Mason St. Clair, the new Earl of Ashlin, has inherited a title for which there is no longer a fortune, thanks to his elder brother. Steeped in debt, with three ungainly nieces to marry off, Mason is desperate for relief. Only he doesn't expect it in the form of Madame Fontaine, a woman of questionable reputation. She arrives on his doorstep with partial payment on a debt owed to the former earl. When Mason demands full payment, she is at a loss. It's wacky Cousin Felicity who suggests that this woman, whom men cannot resist, can work off the rest of her debt by teaching the three wards how to attract worthy husbands. In a bind, Riley, as the Madame is known, agrees. Once the bargain has been struck, Mason finds that he too is falling under the Madame's spell, and it's not long before an additional couple is heading to the altar.
"Cousin Felicity, my brother had the business sense of a pelican," Mason St. Clair, the new Earl of Ashlin said, waving his hand over his littered desk. "Look at these. Bills for carriages. Bills for horses. I've looked in our stables. We have no horses. And we have no carriages. From what I can surmise, as quickly as Freddie bought these extravagances, he gambled them away."
Mason's announcement hardly seemed to upset his elderly relative, who sat primly on the settee in the comer of his study.
"Frederick always said life was just a dice toss away. Perhaps you should take up gambling." She nodded sagely, as if she'd recited gospel.
He picked up several sheets of paper and shook them at his cousin. "That's exactly what got us into this situation. That and Freddie's ill-advised investments. I never knew anyone who could throw so much money at such nonsense. Gold mines in Italy, Chinese inventions, and of all things, a theatre!" The Earl shook his head. "Only my brother would invest in some tawdry play on Brydge Street."
"Really, my dear, you shouldn't speak ill of the dead," she sniffled. A day never passed that Cousin Felicity didn't find something to cry about, especially when it came to Frederick. "My poor Caro and dear Frederick have only been...been... gone now..." Cousin Felicity faltered, unable to continue. With a shaky hand, she reached for her ever near lacy handkerchief and dramatically blew into it. She glanced up at him, her blue eyes misting, making her look frail beyond her fifty-odd years.
Mason sighed. "Yes, I know the last seven months have been terribly difficult for you and the girls. But weeping all the time does not solve the problems at hand. The bill collectors are becoming quite insistent, Cousin. If we don't find a way to satisfy some of the more pressing debts...we'll be out on the street."
"Pish posh, my boy," Cousin Felicity declared most decidedly, her bout of tears forgotten as she settled back into the elegant settee and reached for her embroidery. "You are the Earl of Ashlin. They wouldn't dare cast us out. Honorable debts are always overlooked." She leaned forward in a confidential manner. "Frederick informed me thusly whenever my dressmaker became rude or insistent about my account."
"I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news, Cousin Felicity, but debts are never overlooked, honorable or not."
"But Frederick said -- "
He held up his hand to stop her from spouting another litany of Frederickisms. Even Mason had his limits with the saintly accomplishments and nonsensical witticisms his cousin attributed daily to his deceased brother.
"Really, Mason, you always tended toward exaggeration as a child. I would have thought you'd have outgrown that by now. Our situation can hardly be as bad as you say."
"I don't see how it could be any worse."
"If that is the case, you could secure quite a tidy fortune by marrying Miss Pindar," she began deliberately. "She's just come out of mourning for her father, and from what I hear, she's exceedingly well off. Yes, that would be the perfect solution." She went back to selecting a thread.
Mason leaned over the mounds of paper and gave his cousin what he hoped was a censuring look.
Marry Miss Pindar?
He'd rather suffer transportation to Botany Bay. The girl embodied every vapid, silly pretension he detested. Besides, he'd never considered himself the marrying type, having been happy until now to live out a bachelor existence.
But if Cousin Felicity wanted to deal out marriage cards, he had one of his own.
"Cousin Felicity, why don't you marry Lord Chilton?"
Cousin Felicity turned a rosy shade at the mention of her twenty-year romance with the reluctant baron.