The Viscount Needs a Wife
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 in childbirth of the Prince Regent's daughter, Princess Charlotte, plunges the whole nation into mourning and makes Kitty realize how short and unpredictable life can be, so she leaps at the opportunity to meet a new viscount who wants a practical, sensible wife.
Their first encounter isn't promising, as she's muddy and in disorder from chasing her dog and she's sure he won't choose her as bride, but now comes the formal interview.
He should have seemed less formidable than he had on horseback, but she found him more so. He wasn't as broad a man as Marcus, but his elegant clothing didn't disguise the same sense of muscular power that her husband had retained even in his ruined state. Dauntry was perhaps taller.
Then she wondered why she'd thought "elegant clothing." He was wearing a brown jacket, buff riding breeches and top boots, as most men did in the country But in some way his garments warranted the tag "beau." With his clean-cut features, fashionably dressed blond hair and cool expression, the word that came to mind was sleek.
Somewhere in the distance, Ruth was making introductions, but Sillikin disregarded formalities to trot forward and stare. That wasn't a good sign.
"Sillikin, heel," Kitty commanded, and thank heaven, her dog obligingly trotted back to her side. Kitty dipped a curtsy. "Good morning, Lord Dauntry."
He bowed. "A pleasure to meet you, ma'am."
Kitty heard a silent "again."
Pride afflicted her with an urge to break the arrangement first, but that would be foolish indeed. Innards churning with nerves, she sat, waving him to a nearby seat. Ruth mentioned last minute arrangements and left, but Kitty only saw her from the corner of her eye. She couldn't stop looking at Lord Dauntry, rather as one might watch a predator that seemed likely to attack. His eyes were a light and rather icy blue.
He sat on a facing chair and crossed his legs. "Well, Mrs. Cateril?"
"Very well, sir."
"I wasn't asking how you are, ma'am. What questions do you have for me?"
Questions? Her mind went blank. "Mrs. Lulworth told me the essentials, sir."
"Are you not curious about the inessentials?"
The wretched man was toying with her! "I assume she didn't conceal that you are stark, staring mad?"
No reaction apart from a raised brow. "I might have concealed it from her, but indeed, I'm not. Are you?"
"Excellent. I also have all my teeth."
"So do I."
"Yet more harmony."
Oh, you wretch. Now she understood his abrasive manner. He'd come here to end the arrangement, but was going to avoid any hint of jilting her by making her do it. Well, he could work for his prize. She'd play his game, returning every shot, forcing him to produce the coup de grace.
Now he was using silence. She saw the small piano in the corner of the room. "Is there a pianoforte in... the Abbey, my lord?" Thank heavens she'd spotted the hazard and not attempted the full name. Ruth and Andrew only spoke of his house as the Abbey, so she'd not yet heard anyone say "Beauchamp." She still didn't know how it was pronounced.
"There is," he said, "though I've heard no one play it."
"Has the house in general been neglected, my lord?"
"Not as far as I can tell, but I know little of such matters. I was in the army, and since leaving, my home has been rooms in London."
For a moment she envisioned rooms similar to the ones in Moor Street that she'd lived in with Marcus, but she dismissed the notion. No one had such deep polish and surety without luxury and privilege from the day they were born.
"I have no living family," she said. "Is that the case with you, too, my lord?"
"My parents and three of four grandparents are dead. I have two much older sisters, both married. We're not close. Some distant female cousins dangle on the family tree, but I don't know 'em."
Solitary, but careless of it. Like a cat. A fine blooded cat, sure of its position in the world and that all should do it reverence. The cat was playing with a mouse, but this mouse wouldn't be trapped. She let silence settle.
"Of course I have my new family," he said. "At the Abbey."
The reason for all this. "The previous viscount's mother and daughter, I understand. The situation must be difficult for them."
"And for me. Your husband was the son of a baron?"
"My father was a shopkeeper." There's your exit, sir. Take it.
"A bookseller, I understand, and a scholar of some repute."
Damn it. Of course, Ruth would have told him that.
He continued. "Your husband was an officer gallantly injured at Roleia."
"He was, my lord. You, too, were a soldier. You escaped without injury?"
She didn't mean it to be as insulting as it sounded. She would have apologized, but he seemed unmoved. "Superficial wounds only. I'm sound in wind and limb. Are you?"
She deserved that riposte. "Yes." She recognized an opening. "You will have noted that I have no children, my lord. That must be a concern to you." Another escape. Take it.
"Must it? If the viscountcy dies with me I won't turn a hair."
"Of course not, being dead," she said tartly, "but when living you will want to provide for the continuance of the title. Any man would."
"Ma'am, until a few weeks ago I'd never given a thought to the viscountcy of Dauntry, so its future is unlikely to disturb me now or in the hereafter."
"Are you ever disturbed?" Oh dear. That shouldn't have escaped.
He stared, as well he might. "It rarely serves any purpose."
"Yet you don't seem idle."
"Activity is generally most effective when taken calmly. Do you have any other questions?"
She'd won. He was going to end it. But she did have one question plaguing her. "You truly don't consider yourself blessed to have so unexpectedly become a peer, my lord?"
"Rather more like one of the flies that the wanton gods amuse themselves with for sport. Perhaps we are done?"
With a silent apology to Ruth, Kitty met him half way. "We are, my lord. We know this will not do."
"You don't consider yourself blessed by this unexpected opportunity, Mrs. Cateril?"
"I doubt anyone likes to be a fly, my lord. Or toyed with for sport."
He nodded in acknowledgement of that jab. "Why will our arrangement not do?"
Damn him. He was going to make her say it. "My origins are quite low, and though you didn't ask, I bring only a pittance to a marriage. On top of that, our encounter yesterday was unfortunate."
"Your appearance today might have reassured me, ma'am. As might your dog's obedience. Why is it staring at me?"
"She stares at people when they upset me in some way."
"How very perspicacious." He looked back at Kitty. "You lived your married life in London?"
Not a further inquisition. Kitty gave him the victory, and stood. "My lord, have done with this. We cannot marry."
He rose smoothly. "Why not?"
Seeking any reason, Kitty found one. "My mother-in-law could not bear it."
At last that disturbed – or at least surprised -- His Sleekness. "Why?" he asked.
Sillikin stepped closer to him. Kitty had no idea what the dog had in mind, but she picked her up to prevent mayhem. "My marrying again would offend against my husband's memory. I wouldn't want to hurt her."
"Yet you came."
"To see Ruth. I apologize for wasting your time, Lord Dauntry, and regret that I cannot oblige you." She dipped a curtsy. "I hope that won't affect your relationship with the Lulworths."
"I'm not so irrational." He made no move to leave. "Do I understand that you intend to return to your husband's family and live under a pall for the rest of your life?"
"It's a pleasant manor house," she protested.
"Where you'll be compelled to wear the sort of clothing you had on yesterday."
"You'd break a mother's heart without a blink?"
"I'd find a way around the problem."
"Oh, please do!" At her tone, Sillikin yipped and it was like a call to order. "I apologize, my lord. I shouldn't sink to squabbling."
"If you have done so, so have I, and I never squabble. If the problem of your mother-in-law was swept away, would you consider my offer of marriage?"
"It can't be."
"Extend your imagination, ma'am."
He snapped it as a command, so she did. Could she marry this man? Moments ago she'd been sure she couldn't. That she couldn't bear him. Now she was reminded of the alternative. So, could she marry him?
His title was almost as perfect a fit as his clothing. He was daunting. Like glass or marble Lord Dauntry seemed smooth and impenetrable, and clearly that was his nature as well. However, smooth and impenetrable might also mean calm and controlled. She wasn't attracted by such coolness, but she could tolerate it, especially as he intended to spend much of his time in Town.
Sillikin licked her chin. "You have wisdom to offer?" she asked, then blushed for it. She glanced back at Lord Dauntry, but saw no disapproval. She saw nothing she could make sense of. He was waiting as if he would wait forever, and yes, as if it were a matter of turnips or cabbages.
"Why?" she asked.
He didn't pretend confusion. "I need to make a practical marriage as soon as possible. Apart from occasional lapses and an odd habit of conferring with your dog, you seem a direct, forthright woman who is not easily overwhelmed. Moreover, if you will excuse frankness, you are easily to hand and have the endorsement of Mrs. Lulworth, whom I admire. Why are you hesitant?"
He waved that away with a gesture of a rather beautiful hand. "This marriage will be very advantageous to you. You will become Viscountess Dauntry and have all the wealth and privilege that entails. As husband, I will do my best not to distress you in any way as long as you do the same for me."
There was a subtle threat in that, but one she understood. She wasn't to object to his absence or anything he did when away. That would be no challenge. She could imagine the kind of mistress this man would have and the woman was welcome to him, as long as his peccadilloes took place far from her.
She didn't think Viscount Dauntry did anything in a petty way, but she'd be insane to refuse this opportunity, and the longer he waited patiently, the more she believed in his disinterested control.
She spoke before she lost courage. "I accept your offer, my lord."
"And your mother-in-law?"
She blushed for the deception. "As you implied, by coming here I'd already decided not to be ruled by her concerns. If she's distressed, I truly regret that, but I can't live in mourning forever."
"Grief can be a consuming emotion, but the grieving are generally able to see sense. A love match might wound her, but I won't replace her son in that way. I suggest that you write to her and explain my predicament, presenting the marriage as a practical and charitable act."
"You see my attempt to ease her mind as a fault?"
In a way, Kitty did. It was as if he were moving pieces on a chessboard, but she could see how it might work. She'd prefer not to add to Lady Cateril's pain.
"You could also claim to need a purpose in life," he suggested.
How had he guessed that would weigh with her mother-in-law?
"I'll write the letter," she said.
"Good. Shall we marry tomorrow?"
"I've already acquired a license."
She took a step back. "You were so sure of me, sir?"
"My dear lady, for a few shillings I could be prepared. That is all. Mrs. Lulworth supplied all the necessary information."
It was completely logical, but what sort of person did such a thing?
"I would prefer to wait."
"For Lord and Lady Cateril's blessing! If I write as you suggest, to marry before they even receive the letter would make any hint of consulting them hollow."
His lids lowered slightly, just maybe because she'd trumped his ace. She was hard put not to grin. She might be falling in with his plans, but she'd relish preventing him having it all his own sleek and dauntless way.
If there had been annoyance it was masked. "Then will it suit you to marry in a week?"
Kitty would prefer a month, but she could find no reasonable objection. Over a week she'd get to know him better and be able to truly settle her mind. There would still be the possibility of retreat.
"It will, my lord."
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