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The Viscount Needs a Wife

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Kitty Cateril is the widow of a war hero who, eighteen months after her husband's death, lives with her husband's family because she can't afford to live anywhere else. She's well treated, but her mother-in-law is still sunk deep in grief and in unhappy about any sign of Kitty leaving mourning behind.

In November 1817, the shocking death of the Prince Regent's daughter, Princess Charlotte, in childbirth plunges the whole nation into mourning, but not long afterward Kitty receives a letter that might change her life.

    My dear Kitty, it's been a long time since I wrote, but we've been very busy here in Beecham Dab. Such terrible news about Princess Charlotte. All around put on some mark of mourning, and we tolled the bells at the time of her interment. The tragedy is a reminder to us all to be mindful of our brief lives and the judgment to come.
    Sadly, we have been visited by death more frequently than usual here this year. In August a sickness carried off ten souls and weakened many others, even at harvest time, so Andrew went out when he could to help in the fields.

    "Andrew is Reverend Lulworth, mama."
    "So I remember. A charitable act, but not perhaps suitable for a man of the cloth."
    Kitty was tempted to debate how any charity could be unsuitable for a clergyman, but she returned to the letter.
    By God's grace we are all well. Little Arthur is babbling very cleverly for three. Maria is still quiet, but that makes her an easy babe.
    Kitty remembered that Ruth's second birth had been difficult, but she and the child had survived, unlike poor Princess Charlotte.
    She continued to read more descriptions of the children, the work of the parish, and about a pair of clever cats they'd acquired which were keeping the vicarage completely clear of mice.
    At that point she invented a farewell and folded the letter. She longed to leave the room immediately to read the rest, but that could stir suspicion so she used the entry into a necessary subject. The housekeeper had asked her to try to persuade Lady Cateril to allow some cats in the house.
    “Mice are causing problems in the kitchen area, mama. A cat or two would control them."
    "I could tolerate cats there, Kathryn, but cats do not stay in their allotted space." Kitty had no answer to that. "I'm pleased you see for once that I am right. It's a pity that your dog doesn't kill mice. Dogs do generally obey orders."
    Sillikin half opened her eyes as if commenting on that.
    "I've never known her to kill, mama."
    "If she weren't fed, perhaps she would."
    Preferably kill you!
    Seething, Kitty called Sillikin and left the room without explanation. She retreated so she wouldn't say something unforgiveable, but she needed to read Ruth's astonishing news.
    Perhaps Andrew Lulworth had been offered a grander parish, or even a place in a bishop's establishment. Kitty had no idea how advancement in the church was achieved, but she was sure Ruth's husband deserved it, if only because Ruth had chosen him. Perhaps they'd received an unexpected inheritance, or found buried treasure in the garden. Perhaps the Regent had dropped by for tea!
    Her flights of fancy were interrupted by the portrait of her husband hanging over the stairs in such a way that it always confronted her as she went up. It had been painted after Marcus's death, but based on a miniature done in 1807, before his heroic maiming.
    It showed a young, dark-haired officer in his gold-braided regimentals, bright with vigor and life. It showed the Marcus Cateril she'd never known, for she'd met him after he'd lost a leg and an eye, been scarred in the face and broken in other ways that caused him pain till his dying day.
    She fought tears, as she still often did, not of grief over his death, but of sadness for all he'd lived with. He'd often said he wished he'd died alongside others during that magnificent assault at Roleia, and she knew he'd meant it. The overdose of laudanum that had killed him had not been accidental, no matter what the inquest had said.
    She hurried on into the refuge of her room and wrapped herself in two extra shawls. Fires in bedrooms were left to die down in the morning and not lit again until close to bedtime. Then she unfolded the letter, hoping for truly diverting news.
    Now for the main impetus for writing, Kitty. The sickness carried off our local lion, Viscount Dauntry, and his only son, a lad of eleven. That was sad, to be sure, but it also produced an interregnum. There's a daughter but of course she can't inherit, so no one knew who the heir was or, indeed, if there was one at all.
    Now the new Lord Dauntry has arrived. He's a very distant relation of the fifth viscount who had no notion of being in line and has never been here before. By blessed good fortune he and Andrew both attended Westminster School only a few years apart, though he was plain Braydon then.
    Ah. A friendship with the new viscount might advance Reverend Lulworth's career.
    Dauntry has joined us to dine quite frequently in the weeks he's been here and thus we have become familiar with his situation.
    At this point Ruth had run out of paper and begun the cross-wise writing, so Kitty turned the page.
    He did not rejoice to find himself a lord. He didn't need the wealth or want the running of estates. To make matters worse, the late Lord Dauntry's will makes his successor guardian of his daughter and imposes a duty to care for his mother, who lives on in the house. In short, Dauntry has decided he needs a sensible woman to assist him with these responsibilities. I immediately thought of you.
    A laugh escaped. What was Ruth thinking of?
    Then she read the next line.
    It would mean you living close, Kitty. Only think of that!
    Oh. Yes. Only think of that.
    She and Ruth had met when they were both parlor boarders at school in Leamington. They'd become inseparable, but when they'd left school their paths had gone in different directions. Ruth had found employment as a governess. Kitty had returned home and soon been wooed into marriage by Marcus. They'd rarely met since, and not at all since Ruth's marriage four years ago.
    To be close again.
    Wondrous, but surely impossible.
    I know it would mean exchanging life as part of a noble family for one as a servant, but I have the feeling that you're not entirely comfortably situated.
    It was so like Ruth to read between the lines. Kitty had tried to put a bright face on her situation here just as she had during her marriage, for she didn't believe that a trouble shared is a trouble halved. It seemed to her that complaining of trials that couldn't be changed was merely sharing the misery.
    Was this a possible escape? What would this position be? Surely the girl had a governess. Was she to be companion to the elderly lady? That might be no better than being trapped with Lady Cateril -- except that she'd be free of mourning and have Ruth nearby. There could even be weekly visits.
    Kitty focused eagerly on the page again.
    I put forward your name and explained why you might be suitable, which I confess involved a little exaggeration of your sober nature, but then Lord Dauntry shocked me by saying he'd resolved that the lady he needs must be his wife. My hopes were exploded.
    Kitty's were, too.
    How could Ruth lead her on like that?
    She crumpled the letter and threw it across the room, but Sillikin ran to retrieve it and bring it back to her, stub-tail wagging.
    "This isn't a game, you foolish creature."
    But she took it, picking up the dog to hug. "I don't suppose I'd have liked the position anyway. I'd have been a servant, no matter how it was dressed up, and no other company than my lady, who could be even worse than Lady Cateril." The dog licked her chin. "Yes, I know I have you. But would I be allowed to keep you?"
    Sillikin turned to settle on Kitty's lap, but pushed the letter sideways with her paws so it slid toward the floor. Kitty caught it and realized she'd not reached the astonishing news. Perhaps that would raise her spirits. She smoothed the paper and found her place.
    I was bold enough to ask why, and Dauntry pointed out that his ward is hard to handle and the dowager Lady Dauntry difficult in her grief. Then he asked if you would fulfill his requirements as wife.
    Yes! I'm sure your astonishment equals mine.
    It did indeed.
    To a viscount?
    Was it a full moon?
    I was cast into a tizzy. He, however, continued as if discussing whether to plant turnips or cabbages to say that he needs his household under sensible management without delay and asked again if my friend might be suitable and willing.
    I didn't know the truth about either, but the thought of you within miles, not to mention the opportunity for you to become my lady, was too much to resist, dear Kitty. I said you might. Of course that commits you to nothing, and I know you've said you will not marry again, but do please give it thought, for Lord Dauntry means what he said.
    "He must be mad," Kitty muttered. "Would I marry a madman to escape?" She answered herself. "Perhaps. If he was safely mad."
    Ruth was correct in saying that she didn't want a second husband, but that was largely because she couldn't imagine finding a comfortable one. After the storms with Marcus she needed calm waters, but she was not in a position to pick and choose. She had no great beauty or elegance and a pittance of money.
    This offer tempted, but it was too good to be true. There must be something markedly wrong with a man who sought a wife in such a way. A difficult marriage would be far worse than life at Cateril Manor, and there would be no escape.
    I respect your devotion to Marcus, but can you continue as you are for the rest of your life? Upon hearing of the death of Princess Charlotte I found myself contemplating the uncertainties of life and our duty to use our time on earth well. I fear your current situation leaves you idle. However, my desires might cause me to over-persuade you, so let me tell you of the problems.
    The writing was becoming even smaller. There must be a great many problems and that was a relief. Kitty could feel the pull of this ridiculous plan and she needed reasons to resist.
    Lord Dauntry stated plainly that he sought a wife who would not seek to change his ways. Kitty, I fear those ways include carousing and wicked women. He behaves with complete propriety here, but he is a very fashionable gentleman. I understand he is commonly called Beau Braydon in the style of Beau Nash and Beau Brummell! His life since leaving the army has been mostly in London. You are more familiar than I as to what that might involve.
    Kitty was, but she was fixed on the words "since leaving the army."
    Kitty had lived in London all her married life, often surrounded by Marcus's army friends. He'd not been able to get out much, so his military friends and acquaintances had come to him when in Town on furlough or official business, sometimes in numbers that threatened to burst the walls.
    Some were good company, but she'd learned that soldiering often left scars, visible and invisible. Major Quincy had been silent, with such a dark look in his eyes. Captain Farrow had mostly been quiet, but occasionally he'd fall into a kind of fit in which he thought he was fighting the French. It had taken two or three others to restrain him. Lieutenant Wynne had a strong voice and had often led jolly songs, but she'd sensed something wrong. According to Marcus his wounds had affected his manhood. Marcus had thanked heaven that his had not, but they'd affected so much else.
    She wasn't attracted to the idea of any second marriage, but certainly not to a another ex-soldier.
    He asked if I would put the proposal to you. I made no promise, but later Andrew and I discussed the matter. He is uncomfortable with the situation for many reasons, but he sees how advantageous it could be to you and he confirmed my assessment that Lord Dauntry would be a tolerable husband as long as you kept to his conditions.
    And if not? Rages and bruises, then weeping contrition and threats to kill himself?
    If she'd been a meeker woman, perhaps Marcus's life would have been more tolerable, but his unpredictable anger had developed an echo in herself. To begin with she'd agreed, soothed, and even apologized for imagined faults, but her patience had worn down until she'd answered sharp words with sharper, and rage with rage. She'd rebutted accusations with ones of her own. That had worked better, but she'd hated the dismal repentance that resulted.
    Men wanted meek wives and she didn't think she could ever be one again. Ruth's plan was a fairytale -- but the next line leapt out at her. Remember, Andrew and I would be close by to offer loving support.
    To be close to Ruth and have her loving support.
    What was more, if she became Lady Dauntry -- astonishing thought!-- she'd be able to visit the parsonage whenever she wished. She could invite Ruth and her family to her own grand home. What was the name? Beauchamp Abbey. Was it pronounced in the French way, bowshamp, or did it match the village name -- Beecham? That was irrelevant, but relevant thoughts, weakening thoughts, were trickling in.
    Here at last was escape from Cateril Manor.
    Might it be bearable?
    The married life of Lady Dauntry would be vastly different to hers with Marcus, no matter how odd her husband was. She wouldn't be trapped in four rooms and it seemed unlikely Lord Dauntry would demand her presence most of the time or insist on her sharing his restless bed.
    She and he could have separate bedrooms, separate suites of rooms. Separate wings, perhaps! Given what Ruth had said, he might rarely be at the Abbey at all. In a normal marriage she might object to his amusements elsewhere, but not in this one.
    "Am I seriously considering this?"
    Sillikin's cocked head seemed to send the question back at her.
    "I am."
    To escape Cateril Manor. To live close to Ruth. To have a home of her own again, with a frequently absent husband...
    She read on, fearful of something to make it impossible.
    If you are willing to consider the matter it must be soon. Dauntry is a man of brisk action. If you don't give him hope he will proceed to other ways of obtaining the wife he wants. I can't imagine it will be difficult. He's a handsome man, though in a cool way.
    Ruth had run out of space and turned to write diagonally.
    If you agree to consider the match, he will arrange your journey here at his expense, and your journey home if you decide he will not suit. You need only reply to me for all to be put in hand, but remember, it must be soon.
    I don't know this man well, Kitty, and I fear my ardent desire to have you nearby influences me, but Andrew believes you should at least consider this and his judgment is sound.
    That was it.
    Ardent desire.
    Kitty rose and paced her room, Sillikin in her arms.
    But through marriage.
    She hadn't rushed into her first marriage, but she'd been swept along on a torrent of ecstatic romance with no one attempting to slow her down. Her parents had been dazzled by her being wooed by a member of the nobility. If they'd suffered any doubts, Marcus's wounds and true adoration had silenced them. Marcus had wooed her so desperately, with gifts, flowers, and passionate entreaties that she'd have had to have a heart of stone no refuse him.
    Here was a very different situation. The offer was cool, the promises minimal, and there were no tempting gifts. The man was a stranger, but she must decide in a moment, and this time she had no one no advise her.
    "I must go to Ruth."
    With that, everything became clear. She must go to Ruth, for advice and for the joy of it. Once in Beecham Dab, once she met Lord Dauntry, she'd know whether to make this marriage or not. Mere travel there wouldn't commit her.
    "How to escape?" she muttered. One thing was sure. Lady Cateril would never tolerate Marcus's widow marrying again.
    She thought she had enough money to cover the cost of a coach ticket to Gloucestershire, but how to escape the house? She was devising complicated ways, some inspired by novels, when she came to her senses. No one here knew about the offer of marriage. She could simply ask to visit her old friend.
    She hugged Sillikin. "I don't know why I haven't done that before. I've allowed us to be glued here by Lady Cateril's grief, but even she can't object to a short visit to an old friend, can she?"

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