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Finalist: Best Historical in the
National Readers' Choice Awards
Return of the Viscount
by Gayle Callen
Book 1 of the "Brides of Redemption" trilogy
~~~~~~~~~~~~~Her marriage of convenience seemed far too convenient...
Desperation drove Cecilia Mallory to seek a union with a stranger--one who would wed her sight unseen and grant her full access to her inheritance with no expectations whatsoever. She anticipated, perhaps, an older, undesirable, equally desperate husband--never the young, vibrant, and devastingly attractive man who answered her call. What could such a man really be after?
Unknown to Cecilia, Viscount Michael Blackthorne, a soldier and gentleman, owes a debt of honor to Lady Cecilia's father, and granting her unusual request to wed seemed a worthy way to repay it. But an unseen threat perilously close at hand is convincing Michael that his true responsibility is to protect the beautiful, warm-hearted lady he has married...the woman he is unexpectedly coming to love.
"Powerful themes and emotional impact...
Readers will keep turning the pages as a bit of the gothic
and great depth of emotion, draw them in while Callen works her magic."
RT Book Reviews Magazine
K.I.S.S. Award (Knight in Shining Silver):
"Honorable and sexy military man Michael Blackthorne will have you clamoring
for Gayle Callen's RETURN OF THE VISCOUNT."
RT Book Reviews Magazine
"A charming Victorian romance that might be called the case of the mail-order groom...
The lively banter and mild suspense are certain to entertain aficionados of historical romance."
"RETURN OF THE VISCOUNT will entrance you with its wit, charm, fun-loving characters
and steamy love scenes. Each scene is more pleasurable than the last."
"...a brilliant love story and unexpected mystery all in one."
"A very refreshing and cherishing story."
PublishersWeekly.com - WW Ladies Book Club
(The following is the property of the author and Avon Books, and cannot be copied or reprinted without permission.)
At 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 Lady Cecilia,” 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 now 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 any time 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.
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, Lady Cecilia. There were several pieces they could not remove from my leg without risking further damage. The cane will become unnecessary soon enough, and 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, and 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 showed 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, Lady Cecilia,” 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, Lady Cecilia,” 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 quickly, 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.”
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 non-commissioned officer. I don’t understand.”
“I did not feel qualified to be an officer, Lady Cecilia, 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, Lady Cecilia, 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 Cecilia. Thank you.”
And then she 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 secret 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 offence, my lord, but would you sleep in the dower house? It is just across the western lawn.”
For the first time she watched his gaze move slowly down her body, taking in the flower-sprigged muslin. She suddenly had trouble catching her breath.
“So now I am a horse to be examined before a sale?” she asked quietly.
His brown eyes met hers once again. “I never said you were, my lady. Do you have other rules I as your husband should be aware of? No referring to my embarrassing military title, no looking at my wife.”
“I never said I was embarrassed by your military title,” she protested. “You earned that above other enlisted soldiers, and the accomplishment must be a source of pride.”
He bowed his head gravely. “You do me honor. But you also seem to believe I will meekly acquiesce to whatever you want, regardless of how reckless it is. No, I will not reside in the dower house.”
She tensed, but he spoke before she could reply.
“I am your legal husband, and I assume all of your friends and neighbors know. It would cause a terrible scandal and harm your reputation if you were to cast me off.”
“I would not be casting you off,” she insisted, striving to be calm. “If my lawyers say a proxy marriage is invalid, then we would have to abide by it.”
“You’d be making the marriage invalid by treating it that way. Now that I’ve met you in person, I know something must be drastically wrong for you to marry a man sight unseen, even if I do write interesting letters,” he added dryly.
Her mouth opened and closed, but her brain couldn’t seem to settle on the right response. This man was insisting he knew what was best for her.
“I would be happy to continue this discussion at dinner,” he continued, “but first I should change out of these damp garments.”
“Of course. I will have Talbot show you to your bedchamber. I hope you understand that you will not be sharing mine.”
“I assume you have a spacious apartment, Lady Cecilia. Give me whichever of your rooms you’d like. I would never force myself on you. I will gladly give us time to know one another. And it is no one’s business but ours.”
She let out her breath. “Thank you. I will see you at seven when we dine.”
He bowed. “Until then.”
She watched him limp across the drawing room, and it wasn’t until she glimpsed him meeting up with Talbot, did she stumble back to sit on the sofa and close her eyes. Oh God, what have I done?
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