Authors: Sara Bennett
The Husband Hunters Club
I wish to dedicate this book to my writing friend, Christine Gardner, without whom this book would never, ever have been finished.
I’d also like to thank my editor, May Chen, and the team at Avon Books for their years of support, and my agent, Nancy Yost, who is always there for me. And finally my many, many fans who are amazingly loyal, thank you!
Night of the 1837 Graduation Ball
Miss Debenham’s Finishing School for Young Ladies
ady Averil Martindale smiled.
“Is it my turn?” she asked, after the furor had died down. Tina had just announced that she meant to seduce her childhood friend into falling in love with her, and her friends had been amused and somewhat disbelieving of her declaration of love. Now Averil knew she must speak and she didn’t really have a husband in mind.
“I don’t know if I want to.”
“Oh, Averil, do tell,” Marissa wheedled.
“Yes,” Olivia added, “telling each other who we plan to marry is what the Husband Hunters Club is all about.”
The others murmured their agreement, watching her expectantly.
Averil sighed. “You all know that I’m an orphan. My father died when I was young, and my mother . . . ran off. My financial affairs are taken care of by my father’s firm of solicitors, and although they look after me—I have a house and servants, and dear Beth, my chaperone—my father instructed them to tell me very little about my mother. I know virtually nothing about the past . . . I have some elderly cousins I’ve asked but they are as old as the hills and can barely remember their own names. No, don’t laugh, they are.”
The girls had been down this path many times before and they were ready with their answers.
“Your father was Lord Martindale,” Eugenie said.
“And your mother was a bolter,” Tina declared.
“She ran off when you were little and she died,” said Olivia.
“But you did see her before that, once, secretly. Somewhere in London. And she had a baby, a little girl, who she said was your half sister,” Marissa finished.
Averil couldn’t help but smile. “Goodness, I didn’t realize how often I told my story! But yes, that’s right. I have a sister, somewhere, and I want to find her. I want to share my inheritance with her.”
They nodded, eyes sparkling, because they all knew that Averil was an heiress. There was a large fortune awaiting her when she either married or turned twenty-one.
“Well, knowing all of that . . . Surely you can understand I can’t think of marrying anyone, not until I find my sister,” she offered at last. “Every single moment that I’m happy or content feels so wrong when she may be desperate and unhappy.”
“Has your private detective been able to find any more clues?” Tina asked, green eyes wide.
Private detective was a generous way of describing Jackson.
“My mother was an actress when she married my father—they met in Paris after the war finished with Napoleon being beaten at Waterloo. She went back to that profession before she died, but we haven’t been able to discover much else about her last years. I wrote to my old nanny, in case she knew something, and she remembers where my mother spent her last months. When I return home to London, I will meet with Jackson again, and we can go there. Perhaps I’ll find something new.”
For a price. Jackson always wanted to be paid before he opened his mouth. But Averil did not care how much it cost, as long as he gave her her sister back. She was a rich young lady, after all. Or would be. She was her father’s only child and there was no entailment to be bothered with. In a little under a year she would turn twenty-one and come into her inheritance. That was why she so desperately wanted to find her sister, so that she could share her own good fortune. Despite the fact that it was more than likely her sister was not the daughter of Lord Martindale, but rather the child of the unknown man her mother had bolted with when Averil was little.
“And in the meantime, Averil, you haven’t told us who you will be marrying,” Eugenia reminded her.
Averil knew her friends’ intentions were good, but she wasn’t like them. She wasn’t looking for the excitement and passion and fervor that seemed to drive her friends when it came to thoughts of marriage. Her search for her sister had taken her into all sorts of dreadful places, and she had seen the true horrors of poverty and want. She might never find the girl, but if she was to be a wealthy heiress then she could put her money to good use. And Doctor Gareth Simmons would be the perfect partner for that.
A sparkle of teasing laughter lit her gray eyes. So they wanted her to name her husband, did they? Well, how would they feel about Gareth filling the role then?
“Very well,” she said now, with feigned reluctance. “But you must all promise not to make judgments.”
They promised, words tumbling over each other and eyes wide with excitement as they wriggled closer. Obviously Averil had a secret she was reluctant to reveal, and that made it all the more imperative that they know.
Averil looked about her, taking her time, although she already had their full attention: Olivia and Marissa, Eugenie and Tina—the crème de la crème of Miss Debenham’s Finishing School, Class of 1837.
“My choice for a husband is Doctor Gareth Simmons.”
The ensuing silence was ominous.
“I will marry him and we will spend our lives working tirelessly for the underprivileged,” she added for good measure.
The crème de la crème exchanged glances.
“Well, Doctor Simmons is very
,” Tina said at last. “We all know how very
he is to the poor and needy.”
“You think he’s boring,” Averil said, narrowing her eyes. “I knew you would.”
Marissa spoke hurriedly, wary of her friend’s spectacular temper when roused. They all knew that Averil’s calm and subdued persona concealed depths of molten fire. “I was stuck with . . . that is, I conversed with Doctor Simmons for twenty minutes at one of my father’s get-togethers and he didn’t make me laugh, not once. You have to admit, Averil, he is rather dull?”
dull,” Olivia agreed. “He quite lowered my spirits at Haworth’s ball. I can’t imagine how he must affect the poor and needy. Surely they need cheering up far more than the rest of us? That is,” she added quickly, seeing Averil’s darkening expression, “when their spirits are already so low to begin with.”
But instead of letting her temper flay them, as they had experienced in the past and all expected now, Averil burst into giggles. “I’m joking with you! Gareth is an admirable man and I approve of his plan to set up a Home for Distressed Women, but we would never suit. Besides he is my second cousin—the poorer side of the family, unfortunately for him—and who wants to marry their cousin?”
“Averil, you’re not taking this seriously, are you? Think of someone you absolutely and completely adore. Come on, there must be someone!” Olivia was passionate on the subject.
“And if he proves difficult to hunt down and capture, then so much the better!” Marissa added her pennyworth.
Eugenie looked thoughtful. “Surely you should have some enjoyment from your fortune? If I had a fortune I would certainly have some fun,” she added a little wistfully.
“Averil, I know you think you don’t need a strong shoulder, that you can do very well on your own, but being on your own can be awfully lonely,” said Tina.
Averil rolled her eyes but she couldn’t help but smile. “You are dreadful. All of you. And poor Gareth wouldn’t have me to wed even if I begged him. His life is dedicated to good works, and he thinks I am a lost cause.”
Olivia cried, “Please, Averil, think of someone else. There
be someone else.”
Averil’s hesitation spurred them on.
The circle leaned toward her, demanding to know, their voices raised in what she considered the most ridiculous speculation. When someone suggested she was secretly enamored of Hughes, the man who delivered the school’s fish twice a week, she gave in to them.
“Oh, very well! There is someone I met . . . well, I didn’t even meet him, not properly. It was all very brief! But he did rather strike me as someone I could dream about at night, in private, you understand, without anyone knowing.”
Laughter at that, but they quickly hushed themselves. Waiting.
Averil wondered why on earth this name had jumped into her head. It was true that she hadn’t been introduced and did not expect to be—the man was a social outcast—but when she saw him her heart had begun to beat in a rackety manner that wasn’t like her at all. It was during a visit to the opera with a reluctant Gareth Simmons and her chaperone, Beth. Gareth hadn’t wanted to spend time on fripperies but Averil had persuaded him he might meet some rich donors for his Home for Distressed Women, and besides, Beth loved opera, which was the real reason Averil had wanted to go.
Her chaperone and the doctor were of a similar age, rapidly approaching forty, both unwed, and Averil had hoped that they might fall in love and that might lead to marriage. So far, however, although they were polite to each other there had been nothing to suggest they were the slightest bit in love.
Between Acts Two and Three, they’d made their way to the foyer for refreshments. And that was where she’d seen him. And the strange thing was, he was looking at her, too.
For a moment she’d felt as if his gaze were a javelin that had pierced her right through the heart.