A Marriage of Convenience
With a Beastly Duke
With a Beastly Duke
Cecily Derrick blinked her eyes for a moment before looking up at the physician. He had been there for what felt like ages. She found herself getting frustrated. Why had he not yet been able to tell her what was wrong?
“Lady Cecily?” Mr. Thompson, the physician, asked gently. “How many fingers do you see?”
Cecily bit her lip, squinting as she tried to focus on the physician’s hand. They had been through this same exercise many times, and the result had been the same each time. She knew that this time would be no different. But she also knew he would not leave her until she complied.
With a heavy sigh, she shrugged.
“Three,” she said flatly. “I see three fingers.”
The physician lowered his hand and the room filled with silent tension. Cecily held her breath, waiting for him to ask her again, or to subject her to another of his vision tests. He did not, however. A moment later, he rose from his seat beside her bed and exited her room without another word. Was she correct that time?
With another sigh, Cecily leaned her head back against her pillows and closed her eyes. She felt her cheeks begin to flush as she recalled the incident which led to her encounter with Dr. Thompson that day.
One month prior, her parents hosted her debut ball. It had been a splendid event, one about which Cecily had been very excited. The evening started well, and she was having a glorious time. Until she utterly humiliated herself, that was.
As the third gentleman with whom she had danced excused himself and she went to rejoin her mother to await the next suitor, she bumped into one of the footmen. She had not seen him until it was too late, and the tray of champagne flutes he was carrying fell to the floor. The music stopped instantly, and everyone turned to stare at her. All she could do was look down at the floor, horrified.
She had not failed to spot the footman because she was careless and distracted. She truly had not seen him. Blurry vision was an issue she had had for some time prior to her debut but she had kept her problem to herself. She had not wished to worry her parents or make them postpone her debut ball. She had been certain that the problem would eventually resolve itself. She was wrong.
The accident caused quite a scandal within the ton. She spent the rest of the night trying to pretend that it had not happened. And yet, no more suitors asked her to dance that evening. Her mother reassured her that the ton would forget the incident soon enough. But the few appearances she had made in public since had proven that unequivocally false.
Tears stung her eyes as she recalled the shame she felt that evening. She knew that everyone must have thought that she drank too much champagne and got clumsy. Deep down, she felt that even her parents had thought as much. That was the only reason why she finally agreed to see the physician. Now, she regrets her decision. Why could he not tell her something?
She tried to calm herself. Whatever had caused the problem would be discovered soon enough. That was, after all, why her father had summoned the physician. She would never be able to undo or erase the incident. However, she could recover and ensure that it never happened again. Once she was better, and able to dance gracefully again, she could restore her family’s good name. And her own.
When she heard the door open, she squinted her eyes, expecting to see the physician. However, it was her father who entered. And she could see that he had a very grave expression on his face.
“Where is Dr. Thompson, Father?” she asked. “Why has he not told me what he plans to do to help me?”
Her father looked at her, taking her hands as he gently sat on the edge of her bed. She could not tell for sure, but she thought that he had been crying.
“Darling,” he said, taking a deep breath. He did not speak again for so long that Cecily started to become very frightened.
“Papa,” she said softly, her heart racing. “Papa, what is it? Please, tell me. When will I be able to see again?”
Her father cleared his throat and sniffled, averting his gaze. Cecily knew then that something was very wrong and fresh tears filled her eyes.
“My darling daughter,” he said, his voice breaking. “I already spoke with the physician. He and I agreed that it would be best if I gave you this news. He said it might be easier if it came from someone who loves you so dearly.”
Cecily could feel her heart pounding against her ribs.
“What news, Papa?” she asked. “Please. You are scaring me.”
The Earl of Dervinshire scooted closer to his daughter, gently squeezing her hands. His next deep breath was shaky and husky, and Cecily held her breath.
“Mr. Thompson informed me that your eyesight is fading because of a rare illness,” he said. “It is an illness that has no known treatments or cures, and it will only get worse with time.”
Cecily choked out a sob. She refused to believe what she thought her father was trying to say to her.
“Surely, there must be something we can do,” she said, her stomach twisting into knots.
Her father shook his head slowly and sniffled again.
“I am sorry, my dear,” he said huskily. “Mr. Thompson said that this illness will eventually lead to total loss of vision. And likely sooner, rather than later. There is nothing that can be done to reverse it.”
Cecily’s chest hitched, and she burst into tears. She pulled one hand free from her father’s and covered her face with it. How was it possible that she was going blind? She had always been very healthy and until very recently, she had had no real trouble with her sight.
“He is mistaken, then,” she said suddenly. Her panic was rising, and she could not believe that she would eventually go blind.
Her father’s chin trembled, and he pulled her into a tight embrace.
“I am so sorry, my sweet daughter,” he said, his own sobbing shaking Cecily’s body. “I feel as though I have failed to protect you. Nothing so horrible should happen to one as young as you.”
Cecily’s heart ached at her father’s sadness. She realized then that she was not the only one affected by the doctor’s heavy news. As helpless and hopeless as she felt, she had to try to be strong. She could not allow her father to take the burden of guilt onto himself.
“No, Papa,” she said softly, pulling away to look into his eyes. As she did, she could not help wondering if she was seeing it for, perhaps, the very last time. “You must not blame yourself. Now, or ever. Fate does not always make sense but nor do we always bring it onto ourselves. Sometimes, things just happen that we do not understand. But one thing I know for certain is that it is no fault of yours. Right?”
The Earl nodded, but he looked unconvinced. Cecily chastised herself for her emotional reaction. She should have been stronger for her father, so that he would not worry about her.
“I will do whatever it takes to get you through this, Cecily,” he said, anger seething just beneath the grief in his voice. “Since we could not help you prevent this, we shall help you through it.”
Cecily gave him her best brave smile.
“And I will do my part to make the most of my new life,” she lied. “It will not be so bad. It was just a scary thing to hear at first. Everything will be fine.”
Her father reached up and wiped away some of her tears. She knew he likely still did not believe her, but some of the anguish had left his features.
“You always were strong, darling,” he said. “I have every confidence that you will handle this with all the ease and grace that you handle everything.”
Cecily nodded, willing every tear that still threatened to fall to remain behind their dams.
“I certainly will,” she said. “Shall we tell Mother and Agnes?”
Her father sighed and slowly nodded.
“I shall tell your mother,” he said. “I can send Agnes to you if you like. You can tell her whenever you are ready.”
“Tell me what?” came a voice from the door.
Cecily looked, unsurprised to see her sister standing there. Her heart ached and her body longed to force out another sob. But she gave her father a warm smile and nodded. He kissed her forehead and excused himself. After he left, her sister looked at her, her face crumpling.
“Tell me,” Agnes said bluntly. “What has happened?”
With as much courage as she could muster, she told her sister everything that her father had said to her. When she had finished, her sister’s chin was quivering, and it was all she could do to still her own.
“Oh, Sister,” she said, throwing her arms around Cecily.
Cecily patted her, fighting with all her might to hold back more of her own tears.
“Everything will be alright,” she said. “It does not have to be such a horrible thing. You will see.”
Agnes pulled back and cupped her older sister’s face in her hands.
“You do not need to be strong for me,” she urged. “You can let me know how you truly feel.”
Just then, the dams broke and she did just that. She collapsed into her sister and let her tears fall. How would she ever survive in London’s high society with no sense of sight?
“Are you sure you would not rather rest this evening?” Agnes asked, squeezing Cecily’s hands. Her voice was fretting and distraught, and Cecily was determined to reassure her younger sister.
Cecily smiled, gazing in the direction of the younger woman’s face. It was well light in the music room of Dervinshire Manor, and Cecily could see partial features on her sister’s face, though terribly blurred. She remembered how beautiful her sister was, and she was filled with pride.
“Are you mad?” she teased, squeezing her sister’s hands gently in return. “I would not miss your debut ball for the world.”
Cecily could practically hear her younger sister chewing on her lip. She reached up slowly and extended her fingertips until they rested on Agnes’s cheek. She cupped her sister’s face, which felt flushed, likely a mixture of excitement and concern.
“I love you for that, Cece,” she said, using the special nickname that only she used for Cecily. “But I do not wish to make you unhappy or uncomfortable by being forced into a social event.”
Cecily patted her sister’s cheek fondly.
“I would endure the worst torture for you, Aggie,” she said. “A ball is hardly the worst punishment in the world.”
The younger woman fell silent, and Cecily knew what she was thinking. With the way the ton had treated her since her own debut, it might as well be torture to be attempting to mingle with them. But she meant what she said to her sister. There was nothing in the world she would not do for Agnes.
Cecily laughed and pulled her sister into an embrace.
“Stop worrying so much, Aggie,” she said softly. “If anyone gives me any nasty looks, I will not see them.”
At this, Agnes laughed, but it sounded nervous and on edge.
“You do joke a great deal about your condition,” she said, pulling back to put her face close to her sister’s. At this distance, Cecily could almost see the blue of her sister’s eyes, which mirrored her own eyes, and the dimples in the younger woman’s cheeks, which she herself did not have. Her heart ached, longing to see her sister’s face clearly, just one more time.
Cecily nodded, giving Agnes a brave smile.
“I joke to let you know that I am all right with what has happened to me,” she said. “It is serious, to be sure, but there is little that can be done to help it. I would rather smile and be positive than turn dark and gloomy all the time. And that is yet another reason why I am looking forward to your debut ball. So, there.”
Cecily tried to convince herself as she spoke that she meant her words. She did mean that she was thrilled to witness her sister’s coming out ball. She was not, however, looking forward to the stars of the ton. It was true that she would not see them clearly, but she would very well feel them. And though she was mostly blind, her hearing worked just fine. Any snide remarks made would not fall on deaf ears.
Agnes hugged her sister again, and Cecily felt the tension in her body. She was clearly torn about the situation. Of course, she wanted her older sister at her debut ball. But she was struggling with guilt because of the scrutiny Cecily would surely endure.
“If anyone makes you upset, you must tell me at once,” Agnes compromised. “I will see to it that they are removed at once.”
Cecily laughed. It was strange to hear her younger sister being so protective of her. And yet she could not help admitting that it filled her with even more love for Agnes.
“I am sure that will not be necessary,” she said. “But if it is, I will be sure to tell you.”
There was a pause, during which Cecily imagined that her sister nodded.
“I insist that you do, Sister,” she said. “That is the only way I will be able to relax and even try to enjoy myself tonight.”
The sisters were silent for a moment. Cecily knew that her sister would spend more time worrying about her than anything. And Agnes likely knew that Cecily would never say a word if someone made her unhappy. Still, the ball would begin in a few hours, and they both still needed to get ready.
“I love you, Aggie,” Cecily said, pulling her sister to her to embrace her once more.
“I love you more, Cece,” she said.
Cecily saw her opportunity and giggled.
“Well, then, prove it by going to get yourself ready for your ball,” she said.
Agnes sighed, rising slowly from her seat.
“You are right, Sister,” she said. “I will help you to your chambers and then send Greta in to get you ready.”
Cecily nodded, taking her sister’s arm, and letting the younger woman guide her up the stairs and to her bedchambers. She could feel Agnes struggling still with her concern for her sister. Cecily felt terrible. She wished there was something she could do to ease her younger sister’s mind. But she knew that Agnes would never make the same peace with Cecily’s blindness that Cecily herself had.
True to her sister’s word, Greta entered her bedchambers only moments after her sister left. She took Cecily’s hand and led her over to the wardrobe. Cecily adored Greta. She was as much her friend as she was her lady’s maid, and she did as much as possible to continue to treat Cecily as though nothing was wrong with her vision.
Cecily loved her parents and her sister, but they often treated her too gently. Greta, however, would do only as much to help Cecily as she needed and then let her do the rest on her own.
“Which dress would you like, my lady?” Greta asked. “You have your deep red, light green, pale cream, soft pink, white and dark blue ones.”
Cecily closed her eyes for a moment, imagining herself in each one. Just because she could not see did not mean that she could not look her best.
“The pink one, I believe,” she said.
Greta cooed in approval.
“That one will be just beautiful,” she said.
Cecily nodded, keeping her thoughts to herself. But in the back of her mind rang her own voice, clear and unforgiving: What will it matter how beautiful I look, when everyone knows how broken I am?
She forced the self-pity out of her heart, feeling shame for letting it sneak into her mind in the first place. That night was not about her, and she needed to be as sure about trying to enjoy it for her sister’s sake as she had said she was. Agnes truly deserved the best, and Cecily was not incapable of doing her part to ensure she got it.
When she was ready, Greta guided her to the door. The mirror Cecily once used to inspect her reflection after she was dressed had been removed the year prior. It only served as another ornament to trip Cecily, and she could no longer see herself anyway.
Sometimes, especially when she was getting ready for the rare social event she attended, she wished that she could still see herself. Not out of vanity, she knew that she was pretty just as Agnes was though, she had never thought of herself as the loveliest woman in London. She simply missed seeing the flush of excitement in her own cheeks as she dressed for parties and dances.
“You look so beautiful, Lady Cecily,” Greta said. “You should be most impressed at how lovely you are.”
Cecily blushed and smiled at her maid. She knew her face must have told the woman some of what she was thinking.
“I do not doubt your flawless skills at all, Greta,” Cecily assured her. “And besides, it is Agnes who matters most tonight. Will you tell me how she looks after the ball starts?”
The maid embraced her, and Cecily could feel her sympathy. She knew it came from a place of love, but it always made her feel guilty.
“I certainly will,” she said.
That evening, Cecily sat alone in the far corner of her parent’s ballroom. She still remembered most of the details of the room from before she began to lose her sight, but she had no idea how it had been decorated for that evening. She kept herself entertained by imagining that it looked much as it had for her own debut ball.
There had been pink and white banners all along the walls and matching ribbons wrapped around each of the pillars. There were daisies and white roses on every table, as well as woven into wreaths that hung alternatively between the banners. The crystal dinnerware had glistened with the shine from the silver candelabras, and the gold chandelier had cast a light over the entire room like something from a storybook.
Cecily also tried to put faces to the people whose voices she could hear. She made sure to not look in their direction, so as to not end up staring awkwardly at people she could not see. To that point in the evening, she had not heard any rude remarks about her. But nor had anyone approached her to make conversation. Until that was, someone sat down beside her.
Cecily smiled, instantly recognizing Greta’s floral hair oil. She reached for her lady’s maid’s hand, which the woman clasped on her own.
“Oh, Lady Cecily,” she breathed, leaning close to her mistress. “This is such a lovely ball. Everyone seems to be having a splendid time. Especially Lady Agnes.”
“How is she faring with the gentlemen?” she asked.
“I assure you, she has no shortage of suitors vying for her attention,” she said. “I cannot think of a single moment since the ball began that she has not been speaking with a fine young man.”
Cecily sighed happily. That was precisely what she had hoped to hear.
“That is wonderful news,” she said. “I truly hope that she will find a match during this Season.”
Greta laughed again and patted Cecily’s shoulder.
“From the looks of it, it is possible that she shall find one this evening,” she said.
Cecily nodded. She was grateful to hear such news. She hoped that her success that evening would be the final thing she needed to stop feeling the reluctance to marry and leave Cecily alone. Agnes deserved happiness, and Cecily hoped that her sister would begin to realize it after her ball.
The evening drew to a close some hours later. Cecily was pleasantly surprised that no one had gone out of their way to be rude to her. However, toward the end of the evening, she had heard some whispers and felt the sharp sting of watchful eyes from somewhere in the room. She had not reacted, but she was relieved when Greta came to help her to her chambers and dress for bed.
She was too ready to fall asleep. But when she smelled the lily perfume that Agnes had worn for her debut ball, she smiled and sat back up, patting the chair beside her bed.
“It is about time that you came to tell me how things went,” she teased, giggling.
“Do not pretend that Greta did not speak with you earlier this evening,” she said, laughing.
Cecily feigned innocence and shrugged. Then, she reached for her sister’s hands and grinned.
“Even so, I want to hear it from you,” she said.
Agnes exhaled heavily again.
“It was lovely,” she admitted. “But I feel so overwhelmed by having danced so many times. I could never have imagined that a debut ball could be so fatiguing.”
Cecily nodded eagerly and squeezed her sister’s hands.
“Oh, but that is precisely what you want,” she said. “Trust me. That means you have had an incredibly successful debut and that you will have suitors calling on you in no time.”
Agnes gave her sister the sigh she had come to recognize whenever speaking about Agnes’s future.
“Perhaps, I should have waited a little longer before making my debut,” she said doubtfully.
Cecily shook her head.
“Do not be silly,” she said. “Waiting too long would have been a mistake. You must make the best of your youth. And, of the season, as well. It only comes round once a year.”
At this, Agnes giggled.
“Thank Heavens,” she said. “I believe I would die of exhaustion if it happened all year long.”
The two women laughed.
Val Archer reread the letter his mother sent to him for the third time. It was not that he did not understand the words.
He just kept hoping they would magically change; that she was just writing to check in with him. But the words were still the same, no matter how many times he shook his head:
How are you, darling? I feel as if it is ages between your letters. I imagine that is because of the distance between London and the Far East. Still, it seems as though you have been gone forever. As your mother, it drives me mad to not have you close by.
To that end, I need you to return to Archington Manor. It is not entirely for selfish reasons, though I must admit that is a small part of it. I have an important matter to discuss with you, and I wish to do so as soon as possible.
I understand why you fled London, darling. But you are the Duke of Archington. You cannot hide forever. Nor should you. I am proud of you, my son, and so should you be. Please, come at your earliest convenience.
All my love,
He sighed, running his hand through his hair as he stared out the window of the conservative cottage he had purchased for his stay. He had hired a handful of employees as servants, which he would have to dismiss if he were to leave. His valet, Frank, however, would return with him. If that was, he decided to return.
Idly, he began stroking the left side of his face, unconsciously wincing as his fingertips caressed the scar tissue. And just as unintentionally, his mind drifted back to the reason why he left London four years prior. He vividly remembered the reason he had the scars he was now stroking, as though with a strange fondness, rather than a condemning hatred. And the ruins of his skin had cost him dearly. He would never forget that, either.
He had once been engaged to Lady Jocelyn. She was as sweet and clever as she was beautiful, and he had been madly in love with her. But a couple of weeks before they were to be wed, he was in a terrible carriage accident. He had been unconscious for a couple of days, and Lady Jocelyn was not there when he had awoken. The next, and last, he heard from her, she broke off their engagement.
With a bitter sneer, Val rose from the chair. His waking memories of the accident were vaguer than the memory of Jocelyn’s rejection. His accident memories tormented him mainly in the form of nightmares. But each time he touched his scars, he remembered how his face slid along the splintering parts of the carriage door, just before everything went black.
How could she ask me to return? He thought, forcing his hand away from his face. Why would she want the ton to see her with such a hideous monster?
“Your Grace?” Frank asked from the door behind him. “Is something wrong?”
Val whirled around to see the tall, stout man looking at him with curious concern. He gave the valet a sheepish look.
“It seems as though I have been summoned back to London,” he said.
Frank nodded, walking over to Val, and standing to face him.
“And you do not wish to return,” he finished for his master.
Val shook his head.
“I do not,” he said.
The two men sat in silence for several moments. Frank was the best employee that a man with his deformities could ever ask for. Even the maids on his payroll whispered about him when they thought he couldn’t hear them. But Frank remained loyal and kind, and he had never spoken a bad word about the Duke’s scars. He was patient and understanding and never treated Val differently for a minute.
“When do we depart?” Frank asked at last.
“When summer and winter change places,” he said.
Frank laughed heartily. Then, he looked at Val with kindness.
“I understand your apprehension, your Grace,” he said. “But I will be here to help you in any way I can. I know this is uncomfortable for you. But you are a strong and clever man. More so than any other I have ever known. If anyone can find some good in this endeavor, it will be you.”
Val gave the valet a warm smile.
“I hope that you are right,” he said.
Three things are happening simultaneously, and Val’s heart is racing. He whips his head around, trying to figure out what he should do first. The carriage is headed straight for the men who are fighting in the street, the footmen are shouting, and Val feels the carriage crash into a hole and rattle one of the wheels loose. A moment later, Val understands what is about to happen and that there is nothing he can do.
As he draws breath to order the driver to stop, the loose wiggles its way off the carriage. At the same moment, the coach reaches the fighting men, who at last see the danger and scatter. Val thinks the carriage hit one of them, but he cannot see. And he does not get another minute to try to see if any of them render aid.
In a moment that feels as though he is turning flips in slow motion and suspended in midair, Val is levitating off the carriage seat. With a strange sense of wonder, he realizes that he is about to slam into the top of the coach when it comes back down, bottom side up, onto the road.
But to his horror, the carriage does not just slam down once and remain on its top. It bounces, flying into an instant roll down across the street. Instead of hitting the coach’s inside top, he feels his face slam into the door of the carriage, just as it splinters all to pieces. Searing pain tears through his face as the broken wood punctures his skin…
Val started to awake as the carriage came to a sudden halt. He sat up, his mind struggling to let go of another vivid dream of the day of his accident. It took him a moment to determine that he was not still back at that time and that he was, in fact, safely back at his London home. The realization brought him little relief, as the dream had been a harsh reminder of why he had fled there in the first place.
Mustering a smile, he stepped out from the carriage. Frank and the footmen began unloading his belongings as he approached the door. To his surprise, it was his mother, rather than the butler, who greeted him. She flew into his arms, kissing his face as though he had gone missing in some war. In some ways, he supposed, he had.
“Oh, darling,” she said. “I am so glad that you are here.”
Val could not help laughing as he pulled back from his mother’s embrace to kiss her cheek.
“You sound as though I simply showed up unannounced,” he said.
The Duchess looked up at him with tears in her eyes.
“Of course, I knew you were coming,” she said. “But a mother never ceases her worrying.”
There was a brief silence as her unspoken words lingered in the air. She specifically would never stop worrying, especially while he was traveling by carriage. In her mind, the accident that had nearly killed him could very well repeat itself. He could not entertain such notions for long, though. Otherwise, he would never travel again.
“I am famished,” he said, desperate to lighten the mood.
His attempt was successful, as his mother beamed at him.
“I just called for tea moments before you arrived,” she said. “Come. Let us take it to the parlour.”
Val nodded, following his mother inside. Archington Manor looked exactly as he had left it, which should have been comforting to him. However, the memories of his time after the accident and before he fled to the far East remained the same, as well.
Many of them flooded back to him as he walked with his mother to the parlor. He shook them away, trying hard to not ruin his first minutes home with his mother. He hated London and everything about high society since the accident. But he adored his mother, and he wanted to enjoy his time with her.
The Duchess led him to the parlor sofa and patted the spot beside her as she sat. She served him some of the fresh tea and pastries displayed on the table in front of the sofa and then helped herself to some, as well. But no sooner than they had had a sip of tea did she set aside her treats and look intently at her son. He placed his saucer in his lap, laughing lightly at the strange look in his mother’s eyes.
“You can see that I am all right,” he said. “Now, will you please worry less, so that we can enjoy our time more?”
The Duchess nodded slowly, raising her eyebrow.
“I can see that you are physically unharmed,” she agreed. “But that hardly means that you are all right. Have you been taking care of yourself overseas?”
Val flinched. His dark brown hair was becoming unruly, as he had not had it trimmed in some time. He supposed he could have done a better job shaving, so that he looked less haggard after the long journey. And he was sure that the dark circles beneath his eyes lingered, even after his nap in the carriage. But he did his best to grin and nod.
“Of course, I have,” he said, glancing over at Frank, who had just joined them and stood at Val’s side.
Frank rubbed the back of his neck and looked away.
“I shall see to my duties, your Grace,” he said.
Val glared at him, though it was with nothing but affection. The man was more of a friend to Val than any other man in the ton, and he was grateful for him.
The Duchess cleared her throat, clicking her tongue.
“This is why I wanted you home,” she said.
Val looked at her, bemused.
“Because I am not caring for myself?” he asked.
His mother nodded curtly.
“Indeed,” she said matter-of-factly. “And I want you to marry and find yourself a wife who can help take care of you.”
Val stared at his mother, trying to see if she was serious. When she did not budge, he pointed dramatically to the left side of his face.
“Perhaps, you did not notice, but that is never going to happen,” he said. “No woman would ever wish to marry such a hideous man.”
His mother shook her head. Clearly, she had given her speech some thought, and she would not be swayed.
“You must let go of your insecurities over your appearance,” she said. “You are a wealthy duke with your father’s good reputation when it comes to your dukedom and your business ventures. And it is that very dukedom of which you must think. Bearing an heir to inherit the fortune and title when you pass is crucial.”
Val clenched his jaw, but he did not persist with his argument. He knew that his mother was right. If he did not produce an heir, the family name and title would die when he did. He had already had such a close call with the accident. He needed to think harder about settling down.
Still, he was aware of how the ton would reject him if he publicly sought a wife. Lady Jocelyn had proven to him that no woman would love him. He could never expect any woman who knew nothing about him to overlook his scars and be attracted to him enough to bear his children. What could he do about marrying, when there was no one who would ever accept him as a husband?
“I should not have thrown that on you the moment you arrived,” his mother said quickly, giving him a sheepish smile. “Let us talk about other things.”
Val sighed with relief. He knew they would speak of it again, but he was glad to forget it for the moment.
“Thank you,” he said. “How have you been?”
His mother’s eyes lit up, instantly melting his displeasure at the topic of marriage.
“I have been very excited as of late,” she said. “I invited the Earl of Dervinshire and his family to join us for dinner tomorrow evening. I wanted to do something special, yet small, to celebrate your return home. I really would appreciate it if you would attend, darling.”
Immediately, Val remembered why he had been so reluctant to return home. He hated social gatherings even more than he hated the idea of forcing his hideous visage on beautiful young women. But his mother looked so hopeful, and clearly it was something she looked forward to greatly. Perhaps, if it were an event hosted in his home, people would be less willing to insult him.
“Very well,” he said with great reluctance. “I will attend.”
With his mother pacified, he excused himself to his old bedchambers to rest and get settled back into his home. She happily obliged, rushing off to see to the dinner preparations, leaving him in relative peace. The moment he laid on his bed, he was asleep and back in the world where he remembered every detail of his accident.
Later that day, Val made another trip. This one was much shorter, and it was one that pleased him a great deal. He jumped out of the carriage when it stopped in front of a stately townhouse, rushing to knock on the door. When the master of the house answered, Val grinned more widely than he had in years.
“Val, you old cad,” Mr. Henry Gatrall, youngest son of the Earl of Gatton, said, pulling him into a fierce hug. “It sure is damn good to see you back.”
Val laughed as his friend pulled him into his home.
“Likewise, my friend,” he said.
Henry led him to the parlor, hurrying to fetch a bottle of brandy and glasses. Val gladly partook, sitting on the sofa beside his friend while Henry poured the drinks.
“Come,” Henry said, raising his glass high in the air. “Toast with me to friendship and to your safe return to London.”
Val nodded and complied.
“I will definitely drink that,” he said.
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