Someone to Wed – Mary Balogh

“The Earl of Riverdale,” the butler announced after opening wide the double doors of the drawing room as though to admit a regiment and then standing to one side so that the gentleman named could stride past him. The announcement was not strictly necessary. Wren had heard the arrival of his vehicle, and guessed it was a curricle rather than a traveling carriage, although she had not got to her feet to look. And he was almost exactly on time. She liked that. The two gentlemen who had come before him had been late, one by all of half an hour. Those two had been sent on their way as soon as was decently possible, though not only because of their tardiness. Mr. Sweeney, who had come a week ago, had bad teeth and a way of stretching his mouth to expose them at disconcertingly frequent intervals even when he was not actually smiling. Mr. Richman, who had come four days ago, had had no discernible personality, a fact that had been quite as disconcerting as Mr. Sweeney’s teeth. Now here came the third. He strode forward a few paces before coming to an abrupt halt as the butler closed the doors behind him. He looked about the room with apparent surprise at the discovery that it was occupied only by two women, one of whom—Maude, Wren’s maid—was seated off in a corner, her head bent over some needlework, in the role of chaperon.

His eyes came to rest upon Wren and he bowed. “Miss Heyden?” It was a question. Her first reaction after her initial approval of his punctuality was acute dismay. One glance told her he was not at all what she wanted. He was tall, well formed, immaculately, elegantly tailored, dark haired, and impossibly handsome. And young—in his late twenties or early thirties, at a guess. If she were to dream up the perfect hero for the perfect romantic fairy tale, she could not do better than the very real man standing halfway across the room, waiting for her to confirm that she was indeed the lady who had invited him to take tea at Withington House. But this was no fairy tale, and the sheer perfection of him alarmed her and caused her to lean back farther in her chair and deeper into the shade provided by the curtains drawn across the window on her side of the fireplace. She had not wanted a handsome man or even a particularly young man. She had hoped for someone older, more ordinary, perhaps balding or acquiring a bit of a paunch, pleasant-looking but basically … well, ordinary.

With decent teeth and at least something of a personality. But she could hardly deny her identity and dismiss him without further ado. “Yes,” she said. “How do you do, Lord Riverdale? Do have a seat.” She gestured to the chair across the hearth from her own. She knew something of social manners and ought, of course, to have risen to greet him, but she had good reason to keep to the shadows, at least for now. He eyed the chair as he approached it and sat with obvious reluctance. “I do beg your pardon,” he said. “I appear to be early. Punctuality is one of my besetting sins, I am afraid.

I always make the mistake of assuming that when I am invited somewhere for half past two, I am expected to arrive at half past two. I hope some of your other guests will be here soon, including a few ladies.” She was further alarmed when he smiled. If it was possible to look more handsome than handsome, he was looking it. He had perfect teeth, and his eyes crinkled attractively at the corners when he smiled. And his eyes were very blue. Oh, this was wretched. Who was number four on her list? “Punctuality is a virtue as far as I am concerned, Lord Riverdale,” she said. “I am a businesswoman, as perhaps you are aware. To run a successful business, one must respect other people’s time as well as one’s own.

You are on time. You see?” She swept one hand toward the clock ticking on the mantel. “It is twenty-five minutes to three. And I am not expecting any other guests.” His smile disappeared and he glanced at Maude before looking back at Wren. “I see,” he said. “Perhaps you had not realized, Miss Heyden, that neither my mother nor my sister came into the country with me. Or perhaps you did not realize I have no wife to accompany me. I beg your pardon. I have no wish to cause you any embarrassment or to compromise you in any way.

” His hands closed about the arms of his chair in a signal that he was about to rise. “But my invitation was addressed to you alone,” she said. “I am no young girl to need to be hedged about with relatives to protect me from the dangerous company of single gentlemen. And I do have Maude for propriety’s sake. We are neighbors of sorts, Lord Riverdale, though more than eight miles separate Withington House from Brambledean Court and I am not always here and you are not always there. Nevertheless, now that I am owner of Withington and have completed my year of mourning for my aunt and uncle, I have taken it upon myself to become acquainted with some of my neighbors. I entertained Mr. Sweeney here last week and Mr. Richman a few days after. Do you know them?” He was frowning, and he had not removed his hands from the arms of his chair.

He still looked uncomfortable and ready to spring to his feet at the earliest excuse. “I have an acquaintance with both gentlemen,” he said, “though I cannot claim to know either one. I have been in possession of my title and property for only a year and have not spent much time here yet.” “Then I am fortunate you are here now,” she said as the drawing room doors opened and the tea tray was carried in and set before her. She moved to the edge of her chair, turning without conscious intent slightly to her left as she did so, and poured the tea. Maude came silently across the room to hand the earl his cup and saucer and then to offer the plate of cakes. “I did not know Mr. and Mrs. Heyden, your aunt and uncle,” he said, nodding his thanks to Maude. “I am sorry for your loss.

I understand they died within a very short while of each other.” “Yes,” she said. “My aunt died a few days after taking to her bed with a severe headache, and my uncle died less than a week later. His health had been failing for some time, and I believe he simply gave up the struggle after she had gone. He doted upon her.” And Aunt Megan upon him despite the thirty-year gap in their ages and the hurried nature of their marriage almost twenty years ago. “I am sorry,” he said again. “They raised you?” “Yes,” she said. “They could not have done better by me if they had been my parents. Your predecessor did not live at Brambledean, I understand, or visit often.

I speak of the late Earl of Riverdale, not his unfortunate son. Do you intend to take up permanent residence there?” The unfortunate son, Wren had learned, had succeeded to the title until it was discovered that his father had contracted a secret marriage as a very young man and that the secret wife had still been alive when he married the mother of his three children. Those children, already adult, had suddenly found themselves to be illegitimate, and the new earl had lost the title to the man now seated on the other side of the hearth. The late earl’s first marriage had produced one legitimate child, a daughter, who had grown up at an orphanage in Bath, knowing nothing of her identity. All this and more Wren had learned before adding the earl to her list. The story had been sensational news last year and had kept the gossip mills grinding for weeks. The details had not been difficult to unearth when there were servants and tradespeople only too eager to share what came their way. One never knew quite where truth ended and exaggeration or misunderstanding or speculation or downright falsehood began, of course, but Wren did know a surprising amount about her neighbors, considering the fact that she had absolutely no social dealings with them. She knew, for example, that both Mr. Sweeney and Mr.

Richman were respectable but impoverished gentlemen. And she knew that Brambledean had been almost totally neglected by the late earl, who had left it to be mismanaged almost to the point of total ruin by a lazy steward who graced the taproom of his local inn more often than his office. By now the house and estate needed the infusion of a vast sum of money. Wren had heard that the new earl was a conscientious gentleman of comfortable means, but that he was not nearly wealthy enough to cope with the enormity of the disaster he had inherited so unexpectedly. The late earl had not been a poor man. Far from it, in fact. But his fortune had gone to his legitimate daughter. She might have saved the day by marrying the new earl and so reuniting the entailed property with the fortune, but she had married the Duke of Netherby instead. Wren could well understand why the many-faceted story had so dominated conversation both above and below stairs last year. “I do intend to live at Brambledean,” the Earl of Riverdale said.

He was frowning into his cup. “I have another home in Kent, of which I am dearly fond, but I am needed here, and an absentee landlord is rarely a good landlord. The people dependent upon me here deserve better.” He looked every bit as handsome when he was frowning as he did when he smiled. Wren hesitated. It was not too late to send him on his way, as she had done with his two predecessors. She had given a plausible reason for inviting him and had plied him with tea and cakes. He would doubtless go away thinking her eccentric. He would probably disapprove of her inviting him alone when she was a single lady with only the flimsy chaperonage of a maid. But he would shrug off the encounter soon enough and forget about her.

And she did not really care what he might think or say about her anyway. But now she remembered that number four on her list, a man in his late fifties, had always professed himself to be a confirmed bachelor, and number five was reputed to complain almost constantly of ailments both real and imagined. She had added them only because the list had looked pathetically short with just three names. “I understand, Lord Riverdale,” she said, “that you are not a wealthy man.” Now perhaps it was too late—or very nearly so. If she sent him away now, he would think her vulgar as well as eccentric and careless of her reputation. He took his time about setting his cup and saucer down on the table beside him before turning his eyes upon her. Only the slight flaring of his nostrils warned her that she had angered him. “Do you indeed?” he said, a distinct note of hauteur in his voice. “I thank you for the tea, Miss Heyden.

I will take no more of your time.” He stood up. “I could offer a solution,” she said, and now it was very definitely too late to retreat. “To your relatively impoverished state, that is. You need money to undo the neglect of years at Brambledean and to fulfill your duty to the people dependent upon you there. It might take you years, perhaps even the rest of your life, if you do it only through careful management. It is unfortunately necessary to put a great deal of money into a business before one can get money out of it. Perhaps you are considering taking out a loan or a mortgage if the property is not already mortgaged. Or perhaps you intend to marry a rich wife.” He stood very straight and tall, and his jaw had set into a hard line.

His nostrils were still flared. He looked magnificent and even slightly menacing, and for a moment Wren regretted the words she had already spoken. But it was too late now to unsay them. “I beg to inform you, Miss Heyden,” he said curtly, “that I find your curiosity offensive. Good day to you.” “You are perhaps aware,” she said, “that my uncle was enormously rich, much of his wealth deriving from the glassworks he owned in Staffordshire. He left everything to me, my aunt having predeceased him. He taught me a great deal about the business, which I helped him run during his last years and now run myself. The business has lost none of its momentum in the last year, and is, indeed, gradually expanding. And there are properties and investments even apart from that.

I am a very wealthy woman, Lord Riverdale. But my life lacks something, just as yours lacks ready money. I am twenty-nine years old, very nearly thirty, and I would like … someone to wed. In my own person I am not marriageable, but I do have money. And you do not.” She paused to see if he had something to say, but he looked as though he were rooted to the spot, his eyes fixed upon her, his jaw like granite. She was suddenly very glad Maude was in the room, though her presence was also embarrassing. Maude did not approve of any of this and did not scruple to say so when they were alone. “Perhaps we could combine forces and each acquire what we want,” Wren said. “You are offering me … marriage?” he asked.

Had she not made herself clear? “Yes,” she said. He continued to stare at her, and she became uncomfortably aware of the ticking of the clock. “Miss Heyden,” he said at last, “I have not even seen your face.” Alexander Westcott, Earl of Riverdale, felt rather as though he had wandered into one of those bizarre dreams that did not seem to arise from anything he had ever experienced in the waking world. He had come in answer to an invitation from a distant neighbor. He had accepted many such invitations since coming into Wiltshire to the home and estate he really would very much rather not have inherited. It was incumbent upon him to meet and establish friendly relationships with the people among whom he intended to live. No one he had asked knew anything much about Miss Heyden beyond the fact that she was the niece of a Mr. and Mrs. Heyden, who had died within days of each other a year or so ago and left her Withington House.

They had attended some of the social functions close to Brambledean, his butler seemed to recall, though not many, probably because of the distance. He had heard no mention of their niece’s ever being with them, though. William Bufford, Alexander’s steward, had not been able to add anything. He had held the position for only four months, since the former steward had been let go with a generous bonus he had in no way earned. Mr. Heyden had been a very elderly gentleman, according to the butler. Alexander had assumed, then, that the niece was probably in late middle age and was making an effort to establish herself in the home that was now hers by inviting neighbors from near and far to tea. He had certainly not expected to be the lone guest of a lady who was almost surely younger than he had estimated. He was not quite sure how much younger. She had not risen to greet him but had remained seated in a chair that had been pushed farther to the side of the hearth than the one across from it and farther into the shade provided by a heavily curtained window.

The rest of the room was bright with sunlight, making the contrast more noticeable and making the lady less visible. She sat gracefully in her chair and appeared youthfully slim. Her hands were slender, long fingered, well manicured, and young. Her voice, soft and low pitched, was not that of a girl, but neither was it that of an older woman. His guess was confirmed when she told him she was almost thirty—his own age. She was wearing a gray dress, perhaps as half mourning. It was stylish and becoming enough. And over her head and face she wore a black veil. He could see her hair and her face through it, but neither with any clarity. It was impossible to know what color her hair was and equally impossible to see her features.

She had eaten nothing with her tea, and when she drank, she had held the veil outward with one hand gracefully bent at the wrist and moved her cup beneath it. To say that he had been uncomfortable since entering the room would be hugely to understate the case. And more and more as the minutes passed he had been wishing he had simply turned around and left as soon as he had understood the situation. It might have appeared ill-mannered, but good God, his being here alone with her—he hardly counted the presence of the maid—was downright improper. But now, in addition to feeling uncomfortable, he was outraged. She had spoken openly about the desperate condition of Brambledean and his impoverished state. Not that he was personally impoverished. He had spent five years after his father’s death working hard to bring Riddings Park in Kent back to prosperity, and he had succeeded. He had been settling into the comfortable life of a moderately prosperous gentleman when the catastrophe of last year had happened and he had found himself with his unwelcome title and the even more unwelcome encumbrance of an entailed estate that was on the brink of ruin. His moderate fortune had suddenly seemed more like a pittance.

But how dared she—a stranger—make open reference to it? The vulgarity of it had paralyzed his brain for a few moments. She had provided a solution, however, and his head was only just catching up to it. She was wealthy and wanted a husband. He was not wealthy and needed a rich wife. She had suggested that they supply each other’s needs and marry. But— Miss Heyden, I have not even seen your face. It was bizarre. It was very definitely the stuff of that sort of dream from which one awoke wondering where the devil it had come from. Some other words of hers suddenly echoed in his mind. In my own person I am not marriageable.

What in thunder had she meant? “No,” she said, breaking the silence, “you have not, have you?” She turned her head to the left to look back at her maid. “Maude, will you open the curtains, please?” The maid did so and Miss Heyden was suddenly bathed in light. Her dress looked more silver than gray. Her veil looked darker in contrast. She raised her hands. “I suppose you must see what you would be getting with my money, Lord Riverdale.” Was she being deliberately offensive? Or were her words and her slightly mocking manner actually a defense, her way of hiding discomfort? She ought to be uncomfortable. She raised her veil and threw it back over her head to land on the seat of the chair behind her. For a few moments her face remained half turned to the left. Her hair was a rich chestnut brown, thick and lustrous, smooth at the front and sides, gathered into a cluster of curls high on the back of her head.

Her neck was long and graceful. In profile her face was exquisitely beautiful—wide browed with long eyelashes that matched her hair, a straight nose, finely sculpted cheek, soft lips, firmly chiseled jaw, pale, smooth skin. And then she turned full face toward him and raised her eyelids. Her eyes were hazel, though that was a detail he did not notice until later. What he did notice was that the left side of her face, from forehead to jaw, was purple. He inhaled slowly and mastered his first impulse to frown, even to recoil or actually take a step back. She was looking very directly into his face. There was no distortion of features, only the purple marks, some clustered and darker in shade, some fainter and more isolated. She looked rather as though someone had splashed purple paint down one side of her and she had not yet had a chance to wash it off. “Burns?” he asked, though he did not think so.

There would have been other damage. “A birthmark,” she said. He had seen birthmarks, but nothing to match this. What would otherwise have been a remarkably beautiful face was severely, cruelly marred. He wondered if she always wore the veil in public. In my own person I am not marriageable. “But I am wealthy,” she said. And he knew that it was indeed self-defense, that look of disdain, that boast of wealth, that challenge of the raised chin and very direct gaze. He knew that the coldness of her manner was the thinnest of veneers. I am twenty-nine years old, very nearly thirty, and I would like someone to wed.

And because she was wealthy after the death of her uncle, she could afford to purchase what she wanted. It seemed startlingly distasteful, but was his own decision to go to London this year as soon as the Season began in earnest after Easter to seek a wealthy bride any the less so? He suddenly remembered something she had said earlier. “Did you also make this offer to Mr. Sweeney and Mr. Richman?” he asked her. Ironic name, that—Richman. His question was illmannered, but there was nothing normal about this situation. “Did they refuse?” “I did not,” she told him, “and so they did not. Although neither was here for longer than half an hour, I knew long before that time expired that neither would suit me. I may wish to wed, Lord Riverdale, but I am not desperate enough to do so at all costs.

” “You have judged, then, that I will suit you, that I am worth the cost?” he asked, raising his eyebrows and clasping his hands behind his back. He was still standing and looking down at her. If she found that fact intimidating, she was not showing it. He would suit her because of his title, would he? Then why had he been third on her list? “It is impossible to know with any certainty after just half an hour,” she said, “but I believe so. I believe you are a gentleman, Lord Riverdale.” And the other two were not? “What exactly does that mean?” he asked. Good God, was he willing to stand here discussing the matter with her? “I believe it means you would treat me with respect,” she said. He looked down at her disfigured face and frowned. “And that is all you ask of a marriage?” he asked. “Respect?” “It is a large something,” she said.

Was it? Was it enough? It was something he would surely be asking himself a number of times in the coming months. It was actually a good answer. “And would you treat me with respect if I married you for your money?” he asked. “Yes,” she said after pausing to think about it. “For I do not believe you would squander that money on your own pleasures.” “And upon what information do you base that judgment?” he asked her. “By your own admission you have a half hour’s acquaintance with me.” “But I do know,” she said, “that you have your own well-managed estate in Kent and could choose to live there in comfort for the rest of your life and forget about Brambledean Court. It is what your predecessor chose to do despite the fact that he was a very wealthy man. His wealth went to his daughter instead of to you, however.

All you inherited was the title and the entailed property. Yet you have come here and employed a competent steward and clearly intend to take on the Herculean task of restoring the property and the farms and bettering the lives of the numerous people who rely upon you for their livelihood. Those are not the actions of a man who would use a fortune for riotous living.” She had more than a half hour’s acquaintance with him, then. She had the advantage of him. They looked speculatively at each other. “The question is,” she said when he did not respond to her words, “could you live with this, Lord Riverdale?” She indicated the left side of her face with one graceful movement of her hand. He gave the question serious consideration. The birthmark seriously disfigured her. More important, though, it must have had some serious impact upon the formation of her character if it had been there all her life.

He had already seen her defensive, slightly mocking manner, her surface coldness, her isolation, the veil. The blemish on her face might be the least of the damage done to her. Her face might be easy enough to live with. It would be cruel to think otherwise. But how easy to live with would she be? And was he giving serious consideration to her offer? But he must think seriously about some such marriage. And soon. The longer he lived at Brambledean, the more he saw the effects of poverty upon those whose well-being depended upon him. “Do you wish to give me a definite no, Lord Riverdale?” Miss Heyden asked. “Or a possible maybe? Or a definite maybe, perhaps? Or even a yes?” But he had not answered her original question. “We all have to learn to live behind the face and within the body we have been given,” he said.

“None of us deserves to be shunned—or adulated— upon looks alone.” “Are you adulated?” she asked with a slight mocking smile. He hesitated. “I am occasionally told that I am the proverbial tall, dark, handsome man of fairy tales,” he said. “It can be a burden.” “Strange,” she said, still half smiling. “Miss Heyden,” he said. “I cannot possibly give you any answer now. You planned this long before I came. You have had time to think and consider, even to do some research.

You have a clear advantage over me.” “A possibly possible maybe?” she said, and he was arrested for the moment by the thought that perhaps she had a sense of humor. “Will you come back, Lord Riverdale?” “Not alone,” he said firmly. “I do not entertain,” she told him. “I understand that this has not been an entertainment,” he said, “despite the invitation and the tea and cakes. It has been a job interview.” “Yes.” She did not argue the point. “I shall arrange something at Brambledean,” he said. “A tea, perhaps, or a dinner, or a soiree —something, and I shall invite you with several other neighbors.

” “I do not mingle with society or even with neighbors,” she told him. He frowned again. “As Countess of Riverdale, you would have no choice,” he told her. “Oh,” she said, “I believe I would.” “No.” “You would be a tyrant?” she asked. “I would certainly not allow my wife to make a hermit of herself,” he said, “merely because of some purple marks on her face.” “You would not allow?” she said faintly. “Perhaps I need to think more carefully about whether you will suit me.” “Yes,” he said, “perhaps you do.

It is the best I can offer, Miss Heyden. I shall send an invitation within the next week or so. If you have the courage to come, perhaps we can discover with a little more clarity if your suggestion is something we wish to pursue more seriously. If you do not, then we both have an answer.” “If I have the courage,” she said softly

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