A Secret Affair
Secret Brides Series, Book 2.5
Miss Frances Birmingham has set her cap for the dashing Mr. Charles Holloway. She and her best friend, Annie, have the most clever idea. They’ve arranged a bachelor auction for charity. The proceeds will go to the Royal Society for the Humane Treatment of Animals and the winners will be escorted to the most talked-about ball of the Season by their bachelor of choice. When Frances makes a bid for Charlie, will one fun night’s amusement turn into a lifetime of love?
Read an Excerpt
London, November 1816
“Ladies, what shall you bid?” the auctioneer’s voice boomed through the assembly rooms.
Charlie Holloway glanced around the wallpapered space. Why in the bloody hell had he ever agreed to this? It had seemed like a simple enough affair when his soon-to-be sister-in-law, Annie, had explained it to him. But standing here in the queue, watching the eyes of the marriage-minded misses and their hovering mamas devour him like he was a sweetmeat, he knew for certain. Being auctioned off like a piece of horseflesh was entirely unsettling.
“Sir Reginald Swain, ladies,” the auctioneer announced, while that worthy knight shifted uncomfortably on his feet.
Charlie glanced around the room trying not to meet the eyes of the unmarried females in the crowd. He didn’t care if the money went to charity. He would take Annie to task for suggesting he do this, let alone actually convincing him to agree to it. Sheer lunacy. That’s what it was. When Annie—all big brown eyes and impossibly long lashes—had come to him a fortnight ago and asked him to participate in a bachelor auction, he should have bloody well said no.
“But it’s for the Royal Society for the Humane Treatment of Animals,” she’d pleaded. “All you need do is spend one evening at the Wilmingtons’ ball with the lady who bids high. And,” she’d added for good measure, “Timothy and Michael have already agreed.”
That was it. Now that he thought on it, that’s what had convinced him. Well, more precisely his younger brothers, Tim and Michael, giving him a good ribbing about how much more they would fetch on the auction block in comparison to him.
“You’re too old,” Michael had razzed him. “And you’re a mere mister.”
Charlie had arched a brow, giving his youngest brother a disdainful look. “I’m only thirty, and you’re a mere mister too,” he’d pointed out. “And at least I’m a second son. Jordan need only take a bad tumble from a horse, and I’m an earl. You, however, are fourth in line; with Tim about to be married soon, you may have a nephew to contend with before long.”
This, of course, had been met with much slapping on the back and objection from Jordan who did not appreciate the tumble-from-a-horse comment; not to mention, he’d recently got himself betrothed as well to…Annie.
Charlie’s thoughts snapped back to the present and the bloody uncomfortable situation he was in.
“Ladies, is there a bid of five pounds?” the auctioneer ventured. Sir Reginald stood several paces ahead on a low dais, ladies parading in front of him as if they were examining his flank. Poor bastard.
Why had the Royal Society for the Humane Treatment of Animals allowed this egregiousness? It was positively indecent. Made nearly impossible to bear by the fact that Tim had already been snapped up for the tidy sum of ten pounds by his intended, Miss Wintergale, and Michael had been sold soon after to a pretty little blond lady. She was a bit on the plump side, but apparently her wallet was plump too. She’d paid nearly twenty-five pounds for Michael who’d pulled on his sleeve, bowed to the miss, and given Charlie a decidedly arrogant grin as he’d sauntered off.
“I have five. Is there a bid of ten?” the auctioneer continued.
Ten? For Sir Reginald? Even Charlie was skeptical.
He glanced around, first at the remaining ladies who had yet to bid on a gentleman. Most of them were wallflowers, young ladies who no doubt would have to pay for an escort to the Wilmingtons’ ball, the grandest affair of the little Season. Not that there was anything the matter with wallflowers. They usually made the best company, intelligent, well read, often surprisingly witty. Yes, he’d take a wallflower over a belle any day. At the moment, however, he only wished one of the shy young misses would pipe up and offer for him and get this bloody farce over with.
“Surely, you can spare ten pounds, ladies, to spend the evening in the company of this worthy gentleman?”
Capital. If a knight was unable to fetch ten pounds, Charlie’s prospects appeared dim indeed.
The crowd remained silent. And it was a crowd. But they were not there to bid on Sir Reginald. And they were not there to bid on Charlie, either. No. The swirling mass of females who ostensibly wanted to help those poor little animals, remained for one reason, and one reason alone. Charlie glanced to his left, to the man next in the queue. Poor Townsende.
Oliver Townsende, the newly minted Duke of Markingham, wore an expression Charlie could only describe as both bored and indifferent with just a touch of get-me-the-hell-out-of-here. Charlie knew that look. It was the same expression that no doubt resided upon his own face. The belles were about to start a bidding war for Townsende.
Charlie shook his head. How the hell had Annie, that little pixie, managed to convince an eligible duke to participate in these shenanigans? Charlie should have listened to Medford. The viscount had wanted no part of this charade and had told Annie firmly no, even though he was very close friends with both Annie and her older sister, Lily. Leave it to Lord Perfect to remain in control. Charlie groaned. He’d do well to follow Medford’s lead in future.
Sir Reginald, poor chap, was sold for the five, and quickly ushered away. Townsende took a deep breath, gave Charlie a sympathetic eye roll, and strode forward to take his place on the dais.
A particularly bold brunette made her way to the front of the room as the bidding for the duke opened. “Fifty pounds,” the brunette nearly shouted.
A gasp rippled through the room. Capital. Charlie fought the urge to tug at his cravat. He’d be auctioned for pocket change after the duke’s opening bid.
The rest of the ladies approached the dais; their shouts punctuated the air as the bids came faster and faster. Fifty-five. Sixty. Sixty-five. Seventy. Even his grace had the grace to look a bit surprised. Charlie watched with a mixture of amusement and horror as Oliver Townsende, the seventh Duke of Markingham, was auctioned to Lady Jane Peterson for the impressive sum of ninety-nine pounds. By far the highest bid of the evening.
Charlie set his jaw. It could only get worse. Townsende strode past on his way out. Charlie gave the bloke a commiserating smile. Good man, Townsende. The poor chap had been the grandson of a duke when Charlie met him at Eton years back—an impressive claim to Quality to be sure—but Oliver had no claim to the title until his cousin had got himself shot recently.
That was neither here nor there at the moment. Charlie took a deep breath. He was next. Might as well get this unpleasant task over with.
He squared his shoulders and stepped up to the dais.
“And finally, we have Mr. Charles Holloway, second son of the fourth earl of Ashbourne, brother to the current earl.” The auctioneer’s voice echoed off the walls. “Let the bidding commence.”