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Some marriages are made in heaven. Some are made in solicitors' offices between the pages of Debrett's Peerages and on county land maps. Some are even conceived in the minds and hearts of well-meaning fathers.
"A fine day's work, eh?" beamed the Earl of Stokely, who had the hearty good health of a country squire, vast acreage to field his sporting interests, and the continuance of his line assured if his heirs managed not to starve to death or end in debtors' prison.
"Indeed, indeed," congratulated his friend, the Duke of Aylesbury, a somewhat older, more reserved gentleman wearing a black armband. My Lord Aylesbury possessed an ancient title, a position of respect at court, and immense wealth. Unfortunately, he had but one child, even more unfortunately, a daughter.
With a sigh of relief, he had just promised the hand of this daughter, Lady Emilyann Arcott, to his old friend and neighbor's eldest son and heir, Everett Stockton, Viscount Stokely. "At least I'll know the chit's future is secure. What was I to do about settling a motherless chick?"
The earl tried to look mournful in respect for the other's recent loss, but the proposed change in his own family's fortunes could not dim his enthusiasm for long. "No need to talk like that, Aylesbury, you're not in your dotage yet, you know. It's early days, but you'll wed again." The earl knew he would. He was already on his second wife.
The duke shook his head. "Not after my Cora."
"What, not even for the succession? You'd let that wastrel brother of yours come into the title? The man's a gambler, a cardsharp--a regular dirty dish. He is hardly received in company."
"Aye, Morgan is all thatand worse, and that is why I need to see my girl provided for. I promised her mother that I would, for Lord knows Morgan won't have her best interests to heart. Now I can rest comfortably.... But enough of such gloom. This is a day for celebration. A toast, I say. To your son!"
"To your daughter!"
"May they have a long, happy life together."
"Health, wealth, and a parcel of grandbabies."
So the pleased papas repaired to the duke's study to affix their seals to a letter of intent for their men of business, to enter the engagement in the Aylesbury family Bible, and to have a few more toasts with the duke's excellent brandy. They left the youngsters, duly chaperoned, of course, to get better acquainted.
Viscount Stokely staggered a bit under the combined weight of his father's hardy slap in the back and his cheerful admonition to "go do the pretty with the little lady, my boy." Everett tugged uncomfortably at his newly starched collar, then he pulled the fingers of one hand through his dark hair, disturbing the slicked-down curls.
Zeus, what did he know about courting? The bride-to-be was no help, growing fretful at his ineptness. It was obviously up to him to soothe the social waters. He cleared his throat manfully and stepped closer to Lady Emilyann, her duenna smiling encouragingly.
Viscount Stokely hesitated a moment, looking down at his fiancée all done up in fussy white lace. His clear gray eyes opened wider and he declared, "Gads, she looks like something that fell out of the nest too soon!"
The infant Lady Emilyann, hairless, red-faced, and indeed as scrawny as an unfledged nestling, did not appear precisely enamored at the betrothal either. She scrunched up her face and started wailing, angrily waving her arms in the air.
"Here now, don't do that," Master Stokely told her, "you'll hurt yourself."
Without stopping to think, since rational thought would have told him this was no job for a six-year-old lad in nankeen shortpants, he reached over the side of her eyelet-decked bassinet and held her hand away from her face. The tiny fingers curled naturally around his. Perhaps it was the sound of his voice, or the bright red soldier Everett held in his other hand that caught her eye, but Lady Em stopped crying, looked up, and smiled a wet, gurgly, gummy baby-smile at her intended.
"I think she likes me," he said with wonder.
"A' course she does," Nanny told him. "She will love you and look up to you and you'll be a brave lad and look after her forever. She be yours to cherish, you know. Didn't your papas just say so?"
They had. He would. He did. "Hallo, Sparrow," he whispered.
Emilyann blew some bubbles and contentedly shut her eyes. Still clutching his finger, she went to sleep, exhausted by her hard day's work. After all, how many ladies manage to be christened and betrothed on the very same afternoon?
"Don't you dare cry, Sparrow. It's only a little scratch, and viscountesses don't blubber."
"No viscountess has her hair all in rats' nests and her skirts trailing in mud either," taunted Thornton, second son of the Earl of Stokely. "I don't see why she had to come along anyway, Ev," he whined, "she's just a baby."
"She's not a baby anymore, are you, Em? And if we're going to play at St. George and the dragon, we need a lady to save. Besides, she's more fun than you are anyway."
Lady Emilyann, five years old, stuck her tongue out at Thornton, who promptly announced, "I'm going to tell!" So her cavalier, a handsome eleven now, rolled his younger brother in the grass. And the mud. Master Stokely was birched, of course, and Lady Em was sent to bed without her supper, because Thornton always did squeal, but no matter. After Thornton had run home, they'd had another glorious day without him, out in the adjoining estates, begging gingerbread and cider from the cottagers, finding tadpoles and newborn sheep, fighting off countless Saracen invaders.
No one worried about them overmuch, except perhaps the young viscount's tutor, who would certainly lose his position if the earl ever found how little time his eldest son actually spent in the classroom. Lady Em's parent spent his time in London, immersing his grief in affairs of state, leaving his daughter alone except for a horde of doting servants, including Nanny, two nursemaids, the entire stable crew and indoor staff, and a rather totty-headed young female relation of his late wife's to serve as governess/companion to the little girl.
Cousin Marietta was suitably grateful to Lord Aylesbury for such a comfortable position in his luxurious household; life would certainly have been very unpleasant for a gently bred female with neither pittance nor prospect. Marietta would have been a great deal more grateful, however, if instead of a child to watch her noble cousin had seen fit to give her a dowry and a London season. Why, the only company the man ever invited to Arcott Hall were dull old political cronies. No chance for her to meet eligible gentlemen! Here she was, stuck in the country, getting older by the minute, with nary a beau in sight. So she spent her days and, regretfully, her nights, sighing over the heroes in her Minerva Press romances, while Smoky, Viscount Stokely, looked after her charge.
"Smoky" was not Lady Em's first word, but it was close. The young lord was Master Stokely to the staff at Arcott Hall (when he was not that imp of Satan), but the syllables were too difficult for Baby's tongue, so he quickly became Smoky. The name stuck, partly due to Emilyann's insistence, partly to his clear gray eyes, but mostly to his knack for escaping his own governors and the harum-scarum household at Stockton Manor, with a new stepmother, new baby brother, Geoffrey, and the righteous Thornton to bedevil him.
At Sparrow's home he was treated with respect, even devotion, plus all the treats a growing boy could cajole from a willing kitchen staff, and all the coy smiles he could win from Cousin Marietta. She couldn't help it; a girl had to stay in practice, didn't she? And he was such a charming scamp. As Nanny said, the boy was too smoky by half.
He thrived on all the attention, and so did Sparrow. If his name wasn't her first word, he was there for her first steps. He taught her to write, and received her first letter. He read to her for rainy-day hours, and if the books had more to do with King Arthur's knights and their bloody battles than they did with good little girls who studied their Bibles, well, Cousin Marietta had no complaints. She was lost in Lady Longacre's Liaison or The Web of Westfall herself, books the children later disdained as too flowery, with not enough action.
Marietta did insist on some ladylike accomplishments, though, especially close to holidays when her employer might be expected to visit and show an interest in her charge's progress. So Smoky received Miss Arcott's first pressed-flower picture, her first muddy watercolor, and her first wobbly curtsy. Emilyann herself drew the line, however, at stitchery.
"I'm not going to do this silly girls' stuff and you can't make me!" So she had to sit in a corner for an hour.
"I won't do it! I won't! Smoky's out riding and I want to go!" She kicked over the sewing basket, sending silks every which way, and got none of her favorite strawberry tarts for a week.
"I hate this ... this bloody sampler!" She had her mouth washed out with soap, and Master Smoky got his hair combed with a footstool by Nanny for teaching her chick such language.
In the end Emilyann learned a few other female skills beyond needlework. A trembling lip, big blue eyes swimming in tears, and Smoky bribed his stepmother's abigail to finish the wretched piece, and the two went riding. After all, a lady of the ton needed to know how to sit a horse, too.
At first Emilyann rode in front of Stokely on his pony, a groom on either side. Then she was given a mount of her own, and the two were off, her silver-blond baby-fine hair coming undone and streaming out behind her, her pale complexion turning sun-kissed, and her laughter delighting everyone on two estates and in the tiny village of Arstock, which separated them. If some of the higher sticklers considered her behavior hoydenish, well, a female who was already spoken for had a great deal more latitude, no matter how young.
"Lady Em," Nanny would chide, "you cannot go galumphing down the stairs with your skirts all apelter and throw yourself at Master Stokely! What would your mother think, to see her lamb such a forward miss?"
"It is perfectly proper," Sparrow would announce in her best grande dame manner, "we are afancied."
Smoky called her a silly widgeon. "It's affianced, you goose. Fancy is something you'd better not ever be. Besides, one day I might forget to catch you when you come flying down that staircase, and then where would you be?"
"Then I'd be showing even more of my petticoats, I suppose. As if you ever would!"
"Minx." He grinned at her, then told her not to stick her tongue out. "I don't want any ill-mannered brat for my viscountess," he declared, effectively curbing that bit of waywardness.
If it weren't for the viscount, even Nanny admitted, little Emilyann would have grown up spoiled, headstrong, and hey-go-mad, without limits. Without love and affection and attention, either, except what she received from the servants.
Their attachment stayed constant even when Smoky was sent away to school. It was the young nobleman this time who needed the reassurance of his devoted friend, away from home and all he knew, with more restrictions on his freedoms than he thought possible outside Newgate Prison, and only few opportunities to employ his knack for disappearing from unpleasant tasks.
So he wrote long letters home to Sparrow, and she read them over to the barn cats and the toy soldiers he'd outgrown and left in her safekeeping. In return, Emilyann filled her sometimes grubby pages with bubbling news of Queenie's foal and the vicar's hiccups--right in the midst of the sermon--and Cousin Marietta's latest book from the lending library, and love.
At the long vacations, Smoky's first stop was at Arcott Hall, before going home. Lady Em would come flying down the stairs, her sun-bleached hair coming unbound, and launch herself into his arms, laughing. He never did let her fall.
"I won't have it! Do you hear me, Stokely? I won't have it!"
"B'Gad, I hear you, Aylesbury. My whole household hears you. The whole county hears you. Blast if they don't hear you back in Parliament, where you dashed well belong, rather than haranguing a gentleman in his own home."
"Gentleman? A gentleman, is it? You insult the name, sir, with all your wenching and carryings on. Shameful, I say."
"Why, because you're a dull old stick with no fire in you? Confound it, you are turning into a Puritan. My Louise has been dead these two years. I'm not shaming her memory any."
"No more than you did when she was alive, nor your first wife either, chasing every light-skirt in Northampshire. But now you've gone too far. Aye, far enough that I hear of it in London! You are a laughingstock, man. The 'Eager Earl,' they call you."
"So get ye back to London, you old fool. It is naught to you."
"It is when you bring your profligacy home to me, you poltroon. My household, my family."
The Earl of Stokely was silenced, finally. He turned away, red-faced, and covered his embarrassment in pouring another glass of port, which was another mistake. A man needed a clear head to deal with the Duke of Aylesbury, especially when he was on his high ropes, and the earl hadn't had a clear head in ages.
Stokely had always possessed robust appetites, and the passage of neither years nor wives had caused them to diminish. What did dwindle were his resources, so jaunts to London for the pricier pleasures were a thing of the past. Even the countryside was not such a fertile field for plowing, not for a bleary-eyed, bloated old philanderer with pockets to let. Attics to let, more likely.
"I must have been foxed."
"That's not an excuse, man, that's a condition!" Now, the Duke of Aylesbury may have led a celibate life after the death of his beloved Cora. Then again, he may have not, but at least he was discreet. He was certainly no prude, not living in London among the decadent aristocracy, but he most assuredly did not bring those pleasures home to sully the eyes and ears of an innocent, inquisitive child. "In front of my daughter, by Jupiter!"
"Chit had no business being in the library. Why she couldn't play with dolls like other girls, I don't know. My little Nadine don't go tearing around on horses, playing at soldiers with the boys, or reading books, you can be sure of that."
Whatever else the earl may have said concerning the education of girl children was drowned out in the duke's roar. What they weren't supposed to learn, he bellowed, was how their governesses got topped by ramshackle Romeos!
Cousin Marietta had found something better to do with her evenings than read tawdry romances.
"You'll not bring scandal to my doorstep," the duke insisted. "I expect a special license before the week is out. You may honeymoon at my hunting box."
"But listen, I can't afford another wife, especially one with dreams of London ballrooms in her cockloft. It ain't as if--" The sound of a fist being smashed down on the desk gave him pause. He may have been a randy old fool, but he wasn't gudgeon enough to face Aylesbury at twelve paces over any female. Marietta was a tidy armful, anyway, a bit scrawny and featherheaded with die-away airs, but a man could do worse.
...And some marriages are made in heat.
Scandal kept from his door, the duke meant to keep it that way. He was rid of Marietta; he'd be rid of the whole Stockton clan.
"That boy of yours bids fair to follow in your footsteps, and I don't want him near my girl."
"Come now, the lad's only sixteen. Wild oats, you know."
"I know it all! Do you think I don't keep track of everything that concerns my family? I know he's been sent down from school so many times they hardly recognize him there. His instructors say he's near brilliant--where he got that heaven knows--but he lacks discipline. He'll end up another care-for-nothing loose screw, and I won't have it."
The earl grew even more red-faced, if possible. "The whelp's just army-mad. Always has been. I won't let him sign up, the heir and all, so he's just kicking at the traces. He'll likely buy his own colors when he's eighteen with the money his mother left him. I misdoubt I can stop him."
"What, did you think my girl would follow the drum?"
"Dash it, man, the chit's only what? Ten or eleven? He'll be ready to settle by her coming out."
"And if he's not? If he's so deeply in debt he's just waiting for her dowry? It won't do, man."
Damn, but the earl saw all that wealth slipping away. "Then maybe my second son, Thornton, would suit you for the chit? Lord knows he's sober and steady enough for a bishop." Lord knew where those traits came from, either, but the earl held out his last, faint glimmer of gold. Fool's gold, of course, as he saw by the duke's answer.
"I swear your first wife must have played you false, Frederick. That boy can't even keep up with Emilyann on horseback, for all his four years' advantage. He's nothing but--"
The earl may have agreed that Thornton was a priggish toad-eater, but enough was enough. His third son, Geoffrey, was a jolly, likable lad, but he was younger than Miss Arcott, with no chance of coming into the title or lands. The duke would never go for that, so Stokely had nothing to lose. Hell, he was getting a flighty new wife, a parcel of debts, and his heir's future to settle all over again. At least he deserved the satisfaction of spoiling the duke's holier-than-thou attitude with a few home truths of his own.
"There's to be no scandals in your family, eh? What about your own brother? The man's a regular here-and-thereian. You worry about keeping your darling's fortune safe from my boys, but Morgan Arcott would go through that money in a year, and throw your girl in the streets without thinking twice of it. And if"--he was in full spate now--"if you are thinking it will be so easy to settle your daughter to some high-born gentleman, think again. If ever there was a hell-born babe with more instinct for trouble, I've never seen it. The chit is a regular tomboy and a hoyden to boot. I've never seen her with her hair combed or her face clean or her pockets free of frogs. She's on terms with every groom and dairymaid for miles, and has about as much ladylike decorum as my prize pig. Less, maybe."
He didn't say that he'd miss chasing her out of his orchards and stable yards if she ever changed. He didn't say that everyone adored Lady Em for her cheerful deviltry and there wasn't an ounce of guile in the moppet. He just concluded: "If she don't blot her copybook, it'll be a miracle. And even if you get those haughty London hostesses to accept her, she ain't going to make anyone a comfortable wife, I'll wager."
"Don't bet on it, you cannot afford to lose."
It took a while for Lady Emilyann to figure how to smuggle letters into and out of Miss Meadow's Select Academy for Young Ladies in Bath. At last she received a reply to her most recent tear-stained missive. Dear Sparrow, he wrote. Don't worry. I'll marry you anyway.