Copyright © 2012 Joanna Chambers
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Although he looked forbidding, the viscount had a pleasant manner and a surprisingly infectious smile. Like the rest of him, there was something not quite perfect about his smile. It was an off-centre thing, with a quirk to the left that made him appear to always be laughing at himself. It was…charming.
Rose found herself helplessly warming to him. After a while, she forgot about the marks on her face—even that scab on her eyelid—and stopped dipping her chin to hide beneath the brim of her bonnet. She wouldn’t have believed it possible in the carriage on the way over, but she even found herself returning Waite’s oddly charming smile with a shy half smile of her own. And it was impossible not to giggle at some of the sillier stories he told her.
How pleasant he is,she thought. How thoughtful, to take such trouble to putme at ease.
“Have you seen the latest exhibition at the Royal Academy, Miss Davenport?” he asked after a while.
“I’m afraid not,” Rose replied. “Although I will endeavour to visit it in the next few weeks.”
“Do you enjoy painting? Many young ladies do, I believe.”
She laughed at that, a derisive little snort that she’d been scolded for by half a dozen teachers and governesses. It merely made Waite lift his eyebrows in amusement; nevertheless, she blushed.
“I am not artistic, my lord,” she explained. “I was the drawing master’s very worst pupil at the ladies’ seminary I attended. I am so very glad I don’t have to attend any more of his lessons.”
“You no longer attend this seminary?”
“No. I have been rather unwell, and Papa says that—” She paused. She had been about to say that Papa said she need not go back since she would likely be getting married soon. But it would be awkward, embarrassing, to refer to marriage at this first meeting. And after all, Papa had said marriage would not be mentioned today. “Papa says that now that I am better, I need not go back,” she finished instead.
“And that pleases you?” the viscount prompted, smiling his quirking smile.
“Yes indeed,” she agreed. “Now I can spend as much time as I wish doing the things I like, such as playing the pianoforte, and dispense entirely with the things I hate.”
“Such as drawing?”
“Yes, and”—she wrinkled her nose—“poetry.”
“You are not fond of poetry? I thought all young ladies adored poetry. Poets are such romantic creatures, are they not?”
“I am afraid I must be a philistine,” she replied. “As soon as I hear a rhyming couplet, my eyelids begin to droop.”
Waite laughed. It was a warm laugh of genuine amusement, and at the sound of it, Rose felt her heart flip-flop in her chest. Such an odd feeling! She wanted to grin like an idiot. And stare. She wanted to stare and stare until she could remember every inch of him.
“Then we are both philistines, Miss Davenport,” he replied.
We are both philistines.
It gave her a stupidly warm feeling, that comment.
“Well, all the most fashionable people are, you know,” she said, adopting a serious expression.
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she wanted to call them back. He wouldn’t appreciate her odd sense of humour; wouldn’t appreciate being bracketed with her in that way, as she laughed slyly at herself. Across from her, she saw Lord James frown, puzzled, and her heart sank. But then Waite laughed, a warm, rich chuckle, and suddenly everything was all right. Her own lips twitched, and when she braved a glance at him, she saw that his eyes gleamed with humour and warmth. Their gazes met in a moment of shared amusement. A moment that no one else in the room seemed to be in on.
A few minutes later, Papa rose from his chair to signal it was time to go. In defiance of all her expectations, Rose found she was reluctant to leave, but she obediently stood and walked to Papa’s side. While Papa made their farewells, she glanced at Waite, and he smiled at her again, those bronze eyes of his dancing with good humour. She smiled back shyly, blushing slightly, her heart skittering with excitement and happiness.
Despite her fears, Viscount Waite had turned out to be everything she would have wished for in a husband. And amazingly, he seemed to like her too.
“Good-bye, Miss Davenport,” he said when Papa had stopped talking. “It was very pleasant to meet you. I enjoyed our conversation.”
“As did I, my lord,” she replied, amazed at the steadiness of her voice. She curtsied, firstly to the earl, then to his sons, and then she placed her hand on Papa’s arm and allowed him to lead her from the room. She felt like she was walking on air.
“Well, Rosebud,” Papa said when the butler had closed the door of Stanhope House behind them. “What did you think? I thought Waite a very pleasant young man, I must say. And very attentive to you, my dear.”
Rose realised she was smiling, widely, foolishly. Despite her apprehensions, everything was going to be all right. Better than all right, even.
Maybe even wonderful.
After the Davenports left, James turned to Gil.
“You’re too much the gentleman at times, old man,” he complained. “An infant like that shouldn’t be taken visiting. She couldn’t have been more than fifteen. And what a little bag of bones she was! Now she’ll be tediously in love with you because you were so nice to her. Which wouldn’t be so awful if she was the least bit pretty but—”
“Don’t be such a boor,” Gil interrupted. “I thought she was an amusing little thing. Quite droll for a girl her age.”
“She snorted!” James retorted. “Hardly ladylike.”
“For God’s sake, she’s just a child!”
“And a damned ugly one,” James retorted. “Did you notice all those marks on her face?
The earl interrupted then, his face flushed. “The chit’s seventeen, and if she looks a bit peaky, it’s because she’s been very ill. She was at death’s door a few weeks ago.”
The brothers exchanged identical surprised looks. It wasn’t like their father to notice a little nobody like Rose Davenport, much less defend her.
“Anyway, enough about that,” the earl continued. “Need to talk to you, Waite. Come and see me in the library.” He limped out of the room without another word.
James raised his brows at Gil. “What’s all that about? It’s usually me being called in for a dressing down.”
Despite his show of unconcern, Gil felt edgy as he walked to library. When he was younger, a visit to the library had always involved the meting out of paternal punishment. It had been a few years now since his father had beaten him, but he still felt like a boy as he made his way down the corridor.
Having been ordered to attend, he entered the library without knocking. It was an oppressive room, the walls lined with leather-bound books, the furniture dark and heavy. The earl sat at his huge mahogany desk, his face weary as he stared unseeingly at the polished surface, apparently unaware that Gil had arrived.
Gil felt an unexpected and unfamiliar stab of concern. He had never been close to his stern father, but today the old man looked every one of his fifty-six years. Older, in fact. He seemed to have aged a decade in the eighteen months since his countess had died. For all the earl’s grim autocracy, it was the countess who had been the stronger partner in their marriage, and he had adored her. Since her death, he had floundered. Gil had heard reports from concerned friends and relatives about his father’s uncharacteristic behaviour. It worried him, but he hadn’t been able to bring himself to talk to his father. The earl was not a man to confide in his sons. He would be horrified if he knew just how much Gil had learned.
“You wanted to see me?”
The earl looked up, seeming almost surprised to see him for a moment. “Shut the door, Waite,” he said. His voice was uncharacteristically quiet, quite different from his usual gruff bark.
As Gil shut the door, his father turned to the silver tray beside him and poured two glasses of brandy, handing one to Gil and swiftly draining his own. Gil held his untouched glass tightly, watching as the older man put his empty glass down and passed a shaking hand over his mouth.
There was a silence before the earl spoke, and when he did, he kept his eyes fixed on the desk. “I’ve made the most god-awful mess of everything, m’boy. And now I have to ask you to fix it. For all of us. For me, and for you as my heir. And for James and Antonia.” He looked up then, finally meeting Gil’s concerned gaze, and his pale blue eyes were pleading. “Wish I didn’t have to ask this of you, Gil.”