A Match Made In DutyBy: Meara Platt
JAMES BRAYDEN, FIFTH Earl of Exmoor, glanced at the bottle of brandy his butler had just carried in on a sparkling silver tray and set down beside him on the elegant mahogany desk in his study. He waited for his butler to depart and close the door behind him before turning to the two guests who had just arrived and were about to change his life forever. “Care for a drink, Major Allworthy?”
Ordinarily, he would have given his friend, Lawrence Allworthy, an amiable pat on the back and poured them both a tall glass of the fiery amber liquid his butler had just brought in. Ordinarily, they would have settled in the cushioned leather chairs beside the blazing fire and spent the night getting drunk while reminiscing about the men in their regiment and the years spent on the Continent battling Napoleon’s forces. Ordinarily, their first order of business would have been to toast their fallen companions.
But tonight was no ordinary night. His gaze settled on the young woman with lustrous dark hair and big, brown eyes who stood quietly beside his friend. “And you, Miss Wilkinson. May I offer you tea? Refreshments? The journey could not have been an easy one for you.”
“No, thank you.” She blushed as she spoke and then looked down at her toes, obviously wishing to be anywhere but in his study.
James decided the rose blush was quite becoming on her cheeks.
He leaned on his cane to slowly walk around the sturdy desk that dominated the center of the room and came to stand beside his guests. Up close, he could see that the young woman was trembling, though she did her best to hide her fear as he approached. Were his scars so hideous? He supposed they were, for even he had yet to grow used to them. They’d be most alarming to a stranger. “Please,” James said, motioning to the chairs beside the fireplace. “This will be your home soon, Miss Wilkinson. You may as well get used to it.”
She pinched her lips and frowned lightly. “I don’t wish to be rude, Lord Exmoor. But what makes you think I wish to accept your proposal?”
He exchanged glances with Lawrence who appeared as surprised by her remark as he was. “It was your brother’s dying request that I marry you. I promised him that I would and I intend to honor that vow.”
Her pink blush deepened. “Do I have no say in the matter?” She tipped her chin up to meet his gaze, and although she was small and slender, the top of her head barely reaching his shoulder, he could see that she had a full-sized, stubborn determination.
Lawrence cleared his throat. “Miss Wilkinson, what choice do you have? Do you not wish to marry an earl? I do not know of any young woman in your circumstances who would refuse–”
“Major Allworthy,” James said, quietly interrupting him. “I think it is best that I speak on my behalf.” He understood the young lady’s reluctance now that she’d taken a good look at him, and expected that she was now quietly swallowing her revulsion. While his leg would hopefully strengthen in time, the jagged scars etched on his face were permanent and unfortunately, too prominent to hide. “No doubt the terms of our arrangement must concern you. We ought to go over them now, for you may have some misconceptions about what… ah, I shall expect in your duties as my wife.”
He raked a hand through his hair. “Perhaps we ought to speak about this matter in private. Major Allworthy… Lawrence, would you mind giving us a moment alone?”
His friend appeared to be as uncomfortable as James was and more than eager to leave this embarrassing discussion to him. “Excellent idea. I’ll be in your library. I’m sure there’s a book I’m eager to read.” He dashed out as though his coattails were on fire.
The girl appeared desperate to follow him out, but James placed a light hand on her elbow to hold her back. “Give me a moment of your time, Miss Wilkinson. Hear me out before you walk out of here.” He cast her a wry smile. “Or run out. I wouldn’t blame you.”
She relented with a curt nod.
“Please, let’s sit beside the warming fire.” He settled her in one of the chairs and took the other. She must have noticed the awkward way he sank into the soft maroon leather and stretched his leg in front of him since he could not yet bend it. But she said nothing, and to her credit, made no moue of distaste.
“I know this isn’t easy for you,” he said, uncertain how one politely raised the issue of the bedchamber to a young woman one had known for all of two minutes. Yet, that particularly thorny issue had to be foremost on her mind and James knew he had to address it immediately. “Rest assured that I will not… er…” Bloody humiliating! In all his days, he never imagined himself in this awkward situation. Before the war, he had been considered quite the catch. Beautiful young women threw themselves in his path with tedious regularity, all of them eager to gain his notice in the hope they might become the next Countess Exmoor.