Someone to Wed Page 2

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.”

Alexander Westcott, Earl of Riverdale, felt rather as though he had wandered into one of those bizarre dreams that did not seem to arise from anything he had ever experienced in the waking world. He had come in answer to an invitation from a distant neighbor. He had accepted many such invitations since coming into Wiltshire to the home and estate he really would very much rather not have inherited. It was incumbent upon him to meet and establish friendly relationships with the people among whom he intended to live.

No one he had asked knew anything much about Miss Heyden beyond the fact that she was the niece of a Mr. and Mrs. Heyden, who had died within days of each other a year or so ago and left her Withington House. They had attended some of the social functions close to Brambledean, his butler seemed to recall, though not many, probably because of the distance. He had heard no mention of their niece’s ever being with them, though. William Bufford, Alexander’s steward, had not been able to add anything. He had held the position for only four months, since the former steward had been let go with a generous bonus he had in no way earned. Mr. Heyden had been a very elderly gentleman, according to the butler. Alexander had assumed, then, that the niece was probably in late middle age and was making an effort to establish herself in the home that was now hers by inviting neighbors from near and far to tea.

He had certainly not expected to be the lone guest of a lady who was almost surely younger than he had estimated. He was not quite sure how much younger. She had not risen to greet him but had remained seated in a chair that had been pushed farther to the side of the hearth than the one across from it and farther into the shade provided by a heavily curtained window. The rest of the room was bright with sunlight, making the contrast more noticeable and making the lady less visible. She sat gracefully in her chair and appeared youthfully slim. Her hands were slender, long fingered, well manicured, and young. Her voice, soft and low pitched, was not that of a girl, but neither was it that of an older woman. His guess was confirmed when she told him she was almost thirty—his own age.

She was wearing a gray dress, perhaps as half mourning. It was stylish and becoming enough. And over her head and face she wore a black veil. He could see her hair and her face through it, but neither with any clarity. It was impossible to know what color her hair was and equally impossible to see her features. She had eaten nothing with her tea, and when she drank, she had held the veil outward with one hand gracefully bent at the wrist and moved her cup beneath it.

To say that he had been uncomfortable since entering the room would be hugely to understate the case. And more and more as the minutes passed he had been wishing he had simply turned around and left as soon as he had understood the situation. It might have appeared ill-mannered, but good God, his being here alone with her—he hardly counted the presence of the maid—was downright improper.

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