"Ms. Beverley exquisitely crafts a beautifully complex love story that will become a treasured addition to every regency connoiseur's bookshelf." Melinda Helfer, Romantic Times, November 1992|
(Comment by Jo: The new cover is on the left, the old on the right. I have to say that I prefer the old one. This is a rare case where I feel the artist captured my characters, though Judith is somewhat plumper. We'll ignore the unlikely Christmas tree!)
Excerpts from the Regency romance,
Leander Knollis, Earl of Charrington, has returned to England to take up his responsibilities and wishes to marry. However, he wants a wife who will not fall in love with him. Passionate love is an emotion he has never felt, but unfortunately he seems to inspire it in impressionable young ladies. He has sought refuge at the country house of a friend, the Marquess of Arden, and asked help of him and his new wife. Now he overhears them discussing a candidate in the stables.
"Sorry if I was eavesdropping," he said, "but no one can resist the sound of their own name. Do I gather you have a candidate for my hand?"
It was all very light but Beth sensed a serious interest. Whatever was motivating Leander Knollis it was not a whim soon to be forgotten. She purposefully didn't look at Lucien. "I thought so, but Lucien has pointed out that she's ineligible on all counts."
Leander picked a straw out of a bale and twirled it. "Not on all counts, surely. You are far too clever to have scored a duck, Beth. What makes her eligible?"
Beth shrugged. "She's highly unlikely to fall in love with you. It's the local melodrama. She was married to Sebastian Rossiter, a poet who rented Mayfield House in the village. He died before I married Lucien, so I never met him, but at the drop of a hat any of the locals will tell you the affecting story."
"It'll affect you to nausea," Lucien interjected, shrugging into his jacket. "Sebastian Rossiter was a strip of dreamy wind with long flaxen ringlets -- I'll swear he put them in curling papers -- and long, limp white hands. I'm surprised he managed to beget two children."
"He was very beautiful," countered Beth firmly, "or so the local ladies say. He was also gentle, kind, generous, and utterly devoted to his wife. They were madly in love, never apart. He wrote nearly all his poems about her, or to her. I believe one had a minor success -- My Angel Bride."
Lucien emotively quoted, "Though Angels throng the Heavens high,/ And bend to soothe each human sigh,/ Mere man's bereft on this bleak earth/ Lacking an Angel by his hearth." Though he declaimed it satirically, even he could not entirely blight the beauty of the sentiment. "There's more. Let's see... "My Judith sits in God's pure light/ And holds our child to bosom white./ And dew that pearls the gleaming grass/ Shows Angels' envy as they pass."
"I certainly couldn't compete with that when courting."
Lucien shook his head. "I'd disown you if you were to try."
"So," said Leander, "what are the impediments to the match?"
"Two children," said Beth.
"A boy of eleven and a girl of six."
Leander considered it. "I don't see any problem there. The boy is old enough not to become confused about our own children and the inheritance. In fact," he said with a sudden inexplicable gleam in his eye, "I'd quite like a ready-made family."
Beth shared a look with Lucien.
"Lee," said Lucien, "think how old that makes her."
Lee considered. "Over thirty?"
"Not quite that, I suppose, but you're only twenty-five."
"Why the heat? Nearly all my lovers have been older than I. In fact my father's firm advice was to have nothing to do with a woman younger than myself until I was at least thirty. I should have listened. If I'd gone bride-hunting among the older set from the start I'd have been far more likely to find a woman of sense, one too wise to make a fool of herself over me."
He nodded contentedly. "Marriages of practicality are still common on the Continent, you know. I'm not uneasy at the notion. As long as this widow's still likely to bear me a few children, I don't care about her age. However, I see no reason why the lady would consider me if she still grieves as much as you say."
Beth was succinct. "Money."
"Poetry not lucrative?"
"One gathers not, though My Angel Bride was on every sentimental school-girl's lips a few years back. Not everyone can be a Byron, I suppose. When Mr. Rossiter died the widow had to leave Mayfield House and take a cottage in the village. I gather she is one of a large family of a curate and can expect little help from that quarter. Her son is coming to an age to need schooling and a start in life. It's possible that she has been able to put money aside for her children's future, but I doubt it."
Lee leaned against the edge of a stall and stroked a horse's nose. "I have to confess, it seems a situation cut to my requirements." He looked at Lucien. "What bothers you?"
"Go to hell in a handcart if you wish," said Lucien shortly. "But," he added, putting a hand on Beth's shoulder, "love in marriage is not a thing lightly to dismiss."
Judith Rossiter straightened from the washing tub, hissing as her back complained. She hated washing-day. She had the sheets and underclothes boiling in one corner of the small kitchen, and was wringing out the colored garments. Her hands were red and the room was heavy with sour steam.
She was nearly finished with this task, but it seemed that the work was never, ever, done. Now she had scraped together the money to buy more dried fruit, she had to chop it for the Christmas mincemeat. That meant there were raisins to be stoned, another job she disliked.
Perhaps she should look on the bright side; poverty had reduced the number of raisins to be stoned.
She sighed over it. If she put in lots of apples maybe no one would notice the lack of imported dried fruits. She was determined, one way or another, to give her children a proper Christmas.
She threw the last item into the tub and called Rosie to help her to peg out. She hauled the tub onto her hip, and went out into the garden.
She was assailed by delicious, fresh, cool air, and stole a moment to relish it.
It was a lovely late autumn day. The air was crisp, the sky clear blue, and the leaves on the trees were russet and gold. As she watched, some drifted down to join the gilded carpet on the ground.
When Sebastian was alive they would walk out on days like this, across fields and through woods. The children would run about and explore, while Sebastian thought up elegant phrases and noted them in his book. Judith would just drink in the sights, the sounds, and the aromas, and be content.
There had been money then. Not a lot, but enough with careful management for a cook, two maids, a gardener, and leisure.
Time and security, the two things she missed most.
Six-year-old Rosie, a pretty girl with her father's fly-away pale blond hair and her mother's big blue eyes, came running to help. She passed the pegs and supported trailing ends as Judith fixed the laundry to the rope.
By the time they'd come to the bottom of the tub, Bastian, as her second Sebastian was always called, came out. "Can I help you with the prop, mama?"
Judith smiled. "Thank you, dear. That would be wonderful."
The two children fixed the forked end of the long stick under the line then pushed up, settling the other end securely in the earth. They checked the laundry was raised well away from ground and bushes and that the prop was secure then turned, well-satisfied with themselves.
Judith gave them both a hug. She was blessed with wonderful children. They didn't complain at their simple life, and they did their best to help with the work. They were her greatest joy, but also her greatest concern. She noted that Bastian's head was up to her shoulder now. Her first babe was growing fast, too fast. Keeping him in clothes was a strain on her purse, and she had no idea how to provide for his future.
She knew her own family would always give her and the children a roof over their heads, but more than that was impossible.
Sebastian's family were not particularly wealthy either, but they had provided a small but adequate annuity for him when he decided to set up as a poet. It had continued even after his parents' deaths, and been sufficient. Judith had not known that income would die with Sebastian.
That blow, on top of his sudden death, had almost undone her. She had written to his brother and received help. Thank heavens for Timothy Rossiter. If it weren't for that small quarterly allowance, she didn't know what she would do. From his letters, she feared Timothy could ill-afford it, but she could not refuse to take it.
If only Sebastian's poems had made money, even a little, but instead he had actually paid to have them printed -- on vellum, bound in Cordovan leather -- and then given the handsome copies away. It had seemed a harmless indulgence when the money had been available, but now she grudged every glossy leather volume.
He had kept one copy of each work. They sat in a row in the front room of the cottage -- eight slim volumes full of poetry about her. Her sole inheritance.
She was occasionally visited by the traitorous thought that real devotion would have been more provident.
She had just enough money for this austere life, but there was nothing to spare. Even the fee for an apprenticeship in some skill would be a perilous expenditure, and Bastian was entitled to more than that.
"Mama." Bastian's voice was a welcome interruption to depressing thoughts. "You know Georgie's rat?"
Judith shuddered. She knew Wellington all too well. Georgie was Bastian's closest friend, and Wellington was Georgie's inseparable companion. The creature was well-behaved and even seemed clean, but she still had an urge to beat it with a broom.
Bastian took the shudder as answer. He sighed. "I don't suppose you'd let me have one..."
"But it wouldn't eat much, and Georgie's found another clutch of babies. He's taking one for himself, because Wellington's getting old-"
"No, Bastian. I'm sorry, but I could not tolerate a rat in the house. Off you go now, both of you and finish your work." Impulsively, she decided the raisins could wait. "When I'm finished the whites," she promised, "we'll walk down to the river."
They hurried back into the house, and Judith sighed. Really, they asked for so little, and got even less... But a rat! The Hubble's cat had just had kittens. Perhaps she should take one, and that would do as well...
Judith went back to the laundry, popping into the front room of the cottage to check that the children were doing their work correctly, and praising them. They were both so bright and good. They deserved a chance in life. Was she to see them end as servants?
As she began to haul the steaming whites out of the boiler and into the rinse water, she thought bitterly that a more useful woman would be able to earn some money -- be able to write novels or paint pictures. Something with a marketable value. The only thing of excellence she could create was elderberry wine. She looked at the rows of newly-bottled wine, her hope of some small increment to their income, and sighed.
They would make no impression at all on her desperate situation.
Leander told the publican that he was a guest of the Marquess of Arden and soon had the beefy man chatting. It was a natural skill of his to put all kinds of people at their ease.
"And I hear you had a famous poet in these parts?" he asked at one point.
"Aye, sir. Mr. Rossiter. He could spin a lovely verse, he could. Had 'em printed up in Lunnon."
"Died, I hear."
"Aye, over a year back." The man shook his head. "Took a chill and it settled. Never did have the look of a hearty man, if you know what I mean. Once or twice I said to him, `You ought to take to drinking stout, Mr. Rossiter,' I said. But he mostly drank tea and water, and never a barley brew. And look what come of it."
Leander took a deep draught of his ale to prove he wasn't so foolish. "Indeed, but perhaps it's the poetic temperament. So many of them seem to die young. Did he have family hereabouts?"
"Came from Lunnon, as I hear tell, sir. But he married a Hunstead girl. His wife and children still live in the village. If you know of him, you'll know of her. Wrote nearly all his poems to his Judith."
"Ah yes." Leander put on a sentimental expression. "My Angel Bride."
"That's right, sir!" declared the man with a pleased smile. "Can't say I go for that sort of rhyme misself, but the womenfolk love it."
"It was a very affecting piece. Does the lady live nearby? I would like to gain a glimpse of her."
The innkeeper gave him a narrow look then shrugged. "She seems to be quite famous. I've been asked afore." He gave directions to the cottage. "You might care to visit Mr. Rossiter's grave, sir. A very touching monument his widow raised, I must say." He leant forward confidentially. "Round here they call her the Weeping Widow, took it so hard she did."
Well, why not? A wise soldier scouts the territory before going into action. Leander paid for his ale, checked on his horse, and strolled off toward the village church and graveyard.
The church was ancient -- he thought he saw Saxon work -- and the churchyard was graced with mighty spreading trees and old, tilted stones covered with moss. Beyond the ranks of stones the land sloped away down to the same river that wound along the edge of the gardens at Hartwell.
He wandered through the churchyard looking for the poet's grave. It was easy to find because of its newness and grandeur. In fact, it looked very out-of-place. An angel drooped on a pedestal, weeping, two cherubs at its -- her? -- knee.
He read the inscription.
In loving memory of Sebastian Arthur Rossiter, Poet
Born May 12th. 1770. Died October 3rd. 1814.
Sadly mourned by his wife Judith
and his two children, Bastian and Rosie.
He had been a good deal older than his wife, then. Leander had gained the impression that he was a young man. There was a verse engraved below.
When I am gone to rest be sure, my dear,
That I will watch and treasure every tear.
On high, forever faithful, I will wait
Longing to greet my angel at the gate.
Presumably the poet had composed his own epitaph. Leander thought it distastefully morbid and possessive but noted there were fresh flowers on the grave. He questioned his plan. Would there be a ghost in the marriage bed?
Pondering this, he continued through the graves and down the slope to the river's edge to idly toss stones into the shallow water.
He wondered whether Judith Rossiter really did long to join her dead husband; what it was like to feel such grief. He hadn't mourned his parents, for his father had been too wrapped up in his work to engender fondness, and his mother had been too wrapped up in his father. He'd grieved for the death of a number of brothers-in-arms, but he'd felt damn-all desire to share their fate.
If this miserable clinging was the consequence of love he was better off without it.
But then he found himself thinking of Lucien and Beth. They'd made him welcome and not at all uncomfortable, and yet he sensed the power of the bond between them. They fought -- which wasn't surprising in view of Lucien's blue-blooded arrogance and Beth's egalitarian principles -- but they were bound together in a way no petty disagreement could touch.
That, he supposed, was love. But he couldn't imagine, if either Beth or Lucien should die, them wanting the survivor to hurry to meet them.
It would be hell to be married to a woman who thought only of joining her first mate in the grave. He laughed at his situation. It appeared his choice was either a wife who drooped over him from excessive devotion, or one who did the same from excessive grief.
Really, Vienna would be a far more sensible choice...
He heard the laughter of children and turned just as they ran into view between the gravestones and headed down the hill. He thought they were the Rossiter children. They paused momentarily but then came on -- startled by a stranger but unafraid.
They seemed unsure, however, as to whether to speak or not, and so he did. "Good day. Do you live around here?"
The boy gave a little bow. "Yes sir. In the village." He was handsome, with dark curls and an attractive confidence in his manner.
"I'm staying with the Marquess of Arden," Leander offered as credentials. "He has a place farther along the river, as you doubtless know. My name's Charrington. Lord Charrington."
The boy bowed again. "Pleased to meet you, my lord. I'm Bastian Rossiter, and this is my sister, Rosie."
It was them indeed. Was this a augury from the gods?
The girl, who had bewitching deep blue eyes and flaxen hair like silk on her shoulders, drew herself up. "Rosetta," she said firmly.
Her brother groaned, but Leander gave her a very proper bow. "Delighted to make your acquaintance, Miss Rosetta Rossiter."
With a grin that showed two charming dimples she returned the honor with a curtsy.
Leander looked up to find their mother had come up behind, a neutral expression on her face, but wariness in her eyes -- large blue eyes, just like her daughter's, but made even finer by thick dark lashes. She didn't look lugubrious, thank God. In fact she looked sound as a ripe peach. He glanced meaningfully at Bastian and the boy took the hint.
"Mama, may I present Lord Charrington? He's staying at Hartwell. Sir, this is my mother, Mrs. Rossiter." Then he looked between them anxiously. "Did I do that right?"
"Perfectly," said Leander, and was rewarded by a touch of warmth in the widow's expression. She held out a black-gloved hand. "My lord."
He took it, making rapid inventory. She was above average height so her lovely eyes were almost on a level with his own. Her dark hair was now firmly tamed under a plain black bonnet. Other than those eyes, her face was unremarkable except for a hint of roundness in the cheeks. He suspected there'd be dimples if she ever smiled. The roundness and the eyes gave an impression of youth that most women would envy.
Perhaps that illusion of youth was what suddenly made him feel protective, or like a knight errant come to rescue the lady in the tower. He was drawn to her. He wouldn't at all mind taking her to wife. Should he seize the moment?
To achieve anything, he needed to keep her in conversation. Presumably the easiest opening would be the dear departed. "If I may be so bold," he said, "I assume you to be related to Mr. Rossiter, the poet."
"That is so," she said without particular warmth, most of her attention on her children, who were walking ahead. "I am his widow."
"A sad loss. Please accept my condolences."
She was clearly not thrilled by this conversation. The children had run off to investigate the shallows of the river, and she moved to follow them.
Leander went along. It was refreshing that she wasn't blushing and simpering at first acquaintance, but he found that for once in his life he was struggling for something to say. "This is a beautiful churchyard in which to take his final rest."
She glanced at him. "It is indeed a charming spot, my lord, though I can see no reason, sentimental or spiritual, why the dead should be supposed to care."
As she walked on, Leander realized he was making a fool of himself. Clearly, no matter how deep her grief, the widow was not to be reached by the sentimental route. For a moment he was annoyed by the absurd situation in which he found himself, but then he smiled and adjusted the tilt of his elegant beaver.
By her cool behavior the lady had passed the last test. There was nothing about her he found objectionable.
The wisest course now would be to seek some conventional way of courting her, but that could be difficult. Beth had told him the Widow took no part in County life, and had little free time. He wanted all this settled so he could get on with his plans. He couldn't spend months hanging around Surrey.
Why shouldn't he just press his suit? He was, after all, the one who had managed to pacify the Duke of Brunswick after he had been insulted by one of the minor Bourbons and was flirting with the idea of throwing his state behind Napoleon. Persuading a penniless widow to become a countess should be child's play.
Still, he hesitated.
He hesitated, he realized, because he cared about the outcome. There was something about this composed woman which made him want to know her better, and ease her way in life. He was attracted to her children.
Good God, he actually wanted to marry her!
She stopped her stroll and glanced back at him, clearly wondering about his actions. A slight smile tugged at her lips. "Should I apologize, my lord? I fear I shocked you."
There was the faintest hint of dimples.
She was referring to her comment about the dead. He walked to join her. "No," he said, "but I fear I am about to shock you."
A flicker of wariness passed over her face and she glanced once at her children, made a move toward them.
"Please," he said quickly, "I'm not going to do anything you wouldn't like.... Good heavens! Would you believe I was reputed to have a golden future as a diplomat?"
She relaxed slightly, and her lips twitched. Those dimples flickered once again. He conceived a strong desire to see them in all their glory.
"Not at this moment, no," she said. "Is there some way I can help you, my lord?"
He pulled himself together and gave her one of his best smiles. "Yes, in fact there is. I would like to talk to you about it. I see a stone over there well shaped for sitting, if it would not be too cold."
After the briefest hesitation she walked toward it. "Not at all. I usually do sit here while the children play. They call it my throne."
She sat on the lump of granite, gathering her black bombazine skirts neatly together. With permission he sat beside her. There was not a lot of room but she made no silly protest about them sitting so close. He liked her more by the moment.
She turned to look at him with polite expectation.
"You are going to find this a little strange..."
"And even shocking," she added quizzically.
A sense of humor as well. "I hope not too much so." He still could not quite see how to open the subject.
There was distinct amusement in her eyes. "I'm likely to be so overwhelmed with curiosity, my lord, that I'll take a fit of the vapors, and scare you to death. Have pity, please."
He laughed. "One of the first lessons a fledgling diplomat learns, Mrs. Rossiter, is how to handle a lady with the vapors." Even so, he couldn't imagine this woman in a state of collapse. For a moment he wondered if he had the wrong lady and was about to propose to the vicar's wife or such. But then he remembered that she had admitted to being the poet's widow.
He braced himself. "Despite my diplomatic background, Mrs. Rossiter, I can see no fancy way to dress this up that would serve any purpose at all." He summoned up an expression of sober worthiness. "The simple truth is that I would like to marry you."
She paled. In a second she was up and standing, looking away. "Oh, good heavens," she said. The tone was pure exasperation.
It was not a response he had expected. He rose to his feet too. "It may be precipitate, but it is an honest offer, ma'am."
She turned back, eyes snapping. "Honest! When you don't know anything about the woman you are proposing to take to wife?"
"I know enough."
"Do you indeed? I can't imagine how. Well, so do I know enough. The answer, sir, is no."
She was marching away. Leander hurried after, feeling more like a green boy than he had since he was sixteen, when he'd tried to kiss a daughter of the Duke de Ferrugino and had his face soundly slapped. If the Rogues ever heard of this they'd die laughing.
He caught up to her. "Mrs. Rossiter. Please listen to me! I can offer you all kinds of advantages."
She whirled around in a swirl of black skirts to face him almost nose to nose. "Name one. And no, I do not need any more odes to my eyes!"
He stared at her. Those eyes were so magnificent filled with rage that he was tempted to try. But he said, "That's as well. I wouldn't know where to start."
She took a step back. "You are not a poet?"
He extended his hands. "Diplomat. Linguist. Soldier. Earl. No odes on any subject, I give you my word."
"Earl?" she asked dazedly.
He bowed, thinking that at last they were making progress. "Leander Knollis, at your service, ma'am. Earl of Charrington, of Temple Knollis in Somerset."
"Temple Knollis?" she queried faintly, showing the awe with which he was all too familiar. At the moment, however, he'd take any advantage he could get.
"Yes. There's a London house too, and a hunting box. An estate in Sussex, and a place in Cumberland I've never seen." Good lord, he thought. I sound like the veriest mushroom listing off my properties like this.
Perhaps she thought the same. Color flushed her cheeks. "I don't know what game you are playing, sir, but I think it unconscionable of you to amuse yourself at my expense. Bastian! Rosie!" she called out. "Come along. We must leave."
The children ran over. Bastian took one look at his mother and turned on Leander pugnaciously.
Leander backed off. "Don't fight me, lad. I'd have to let you win or your mother will never marry me."
The children stared at them both wide-eyed.
Judith Rossiter, however, glared at him as if she'd like a mill herself. He saw her hands were clenched into serviceable fists. "Good-day!" she snapped and stormed off up the hill, her children running behind. She was like a ship of the line with a pair of pinnaces in tow. He could quite imagine that at any moment she would turn and broadside him into oblivion.
Leander watched them go, wondering ruefully what had possessed him to so mishandle matters.
Leander gets Beth Arden to intervene on his behalf so that Judith will give him another chance.
She had allowed Lady Arden to persuade her to this appointment. The marchioness had brought her back in the carriage, insisting that the children come too. Bastian and Rosie were now being entertained by the marquess and marchioness in the stables, and Judith wasn't at all sure this wasn't a subtle form of pressure.
Bastian's eyes had shone at the mere thought of being around horses again, for his pony had been sold on Sebastian's death. Judith couldn't ignore the fact that as Bastian's step-father the earl would surely provide him with another one. For that, almost any sacrifice seemed worthwhile.
But she wouldn't allow herself to forget that there was always a price to pay, and it might not just be herself who paid it. If she married Lord Charrington she would be putting herself and her children in his power, and he was undoubtedly powerful.
If things went wrong they could end up in an even worse situation than at present, and perhaps with more children to be hurt...
The door clicked open and she whirled around.
He halted, hand still on knob, expression very serious. "My dear lady, I cannot have frightened so badly, can I?"
Judith pulled herself together. "Of course not, my lord. You just startled me."
He closed the door and came over to join her. "That was only too obvious."
She knew he referred to the day before, not the present, and felt color in her cheeks. Her reaction had been entirely reasonable, but she feared she had ranted like a fishwife. She had no intention of apologizing. She glanced at him, trying to study him without being ill-mannered.
"Please," he said, extending his hands gracefully. "Look your fill. It is only natural."
That hardly helped her compose herself, but she raised her chin and did exactly that.
He was only a little taller than she. His build was slim, but his shoulders were wide, his legs strong, and she had noticed that he moved with lithe ease. His face had a fine-boned elegance, but no remarkable feature except his eyes, which were of a bronzish color and caught the light. Set a little deep under elegantly curving brows they had the power to capture the attention.
In looks he was not extraordinary, and yet he had presence. He seemed like a creature from another world, more so even than the marquess. Lord Arden was very handsome and had the air of the ton, but he was somehow comfortably English. Without ever having met a foreigner, Judith sensed that Lord Charrington was foreign.
He also appeared to be completely in control of the situation. The impetuous young man of the day before had gone, and in his stead was this polished aristocrat.
"I am twenty-five years old," he said calmly, "wealthy, of equable temperament, and with no particular vices. I was born in Istanbul, raised in many places with English attendants, and educated at Harrow. I did not go up to university here but spent brief spells at Utrecht, Lucerne, and Rome. I served with Lord Silchester, mainly in Russia, before joining the Guards. I fought in the Peninsular, and then at Waterloo. I was wounded three times but only slightly. I have scars but no lingering disability."
Judith looked at him during this astonishing recital thinking that this surely must be a fevered dream.
Matching his tone, she said, "My dear sir, I am twenty-nine. I will be thirty in two months. I have two children and have never been more than fifty miles from this spot. I have no remarkable features or accomplishments other than housewifery. What can you possibly want with me?"
He was undisturbed and even smiled. He gestured to a chair. "Please, Mrs. Rossiter, will you be seated." When they were settled he said, "I told you yesterday. I wish to marry you. I cannot explain my reasons in full but I assure you there is nothing in them that will be to your disadvantage. To be blunt, I wish to marry and settle down, and I do not want a bride who will expect more from me than I am able to give."
Judith's instincts told her he was telling the truth in so far as it went, but she could hardly believe it. She was almost afraid to believe it. She had not admitted to herself how much her situation frightened her until now when a door was just possibly being opened, being opened to a blindingly bright future. "And what is it that you are able to give, my lord?"
He considered it carefully. "Respect, care, and kindness"
What more could anyone want? "And what will I be expected to give in return?"
"I hope for the same, but the bare minimum of good manners will suffice."
She took in a deep breath. "You ask so little. I must question this."
A raised his brows. "Very well then. You will curtsy to me when meeting, prepare my food with your own hands, and dance naked before the fire for me every night."
She thought she saw teasing humor in his eyes, but she wasn't entirely sure. It was nervousness that made her laugh at his words. "Can you not make it make better sense of it for me, my lord?"
He raised a hand in an expressive gesture of helplessness. Really, he spoke with his hands in a way she had never seen before. "It makes me sound a coxcomb," he said. "But... I have always had the talent of putting people at their ease, Mrs. Rossiter. It was partly inherited, for my father possessed it, but growing up in diplomatic circles honed it. That upbringing also gave me, I am told, a Continental air which Englishmen distrust, and Englishwomen admire. I did not realize until recently, however, that my talent and my air appear to have a somewhat devastating effect on susceptible young Englishwomen."
"They swoon at the sight of you?" she asked skeptically. He was an attractive man, but hardly stunning.
"That, thank heavens, happened only once. But they lose their hearts with alarming frequency."
She stared. "Someone actually swooned at your feet?"
He smiled in self-derision. "Devilish embarrassing. I was escaping an amorous heiress and thought I'd be safe with a very dull-looking wall-flower. I asked her to dance. She stood, took two steps, and passed out."
"Well at least you are trained to handle the vapors," she remarked, and his lips twitched in acknowledgement of her sally.
He shook his head. "In this case, I flunked. Her chaperone rushed to attend her and I slipped away. In fact, I slipped away to Hartwell."
Judith felt sorry for them both. "You do realize she had probably been watching you from afar, weaving private romantic dreams, safe in the knowledge that you would never even notice her existence. The reality was just too much."
"I suppose that's how it was," he said with a grimace, "but you can see why I fled. Apart from anything else I have no taste for hurting people. In fact I have an aversion to it. In the circles in which I grew up, hurt feelings and arguments could lead to massacres."
Judith was rapidly becoming fascinated. "Strange then that you became a soldier."
"Oh, fighting's not the same," he said, with a dismissive gesture. "In fact, I welcomed the honesty of it. It's hurting people's feelings I can't abide. That's why I want to marry a woman who won't expect too much."
How does one hurt bodies without hurting feelings, Judith wondered. "And you think I am such a woman?"
"Are you not?"
Judith considered him thoughtfully. It all rang true, and though she couldn't quite understand this devastating effect he appeared to have on the beauties of Almack's, she did not find it incredible. He was having something of an effect on her with his moments of mischievous humor, his aura of sophistication, and those sleepy, cat-like eyes.
It was still ridiculous. She had never even dreamt such a man existed and she was supposed to marry him?
But if this was an honest offer it was an answer to a prayer she would never even have dared to send on high.
She sickeningly realized that he was only offering this golden opportunity because of a misapprehension, and she had always been an honest woman. What was she to do?
"So you wouldn't want me to fall in love with you," she said.
"And you don't believe you will develop such feelings for me?"
He hesitated but then said, "Correct. That is no reflection on you, Mrs. Rossiter. I simply seem to lack the faculty of romantic love."
Could she believe anything so unlikely? Why should he lie?
She had once been a mad romantic, which was how she had ended up married to Sebastian, who had shown her that romantic love left a great deal to be desired. It would not bother her at all to be free of such foolishness, especially when promised respect, care, and kindness. And freedom from want.
She still felt there must be a fly in this sweet-smelling ointment.
"You will care for my children?" she queried.
"It will give me pleasure to do so. They seem excellent specimens."
Judith was very aware that in considering this match she was, in a sense, considering it on her children's behalf. Her marriage would give Leander a father's power over them. Even sweet-natured Sebastian had turned petulant occasionally, said hurtful things to them, and even hit them. He had once spanked little Rosie with what Judith thought most un-called for severity.
"They are not above being naughty, my lord. What are your ideas on discipline?"
He considered her question carefully. "Being a parent would be completely new to me, and I assure you I would listen to your advice, Mrs. Rossiter. You are much more familiar with the business than I. As I see it, however, there would be two ways of dealing with such things. I could leave the management of Bastian and Rosie entirely up to you, but would not expect to do so with my own children. You do realize that I would hope to have children with you?"
"Of course." She had never expected otherwise and yet could feel her cheeks heat at the subject. It was very difficult to imagine the intimacies of marriage with this elegant stranger. This young, elegant stranger.
"However," he continued, "it doesn't seem to me desirable that Bastian and Rosie be made to feel different. I think I should counsel and discipline your children as I will those we have together."
"That seems wise," she said from a dry throat, burningly aware of that word discipline. "Er... what form would any discipline take?"
Leander saw that this question had some importance, and guessed it came from a mother's tender heart. Doubtless the poet had been soft-hearted, too, but Leander would expect to raise children, particularly boys, as he had been raised.
"You are wise to raise this before any decision is made, ma'am. If you are asking if I believe in corporal punishment I would have to say yes, particularly for boys."
Judith's heart sank. She should have known this was too good to be true. Despite some angry slaps and spanks, Sebastian had never really hurt the children. Was she now to hand them over to a man who would flog them?
"It would be cruel," she said.
"My dear lady, I think it cruel to do otherwise. With luck and perfect behavior Bastian might get through school unscathed, though I know no one who has managed it, not even the Rogues. The simple fact is that if Bastian is mischievous he will be beaten at school, and had best learn to take it like a man. I can assure you, it is not in my nature to be cruel."
Judith was distracted. "Why on earth should rogues escape?"
He laughed. "The Company of Rogues -- a schoolboy group. We protected each other from unfairness, but our leader, Nicholas, was very firm that we were not allowed to gang together to escape just punishment."
The magic word "school" was beginning to penetrate Judith's mind, and her certainly that she must reject this offer wavered. "You would send Bastian to school?"
"Of course. To Harrow, I would think." Then he looked at her with a frown. "My dear Mrs. Rossiter, I know it will be a wrench for you to part from him, but it would be for the best."
Did he think her that much of a fool, that she would cling to her son rather than see him given such a magnificent start in life? It had been her worry and her dream ever since Sebastian's death. But school, she now realized, was where he would be up against masters, and even senior boys, armed with birch and cane. Her brothers had gone to school, though a much less grand one than Harrow, and brought home horrendous tales.
"Oh dear," she said and stared at him, seeking some kind of reassurance.
He seemed to read her mind. "All I can say, Mrs. Rossiter, is that I will treat your children as I will my own, as I was treated. My father permitted physical punishment only for serious wrong-doing. Unless a child is steeped in wickedness, I'm sure most crimes can be handled by admonition and a suitable penalty. However, if I think a caning is called for, I will administer it, or order it when Bastian has a tutor. In fact," he said with a rueful smile, "I remember as a boy I was generally quite glad of it, for it made me feel I'd paid and it was quickly over. I found it far more hurtful to feel under a shadow of shame for hours, or even days."
Again she wavered. "And Rosie?"
"I will leave to you. Perhaps girls have purer souls. They seem to get up to mischief much less often."
Judith raised her brows. "I think you said you had no sisters, sir. That is obvious."
"Then flog her if you wish, but I won't do it for you."
Judith looked at her work-worn hands. This impossible, ridiculous plan was taking on an almost irresistible reality.
But it was still ridiculous.
Leander rose and came to her, took her hands, and raised her to her feet. "It comes down to trust," he said. "You are going to have to trust me as I am willing to trust you. Bastian cannot inherit my title or estates, but in every other way he will be my son. I will cherish him, give him every advantage, and ease his way into whatever life he seeks. Rosetta will be my daughter. If, that is, you will be my wife."
Judith bit her lip, still afraid to take the step. "I'm older than you."
"That matters not. Grasp fate, my dear. It is here before you, and I have been scrupulously honest in presenting it."
And I have not been honest with you, she thought. How could a marriage prosper based on lies? Judith sought the conventional escape. "I need time, my lord."
He looked a little disappointed, but nodded. "Of course. Shall I call on you tomorrow?"
She would like to ask for weeks, but she sensed he would refuse that. "Why is there such hurry?"
A hand expressed unease, but he answered. "It is past time I took up my responsibilities as earl, and settled in my home at Temple Knollis. I have spent too long abroad, however, and I need a both a chatelaine and a helpmeet by my side there. But my land cannot abide delay. It has been neglected too long."
Helpmeet. It was a lovely word and implied a real need that she could fulfill. "Tomorrow then," she said, looking onto his mysterious eyes.
"I will come to your cottage at eleven o'clock." He raised her hand and kissed it. "I hope you are going to say yes."
Christmas Angel was first published November 1992. It was reissued October 2001
It won the Readers' Choice Award as Best Regency Romance, and the Waldenbook's Award as Bestselling Regency Romance of 1992. It is part of the Company of Rogues series.
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