The Last Waltz – Mary Balogh

WHAT you need to do now, Wanstead,” Mr. John Cannadine said, slouching inelegantly in a deep chair beside the crackling fire, “is take a wife.” Viscount Luttrell, who was leaning against the mantel, warming his legs against the fire, swirled the brandy in his glass and chuckled. “I have ever noted,” he said, “that those with leg shackles want company. What you need to do, Wanstead, is acquire skill in dodging scheming chits and matchmaking mamas—for which I might offer my humble services. They are all about you like bees around a July flower bed.” “What you need to do, Wanstead,” Mr. Ralph Milchip said—he was at the sideboard, pouring himself another glass of brandy, “is tell them all that you mean to go back to Montreal in the spring. And after you get there, back into the wilderness—by canoe. That will put the wind up them in a hurry.” Viscount Luttrell took a sip of his liquor. “Not so, old chap,” he said. “Wanstead’s connections with Canada and the wilderness and canoes and mosquitoes and fur-trapping are at least half his lure to the fair sex, had you not noticed? They sense a savage just beneath the veneer of his respectability and they find him irresistible. I would wager that there are chits lying awake in their beds at this very moment dreaming of being rowed upriver by our semiconscious friend here.” But the semiconscious friend was not completely descended into inebriation or sleep or whatever it was that held him stretched out in the chair opposite Mr.

Cannadine’s, his arms draped limply along its arms, his empty glass on the floor beside him, his eyes closed. The Earl of Wanstead chuckled. “It would almost be worth marrying one of them and taking her over just to see her reaction when confronted with the reality of one of those canoes, not to mention one of those journeys,” he said. He yawned. “Why do I need a wife, John? Convince me.” After walking back to his rented rooms in London with his friends following the third ball they had attended in two weeks, and after chatting and drinking with them for an hour or more, he was finding the warmth of the fire—as well, perhaps, as the inner warmth of the brandy he had drunk—quite lulling. His married friend’s answer was quite predictable, of course. He began to check off points on his fingers. “One,” he said, “you have inherited the title and property and will need a hostess for the entertaining you will be expected to do. Two, for the same reasons you will need an heir, or preferably two or more.

Three, you are—how old?” He looked up, frowning. “One-and-thirty,” his lordship said obligingly. “You are one-and-thirty. Of an age when a man begins to think of his mortality and the need to perpetuate his line. Four, you were wealthy even before inheriting but now you are as rich as Croesus. An heir is clearly needed. Five, I have it on the best authority—Ralph and Harry here—that you have a strong aversion to brothels and green rooms and such, but you cannot tell me that you also have an aversion to women. Six—” “Exactly how many points are there to be, old chap?” the viscount asked, strolling away from the heat of the fire and plopping himself down in a chair not far distant. “As many as you have fingers? Or will you start all over again once you run out?” “You will be terrifying poor Wanstead, John,” Mr. Milchip said, leaning back against the sideboard.

“I know my knees are beginning to knock together.” “And six,” John Cannadine said, undaunted, “there is a certain satisfaction in having a mate, Wanstead, a woman who understands one and devotes all her energies to one’s comfort.” “Mrs. Cannadine will understand this late night, then?” the viscount asked, winking across the room at Ralph Milchip. “And forgive it?” “Assuredly she will,” John Cannadine said without hesitation. “She is in a delicate way again, you know, and wished to retire early. She did not also wish to drag me away from my friends—and she knows perfectly well I am with my friends. She knows she can trust me.” “Bravo, John,” the earl said, his eyes still closed. “The trouble is, one grows cynical with age.

Ten years ago there was not a young lady with an ounce of worldly experience who would afford me a second glance. Their mamas—and papas—were like icebergs around me. This year, despite the fortune I have amassed, if I had returned from Canada as plain Gerard Percy, partner in a fur-trading company, do you think I would have received a single invitation to a ton party? Or been the recipient of one melting glance from a delicately reared female? Or of one gracious smile from her mama? But I am the Earl of Wanstead, owner of Thornwood Hall in Wiltshire, a large and prosperous estate. As such, I am suddenly eligible.” “Very eligible,” Ralph Milchip echoed. “But who would have thought ten years and more ago, Gerard, that you would ever inherit? Wanstead had his heir and a second son, both robust enough by all accounts. But both dead within ten years of his own death.” He shook his head. “Which only proves my point about an heir or four,” John Cannadine said. “You danced twice tonight with Lizzie Gaynor, Wanstead.

She had Miffling—the duke of, I would have you know—dangling after her in the spring, but rumor had it that she did not like him. Perhaps it was his bald head or his paunch or his gout that she objected to or the fact that he is sixty if he is a day. Some girls are fussy about such things.” He paused to chuckle again. “She clearly likes you.” “She is remarkably pretty,” the earl said. “So is her younger sister.” “A baron’s daughter,” Mr. Cannadine said. “Excellent breeding and a sizable dowry, or so Laura tells me.

You could hardly do better, Gerard.” “I wonder,” the earl said, reaching over the side of his chair only to discover that his glass was empty. He returned it to its place on the floor—he really did not need more to drink. “I wonder if she would have liked me, John, if she had met me eighteen months ago as Mr. Percy, wealthy trader.” His friend tutted. “You are too sensitive by half,” he said. “The point is she would not even have met you.” “There is nothing as cozy as a coal fire on a November evening,” Viscount Luttrell said. He had set down his glass beside his chair and laced his fingers behind his head.

“The trouble is, one hates the thought of having to step out into the street again. Ugh!” He shivered at the very thought. “Did you not tell me that the late earl had a sister, still living at Thornwood, Gerard?” “Margaret?” he said. “Yes.” “And how old is she, pray?” the viscount asked. “I have never seen her in town.” The earl thought. “She was still a child when I left there twelve years ago at the age of nineteen,” he said. “She must be twenty or so now.” “Well, there you are,” the viscount said.

“You can marry Lady Margaret, Gerard, and keep everything in the family.” “My own first cousin?” The earl frowned. “Sight unseen, Harry? She might well be an antidote. Though she was a pretty enough child, I must admit—all blond hair and big eyes. Followed me around like a little puppy.” “Perfect,” the viscount said. “We have found Wanstead a bride, fellows. Now we can retire to our beds happy men. Except that we have to go out into the cold in order to find those beds.” “I believe,” his lordship said, “I would prefer to wed Miss Campbell.

Not that I have any immediate intentions of marrying anyone. But Jeannette is at least from my world. She was my friend long before I made my fortune and even longer before I inherited a title I never coveted. The only trouble is—oh, deuce take it, the trouble is she is a friend.” “And therefore is quite ineligible as a wife,” Ralph Milchip said. “Miss Campbell who is keeping house for her brother here?” the viscount asked. “Your associate’s daughter from Canada, Gerard?” Yes. When Robert Campbell had wanted to send his son to London to replace the agent there who was returning to Montreal, he had suggested that the older, more experienced Gerard Percy, a partner in the company, go with him for a year or so. And Jeannette had been eager to accompany her brother. The Campbells had not known at that time that Gerard Percy was also the Earl of Wanstead.

He had heard the news himself only the week before when the first boat to come from England following the spring breakup of the ice in the St. Lawrence River had brought mail. By that time he had held the title for almost a year—his cousin Gilbert had died the summer before, and presumably Gilbert’s younger brother had predeceased him. Gerard had not heard of Rodney’s death, but then why should he? There had been no communication between him and Thornwood Hall since he left England. “Jeannette would certainly be a wise choice,” the earl said. “She knows the sort of life she would be going back to.” “You positively intend then, Wanstead, to return to Canada?” Ralph Milchip asked. “Despite the change in your status? I can remember how eager you were to go there years ago in the hope of making your fortune. But your situation was different then.” The earl shrugged and exerted himself sufficiently to sit forward in order to poke the fire into renewed life.

“What is there to stay for?” he asked. “Thornwood Hall is well run. I had the steward up for a few days and looked over all the books with him. I am not needed there. I came over just for a year, to set Andrew Campbell on his feet here, so to speak. He is already doing well enough without me.” But in truth, he thought, matters were not quite as simple as he had expected when he had agreed to come to England. His title had seemed an empty thing, an embarrassment even, when he was still in Montreal. Here he had come to realize more clearly that he was now a part of the very fabric of the upper classes. He had even begun to feel, however reluctantly, that perhaps there were responsibilities he should assume—being an active landowner, for example; taking his seat in the Upper House, for example; begetting an heir, for example.

“What you should do, Wanstead,” John Cannadine said— he had slipped even farther into his chair so that seated across from. him, all one saw was a pair of stout legs and a tousled head, “is choose a bride. Get all the possibles together and make a sensible choice. You will not regret it.” Viscount Luttrell chuckled. “Parade ’em all in Hyde Park, Wanstead,” he said. “Drill ’em like a company of recruits. And then pick the best one. The mind boggles.” “Or gather them all at Thornwood,” the Earl of Wanstead said, listening to his own voice rather as if it proceeded from someone else’s mouth.

“See which one I like best. Or if I like any of them. Or if they like me, for that matter.” There was something dreadfully wrong with his suggestion, he thought even as he made it. He had agreed to come to England. He had had no intention of going to Thornwood. He hated the place. “I say,” Ralph Milchip said, “a house party. Is that what you mean, Gerard? Are we invited? I have always wanted to set eyes on the place, I must confess.” “A house party?” the viscount said more dubiously.

“In the winter? Definitely not a good idea, old chap. Unless you were to make it a Christmas house party, of course.” “That is exactly what I mean,” the earl said, yawning. What the deuce time was it? What was he suggesting now? A Christmas house party at Thornwood? “Splendid!” John Cannadine said. “Laura’s parents are in Italy for the winter, and mine are too far away for us to travel given the present delicate state of Laura’s health— and the children are always obnoxiously restless during long journeys. Thornwood would be just the thing, Wanstead. Are you serious?” “Do you hear me laughing?” the earl asked. His friends all left together less than half an hour later. But a great deal of damage had been done in the interim. Irretrievable damage, the earl feared as he wended his way to bed.

He was going down to Thornwood after all, it seemed. For Christmas. He was giving a house party there. Several guests had already been invited, either first- or secondhand. There were the Cannadines, children included, Luttrell, the Milchips—Ralph had declared that Sir Michael and Lady Milchip, his parents, would be delighted by an invitation, as would his younger brother and sister. And among the four of them—or more accurately, among three of them since the earl himself had contributed little—they had drawn up a list of guests to be invited that would fill Thornwood to the rafters. There was no reason he should not go there, the earl thought. It was his property. It made sense to go down there and look it over and meet his neighbors at least once before he returned to Montreal. It would be the civilized thing to do.

And going there would give him something to do over Christmas. He had been rather bored, truth to tell, since Andrew Campbell, only four-and-twenty years old and ambitious to rise in the ranks of the company, was anxious to show everyone that he did not need to have an older partner overseeing his work. And perhaps he should give some consideration to marrying. Not that he felt any burning duty to beget heirs. He had not been brought up to expect Thornwood or the title to be his—his father had been a younger son, and his uncle had had two sons of his own, Gilbert two years older than he, and Rodney one year younger. But it was true that he felt a certain squeamishness about engaging the services of whores or even about setting up a mistress. And yet he had needs that sometimes gnawed at him by day and kept him awake by night. Hosting a Christmas house party at Thornwood was perhaps after all a very good idea, despite the fact that it had come to him on the spur of the moment. Or had it, indeed, come to him at all? He had a suspicion that it might have been suggested to him. He frowned as his valet helped him off with his form-fitting coat and began to brush it lovingly before hanging it up.

Had he been talked into doing something that he had no wish to do? He remembered then with painful clarity why in fact it was not a good idea at all, why he had no wish to go back to Thornwood—ever. He would have to inform his friends tomorrow morning, before they began to spread the word, that there was to be no house party after all. He looked about him, shivering, after he had stripped off his waistcoat and shirt. He reached for the nightshirt that had been set out for him, and pulled it hastily over his head. But why should there not be a house party? Was he afraid to go to Thornwood? Was that what had kept him from there even though he had been in England for almost three months? Was he really afraid? The idea, when it was brought consciously to mind, seemed absurd. But there was only one way to prove that he was not. He would write to Thornwood first thing in the morning, he decided, to give notice of his intended visit. He would go down as soon as all the invitations had been sent out and answered, and he would prepare for his guests himself.

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