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Authors: Gayle Callen

Return of the Viscount

BOOK: Return of the Viscount
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Return of the Viscount

Gayle Callen

Dedication

To Kris Fletcher, one of my Purple buddies: thanks for dropping everything to read a synopsis or brainstorm. This book wouldn't have happened without you. I so admire your dedication to family and friends, and feel blessed to be included in that special circle.

Prologue

Appertan Hall, Middlesex, 1 September, 1841

Dear Sergeant Blackthorne,

Allow me to introduce myself. I am Lady Cecilia Mallory. We have not met officially, and there are some who would feel that my writing to you is inappropriate due to my unmarried state. But I feel a connection to you from my father's letters, and the disparity in our ages should put aside all gossip. You notified me of my father's death and sent kind words of condolence. I knew the military life was what he wanted, and his death in battle could not be altogether unexpected. My mother always feared this ending, and in some ways, I'm grateful she passed out of this life first, so she did not have to suffer this terrible grief.

My brother is now the Earl of Appertan at the young age of eighteen, but I have faith that he will take his duties seriously. He has left his studies at Cambridge, and, like any young man, he is eager to prove himself as an adult.

But, Sergeant, how are you? My father's death surely was not easy on you. His letters were filled with words in your praise, ruminations on your long talks together. You must keenly feel the loss of his friendship. Do write and tell me how you fare.

Yours in shared sympathy,

Cecilia Mallory

Bombay, India, 20 October, 1841

Dear Lady Cecilia,

You did not need to respond to my letter, but I am grateful you did. It eases me to know that your brother has assumed the earldom with dedication. If he is anything like your father, he will take good care of you. Do not worry needlessly.

I understand the grief of a father's death. When it happened, I was separated by continents from my family, and it is easy to feel alone in your sorrow. But you are not alone. In memory of your father, I will always be interested in your welfare.

Your concern for my well-being was surprising. I assume by your words that you wish to continue this correspondence, so I will do what I can to alleviate your worries.

Your father spoke proudly of the years your entire family accompanied him to follow the drum. A woman's life is hard here, and I admire your mother's courage for keeping you all together as a family. My own family was not so understanding of my choices. My father thought that I, as the eldest, had a duty to remain in England. But I felt more keenly my duty to my country, and this estranged me from him. My younger brother, Allen, has always been up to the challenge of seeing to our family property. We correspond regularly and make decisions together. It is good to have a sibling, is it not?

Now please tell me more of your life at home. It comforts me to think of you doing everyday things, to know that there is more to the world than unrest and the threat of war.

Your faithful servant,

Sergeant Blackthorne

S
everal letters later . . .

Appertan Hall, 1 March, 1842

Dear Sergeant Blackthorne,

I truly enjoyed your last letter about the holidays in India. It reminded me well of the friendships our family formed there, the gay parties. And yes, I remember the eager young ladies who came to find husbands in Civil Service, but I'd never heard the term “three-hundred-a-year-dead-or-alive-men.” So a pension to a widow was the same as a husband's yearly salary? Love cannot be a part of every marriage, of course. After what I have told you of my life so far, you surely know that I am practical by nature.

Your gossip makes me laugh, and I must admit, I have been doing little of that these days, confined at home in mourning. I have not spoken much of my brother, and your words from several letters ago about your closeness to your own brother gave my heart a pang. I envy you, Sergeant. I'm trying to help my brother, but he is having difficulty dealing with our steward. Oliver is still so young yet, and I alone seem to understand that. I have come to appreciate my father even more, knowing that he controlled these estates from India.

Soon I will be out of mourning, and I know there will be men who wish to court me. I cannot believe I am writing of this to you, my father's friend, but I find it easier to put my thoughts into words rather than speak them, even though I know my dearest friend, Hannah Webster, would understand. She is happy for a man's notice, whereas I wish I could remain anonymous. You must know I have a generous dowry, and I cannot help believing that this matters more than what kind of woman I am. My parents' marriage was not what it looked like from the outside, and I would never allow myself to be this unhappy. Oh, please do not think their sad marital state was my dear papa's fault—it was not. I'm not even certain what I'm trying to say in this letter or if I have advice to ask of you. Thoughts of marriage trouble me, and I sometimes wonder if I should marry at all.

Now see the silly things I am saying? Surely that is due to the influence of my guardian, Lord Hanbury, a cousin to my mother. He and his wife are happiest in the country, and their growing anxiety about chaperoning a debutante in London is surely irritating my nerves.

Your sincere friend,

Cecilia

Bombay, India, 15 May, 1842

My dear Lady Cecilia,

I am humbled that you wish to confide in me. Know that I would be honored to assist the daughter of my commander and friend. I am concerned to hear that your brother is having difficulty adjusting to his new role. Maturity will help, of course. If your steward is the same as the one employed by your father, then yes, young Lord Appertan is in good hands. But if, as time goes on, things do not improve, please confide this in me. For the sake of your father, and my friendship with you, I would help your brother however I could.

As for marriage, although I am not married myself, allow me to say it is not to be entered into lightly. But I sense from your letters you are not a flighty young lady, given to making rash judgments. I, too, have sad history in my family, which is probably the reason I have not married. And, of course, I am but a noncommissioned officer, which is hardly the life for a young lady. I am a career military man, Lady Cecilia, and I plan to remain in India, where my country needs me. You have your own difficulties, of course, and it is never easy to be the daughter of an earl, to be expected to marry within your station. You will meet young men, and you will make the right choice if you listen to your head as much as your heart. Marry on your own terms, not simply to satisfy another. Then you will be happy.

Your faithful servant,

Sergeant Blackthorne

Bombay, India, 30 August, 1842

My dear Lady Cecilia,

Do not think me presumptuous, but after corresponding regularly for over a year, the absence of a letter from you leaves me puzzled and apprehensive, especially after you shared your concerns about your future. Please write when you are able. Surely you are in the midst of your reintroduction to Society.

Your faithful servant,

Sergeant Blackthorne

Appertan Hall, 19 October, 1842

Dear Sergeant Blackthorne,

Please forgive my lack of correspondence. You have written to me faithfully, and I have allowed my own concerns to override my behavior as your friend. I have sad news to report. No sooner did I emerge from mourning, than did my dearest friend Hannah tragically drown. I have been comforting her younger sister, Penelope, as well as her parents, even though my own brother requires more and more of my attention. I am feeling constrained by my guardian, who will not grant me access to my own inheritance until I turn twenty-five.

Unless I marry. Sergeant, you will surely think my next words mad, but please listen to my reasoning. Would you consider marrying me? Neither of us has anyone we are promised to, and every young man of my acquaintance is so shallow and immature compared to you. I know you plan to remain in the Dragoon Guards for life, and I would be perfectly content with that. We could marry by proxy, as has sometimes happened when military men are stationed out of the country. I will remain here, helping my brother with the Appertan estates, while you remain in India. If this favor is beyond your ability to grant, I understand, and know that I will continue to be your faithful correspondent—

Cecilia

Chapter 1

Middlesex, England 1843

A
t the pounding on the front door, Lady Cecilia looked up from the letter she'd been writing at the little desk in the drawing room at Appertan Hall. The afternoon was so overcast as to seem like dusk, and a lightning flash illuminated the curtains while giving off a crack of noise. Who would be out and about on such a day?

She briskly got to her feet and strode toward the cavernous entrance hall of the castle, reaching it at the same moment her white-haired butler, Talbot, opened one of the massive double doors. A broad man stood silhouetted briefly by another flash of lightning, and she couldn't see his face. A blast of mist blew in around him, and she smelled the rain.

“Good afternoon, sir,” Talbot said in a dignified voice, even though he had to raise it to be heard above the storm.

The man leaned heavily on a cane and nodded to Talbot. “Good afternoon.”

There was something about his deep voice that seemed . . . different, that made her more alert.

“I need to see your mistress,” he continued.

“May I ask who is calling?” Talbot said with reserve, as if he would be the stranger's gatekeeper and judge.

“Sergeant Blackthorne. She will know the name of her husband,” he added.

Cecilia covered her mouth, feeling a surge of shock and disbelief. Sergeant Blackthorne? Here in Middlesex? He had assured her he never planned to leave his regiment in India, and she'd assumed she might never meet him.

He took a step across the threshold, and she saw the broad, strong hands of a young man, the unbowed shoulders. Her late father's supposedly closest friend could not be more than ten years her elder. How was it possible that she'd made such a wrong assumption about his age? She'd married him by proxy six months before, thinking she was making a perfectly rational decision about a husband she'd never wanted.

She must have made some sort of sound, for both men turned to look at her. Talbot said nothing, surely realizing the next decision was hers.

“Please do come in, Sergeant Blackthorne,” she said with more calm than she felt.

He swept off his hat and limped inside, and she wasn't surprised when he stared at her for long moments. She knew she was pleasant to look at, but his regard seemed more intense than any she'd ever felt before.

“Shall I send a footman for your bags, sir?” Talbot asked.

“And a groom for my horse.”

“Of course, sir.”

Talbot closed the door behind Sergeant Blackthorne. “Shall I send a tea tray, Lady Cecilia?”

She cleared her throat. “To the drawing room, Talbot. Thank you.”

With his hat off, she could see Sergeant Blackthorne more clearly, brown hair disheveled and damp. His face was broad and harsh, stark cheekbones beneath intelligent, impassive brown eyes. He had a square chin and jaw, and eyebrows that seemed like slashes on his skin. With his cane against his thigh, he swept off his wet cloak and handed it and his hat to Talbot, who then silently melted away into the gloom.

Sergeant Blackthorne had a soldier's body, none of the lean grace of the refined men she was used to. She could see the expanse of muscles in his arms and thighs, as if his civilian clothes no longer fit quite properly. Heat rose into her cheeks with her unusual awareness of him.

And then she remembered she'd invited him into the drawing room. She turned, her skirts swirling, and led the way. The drawing room had once been the great hall of the ancient castle, but over the years, her ancestors had refined it, with clusters of sofas and chairs scattered about, and a pianoforte in one corner. But there was no civilizing the massive fireplace as tall as a man, and no one had ever suggested removing the swords and shields dominating the high expanses of the walls although large landscapes and portraits hung below.

To ward away the autumn chill, she'd been sitting near the coal fire in the hearth, and she led him there.

“You must be damp from your journey,” she said, trying to find polite conversation when her mind was racing.

He stood near the coal grate for a moment, both hands braced on the cane, his head lowered to the warmth. Then he glanced at her from beneath his dark, heavy brows, and she felt as if a thread went taut between them, connecting them there, alone together in the storm-darkened room.

“Forgive me for arriving unannounced,” he said in a low voice. “A letter would have traveled at the same speed. I did not intend to return to England anytime soon, but then I was injured, and ordered home until my health improves.”

“You are recovering, Sergeant?” She clasped and unclasped her hands while she studied him too closely.

“I am.”

He did not elaborate, so she continued on, “I hope your wounds were not serious.” For a man who could write interesting letters, he did not speak easily although she didn't need the sound of his voice to feel his very presence taking up the space all around her.

“Shrapnel. There were several pieces they could not remove from my leg without risking further damage. The cane will become unnecessary soon enough, then I will be able to return.” He paused and slanted a look at her. “Normally, such a wound would not merit this much recovery time, but my superiors knew of the circumstances of our marriage and insisted.”

She bit her lip, then sat down at last, smoothing out her skirts with trembling fingers.
The
circumstances of our marriage
indeed. He'd gone along with the marriage—at her request, of course. She'd desperately needed access to her funds. Sergeant Blackthorne had seemed like the perfect solution in those desperate, sleepless hours when she'd paced the nights away. She hadn't wanted to marry, couldn't risk being controlled by any of the men of her acquaintance. They'd all seemed so eager when they saw the riches of Appertan Hall—or when they'd admired her form rather than shown interest in any conversation. With Sergeant Blackthorne, she'd thought she was marrying an elderly compatriot of her father's, one who would die sooner rather than later, to be blunt about it.

But, this . . . this healthy, intimidating, overpowering man upset every decision she'd made for herself. She couldn't stop staring at him, and he seemed to be feeling the same way. It heated her skin, sweeping up from her chest to flood her face. She'd never blushed so much in her life.

Why had this
young
man so easily agreed to marry her?

She gestured to the chair across from her. “Please sit down and rest, Sergeant.”

He did so, very slowly, as if the ride there had stiffened his leg, and she regretted his discomfort. But at least she could breathe again, now that there was a small table between them.

Except that he stared at her so very intently. “Your miniature does not do you justice, my lady,” he said softly, as if he did not often make such a statement.

“You are too kind.” Her fingers clenched in her skirts. She didn't want him to admire her face or form, to assume . . . oh, she couldn't even think it. “But I have never seen a portrait of you, sir. I must confess, I thought you much . . . older.”

He arched one dark brow. “Did I do something to give that impression?”

“My father's letters about you made you seem such a close friend. I made assumptions.”

Thunder rolled deeply outside, startling her.

“You wanted to marry an elderly man?” he asked. “I did not know anything more was required of me than my very presence releasing you from your guardianship. I wanted nothing of you but the chance to help. I asked for no dowry, no control of your finances.”

“And I thank you again for your generosity and discretion.”

She'd been picturing an older man at the twilight of his life, wanting only to assist the daughter of his late close friend. A young man in his prime, without title or fortune, could very well have other motives.

She always prided herself on her intelligence and sensible nature, but she was as flawed as any other desperate woman. And she'd given this stranger power over her.

Or had she, she thought, swallowing back a desperate hope. Marriages by proxy were risky and were sometimes invalidated. But she didn't want to go back to being a woman under a guardian's control, her money withheld as if she were a child, all say in her own life restricted.

She would have to consult her lawyers—but how to explain herself to her relatives and friends? She'd already said she'd fallen in love with the sergeant's letters. It would be fickle to say that now that she'd met him in person, she'd changed her mind.

His expression remained impassive. She was used to men who showed their emotions freely—her father's happiness and passion for life, she remembered sadly; her brother Oliver's moody outbursts. But, of course, he hadn't always been like that, she thought, stark, sad memories teasing the edges of her mind. She could remember playing games as she chased him through the gardens of their bungalow in India, their footsteps on the crushed shell path, their laughter.

“Since I was in England, I wanted to see to your welfare, my lady,” Sergeant Blackthorne said. “I could not in good conscience visit my mother without seeing how you fare first.”

“I appreciate your consideration, Sergeant.” She prided herself on being able to judge a person's character, but in so brief a time, Sergeant Blackthorne seemed utterly blank to her, except for the very cloak of masculinity that made him so different from her. The letters from him she'd once enjoyed now seemed foreign to her.

She mustn't forget his history with her father. He'd opened himself up to her in his letters, granted her request though it had cost him his freedom from a marriage of his own choosing. She should be grateful—but she could not banish her suspicion.

“You are the daughter of my commanding officer,” Sergeant Blackthorne continued, “a man I held in the highest esteem. His death—” He broke off from whatever he meant to say, and his gaze went to the window, where the rain streaked down in rivulets. “He taught me what it was to be a man and a soldier. I will never forget my debt to him.”

He'd obviously looked up to her father, as had she. But she'd also resented his dedication to his regiment, the Eighth Dragoon Guards, for the many sorrows it had caused. It had made her mother miserable, and the older Cecilia got, the more her mother had confided that misery.

“So you consider me a debt,” she said slowly.

“No,” he said, then spread both his hands. “What am I to you?”

She stared at him, and was glad when Talbot himself, rather than a gawking maid, came into the room with a tea tray. Cecilia could only imagine how the servants' hall was buzzing with news of her mysterious husband's arrival.

“Since dinner is some hours away,” Talbot said to her, “I had Cook prepare sandwiches for Lord Blackthorne.”

“You are using an incorrect title, Talbot,” she said absently, still obsessed with staring at the sergeant.

Talbot hesitated. “I have served this family for long years in London, Lady Cecilia, and I have always prided myself on my knowledge of Society. I recognized Lord Blackthorne's name and heritage, but if he wishes me to use his military title, then I shall. I acquiesced to your retention of ‘Lady Cecilia' as your title, thinking you had personal reasons. I now regret my silence.”

“My mistake was not your fault, Talbot.” Cecilia turned back to the man she'd married. “Sir, you have a title I know nothing about?”

“It was in the marriage papers. You did not read them all? I hold a viscountcy.”

Talbot once again made himself scarce. Sergeant-Lord Blackthorne was not just a soldier; he was a peer, a man with even more power than she'd thought. She'd never heard of the title although she'd never had much time for London Society. She regretted that her lawyers had the marriage papers.

“You're a viscount,” she began slowly, “yet you are a noncommissioned officer. I don't understand.”

“I did not feel qualified to be an officer without the knowledge to lead. I wanted to earn my fellow soldiers' respect before I expected them to follow me into battle.”

“So you enlisted like any ordinary man.” She'd never even heard of that being done by a peer. “And you call yourself sergeant? I don't know what to think.”

“I don't believe your thoughts occurred to me, my lady, considering I didn't even know of you when I made my decision years ago. I would have thought my being a viscount might have appealed to you, might even have helped explain our unorthodox wedding. The fact that you didn't realize it makes me very curious.”

“Curious?” She forced a smile. “That is the least of what I'm feeling about this awkward situation.”

“It seems we are beginning this marriage on the same footing.”

She willed her hands not to tremble as she poured his tea. “How do you prefer yours?”

“Plain, Lady Blackthorne. Thank you.”

She flinched at the use of her new title, then watched him sip his tea and eat several wedges of ham sandwiches.

At last he sat back and regarded her. “So, where do we stand, my lady?”

She truly was his lady, not just his wife. Their mutual stare seemed charged with awareness, a knowledge that they were man and woman—joined, at least legally, as husband and wife. It was an intimacy she'd never imagined. She got to her feet. “I don't know what to say, my lord. I had never planned on marrying—I am far too busy here with the Appertan estates.”

He rose with a slow, graceful agility that suddenly made them too close. She stepped back.

“That is a strange sentiment for a woman. And yet you are now married to me. You cannot want an annulment,” he added, as if they were discussing the weather.

Then she'd be a ward again, at the mercy of her guardians, and without the power she needed. He knew that. “I need to give this . . . situation consideration. If I decide to end this, then it could be scandalous that you lived here within the house. Please take no offense, my lord, but would you sleep in the dower house? It is just across the western lawn.”

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