A Matchmaker for the Fine Baron (Preview)

Chapter One

March 1818

Many were the visitors to 17 Grosvenor Square, but few were invited to return. Lady Frederica Ridley was not known for her generosity, only opening her doors to those who were unlucky enough to pique her interest. 

She watched from her office window as Baron Ternhill and his sister piled out of their phaeton onto her doorstep, ten minutes late for their interview. The phaeton was an ugly contraption, painted peacock blue with golden wheels. It was the sort of vehicle a man drove when he had something to prove. The vulgarity of the baron’s carriage and his unenthusiastic exit suggested that he was guilty of causing their late arrival. Miss Eugenia Bridges, the sister, raced to the front door like a young whippet, the edge of her bonnet disappearing beneath the doorway in a blur. 

Stepping out of sight, Frederica heaved an uncharitable sigh. She wagered the meeting had been a mistake from the moment the idea had formed in her cousin’s mind. 

“Have you not forever promoted yourself as a paragon of goodwill, Frederica?” Cousin Gregory had said two weeks earlier. “What would your friends say if they learned you had turned away a young girl in her hour of need? A few on-dits about the brother should not deter you. It is a favor that he will repay.” 

“Sadly, I am not in the business of favors,” Frederica had replied. “I am in the business of matches.” 

A familiar draught swept into the office as the butler, a plump little man named Bonham, greeted the guests. Maids appeared not a moment later with trays of tea and biscuits. Frederica’s sister and her aunt remained in their rooms on the second floor, shuffling occasionally across the floorboards. It was upstairs that they would idle away the hours until their afternoon calls, using a back staircase to remain out of sight. With a satisfied step, Frederica crossed the hallway into the secondary parlor. The room was decorated weekly with flowers from the markets at Covent Garden, and the smell of roses was almost suffocating in the air. A short stack of handkerchiefs embroidered with Frederica’s initials sat on the buffet nearest the door, ready to be delivered to her clients as tokens of her esteem. 

The room had once served as the office of her late husband, but nothing of Tristan Ridley still remained within, as Frederica preferred it that way. The less she was reminded of Tristan and their disastrous marriage, the better.

Like a well-oiled machine, the Ridley house performed its tasks with little interference from its operator. There was nothing organic about Frederica’s meetings. Every moment had been orchestrated to ensure the utmost efficiency. A woman in Frederica’s position, who had already experienced so much misery, could not afford to leave things to chance. 

Standing by the fireplace, her arms clasped in front of her, Frederica waited for her guests to enter behind the butler. 

A collection of mismatched footfalls and hushed voices were the first signs of trouble. Before long, the baron and his sister appeared at the door behind Bonham. Frederica was struck immediately by the resemblance between the siblings. With matching dark brown hair and light green eyes, they made a handsome pair. Both were thin and tall, with angular faces and large eyes, but where the combination suited the brother, the sister looked waifish. 

Frederica paused a moment longer than was usual, observing the beautiful siblings. Her gaze lingered on the face of the brother, heat rising uncharacteristically to her cheeks. He was already scowling, contorting a dark, low brow. The expression reminded her so much of Tristan… She pushed down the thought as Bonham turned to introduce her guests.

“The honorable Baron Ternhill and Miss Eugenia Bridges, My Lady,” the butler announced. 

Bonham exited almost as quickly as he had entered with the maids, leaving Frederica with Miss Bridges and her guardian. The baron supplied her with a sighed greeting, waving his sister inside like a farmer herding cattle. When the sister dithered, Frederica forced a smile and gestured toward the sofas in the center of the room, directing the baron and his charge like actors on a stage. One seemed much keener than the other to follow her instructions.

“I am Lady Frederica Ridley, and it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance,” she said, a little piqued as the baron took the measure of her. Did he have to keep staring? “Please, let us not stand on ceremony. There is much we must discuss.” 

The siblings glanced between themselves before sitting down opposite her. Seizing the teapot, Frederica prepared three cups of tea for them, scrutinizing the baron’s polished shoes and posture with her eyes kept low. Every element of the Bridges’ characters needed to be evaluated, and there was little time to waste. Frederica’s guests were at their most vulnerable—their most useful—in the moment of awkward greetings that came before their interview. It would take all of five minutes to determine whether Miss Bridges was deserving of her help; the following twenty-five minutes of the interview would be conducted as a courtesy. 

“I assume the drive over was pleasant enough?” Frederica asked to break the ice. “You reside nearby, do you not? In Marylebone? A fine neighborhood.” 

Leaning back, she caught the eye of Ternhill. He nodded at her inquiry, settling against the sofa, and draping his arm over the side. The gesture was meant to assert his dominance. And despite Frederica’s better judgment, she felt quite dominated indeed. His sister, meanwhile, reached nervously for her tea. She could not hold Frederica’s gaze. The baron had no such difficulty. 

“You are not at all what I expected,” he suddenly declared, gesturing toward Frederica in a carefree manner. His voice was low and cold, setting her teeth on edge. “I realize that must be a highly unconventional way of beginning an intercourse such as this, but it must be said, mustn’t it?” 

Frederica started. “Must it?” She kept her tone light. “Lord Ancaster must have painted a careless portrait of me indeed for you to have come to such a conclusion, My Lord.” 

“Lord Ancaster? You mean Gregory? How curious…” He furrowed his brow, straightening the lapels of his coat with long, nimble fingers. “Yes, of course, I do mean Ancaster. He suggested you were less… well, that you were different.” 

Ternhill meant older, and Frederica knew it. “It is uncommon for a woman of my age to find herself in a position such as mine, but there is opportunity to be found in singularity…” She glanced toward Miss Bridges. “Which is precisely why you have come. You are young, Miss Bridges. Your appeal suggested you are not yet twenty. A few years from spinsterhood yet. What is it about your circumstances that requires the early intervention of a matchmaker?” 

The question was unnecessary. Frederica had heard rumors about the Bridges men from her cousin and beyond. Pelham Bridges, as the baron was otherwise known, had figured in no small number of rags. His failed career as a musician was a fact, and his infamy had not faded with his popularity. Not a season passed without his name being mentioned in the press, lambasted as a womanizer. His musical critics were unabashedly vocal, wondering how a man who had once brushed shoulders with the likes of Clementi and Rossini, who had once been considered an equal to them in talent, had produced nothing of worth in nearly a decade but a series of scandals to entertain weary housewives. 

Their cousin, a rogue by the name of Laurence Bridges, was a mogul of the publishing business. He directed a company known as The Sovereign Press, and possessed even fewer friends than Miss Bridges’ brother. As for the baron’s father, the Viscount of Wrexham, he was a known recluse, long retired from his days as an importer of foreign goods. The family’s once excellent reputation was stained all over by their combined greedy labors. 

The unspoken and likely truth was that Miss Bridges’ chances of landing a decent husband had been compromised by the antics of her guardians. While Frederica wanted to help, she could not proceed with an arrangement until her theory had been confirmed. Honesty was paramount between a matchmaker and her clients. But she had ways of making the baron talk yet. 

“She has done nothing wrong, before you make assumptions,” Baron Ternhill replied after a moment, causing both his sister and Frederica to glance up. He nodded in Frederica’s direction. “I assume many of your clients come to you because they have no other choice. Such is the not the case for Eugenia.” 

“While your protectiveness is a boon to Miss Bridges, I am sure, I would like to hear directly from your sister what it is that she requires from me,” Frederica replied. Unused to being challenged, but glad that he was fighting for his sister, she could not help but retaliate: “Unless, of course, you have come seeking a wife of your own as well.” 

The baron was caught off guard. “Hardly.” He scoffed, telling Frederica everything she needed to know about him. He didn’t seem like the type of gentleman to go quietly into a marriage. None of the handsome ones did. 

“I thought as much.” Frederica leaned over to encourage Miss Bridges to speak, a bergamot scented steam wafting up into her face from her tea. “You would like to be married soon?” 

Miss Bridges’ eyes went wide. She looked toward her brother, maybe seeking his permission to continue. Ternhill shrugged, punishing Frederica with the silence she had requested from him. 

“I suppose I do,” Miss Bridges said with a soft voice, her ears turning red. Her hands tightened around the cup in her hand. It seemed more likely by the minute that the baron had forced his sister to come. “A woman must marry eventually, mustn’t she? And the idea of love is not displeasing to me in the slightest. All things considered…” She paused, averting her eyes to the floor. “Yes, I do think a match must be made.”

Frederica nodded. It would not have been the first time that a guardian had dropped a debutante on Frederica’s doorstep to get rid of her as soon as possible. She could so easily remember being seventeen years old, thrust into the arms of a husband she could not stand because everyone but herself had stood to benefit from the arrangement. Tristan had been handsome and young, but that had not made him any less of a monster. The day he died was the day Frederica’s life had been allowed to begin. With it, she had sworn to save as many young women as possible from sharing a similar fate. 

“I have experienced three seasons since the year 1812,” Miss Bridges continued. “This is my fourth. I have watched friends fall in love and marry, but for me there has been nothing.” 

“You are accomplished?” Frederica asked. She kept a careful eye on the brother, who was watching his sister just as attentively. She half-expected him to begin mouthing Miss Bridges’ replies like lines prepared from a play. “You have spent time learning to dance and converse in a manner that could be considered most appealing?” 

“My governess was Miss Elizabeth Cooley, and now I am tutored beneath Mrs. Venetia Grant. I believe I am a decent singer and dancer. I practice French and Italian upon my father’s request. We are well-traveled. I enjoy reading very much. More than that, I have given no one any reason to dislike or disparage me.” 

Frederica glanced toward the baron, wanting to see whether he would react. Had he brought his sister to Frederica to make amends? He was cold with Frederica, still fixing her with those ensnaring pale green eyes. With Miss Bridges he was different, trying to conceal a softer edge. Perhaps he had her best intentions in mind after all. A little push would confirm it. 

“There are many things I must consider before accepting a new client,” Frederica said, directing herself at Lord Ternhill. “The likelihood of orchestrating a successful match is second to the need of that client, which is third to their own willingness. My wish is to see all young people in matches which satisfy them completely. But I can only spread myself so thin. I must be sensible about these things and allow my better judgment to guide me. Months wasted on one match could mean the death of a hundred others.” 

“You are as eloquent as Ancaster suggested at least. That much I shall admit,” Lord Ternhill said. Again, Frederica could sense the sarcasm in his voice. “If your services are half as coveted as you depict them to be, then let us not waste any more time beating around the bush when instead we might hunt.” He leveled Frederica with a serious look. “You are a businesswoman in everything but name, Lady Ridley, which means that you knew everything about us before we arrived. I implore you, let us be done with these banalities. Ask us that which really matters.” 

Miss Bridges reeled back in horror. “Pelham…” she said, scolding him.

“And what do you suppose really matters, Lord Ternhill?” Frederica asked, stifling a grin. She had him exactly where she wanted him. “If you feel that my knowledge of your sister’s situation is lacking, then by all means I invite you to enlighten me. From what I can see, a young woman of Miss Bridges’ good breeding and quality should have no trouble landing a husband.” 

“The fact remains that she has not yet succeeded in the task. And that is precisely why we have darkened your door this morning,” Ternhill went on. “You must recognize the peculiarity of her situation. Is this not your specialty?” 

Every situation is peculiar,” Frederica replied, ignoring his slight on her capabilities. “I know many women your sister’s age and older who have yet to wed, and there is much hope for them yet.” Frederica dropped her gaze. “I have known women much younger who have settled for the first hand which was proffered and found themselves miserable as a result. I encourage some guardians to wed their daughters quickly, it is true, if the young ladies in question are restless or haven’t the good sense to remain chaste until their time comes. In the case of Miss Bridges, I see little cause for concern on all fronts.” 

The siblings shared a charged look, and Frederica winced. What were they communicating that she could not read? A scandal she had missed in her research, not involving the brother but the sister…?

“Unless, of course,” Frederica continued carefully, “there is a specific reason for which your sister needs to secure a match post-haste.” 

The baron looked at Frederica aghast, his high, ruddy cheeks draining of color. “If you are implying what I think you are, I can assure you that you are mistaken,” he muttered. 

“Forgive me if I have caused offense,” she said with feigned innocence. “Though I should remind you that it was you, My Lord, who stressed the importance of asking that which really matters. What other reason could there be for wanting to accelerate your sister’s matchmaking? If you have answers, I am eager to hear them.” 

For the first time since their arrival, the baron looked almost hurt. Frederica had found the limit of his pride: Pelham Bridges, the faded star, wanted her to account for his failings and be charitable with his sister, but he would not admit his mistakes out loud. At least not to Frederica.

As the silence stretched on between them, Frederica wiggled her toes in her slippers, eager to have her answers. Fixing her gaze on the door behind them, she considered her next move. 

To her surprise, it was not Ternhill but Miss Bridges who spoke next. “Lady Ridley?” she called, her voice catching in her throat. “What is it that you are thinking?” 

Frederica turned toward her and was greeted by a look of concern. To deny Miss Bridges her help would have been a cruelty of the highest order… But Ternhill was right. Frederica was, above all else, a woman of business—and she would get what she wanted from the baron before she agreed to help his sister.

“Miss Bridges, if you are, as you have said, in possession of both the qualities and the willingness to find a husband…” Frederica began, looking everywhere but at that poor girl’s face. “If you have, as Lord Ternhill suggests, acted without error since your entrance into society… then I see no reason not to let nature run its course with you. My intervention seems highly unnecessary.” 

“What?” the baron interjected. He scowled again, examining Frederica closely. “You have known us for all of five minutes, and already you have made up your mind about us? You are quizzing us now. That must be it.” 

“I assure you that I am not,” Frederica replied. “I do not speak of these matters lightly. It is not my desire to abandon Miss Bridges in her hour of—” 

“But you are abandoning her,” Ternhill cut in. 

“Nonsense. I cannot abandon a charge which I have not yet taken on.” Frederica smoothed out her skirts. “You entered this interview aware of the fact that my services are in high demand and that I cannot harken to every call. Why should I accept the appeal of your sister, who has every natural chance of securing a husband this Season if not the next, when there are tens of other supplicants in need of my help who do not boast even a fraction of Miss Bridges’ many qualities?” 

Ternhill fell quiet, leaning back into the sofa with an air of disbelief. His sister was silent beside him as well, but she showed no signs of remorse, only embarrassment. 

Perhaps she was glad that Ternhill’s plan had failed in the end. 

Frederica made to stand up, wondering whether she had misjudged the baron after all. Miss Bridges seemed to understand, returning her teacup to the low table between them without so much as a breath. But the baron was quicker than both of them, springing into a stand with some energy at last. 

“Wait,” he ordered, raising a hand in the air. He licked his lips, looking around the room. “Admit us but a moment more.” 

“Lord Ternhill, please,” Frederica said, pushing down her rising delight. “I’m afraid there is nothing more to discuss.” 

“Oh, but there is,” the baron argued, nostrils flared. Frederica sat back down, and Miss Bridges shot her a sympathetic look. Ternhill pointed toward his sister. “You have listed off Eugenia’s superficial qualities, but the reality is that you have no real concept of her. Like all the rest, you have allowed your prejudices to dismiss her outright. As her brother, I will not stand for it. Not today.” 

Frederica bristled at the accusation. She was prejudiced, but it was not against poor Miss Bridges. Lord Ternhill let his shoulders drop, visibly relieved that Frederica had chosen to entertain him a moment longer. 

“My sister deserves a chance to be happy,” he continued. “I see the state of anxiety in which she lives, wondering why life is happening for others and not for her, and it pains me. You must recognize it yourself. You must know that the ton does not judge every young woman equally, regardless of the level of their beauty, of their accomplishments. And if you are half as connected as your cousin claimed you are, then you know why,” he stressed. “Grant Eugenia but an hour more of your time, and you will see that this is a task worth its while, before you dismiss it outright.” 

It was difficult for Frederica to tell whether Lord Ternhill was being sincere or was just trying to manipulate her. His passion seemed genuine, but he was a performer by nature. She wanted to believe that his care for Miss Bridges was real. From the look on Eugenia’s face, she wanted to believe it too. Either way, he had given Frederica what she wanted: some real sign that this matchmaking meant something to them. 

Casting a glance at the clock in the corner of the room, Frederica paused. Five minutes had come and gone. She doubted that Miss Bridges alone would not be difficult to matchmake. The presence of the brother, however, would make things a good deal more complicated. 

And that is precisely why I know that I will help her, Frederica thought, twirling her wedding ring. What I would not have given for someone to save me at her age… she is not to be blamed for her brother’s mistakes.

She ceased her fidgeting at once and rose to a stand with her mind made up. “Have it your way,” she declared. 

“I beg your pardon?” Ternhill arched a brow, a stunned smile pulling at the corner of his mouth. “You mean to say that you have changed your mind?” 

Frederica narrowed her eyes. She would not have expected him to accept his victory gracefully. Miss Bridges rose as well, her hands clasped over her chest as she peered up at her brother. 

“You have asked for an hour more of my time,” Frederica reminded him. “We will set another appointment for a later date, when we are all in better possession of ourselves. That much alone I shall grant you for now. During that next meeting, I shall evaluate Miss Bridges’ chances of securing a match without me, I shall perhaps offer a name or two to you if I am feeling gracious, and we shall decide then whether or not to move forward definitively with our collaboration. I am not in the habit of changing my mind. You will have to thank Lord Ancaster for my lenience on this day,” she warned the baron. “It is an exception I expect you to honor, Lord Ternhill. A favor I expect to be repaid.” 

Turning to Miss Bridges, Frederica reiterated her intent: “My former points still stand. There are many others who have come to me seeking matches who are in far worse positions than you are.” 

Her mind flashed with the faces of her clients, desperate for her help. Women considered past their prime. Men with faces only a mother could love and no confidence to make up for it. Girls who had been used and made to pay the price for their abusers. 

“Miss Bridges…” Frederica paused, softening her voice. “You will not take precedence over those others, not unless I can be convinced that you truly need my help. That much should be understood between us before we proceed.” 

“It is understood,” Ternhill said emphatically, causing Frederica to look back up at him. His smug expression unsettled her. 

If he thought that he would change Frederica’s mind again, he was wrong. After all, she knew better than to let her guard down around men like Pelham Bridges. The cards were all in her hand. He just didn’t know it yet. 

Chapter Two

“Well, brother. That was mildly amusing, I suppose, if one has a feeble sense of humor!” Eugenia said as the door closed behind them.

Pelham had never been particularly good at reading Eugenia’s moods. His sister didn’t help herself, always saying whatever she thought was most likely to please people. Eugenia was like their mother in that way—even though the two of them had barely known each other. As they climbed into the phaeton outside of Lady Ridley’s home, however, there was no mistaking the expression on her face as anything other than a snarl of contempt. 

Readjusting his grip on the ponies’ reins, Pelham shot a cursory glance at the white face of 17 Grosvenor Square. He was unsurprised to find Lady Ridley staring back at him through the parlor window. Her pretty pale face was obstructed by the bright reflection of the glass. Frederica Ridley, the widowed baroness, had been nothing like her cousin had described her to be.

He had been ill-equipped to deal with the spirited matchmaker. Ill-equipped, too, to stop staring at her. At twenty-seven, she was more beautiful than most of the Season’s debutantes combined. And it was it clear that she knew it. 

From the moment she had opened her mouth, Lady Ridley had been trying to rile him up, though Pelham had no idea how that could be helpful. 

Perhaps the matchmaker figures herself a savior too, rescuing Eugenia from me.

He would let her think what she liked, so long as his sister’s future was guaranteed. 

The ponies were spurred into a trot, commencing the short ride back to Marylebone. Eugenia was silent for a few minutes, the blue ribbons of her bonnet blowing in the wind on that unseasonably warm spring day. The sun beating down on the phaeton’s wheels was making them shine as they traveled through Lady Ridley’s neighborhood, which was buzzing with activity: Ton members out on their morning walks through the square, a mail coach rushing past. 

“All’s well that ends well,” Pelham said when he heard Eugenia suck in a breath, cutting off her complaint before it could be voiced. “Wouldn’t you agree? That’s the truth of it, after all. The matchmaker has agreed to take you under her wing. Was that not the point of this interview, Eugenia? You should be happy. What more could you want?” 

“The ends do not always justify the means,” Eugenia replied under her breath. “You might have tried not to act so beastly with her, for a start. Could you not tell how upset she was with us? I thought I was going to die from embarrassment when she tried to turn us out. You were the one who organized this meeting in the first place. It baffles me why you would approach Lady Ridley with so much hostility, given that you had the most to lose today.” 

“Hostility?” Pelham guffawed, keeping his eyes fixed on the road. “The woman was determined to make an enemy of me the moment we entered her home. No, that’s not true. Most likely, her opinion of me had been set in stone well before our meeting. I only meant to keep her honest.” 

“And what about your own honesty?” His sister scoffed. Pelham was grateful for the hubbub around them, obscuring their conversation from passing walkers. “You were not honest with her about my reasons for failing to find a match. You were not even honest with her about your own reasons for wanting me to be matchmade in the first place. There was no mention of your desire to go to Italy. No mention of Grandmama Helewise and her letters, begging you to find me a match. If you had told her that you were wanting to escape England and be done with me, she might have been more inclined to help us. It wasn’t right to conceal so much from her…” 

“Divulging our life story to the woman was not going to help our cause,” Pelham said, shivering as he remembered the baroness’s interrogation. “And don’t say what you know isn’t true, Eugenia. For better or for worse, I will always be your brother. I will always want what is best for you. In this case, a marriage is best.”

“For you, certainly. The sooner I am married, the sooner you can escape to the Continent and leave everything else behind. You are not exactly quiet about your desire to start your career over somewhere else.” Though Pelham could not see her, he felt her shoulders slump. “I have known it from the moment I came here for my first Season, all those years ago. I need you, and you hate that. You hate me because of it.”

Pelham shook his head, forcing the ponies into a faster trot. He did not like to argue with Eugenia; he did not like to hurt her in any way. Under normal circumstances, he would have let her anger run its course in silence. But he had spent the better part of his life worrying about her. There were ten years between them—ten years he had spent caring for her while his father abdicated the post. He could not stand the thought of her blaming herself for his misery. It had been Pelham’s decision to prioritize her happiness over his own. What Eugenia had sensed wasn’t hate. It was exhaustion, plain and simple.

“There is nothing you could ever do to make me hate you,” he picked up again, soberly. “You and Clare are about the only people in this world I think are any good.” He spared a thought for their younger brother. Clarence was still wiling away the years at his boarding school in Bath. Pelham was glad. He didn’t want his brother, at only fourteen years old, to know what was going on in London. “You deserve a chance to be happy. It is as I said to the matchmaker. The ton has not judged you fairly, and I am partly to blame for that. It is my job to make it right.”

Eugenia sighed. “But not your job to let her know why people despise us?” 

“She knew already,” he said, surprised by how much that hurt him. “Her eyes said it all from the first. There is no doubt she had heard of me. From that, she would know how desperately we require her services. And if she had not learned of her own accord who we are, then Gregory certainly let her know ahead of the meeting what the ton thinks of us. She wanted only to embarrass us—to embarrass me—and she hadn’t even the grace to be subtle about it.” 

“Well, you don’t know that for definite,” Eugenia replied softly. She seemed to have calmed down slightly, her voice lilting with hope. “From what little my friends have told me, the baroness devoted her life to helping others find love after her husband died. A woman like that must have good intentions.” 

“You believe that of everyone.” Pelham’s voice took on a dark note. “One day you will learn what I know to be true: that no one does anything if they do not have something to gain from it. Whatever the reasons for Lady Ridley’s matchmaking, they do not only stem from the goodness of her heart. Vanity, adoration, control…” He let one of the reins slip, rolling his wrist as he listed each sinful item. “She may prove useful to us, Eugenia, but you must be on your guard. Her motivations will reveal themselves soon enough.” 

“If we ever get the chance to know her long enough for that,” his sister noted as their home came into view. “She has granted us only an hour more to impress her. And a lot could go wrong in an hour.” 

Their home on Portman Square was exactly as they had left it. The house was too large for Pelham and Eugenia alone, palatial in comparison to the townhouse of Lady Ridley. The manor was quiet enough to drive him to madness on days when Eugenia was out. As he entered, his boots clacked against the checkered marble floor of the entrance hall, the sound of his steps resonating loudly. Eugenia swept inside behind him, unfastening her bonnet and pelisse, and handing them to the maid standing by. 

Pelham removed his hat and coat, waiting for Ainger to emerge from the back of the hall. The butler had been in their service for decades, managing the house even before it had become empty. A few reminders of happier times remained in plain sight. Portraits of grandparents painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller. A set of China vases from the Ming period, which his mother had claimed for herself among his father exports. Venetian carpets long worn-out by the once frequent visits of friends. The rest of their parents’ abandoned belongings had either been shipped back to Wiltshire, where their father had ensconced himself for the past ten years, or stowed away in the attic for when their younger brother Clarence came of age and took a residence of his own.

“A productive trip, My Lord?” Ainger asked while stepping aside, waking Pelham from his daydream. 

“Productive enough,” Pelham replied, eyeing Eugenia. She hurried toward the grand staircase. “Where are you going?” he called up to her.

“Venetia will be here in half an hour,” she cried over her shoulder, not bothering to look back at him. As she skipped out of sight, Pelham heard: “I will need all the help I can get before we see Lady Ridley again.”

Pelham was unconvinced. Eugenia should not have to improve herself to impress the matchmaker. She was a sensitive young woman, too romantic for her own good. It was Lady Ridley’s job to find a match that suited Eugenia exactly as she was, flaws and all.

Shaking his head, he thanked Ainger and crossed the atrium, headed in the direction of his music room. He had been invited by Laurence to perform at his home that evening and entertain the guests at a dinner party. A rehearsal was in order. Pelham’s chest constricted at the thought, his fingers stiff even as he flexed them from weeks of abstinence from the pianoforte. 

He glanced over his shoulder to request a service of coffee, when his eye instead caught of small swathe of fabric lying on the ground where Eugenia’s maid had been standing. Ainger had vanished back down the adjoining hallway, leaving Pelham to collect Eugenia’s trash with a groan. 

It was a handkerchief, seemingly brand-new, and masterfully embroidered. Decorated by a border of lace, it revealed the letters ‘F.R’ in the bottom right corner.

“Frederica Ridley…” he murmured, thumbing her initials softly. 

He supposed it was just like the baroness to give her clients something with her initials, marketing herself for free with every cough and tear. He smiled despite himself at her deviousness, feeling somewhat impressed. 

“A woman of business indeed,” he chuckled to himself, surprised at the quickening of his heartbeat. It had been a long time since someone had made him nervous. But it was only natural. The matchmaker held the fate of Eugenia in her hand. A modern-day Aphrodite.

For a moment, he wondered whether it was worth even going through with their second meeting. He was desperate to help Eugenia, but how likely was it that Baroness Ridley would leave Pelham out of the equation? The ton had branded him as a scoundrel years ago, which meant women like her knew to keep a wide berth. 

The feeling was mutual. Pelham had been burned by her sort one too many times. Charming and intelligent was a near deadly combination. 

Pelham stepped toward the stairs, drawing in a breath to call Eugenia down to collect the token. His gaze fell to the initials once more. Without thinking, he exhaled a sigh instead and pocketed the handkerchief for himself. There would be time to return it to Eugenia later. 

Chapter Three

Later that day, Pelham stood at the edge of the parlor in Laurence’s home, surrounded by a group of gentlemen discussing the upcoming Newmarket races. He was only half listening to their conversation. His eyes were fixed on the pianoforte in the corner of the room. The instrument had been a gift from Pelham for his cousin’s twenty-fifth birthday, purchased from a dealer along the Strand who had sworn the antique had once belonged to Frederick the Great of Prussia. It was a little crude in its design, and its history had failed to impress Laurence just as much as its appearance.

“And what the deuce do you suppose I should do with that?” his cousin had said when the delivery had been made. “Ghastly contraption… I’ve no wife to play, and no desire to take one. Better you return this to the charlatan who sold it to you and get your money back.”

Pelham had laughed. “Consider it an investment, cousin. Reserve it for the talentless fools who will find themselves in the unfortunate position of needing to entertain you once we have shown London the worth of Bridges.”

He scoffed into his drink at the memory, causing ripples to form on the surface of his claret. A lot had changed in the seven years since Pelham had delivered the gift. Laurence had taken London by storm, dominating the publishing world in a matter of years, just like Pelham had predicted. 

And as for Pelham himself…

Well,” he thought, it stands to reason that you are a talentless fool.

The final stragglers from dinner filtered in from the hall. His cousin boasted an eclectic catalogue of acquaintances. Many of them were musicians like Pelham. Composers were Laurence’s bread and butter. Early in his career, his cousin had discovered how profitable it was to publish scores and songbooks, despite not having a musical bone in his body. Pelham recognized a few of the names that Laurence had listed off to him before the evening had begun. 

William Tremblay had been seated beside him at dinner, and had followed him into the parlor, where he had struck up the conversation about horses. He was ten years younger than Pelham, and ten times as successful. And from the looks of it, he was eager to give away his sudden wealth, to the delight of eavesdropping high-rollers. The first of his songbooks had been published the summer prior under The Sovereign Press, and it had caught the ear of Queen Charlotte. She swiftly propelled Tremblay into celebrity, and Laurence along with him. To Pelham’s right had been Lady Russe, the wife of one of Laurence’s primary investors, a music aficionado herself. But when she had asked Pelham for the names of his most popular pieces, she hadn’t recognized a single one of them. 

Everywhere Pelham looked, there were reminders of his failed career—of the man he might have been if he hadn’t made the wrong connections, if he had been given more time. Thinking as much, he took another sip of his claret. 

A more familiar face appeared in the quickly merging crowds, whispering in Laurence’s ear as he entered beside him. Gregory Caroll, the Earl of Ancaster, was almost twice as tall as Pelham’s cousin, with gangling limbs and a long, serious face. The men had met at Oxford before Pelham had abandoned his studies in favor of his music. Gregory had none of the charm of his cousin Lady Ridley, despite their similarly dark blonde hair, fair complexions, and pointed chins. No, his cousin was perfectly proportioned by comparison… 

With the exception of her eyes, Pelham thought, recalling their meeting earlier that day. In his mind’s eye, he could see her with perfect clarity. It was difficult to forget a face like hers. 

Those stormy blue eyes are much too large for her face. Disarming. Dangerous. And that little mole above her lip marks her as a coquette, I am sure.

Disentangling himself from his group and leaving young Tremblay to his ruin, Pelham searched for Gregory’s gaze and found it. Laurence appeared to notice and called Pelham over with a flick of his head. There was something demeaning in the gesture, like he was a dog being brought to heel. 

“There you are,” Laurence said. “Lord Ancaster and I were wondering what sort of misfortune had befallen you when we could no longer spot you at dinner.”

“I suggested you had turned heel ahead of your little show,” Gregory said with a teasing smirk. “You have more mettle than I gave you credit for, Ternhill.”

Pelham gave a mirthless laugh, turning his eyes elsewhere. He and Gregory were friends. It was not unusual for them to joke with each other. But tonight, his ego was already feeling fragile, and he was not too vain to admit it. 

His cousin clapped him on the back, thwarting his exit. “A little ribbing between old friends never hurt anyone,” he said by way of an apology. 

“You forget that I’ve performed for princes and counts all across the Continent. A parlor show will hardly kill me,” Pelham replied. He looked deeply into his drink, then downed his claret in one mouthful. The alcohol burned an acrid path down his throat, turning his saliva thick. Handing the glass to a passing footman, he glanced over his shoulder at the awaiting crowd. “Any requests before I begin?”

“For the music, you mean…? It’s all the same to me,” Laurence said through a laugh, clicking his fingers to alert another footman. He put in a request for a couple of cigars to be brought onto the nearby balcony. “Something to calm those nerves of yours. Shall we, gentlemen?” 

Taking Pelham by the shoulder, Laurence directed the men outside before they could protest. 

On the balcony, the air was warm and inviting. The sounds of carriages and other soirées traveled upwards with the breeze, providing just enough noise to drown out the din of conversation from inside. The parlor was situated on the third story of Laurence’s home, and their elevation allowed a faraway look over the verdant stretches of Hyde Park. The serpentine shimmered in the late-day light, curling northward in a beam of gold. 

Pelham turned away from the view with the arrival of the footman. Cheroots soon lit, he rested his head against the wall behind him and closed his eyes, rehearsing his opening sonatina in his mind. His fingers drifted over the keys of a piano behind his eyelids. A peppery, nutty whiff floated up from between his fingers. 

“You look like you’ve gone ten rounds with Mendoza,” Gregory remarked from across the balcony, forcing Pelham to crack open an eye. The earl settled into one of two iron chairs, crossing his feet at the ankles. He looked pleased with himself. “Or perhaps ten rounds with Frederica. You did visit her this morning, did you not?”

Laurence raised a brow. “Frederica?” he repeated pointedly. “Another one of your conquests, cousin? It’s been a while since you’ve provided us some decent stories. Good on you! Now, don’t be sparing with the details…”

“She is Ancaster’s cousin, for a start. Not a lover,” Pelham corrected. He had little desire to rehash the events of that morning, but it didn’t look like his audience was going to let the matter rest. “She is a matchmaker, or she claims. I took Eugenia to see her this morning after Ancaster set up a meeting for us.”

“This is the first I’ve heard of Eugenia wanting to marry,” said Laurence. 

“It’s not exactly something that needs to be said, is it? All women her age are looking for matches,” Pelham replied, pausing to draw smoke into his mouth. On his exhale, he added: “It’s better that she marries quickly, and a matchmaker seems a decent way to do it. You should understand her urgency. You and I are the reason it is so difficult for her to catch the eye of a gentleman. One mention of the name Bridges, and they start readying pitchforks, not marriage contracts.”

“It’s because you’re too soft,” Laurence said, with a challenging look. Pelham turned away, already knowing what his cousin was going to add. “Too soft with her, too soft with everyone else. If you spent less time trying to make amends, you might see what I do. Infamy is not a curse but a blessing. If I were you, I would channel every scandal into my music and sell it to the highest bidder.” He stopped himself and grinned. “I retract that. I would sell it to me.”

“Anything for an extra sovereign in your pocket.” 

Pelham scoffed to cover his unease. Laurence’s suggestion had brought up a few unpleasant memories. He didn’t have time to consider them before his cousin was lecturing him again. 

“Naturally. It’s in the name.” Laurence laughed under his breath, taking a drag. “Now, you should listen to me, cousin. I know what I’m about. When I walk into a room, the name ‘Bridges’ is on every tongue, and I use that to my advantage. You should tell Eugenia to do the same.”

“Regardless,” Pelham stressed, turning to Gregory, “we are seeing Ridley again next week. If you could put in a good word for me in the meantime, it might help.”

“I thought the favor was me convincing her to see you?” Gregory asked, smirking. He raked a hand through his shining hair, then stretched out onto the balustrade behind him. “You are really racking up your debts to me now. I did warn you that Freddie took no prisoners. Before you start pointing fingers, I said nothing to her that could have influenced her opinion of you. When I mentioned your wanting to see her, I believe her first words were ‘Our fallen Apollo is looking for a wife?’”

Gregory’s impression of Lady Ridley was uneven at best, lacking her calculated charm. Still, Pelham bristled at the comparison, comforting himself at least in the knowledge that he had been right. The matchmaker had known about him, which meant he hadn’t been imagining her prejudice.

“I was quick to set her on the right path. It was not a particularly difficult task,” Gregory continued. When Pelham shot him an accusatory look, he shrugged. “Did you expect me to lie to her? I know your history better than most. Lawks! All of London has been made privy to your every transgression, thanks to your being a favorite target of the press. Frederica didn’t even ask for confirmation, just listed off your wicked sins. If it’s any consolation, she almost seemed impressed you had the gall to contact her.”

Laurence laughed at that, blowing smoke through his nose. 

“I’m not sure why you’re laughing,” Pelham said, flicking a hand in his cousin’s direction. “You and I are not in such different situations than my sister. As of late, you’ve received just as many letters from Helewise as I have. She has started with Eugenia, but it’s only a matter of time before she is after you as well.”

Laurence grimaced at the mention of their grandmother, ash falling from his cigar onto his shoe. Her name was never thrown around lightly. For as long as Pelham could remember, her messages had heralded trouble. 

“What’s this?” Gregory asked, cocking his head to the side. “Your grandmother has been writing you? Are wedding bells in the air for all you Bridges?”

“If she has her way,” Pelham explained. He drew in a fortifying breath, relishing the taste of ash in his mouth. His grandmother would likely not approve of that little habit either. “Our grandmother is a traditionalist when it suits her. Every once in a while, she remembers her progeny in England and starts writing us again. The older she gets, the more frequent her letters become. At the start of this Season, she wrote me concerning Eugenia’s lack of a husband, threatening to return to England herself unless I did something about it.”

“I see…” Gregory nodded, speaking with sarcastic gravitas. “So, you did not wish to contact Frederica out of duty to your sister, but because you feared the consequences otherwise.” He leaned further back. “And by that, I mean that this grandmother of yours might procure a wife for you as well.”

“Now you sound like Eugenia,” Pelham said, twirling the cheroot between his fingers until he had distorted its shape. “Not everything is black and white. The fact remains that one day Eugenia will marry. Every potential husband we scare away is one she is never getting back. Helewise is a plague on us, but she isn’t wrong in that regard.”

“Oh, Helewise has been out of England for nearly two decades,” Laurence argued dismissively. “Most of her letters to me serve as kindling. It’s the illusion of control she wants, trying to puppeteer us from afar. Let her have it! I say you write Helewise back what she wants to hear and leave poor Eugenia to her own devices. Our grandmother is under every illusion that I’m living my life as she intends it, and we are both happier that way. There’s no harm in a little lie.”

Thinking, Pelham stared down, watching the smoke rise in tendrils from the tip. He could have agreed with Laurence. It was not like his opinion was much different. Helewise did not deserve marriages just to make her proud. She had abandoned her grandchildren just as much as their father had. Her life in Florence had been too sweet to surrender, even when she knew that she had three motherless grandchildren waiting for her in England. Three grandchildren, who had been practically orphaned by the emotional abandonment of her eldest son.

“It’s not about satisfying Helewise,” Pelham repeated, watching Laurence through the heady smoke. “This is about Eugenia’s future—all our futures. None of us are happy as we are… Eugenia is lonely. She deserves better company than me.”

“And the moment Eugenia is married?” Laurence asked, suddenly more invested in their conversation than he had been. “What next would come for you?”

“I will go where I should have gone years ago,” Pelham said. His gaze followed the smoke to the horizon, where it was lost in the seams of the clouds. “As far from England as possible, where I don’t need to perform for your friends just to maintain my relevancy…” He smiled despite himself. “No offense.”

“None taken,” Laurence said, sincerely. “This lot wouldn’t exactly be my first choice of socialization either—a far cry from my preferred evenings of untamed debauchery.” 

“But what’s done is done,” Pelham continued. He extinguished his cheroot on the iron railing beside him, flicking what remained of it into the street below. “First, I set Eugenia’s life in order. Then, we will see.”

Laurence made a non-committal sound and rose from his seat, just as the footman reappeared in the doorway. The young man opened his mouth to speak, his eyes darting back toward the parlor. 

“What is it now?” Laurence groaned, waving the footman away. “I will meet you inside,” he said to Gregory and Pelham, dropping his cheroot into his ashtray without looking back.

Pelham drew in a deep breath. It would not be long until his performance began. He checked his reflection in the glass doors as they closed with a click behind his cousin, straightening his cravat with suddenly nervous fingers. He needed to focus before his show. There would always be time to agonize over his family—and the matchmaker—later. 

“I would watch out for Frederica, if I were you,” Gregory said, startling him. The earl turned toward the view of London, taking a final drag of his cheroot. “She may have been frosty with you, but there’s nothing she likes more than a challenge.”

Pelham wondered what he meant, surprised by his own rising curiosity, and by his desire to know as much about Frederica Ridley as possible. A strangely proud feeling came over him at the mention of the matchmaker, like a naughty child relishing the attention of an angry parent. “Has she spoken to you about our meeting? Did she say something to concern you?” 

“I saw her earlier this afternoon. There were matters we needed to discuss. I told you that I will be staying with her for a while?” Gregory waved a hand in the air, clearing the smoke between them as he dismissed the thought. “Nevertheless, I inquired about the meeting. She found your sister highly pleasant. As for you…” He let his sentence trail off with a grin. “Don’t take it to heart. She has little tolerance for men of any kind, save perhaps those Friday-faced chaps who find themselves on her doorstep looking for wives. Now, a scoundrel like you? No, you would not be suffered even on a good day, exactly as we had predicted. And that’s precisely why you should take care around her. I could see the dream of reformation in her eye, even if she didn’t say it.”

“A fool’s errand,” Pelham replied, impervious to Gregory’s warning. “I made it clear that Eugenia alone is looking for a match. By all means, let your cousin enjoy her fantasies. She will find herself wanting if she ever decides to act on them.”

“Not even Frederica could sway you into getting married?” Gregory asked. “You’d be surprised. Her matchmaking is a lot of pomp. Theater, really. But I’d be lying if I said that woman couldn’t make a working marriage. She paired her sister with a duke a few years ago, against all odds. A crafty little puppeteer is Frederica. I’ve no doubt she could find you a meek little wife to satisfy this grandmother of yours, one who would turn a blind eye to your indiscretions.”

Pelham side-eyed the earl. There had been no ‘indiscretions’ in years. He glanced over his shoulder, choosing to let Gregory think what he liked. Every aristocrat in London thought he was a rake—and yes, perhaps at one point he had given them reason to doubt him. Time had marched forward. Pelham had learned from his mistakes and had not repeated them. But he had been unable to correct the course of public opinion. Had found it actively turned against him. 

Even those he had known longest, like Gregory, had no interest in entertaining an evolved version of Pelham. A silly thing like the truth was of little consequence to the ton. 

“Earlier, your cousin said that a person’s own willingness is the most important factor in a match,” Pelham recalled, stepping toward the door. His hand curled around the handle, the metal biting into his skin. “She should know then to direct her efforts elsewhere. So long as I live, I swear… I will do so alone.”

Swinging open the door, Pelham stepped inside with a determined gait. He found Laurence approaching the balcony, probably coming to fetch him to begin his presentation. Pelham ignored him and headed directly for the dais, hopping up the step and marching toward the instrument. He kicked out the stool, letting it screech against the hardwood. The sound alerted a few nearby guests to his presence. Before long, the room had turned to look at him, a wave of applause forming as Laurence took to the stage to introduce their entertainment for the evening. 

Keeping his eyes fixed on the keys, Pelham listened to his cousin perform his speech until it concluded. Another round of premature applause was offered. With a lopsided smile, Laurence turned to Pelham. 

 “Any final words?” his cousin asked in a low voice. 

“Leave,” Pelham replied, summoning feelings of anger rather than courage. There was nothing else he had to lose. So the music began.

“A Matchmaker for the Fine Baron” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!

Baroness Frederica Ridley is London’s most esteemed matchmaker, who wields her sharp wit and keen intuition to unite the single hearts of the Ton. Despite her success in orchestrating love for others, she secretly fears she may never find a match of her own, scarred by a past loveless marriage and haunted by the memory of her late husband’s betrayal. All until a chance encounter with the enigmatic Baron Pelham ignites a spark that threatens to consume her heart…

Can she defy all expectations and embrace the passion that kindles her soul?

Pelham Bridges, once a talented composer, is now haunted by the shadows of his scandalous past. He dreams of escaping to the Continent, yet duties beyond number keep him tied to London—not least of all his sister Eugenia, who has failed to find a husband. It is the unexpected encounter with his sister’s matchmaker, Frederica, that will awaken a desire he never dared to imagine and a love that could heal his wounded heart and inspire his greatest masterpiece.

Can this woman be the muse to set him free from the chains of his past?

What begins as a convenient collaboration between Frederica and Pelham, soon grows into something more. They have both spent the last ten years dodging love at every turn, but this time, they may not have a choice. While they learn to confront society’s judgment as well as their own demons, they must face dark secrets and blackmail that threaten to tear them apart. Will they succumb to the pressures of convention or will they be able to follow the path of their hearts, risking everything for a love that defies all odds?

“A Matchmaker for the Fine Baron” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.

Get your copy from Amazon!

One thought on “A Matchmaker for the Fine Baron (Preview)”

  1. Hello, my dear readers! I hope you have enjoyed this little prologue and you are eagerly waiting to read the rest of this delightful romance! I am anticipating your first impression here! Thank you so much! ♥️

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