The Marriage Contract – Cathy Maxwell

Anne Burnett held her breath as Lady Waldo signed her brother’s bold, singular title “Tiebauld” to the proxy marriage contract. The scratch of the sharp quill across parchment resounded in the sudden quiet of the lawyer’s office. Finished, Lady Waldo handed the pen to Sir Rupert, who officiously sanded the signature before turning the document on his desk toward Anne. “Your turn, Miss Burnett.” He dipped the pen in ink and offered it to her with a slight flourish. Anne stared at the writing instrument as if she’d never seen one before. A bead of ink formed on the nub’s tip. If she didn’t take it quickly, the ink would fall onto the desk and make a splatter. But she couldn’t breathe, let alone move. “It is your turn to sign, Miss Burnett,” Sir Rupert prompted again. “Yes, Anne,” Aunt Maeve said, sitting in the hardback chair beside her niece’s. She gave Anne’s elbow a little wake-up pinch. “This is no time for missish airs. It’s as good as you could ever hope for. Better, in fact.

” Anne could only agree, but the minuscule writing of terms and agreements her aunt and uncle had spent hours negotiating leered up at her. No one had asked her opinion. Not once. After all, this marriage was considered the best an orphan with a disgraced past could achieve. Of course, in fairness, she’d had her chances. Uncle Robert and Aunt Maeve had sponsored her for two Seasons. However, the consensus was her looks, while pleasant—straight brown hair, serious gray eyes, and a mouth too generous for beauty—were not spectacular enough to overcome her lack of fortune or social connections. No man wanted her save one. Lord Tiebauld, Lady Waldo’s brother. The man whose very name made every eligible debutante shudder.

Bitter disappointment replaced fear. Anne had dreamed of marriage, of being loved for herself, and of finally having a place where she was wanted and belonged… Instead, she was to be shipped off to the wilds of Scotland. Dismissed, was more like it. Her relatives couldn’t wait to be rid of her. She reached for the pen and angled the contract on the polished wood desk in front of her. Her fingers tightened on the stylus—and suddenly she couldn’t do it. Not until she asked the question burning in her mind, “How mad is he?” For a heartbeat, everyone stared as if Anne had spoken in tongues. Politically powerful, socially adept, Lady Waldo appeared most disconcerted of all. Then chaos erupted. Uncle Robert rose to his feet with a soft oath while Aunt Maeve cried out, “Anne!” Sir Rupert leaned across the desk, frowning at her uncle.

“I thought you said the girl was agreeable to the match?” “She is,” Uncle Robert answered. He placed a warning hand on Anne’s shoulder. “She will sign.” “It’s nerves,” Aunt Maeve assured everyone. “Her father was just as high-strung. She’ll calm down.” “Maeve, shut up,” Uncle Robert growled, but it was too late. Sir Rupert grasped at the possible implications. “You told me she was healthy!” “She is,” Aunt Maeve shot back. “Didn’t your doctor tell you so? He even verified her virginity.

” Hot color flooded Anne’s cheeks at the reminder of the invasive and too personal examination the doctor had given her. She started to rise, feeling an urge to run, to hide—but Uncle Robert’s hand shoved back down in the chair. Besides, where would she go? Sir Rupert turned to Lady Waldo. “I can’t let you continue with this endeavor, my lady. Not until we are completely sure of the girl’s mental soundness.” Aunt Maeve started a keening protest. The lawyer ignored her and reached for the contract, but Uncle Robert snatched it up. The slip of parchment would make them rich beyond their wildest dreams. They could not let the marriage go, even if it meant coming to blows with London’s most prominent solicitor— “Enough!” Lady Waldo’s command cut through the madness. Their mouths clamped shut.

“Mr. Crisp,” she said to Uncle Robert, “place the contract back on the desk.” He followed her command with an uncommon docility. “Now leave us. Take your wife. You go with them, Sir Rupert. I don’t want Mrs. Crisp listening at the door.” “As your solicitor, I should be present with you,” he protested. “Go,” Lady Waldo answered, and to Anne’s amazement he did, herding Uncle Robert in front of him.

Following the men, Aunt Maeve paused in the doorway. “Don’t do anything to ruin this, Anne. You’ll have nowhere to go.” She left then, shutting the door firmly behind her. Her words paralyzed Anne. Nowhere to go. “Miss Burnett, I need your attention.” Lady Waldo’s curt words brought her back to the present. It took all her courage to face this formidable woman. “My brother is not mad.

” It was an unequivocal statement. “I only mention rumors,” Anne demurred. “I know. I’ve heard gossip.” The dowager reached into her reticule lying in her lap and pulled out a silver framed miniature. She pushed the portrait across the desk toward Anne. It stopped at the edge of the marriage contract. “Go ahead, pick it up,” Lady Waldo ordered. “It’s Aidan, painted during his last year at All Souls. See what you think for yourself.

” Aidan. Anne had never heard him referred to as anything other than Lord Tiebauld. In her fears and doubts, she had not asked after his Christian name. She lifted the miniature and caught her breath. The youth in the portrait was not some deformed monster. He had a poet’s beauty. Black curly hair, a strong jawline, intelligent blue eyes much like his sister’s but without the cold aloofness. “He’s handsome,” Anne murmured. “And no sign of idiocy or deformity,” Lady Waldo said dryly. Anne raised her head.

“I didn’t mean—” Lady Waldo cut off any apology. “I know what you thought. Aidan was always considered out of step with his peers. There are those who have too much passion in them, Miss Burnett. Those who refuse to conform. My brother is one of their number. He always felt the world more keenly than the rest of us.” She held out her hand for the picture. Her eyes softened as she traced the image with the tip of her finger. “He’s tall.

A head taller than most men. His shoulders are broad, but he’s thin. Too thin, I think. A wife would be good for him…” For a moment, she seemed almost overcome by emotion. “When did you see him last?” Anne asked softly. A frown formed between Lady Waldo’s eyes. “Six, maybe seven years ago. He’s twenty-seven now.” She sighed. “A man full grown.

There are seventeen years between us, but we were close at one time…before my marriage.” “They say you sent him away.” The icy eyes hardened. “He left England by his own choice, Miss Burnett. He is a loner and, yes, eccentric. He did not fit well into Society.” Anne knew exactly how he must have felt. “Do you know our family history, Miss Burnett?” “Other than you have Scottish roots? No.” “Then I must tell you.” Lady Waldo laid the miniature on the desk.

“Our great-grandfather was executed for treason. They say he was the military mind behind the Scottish rebellion in ’45. Our family was disgraced, my grandfather brought to England as a hostage. There are those who fear we still hold rebel ideas…and those who pray we do.” “Do you?” “No.” The answer was swift, sure. When Anne said nothing, she commented, “You have no reaction to such an infamous history?” Anne shook her head, unwilling to volunteer information Lady Waldo might or might not know. “A good number of aristocratic families could make the same claim,” she said quietly. “English history is rife with power struggles. But is that a reason to marry a man to a woman he doesn’t know?” Or may not want? “It is when the man is the sole heir to a great and respected title.

Aidan has a heritage to uphold.” “He is only twenty-seven, my lady. Let him choose his own wife.” “I don’t have that kind of time, Miss Burnett.” “Why not?” “I’m dying.” Her words sucked the air out of the room. Anne drew back in her chair and looked more closely at Lady Waldo. All the signs were there, the tightness around the mouth, the tired lines at the corners of the eyes, the thinness of the pale, delicate skin. Anne had seen mortal illness before. She was surprised she hadn’t noticed it earlier.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “For what?” Lady Waldo said. “Life has been good to me. I have one task left that it is my duty to see completed. With your help, I’ll see it done.” She lightly touched the miniature. “The title needs an heir, but Aidan is not coming to ground. I have been patient long enough. I want you to marry my brother and breed a healthy child as quickly as possible. In return, I will leave you my fortune.

Do you understand what money means, Miss Burnett? It is freedom. No more will you be subject to overbearing fools like your uncle, or to boring, meaningless parties filled with petty people where you must pretend interest because it is expected of you.” Anne straightened, shocked to hear her innermost thoughts spoken aloud. “How did you know?” “Being a woman isn’t easy. Unless we are insipidly stupid—something I don’t believe you are —we have all chafed at the restrictions others place on us, or at being paraded like cattle on an auction block. Since Sir Rupert mentioned your name, I’ve made it my business to know everything about you.” “Even about my father?” Lady Waldo laughed, the sound rough like a metal wagon wheel over cobbles. “Everything.” “And you still found me suitable?” “I have run out of suitable candidates, Miss Burnett. I am desperate.

” She leaned forward. “And I sense you are desperate, too.” She was right. Anne hated living with her relatives who begrudged her every morsel of food, every article of clothing. They’d branded her a failure because she couldn’t bring a young man up to snuff. It didn’t matter to them if the man was a fool or dull or dissolute. Or if Anne felt nothing for him. Passion, love, honor—all the values her parents had taught her to respect and admire—were unimportant to her selfish relatives…and to Society. Her gaze shifted to the poetic, handsome face of the young man in the miniature. His were the features of a scholar.

They were sensitive, thoughtful. Yet she’d heard him referred to as the Madman of Scotland. Society wouldn’t have made up such a name from thin air if it wasn’t true, would they? Then again, when had Society ever been right about her? And yes, something inside her thrilled to the thought of at least having a handsome husband, one that would make Aunt Maeve’s silly daughters, all successfully married, “ooo” and “ahhh” with admiration. Plus, she would be a countess. Countess Tiebauld. “Why are you smiling?” Lady Waldo asked. Anne wasn’t about to confess the small-minded direction of her thoughts. Instead, she said, “You give your word of honor that my child would be free of any mental affliction?” “There is no madness in our family,” Lady Waldo said with irritation. “That was rumor, nonsense.” And isn’t there a seed of truth in all rumor? But Anne didn’t voice the question.

Instead, she bargained. “Will I have control of my own fortune?” “Once you give birth. I will have Sir Rupert draw up papers transferring funds to you immediately.” “I will raise the child?” “Of course, you are its mother.” Anne wasn’t so naïve as to think it would be as simple as that but she accepted Lady Waldo’s promise. After all, what choice did she really have? She reached for the marriage contract. Her hand was steady as she lifted the pen from its inkpot. Her husband’s name seemed to jump out at her from the paper. Aidan Black, Earl Tiebauld. “What if he doesn’t want me?” “He has no choice,” Lady Waldo said serenely.

“The document in front of you has the full blessing of the Church and the State.” “But he has not agreed?” Their eyes met. The corner of Lady Waldo’s mouth lifted. “No. It will be your responsibility to inform him.” “Can you marry a man off without his permission?” “With the grace of the Crown, I can do anything I wish.” Anne stared at the contract in front of her, her mind barraged by a million doubts—and yet she signed. Sir Rupert, Uncle Robert, and Aunt Maeve were invited in and there was much celebration amongst them, save for Anne. She picked up the miniature and held it in her palm, studying the painted lines for clues to explain the strange circumstances of her marriage. She overheard Sir Rupert whisper to Lady Waldo, “Did you tell her everything?” “I told her what she needed to know to reach the right decision,” was the reply.

“But did you mention Major Lambert’s report—?” “No.” Anne wanted to hear more, but Lady Waldo sensed she was listening. Their gazes met and then Lady Waldo smiled. “Welcome to the family, my dear.”

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