ll become a Lady. And you’ll help this family in ways I never could, even with all my money.”
“He’s odious! Did you see the way he reacted to me? He only wants this marriage because of your money. He cares nothing for me.”
Annelisa watched as her father shifted in his seat and hoped she was getting through to him.
“It’s an advantageous match for you, dear. It’s not as if there have been many offers of marriage in the past few years. Lord Sutcliffe can provide you with security, social status...”
“What about love, Father? Is there to be no love in my life?”
Andrew Fielding grimaced at the truth his daughter refused to ignore. Annelisa knew she was being difficult, but if it took that to change her father’s mind, she would happily cause him discomfort.
“It’s not always possible for one to have love in a marriage, my dear Annelisa.”
“Then am I to be sacrificed on the altar of expediency and usefulness?”
Annelisa saw she wouldn’t win this fight. Frustrated and frightened by the life that lay before her, she struggled to hold back the tears. Unless she could change either her father’s mind or Lord Sutcliffe’s, she would be married in a month and her life of misery without love would begin.
“Please understand, dear. We can talk about this later, but now I have an appointment with the Russian minister.”
Knowing this was her cue to leave, she rose and made her way out to the hallway where her father’s appointment waited. Annelisa forced a smile onto her face in respect for Nikolai Shetkalov, the Russian minister who’d become close to her father in the months since he’d arrived on assignment in Britain.
“Good afternoon, Count Shetkolov.”
“Good afternoon, miss. How are you today?”
“I am traded, sir.”
Nikolai’s face registered his confusion at her remark. “I’m afraid I don’t understand, miss. I find sometimes my English is woefully lacking.”
“No sir. I apologize. I was being intentionally confusing. I am fine, thank you. My father waits for you.”
“Thank you. Enjoy your afternoon, miss.”
Nikolai bowed in respect, and she returned the courtesy. He left her alone in the hallway with her misery, but she wasn’t ready to give in just yet. If she couldn’t find a way around marrying the distasteful Earl of Swindon, then she didn’t deserve to be considered intelligent.
And if there was one thing she prided herself on, it was her intelligence. There was a way out of this. She was sure of it.
© 2011 Gabrielle Bisset