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When it became clear to Vincent Hunt, Viscount Darleigh, that if he stayed at home for the remainder of the spring he would without any doubt at all be betrothed, even married, before summer had properly settled in, he fled. He ran away from home, which was a ridiculous, somewhat lowering way of putting it when he owned the house and was almost twenty-four years old. But the simple fact was that he bolted.
He took with him his valet, Martin Fisk; his traveling carriage and horses; and enough clothes and other necessary belongings to last him a month or two—or six. He really did not know how long he would stay away. He took his violin too after a moment’s hesitation. His friends liked to tease him about it and affect horror every time he tucked it beneath his chin, but he thought he played it tolerably well. More important, he liked playing it. It soothed his soul, though he never confided that thought to his friends. Flavian would no doubt make a comment along the lines of its scratching the boot soles of everyone else who happened to be within earshot.
The main trouble with home was that he was afflicted with too many female relatives and not enough male ones—and no assertive males. His grandmother and his mother lived with him, and his three sisters, though married with homes and families of their own, came to stay all too frequently, and often for lengthy spells. Hardly a month went by without at least one of them being in residence for a few days or a week or more. His brothers-in-law, when they came with their wives—which was not every time—tactfully held themselves aloof from Vincent’s affairs and allowed their womenfolk to rule his life, even though it was worthy of note that none of them allowed their wives to rule theirs.
It all would have been understandable, even under ordinary circumstances, Vincent supposed grudgingly. He was, after all, everyone’s only grandson or only son or only brother—and younger brother at that—and as such was fair game to be protected and cosseted and worried over and planned for. He had inherited his title and fortune just four years ago, at the age of nineteen, from an uncle who had been robust and only forty-six years old when he died and who had had a son as sturdy and fit as he. They had both died violently. Life was a fragile business and so was the inheritance, Vincent’s female relatives were fond of observing. It behooved him, therefore, to fill his nursery with an heir and a number of spares as soon as was humanly possible. It was irrelevant that he was still very young and would not even have begun to think of matrimony yet, left to himself. His family knew all they cared to know about living in genteel poverty.
His were not ordinary circumstances, however, and as a result, his relatives clucked about him like a flock of mother hens all intent upon nurturing the same frail chick while somehow avoiding smothering it. His mother had moved to Middlebury Park in Gloucestershire even before he did. She had got it ready for him. His maternal grandmother had let the lease expire on her house in Bath and joined his mother there. And after he moved in, three years ago, his sisters began to find Middlebury the most fascinating place on earth to be. And Vincent need not worry about their husbands feeling neglected, they had collectively assured him. Their husbands understood. The word was always spoken with something like hushed reverence.
In fact, most of what they all said to him was spoken in much the same manner, as though he were some sort of precious but mentally deficient child.
This year they had begun to talk pointedly about marriage. His marriage, that was. Even apart from the succession issue, marriage would bring him comfort and companionship, they had decided, and all kinds of other assorted benefits. Marriage would enable them to relax and worry less about him. It would enable his grandmother to return to Bath, which she was missing. And it would not be at all difficult to find a lady willing and even eager to marry him. He must not imagine it would be. He was titled and wealthy, after all. And he had youth and looks and charm. There were hordes of ladies out there who would understand and actually be quite happy to marry him. They would quickly learn to love him for himself. At least, one would, the one he would choose. And they, his female relatives, would help him make that choice, of course. That went without saying, though they said it anyway.
The campaign had started over Easter, when the whole family was at Middlebury, his sisters’ husbands and their children included. Vincent himself had just returned from Penderris Hall in Cornwall, country seat of the Duke of Stanbrook, where he spent a few weeks of each year with his fellow members of the self-styled Survivors’ Club, a group of survivors of the Napoleonic Wars, and he had been feeling a little bereft, as he always did for a while after parting from those dearest friends in the world. He had let the women talk without paying a great deal of attention or even thinking of perhaps putting his foot down.
It had proved to be a mistake.
Only a month after Easter his sisters and brothers-in-law and nieces and nephews had returned en masse, to be followed a day or so later by houseguests. It was still only spring and an odd time of year for a house party, when the social Season in London would be just getting into full swing. But this was not really a party, Vincent had soon discovered, for the only guests who were not also family were Mr. Geoffrey Dean, son of Grandmama’s dearest friend in Bath, his wife, and their three daughters. Their two sons were away at school. Two of the daughters were still in the schoolroom—their governess had been brought with them. But the eldest, Miss Philippa Dean, was almost nineteen and had made her curtsy to the queen just a couple of weeks before and secured partners for every set at her come-out ball. She had made a very satisfactory debut indeed into polite society.
But, Mrs. Dean was hasty to add while describing her daughter’s triumph over tea soon after their arrival at Middlebury Park, how could they possibly have resisted the prospect of spending a quiet couple of weeks in the country with old friends?
The situation had soon become painfully clear to Vincent, though no one bothered to explain. Miss Philippa Dean was on the marriage mart to the highest bidder. She had younger sisters growing up behind her and two brothers at school who might conceivably wish to continue their studies at university. It seemed unlikely that the Deans were vastly wealthy. They had come, then, on the clear understanding that there was a husband to be had for the girl at Middlebury and that she would return to London with all the distinction of being betrothed within a month of her come-out. It would be a singular triumph, especially as she would be securing a husband who was both wealthy and titled.
And who also happened to be blind.
Miss Dean was exquisitely lovely, his mother reported, with blond hair and green eyes and a trim figure. Not that her looks mattered to him. She sounded like a sweet and amiable girl.
She also sounded quite sensible when in conversation with everyone except Vincent himself. She often was in conversation with him during the following few days, however. Every other female in the house, with the possible exception of Vincent’s three young nieces, did everything in her power to throw the two of them together and to leave them together. Even a blind man could see that.
She conversed with him upon trivialities in a gentle, somewhat breathless voice, as though she were in a sickroom and the patient hung precariously between death and life. Whenever Vincent tried to steer the conversation to some meaningful topic in order to discover something of her interests and opinions and the quality of her mind, she invariably agreed wholeheartedly with everything he said, even to the point of absurdity.
“I am firmly of the opinion,” he said to her one afternoon when they were sitting together in the formal parterre gardens before the house despite a rather strong breeze, “that the scientific world has been in a wicked conspiracy against the masses for the past number of centuries, Miss Dean, in order to convince us that the earth is round. It is, of course, quite undeniably flat. Even a fool could see that. If one were to walk to the edge of it, one would fall off and never be heard of again. What is your opinion?”
It was unkind. It was a bit mean.
She was silent for several moments, while he willed her to contradict him. Or laugh at him. Or call him an idiot. Her voice was gentler than ever when she spoke.
“I am quite sure you have the right of it, my lord,” she said.
He almost said “Balderdash!” but did not. He would not add cruelty to unkindness. He merely smiled and felt ashamed of himself and talked about the blustery wind.
And then he felt the fingers of one of her hands on his sleeve, and he could smell her light floral perfume more clearly, an indication that she had leaned closer, and she spoke again—in a sweet, hurried, breathless voice.
“I did not at all mind coming here, you know, Lord Darleigh,” she said, “even though I have been looking forward forever to my first Season in London and do not remember ever being happier than I was on the night of my come-out ball. But I know enough about life to understand that I was taken there not just for enjoyment. Mama and Papa have explained what a wonderful opportunity this invitation is for me, as well as for my sisters and brothers. I did not mind coming, truly. Indeed, I came willingly. I understand, you see, and I will not mind one little bit.”
Her fingers squeezed his arm before letting it go.
“You will think I am forward,” she added, “though I am not usually so outspoken. I just thought you needed to know that I do not mind. For perhaps you fear I do.”
It was one of the most excruciatingly embarrassing moments of Vincent’s life, as well as being almost insufferably infuriating. Not that she infuriated him, poor girl. But her parents did, and his mother and grandmother and sisters did. It was quite obvious to him that Miss Dean had been brought here not just as an eligible young lady whom he might get to know with the possibility on both their parts of deepening their acquaintance in the future if they liked each other. No, she had been brought here fully expecting that he would make her an offer before she left. Pressure would have been brought to bear by her parents, but she was a dutiful daughter, it seemed, and accepted her responsibility as the eldest. She would marry him even though he was blind.
She very obviously did mind.
He was angry with his mother and sisters for assuming that mental deficiency was one effect of blindness. He had known they wished him to marry soon. He had known that they would proceed to matchmake for him. What he had not known was that they would choose his bride without a word to him and then practically force him into accepting their choice—and in his own home, moreover.
His house, in fact, was not his own home—that realization came like an epiphany. It never had been. Whose fault that was must be examined at some future date. It was tempting to blame his relatives, but . . . Well, he would have to think the whole matter over.
He had a niggling suspicion, though, that if he was not master here, the fault lay with him.
But for now he was in an impossible situation. He felt no spark of attraction toward Miss Dean, even though he believed he would very probably like her under different circumstances. It was clear she felt nothing for him but the obligation to marry him. He could not, though, allow both of them to be coerced into doing what neither of them wanted to do.
As soon as they had returned indoors—Miss Dean took his offered arm and then proceeded to steer him along with gentle but firm intent even though he had his cane with him and knew the way perfectly well without any assistance at all—Vincent went to his private sitting room—the only place in the house where he could be assured of being alone and of being himself—and summoned Martin Fisk.
“We are going,” he said abruptly when his valet arrived.
“Are we, sir?” Martin asked cheerfully. “And what clothes will you be needing for the occasion?”
“I will need everything that will fit into the trunk I always take to Penderris,” Vincent said. “You will doubtless decide for yourself what you need.”
A low grunt was followed by silence.
“I am feeling especially stupid today,” Martin said. “You had better explain.”
“We are going,” Vincent said. “Leaving. Putting as much distance between us and Middlebury as we possibly can in order to evade pursuit. Slinking off. Running away. Taking the coward’s way out.”
“The lady does not suit, does she?” Martin asked.
Ha! Even Martin knew why the girl had been brought here.
“Not as a wife,” Vincent told him. “Not as my wife, anyway. Good Lord, Martin, I do not even want to marry. Not yet. And if and when I do want it, I shall choose the lady myself. Very carefully. And I shall make sure that if she says yes, it is not simply because she understands and will not mind.”
“Hmm,” Martin said. “That is what this one said, is it?”
“With the softest, gentlest sweetness,” Vincent said. “She is sweet and gentle, actually. She is prepared to make a martyr of herself for the sake of her family.”
“And we are running away where?” Martin asked.
“Anywhere on earth but here,” Vincent said. “Can we leave tonight? Without anyone’s knowing?”
“I grew up at a smithy,” Martin reminded him. “I think I could manage to attach the horses to the carriage without getting the lines hopelessly tangled up. But presumably I won’t have to risk it. I suppose you will want Handry to drive us? I’ll have a word with him. He knows how to keep his lips sealed. Two o’clock in the morning, shall we say? I’ll come and carry your trunk out and then come back to dress you. We should be well on our way by three.”
“Perfect,” Vincent said.
They were about one mile on their way when Martin, occupying the seat opposite Vincent’s in the carriage, his back to the horses, reported that it was three o’clock.
Vincent refused to feel guilty—and of course was consumed by nothing but guilt. And by the conviction that he was the world’s worst cad and coward, not to mention worst son and brother and grandson. And gentleman. But really, what else could he have done, short of marrying Miss Philippa Dean or publicly humiliating her?
But would she not be equally humiliated to learn that he had fled?
He chose to believe that behind any momentary humiliation she might feel would be an enormous relief. He was sure she would be relieved, poor girl.
They went to the Lake District and spent three blissful weeks there. It was reputed to be one of the loveliest parts of England, though much of its beauty was lost on a blind man, of course. Not all of it, however. There were country lanes to stroll along, many of them parallel to the banks of Lake Windermere or some other, lesser lakes. There were hills to climb, some of them requiring strenuous effort—and stronger winds and more rarefied air as a reward when they climbed high. There was rain and sunshine and chill and warmth, all the wonderful variety of English weather and countryside. There was a boat ride, on which he could pull the oars himself, and horse rides—with Martin at his side but never touching him. There was even one glorious gallop across flat land, which, in Martin’s careful estimation, did not hide any unexpected dips or potholes. There was birdsong and insect croaks and the bleating of sheep and the lowing of cattle to listen to. There were all the myriad smells of the countryside, most notably heather, to many of which he had been oblivious in the days when he could see. There was sitting to meditate or merely to stretch the four senses that remained to him. There were his usual strengthening, body-building exercises to be performed daily, many of them outdoors.
There was peace.
And ultimately there was restlessness.
He had written two letters home—or, rather, Martin had done it for him—the first two days after he left, to explain that he needed some time alone and that he was perfectly safe in his valet’s capable hands. He had not explained either where he was at the time or where he was going. He advised his mother not to expect him home for a month or so. He confirmed everything in the second letter and assured her that he was safe and happy and in good health.
Miss Dean and her mama and papa and sisters would presumably have returned to London in time to secure her some other eligible husband before the Season was out. Vincent hoped she would find someone to fulfill the dual demands of duty and personal inclination. He sincerely hoped so, both for her sake and for the sake of his conscience.