The Cotswolds, England ~ 1814
“Miss Leonard, I presume?”
The question, posed in a rich, firm baritone voice, startled Rebecca Beaton as she stooped to pluck a fragrant purple hyacinth in the garden at Rose Grange. Had Hermione decided to abandon her sketchbook and venture outside to help gather flowers to decorate the parish church?
Rising, Rebecca scanned the garden, which was Mr. Leonard’s pride and joy. But she saw no sign of Hermione, her former pupil to whom she now acted as companion.
The only other person in sight was a well-dressed gentleman, presumably the one who had spoken. He was tall and broad-shouldered with dark brown hair, a high brow and a jutting nose that suggested a proud nature. His piercing slate-blue eyes regarded her with a mixture of surprise and disapproval.
But that was ridiculous. How could he possibly disapprove of her when he did not even know who she was?
Realizing he must have mistaken her for Hermione, she was about to correct that assumption when he rushed on. “I beg your pardon for presuming to address you without a proper introduction, Miss Leonard. But since it appears we might soon be quite intimately connected, I hope you will permit me the liberty of introducing myself.”
How was Hermione going to be intimately connected with this gentleman?
Again he refused to give Rebecca an opportunity to inquire, but continued speaking as if he did not particularly care whether she objected. “I am Sebastian Stanhope, Viscount Benedict. I have just come from London upon learning, to my considerable dismay, that my brother has gotten himself engaged to you.”
So that’s what this bewildering visitation was all about. Rebecca felt herself on firmer ground at last, though she was sorry to hear the viscount had been dismayed by his brother’s betrothal. She must explain his mistake at once and fetch the real Hermione to speak with him, though she feared such an interview would upset the dear girl.
But Lord Benedict still would not let her get a word in. “I am certain you have many fine qualities, Miss Leonard. Indeed, I can understand how your beauty must have secured my brother’s admiration.”
Her beauty? Even if his lordship had paused just then to let her speak, Rebecca doubted she could have produced a sound.
The teachers at that wretched charity school where she’d received her education had always impressed upon her and the other girls their deficiencies of appearance. Whenever she peeped in the looking-glass long enough to check that she was neat and tidy, all she saw was an unattractive square jaw, unmanageable hair of a commonplace light brown color and brows far too full and dark for beauty. Was the viscount trying to flatter her or mock her?
He sounded sincere enough in his brusque, imperious manner. “I must admit, I am pleasantly surprised to discover you are not some green girl barely out of the schoolroom.”
Rebecca supposed that was a polite way of implying she was so firmly ‘on the shelf’ it amazed him that she had managed to secure any marriage proposal. Even if his lordship had put the case in so blunt a manner, she could not have disputed it. With her lack of fortune and beauty, she’d never had much hope of securing a husband. Each additional year added to her age had only whittled away at whatever unlikely dreams she might have had – of a poor but kindly curate, perhaps or a widower who needed someone to care for his motherless children and could not afford to be particular.
Firmly turning her thoughts from such modest romantic fancies, Rebecca forced herself to concentrate on what Lord Benedict was saying. “Your manner of dress suggests a character not afflicted with frivolity and I approve your reticence. It is refreshing to meet a woman who does not chatter on like a magpie.”
Rebecca barely stifled a hoot of laughter. Though no magpie, she would have had plenty to say for herself, if only his lordship gave her an opportunity. The viscount was certainly talkative enough, though she could hardly compare the mellow resonance of voice to that of a squawky bird.
“My brother’s taste in women has clearly improved.” He swept a glance from the toes of her shoes up to the crest of her bonnet. “Still, I fear it would be a terrible mistake for him to marry you.”
“Why is that, exactly?” Rebecca managed to squeeze in the question when Lord Benedict paused for breath, though she could not help wondering why she hadn’t used the opportunity to reveal her true identity.
His lordship started at the sound of her voice. Had he begun to think she might be mute? Or was he not accustomed to having his pronouncements questioned?
Whatever the cause of his surprise, he quickly recovered from it. “For a number of excellent reasons, I assure you. Although my brother is a fine young fellow in many respects, he is impulsive and changeable in his affections. You are not the first woman with whom he has fallen in love, nor even the fifth. Fortunately I was able to end those other dalliances before they reached the delicate stage yours has.”
Lord Benedict was a fine looking gentleman of great consequence who had paid her more compliments in five minutes than she had received in her whole life until then. Yet Rebecca found herself forming a decidedly poor opinion of him.
For one thing, it sounded as if he was trying to run his brother’s life. For another, she did not care for the way he dismissed Mr. Stanhope’s feelings for Hermione as a meaningless dalliance without ever having seen them together. She, on the other hand, had seen the way the young gentleman looked at Hermione and spoke to her. Though admittedly no expert in matters of the heart, Rebecca believed she could recognize the difference between a transient fancy and true love.
His lordship must have sensed she was not swayed by his reasoning.
“There is also the matter of your birth and fortune.” He dismissed the fine old manor house with a flick of his gaze. “The woman my brother weds will one day be Lady Benedict. It is not a position that should be assumed by someone who is unprepared for the demands it will entail.”
Once again Rebecca had a chance to get a word in, and once again she let her curiosity get the better of her. “Why will your brother’s wife become Lady Benedict? Surely, if you have a son one day…”
She lowered her gaze, chiding herself for raising such a delicate subject with a man she’d just met. A man who didn’t even know who she truly was.
From the novella The Viscount Meets His Match
Publication Date: June 2016
Copyright © 2011 and 2016 by Deborah Hale