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'Why don't you change your mind, Finch, and spend a week or two with Louise and me? You know how very fond of you she is. Why, she has come to look upon you as a brother! She will adore having you to stay.'
Viscount Fincham regarded his companion from behind half-closed lids. Anyone studying him might have been forgiven for supposing he had been on the verge of sleep during the past few minutes, for he had not uttered a single word since seating himself by the window in the crowded hostelry. Nor had he attempted to sample the tankard of ale the landlord had placed before him. None knew better, however, than the gentleman seated opposite that behind that languid air of blissful unconcern lurked a razor-sharp intellect, an astuteness that was frighteningly keen and occasionally quite disturbing.
An expanse of fine lace fell over one long-fingered hand as the Viscount reached for his tankard and finally sampled its contents. 'You are in error, my dear Charles. Being heartily bored with life at present, I should make sad company for Louise. Or anyone else, come to that. Besides which, your darling wife has enough to contend with. She would not choose to put up with my megrims so close to her confinement.'
Knowing better than to attempt to persuade his friend to change his mind and accept the invitation, Charles Gingham merely said, 'What you need, old fellow, is what I've been blessed to have these past yearsthe love of a good woman.'
White, even teeth showed behind a wickedly flashing smile. 'Evidently you forget I have one already. Caroline is, without doubt, the most skilful I've ever had.'
Charles gave vent to a derisive snort. 'I'm not talking about your birds of paradise, Ben. Good Lord! You've had enough of those down the years. And not one of 'em has meant so much as a groat to you, if I'm any judge. No, what you need is a wife, a lady you will love and cherish, someone who will give your life a new direction, some purpose.'
This time the Viscount's smile was decidedly twisted, revealing more than just a hint of cynicism. 'I hardly think that is ever likely to happen, my dear friend. No, perhaps in a year or two I shall marry, if only to beget an heir. After all, a fellow in my position is never short of candidates for a wife. I have the hopeful little darlings parading before me with tiresome regularity every Season in the Marriage Mart. I'm sure if, and when, I take a serious look I shall find at least one female who will meet my exacting standardsdivinely fair, impeccably mannered and dutifully biddable.'
Charles Gingham stared across the table, a hint of sadness in his expression. 'Do you still ponder over what might have been? I know I do. If I hadn't dragged you across to France with me all those years ago, you might now be a blissfully contented married man.'
'Do not do offence to your feelings on my account, Charles,' the Viscount urged him, once again sounding distinctly bored with the topic of conversation. 'Your sympathy is quite misplaced, believe me. Charlotte Vane, that was, no longer enters my thoughts. She chose to overlook the understanding between us, and marry Wenbury. Had she chosen to await my return from France, she would undoubtedly have eventually become my Viscountess. My brother's untimely demise was a shock to everyone, not least of all to me. I neither grudged him his superior position in the family, nor craved the title for myself. Fate decreed that I should inherit, however. Had he produced a son, not a daughter, I should have been more than happy to run the estate until my nephew came of age. I would be a liar if I said I do not now enjoy the agreeable benefits the title has afforded me, because I do. And I believe I have carried out my duties with diligence, and consideration towards all those who look to me for their livelihood. I also believe I have a duty to marry one day. But let me assure you that love will never enter into the equation. So long as my future bride, whoever she might be, conducts herself in a ladylike manner at all times, and provides me with the heir I desire, she will not find me unreasonable or exacting in my demands. For the most part she may go her own way, as I fully intend to go mine.'
Charles was appalled by such blatant apathy, and it showed in his expression, and in his voice as he said, 'I cannot believe you would be so indifferent to the lady you should one day choose to marry. You might fool most all the ton into believing you're cold and indifferent, but you'll never persuade me. I know how much Charlotte Vane meant to you. I know what you're capable of feeling.'
'Was capable of feeling,' the Viscount corrected in an ominously quiet tone. 'Unlike you, Charles, I am no longer a romantic. I leave all that nonsense to the numerous poets of the day. I do not look for love in marriage. Dear Lady Wenbury taught me a very valuable lesson eight years ago. I've learned to guard against theermore tender emotions. No, I shall be content with a female who behaves at all times with propriety and fulfils all her obligations as my Viscountess.'
No one could have mistaken the note of finality in the deep, attractively masculine voice, least of all the gentleman who had had the honour of being one of the Viscount's closest friends since the far-off days of their boyhood, and so Charles wasn't unduly surprised when his lordship tossed the contents of his tankard down his throat and rose to his feet, announcing that they had best leave, or risk missing the start of the mill.
The market town was a hive of activity. Not only was there a prize fight being staged in a field on the outskirts of the thriving community, there was also a horse fair taking place in an adjacent meadow. Visitors wishing to enjoy one or both attractions were making their way along a crowded main street, their ribald comments and guffaws of merriment mingling with street hawkers' cries as they attempted to sell their wares. So it wasn't wholly surprising that his lordship, leading the way out of the inn, quite failed to detect that single cry warning him of possible danger. It wasn't until someone cannoned into him, thereby successfully thrusting him back against the inn wall, out of harm's way, that he realised one of the drayman's large barrels had come perilously close to doing him a mischief. He watched it roll harmlessly by before turning his attention to the youthful rescuer at his feet.
'Good Lord, Ben! Are you all right?' Charles enquired, emerging from the inn just in time to witness the incident.
'It would appear I fared rather better than my gallant deliverer here,' his lordship responded.
Clasping a hand round a far from robust arm, his lordship then helped the youth to his feet, and saw at once a small quantity of blood trickling down the stocking below the left knee. 'Here, take this, lad!'
After having thrust a square of fine lawn into a surprisingly slender hand, his lordship watched as the youth tied the handkerchief about his leg. 'Are you hurt anywhere else?'
'N-no, I do not believe so, sir,' a gruff little voice answered, before the youth retrieved his tricorn from the dusty cobbled yard, and raised his head at last.
Taken aback slightly, the Viscount found himself blinking several times as he gazed down into the most vivid violet-blue eyes he'd ever seen; framed in long black lashes, they were remarkably striking, and quite wasted on a youth.
Drawing his own away with some difficulty, he requested his friend to locate the landlord's whereabouts, and then returned his full attention to his unlikely rescuer. 'Do you live locally? If so, my carriage is at your disposal, and my groom can return you to your home, as soon as the landlord's good lady wife has seen to your hurts.'
'There's no need to trouble, sir. 'Tis naught but a scratch,' the boy protested, but his lordship remained adamant.
'It's the very least I can do, child, for someone who selflessly saved me from possible injury. Ah, and here's the very man!'
Tossing the landlord a shiny golden guinea, he bade him take care of the boy by providing whatever his youthful rescuer might request. In view of such generosity, mine host was only too willing to comply, and ushered his somewhat reluctant young customer toward the inn's main entrance, leaving the Viscount staring after them, his high forehead creased with a decidedly puzzled look.
'What's amiss, Ben? You're not hurt yourself, are you?'
'What ?' His lordship managed to drag his mind back to the present without too much difficulty. 'No, not at all, Charles,' he assured him, as they set off down the road. 'It's just that young lad Did you notice his eyes, by any chance?'
'No, can't say as I did. Why, what was wrong with 'em? Not crossed, were they?'
The Viscount frowned yet again. 'No, there was absolutely nothing wrong with them at all They were perfect, in fact! Perhaps the most striking I've ever seen in my life.'
'No doubt he'll turn a few fillies' heads, then, when he's older,' Charles suggested, fast losing interest in the topic, for his attention had been well and truly captured by something he considered far more diverting. 'Looks as if the mill's about to start. Let's see if we cannot attain a good vantage point.'