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May 1811, Durham County
What were the precise words you used when proposing marriage to a rake? Not necessarily the polite ones, but the words guaranteed to get results?
Miss Eleanor Blackwell paced Sir Vivian Clarence's library, banging the newly forged rapier against her palm.
Proposing to Sir Vivian had seemed straightforward back at the foundry. In fact the ideal solution to her current dilemma. She needed a husband and Sir Vivian had debts to clear. But as she waited for Sir Vivian to appear doubts warred with desperation and she fought against a rising sense of panic.
Even if she did succeed in her proposal, was Sir Vivian the sort of man she wanted to be married to?
Eleanor glanced up at a particularly lewd painting of a woman reclining on a bower of flowers while two men fought over her with swords. She rolled her eyes and made a disgusted noise. The painter had made a mistake with the swords. No one would ever be able to fight with their bodies contorted in that fashion. Physically impossible.
Staring at the painting did nothing for her already jangled nerves. She needed to sort her speech out. Once she'd heard the words out loud she'd know if they were right or if they needed to be altered.
'Sir Vivian,' she began, turning her back on the painting. 'Our previous acquaintance has been confined to business matters, but unfortunately my stepfather has died.'
Eleanor paused. There was nothing unfortunate about the manner of his death, brought on by eating far too many eels in direct defiance of the doctor's orders. The world was a better place without his selfish ranting and fits of extreme temper.
The unfortunate part was the wording of the willa will she could not challenge as being unenforceable without causing hardship to people she loved and rewarding her stepfather's odious nephew, Algernon Forecastle. What was worse, she'd discovered that her stepfather had left instructions for Algernon on how to challenge Eleanor's marriage should the unthinkable occur.
Even thinking about the clause and what failure would mean to so many hard-working people made a hard knot grow in her throat, and she found it impossible to continue with her speech.
Eleanor clenched her teeth. This was far from good. In order to propose marriage she had to be able to speak.
She tightened her grip on the sword. A new start with far less potential for emotional outbursts from her was needed. With the specifics about what she wanted and why. Facts and not feelings. This marriage was to be a business transaction without pretence to sentiment.
'My great-great-grandfather founded Moles Swords. Sword-making is in my blood. I have made Moles Swords into what is today. However, my mother remarried in haste, without a proper settlement, and under English law all her possessions belonged to her new husband. At my mother's deathbed my stepfather promised I would eventually inherit Moles. But my stepfather's will declares that unless I marry within four weeks I will lose everything. Being a man of honour '
Her eyes were drawn back to the painting. This time she noticed where the woman's hands were. A profound sense of shock shot through her and her cheeks flamed.
What sort of man gave that sort of painting prominence?
Even the porcelain vases seemed more appropriate for a brothel than a gentleman's residence. Did men of honour display such things in public rooms?
A severe pain pounded behind Eleanor's eyes. She was doing the right thing, coming here and demanding he honour his word. The note she'd found yesterday stated: Name your price for your latest rapier and I will happily pay it, dear lady. She would hold him to it. Her price was marriage.
The marriage made sense. He had debts. She had money. She would ensure a proper settlement which would allow her to control the business. It could be done in time. Just.
All she needed was the courage to put the proposal in a way that Sir Vivian would accept.
Eleanor thrust forward with the sword. Death to all doubts!
'Sir Vivian, it is imperative that I see you today. There is a matter which cannot wait.'
'Alas, Sir Vivian is unavailable, Mrs Blackwell,' a deep voice said. 'I'm his cousin, Lord Whittonstall. Please accept my regrets for any inconvenience.'
She gaped at the man who strode into the library. With his curly black hair, olive-toned skin and hooded eyes, he was one of the most beautiful men she had ever seen. More a Greek statue come to life than an actual human being. The only flaw she could see was a tiny scar under his right eye.
'Unavailable?' she whispered, and her heart plummeted. Panic threatened to engulf her. How much had Lord Whittonstall overheard? It had to be very little or she'd sink to the ground in shame. Eleanor thrust the sword forward. 'He has to be available. He simply must be.'
At Lord Whittonstall's surprised expression she brought her hand down abruptly. The sword arced out of her hand, flew through the air and narrowly missed a particularly ugly Ormolu vase, landing with a clatter on the threadbare Turkish carpet. Eleanor stared at it in disbelief, biting the knuckle of her left thumb.
How could that happen to her today? Of all days?
She wanted the floor to swallow her. Or more preferably to be any place but here. But she knew she had to remain here and endure the humiliation. Without a successful marriage proposal her life would be worthless.
Lord Whittonstall briskly crossed the library and reached the sword before she had a chance to retrieve it.
'It is a Moles rapier. The latest model,' she said at his questioning glance. 'My grip must have been off.
I had something else on my mind. It has never happened before.'
'I know the type of sword you make, Mrs Blackwell. Your reputation precedes you.'
His hooded gaze held hers. Dark with a guarded quality. It would be possible to drown in those eyes.
'Which is?' Eleanor asked. Her shoulders relaxed slightly. Everything would be fine. Lord Whittonstall knew who she was, had even used the courtesy title of Mrs, and no doubt held the swords her company made in the highest regard. She gulped a welcome breath of air.
'Swords for the sort of gentleman who wants his sword to be noticed rather than used in combat. For someone who is more concerned about style than the actual substance of the thing. I have seen your advertisements"a sword for the truly refined". Nowhere do you mention its practicality.'
All thoughts of drowning in his eyes vanished. Eleanor struggled to retain a leash on her temper. He made it sound as if her swords were mere playthings. Didn't he understand how hard everyone had worked to make them? What good was a sword if you couldn't use it?
'Moles are the sword of choice in seven regiments,' she said, with crushing dignity. 'They combine practicality with aesthetic beauty. And perhaps a little fun. A Moles gentleman is someone who enjoys novelty.'
His thin lips turned up into an arrogant smile. 'They are your creation. You shape them, forge them from your own hands, and are therefore blind to their faults.'
'I don't actually make the swords,' Eleanor explained, aware that her cheeks flamed. She could count on one hand the number of women who were successful in a business such as hers. 'It is a common misconception.'
'Indeed. My mistake. You are the figurehead.'
'I run the business,' Eleanor said firmly. 'I know every inch of it. Each sword is the result of many men's labours, from the humblest coal-picker to the master cutler sharpening the sword. Each design goes through rigorous testing and modification. A sword which is merely for show has no purpose. Everything needs to have a purpose. A good sword can save your life, whatever amusement it might provide at other times. Now, may I see your cousin, please? I have an appointment.'
'With regret, my cousin remains unavailable. Your purpose must wait for another time.'
He obviously expected her to make her apologies and go. If she went Eleanor knew she'd never work up the courage to return. And the will specified her marriage had to take place within four weeks of its reading. That was in twenty-six days' time. The settlement would take time to finalise. It was today or never.
Eleanor dug into her embroidered reticule, searching desperately for Sir Vivian's note. 'I have an appointment with Sir Vivian. It was confirmed in writing. Yesterday.'
She shoved the crumpled note towards him and willed him to relent.
'I'm sorry for the inconvenience, but alas that is my cousin. Wonderful company but the attention span of a gnat.'
'But.' Eleanor looked at Lord Whittonstall in dismay. Tears of frustration pricked at her eyelids. After all her careful planning, it came down to Sir Vivian forgetting? All her plans for the future? Everything? Gone?
Her throat worked up and down but no sound came out.
'You may leave a note for him,' Lord Whittonstall said in a slow voice, as if he were speaking to a child. 'I will personally ensure he receives it on his return.'
'I need to see him in person.' Eleanor hated the way her voice squeaked on the last syllable. Lord Whitton-stall couldn't turn her awaynot while her goal was so close. And the entirety of her scheme was dependent upon her making her appeal in person. Leaving a note was impossible. She pulled her shoulders back and looked at him with her best closing-the-sale gaze. 'How long will he be?'
'But he will return. I understand he is in residence? I'm willing to wait.'
Lord Whittonstall tilted his head. His dark eyes assessed her, sweeping from the crown of her black feathered bonnet to the hem of her black silk gown. His frown increased. 'A respectable woman in a single gentleman's house?'
'Lady Whittonstall is not here?' Eleanor asked, grasping for an amicable solution, and then winced silently. His entire countenance had changed, becoming remote and forbidding. She had chosen the wrong words.
'My wife died years ago and my mother is elsewhere.'
'I'm sorry. Truly I am.'
If anything Lord Whittonstall became more granite-like, and Eleanor knew only some vestige of politeness prevented him from throwing her out of the house.
'You never knew her,' he said, in a voice which would cut through steel. 'What is there to be sorry about? Mawkish sentimentality is one of the more depressing features of modern society.'
The pain in Eleanor's head became blinding. She wanted to escape and hide under the bedcovers, start the day again. On a day that she needed everything to go right, everything was going wrong.
'An expression of politeness is never out of place.' She took a deep breath and hated how her stomach knotted. She couldn't afford any more mistakes. 'And it is never easy to lose someone who is dear to you. No matter how long it has been, it still hurts. Not a day goes by that I don't miss my grandfather and his wisdom.'
She finished with a placating smile and hoped. The ice in his eyes softened.
'Your expression of sympathy was far from necessary, I assure you. A tragic accidentor so they told me.' He inclined his head but his mouth bore a bitter twist. 'I thank you for it. I believe that is the response you require. Will you now depart?'
Eleanor kept her chin up. She refused to be intimidated and quit the field. 'If I go, the sword goes. You might discount Moles swords, but Sir Vivian is a keen customer. He wants the sword. Desperately. He wrote to me, begging for it.'
He balanced the sword in his hand before making an experimental flourish with it. 'Despite the workmanship of the hilt, it seems barely adequate. This sword would fly out of your hand in a triceas indeed it did earlier.'
'Your grip is wrong.'
He raised an arrogant eyebrow. 'I beg your pardon?'
'You will lose your sword in combat if you are not careful, but it is a matter that can be easily solved.' Eleanor swallowed hard. She'd done it again. Spoken before she thought. Said the wrong thing. But she had started now. He deserved it for being pompousand his grip was appalling.