The Survivors’ Club: Six men and one woman, all wounded in the Napoleonic Wars, their friendship forged during their recovery at Penderris Hall in Cornwall. Now, for one of them, striking a most unusual bargain will change his life forever.…
Ralph Stockwood prides himself on being a leader, but when he convinced his friends to fight in the Napoleonic Wars, he never envisioned being the sole survivor. Racked with guilt over their deaths, Ralph must move on...and find a wife so as to secure an heir to his family’s title and fortune.
Since her Seasons in London ended in disaster, Chloe Muirhead is resigned to spinsterhood. Driven by the need to escape her family, she takes refuge at the home of her mother’s godmother, where she meets Ralph. He needs a wife. She wants a husband. So Chloe makes an outrageous suggestion: Strike a bargain and get married. One condition: Ralph has to promise that he will never take her back to London. But circumstances change. And to Ralph, it was only a promise.
Related collections and offers
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
There could surely be nothing worse than having been born a woman, Chloe Muirhead thought with unabashed self-pity as she sucked a globule of blood off her left forefinger and looked to see if any more was about to bubble up and threaten to ruin the strip of delicate lace she was sewing back onto one of the Duchess of Worthingham’s best afternoon caps. Unless, perhaps, one had the good fortune to be a duchess. Or else a single lady in possession of forty thousand pounds a year and the freedom to set up one’s own independent establishment.
She, alas, was not a duchess. Or in sole possession of even forty pence a year apart from her allowance from her father. Besides, she did not want to set up somewhere independently. It sounded suspiciously lonely. She could not really claim to be lonely now. The duchess was kind to her. So was the duke in his gruff way. And whenever Her Grace entertained afternoon visitors or went visiting herself, she always invited Chloe to join her.
It was not the duchess’s fault that she was eighty-two years old to Chloe’s twenty-seven. Or that the neighbors with whom she consorted most frequently must all be upward of sixty. In some cases they were very much upward. Mrs. Booth, for example, who always carried a large ear trumpet and let out a loud, querulous “Eh?” every time someone so much as opened her mouth to speak, was ninety-three.
If she had been born male, Chloe thought, rubbing her thumb briskly over her forefinger to make sure the bleeding had stopped and it was safe to pick up her needle again, she might have done all sorts of interesting, adventurous things when she had felt it imperative to leave home. As it was, all she had been able to think of to do was write to the Duchess of Worthingham, who was her mother’s godmother and had been her late grandmother’s dearest friend, and offer her services as a companion. An unpaid companion, she had been careful to explain.
A kind and gracious letter had come back within days, as well as a sealed note for Chloe’s father. The duchess would be delighted to welcome dear Chloe to Manville Court, but as a guest, not as an employee—the not had been capitalized and heavily underlined. And Chloe might stay as long as she wished—forever, if the duchess had her way. She could not think of anything more delightful than to have someone young to brighten her days and make her feel young again. She only hoped Sir Kevin Muirhead could spare his daughter for a prolonged visit. She showed wonderful tact in adding that, of course; as she had in writing separately to him, for Chloe had explained in her own letter just why living at home had become intolerable to her, at least for a while, much as she loved her father and hated to upset him.
So she had come. She would be forever grateful to the duchess, who treated her more like a favored granddaughter than a virtual stranger and basically self-invited guest. But oh, she was lonely too. One could be lonely and unhappy while being grateful at the same time, could one not?
And, ah, yes. She was unhappy too.
Her world had been turned completely upside down twice within the past six years, which ought to have meant, if life proceeded along logical lines, as it most certainly did not, that the second time it was turned right side up again. She had lost everything any young woman could ever ask for the first time—hopes and dreams, the promise of love and marriage and happily-ever-after, the prospect of security and her own place in society. Hope had revived last year, though in a more muted and modest form. But that had been dashed too, and her very identity had hung in the balance. In the four years between the two disasters her mother had died. Was it any wonder she was unhappy?
She gave the delicate needlework her full attention again. If she allowed herself to wallow in self-pity, she would be in danger of becoming one of those habitual moaners and complainers everyone avoided.
It was still only very early in May. A largish mass of clouds covered the sun and did not look as if it planned to move off anytime soon, and a brisk breeze was gusting along the east side of the house, directly across the terrace outside the morning room, where Chloe sat sewing. It had not been a sensible idea to come outside, but it had rained quite unrelentingly for the past three days, and she had been desperate to escape the confines of the house and breathe in some fresh air.
She ought to have brought her shawl out with her, even her cloak and gloves, she thought, though then of course she would not have been able to sew, and she had promised to have the cap ready before the duchess awoke from her afternoon sleep. Dratted cap and dratted lace. But that was quite unfair, for she had volunteered to do it even when the duchess had made a mild protest.
“Are you quite sure it will be no trouble, my dear?” she had asked. “Bunker is perfectly competent with a needle.”
Miss Bunker was her personal maid.
“Of course I am,” Chloe had assured her. “It will be my pleasure.”
The duchess always had that effect upon her. For all the obvious sincerity of her welcome and kindness of her manner, Chloe felt the obligation, if not to earn her living, then at least to make herself useful whenever she was able.
She was shivering by the time she completed her task and cut the thread with fingers that felt stiff from the cold. She held out the cap, draped over her right fist. The stitches were invisible. No one would be able to tell that a repair had been made.
She did not want to go back inside despite the cold. The duchess would probably be up from her sleep and would be in the drawing room bright with happy anticipation of the expected arrival of her grandson. She would be eager to extol his many virtues yet again though he had not been to Manville since Christmas. Chloe was tired of hearing of his virtues. She doubted he had any.
Not that she had ever met him in person to judge for herself, it was true. But she did know him by reputation. He and her brother, Graham, had been at school together. Ralph Stockwood, who had since assumed his father’s courtesy title of Earl of Berwick, had been a charismatic leader there. He had been liked and admired and emulated by almost all the other boys, even though he had also been one of a close-knit group of four handsome, athletic, clever boys. Graham had spoken critically and disapprovingly of Ralph Stockwood, though Chloe had always suspected that he envied that favored inner circle.
After school, the four friends all took up commissions in the same prestigious cavalry regiment and went off to the Peninsula to fight the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte, while Graham went to Oxford to study theology and become a clergyman. He had arrived home from the final term at school upset because Ralph Stockwood had called him a sniveling prig and lily-livered coward. Chloe did not know the context in which the insult had been hurled, but she had not felt kindly disposed toward Graham’s erstwhile schoolmate ever since. And she never had liked the sound of him. She did not like boys, or men, who lorded it arrogantly over others and accepted their homage as a right.
Not many months after they had embarked for the Peninsula, Lieutenant Stockwood’s three friends had been killed in the same battle, and he had been carried off the field and then home to England so severely wounded that he had not been expected to survive.
Chloe had felt sorry for him at the time, but her sympathies had soon been alienated again. Graham, in his capacity as a clergyman, had called upon him in London a day or two after he had been brought home from Portugal. Graham had been admitted to the sickroom, but the wounded man had sworn foully at him and ordered him to get out and never come back.
Chloe did not expect to like the Earl of Berwick, then, even if he was the Duke of Worthingham’s heir and the duchess’s beloved only grandson. She had not forgiven his description of her brother as a lily-livered coward. Graham was a pacifist. That did not make him a coward. Indeed, it took a great deal of courage to stand up for peace against men who were in love with war. And she had not forgiven the earl for cursing Graham after he had been injured without even listening to what Graham had come to say. The fact that he had undoubtedly been in great pain at the time did not excuse such rudeness to an old school friend. She had decided long ago that the earl was brash, arrogant, self-centered, even heartless.
And he was on his way to Manville Court. He was coming at the duchess’s behest, it must be added, not because he had chosen of his own free will to visit the grandparents who doted on him. Chloe suspected that the summons had something to do with the duke’s health, which had been causing Her Grace some concern for the past couple of months. She fancied that he was coughing more than usual and that his habit of covering his heart with one hand when he did so was a bad sign. He did not complain of feeling unwell—not, at least, in Chloe’s hearing—and he saw his physician only when the duchess insisted. Afterward he called the doctor an old quack who knew no better than to prescribe pills and potions that served only to make the duke feel ill.
Chloe did not know what the true state of the duke’s health was, but she did know that he had celebrated his eighty-fifth birthday last autumn, and eighty-five was an awfully advanced age to be.
However it was, the Earl of Berwick had been summoned and he was expected today. Chloe did not want to meet him. She knew she would not like him. More important, perhaps, she admitted reluctantly to herself, she did not want him to meet her, a sort of charity guest of his grandmother’s, an aging, twenty-seven-year-old spinster with a doubtful reputation and no prospects. A pathetic creature, in fact.
But the thought finally triggered laughter—at her own expense. She had whipped herself into a thoroughly cross and disagreeable mood, and it just would not do. She got determinedly to her feet. She must go up to her room without delay and change her dress and make sure her hair was tidy. She might be a poor aging spinster with no prospects, but there was no point in being an abject one who was worthy only of pity or scorn. That would be too excruciatingly humiliating.
She hurried on her way upstairs, shaking herself free of the self-pity in which she had languished for too long. Goodness, if she hated her life so much, then it was high time she did something about it. The only question was what? Was there anything she could do? A woman had so few options. Sometimes, indeed, it seemed she had none at all, especially when she had a past, even if she was in no way to blame for any of it.
* * *
When he found his grandmother’s letter beside his plate at breakfast one morning along with a small pile of invitations, Ralph Stockwood, Earl of Berwick, had only recently returned to London from a three-week stay in the country.
He had come to town because at least it offered the promise of some diversion for body and mind, even if he did not expect to be vastly entertained. He would no doubt lounge about at his usual haunts in his usual aimless way for the duration of the spring Season. The whole of the beau monde had moved here too for the parliamentary session and for the frenzy of social entertainments with which it amused itself with unrelenting vigor for those few months. Ralph did not have a seat in the House of Lords, his title being a mere courtesy one, while procuring a seat in the House of Commons had never held any real appeal for him. But he always came anyway and attended as many parties and balls and concerts and the like as would alleviate the boredom of his evenings. He whiled away his days at White’s Club and frequented Tattersall’s to look over the horses and Jackson’s boxing saloon to exercise his body and Manton’s shooting gallery to maintain the steadiness of eye and hand. He spent as many hours with his tailor and his boot maker and hatmaker as were necessary to keep himself well turned out, though he had never aspired to the dandy set. He did whatever he needed to do to keep himself busy.
And he always yearned for . . .
Well, that was the trouble. He yearned, but could name no object of his yearning. He had a home, Elmwood Manor, in Wiltshire, where he had grown up and that he had inherited with his title from his father. He had also inherited a perfectly competent steward who had been there forever, and therefore he did not need to spend a great deal of time there himself. He had almost sole use of his grandfather’s lavish town house, since his grandparents scarcely came to London any longer and his mother preferred to keep her own establishment. He had fond relatives—paternal grandparents, a maternal grandmother, a mother, three married sisters and their offspring, and some aunts, uncles, and cousins, all on his mother’s side. He had more money than he could decently spend in one lifetime. He had . . . What else did he have?
Well, he had his life. Many did not. Many who would have been his own age, that is, or younger. He was twenty-six and sometimes felt seventy. He enjoyed decent health despite the numerous scars of battle he would carry to the grave, including the one across his face. He had friends. Though that was not strictly accurate. He had numerous friendly acquaintances, but deliberately avoided forming close friendships.
Strangely, he did not usually think of his fellow Survivors as friends. They called themselves the Survivors’ Club, seven of them, six men and one woman. They had all been variously and severely wounded by the Napoleonic Wars, and they had spent a three-year period together at Penderris Hall in Cornwall, country home of George, Duke of Stanbrook, one of their number. George had not been to war himself, but his only son had died in Portugal. The duchess, the boy’s mother, had died a few months later when she threw herself over the high cliffs at the edge of their property. George, as damaged as any of the rest of them, had opened his home as a hospital and then as a convalescent home to a group of officers. And the seven of them had stayed longer than any of the others and had formed a bond that went deeper than family, deeper even than friendship.
It was they, though, his fellow Survivors, who had caused the worse-than-usual restlessness bordering on depression he was feeling this spring. He almost welcomed his grandmother’s letter, then. It suggested, in that way his grandmother had of making an order sound like a request, that he present himself at Manville Court without delay. He had not been there since Christmas, though he wrote dutifully every two weeks, as he did to his other grandmother. His grandfather had not been actively unwell over the holiday, but it had been apparent to Ralph that he had crossed an invisible line between elderliness and frail old age.
He guessed what the summons was all about, of course, even if his grandfather was not actually ill. The duke had no brothers, only one deceased son, and only one live grandson. Short of tracking back a few generations and searching along another, more fruitful branch of the family tree, there was a remarkable dearth of heirs to the dukedom. Ralph was it, in fact. And he had no sons of his own. No daughters either.
And no wife.
His grandmother had no doubt sent for him in order to remind him of that last fact. He could not get sons—not legitimate heirs anyway—if he did not first get a young and fertile wife and then do his duty with her. Her Grace had delivered herself of a speech along those lines over Christmas, and he had promised to begin looking about him for a suitable candidate.
He had not yet got around to keeping that promise. He could use as an excuse, of course, the fact that the Season had only just begun in earnest and that he had had no real opportunity to meet this year’s crop of marriageable young ladies. He had already attended one ball, however, since the hostess was a friend of his mother’s. He had danced with two ladies, one of them married, one not, though the announcement of her betrothal to a gentleman of Ralph’s acquaintance was expected daily. Then, his obligation to his mother fulfilled, he had withdrawn to the card room for the rest of the evening.
The duchess would want to know what progress he was making in his search. She would expect that by now he would at the very least have compiled some sort of list. And making such a list would not be difficult, he had to admit, if he just set his mind to the task, for he was eminently eligible, despite his ruined looks. It was not a thought designed to lift Ralph’s spirits. Duty, however, must be done sooner rather than later, and his grandmother had clearly decided that he needed reminding before the Season advanced any further.
The memory of the precious three weeks he had recently spent with his fellow Survivors at Middlebury Park in Gloucestershire, home of Vincent Hunt, Viscount Darleigh, only added to Ralph’s sense of gloom. All seven of them had been both single and unattached just a little over a year ago during their last annual reunion at Penderris Hall. Without giving the matter any conscious thought, Ralph had assumed they would remain that way forever. As if anything remained the same forever. If he had learned one thing in his twenty-six years, surely it was that everything changed, not always or even usually for the better.
Hugo, Baron Trentham, had been the first to succumb while they were still at Penderris, after he had carried Lady Muir up from the beach, where she had sprained an already lame ankle. They had promptly fallen in love and married a scant few months later. Then Vincent, the youngest of their number, the blind one, had fled one bride chosen by his family and then had narrowly missed being snared by another. He had been prompted by gallantry to offer for the girl who had come to his rescue that second time when she had thwarted the schemer, but ended up being chucked out of her home as a result. They had married a few days after Hugo and in the same church in London. Meanwhile Ben—Sir Benedict Harper—had been staying with his sister in the north of England when he met a widow who was being treated shabbily by her in-laws. He had chivalrously accompanied her when she fled to Wales and had ended up marrying her as well as running her grandfather’s Welsh coal mines and ironworks. Bizarre, that! And now this year, during their reunion in Gloucestershire, Flavian, Viscount Ponsonby, had suddenly and unexpectedly married the widowed sister of the village music teacher and borne her off to London to meet his family.
Four of them married in little more than a year.
Ralph did not resent any of the marriages. He liked all four of the wives and thought it probable that each marriage would turn out well. Although in truth, he knew he must reserve judgment upon Flavian’s, since it had happened so recently and so abruptly, and Flave was a bit unstable at the best of times, having suffered head injuries and memory loss during battle.
What Ralph did resent was change—a foolish resentment, but one he could not seem to help. He certainly did not resent his friends’ happiness. Quite the contrary. What he did resent, perhaps—though resentment might be the wrong word—was that he had been left behind. Not that he wanted to be married. And not that he believed in happiness, marital or otherwise. Not for himself, anyway. But he had been left behind. Four of the others had found their way forward. Soon he would be married too—there was going to be no escaping that fate. It was his duty to marry and produce heirs. But he could not expect the happiness or even the contentment his friends had found.
He was incapable of love—of feeling it or giving it or wanting it.
Whenever he said as much to the Survivors, one or another of them would remind him quite emphatically that he loved them, and it was true, much as he shied away from using that exact word. He loved his family too. But the word love had so many meanings that it was in fact virtually meaningless. He had deep attachments to certain people, but he knew he was incapable of love, that something special that held together a good marriage and sometimes even made it a happy one.
There were a few social commitments he was forced to break after his grandmother’s letter arrived, though none that caused him any deep regret. He sent his apologies to the relevant people, wrote a brief letter to his mother, who was in town and might expect him to call, and set out for Sussex and Manville Court in his curricle despite the fact that it was a brisk day in early May and there was even the threat of rain. He never traveled by closed carriage when he could help it. His baggage followed in a coach with his valet, though he doubted he would have much need of either. His grandmother would be too eager to say her piece and quickly send him back to London with all its parties and balls and eligible brides.
Unless Grandpapa really was ill, that was.
Ralph felt an uncomfortable lurching of the stomach at the thought. The duke was a very old man, and everyone must die at some time, but he could not face the prospect of losing his grandfather. Not yet. He did not want to be the head of his family, with no one above him and no one below. There was a horrible premonition of loneliness in the thought.
As if life was not an inherently lonely business.
He arrived in the middle of the afternoon, having stopped only once to change horses and partake of refreshments, and having been fortunate enough not to get held up at any toll booths or to get behind any slow-moving vehicles on narrow stretches of road. The front doors of Manville stood open despite the fact that the afternoon was not much warmer than the morning had been. Obviously he was expected, and there was Weller, his grandfather’s elderly butler, standing in the doorway and bowing from the waist when Ralph glanced up at him. He was not looking particularly anxious—not that Weller ever displayed extreme emotions. But surely he would have done if Grandpapa were at his last gasp.
And then his grandfather himself appeared behind Weller’s shoulder and the butler stepped smartly aside.
“Harrumph,” the duke said—a characteristic sound that fell somewhere between a word and throat clearing—as Ralph relinquished the ribbons to a groom and took the steps up to the doors two at a time. “Making a filial visit just as the London Season is swinging into action, are you, Berwick? Because you could not go another day without a sight of Her Grace’s face, I daresay?”
“Good to see you, sir.” Ralph grinned at him and took the duke’s bony, arthritic hand in his own. “How are you?”
“I suppose Her Grace wrote to tell you I was at death’s door,” the old man said. “I daresay I am, but I have not knocked upon it or set a toe over the doorsill yet, Berwick. Just a bit of a cough and a bit of gout, both the results of good living. Well, if you were sent for, you will be expected upstairs. We had better not keep the duchess waiting.”
He led the way up to the drawing room. The butler was already stationed outside the double doors when they got there, and he flung them open so that the two men could enter together.
The duchess, who looked more like a little bird—a fierce little bird—every time Ralph saw her, was seated beside the fire. She nodded graciously as Ralph strode across the room to bend over her and kiss her offered cheek.
“Grandmama,” he said. “I trust you are well?”
She glanced at the duke. “This is a pleasant surprise, Ralph,” she said.
“Quite so,” he agreed. “I thought I would run down for a day or two to see how you did. And Grandpapa too, of course.”
“I must have the tea tray brought up,” she said, looking vaguely about her as though expecting it to materialize from thin air.
“Allow me to ring the bell, Your Grace,” a lady who was sitting farther back from the fire said, getting to her feet and moving toward the bell rope.
“Oh, thank you, my dear,” the duchess said. “You are always most thoughtful. This is my grandson, the Earl of Berwick. Miss Muirhead, Ralph. She is staying with me for a while, and very thankful I am for her company.”
It was said graciously, and for one startled moment Ralph thought that perhaps he had been brought here to consider the guest as his prospective bride. But he could see that she was no young girl. She might even be older than he. She was not dressed in the first stare of fashion either. She was tall and on the slender side with a pale complexion and what looked like a dusting of freckles across her nose. She might have looked like a faded thing, or at least a fading thing, if it had not been for her hair, which was thick and plentiful and as bright a red as Ralph had ever seen on a human head.
“My lord.” She curtsied without either looking at him or smiling, and he bowed and murmured her name.
His grandmother did not actually ignore her. Neither did she draw her any more to Ralph’s attention, however, and he relaxed. Obviously she was of no particular account. Some sort of companion, he supposed, an aging, impecunious spinster upon whom Her Grace had taken pity.
“Now, tell me, Ralph,” his grandmother said, patting the seat of the chair beside her, “who is in town this year for the Season? And who is new?”
Ralph sat and prepared to be interrogated.
The Earl of Berwick was really quite different from what Chloe had expected.
There were his looks, for one thing. He was not the handsome boy she had always imagined, frozen in time, arrogant and magnetically attractive, riding roughshod over the feelings of others. Well, of course he was no longer that boy. It had been eight years since he and Graham left school, and during those years he had been to war, lost his three friends, been desperately wounded himself, and made a slow recovery—perhaps. Perhaps he had recovered, that was. She had never really wondered what war did to a man apart from killing him or wounding him or allowing him to return home when it was over, mercifully unscathed. She had considered only the physical effects, in fact.
Lord Berwick fell into the second category—wounded and recovered. That should have been the end of it. He had been left with scars, however. One of them was horribly visible on his face, a nasty cut that slashed from his left temple, past the outer corner of his eye, across his cheek and the corner of his mouth to his jaw, and pulled both eye and mouth slightly out of shape. It must have been a very deep cut. Bone deep. The old scar was slightly ridged and dark in color and made Chloe wince at the thought of what his face must have looked like when it was first incurred. That it had missed taking out his eye was nothing short of a miracle. There must have been some permanent nerve damage, though. That side of his face was not as mobile as the other when he talked.
And if there was that one visible scar, there were surely others hidden beneath his clothes.
It was not just his scarred face, though, and the possibly scarred body that made him very different from the person she had expected and made her wonder more than she had before about what war did to a man. There were his eyes and his whole demeanor. There was something about his eyes, attractively blue though they were in a face that was somehow handsome despite the scar. Something . . . dead. Oh, no, not quite that. She could not explain to herself quite what she saw in their depths, unless it was that she saw no depths. They were chilly, empty eyes. And his manner, though perfectly correct and courteous, even affectionate toward his grandparents, seemed somehow . . . detached. As though his words and his behavior were a veneer behind which lived a man who was not feeling anything at all.
Chloe had gained this chilly impression of her brother’s former schoolmate at their first meeting and realized how foolish she had been to expect him to be exactly as Graham had described him all those years ago. He was not that boy any longer, and had probably never been exactly as she had imagined him anyway. She had only ever seen him, after all, through the biased eyes of her brother, who was very different from him and had always both envied and resented him.
Chloe found this man, this stranger, disturbing, a cold, brooding, detached, controlled man it would surely be impossible to know. And a man who seemed largely unaware of her existence despite the fact that they had been introduced. Although he did not pointedly ignore her during dinner, neither did he initiate any conversation with her or show any particular interest in anything she had to say, though truth to tell she did not say a great deal. She was just a little bit intimidated by him.
She wished he were the man she had expected him to be. She could have felt open scorn at his arrogant assumption that he was God’s gift to the human race instead of allowing him to make her feel somehow . . . diminished. Oh, dear, did she feel diminished? Again? If she allowed herself to feel any more so, she would surely disappear altogether and become just an easily forgotten memory to those who had known her. She almost chuckled aloud at the thought.
The duchess was a knitter. She made blankets and bonnets and booties and mittens for the babies born on the vast ducal estates scattered about England. She loved doing the actual knitting, she had once explained to Chloe. She found it soothing. But she hated the accompanying tasks of rolling the skeins of wool into balls before she started and sewing together the little garments when she was finished.
Chloe, of course, had immediately volunteered to perform both tasks.
After they had all drunk tea in the drawing room following dinner, the duke as usual got to his feet to bid the ladies good night and withdraw to the book room, his own domain. He invited his grandson to accompany him, but the earl glanced at the duchess, whose head was bent over her knitting, and professed his intention of remaining to keep her company for a while longer.
As though she had no one else to do that.
The duke made his way from the room with the aid of his cane while his grandson held the door open for him. Chloe moved away from the fireplace, where the coals had been piled high against the chill of the evening, so that she could use the conveniently spaced knobs of the sideboard cupboards over which to stretch a skein of the pale blue wool the duchess was currently using while she rolled it over her fingers into a soft ball. She sat down to the task, her back to the room, thankful that she had something to do while Her Grace settled into a conversation with the earl.
“You will have noticed a difference in your grandfather since Christmas,” the duchess said after the door was closed.
“He seems to be doing well enough,” the Earl of Berwick said.
“That is because he has put on a good show for you today,” she told him, “as he does for everyone when he is outside his book room and his private apartments.”
“And when he is not?” the earl asked.
“Your grandfather’s heart is weakening,” she told him. “Dr. Gregg says so. But of course he will not give up either his pipe or his port.”
“They are indulgences that give him pleasure,” the earl said. “Being deprived of them would perhaps make him miserable and neither improve his health nor prolong his life.”
“That is exactly what Dr. Gregg says.” The duchess sighed. “It would not surprise me at all, Ralph, if Worthingham does not survive another winter. He had a chill after Christmas and was a long time recovering from it, if he has recovered fully, that is. I doubt he could fight off another.”
“Perhaps, Grandmama,” the earl said, “you are being overpessimistic.”
“And perhaps,” she said, sharply, “I am not. The fact is, Ralph, that at some time in the not-too-distant future you are going to be the Duke of Worthingham yourself with all the duties that go along with the title.”
Chloe heard the slow intake of the earl’s breath. The ticking of the clock on the mantel seemed louder than usual.
“I shall be ready when the time comes, Grandmama,” he said. “But I do not want the time to come. I want Grandpapa to live forever.”
“Forever is not granted to any of us,” the duchess said. “Even tomorrow is not granted as by right. Any of us can go at any moment.”
“Yes,” he said. “I know.”
There was a whole universe of bleakness in his voice. Chloe’s hands stilled as she turned her head to look at him. He was standing to one side of the fire, his elbow propped on the mantelpiece. There was a stillness about him that chilled her. Yes, he must know as well as anyone how quickly and suddenly life could be snuffed out. She wondered why he had been allowed to purchase a military commission when he was heir to a dukedom and had no brothers to provide spares in case of his demise.
She shivered slightly and wished she had brought her shawl over here with her instead of leaving it draped over the arm of the chair on which she had been sitting earlier. But she would not get up now to fetch it and draw attention to herself. She resumed her self-appointed task.
“Even you,” Her Grace added unnecessarily.
“Yes, I know.”
Chloe wound the wool more slowly during the silence that ensued. She was halfway through this particular skein and did not want to finish it too soon. She would have to return to her chair or else sit here idle, staring at the sideboard cupboards. Either way she would risk drawing attention to herself. She wished now she had made some excuse and left the room with the duke.
“It is time you married, Ralph,” the duchess said bluntly into the silence.
“Yes, I know.”
“You knew at Christmastime when we spoke on the same subject,” she said. “Yet I have not heard that you are courting any particular lady, Ralph, despite the fact that I have my sources of information. Tell me that you do have someone in mind—someone young and eligible, someone both ready and willing to do her duty.”
“I do not, I must confess,” he said. “I have met no one with whom I can imagine spending the rest of my life. I know I must marry, but I do not want to marry, you see. I have nothing to offer. I am fully aware, however, that must will have to take precedence over want. I shall start looking, Grandmama, as soon as I return to London. I shall start looking in earnest. I shall make my choice before the end of the Season—well before. There. It is a promise. Are you reassured?”
“You have nothing to offer?” the duchess said, her tone incredulous. “Nothing to offer, Ralph? I doubt there is a more eligible bachelor in England.”
“Nothing of myself to offer, I meant,” he told her, his voice quieter than it had been so that Chloe had to still her hands again in order to concentrate upon hearing him. “There is nothing, Grandmama. Nothing in here.”
Presumably he was tapping his chest.
“Nonsense,” she said briskly. “You had a nasty time of it during the wars, Ralph, as did thousands of other men who fought that monster Bonaparte. You were one of the fortunate ones, however. You lived. You have all your limbs as well as the use of them, and you have both eyes and a sound mind. Why you had to spend all of three years in Cornwall I do not understand, but your prolonged stay there seems to have done you more harm than good. It prevented you from returning to your rightful place in society and to yourself as you were. It made you despondent and self-pitying, an attitude that does not become you. It is time you shook it off. You have everything in the world to offer some very fortunate young lady. Choose someone fresh from the schoolroom, someone who can be molded to the role she must play. But someone of impeccably good birth and breeding. Enlist your mother’s help. The countess has a good head upon her shoulders despite our differences.”
The Earl of Berwick chuckled, a sound so devoid of amusement that it could hardly be categorized as a chuckle at all.
“You are right, Grandmama,” he said. “I am not likely to be rejected by anyone upon whom I fix my interest, am I? Poor girl, whoever she turns out to be. I shall not consult Mama. She will have a list longer than both my arms within a day, and all of the candidates will be trotted out for my inspection within a week. It will come to a matter of closing my eyes and sticking a pin in the list. I would prefer to choose for myself. And I will choose. I have promised. Shall I go back to town tomorrow?”
“His Grace will be disappointed,” she said. “He was disappointed tonight when you chose to stay with me rather than go down to drink port with him in the book room.”
“Shall I go down now?” he asked.
“He will be snoring in his chair by now,” she told him. “Leave it until tomorrow. But return to town within the week, Ralph. It is already May and soon all the very brightest matrimonial prospects will have been laid claim to by men who have far less to offer than you do.”
“It will be done,” he said. “And the sooner the better. Life in town becomes tedious. When I have a wife, I will go home to Elmwood with her and stay there. Perhaps life in the country will suit me better. Perhaps I will settle down at last.”
He sounded almost wistful.
“That would be a relief to everyone who loves you,” she said. “Oh, dear, I have come to the end of my ball of wool and have no other ready to go.”
Chloe, who had just wound the last strand onto the ball, got to her feet.
“I have one here ready for you, Your Grace,” she said, crossing the room with it held out in the palm of her hand.
“Oh, how very thoughtful of you, dear,” Her Grace said. “And you have been sitting far from the fire to wind it, have you? Come closer and have another cup of tea to warm you up. Though I fear what is left in the pot must be cold. I wish it were not. I would not mind another cup myself.”
“I shall ring for a fresh pot,” Chloe offered, moving toward the bell rope and having to pass very close to the earl on her way there.
He was looking at her, she saw when she raised her eyes briefly to his. He appeared slightly surprised, as though he were only just realizing that he was not alone in the drawing room with his grandmother.
Just thus must all ladies’ companions, paid and unpaid and unacknowledged, waft through their lives, she thought ruefully—unnoticed, invisible for all intents and purposes. But she was not going to sink into the dismals again over that sad fact.
And if she did not like her life as it was, she had thought this afternoon, then she must simply change it.
Her life had seemed impossible to change this afternoon. It still did this evening.
But nothing, surely, was impossible.
Apart from all the things that were.
* * *
The sun was showing its face from behind a receding bank of clouds the next morning when Ralph’s valet drew back the curtains from the window of his bedchamber before disappearing into his dressing room. Two fine days in a row and this one perhaps even sunny? Though it was early yet. It might still rain.
Before it could or did, though, he shaved and dressed and went downstairs. There was no sign of either of his grandparents. He had not expected there would be. He was not hungry. He would wait for them. In the meanwhile, he wandered into the morning room, which was flooded with sunshine, facing east as it was. He found the French windows already unlocked and ajar, a fact that ought to have alerted him. He pulled one of them open, stepped through onto the terrace, and stood looking across the freshly scythed expanse of the east lawn to the river in the distance. He drew in a deep breath of fresh air and released it slowly.
He had not slept well. He had kept waking himself up from dreams that were not exactly nightmares but were bizarre nonetheless. He could remember only one of them, one of the more coherent. He had been in a ballroom he did not recognize, a room so long that even with a telescope he doubted he would have been able to see the far end of it. Along its full length, stretching to infinity, was a line of young ladies, all dressed in ballroom finery, and all of them plying a fan, though they were otherwise motionless. And he was marching with slow deliberation along the line, clad in his scarlet, gold-faced officer’s dress uniform, inspecting them, his mother on one side, Graham Muirhead in full clerical robes on the other. It was not one of those dreams that defied interpretation, though why Muirhead of all people should have popped into it he could not imagine.
Ah. And then he could.
He became suddenly aware of a flutter of movement off to his right and turned his head sharply to see Miss Muirhead standing a short distance away, bonnetless and clutching the corners of a shawl to her bosom, presumably to prevent it from blowing away in the nonexistent wind. He felt instant irritation. She had overheard that very personal conversation he had had with his grandmother last evening and had not had the decency either to clear her throat to remind them of her presence or to leave the room. He had been quite unaware of her, as one tended to be unaware of servants. Though she was not a servant, was she? She was a guest of his grandmother’s—one who ran and fetched for her and effaced herself in a most unguestlike manner. A woman seemingly without character or personality or conversation.
Was she related to Graham Muirhead by any chance? It was not a common name—Muirhead. His irritation only increased at the possibility that there was a connection.
“My lord,” she murmured.
“Good morning.” He inclined his head curtly to her and stepped off the terrace in order to stroll out across the lawn where he could be alone again.
What he must do now, he decided as he approached an old oak tree and set a hand upon its sturdy, familiar trunk, was spend as much of today as he could with his grandfather and then return to town tomorrow. He could make the excuse of a pressing engagement, and he would not be lying. He had an urgent appointment with his own destiny. And there must be at least one ball and half a dozen other parties of varying sorts to choose among for tomorrow evening, and of course he had been invited to all of them. There were always myriad entertainments every evening during the Season. He must simply find his invitations, make his choice, and go.
He was quite resigned to what his immediate future had in store for him. He had had enough time to think about it, after all. His grandmother had talked openly about it at Christmastime. His mother had been hinting for at least the past year. He had been procrastinating. That must stop.
He would persuade his grandfather to talk about his boyhood and young manhood today. Grandpapa enjoyed telling the old, oft-repeated stories, and who knew if Ralph would be hearing them for the last time? Was his grandfather ailing? Or could he go on as he was now for another ten years or so? The answer to that question, impossible to know, did not affect the central issue, though, did it? The duke had an heir, but that heir himself did not. And life, as Ralph’s grandmother had observed last evening, was always uncertain, even for the young. He could die at any moment.
Indeed, there had been times when he had wanted to die and had even tried to help the process along . . . But he would not be drawn into remembering those dark days. Now was the time to think of life. Though what sensible man would wish to be responsible for bringing yet another human life into this world?
He shook his head. Such thinking must not be pursued.
“How old do you think it is?” a voice asked from behind him, and he turned in amazement to discover that Miss Muirhead had followed him across the lawn and was standing just a short distance away. “The oak, I mean.”
He gazed at her without smiling. Had he asked for company? Did he look like the sort of man who would feel lonely and pathetic if left to stroll alone? But he looked at the trunk beneath his hand and up into the spreading branches when perhaps he ought to have ignored her question and her entirely.
“Several hundred years,” he said. “Perhaps even more than a thousand. The second duke, who had the house built more than a century ago, had the good sense to leave the oak standing and to build farther back from the river.”
“It looks like a child’s paradise,” she said. “Did you climb it as a boy?”
“It is too visible from the house,” he said. “My grandmother had me spanked after she caught me up there one day when I was five or six. Even then she must have been afraid that I would fall and kill myself and my father would beget no more sons.”
“And did she have you spanked when you chose to become a military officer?” she asked. “You did choose to be one, I suppose?”
He looked back at her, all amazement again, and had to remind himself that she was not a servant. She was standing out in the sunshine, and the sunlight was gleaming off her hair and making it appear even more startlingly red than it had looked yesterday. With her pale complexion and freckles, she must have to be very careful about exposure to the sun. Her skin would surely burn horribly. Yet she was wearing no bonnet.
He was surprised to notice now that he was looking fully at her that she was rather good looking, even beautiful in a unique sort of way. Her eyes were large and decidedly green. Her nose was straight and the perfect length to fit her oval face. Her cheekbones were well defined, her lips full and well shaped, her mouth on the wide side. With her hair down . . .
But she had asked him a question—an impertinent, intrusively personal question. He answered it nevertheless.
“I begged and pleaded with my father to no avail,” he told her, “and my mother was firmly and tearfully on his side. My grandmother threatened to have me whipped—horsewhipped, to use her exact words. I suppose she thought I had outgrown spankings. But my grandfather surprised us all and incensed everyone but me. It had been his boyhood dream, it seemed, to be a military officer, a general no less, but of course it had not been allowed because he was a duke’s heir and had no brothers. His own son had been a disappointment to him—yes, he said it in the hearing of my father, who was the epitome of the dutiful heir. Let the boy have his way, then, he said of me. Let him follow his dream of glory. I was eighteen years old and just getting finished with school. I was as innocent and as ignorant as a newborn babe. But the word of the Duke of Worthingham was law to his family. And so he purchased my commission in the very best regiment as well as all the finest trappings money could buy.”
“But your dream was soon shattered,” she said softly.
What did she know about it? He looked stonily at her before turning his head away sharply. Should he stride off toward the river and trust she would not come trotting after him to offer her company and her conversation again? Or should he stride back to the house and rely upon outpacing her?
He hesitated a moment too long.
“I could not help but overhear your conversation with Her Grace last evening,” she said. “I was not deliberately eavesdropping.”
His eyes returned to hers. He removed his hand from the trunk and leaned his shoulder against it. She must think a gale was blowing. She had a death grip on the corners of her shawl.
“I understand,” she said, “that you do not wish to marry but that you must.”
He crossed his arms over his chest and raised one eyebrow. Her impertinence knew no bounds. Though she was quite correct—she had not been eavesdropping. She had been in the drawing room by right of the fact that she was a guest here.
“I do not believe it is just your youth, is it?” she asked.
He raised the other eyebrow to join the first.
“That makes you reluctant, I mean,” she said. “It is not just that you are young and wish for more time to sow some wild oats before you settle down. It is not, is it?”
He felt a curious mixture of urges. One part of him wanted to bellow with laughter. Another part wanted to explode with fury.
“I believe,” she continued when he remained silent, “it is as you told the duchess. You have nothing to offer beyond what almost every single girl in the land and her mama want. I am not expressing myself very well, am I? But I know what I mean, and you know. There is nothing left inside you to offer, is there? Something has taken it all away. War, perhaps. And you are empty.”
He had turned cold. It was still quite early morning, of course, and he was standing in the shade of the tree away from what heat there was in the sun. But it was not that. It was not an outer coldness.
“You presume to know me inside and out, do you, Miss Muirhead,” he said, his voice matching his feelings, “after . . . what is it? An eighteen-hour acquaintance?”
“I do not know you at all,” she said. “I believe you have made yourself unknowable.”
“But you have concluded that I am empty.” He looked contemptuously at her. She did not even have the decency to look uncomfortable, apart from those gripping hands. “Therefore you believe you must know all there is to know of me.”
“How inadequate words are,” she said, shaking her head slightly. “However it is, Lord Berwick, you need a wife and you are dreading the thought of going back to London to search for one in the ballrooms and other haunts of the ton.”
“Dreading.” He laughed. “How foolish I would be if that were true, Miss Muirhead. I am, without exaggeration and without conceit, one of the most eligible men in the land. Young ladies—beautiful, rich, well-born young ladies—already cluster hopefully in my vicinity. They will positively swarm when it becomes clear that I am ready to make my choice among them.”
“Young ladies,” she said. “I suppose you mean straight from the schoolroom. Poor girls—as you yourself observed last night. The one you choose is not likely to remain happy for long, is she?”
“Because I look like this?” He flicked the fingers of one hand in the direction of his scarred cheek. “Or because I have an empty soul?”
He did not know why he was enduring this conversation.
“Because you have nothing to offer,” she said. “Nothing that would make a young, hopeful, innocent girl happy after the euphoria of the wedding is over.”
“A countess’s title, with the prospect of a duchess’s to follow, will not make her eternally ecstatic?” he asked. “And taking precedence over almost every other lady in England for the rest of her life? Having wealth untold at her fingertips? And all the clothes and carriages and jewels and other faradiddle she could ever dream of?”
“I know by the tone of your voice that you agree with me,” she told him.
He laughed again. “You think I will be a cruel husband, Miss Muirhead?”
“Probably not knowingly,” she said.
Well, he thought irritably, it was nice to be known, to be understood. He wondered idly if anything ever shook her calm, if she ever lived up to the promise of that red hair.
“You would do better to marry me,” she said.
He stood where he was, his arms folded, his eyes riveted upon hers.
“I am older,” she said, “and well past the age of innocence. I am twenty-seven years old. However, I still have many childbearing years left and have no reason to believe I may be barren. My father is the sixth baronet of his line, and my mother was the daughter of a viscount. I have no illusions about marital happiness and would be quite willing to accept the marriage for what it would be. I would not interfere with your life. I would live mine in a way that would never publicly embarrass you or privately inconvenience you. If you were to agree to marry me, you would be saved from all the bother of making your choice among the many eligible young ladies in whom you have no interest whatsoever.”
He found his voice at last.
“I have no interest in you, Miss Muirhead.” It was brutal, but he felt savage—and cold to the heart.
“Of course you do not,” she said, looking unmoved, though a downward glance showed him that her knuckles had whitened against her shawl. “I would not expect it, or desire it. I am suggesting a mutual . . . bargain, Lord Berwick. Something that would suit us both without hurting either. You need a wife though you do not wish for one. I want a husband but have little chance of finding one. You are not looking for love. Neither am I. I had it once, but it proved deceptive and ridiculously painful. I want marriage because the alternative for a woman is dreary in the extreme. I want my own home and a place in society. I want children—and upon them I will lavish love. You will not disappoint me. I would expect nothing from you beyond what duty would dictate. And I would not disappoint you. You would not expect anything from me beyond duty, and that you would have without question or complaint. You wish to remove to your home in the country after your marriage. Such a retired existence would suit me admirably. I would not be forever begging you to take me to town and all its entertainments.”
The hair was an illusion, he thought. She was as cold a fish as he had ever encountered.
But being married to her would be the next best thing to remaining single. He could not remain single, however. He must marry. She was twenty-seven years old, older than he. She had grown past both youth and innocence. She had loved once. Did that mean . . . ?
“Are you a virgin, Miss Muirhead?” he asked. Again it was a brutal question. It was also an unnecessarily impertinent one. He was not seriously considering her outrageous proposal, after all. Was he?
“Yes,” she said, “I am.”
They stood and stared at each other.
“Are you related to Graham Muirhead?” he asked her abruptly.
“He is my brother,” she told him.
Ah. His eyes strayed to her hair and back to her green eyes. Graham was dark haired and dark eyed, but he was her brother. It was hardly a recommendation in her favor.
She must have read his thoughts.
“I am suggesting that you marry me, Lord Berwick,” she said, “not my brother.”
There was an uncomfortably long silence during which the Earl of Berwick stood where he was, his shoulder propped against the ancient oak, his arms folded over his chest, his booted feet crossed at the ankles. He looked rather menacingly large and . . . dark. He looked dark, of course, because he was in the shadow of the tree, but rather than muting the effect of the scar across his cheek, the dimness accentuated it—and it was the cheek turned more fully toward her.
There was not a glimmering of humor or any other emotion on his face or in his blank eyes.
Whatever had made her think she could marry him? Or that he would marry her? He was all brooding, dark emptiness. Even dangerous, though she had not thought that until this moment. For one did not know, would probably never know, what emotions were buried deep inside him, ready to erupt at any moment.
She wondered what she would do if the silence stretched much longer. Perhaps he had no intention of moving or saying anything. Should she turn and walk away, then? From her last chance? But chance for what? Perhaps marrying him would not after all be more desirable than living the rest of her life as she was, in dreary but independent spinsterhood.
He spoke at last.
“Tell me something, Miss Muirhead,” he said. “If marriage is of such importance to you, even the poor apology for a marriage into which you are proposing to enter with me, why are you still unwed at the age of twenty-seven?”
Because no one has asked me? It was true. But the answer was not nearly as simple as that.
“I am ineligible,” she told him, lifting her chin. An understatement if ever she had spoken one.
“Yet you expect me to marry you?” His eyebrows soared again and he looked more the way she had expected him to look from the start—arrogant and supercilious. “In what way are you ineligible, pray? You have just told me your father is a baronet with a solid lineage and that your mother was the daughter of a viscount. Birth surely counts for something in the marriage mart. And you do not exactly look like a gargoyle.”
Was that a compliment?
She drew a slow breath.
“My sister ran off with a married man six years ago,” she told him. “He married her a year later, a scant three months after his wife died and one month before her confinement, but their marriage restored only a very limited degree of respectability to what had been a very public scandal. She will never be received by any of the highest sticklers in polite society, and we have not been entirely forgiven either, for my father refused to cast her off even when for a few months her seducer abandoned her to return to his dying wife.”
“We,” he said. “Why, pray, did the scandalous behavior of your sister and the socially unwise reaction of your father make you a pariah, Miss Muirhead?”
What People are Saying About This
Everyone loves Mary Balogh!
“One of the best!”—New York Times bestselling author Julia Quinn
"Balogh is today’s superstar heir to the marvelous legacy of Georgette Heyer, (except a lot steamier!)”—New York Times bestselling author Susan Elizabeth Phillips
"With her brilliant, beautiful and emotionally intense writing Mary Balogh sets the gold standard in historical romance."—New York Times bestselling author Jayne Ann Krentz
"When it comes to historical romance, Mary Balogh is one of my favorites!"—New York Times bestselling author Eloisa James