"Had I remained in my mother's care," Hadrian went on, "she would have coddled me, as she did Lady Elizabeth. I'd have grown up to be an indolent fribble, lacking any knowledge of how to manage my estates. Now, don't look daggers at me, Chumley. You know as well as I that my sister is just as much a rattlebrain as my mother."
"Rather, it seems that Your Grace would do well to heed the voice of experience. The duchess knows the difficulties of being a naïve young lady forced into a marriage arranged by her father."
"You are mistaken to presume that Lord Godwin has forced his daughter," Hadrian said rather testily. "I grew up in his household. Lady Ellen may have been ten years my junior, but she knows I'm no villain."
"Nearly a dozen years, and she was only a child when you reached your majority and moved away."
"Yes, well, I've seen her a time or two since then. Enough to assure me she possesses all of the qualities that I require."
The valet fixed him with a doubtful stare. "All, Your Grace? Dare I say the duchess would prefer that love be your primary criterion. She believes that a strong bond of affection is vital for marital happiness—"
"Enough! It isn't my mother's choice to make—nor is it yours." Having had his fill of the pointless conversation, Hadrian frowned up at the servant. "In time, she'll see this is for the best. As will you. Now, I'm sure you've duties to attend to."
"Yes, Your Grace."
Chumley pursed his withered lips and bowed, then took Hadrian's greatcoat from the wall hook. As the man shuffled out of the parlor, the door closing behind him, he didn't appear so much peeved as troubled.
That look of concern on the servant's face irked Hadrian. Why the devil did Chumley and the duchess think he would be swayed by their arguments? Marriage for a man of his stature was a grand alliance, not a fantasy out of the pages of a lady's novel.
Love! What balderdash!
He assuaged his irritation by listing his standards for the ideal wife. She must be attractive, of course, and a blueblood of impeccable background. A modest young lady who wasn't overly chatty. He had no intention of wedding a sharp-tongued shrew.
Lady Ellen appeared to perfectly suit his requirements. This journey would enable him to confirm that presumption before the start of the season. He was glad Lord Godwin had written to him and suggested the visit. Hadrian finished his dinner, content to be alone with the snapping of the fire and the hissing of sleet against the window. He was looking forward to his nuptials. For years, he had been hunted as society's biggest matrimonial prize. At balls and routs and parties, he was pursued by flocks of females who thought to win his heart with their inane coquetry. It had become tiresome to ward off all the eager debutantes who hoped to become the Duchess of Clayton.
Although he relished the sort of flirtation that would gain him entry to a beautiful woman's bedchamber, he found society ladies in general to be shallow creatures who could speak only of fashion and gossip. That was why he had made up his mind to marry and be done with it. There was no point in holding out for a paragon who didn't exist. Then, once the ring was on his finger, he would be free of the ambitious mamas who steered their insipid daughters into his path.
Satisfied with the plan, Hadrian returned his attention to the newspaper. He was deep into a piece about the training of the local militia when the rattling of the doorknob disturbed his concentration.
"Back so soon, Chumley? I'm in no humor for—"
He glanced up and stopped in mid-sentence. A young boy of perhaps five or six years darted into the room and shut the door. Garbed in homespun shirt and trousers, he had a thatch of messy, straw-colored hair and a smudge of dirt on one freckled cheek. A slingshot dangled from the pocket of his pants.
His blue eyes fastened on Hadrian at the table. "Hallo, mister."
Hadrian cocked an eyebrow. Judging by the rough quality of the clothing, the lad appeared to belong to one of the servants. "You aren't allowed in here," he said, not ungently. "This is a private parlor."
"Aw, I won't bother you, promise I won't! I only need somewhere to hide."