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In 1809 Alexander Tyrrell, the grandson and heir of the Earl of Braeburn, became twenty-one, received an advanced degree with honors from Oxford University and wondered what on earth he was to do with the rest of his life. It seemed to him that most of his days had been spent in cloistered security behind the walls of the university. The outside world was a vast unknown, and although it seemed to hold out to him the promise of all sorts of romantic adventures, he felt totally unprepared to deal with the problem of how to go about seeking them. A solid grounding in Greek aesthetics, Latin verses and English philosophy, he realized, was not proper preparation for making one's way in the real world. Of course, one could always reject the "real world" and live the life of a scholar, cloistered in the university forever. Many of his friends had predicted that this would be the course of his life. But Alec Tyrrell had no intention of living a cloistered life.
On his last day at Oxford, he looked around his familiar room with a sigh. All his personal possessions were packed in one small portmanteau. Under his academic robes, he was wearing a shabby coat and well-worn breeches that had not been stylish even in their better days. He studied his reflection in the faded looking glass of his dressing room with a worried frown. It occurred to him that, when he divested himself of his academic robes, he would not cut a very impressive figure. Tall, thin, bookish and painfully shy, he could see nothing in his appearance to suggest that he was an heir to a wealthy earldom, or even that he was a person worthy of attention.
In this conclusion he was too self-deprecatory and quite mistaken. Although he was indeed youthfully lanky, his face had already taken on a look of strength and character. His abundant, dark hair fell over his forehead with what most young women would have considered a most attractive carelessness, his hazel eyes glinted with intelligence and humor, his mouth was kind and his chin firm. He had a circle of close friends who spoke of him in the most glowing of terms as a superior scholar, a quick wit, a modest but effective debater and a man of honor. His closest friend and classmate, Garvin Danforth, would have added that he was a loyal and affectionate friend and a fellow of deep and private feelings.
None of these traits, however, was noticeable in the reflection in the glass. Was there a young lady in all the world, he wondered, who would look twice at such a scarecrow? Like most young men, he had dreams of becoming a leader of men and a charmer of women. But those dreams seemed far from realization if that gawky, pale-faced stringbean of a fellow who looked back at him from the mirror was his true self.
Then and there he decided to seek out his grandfather. As always when he needed support and practical wisdom, he turned to the old Earl. As soon as the graduation ceremonies had been concluded and he'd escaped from the affectionate embraces of Garvin Danforth and the rest of his friends, he picked up his portmanteau and made his way home to Braeburn in Derbyshire. It was there that the aging Earl, his only living relative, spent his days.
The Earl had, over the years, lost everyone dear to him—his wife and both his sons. The only one left was his grandson, and the old man doted on the boy. For a few years after Alec's father had died, the Earl had taken up residence at Tyrrell House in London and tried to forget his grief by indulging in gambling. But he was not a gamester at heart, and, after a time, he'd returned to Braeburn, the only residue of his venture into gambling being a love for whist and a tendency to pepper his remarks with the expression "I'll lay odds on that."
Alec had known no other parent for so many years that he'd learned to make most of his decisions on his own. But when severely pressed, he found that his grandfather's advice was most helpful and comforting. If anyone in the world would be able to advise Alec about how to proceed with his life, that person was the old Earl.
But, as it turned out, Alec never managed to ask his grandfather the question about his future, for the Earl had an answer for him before he even asked. They had exchanged warm greetings and had just sat down to their first dinner together in many months when the Earl announced without preamble that he'd arranged for Alec to marry.
The news struck Alec with a blow. In all his many plans for the future, he had not thought of marriage. How could he marry anyone? He was not at all ready for it. "Grandfather, you can't mean it!" he objected, horrified. "I don't even know how to speak to a lady!"
The old Earl chuckled. "You'll have no trouble speaking to this one, I'll lay odds on that! You and she grew up together."
Alec whitened. "You don't mean ... Priss!"
"I ... I don't believe you. This is some sort of ... of joke. Priss wouldn't have me!"
The glee in the Earl's eyes faded, and his cheeks grew mottled with anger. "What do you mean, wouldn't have you? Of course she'll have you. You're going to be the Earl of Braeburn!"
"What has that to say to the matter? Do you expect me to buy her with the promise of a title?" Alec asked in disgust, pushing away his plate.
"You don't have to do anything. It's all arranged."
"Arranged? Who arranged it?"
"Who always arranges such matters? Her father and I arranged it, of course."
"Her father's been dead for ... well, it must be more than ten years!"
"What does that signify? We arranged this matter just after Prissy was born. It was a sensible agreement then, and it's a sensible agreement now. I'd lay odds on it. Ask Lady Vickers. Ask Prissy!"
Alec felt as if he were strangling. "This is complete nonsense. Priss never even liked me."
"It's you who're talking nonsense. You played together all the time when you were children," the Earl said, glowering at the boy. "Of course she liked you."
"She detested me. She said I was scrawny and stupid, and she abused me all the time. I didn't run as fast as she, or climb a tree as quickly. She was always laughing at me. Why, once she pushed me off the high rock at the top of Welking Hill and didn't even wait to see if I'd been hurt. I rolled all the way to the bottom and lay there bruised and bleeding for over an hour, but she never came back."
The Earl gave a snorting laugh. "The little vixen. Well, she won't be pushing you down hills now, I'll lay odds on that."
"You'd lose your shirt! But I don't intend to let her have the opportunity," Alec muttered bitterly.
The Earl put down his fork, leaned forward and peered at his grandson's face. "You're not trying to tell me that you don't like our little Prissy, are you?"
"I don't like 'our little Prissy' one bit!" Alec said fervently. But he felt his color rise as he said the words, and he found that he couldn't meet his grandfather's eyes. Priscilla Vickers, who had grown up at Three Oaks, the house just beyond the home woods, was not someone he could honestly say he "liked." The truth was he adored her! She'd been a tow-headed little siren with golden skin and blue eyes, and she'd tantalized him for years. Even when she'd insulted and scorned him, he'd been her willing slave. And after he'd escaped from her spell by going off to school, he dreamed of her. He had been invited by her mother to attend her come-out in London a year ago, but he'd had to sit for examinations and had sent his regrets. He'd heard, however, that she had become a real beauty. He was not at all surprised—she had always seemed breathtakingly beautiful to him.
"Ha!" The old Earl could always read his grandson's thoughts. "Still taken with her, eh? I'd have laid odds on it. Well, finish up your dinner and get yourself into a presentable coat. I promised you'd wait on them this evening."
Alec almost choked. This evening? He didn't even know how to dance with a girl, much less court her! "Grandfather, this is preposterous," he said, agonized. "I'm not ... ready for this sort of thing. I ought to see a bit more of the world before I—"
"And so you shall," the Earl agreed calmly. "But the world is a much more attractive place to explore if you have a wife beside you while you do it." And with that, he pushed himself from the table and walked to the door. "Do hurry, boy. It won't do to keep them waiting."
The only presentable coat the miserable lad could find to wear was one that had been cut for him two years before. It was too short in the sleeves and made him feel like a gawk. Nevertheless, his grandfather, who was waiting in the foyer to see him off, beamed at him approvingly and insisted that he take the laudalet rather than cross the fields and the wood on foot. "And don't forget, even though the matter is already a settled thing, you must offer for her. Do it nicely, mind."
"I will pay my respects, Grandfather, but I don't intend to do anything else. Are you listening to me, sir? I am not going to offer for her!" And he slammed out of the house.
Three Oaks, while certainly not comparable to Braeburn's impressive size and style, was an old and substantial residence. While Sir John Vickers was alive, every acre of the property had been cultivated and cared for. But this evening, as the laudalet pulled into the drive that curved around the oak trees which gave the property its name, it appeared to Alec that the place looked smaller and shabbier than he remembered. It dawned on him with some surprise that the widowed Lady Vickers must be in need of funds. No wonder she wished to honor an agreement made between her husband and the wealthy Earl of Braeburn so many years ago! Well, Alec would be happy to give them what financial assistance he could, but he'd be hanged if he'd permit himself and Priss to be pushed into a mariage de covenance.
The old butler, who remembered him from childhood, pumped his hand and led him into the foyer. Lady Vickers rushed down the stairs and greeted him as warmly as if he were her own son. She was a woman small of stature and large of bosom (although her lack of height in no way impaired the impression of imperiousness which emanated from every pore), and she had to stand on tiptoe to reach up and embrace him. He bent his head to permit her to kiss his cheek, and, as she uttered the expected remarks about how tall and handsome he'd grown, he caught over his shoulder his first glimpse in four years of his adored Priscilla.
She had come down to the foot of the stairs and was grinning at him with the same taunting smile that had mocked him throughout his youth. Her skin had the same glowing, golden color he remembered so vividly, and her eyes were still bewitchingly blue. Her hair, however, was a richer gold than he remembered and was pulled back from her face, the long, curly tendrils that used to frame her face tied tightly back into a charming knot at the back of her head. She was quite womanly, taller and slimmer than he remembered, and as she flashed her teasing smile at him, he felt his pulse begin to race. To have such a woman for his wife would be a dream come true.
Before he could steady himself, he was propelled by Lady Vickers into the sitting room and urged to sit down on the sofa. Priss followed and took a place right beside him. Lady Vickers, with a knowing smile, made a quite obvious remark about having to see the cook about the next day's dinner and left the room. A feeling of irritation welled up in Alec at the arrangement of this entire affair, and he made up his mind that he would not, under any circumstances, be manipulated into marriage in this fashion.
He turned to face Priss, determined to make an end of it right here. She was coolly appraising him with her eyes. "Mama is quite right," she remarked with casual unconcern. "You have grown ... more than a foot since we last saw you, I'd say."
Her coolness angered him even more, and the anger loosened his tongue. "But I'm still a spindle shanked clunch, isn't that what you mean to say?"
His attack was met with a surprising giggle that bubbled out of her throat with a charming lack of affectation. "Is that what I used to call you—a spindle-shanked clunch? I was incorrigible, wasn't I?"
"Yes, you were. The terror of my youth."
Another laugh bubbled out of her. "How dreadful. I remember making you walk for miles to fetch some trifle I'd left behind. Or pushing you into the brook. Or coaxing you down from your horse and riding off madly while you had to follow on shanks' mare. And ... oh, dear, do you remember Welking Hill?"
"How could I forget? I still bear the scars."
"Do you?" She looked at him without a trace of regret. "I was a shameful brat," she admitted cheerfully.
"You were indeed. But is this confessional designed to make me believe that you are quite changed? If you've grown so advanced in years and dignity as to refrain from calling me a spindle- shanked clunch, I shall be very much surprised," he said suspiciously.
"But of course I've changed," she declared, rising and pirouetting gaily before him. "Can't you see it? I'm the 'Compleat Lady,' am I not? And a lady would not call a gentleman a clunch."
He gazed up at her, entranced against his will. "And how about the spindle-shanked part?" he asked, teasing.
"A lady shouldn't take notice of a gentleman's legs at all, sir," she chastised mockingly. "Although now that you mention them, they are not so spindly as they used to be."
Alec felt himself blushing, but he grinned up at her and continued to banter. "I think, Miss Vickers, that you are not quite a lady yet."
"How dare you, Mr. Tyrrell!" she exclaimed, raising her eyebrows in hauteur. "Or shall I call you your lordship? If that's what you think, you needn't offer for me after all!"
He blinked up at her stupidly as his stomach lurched in surprise. "Wh-What?"
"I said, sir, that you needn't bother to offer for me."
"Did you think I was?" he asked, startled.
She perched on the sofa beside him. "Well, weren't you?"
He stared at her for a moment and then looked down at his fingers which were nervously clutching his knees. "Grandfather did say ... er ... something about my ... making an offer," he mumbled.
"Then you may as well proceed," she ordered, leaning back against the cushions like a royal princess.
He threw her a quick, apprehensive glance. "P-Proceed?"
"With your speech. You did prepare something for the occasion, I presume."
"Well, no. I mean ... I thought ... er ... that is, I didn't think ..."
"Are you trying to say, in that very lucid and coherent way, that you intend to make your offer extemporaneously?"
Her mockery and her seemingly unshakable self-possession infuriated him. "See here, Prissy," he exploded, "you're not going to sit there and pretend that you want me to offer for you!"
She folded her hands in her lap complacently. "It's not so much what I want as what is expected," she explained.
"Yes. When two people are to be married, as we are, the gentleman is expected to make the offer. It would not be considered at all ladylike, you see, for the female to do it."
"Stop joking, for heaven's sake! You can't have agreed to get married just because your mother has need of—!"
"My mother?" Priss drew herself up stiffly. "My mother has nothing whatever to do with my decisions in these matters."
He gaped at her in disbelief. "Prissy! You can't mean ...! Are you saying ...? I mean ... you cannot wish to marry me!"
She glanced at him from the corners of her eyes. "No? Why not?"
"Why not? Why not?" He pushed his fingers through his hair in a kind of desperate bewilderment. "We don't even know each other! We haven't laid eyes on one another for more than four years! And before that ..."
"Yes? Before that?"
"Before that, you completely detested me."
"Did I? I thought it was you who detested me," she said, dropping her eyes to her hands, her lips curled in a coy smile.
"Detested you?" He jumped to his feet and, enraged, placed himself squarely before her. "What sort of game is this? I adored you, and you know it!"
She grinned up at him mischievously. "Good. That is something like. Now, please sit down here beside me and get on with the rest of it."
Excerpted from A Regency Charade by Elizabeth Mansfield. Copyright © 1981 Paula Schwartz. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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