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Lady Beresford's Lover
By Ella Quinn
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Ella Quinn
All rights reserved.
End of August 1817, Beresford Abbey, England
Vivian, the widowed Countess of Beresford, sat at her desk in the morning room of the dower house in which she'd been living for the past year, plotting her escape. A beam of bright afternoon sunshine shot along the gold and blue Turkey carpet, interrupted only by the supine form of her gray cat, Gisila.
In truth, plotting was probably too strong a word, though Vivian liked how it sounded. And she did feel as if she was escaping not only the dower house but Beresford Abbey itself. In a few short days her period of mourning would end.
Her hand clenched as if she could strike her dead husband and everyone else in this hellish place. Once gone, she vowed never to return to this estate and the market town where everyone had known of her late husband's deceit and had pitied her, but had said nothing. Not that Vivian had ever been given the opportunity to be a real wife. Soon after her marriage, Edgar, who at the time was still the heir, couldn't stand the sight of her, in or out of the bedchamber. Mrs. Raeford had that honor, if it could be called such, absent the ring and title, of course.
Vivian should not have had such great expectations of her marriage, but while their fathers arranged the union, Edgar had been attentive and charming. Father had assured her this was a good match and a dutiful daughter would trust her papa, like the good puss she was. After all, he had said in a kind tone, Vivian was no great beauty, too blond when the fashion was for dark hair, slender to the point of skinny when men preferred voluptuous ladies, and too bookish.
Although, if someone, anyone, would have told her about her future husband's lover, Vivian was sure she could have brought herself to refuse the match, for among her many failures was too much pride.
She waited for the familiar rage to rise, but after a year of waiting to be released from her duty to her husband, there were no more tears, and the pains in her stomach had finally ceased.
She would never again allow herself to be so naïve, or so trusting.
Giving herself a shake, she opened the weekly letter from her mother.
My darling Vivian,
I am so pleased to hear you are going to Town with Cousin Clara. As you are aware, your father and I had not planned to arrive for another several weeks. However, there has been a new development. Your father has taken it into his head that he needs a new hunting bitch, and nothing will do but he must have it immediately. All else has been forgot in his search. You may well imagine my frustration, but Papa will have his way. Consequently, it appears we will not attend the Little Season at all.
Have a wonderful time. I look forward to your letters concerning the entertainments.
Give Clara my best.
With much love,
Poor Mama. Did reasonable men even exist?
"My lady—" Hal, who'd been her personal footman since her come out, hovered in the open door. "The new Lord Beresford asks if you'll receive him."
What could he possibly want? Since the reading of the will, Vivian hadn't had much to do with her husband's cousin and best friend who'd come into the title.
Well, whatever it was, she would not allow it to stop her from leaving.
"I'll see him. Please bring tea and ask Miss Corbet to join me." Silvia Corbet, the vicar's eldest daughter, had been Vivian's companion for the past year, and during that time Vivian had come to love Silvia like a sister.
"Yes, my lady. I'll get her first."
"Thank you. That would be best."
Vivian was not completely conversant concerning the rules of being a widow, but she could not think they would allow her to be in the same room with a gentleman who was not a close relation. Or perhaps that was incorrect. She had heard that some widows took lovers. Still, she did not want to be alone with the man. In any event, he could have nothing to say that would interest her.
A few moments later, Silvia entered the room. "Hal said we have a visitor."
"Indeed, the new Lord Beresford." Vivian moved to the sofa. "Thank you for coming so quickly."
"I was on my way to you in any event." Silvia's demeanor had changed from her normal friendliness to barely suppressed anger upon hearing his lordship had come. She chose a chair in the corner of the room near one of the windows, took out her embroidery, and gave a short nod.
As soon as Vivian's companion had settled, his lordship was announced. At the same time, Hal brought in the tea tray, setting it in front of her and obviating the need for her to stand and greet the man. "Good afternoon, my lord."
Lord Beresford glanced at her, bowed, and smiled, apparently not even noticing that Silvia was in the corner. "Good day. I hope I find you well."
"Yes, thank you, quite well." And she'd be even better when she left this place. What she did not understand was how the man could fail to notice Silvia; however, he hadn't glanced her way. What could he want that had him so focused on Vivian? "Would you like some tea?"
"Please. Two sugars and milk, if you would."
The Queen Anne sofa opposite her groaned as he lowered his large, muscular frame onto the delicate piece. Vivian winced, expecting it to splinter at any moment. Nothing in this parlor was made for persons of his size and weight. Finally satisfied the sofa would not break, Vivian handed him the cup.
He took a sip, focusing his solemn brown gaze on her. "Have you made plans for what you will do after your year of mourning is over?"
Vivian glanced up, then lowered her eyes. By any standards, he was a handsome man with thick sable hair, a straight nose, and well above medium height. However, his resemblance to her late husband was too strong for her to be comfortable in his presence, and she had no intention of telling him of her cousin Clara's invitation. "Have you need of the dower house?"
"Of course not," he assured Vivian hastily. "You are naturally welcome to remain as long as you wish." He set his cup down, clearing his throat. "There is, however, a proposition I'd like to place before you, if I may?"
He probably wanted her to act as his hostess until he married. She would tell him she was not interested. Vivian wanted no more dealings with anyone by the name of Beresford. Unfortunately, curiosity had always been another one of her faults. She raised her brows and returned his gaze, praying she presented the image of a calm, composed widow, when in fact her stomach churned as it had when facing her husband. "Go on."
"I'd like to propose a marriage between us."
In the year Lord Beresford had been at the abbey, he hadn't once sought her out, and now he proposed marriage? Did he think she was simply to be a piece of property to be traded at will? Fury pierced her like lightning during a summer storm. After what his cousin had put her through, he must be mad. It was all she could do to maintain her countenance. How could he think she would exchange one Lord Beresford for a newer version? She would never even consider such a suggestion. And if she did, she'd be made a laughingstock among the servants and the villagers. If his expression weren't so serious, she would have thought he was playing a sick joke.
When she didn't respond, he continued. "You are, after all, familiar with the abbey and the area. It would not be a love match, but neither was your union with my cousin. I believe I can promise I will never embarrass you or cause you any distress."
As her husband had done when she'd discovered his long-standing affair with a local farmer's wife. She took a few shallow breaths, attempting to gather her wits and find a way to end this conversation civilly. "We barely know one another."
For some reason, that seemed to hearten Lord Beresford. "A state which may be easily remedied. The fact remains that I am in need of a wife, and you fit the bill. I can give you children."
Vivian's cup rattled. She was that close to throwing cup, saucer, and pot at him all at once. The next thing she knew, the delicate china was taken from her hands. Silvia put her arm around Vivian's shoulders and sat next to her.
Beresford jumped to his feet as if a bee had stung him. "What are you doing here?"
"Why am I not surprised?" Silvia replied in a voice of icy disdain. "Apparently you have forgot I am Lady Beresford's companion. Now, my lord"—her tone took on the manner of a queen—"I believe you've said quite enough, and it is time to take your leave."
He flushed as he stood, strode to the door, opened it, and fixed his fierce look on Silvia. "You may leave. I wish to speak with her ladyship alone."
"Over my dead body," Silvia mumbled just loudly enough for him to hear.
He opened his mouth, and Vivian decided to step in before all-out war could ensue. She knew nothing about his lordship's manner, but, as much as she appreciated her companion's championship, she'd never seen Silvia so exercised or rude.
In a calm but unapologetic tone, Vivian said, "I asked Miss Corbet to remain with me."
He glared at Silvia as if he'd argue.
"However," Vivian continued firmly, "I do not believe I need to hear any more of your proposition, my lord. My answer is no. I have no desire to wed you. In fact, I have no desire to marry anyone ever again. Once was quite enough, thank you."
As he stalked out of the parlor, he glanced over his shoulder. "I'll speak to you again when you are in a better frame of mind, my lady."
"Not if I have anything to say about it," Silvia hurled at his retreating form.
His shoulders hunched, then the door snapped shut behind him.
"What gall!" Vivian picked up her tea-cup and took a sip of the now tepid liquid. "That was as unexpected as it was unwanted."
"He's an impossible, arrogant man." Silvia fumed. "And always has been. He hasn't changed at all. Having inherited the earldom has probably made him worse."
"I'd forgot you and he were acquainted."
"Unfortunately." She scowled at the door. "He spent much of his childhood at the abbey, and was always trying to tell my sisters and me what to do. How dare he stroll in here and think he could make a proposal like that!"
Vivian's lips twitched. Suddenly the whole preposterous situation was humorous. After all, he couldn't make her marry him. "I do recall that he did not call it a proposal, but a proposition."
"Who made whom a proposal?"
Standing just inside the room was a tall woman past middle age, with bright red curls, dressed in a gown the same color as her hair. Her large bonnet appeared to hold a nest of birds. Although her clothing was in the latest fashion, the hat, although new, was clearly from the style of the previous century.
"Cousin Clara!" Vivian jumped up and rushed to hug her relative, almost tripping over the Italian greyhound hovering next to her cousin's skirts. "I didn't expect to see you until next week. We didn't even hear you arrive."
"It's all right, Perdita." Clara picked up the dog and soothed it, petting and cuddling it. "I told your footman not to announce me." Setting Perdita down, Clara returned Vivian's hug. "I assume this has something to do with the young man I saw stalking out of the house in a rage."
"The new Lord Beresford apparently thought I'd make a good wife for him as I'm used to being Lady Beresford. Silvia sent him away with a flea in his ear. Oh, pray forgive my manners." Not that Vivian had had much of a chance to use them in the past six years. "Cousin Clara, this is Miss Corbet, who has been acting as my companion. Silvia, my cousin, the Dowager Marchioness of Telford."
Silvia curtseyed. "I'm so glad to have finally met you. Vivian tells me you have great plans for her for the Little Season."
"And for you as well." Lines fanned out from Clara's eyes as she smiled. "I understand that without your company, this past year would have been unbearable for Vivian."
"I don't know about that." Silvia glanced at Vivian. "We've always got along well, and I was happy to help her. Since my father's remarriage, he was pleased I was out of the house." Silvia's fine dark brown brows furrowed. "Yet, I cannot accompany you to Town."
Clara's eyes opened wide. "Why ever not? I sincerely hope it is not because of your father. I already have his permission, and now that Vivian's year of mourning is completed, you are no longer acting as a companion. Therefore there is no reason you should not have a come out." She waited a moment for the news to sink in. "Besides which, I've made all the arrangements. We shall have such fun. I've never had the opportunity to bring a young lady out. Sons are not at all the same." She removed her bonnet and sat down on the same sofa recently vacated by Lord Beresford. "I wish to leave in two days' time."
"That soon?" Silvia gasped. "I don't even know what to bring with me. I'll require new gowns—"
"There is nothing to worry about." Clara picked up her dog, placing the small animal on her lap only for the dog to jump down and duck under her skirts. "From what I see, both you and Vivian need new wardrobes. In fact, I think we shall leave in the morning. There is no need to waste time. Besides, Perdita is ready to be home. All this traveling has upset her nerves."
Or, Vivian thought ruefully, no need to give her former companion time to find an excuse not to go. She, on the other hand, was more than happy to quit Beresford as soon as possible.
Vivian didn't know how her cousin had arranged everything or why, but she was happy Silvia would finally have the Season she'd never had. Her younger sisters were already married. One to a wealthy young man of good lineage and the other to his friend, the heir of a viscount. Although Silvia's sisters had offered to sponsor her for a Season, she had declined, stating that someone must remain with Papa and take care of him. An excuse she no longer had.
More tea arrived, and she busied herself fixing a cup for Clara. Vivian's thoughts turned to Lord Beresford's reaction to her companion and Silvia's behavior in response. Sparks had definitely flown, and he had seemed not only angry but embarrassed that she was present. Was there something between them other than childhood animosity? If so, why had he proposed to Vivian?
Perdita remained close to Clara, peeking out every once in a while from under her skirts. "Cousin Clara, when did you get a dog? I've never known you to have one before."
Clara stroked the small animal. "We always had hunting dogs, but one of my nephews brought her back from the Peninsula and asked me if I wouldn't mind keeping her until he found a new owner. They stayed with me for a few weeks while he sorted out his business. She and I just took to each other. I don't know why I never had a house dog before. She's an excellent companion."
"I hope she likes cats. You know I've had my Gisila for years and cannot go anywhere without her." Speaking of her cat, Vivian glanced around and found Gisila under the desk.
"I'm sure they'll be fine. Perdita normally remains under my skirts. It's amazing I don't trip over her." She turned her attention to Silvia. "Miss Corbet, as you will be residing with me, I believe I would prefer to address you as Silvia, and you may call me Cousin Clara."
Silvia appeared slightly startled, not a state that happened often or easily. "Yes, ma'am."
"You may think this is a strange start on my part." Clara smiled gently. "But I knew your mother when she was a child and your grandmother was a close friend of mine."
"I had no idea there was even that much of a connection."
"There is no reason you would have known. Your grandmother died many years ago."
While her cousin and Silvia chatted, Vivian strolled to the window seat. For the past few months, just the idea of going to Town again had occupied her mind. She had not attended a Season since her first one, and was both excited and frightened. It had been much too long since she'd been around the haut ton. At first, she thought merely to attend the smaller entertainments and the theater; now, with Silvia coming out, Clara would insist on their being present at the large balls. Perhaps Vivian would be better served by remaining with the chaperones and older matrons. That would be easier and less fearsome than worrying about dance partners.
Excerpted from Lady Beresford's Lover by Ella Quinn. Copyright © 2015 Ella Quinn. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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