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Authors: Vivian Roycroft

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A Different Sort of Perfect

BOOK: A Different Sort of Perfect
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A Different Sort of Perfect

by Vivian Roycroft

Published by Astraea Press

www.astraeapress.com

 

Smashwords Edition

Copyright © 2013 VIVIAN ROYCROFT

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters,
and events are fictitious in every regard. Any similarities to
actual events and persons, living or dead, are purely coincidental.
Any trademarks, service marks, product names, or named features are
assumed to be the property of their respective owners, and are used
only for reference. There is no implied endorsement if any of these
terms are used. Except for review purposes, the reproduction of
this book in whole or part, electronically or mechanically,
constitutes a copyright violation.

 

A DIFFERENT SORT OF PERFECT

Copyright © 2013 VIVIAN ROYCROFT

ISBN 978-1-62135-114-6

Cover Art Designed by AM Design Studio

 

To my mentors, Patrick O'Brian and Jane
Austen. Though we've never met, in many ways we're most intimately
acquainted.

To my beloved husband, who's always believed
in Lady Clara.

And to all my fellow Astraea Press writers,
always there and ready to talk. Kay Springsteen, Kim Bowman, Sherry
Gloag, Meg Mims, Iris Blobel, Monique O'Connor James, Bri Clark,
J.F. Jenkins, J.L. Salter, Stephanie Taylor — in no particular
order — and all the rest of you. The workday is never dull with you
lot virtually around.

 

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never
shaken;

It is the star to every wandering barque,

Whose worth's unknown, although his height be
taken.

Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and
cheeks

Within his bending sickle's compass come:

Love alters not with his brief hours and
weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of
doom.

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

~William Shakespeare

Sonnet 116

Chapter One

 

Lady Clara Huckabee trembled. She felt it in her
traitorous knees, which threatened to deposit her in an undignified
heap on the Grecian Axminster carpet, and in her throat, tightened
almost unbearably beneath her morning gown's simple velvet
neckline. Disappointing her guardian was bad enough, but since he
started this fiasco, surely he'd endeavor to bear it. Shocking her
aunt, though — for shocking her response would be — was far worse,
because it must necessarily cause a measure of pain and Aunt
Helen's sweet soul outweighed her silly, old-fashioned notions.
Clara steeled herself. It was their actions, their insistence,
which forced her to this miserable necessity. If they refused to
consider her wishes in the selection of a husband,
her
husband, then they must accept some of the blame for the
contretemps that ensued.

Hopefully the housekeeper wasn't listening behind the
closed drawing room door.

A deep breath, and Clara softened her clenched hands
into gentler folds. Only then did she trust herself to meet the
Viscount Maynard's black eyes, unblinking and glittering. No matter
how many times she ordered herself to be meek and affable, he still
looked like a possessive lizard.

"It distresses me to cause grief in anyone,
particularly a gentleman as eminent as my Lord Maynard, and I find
no pleasure in disappointing my esteemed aunt and uncle." She
paused. Those reptilian eyes widened and bulged; perhaps she was
the first person to dare cross the arrogant booby. Clara hurried on
before she could be interrupted. "However, the selection of a
lifetime partner is too delicate an operation to be entrusted to
any third party, no matter how revered. Kingdoms will neither rise
nor fall on my lineage and therefore I believe my own desires and
tastes should be consulted. I am sorry, but I cannot accept my
lord's offer of marriage."

Viscount Maynard's gaze drifted from her face,
drifted lower. "The child has an opinion of her own." When he'd
asked for her hand, his voice had been courteous and correct; now
he drawled his words, taking twice as long to state a simple
sentence. His lips curled as if he smelled something unspeakable.
"How precocious."

Her skin crawled. His gaze boasted weight and mass,
as if his hand explored her without permission. So much for meek
and affable; the viscount was surely more interested in her
inheritance, in Papa's money, than in her or her hand. "My lord,
your anxiety to change my opinion must be unbounded." She dropped
her most formal curtsey and escaped from the drawing room. Let him
eat cake; just not hers.

After the drawing room's sun-drenched warmth, the
cool Grecian elegance of the entryway made her face feel hot. If
the housekeeper had bent her ear to the door, she'd run in time.
With luck, Clara would escape, too, without additional arguments.
But on the curved stairway's far side, the library door stood ajar.
That would be Uncle David's temporary retreat and he'd be listening
for the first sign of movement. Yes, there was his shadow,
approaching the doorway. No time to spare.

Clara composed her expression as she ran up the white
marble stairs, her slippers soundless, her pale muslin skirt
gathered in one hand, the other trailing up the ebony banister. A
few moments alone, hidden in the old schoolroom where Papa had
taught her mathematics and the stars, and she'd compose herself.
The little telescope was still there, beneath the heavy canvas
covering they'd sewn for it, pointing as he'd left it, to the
merchant shipping and men-of-war anchored in the Sound. If she held
the canvas close to her face and breathed deeply, sometimes it
seemed she could still smell his musky scent on the neat stitching,
so much more even than her own. The memory cooled her temper, but
did nothing for the hole he had left behind in her heart. She'd
always miss him, always, and no man — certainly not that titled
twaddle — could ever remove him from the foremost place in her
heart.

Aunt Helen waited at the top of the stairs, almost
dancing in place. The artless little brunette wisps fallen from her
upturned hair framed her delighted smile, and she held out her
hands as Clara paused, three steps below. Surely Aunt Helen, with
her superb taste, hadn't presumed she'd accept that man?

"Our viscountess-to-be! My beautiful niece, I wish
you joy."

Inexplicable. But horribly true. "In regard to my
fortunate escape, I'm sure." The tart words tumbled forth without
thought. But there was no recalling them and while it had been
dreadful imagining Aunt Helen's shock, seeing it only added a cold
edge of satisfaction to Clara's anger.

"You didn't — you didn't refuse him? Clara, how could
you?"

"With relief and a smile, I assure you. Dear aunt,
how could you imagine I'd agree to marry anyone so cold and
arrogant?"

"But he is a viscount. The ways of the nobility are
not like ours. Great wealth and vast landholdings, dating from
generations long gone, give a titled man a sense of entitlement
that you and I cannot understand. He would make an excellent
husband for you."

The anger broke her restraint, floodwaters rushing
from a collapsing dam. "I am no entitlement. And Aunt Helen, could
you marry without love?"

"Oh, Clara—" Aunt Helen tucked the fallen curls
behind her ears. "Not that again. We've had this discussion over
and over—"

"You will never convince me."

"—and while it's a wonderful, romantic notion to
marry for love rather than for stability, fortune, or position,
it's simply not practical. You must have a husband—"

"An encumbrance I know only too well."

"—and it will not be the Frenchman."

That was a new voice, a masculine, booming one,
coming from the stairs behind her. Clara whirled. Uncle David had
approached to within two steps, and she hadn't heard his footfall
through her temper tantrum and their raised voices. His blue eyes,
usually warm despite their cool deep color, now burned like chips
of Arctic glacial ice.

"Uncle—"

"We are at war with France," Uncle David said, "a
fact you seem able to forget but which torments my every hour,
waking or sleeping. Your father's ships — your fading inheritance —
are being taken, sunk, burned, destroyed, and your father's sailors
are dying and wasting away in Napoleon's prison hulks." He stepped
closer, and while he wasn't a tall man, in this tempestuous state
he seemed twice as large as life, and she seemed smaller. "I will
see you unmarried and disinherited before I allow you to wed a
Frenchman."

His declaration rang through the stairwell and entry.
Aunt Helen stepped back, hand to her throat. Clara gripped the
banister. He would not make her cry. And she would not allow him to
win.

"Viscount Maynard has been so good as to accept my
invitation to supper and cards." Uncle David's voice, while
quieter, surrendered none of its authoritative ice. "We both agreed
that not every immediate refusal equates to an absolute no."

Again her knees threatened to deposit her, this time
onto the white marble. And this time was far worse. She would not
cry, no matter what he said.

"You will go to your room and consider the viscount's
proposal in greater depth." He turned and clattered down the
stairs, the tails of his claret-colored coat fluttering with each
step.

No tears. And he would not win.

 

* * * *

 

Clara threw the inoffensive morning dress onto the
floor and, in her shift, rang for fresh water. "Take that rag away,
Nan, please."

The maid picked up the muslin, nervous hands folding
and refolding it. "Shall I have it cleaned, miss?"

"No. Throw it out. Give it to the poorhouse. Keep it
for yourself. But get rid of it. I'll never wear it again."

Alone, she sponged the lingering stain of those
hungering reptilian eyes from her skin, washing again and again
until she finally felt clean. The cold way he'd leered at her, as
if she were a broodmare at auction, mouth open to be checked! Clara
shivered. Did that ugly, open sort of scrutiny best symbolize the
marriage market? None of the gentlemen in her usual set, and
certainly none of the Frenchmen she'd met during the too-short
Amiens peace, had ever looked at her in such a lewd manner. It was
not to be borne.

The marriage market. That was Diana Mallory's term
for it, this desperate seeking for a powerful, rich, fashionable
husband, and Diana had seen enough of it in London to not complain
when her parents moved her to Plymouth. So long as they returned to
London for the season, of course. And oh, the horrifying stories
she'd told; poor Harmony Barlow's jaw had hung open like a fly
trap. It had seemed so hilarious from that safe distance. Now, her
giggles were quite gone.

Hands trembling still, Clara pulled on a clean shift
— Nan could have the old one, as well as the dress — short stays
that tied in front, and a petticoat. When she reached into the
wardrobe, it wasn't to her other morning gowns, on the left, but to
the walking gowns, in the center. She crushed her favorite grey
sarsnet to her bodice. Uncle David had told her to go to her room
and think. He hadn't told her to stay there. And she was finished
thinking, at least as far as the viscount was concerned. Yes, she'd
vanish for a while, until the household's broiling emotions cooled
and soothed. Too bad she couldn't simply vanish and return, happily
married to the perfect man, on the day before her nineteenth
birthday, five months hence.

She tugged on the round dress, the colorless color of
diffused shadows and trimmed with light dove crepe, added the
matching bonnet, silk wrap, and kid gloves, grabbed her lace-making
kit for luck, and snuck down the back stairs. The housekeeper and
Nan bustled past in the hallway, gossiping in such low tones that
all Clara could hear was her name; indeed the blasted woman had
listened outside the drawing room door for quite long enough. Once
the horizon was clear, Clara slipped out the back window, guilt and
smug naughtiness fighting for dominance. She hurried across Ker
Street in the face of an oncoming hackney coach and joined the
pedestrian flow toward Plymouth Dock.

BOOK: A Different Sort of Perfect
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ads

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