"The Earl of Riverdale," the butler announced after opening wide the double doors of the drawing room as though to admit a regiment and then standing to one side so that the gentleman named could stride past him.
The announcement was not strictly necessary. Wren had heard the arrival of his vehicle, and guessed it was a curricle rather than a traveling carriage, although she had not got to her feet to look. And he was almost exactly on time. She liked that. The two gentlemen who had come before him had been late, one by all of half an hour. Those two had been sent on their way as soon as was decently possible, though not only because of their tardiness. Mr. Sweeney, who had come a week ago, had bad teeth and a way of stretching his mouth to expose them at disconcertingly frequent intervals even when he was not actually smiling. Mr. Richman, who had come four days ago, had had no discernible personality, a fact that had been quite as disconcerting as Mr. Sweeney's teeth. Now here came the third.
He strode forward a few paces before coming to an abrupt halt as the butler closed the doors behind him. He looked about the room with apparent surprise at the discovery that it was occupied only by two women, one of whom-Maude, Wren's maid-was seated off in a corner, her head bent over some needlework, in the role of chaperon. His eyes came to rest upon Wren and he bowed.
"Miss Heyden?" It was a question.
Her first reaction after her initial approval of his punctuality was acute dismay. One glance told her he was not at all what she wanted.
He was tall, well formed, immaculately, elegantly tailored, dark haired, and impossibly handsome. And young-in his late twenties or early thirties, at a guess. If she were to dream up the perfect hero for the perfect romantic fairy tale, she could not do better than the very real man standing halfway across the room, waiting for her to confirm that she was indeed the lady who had invited him to take tea at Withington House.
But this was no fairy tale, and the sheer perfection of him alarmed her and caused her to lean back farther in her chair and deeper into the shade provided by the curtains drawn across the window on her side of the fireplace. She had not wanted a handsome man or even a particularly young man. She had hoped for someone older, more ordinary, perhaps balding or acquiring a bit of a paunch, pleasant-looking but basically . . . well, ordinary. With decent teeth and at least something of a personality. But she could hardly deny her identity and dismiss him without further ado.
"Yes," she said. "How do you do, Lord Riverdale? Do have a seat." She gestured to the chair across the hearth from her own. She knew something of social manners and ought, of course, to have risen to greet him, but she had good reason to keep to the shadows, at least for now.
He eyed the chair as he approached it and sat with obvious reluctance. "I do beg your pardon," he said. "I appear to be early. Punctuality is one of my besetting sins, I am afraid. I always make the mistake of assuming that when I am invited somewhere for half past two, I am expected to arrive at half past two. I hope some of your other guests will be here soon, including a few ladies."
She was further alarmed when he smiled. If it was possible to look more handsome than handsome, he was looking it. He had perfect teeth, and his eyes crinkled attractively at the corners when he smiled. And his eyes were very blue. Oh, this was wretched. Who was number four on her list?
"Punctuality is a virtue as far as I am concerned, Lord Riverdale," she said. "I am a businesswoman, as perhaps you are aware. To run a successful business, one must respect other people's time as well as one's own. You are on time. You see?" She swept one hand toward the clock ticking on the mantel. "It is twenty-five minutes to three. And I am not expecting any other guests."
His smile disappeared and he glanced at Maude before looking back at Wren. "I see," he said. "Perhaps you had not realized, Miss Heyden, that neither my mother nor my sister came into the country with me. Or perhaps you did not realize I have no wife to accompany me. I beg your pardon. I have no wish to cause you any embarrassment or to compromise you in any way." His hands closed about the arms of his chair in a signal that he was about to rise.
"But my invitation was addressed to you alone," she said. "I am no young girl to need to be hedged about with relatives to protect me from the dangerous company of single gentlemen. And I do have Maude for propriety's sake. We are neighbors of sorts, Lord Riverdale, though more than eight miles separate Withington House from Brambledean Court and I am not always here and you are not always there. Nevertheless, now that I am owner of Withington and have completed my year of mourning for my aunt and uncle, I have taken it upon myself to become acquainted with some of my neighbors. I entertained Mr. Sweeney here last week and Mr. Richman a few days after. Do you know them?"
He was frowning, and he had not removed his hands from the arms of his chair. He still looked uncomfortable and ready to spring to his feet at the earliest excuse. "I have an acquaintance with both gentlemen," he said, "though I cannot claim to know either one. I have been in possession of my title and property for only a year and have not spent much time here yet."
"Then I am fortunate you are here now," she said as the drawing room doors opened and the tea tray was carried in and set before her. She moved to the edge of her chair, turning without conscious intent slightly to her left as she did so, and poured the tea. Maude came silently across the room to hand the earl his cup and saucer and then to offer the plate of cakes.
"I did not know Mr. and Mrs. Heyden, your aunt and uncle," he said, nodding his thanks to Maude. "I am sorry for your loss. I understand they died within a very short while of each other."
"Yes," she said. "My aunt died a few days after taking to her bed with a severe headache, and my uncle died less than a week later. His health had been failing for some time, and I believe he simply gave up the struggle after she had gone. He doted upon her." And Aunt Megan upon him despite the thirty-year gap in their ages and the hurried nature of their marriage almost twenty years ago.
"I am sorry," he said again. "They raised you?"
"Yes," she said. "They could not have done better by me if they had been my parents. Your predecessor did not live at Brambledean, I understand, or visit often. I speak of the late Earl of Riverdale, not his unfortunate son. Do you intend to take up permanent residence there?"
The unfortunate son, Wren had learned, had succeeded to the title until it was discovered that his father had contracted a secret marriage as a very young man and that the secret wife had still been alive when he married the mother of his three children. Those children, already adult, had suddenly found themselves to be illegitimate, and the new earl had lost the title to the man now seated on the other side of the hearth. The late earl's first marriage had produced one legitimate child, a daughter, who had grown up at an orphanage in Bath, knowing nothing of her identity. All this and more Wren had learned before adding the earl to her list. The story had been sensational news last year and had kept the gossip mills grinding for weeks. The details had not been difficult to unearth when there were servants and tradespeople only too eager to share what came their way.
One never knew quite where truth ended and exaggeration or misunderstanding or speculation or downright falsehood began, of course, but Wren did know a surprising amount about her neighbors, considering the fact that she had absolutely no social dealings with them. She knew, for example, that both Mr. Sweeney and Mr. Richman were respectable but impoverished gentlemen. And she knew that Brambledean had been almost totally neglected by the late earl, who had left it to be mismanaged almost to the point of total ruin by a lazy steward who graced the taproom of his local inn more often than his office. By now the house and estate needed the infusion of a vast sum of money.
Wren had heard that the new earl was a conscientious gentleman of comfortable means, but that he was not nearly wealthy enough to cope with the enormity of the disaster he had inherited so unexpectedly. The late earl had not been a poor man. Far from it, in fact. But his fortune had gone to his legitimate daughter. She might have saved the day by marrying the new earl and so reuniting the entailed property with the fortune, but she had married the Duke of Netherby instead. Wren could well understand why the many-faceted story had so dominated conversation both above and below stairs last year.
"I do intend to live at Brambledean," the Earl of Riverdale said. He was frowning into his cup. "I have another home in Kent, of which I am dearly fond, but I am needed here, and an absentee landlord is rarely a good landlord. The people dependent upon me here deserve better."
He looked every bit as handsome when he was frowning as he did when he smiled. Wren hesitated. It was not too late to send him on his way, as she had done with his two predecessors. She had given a plausible reason for inviting him and had plied him with tea and cakes. He would doubtless go away thinking her eccentric. He would probably disapprove of her inviting him alone when she was a single lady with only the flimsy chaperonage of a maid. But he would shrug off the encounter soon enough and forget about her. And she did not really care what he might think or say about her anyway.
But now she remembered that number four on her list, a man in his late fifties, had always professed himself to be a confirmed bachelor, and number five was reputed to complain almost constantly of ailments both real and imagined. She had added them only because the list had looked pathetically short with just three names.
"I understand, Lord Riverdale," she said, "that you are not a wealthy man." Now perhaps it was too late-or very nearly so. If she sent him away now, he would think her vulgar as well as eccentric and careless of her reputation.
He took his time about setting his cup and saucer down on the table beside him before turning his eyes upon her. Only the slight flaring of his nostrils warned her that she had angered him. "Do you indeed?" he said, a distinct note of hauteur in his voice. "I thank you for the tea, Miss Heyden. I will take no more of your time." He stood up.
"I could offer a solution," she said, and now it was very definitely too late to retreat. "To your relatively impoverished state, that is. You need money to undo the neglect of years at Brambledean and to fulfill your duty to the people dependent upon you there. It might take you years, perhaps even the rest of your life, if you do it only through careful management. It is unfortunately necessary to put a great deal of money into a business before one can get money out of it. Perhaps you are considering taking out a loan or a mortgage if the property is not already mortgaged. Or perhaps you intend to marry a rich wife."
He stood very straight and tall, and his jaw had set into a hard line. His nostrils were still flared. He looked magnificent and even slightly menacing, and for a moment Wren regretted the words she had already spoken. But it was too late now to unsay them.
"I beg to inform you, Miss Heyden," he said curtly, "that I find your curiosity offensive. Good day to you."
"You are perhaps aware," she said, "that my uncle was enormously rich, much of his wealth deriving from the glassworks he owned in Staffordshire. He left everything to me, my aunt having predeceased him. He taught me a great deal about the business, which I helped him run during his last years and now run myself. The business has lost none of its momentum in the last year, and is, indeed, gradually expanding. And there are properties and investments even apart from that. I am a very wealthy woman, Lord Riverdale. But my life lacks something, just as yours lacks ready money. I am twenty-nine years old, very nearly thirty, and I would like . . . someone to wed. In my own person I am not marriageable, but I do have money. And you do not."
She paused to see if he had something to say, but he looked as though he were rooted to the spot, his eyes fixed upon her, his jaw like granite. She was suddenly very glad Maude was in the room, though her presence was also embarrassing. Maude did not approve of any of this and did not scruple to say so when they were alone.
"Perhaps we could combine forces and each acquire what we want," Wren said.
"You are offering me . . . marriage?" he asked.
Had she not made herself clear? "Yes," she said. He continued to stare at her, and she became uncomfortably aware of the ticking of the clock.
"Miss Heyden," he said at last, "I have not even seen your face."
Copyright © 2017 by Mary Balogh. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.