Today's Reading

Unlike Nelson, Derek had been raised for the charade, but many of the rules escaped him, as well. "Utter drivel," Derek murmured. "I've half a mind to compromise a willing young maiden and be done with the whole nightmare."

"What's stopping you?" Enderly asked, crooking a wicked eyebrow.

"I'd have to attempt to converse with her for the rest of my days," Derek grumbled. His friends and the hangers-on surrounding them howled with laughter. "I've talked to every one of them and haven't found one who interests me enough to pursue anything further."

"Same as last year," Enderly said.

"And the year before, and the year before that," Derek said, the despair creeping in once again. It wasn't that he didn't want to find a wife. He would love nothing more than to have one person in the world who belonged only to him and vice versa. Not to mention he needed a wife, albeit for altogether different reasons. Yet he wasn't willing to settle.

Each year he approached the Season with a new sense of hope, and each year, as the young women got younger and he got older, the disappointment afterward became more intense and longer lasting. This year, however, the bloody deadline loomed large, coloring his view of the Season's limited options.

"This year's group seems particularly young," Enderly noted.

"Or perhaps we're just getting particularly old," Derek said morosely.

"No doubt," Enderly said. As a second son he was under much less pressure to marry than Derek and enjoyed his bachelor life far too much to give it up before he absolutely had to. For that matter, 'everyone' was under less pressure to marry than Derek, thanks to the damned deadline.

"Is there one among them who cares about something other than her hair or her gown or her slippers?" Derek asked. Was there one among them, he wanted to ask, who looked at him and saw anything other than his title, his rank, his wealth or the looming deadline that had filled the betting books all over town?

"They all care about their dance cards," Nelson said dryly.

"Too true," Derek concurred. "Speaking only for myself, I've had enough. I'm returning to Westwood Hall in the morning."

"But the Season still has weeks left to go," Enderly said in obvious distress. "You can't go yet, Your Grace. What of your deadline? What will Lord Anthony say?"

"He would hardly care. He's practically salivating, hoping I fail to marry in time."

"Whatever could your ancestor have been thinking, with such an utterly daft provision?" Nelson asked. "Enter into a suitable state of matrimony— whatever that is—by thirty or abdicate your title? I've never heard of such a thing."

Of course, he hadn't, Derek mused. The colonists had left such barbaric practices behind in England. "I suppose he was out to ensure the bloodline. Instead, he placed a matrimonial pox upon each succeeding generation."

"Is it even legal?" Justin asked.

"Probably not, but the previous dukes married young so it was never an issue for them, and I chose not to contest it with Anthony waiting in the wings drooling all over the duchy."

"What happens if you don't marry in time?" Nelson asked.

"The title and all accompanying holdings transfer to my uncle and then later to Simon, who, as the heir, would also be required to marry post haste. That would truly be a travesty." If anyone was less suited to a life of marriage, responsibility and duty, it was Derek's happy-go-lucky first cousin and dear friend.

"Have any of your ancestors missed the deadline?" Nelson asked, seeming genuinely intrigued by the drama of it all whereas Derek was just weary—from thinking about it, dreading it and from imagining being married to a nameless, faceless woman just to preserve his title. He shuddered at the thought of shackles and chains.

"Not so far, and I have no desire to be the first. However, I refuse to pick just anyone in order to keep my title." His ancestor's efforts to ensure the dukedom had put Derek in a serious quandary. His thirtieth birthday was now mere days away without a female prospect in sight who sparked anything in him other than utter apathy, not to mention despair at the idea of having to actually talk to her for the rest of his life.

Naturally, the entire haute ton was captivated by Derek's plight, but not a one of them gave a fig about his happiness or well-being. He would almost prefer to surrender the title than be shackled for life to a "suitable" woman who did nothing else for him but ensure his place in the aristocracy.

Almost.
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