An Arranged BetrothalWith a Scarred Viscount
Albert Billington smiled dotingly at his beloved fiancée, Cordelia Easton, as the last notes of the waltz came to an end. Her pale cheeks were flushed, and strands of her black hair had fallen into her light brown eyes. She was smiling back at him, looking at him as though she could see the night stars in his eyes. He knew he could certainly see them in hers.
“I believe that’s the first time we’ve waltzed together,” Cordelia said, giggling.
Albert nodded, taking a deep breath. The passion of the waltz was reserved for couples who were married, usually. Societal exceptions were made for those who were soon to be wed, however. Which Albert and Cordelia were.
“But it won’t be the last, my darling,” he said, brushing some of her dark hair back behind her ear.
Cordelia’s blush deepened and nodded.
“I can hardly wait to be the viscountess of Billington,” she said. “Lady Cordelia Billington. That has such a lovely ring to it, doesn’t it?”
Albert nodded again, lifting her left hand and kissing the diamond ring he had placed on her finger when he proposed to her a few weeks before.
“Even lovelier than this ring, I dare say,” he said.
“Can you imagine being happier than we are this minute?” she asked.
Albert shook his head.
“I certainly cannot,” he said. “And I look for such happiness to follow us for the rest of our lives.”
As soon as the hostess of the ball bade everyone a good evening, Albert escorted his fiancée to their waiting carriage. He hated each time he had to part with her. But with just one more week of banns being read before Cordelia was his wife, he was able to satisfy his heart. It was a beautiful night, and they still had a half hour carriage ride to her family’s home. He smiled again at his intended as he helped her into the carriage.
“In you go, my love,” he said softly.
Cordelia beamed at him as she settled in beside her lady’s maid and waited for him to join her in the coach, on the bench opposite her.
“Oh, the moon is so full tonight,” she said, turning from him to gaze out the window as the carriage pulled away from the mansion.
Albert looked at it with her, admiring how crystal clear the night sky was. Truthfully, it could have been completely cloudy and storming, and Cordelia’s beauty still would have made it one of the prettiest nights he had ever witnessed.
“We will be married in less than a fortnight,” he said, grinning at his bride-to-be.
As he anticipated, she squealed with delight and bounced in her seat.
“Can you believe it?” she asked. “I am going for my final dress fitting in four days. Mother is coming with me to finalize the flower arrangements tomorrow. And then, we will be going to pick up all the custom-made accessories.”
Albert listened to his future wife with pure joy. There was nothing better in the world than seeing her so happy.
“That sounds delightful, darling,” he said sincerely. “I know that you will be the most beautiful bride in the world.”
Cordelia blushed, continuing to gush about the remaining plans for the wedding. Albert was interested in every word, but his favorite thing was watching her face as she talked about things that excited her. There would never be a greater joy than that which he found in her eyes when she was in such high spirits.
He was so lost in his bride-to-be’s conversation that, when the carriage jerked to a stop, he didn’t understand what had happened. Cordelia’s chipper voice trailed off and she strained to look out the window. Her hand was on the handle of the coach door when they heard muffled shouting.
Fearing that the carriage had broken, and that the footmen were yelling for his attention, he gently scooted his fiancée to the side and headed for the carriage door.
“Wait just a moment, my love,” he said, giving her a sweet smile. “I believe we are having carriage trouble. I shall go assess the situation and return to you directly.”
Cordelia nodded, and he kissed her forehead. He was moving back toward the door when all the color drained from her face, and she started looking past him. Still in his dreamy haze, he didn’t think to turn around. He gave her another reassuring smile and started to tell her again that all was well. But before he could turn around, as his fingertips graced the coach door handle once more, he felt the sensation of falling, and then of hitting the ground with severe impact.
He lay on his back, gasping for breath and beginning to understand that something was very wrong. His vision blurred from the lack of air and the dust that was disturbed when he hit the ground. He tried to roll onto his side to push himself up off the ground and regain his bearings. But suddenly, there was a boot on his chest, and it was pushing him back down to the ground. When his eyes focused again, in the brilliant moonlight, he finally saw what the cause of the ruckus was.
On either side of him, peering down at him, were two average-height and athletically built men; one with long black hair and the other with shoulder-length brown hair. They were wearing filthy tan breeches and once-white shirts, now stained with dirt and other substances that Albert’s mind wouldn’t allow him to process.
They both held broadswords in their hands as they glared down at him with menace. And standing on his chest was a tall, wiry bald man with an only slightly cleaner white shirt beneath a black vest and matching breeches, and the black boots, one of which was creeping its way up to Albert’s throat.
“You will stay right here, and you will not move,” the man in the vest hissed. “And maybe, we’ll let you live.”
The other two men howled with laughter, the black-haired one tracing the ground beside Albert’s head with his sword.
“Probably not, though,” he said. “Unless you’re willing to trade your pretty little companion here for your life.”
Albert’s confusion and disbelief cleared in an instant. His sense heightened and his mind flashed images of the men doing terrible things to Cordelia. He stopped struggling and looked up at the man with his foot on him and shook his head.
“Take whatever you want,” he said. “Just leave my Cordelia alone.”
The men laughed as though Albert had just told a funny joke. The man stepping on him pressed down with his foot, making it harder for Albert to breathe.
“I dare say that you’re in no position to give orders,” he bellowed. “We’re in charge here, and we’ll do as we please.”
As if to emphasize the fact, Cordelia shrieked a second later. Albert twisted his head to see the other two men dragging Cordelia from the coach. Tears streamed down her cheeks and her black hair was coming free from its combs and pins and falling down in her face.
Albert watched with horror as one of the men pulled her up against him and held a gun to her head. The man put his face against her neck and drew in a deep breath.
“What a pretty smelling flower she is,” he said in a tone that made Albert’s blood boil.
Cordelia sobbed, struggling vainly against the man.
“Get your foul breath away from me,” she cried. She was trying to sound authoritative, but her horror made her feel like a frightened child.
Albert thought quickly. He had to do something to make them release Cordelia before they did a type of harm to her that she would never recover from. And from the man’s hand placement, he was only moments away from doing just that. Albert made a grand show of seizing on the ground, then forced his panicked body to go completely limp. He doubted they’d believe he was dead, as he was sure they had taken more than a few lives. But he needed them to believe that he was dying, or at least unconscious.
It worked. The man standing on him stepped off him. Albert had his eyes firmly closed, but he suddenly sensed the man’s face close to his. Albert did his best to hold his breath and not move as the man began feeling for a pulse.
“Is he dead?” one of the other men asked.
Cordelia wailed at his question.
“No, Albert,” she screamed, sobbing again. “Albert, please, get up.”
The man touching Albert was mumbling to himself. The other two men began muttering to one another, and Albert knew he had to make a quick move.
“I don’t know if…” the man above Albert began, but Albert didn’t let him finish his sentence. He opened his eyes and grabbed the man’s arm, swinging his leg around and connecting with the side of the man’s body. The element of surprise afforded Albert a bit of luck, and he managed to get the man onto the ground. It was foolish, and he knew he would likely be killed. But he knew that Cordelia would be able to get away in the confusion.
As anticipated, an instant later, the other two men were on his back. The three of them tussled, punching and kicking and thrashing on the ground. Albert made eye contact with Cordelia for a brief second, and he made the instant count.
“Go, darling,” he shouted, pleading to her with his eyes. But the man who had been standing on him rolled him over, breaking his eye contact with her. An instant later, he and one of the other men had Albert pinned completely to the ground. The third man was looming over him with something in his hand, held high above his head.
At the last minute, as the object came flying at his head, Albert saw that it was a small pocket knife. He felt the first cut on his right cheek, and the second, but after that, his whole body began to feel numb and cold. He lost count of how many times the man brought his arm down toward Albert’s face, and soon, his vision began to darken. The last thing he heard before everything went dark was Cordelia shouting for help at the top of her lungs. Please, get out of here, my love, he pleaded silently as a strange, hot liquid rapidly covered his face. I love you forever, Cordelia…
The next two weeks of Albert’s life were a blur of agony, hushed voices and cold metal instruments, and fever dreams. He was beginning to believe that he was dead, and in purgatory, when he finally awoke to a state of reasonable consciousness about two weeks after the attack. What woke him was a searing pain in his right cheek. His eyes shot open, and a blurry figure slowly came into focus.
“Forgive me, my lord,” said a man in a doctor’s coat. “Your wounds ran deep, and some of them are having trouble healing. The bandages stick to them, no matter what I have tried.”
Albert shook his head, the room spinning as he did so.
“What?” he asked, wincing against the pain.
The physician put a hand on his shoulder and gently pressed him back against the bed.
“You lost a lot of blood, Lord Billington,” he said. “And you were terribly injured. You were stabbed in the abdomen five times, and your face was cut to ribbons. You are lucky to be alive.”
Albert nodded slowly, closing his eyes as the room spun again. He took a deep breath, bracing himself for the pain before he spoke again.
“Will I live?” he croaked.
The physician looked at his stomach, then back at his face.
“I believe you have a good chance now,” he said. “This time yesterday, I would have suggested to your family that they get your affairs in order. Your wounds became terribly infected, and your fever spiked yesterday. But it seems to be breaking completely today, and you are finally coherent.”
Albert nodded, and he started to relax. Then, fear shot him upright in bed, despite the tilting world around him.
“Cordelia,” he choked, grabbing weakly at the blankets.
The doctor pushed him back, a little more forcefully, giving him a gentle smile.
“Your fiancée is just fine,” he said. “She was saved by a passing carriage. According to her, she flagged down the carriage, onboard which were two gentlemen leaving the same party you two did. They chased off the highwaymen who attacked you, and then they escorted the two of you back here. She herself came for me, in a panicked state. So, I can assure you that she is perfectly fine.”
Albert felt tears of relief sting his eyes. But as soon as they rolled down his wounded cheek, he growled in pain.
The physician gave him a pleading look.
“Please, you must relax and lie back,” he said. “You are still in very critical condition. The next few days are crucial to your recovery. Let me give you something for the pain, so you will be more comfortable. I must tend to these wounds, too. The scarring is already terrible. If these infected wounds do not heal quickly, it will be even worse.”
Albert tried to relax, grateful when the physician gently put the needle in his arm.
“This will help with your pain and your nerves,” he said. “Just breathe deeply. It shouldn’t take long to take hold.”
Albert nodded, eager for the effects of the medicine. He recalled what the physician had said, about scars.
“Scars?” he asked. His throat felt like it was full of hot sand and speaking turned that sand into jagged glass. “Will they heal?”
The doctor froze, looking at Albert with wide eyes just long enough for Albert to become concerned. He opened his mouth to try to repeat his question, but the medicine started working right in that moment.
The physician eventually sighed and dropped his head. Albert’s eyelids were growing heavy, but he could see the defeat on the doctor’s face.
“The knife tore through every layer of skin on your face,” he said. “It barely missed your facial muscles. I had to sew on your flesh in a couple of places, as it was peeled back and exposing muscle. I’m terribly sorry, my lord. I am certain that the scarring is permanent.”
Those were the last words Albert heard before slipping back into the darkness. And his last thoughts before deep slumber claimed him were prayers that Cordelia would still love him.
Two days later, Albert dragged himself out of bed, against the physician’s advice, and dressed with the help of his valet. He ordered a carriage to be prepared, and an hour later, he arrived at the home of his beloved. He struggled with every step, but he dragged himself up to her doorstep, with the footmen watching him carefully from the coach.
He ignored the horrified expression on the butler’s face, smiling brightly through the pain when his dear fiancée approached the door. But when her expression turned into one matching that of the butler, Albert’s heart fell.
Cordelia stared at him, shaking her head slowly for seconds that felt like hours. When she finally did speak, she did so stepping away from Albert, holding up her hand to keep him at bay.
“Is that permanent?” she asked, refusing to look at her fiancé again.
Albert nodded, sighing heavily.
“It is,” he croaked. “But it won’t stop me from loving you. I still want to share my life with you, Cordelia. If you’ll have me.”
But Albert knew her answer before she even spoke. She shielded her eyes, looking at him for the last time with a look of pure revulsion and terror.
“There will be no wedding, Albert,” she said. “There will never be a wedding.”
Albert’s blood began rushing in his ears as his heart began to race, but he heard Cordelia repeat herself, telling him how she couldn’t be with him, how she could never marry him. When she turned and fled from the door, he reached weakly for her. But the butler closed the door in his face, leaving him standing there with tears pouring from his eyes and burning his desiccated cheek.
He didn’t know how long he stood there, staring at the door, before he turned and stumbled his way back to the carriage. His footmen had to help him in the coach, and then inside the house, after which they summoned the physician. But he was already fast asleep again by the time the doctor arrived, and lost in horrible dreams of Cordelia saying one thing, on repeat: There will be no wedding, Albert…
That was the last time he ever spoke to Cordelia. He tried to write her letters over the coming weeks, and made arrangements to call on her again once his strength returned and his scars had healed a bit more. But on the morning he was supposed to go to her family’s home, the scandal sheets of the London Times caught his eye. Cordelia’s name was in large, bold script. And it preceded the name of a wealthy marquess. It was the announcement of their wedding, and of their plans to live abroad immediately following their wedding. He saw that the paper was dated three days prior. Cordelia was gone. And so was his will to go on.
Martha Elwood sat in the drawing room of Elwood Manor with her mother and her cousin, Isabel, listening as her cousin gushed like a young girl at Christmastide. Martha had barely gotten a word in edgewise since her cousin joined her and her mother for tea. But she didn’t mind. She adored Isabel as she would a dear sister, had she ever been blessed with one. It was the subject about which Isabel was so excited that gave Martha mixed feelings.
“I can hardly believe that I’m to be married in less than one week,” she said, sighing dreamily. “I didn’t even know how badly I wanted to be married, until I met Patrick.”
The viscountess nodded, smiling warmly at her niece.
“I’ve never seen you as happy as you have been these past few weeks,” she said. “Your uncle and I couldn’t be happier for you.”
Martha nodded eagerly, willing away the longing she felt as she smiled at her dear cousin.
“As am I, darling,” she said. “And you look so beautiful in your wedding dress.”
Isabel giggled, her cheeks turning pink.
“It is everything I ever dreamed it would be,” she said. “Do you think Patrick will like it?”
Lady Elwood laughed and reached over to pat her niece on her arm.
“Darling, you could wear a tapestry, and Patrick would think you were the most beautiful lady in all of England,” she said. “We have all seen the way he looks at you. It is a wonder that your uncle is ever able to discuss business with him, because he never takes his eyes off you.”
Isabel’s blush deepened, and her eyes sparkled with pure bliss.
“I’ve never seen such devotion in my entire life,” she said. “I don’t even remember Father looking at Mother the way that Patrick looks at me.”
“I don’t think it’s possible for any man to look at a woman the way he looks at you, Cousin,” she said. “If ever a woman were to personify the moon, it would be you.”
Isabel laughed along with her cousin. The viscountess gave her niece a fond look.
“I know that your parents loved each other very much,” she said. “And yes, your father looked at your mother in much the same way that Patrick does you. That kind of love is rare, and I know that your parents would be delighted that you found that love, as they did.”
There was a heavy silence in the room before Isabel spoke again.
“My only regret is that Mother and Father cannot witness this day with me,” she said, her dark green eyes growing sad.
Martha gave her cousin a sad smile. She knew that Isabel had been close with her parents, before a terrible storm during a voyage out at sea claimed their lives ten years prior. Isabel had become like a daughter to Sarah and Luke Elwood, and like a sister to Martha, from the very second she moved in with them after her parents died. But Martha also understood that, even though Isabel loved the rest of her family, nothing could take the place of her parent’s attendance at her wedding day.
The viscountess put her arm around her niece’s shoulder and gave her a smile that matched Martha’s.
“They are with you, my dear,” she said, glancing reverently toward the ceiling. “Your parents watch over you every single day. They see your happiness, and they will see you marry the man you truly love. I believe that in my heart of hearts.”
Isabel looked up at the ceiling, too, as though she thought she might see her parents there. Even though she didn’t, she still smiled, looking at her aunt with a widening smile.
“I hope you’re right, Aunt Sarah,” she said. “It’s wonderful to think that they will get to be with me.”
Martha nodded in agreement with her mother, glad to see her cousin’s sadness passing. She didn’t know how much she believed in what her mother said. She attended church, and she enjoyed reading the bible. She had just never given much thought to the ideas of the afterlife, and of what became of loved ones after they passed. But she thought it was a plausible notion, and one that clearly brought her cousin comfort. There could be no harm in something so sweet and helpful, surely.
“They will smile down on your union to Patrick, darling,” the viscountess added. “Your own smiles and joy will ensure it.”
Isabel nodded, her earlier enthusiasm rapidly returning. She launched into her thoughts on the menu for the wedding celebration that was to be hosted after the wedding. Martha let herself tune out again, keeping her hands busy with her tea and treats.
Truthfully, however, she was trying to hide the pangs of envy she felt. Not because she didn’t feel that Isabel deserved such excitement. Nay: no one deserved it more than Isabel did, in Martha’s eyes. Rather, it was because Martha felt that she herself would never find such a beautiful connection with a man. She refused to cave to her self-pity, however. Her cousin deserved every bit of her attention and energy to be devoted to the celebration of her happiness. And Martha was happy to set aside her own thoughts to give Isabel the love and support she deserved.
When tea concluded, the viscountess rose and kissed her daughter on the cheek.
“We must go see to the preparations for Isabel and Patrick’s engagement dinner this evening,” she said. “Would you like to join us?”
Martha shook her head with another smile.
“I don’t want to get in the way,” she said. “Besides, I think I shall paint for a while before dinner, if that’s all right.”
Isabel beamed at her cousin and embraced her.
“You are so talented,” she said. “We can handle these preparations. Paint to your heart’s content, darling.”
Martha nodded, bidding her mother and cousin farewell. Then, she went to what used to be her schoolroom when she was a girl, which her father had allowed her to convert into her art studio before her teenage years. She opened the half-closed curtains, allowing the early afternoon sunlight to spill into the room and across her easel.
She prepared her paint palette with her watercolors and fetched some clean brushes. She put it off to the side and took her charcoals from their tray at the bottom of the easel. Inspiration immediately struck her, and she began sketching the first lines of Epsom Downs horse racing track. She didn’t often watch horse races. But when she saw horses run, she admired how fast and strong they were. The majesty and grace with which the lovely animals moved was fascinating to her. And the Epsom Downs stadium was majestic in its own right. She sketched away for over an hour, then lost herself in her painting.
She didn’t stop painting until Lily, her lady’s maid, called her for her bath a few hours later. She put the finishing touches on the painting, then moved it to the table just beneath the far window of the room to dry. The maid peeked over her shoulder, smiling shyly at her mistress.
“Miss Elwood, you truly are a wonder with watercolors,” she said.
Martha blushed. She loved painting, and she especially loved that people enjoyed her art. But she was always humbled by praise, no matter how many paintings she did.
“Thank you, Lily,” she said. “I believe that’s one of my favourites thus far.”
Lily examined the painting, nodding approvingly.
“I agree,” she said.
Lily led her to her bath, which she realized she only had about twenty minutes to take. She washed the paint off her hands and arms while her maid took her brown painting dress and smock to the laundry maid. She bathed quickly, ready to get out of the tub and dress by the time Lily had returned.
Her maid helped her into a white and ocean blue, high-waisted evening gown, with white gloves and shoes and blue parasol, and styled her hair in a simple chignon, with a few tight ringlets dangling in the back and around her face. When she was finally ready, Lily escorted her down the stairs and to the drawing room, where Martha, her parents and Isabel would await their guests.
“Oh, Martha, you look so beautiful,” Isabel said, practically glowing in her cream-colored engagement party dress. “I just know you will be a smash with the young, unmarried gentlemen this evening.”
Martha smiled at her cousin, shaking her head.
“You are very sweet,” she said. “But tonight is about you and Patrick. Not about me and any gentlemen.” What she didn’t say was that she knew that ball would be no different than all the others that had preceded it. She would be a wallflower, just as she always was, without a single offer for a dance. And she wouldn’t be foolish enough to allow herself to think otherwise. But she also wouldn’t voice the thoughts and spoil her cousin’s mood. She had been sincere: that night was in honor of her cousin and her fiancé. And Martha was happy just to be a part of that celebration.
Yet later that evening, as Martha sat predictably in the corner of her parents’ ballroom, watching all the other happy couples dancing, her heart longed to experience that kind of happiness. She had known after her second failed season that she would likely never make a marriage match. Now, five years after her debut season, she was sure of it. She wasn’t ugly, but nor was she especially beautiful.
She had heard the word plain used to describe her, even though her mother and cousin assured her that wasn’t the case. She knew there must be some truth to it, or she would have had more than three dances in the five seasons she had been out in society.
Even the gentlemen who were desperately looking for brides had overlooked her in their searches, at least as far as she knew. And now that her younger cousin was about to be married, she had finally come to terms with the fact that she would remain a spinster. There were worse fates, she knew. She could end up in the poor house, which would never happen, as her father had amassed considerable wealth during his rein as viscount, and his business investments became more fruitful every year. Or she could have ended up with a scandal smearing her name. That hadn’t happened, either. She could live a happy, quiet life reading her books and enjoying her art. How could she be dissatisfied with that?
And yet, as she watched Isabel dancing with her fiancé, and saw the way the couple looked at one another as they twirled around the ballroom floor, she felt wistful. It was clear that the pair loved each other very much, and Martha knew how rare that was. Love matches in London only ever happened by accident, and it was almost unheard of. But Isabel and Patrick had found true love. It was as beautiful as it was worthy of envy.
For the first time, Martha realized that she did wish to find love. Some deep, hidden part of her wanted to find a man with whom she had the kind of connection that Isabel had with Patrick. She had been so hopeful after her debut ball, even though she had only gotten one dance that evening. But over the years, that hope dwindled to almost nothing. Almost nothing…
She blinked and looked away from her cousin, scolding herself for woolgathering. She needed to be happy for her cousin, not wallowing in self-pity. Continuing to daydream about finding a love match of her own was foolish. Her time had passed, and her spinster future awaited her. In time, she would find the contentment in such a life that she desired. As long as she stopped giving herself false hope, she could learn to adjust to a spinster’s life. Couldn’t she?
Albert mentally waved farewell to his countryside home of Billington Estate as the carriage turned out of the winding stone driveway and onto the country road toward London. He sighed heavily as he leaned against the window, staring wistfully at the country scenery until the carriage picked up enough speed that it passed in a blur. Then, he stared through it all, thinking about how he would rather have a tooth pulled than to return to London.
A few days prior, he had received a letter from his father. It was infrequent that his father reached out to him, as communication from his family usually came from his mother. Albert loved both his parents, but his father wasn’t one for overt affection, even for his own son. Thus, the two of them rarely communicated privately.
The lack of meaningless correspondence between him and his father was how he knew the contents of the letter must be serious. He just couldn’t have imagined that the earl would be requesting that he return to London to discuss a very important matter with him. Albert’s stomach had turned into a block of ice as he read the words. The last thing Albert had ever wanted was to return to London. Not after the accident, to be sure.
Albert had once been every bit as respected and admired as his father was in the high society of London. He had lucrative business deals in the works at the time that he was engaged to be wed to Cordelia, and his future as Earl of Balmere was promising, and something Albert looked forward to. But after the attack by the highwaymen on Cordelia’s and his carriage three years prior, everything changed.
His eyes unconsciously came back into focus, settling on his reflection in the window. He shuddered as he saw the terrible scarring on the right side of his face in the glass. He had been forced to see the scars every single day for three long years. And yet, he never became accustomed to them. Those scars had been the reason why Cordelia left him, why the ton started whispering about and avoiding him, and why any of his potential business partners suddenly withdrew their offers and investments. He went from prominent to pariah overnight. Such was the loyalty of the ton. Including his own former lover.
Is Father not concerned about stirring the old, nasty rumours? He wondered as the coach bounced along. He knew the answer, of course. His parents loved him, no matter how scarred his face was. Even his father, while he hadn’t coddled his son, had been very sympathetic about his son’s permanent plight. So why would he drag Albert back to London, where people would do nothing but say more terrible things about him? What could be so important that his father couldn’t journey to Billington Estate to discuss it?
He turned his face away, too stressed and disgusted with his reflection to keep staring at the scars. He was not prepared for the leers and the whispers, and he certainly wasn’t ready for the false sympathy shown to his face but discarded and mocked behind his back. He was aware that the ton saw him as a monster, even though he had earned his scars by trying to save the life of the woman who clearly didn’t love him unconditionally.
Even the people who knew exactly what happened saw the scars and judged him. Or, at least, they wanted to avoid him, so as to not find themselves in the scandal sheets and in the juiciest gossip of the ton for interacting with the hideous beast of Billington. The few people who didn’t mock or berate him simply looked away, clearly pitying him, but too afraid to speak a kind word to him. And he loathed to subject himself to all of it yet again.
By the time he reached Balmere Manor, Albert felt bitter from exhaustion and irritability. He could never find a pleasant mood when he found himself thinking about his life since his scars. He did well pushing down those thoughts so they couldn’t plague him, apart from in his dreams, while he resided in the country. Now that he was back in London, however, he could think of nothing else.
Balmere Manor looked every bit as warm and inviting as it always had. Its red brick construct, framed with the greenest shrubs and holly bushes shaped like animals gave it a majestically welcoming countenance. The rooms at the front of the manor all had curtains of the same shade of beige, and they were barely visible from their open positions in each of the windows. The front door was the same shade of white as the mortar that held the bricks of the manor together, and it was decorated with a fresh halo of bright pink flowers. Albert had no doubt that was his mother’s doing.
He exited the carriage, barking orders to the footmen to see to his luggage. He dragged himself up to the front door of the mansion and pulled the silver door knocker. He wasn’t surprised when the butler pulled open the door before the knocker came to rest against the door again as he pulled his hand away.
What did surprise him, however, was that the butler barely got the chance to welcome him inside. The countess was rushing up the hallway just as Albert followed the butler inside the manor, and she was smiling fondly at her son.
“Albert, my darling,” she said, running into his arms and squeezing him tightly. “It is wonderful to have you home.”
Albert felt a little of his previous irritation fade away as he looked into his mother’s dark hazel eyes.
“Hello, Mother,” he said, returning her embrace. “I cannot say the same. But I am very happy to see you.”
His mother nodded, glancing sympathetically at the right side of his face. She didn’t touch it, nor did she say anything about it. Instead, she put her hand around his arm, which he then properly offered to her, and began leading him toward the grand hall of the manor.
“I would love to visit with you all afternoon,” his mother gushed, clinging gently to his arm. “But I know you must be exhausted after your long trip. You are welcome to rest in your chambers until dinner, if you like.”
Albert nodded, glancing around the manor.
“Did Father not wish to meet with me when I first arrived?” he asked.
His mother shook her head.
“He’s gone to the House of Lords,” she said. “He will be back for dinner.”
Albert nodded, unable to hide his relief. He was drained from the trip, and he wasn’t ready to discuss his father’s important matters.
“In that case, I might take you up on that offer, if you’re sure you don’t mind,” he said, giving his mother a tired smile.
The countess nodded, kissing her son’s cheek.
“I understand, my darling,” she said, rubbing his back gently. “We can catch up later this evening. You go relax and freshen up. I’m just glad that you’re back home.”
Albert nodded, embracing his mother briefly before dragging himself up the stairs. His valet was with the other servants, bringing in his luggage. He decided to wash his face and unfasten his jacket and shirt while he waited for the valet to finish. He avoided the scarred side of his face as he examined his reflection. He did look pale, and very tired. It was no wonder his mother urged him to rest before his father returned.
Daniel, the valet, met him in his chambers about ten minutes later. Albert was more than happy for the man to help him out of his traveling clothes, and into a dressing gown. Albert knew he would need to dress for dinner. But he didn’t feel like going through that preparation right then. He intended to just rest, as his mother had suggested. It turned out that not dressing right away was the right decision, because as soon as he sat back on his bed after the valet left, he was sound asleep.
His sleep was far from sound, however. It was plagued with nightmares of the night his face was scarred. When he awoke, the sunlight coming in through the windows was fading, but he was sweating as though he was sleeping right on top of the sun. He covered his face and took a deep breath. Would that night, and the preceding fortnight, ever cease to haunt him?
A few hours later, Albert was bathed, dressed in a formal, hunter green jacket with a white undershirt and white breeches, and ready to join his parents for dinner. He made a point of scrubbing his face extra hard with the cloth, to give it a bit more color than he had when he first arrived home. When he joined his parents in the main dining hall and saw the relieved smile on his mother’s face, he knew it had been a successful endeavor.
“Good evening, darling,” she gushed, leaving her seat to kiss his cheek and lead him to his chair beside her. “You look like you feel considerably better.”
“I do,” he lied. “And I’m famished.”
The earl grinned at his son. He didn’t rise to greet his son, but he reached for his wine glass and gestured for Albert to do the same.
“It’s good to see you again, son,” he said, raising his glass. “It will be wonderful to have you home.”
Albert toasted his father, biting back the same remark he had made to his mother when she said the same thing to him earlier that day. The first course of the meal was served just then, and Albert found that he really was hungry.
As they ate, his mother beamed at him, her eyes lighting up as she touched his arm.
“Darling, I almost forgot,” she said. “Michael, Penny and James are coming in several days. They’re coming from the countryside to stay with us for a little while.”
Albert nodded, smiling despite his dread at the news of his uncle’s, aunt’s and cousin’s arrival. He was uncomfortable, even around them. He wondered if that was the reason why his father had summoned him home. But why had his mother not been the one to write to him about it?
After dinner, Walter Billington motioned for his son to follow him. Albert guessed that his father was ready to talk to him about the reason why he had called him back home. The men entered the earl’s study, where Luke poured himself and his son a drink while Albert made himself comfortable in one of the chairs opposite his father’s at the desk.
“I can imagine that you’re wondering why all the cloak and dagger about asking you to come here,” his father began.
Albert nodded, trying to seem casual.
“I have wondered once or twice,” he said.
His father chuckled.
“Yes, well, I’m glad to see that you came so quickly,” he said. “I’m getting on in age, and I want you to take on more responsibilities. You’ll be earl one day, after all, and only the heavens know how soon.”
Albert let out a small sigh. He had to admit that he was a bit relieved. While he was no longer as happy about inheriting his father’s title as he had been before his accident, he was relieved that his father wasn’t telling him that he was dying. He loved his father, to be sure. But he also wasn’t ready to take up the earldom so soon.
“Of course, Father,” he said. “Where should I begin?”
The earl looked at his son, and Albert saw something strange in his eyes. Albert wondered if he had jumped to the conclusion that his father wasn’t ill a little too soon.
“By taking a wife,” he said. “I’ve already arranged for you to marry. As future heir to the earldom, it’s our duty to produce an heir and carry on the family name.”
Albert choked on his drink, coughing until his airway was clear again. He looked at his father, sure he hadn’t heard him correctly.
“I’m sorry, what did you say?” he asked.
The earl nodded, his expression serious.
“To ensure that you produce an heir, I’ve arranged a marriage for you,” he said. “She’s a respectable lady, and her father is wealthy and prominent in the ton. But you will soon get to see for yourself. We will be having dinner with your future betrothed and her family tomorrow evening.”
Albert stared blankly at his father. He struggled to believe the conversation he was having with his father. Had his father really put him up for an arranged marriage without his consent?
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I’m glad that you finished reading the preview of “An Arranged Betrothal with a Scarred Viscount”. It will be on Amazon very soon!