Only a Promise

NAL ISBN 978-0-451-46967-0

Ralph Stockwood, Earl of Berwick, has obeyed a summons to his grandparent's home. After his arrival his grandmother had confided her fears for his grandfather's health, and Ralph had promised that he would return to London and look about him in earnest for a wife. At the same time he had made clear the fact that he did not expect either love or happiness from marriage. Chloe Muirhead had been present in the room as they talked, but Ralph had scarcely noticed her. She was not literally his grandmother's paid companion, but she behaved rather like one. Now, the following morning, Ralph steps outside to think over what is facing him.

There was no sign of either of his grandparents. He had not expected there would be. He was not hungry. He would wait for them. In the meanwhile, he wandered into the morning room, which was flooded with sunshine, facing east as it was. He found the French windows already unlocked and ajar, a fact that ought to have alerted him. He pulled one of them open, stepped through onto the terrace, and stood looking across the freshly scythed expanse of the east lawn to the river in the middle distance. He drew in a deep breath of fresh air and released it slowly.

He had not slept well. He had kept waking himself up from dreams that were not exactly nightmares but were bizarre nonetheless. He could remember only one of them, one of the more coherent. He had been in a ballroom he did not recognize, a room so long that even with a telescope he would not have been able to see the far end of it. Along its full length, stretching to infinity, was a line of young ladies, all dressed in ballroom finery, and all of them plying a fan, though they were otherwise motionless. And he was marching with slow deliberation along the line, clad in his scarlet, gold-faced officer's dress uniform, inspecting them, his mother on one side, Graham Muirhead in full clerical robes on the other. It was not one of those dreams that defied interpretation, though why Muirhead of all people should have popped into it he could not imagine.

Ah, and then he could.

He became suddenly aware of a flutter of movement off to his right and turned his head sharply to see Miss Muirhead standing a short distance away, bonnetless and clutching the corners of a shawl to her bosom, presumably to prevent it from blowing away in the non-existent wind. He felt instant irritation. She had overheard that very personal conversation he had had with his grandmother last evening and had not had the decency either to clear her throat to remind them of her presence or to leave the room. He had been quite unaware of her, as one tended to be unaware of servants. Though she was not a servant, was she? She was a guest of his grandmother's—one who ran and fetched for her and effaced herself in a most unguestlike manner. A woman seemingly without character or personality or conversation.

Was she related to Graham Muirhead by any chance? It was not a common name—Muirhead. His irritation only increased at the possibility that there was a connection.

"Good morning." He inclined his head curtly to her and stepped off the terrace in order to stroll out across the lawn where he could be alone again.

"My lord," he heard her murmur.

What he must do now, he decided as he approached an old oak tree and set a hand upon its sturdy, familiar trunk, was spend as much of today as he could with his grandfather and then return to town tomorrow. He could make the excuse of a pressing engagement, and he would not be lying. He had an urgent appointment with his own destiny. And there must be at least one ball and half a dozen parties of varying sorts to choose among for tomorrow evening, to all of which he would have been invited. There were always myriad entertainments every evening during the Season. He must simply make his choice and go.

He was quite resigned to what his immediate future had in store for him. He had had enough time to think about it. His grandmother had talked openly about it at Christmastime. His mother had been hinting for at least the past year. He had been procrastinating. That must stop.

He would persuade his grandfather to talk about his boyhood and young manhood today. The old, oft-repeated stories could sometimes be a little tedious to listen to, but Grandpapa enjoyed telling them and who knew when would be the last time Ralph would hear them? Was he ailing? Or could he go on as he was now for another ten years or so? The answer to that question, impossible to know, did not affect the central issue, though, did it? The duke had an heir, but that heir himself did not. And life, as Ralph's grandmother had observed to him last evening, was always uncertain, even for the young. He could die at any moment.

Indeed, there had been times when he had wanted to die and had even tried to help the process along… But he would not think of that. Now was the time to think of life. Though what sensible, feeling man would wish to be responsible for bringing yet another human being into this world?

He shook his head. Such thinking was not to be allowed.

"How old do you think it is?" a voice asked from behind him, and he turned in amazement to discover that Miss Muirhead had followed him across the lawn and was standing just a short distance away. "The oak, I mean."

He gazed at her without smiling. Had he asked for company? Did he look like the sort of man who would feel lonely and pathetic if left to stroll alone? But he looked at the trunk beneath his hand and up into the spreading branches when perhaps he ought to have ignored her question and her entirely.

"Several hundred years," he said. "Perhaps even more than a thousand. The second duke, who had the house built more than a century ago, had the sense to leave the oak standing and to build farther back from the river."

"It looks like a child's paradise," she said. "Did you climb it as a boy?"

"It is too visible from the house," he said. "My grandmother had me whipped when she caught me up there one day. Even then she was afraid that my father would beget no more sons."

"And did she have you whipped when you chose to become a military officer?" she asked. "You did choose to be one, I suppose?"

He looked back at her, all amazement again, and had to remind himself that she was not a servant. She was standing out in the sunshine, and the sunlight was gleaming off her hair and making it appear even more startlingly red than it had looked yesterday. Beneath the hair, she had the pale, delicate complexion that often went with red hair. And the freckles. She must have to be very careful about exposure to the sun. Her skin would burn horribly. Yet she was wearing no bonnet.

He was surprised to notice now that he was looking fully at her that she was rather good looking, even beautiful. Her eyes were large and decidedly green. Not as green as an emerald, perhaps, but close. Her nose was straight and the perfect length to fit her oval face. Her cheekbones were well defined, her lips full and well shaped, her mouth on the wide side. With her hair down…

But she had asked him a question—an impertinent, intrusively personal question. He answered it nevertheless.

"I begged and pleaded with my father to no avail," he told her, "and my mother was firmly and tearfully on his side. My grandmother did threaten to have me whipped—horse-whipped, to use her exact words. But my grandfather surprised us all and incensed everyone but me. It had been his boyhood dream, he told us, to be a military officer, a general no less, but of course it had not been allowed because he was a duke's heir and had no brothers. His own son had been a disappointment to him—yes, he said it in the hearing of my father, who was the epitome of the dutiful heir. Let the boy have his way, he said of me. Let him follow his dream, if he must. I was eighteen years old and just getting finished with school. I was as innocent and as ignorant as a newborn babe. But the word of the Duke of Worthingham was law to his family. And so I had my commission and all the trappings that money could buy."

"And your dream was soon shattered," she said softly.

What did she know about it? He looked stonily at her before turning his head sharply away. Should he stride off toward the bank of the river and trust she would not come trotting after him to offer her company? Or should he stride back to the house and outpace her?

He hesitated a moment too long.

"I could not help but overhear your conversation with her grace last evening," she said. "I was not deliberately eavesdropping."

His eyes returned to hers. He removed his hand from the trunk and leaned his shoulder against it. She must think a gale was blowing. She had a death grip on the corners of her shawl.

"I understand," she said, "that you do not wish to marry but that you must."

He crossed his arms over his chest and raised one eyebrow. Her impertinence knew no bounds. Though she was quite correct—she had not been eavesdropping. She had been in the drawing room by right.

"I do not believe it is just your youth, is it?" she asked.

He raised the other eyebrow to join the first.

"That makes you reluctant, I mean," she said. "It is not just that you are young and wish for more time to sow some wild oats before you settle down. It is not, is it?"

He felt a curious mixture of urges. One part of him wanted to bellow with laughter. Another part wanted to explode with fury.

"I believe," she continued when he remained silent, "it is as you told the duchess. You have nothing to offer beyond what almost every single girl in the land and her mama want. I am not expressing myself very well, am I? But I know what I mean, and you know. There is nothing left inside you to offer, is there? Something has taken it all away. War, perhaps. And you are empty."

He had turned cold. It was still quite early morning, of course, and he was standing in the shade of the tree and away from what heat there was in the sun. But it was not that. It was not an outer coldness.

"You presume to know me inside and out, do you, Miss Muirhead," he said, his voice matching his feelings, "after…what is it? An eighteen-hour acquaintance?"

"I do not know you at all," she said. "I believe you have made yourself unknowable."

"But I am empty." He looked contemptuously at her. She did not even have the decency to look uncomfortable, apart from those gripping hands. "Therefore you must know all there is to know of me."

"How inadequate words are," she said, shaking her head slightly. "However it is, Lord Berwick, you need a wife and you are dreading the thought of going back to London to search for one in the ballrooms and other haunts of the ton."

"Dreading." He laughed. "How foolish I would be if that were true, Miss Muirhead. I am, without exaggeration, one of the most eligible men in the land. Young ladies—beautiful, rich, well-born young

ladies—already cluster hopefully in my vicinity. They will positively swarm when it becomes clear that I am ready to make my choice."

"Young ladies," she said. "I suppose you mean straight from the schoolroom. Poor girls—as you yourself observed last night. The one you choose is not likely to remain happy for long, is she?"

"Because I look like this?" He flicked the fingers of one hand in the direction of his scarred cheek. "Or because I have an empty soul?"

He did not know why he was enduring this conversation.

"Because you have nothing to offer," she said. "Nothing that would make a young, hopeful, innocent girl happy after the euphoria of the wedding is over."

"A countess's title, with the prospect of a duchess's to follow, will not make her eternally ecstatic?" he asked. "And taking precedence over almost every other lady in England for the rest of her life? And wealth untold? All the clothes and carriages and jewels and other faradiddle she could ever dream of?"

"I know by the tone of your voice that you agree with me," she told him.

He laughed again. "You think I will be a cruel husband, Miss Muirhead?"

"Probably not knowingly," she said.

Well, he thought irritably, it was nice to be known, to be understood. He wondered idly if anything ever shook her calm, if she ever lived up to the promise of that red hair.

"You would do better to marry me," she said.

What?

He stood where he was, his arms folded, his eyes riveted upon hers, unable to think of a blessed thing to say.

"I am older," she said, "and well past the age of innocence. I am twenty-seven years old. However, I still have many child-bearing years left and have no reason to believe I may be barren. My father is the sixth baronet of his line, and my mother was the daughter of a viscount. I have no illusions about marital happiness and would be quite willing to accept the marriage for what it would be. I would not interfere with your life. I would live mine in a way that would never publicly embarrass you or privately inconvenience you. If you were to agree to marry me, you would be saved from all the bother of making your choice among the many eligible young ladies in whom you have no interest whatsoever."

He found his voice at last.

"I have no interest in you, Miss Muirhead." It was brutal. He felt savage—and cold to the heart.

"Of course you do not," she said, looking unmoved, though a downward glance showed him that her knuckles had whitened against her shawl. "I would not expect it, or desire it. I am suggesting a mutual…bargain, Lord Berwick. Something that would suit us both without hurting either. You need a wife though you do not wish for one. I want a husband but have little chance of finding one. You are not looking for love. Neither am I. I had it once, but it proved transitory and ridiculously painful. I want marriage because the alternative for a woman is dreary in the extreme. I want my own home and a place in society. I want children—and upon them I will lavish love. You will not disappoint me. I would expect nothing from you beyond what duty would dictate. And I would not disappoint you. You would not expect anything from me beyond duty, and that you would have without question or complaint."

The hair was an illusion, he thought. She was as cold a fish as he had ever encountered.

Marry her?

But being married to her would be the next best thing to remaining single. He could not remain single, however. He must marry.

She was twenty-seven years old. She had grown past both youth and innocence. She had loved once. Did that mean…?

"Are you a virgin, Miss Muirhead?" he asked. Again it was a brutal question. It was also an unnecessarily impertinent one. He was not seriously considering her outrageous proposal, was he?

"Yes," she said, "I am."

They stood and stared at each other.

"Are you related to Graham Muirhead?" he asked her abruptly, à propos of nothing.

"He is my brother," she said.

Ah. His eyes strayed to her hair and back to her green eyes. Graham was dark haired and dark eyed. It was hardly a recommendation that she was related to him. She must have read his thought.

"I am suggesting, Lord Berwick," she said, "that you marry me, not my brother."

© Mary Balogh