First Comes Marriage by Mary Balogh
First Comes Marriage
Epilogue

The plot of a book almost invariably covers several days or weeks or months--or even years. It is impossible, then, for a writer to include every moment of that time in the book. She must select. How delightful it is, though, to be given a chance to go back to fill in some of the missing moments, as I am doing here with First Comes Marriage.

First: It is late one afternoon when Vanessa realizes that Viscount Lyngate is about to propose marriage to her sister. He must be stopped at all costs. Meg will accept out of a sense of duty to her family, but she loves Crispin Dew. By the following afternoon Vanessa has found a solution and proposes marriage to Elliott herself before he can propose to Margaret. She could not possibly have slept during the intervening night, could she? What agonizing thoughts went through her mind during all those sleepless hours? It might have been something like this...

His dark eyebrows arched over his blue eyes, and those intensely blue eyes gazed into hers with astonishment and warm ardor. He looked more handsome than ever. More Greek than ever.

More gorgeous than ever.

"Do you mean," he asked her, "that you would have me, after my less than gallant behavior at the Valentine assembly and since? You would forgive me? You would marry me?"

He had taken a step closer so that she had to tip back her head slightly in order to look back into his eyes. She could smell his cologne—his very masculine cologne.

"I would," she said and then smiled as the ardor deepened in his eyes. "Forgive you, that is. What is there to forgive, after all? You were merely being yourself. I am above being offended by such foolishness."

Ardor was replaced by anxiety. He reached out a hand, as if for hers, but she kept her own hands clasped at her waist. His hand trembled.

"But you will marry me too?" he asked. "You have just said you will. I have hardly dared hope… I did not hope. I knew myself wholly unworthy. I chose your elder sister instead."

No. Vanessa frowned at the canopy above her head as she lay flat on her back in her bed, still wide awake though she had heard the clock in the hallway strike two quite a while ago. No, she could not have him say that. It was quite offensive to Meg. Meg was just as worthy as she. More so. Far more.

But you will marry me too?" he said, starting again and omitting any mention of Meg. "You just said so. Or were you merely teasing me, cruel heart?"

That was better. She liked the cruel heart bit. She lofted her nose slightly in the air, though she smiled half tenderly at him too. He really did look very anxious, the poor dear. Almost abject.

"Why should I marry you?" she asked him, still ignoring his outstretched hand—and the fact that she really had just asked him to marry her.

"So that your sister will not have to?" he said, but he quickly realized it was the wrong thing to say. This was the dream Viscount Lyngate, after all, not the real man, who was far, far different and would doubtless say something a great deal more cutting than that, horrid man. "And because I admire you and…"

She looked hard at him and willed him to do better.

He took a step forward, both hands outstretched now. His eyes were smoldering. His voice, when he spoke, had dropped at least half an octave in tone. It trembled with the sincerity of a deeply felt passion.

"…and have done so in secret from the moment my eyes first alit upon you in the assembly rooms at Throckbridge and I thought I was looking at the other half of my soul." That was a nice touch. It made her eyes feel quite misty. "And because my devotion has grown—if it were possible--with every passing day since then. Because your beauty outshines that of any woman I have ever known. Because your character surpasses even your beauty. Because I adore you. Because I love you. Tell me, cruel heart, that you offered yourself to me in matrimony not only because you wished to save your sister but because you return my regard in some small measure, even though you can never equal it. No one can. No one has ever loved or will ever love as I love."

He was overdoing things a bit, perhaps, especially the beauty part, but never mind. Vanessa smiled damp-eyed up at the canopy. Her toes curled under her bare feet. She sighed deeply and aloud.

He took her hands and warmed them in his own. His eyes blazed hotly into hers. She could feel his breath against her lips though he maintained an almost decorous distance from her.

And she relented—though of course she was the one who had proposed marriage to him. He was, after all, more gorgeous than a Greek god because he was dark-complexioned and warm-blooded and blue-eyed and… Well. And she had almost fallen head over ears in love with him at the assembly and would have done if he had not looked about him with such stuffy arrogance. That was all forgotten for the moment, though.

"I could not bear it," she said, and paused to recover from the catch in her voice. "I could not bear it if you were to marry Meg. My heart would be broken. Life would have no further meaning to me. I would want to die. I lo—"

He kissed her with hot ardor and her knees buckled under her. It was a good thing she was lying down. She hugged her pillow, which she stopped kissing after a mere few moments since really it could not be mistaken for a man's hot lips. She cast it aside and gazed up into the darkness again.

What absolute twaddle.

What utter poppycock.

If she was going to ask him to marry her instead of Meg—and she had decided during the past several hours that there really was no satisfactory alternative—she must do it coolly and calmly as if she were making him a mere business proposition. As, of course, she would be doing. She would be offering herself for his comfort and pleasure and convenience, and she would make him see that really it was a very sensible offer. He was bound to see it. He would…

He would probably fall down with derisive laughter and drum his booted heels on the floor and roll around with mirth, holding his sides and trying to catch his breath.

No, he would not. Not Viscount Lyngate. He probably did not even know what laughter was.

He would fix her with a stare from those very blue eyes of his and she would feel icicles growing from her chin and her eyebrows and her nose. He would look at her as if she were a worm beneath his feet and then sweep her aside in order to find Meg and proceed with his plans.

Oh, dear, this was all very like a mouse planning to challenge an elephant to a duel.

She being the mouse, of course.

Perhaps there was another way out.

Perhaps Meg could be persuaded to say no.

No, she could not. When Meg saw family duty as the issue, she could be as solid and immovable as the Rock of Gibraltar.

Perhaps Stephen could have a word with Viscount Lyngate.

No, it would be unfair to ask it of him—he was only seventeen years old.

Perhaps she could send word to Finchley Park in the morning that Meg had a touch of smallpox or typhoid.

That they all did.

He would be horrid enough not to believe her.

The clock struck three.

Perhaps she could simply intercept his arrival tomorrow—assuming it was tomorrow he planned to come with his offer—and tell him the truth and appeal to his better nature.

She doubted he had one.

Perhaps she could…

Oh, but she had been over all this at least a dozen times since coming to bed.

She must get some sleep, or she would be so haggard and muddle-headed tomorrow—or did she mean today?—that she would not be able to do anything.

She closed her eyes resolutely.

"I admire your courage more than I can say," he said in that half-an-octave-lower-than-normal voice and carrying her hand to his lips and holding it there with both hands. "And your beauty and your devotion to your family. I pledge you my love until my dying day. Allow me to offer you my hand and my heart, Mrs. Dew. May I have the great honor of calling you Vanessa?"

"Yes," she said, "as long as you never call me Nessie."

"Never," he promised with fervent ardor. "Never, my love."

He really sounded very convincing when he spoke in that voice.

And next: What about Elliott? He did not love Margaret, but he thought she would be a tolerable bride—even though by marrying her he would also be acquiring that pestilential Mrs. Dew as a sister-in-law. Yet on the very day he was to propose to Margaret, he found himself accepting an offer from Mrs. Dew instead. How did he feel afterward, as he rode home to Finchley Park? Perhaps something like this…

"Hell and damnation." That was the mild—the very mild—introduction to a lengthy outpouring of oaths and blasphemies that must have come close to singeing the grass on either side of the driveway down which he rode.

Away from Warren Hall.

Away from his betrothed.

But not forever, alas.

And not the beautiful and refined and sensible Miss Huxtable, but the plain and outspoken and outrageous Mrs. Dew.

Nessie Dew.

Good Lord! Damn and blast! He wasted another diatribe on the empty air before passing through the gates of the park and proceeding along the village street, scowling at any persons who looked as if they might smile and touch a forelock to him or drop a curtsy.

"I was wondering if you would be willing to marry me," she said

.

She was looking plain and dowdy even if her blue dress did become her rather more than the habitual gray or lavender attire. She looked abject and hopeful. She had probably never even heard of good manners or proper decorum or acceptable etiquette.

He raised his eyebrows and looked her directly in the eye.

"I am not," he said curtly. "If you will excuse me, ma'am, I will proceed on my way to the house."

No, better to kill with kindness. Better to show up bad manners with good.

"I am not, ma'am," he said coolly, trying again. He bowed and offered his arm. "May I escort you to the house?"

Of course, those who knew nothing of good manners would not recognize them even when they saw them demonstrated. And escorting her to the house would be giving her an opportunity to renew her outrageous request. Why not wither her with eloquence?

Let's start again.

"I was wondering if you would be willing to marry me," she said as he rode clear of the village and set his horse's head for home and sanity. No, not sanity. There would never again be any of that in his life.

"Marry you?" he said, raising a suddenly acquired quizzing glass to his eye. "Marry you, Mrs. Dew? I might be persuaded to jump into a fiery furnace or an icy lake if thereby I might be of service to humanity or some small portion of it for which I cared. I might be willing to give up my title and fortune if by so doing I could eradicate poverty and suffering from the earth. I might be persuaded to do any number of unlikely, unpleasant things in a good cause. Marrying you would never be one of them. Even if you were the only woman on earth capable of giving me heirs. Even if you were the only woman on earth full stop. You will excuse me now, ma'am?"

He executed a deep and elegant bow and turned to leave.

That would teach her.

Who had ever heard of a woman proposing marriage to a man?

But he made the mistake of looking into her face before stalking away in the direction of the house—and he could see that her eyes were large with unshed tears and that her lower lip was trembling.

"Don't cry," he said softly. "I did not mean a word of what I said. Tell me what this is all about."

He reached out a hand toward her, and she placed her own in it—a small, trembling hand.

"You are going to offer for Meg," she said. "I cannot bear it. I really cannot when I adore you so much. Give me a chance to—"

It was a good thing Elliott had ridden clear of the village. He pulled back on the reins of his horse, which almost reared in surprise and alarm, and he spoke aloud the blackest oath he knew.

What the devil…?

There was only one answer to the question she had asked him. A one-word answer.

"I was wondering if you would be willing to marry me."

"No!"

That was all. And if he had not been taken so much by surprise—he might have been knocked flat with the proverbial feather, in fact—it was the answer he would have given.

But he had been taken by surprise.

"Marry you?" he had said instead, making a question of his response and so giving her all the opportunity she had needed to reel him in.

He had actually listened to her.

He had actually kissed her.

He had actually… No, he had not.

Yes, he had. He had actually wanted her.

He shuddered and scowled.

And then he had—devil take it, he would rather obliterate that memory for all time, though he suspected it would be popping into his mind at regular intervals during the next fifty years or so, if he should be so unfortunate as to live so long. Then he had gone down on one knee to propose marriage to her.

What a shudderingly awful thing to have done.

And she had laughed at him.

Worse, she had said yes.

Why did the English language possess so few satisfyingly profane words?

She had said yes.

She kissed like a novice.

At least—it was one consolation—he would be ridding her of one half of her ghastly name. Dew would be gone. He wished it were the Nessie part instead.

He was going to marry Nessie Dew.

Now there was a pleasant thought to bring home with him.

And how was he going to explain to his mother that he had ridden off to affiance himself to Miss Huxtable and was riding back affianced to Mrs. Dew?

Perhaps, he thought hopefully, he would wake up at any moment to find this all a bizarre dream.

Dreams did not come this bizarre.

This was reality, right enough.

© Mary Balogh