Romantic Times, Best Regency Fantasy, 1995
Returning home from the Peninsular war, and faced with the possible ruin of his sister and the destitution of the tenants on his estate, Richard, Lord Clairmond does the only thing he can: sell his soul to Lucifer and accomplish one little task, in exchange for wealth. How hard can it be?
All he has to do is seduce and abandon Miss Eveline Seton, a lowly merchant's daughter. But it isn't as easy as he thought, especially when he falls desperately in love with her...and finds he's got more than he bargained for in this intelligent young woman.
The neglect and decay of his estate was worse than he had thought. Richard now understood why his solicitors would not meet his eyes when they told him into how much debt his father had driven the estate.
He sat on his horse and gazed at the huddled family before him. They were his tenants, but their clothes were almost as threadbare as a London beggar's. He did not need to go into their hovel of a home to imagine its disrepair; it was clear from the random boards nailed ineffectually over holes that must have let in the cold and damp of a winter's night. It was a pitiful attempt at holding their home together, but no doubt the man could do little else.
The man--Richard remembered his bailiff had said the man's name was Wardle--cleared his throat, and looked down at the ground. "My lord, I know 'tis past time for the rent.... I know I told the bailiff I'd have it. But the crops warn't so good this time, and my foot was broken this past spring, so I couldn't put in as many crops. I swear, maybe a sen'night--"
"Good God, did you think I'd come here to collect the rent?" exclaimed Richard, aghast. He got down from his horse.
Wardle dared lift his eyes. It was a beaten look, as if he'd been threshed against poverty as hard as wheat against stone. "The bailiff, he said--"
"The bailiff's a fool!" Richard said furiously. He stared at the babe wailing weakly at its mother's breast, at the woman's frightened, almost feral gaze. All the children had a listless manner, and their faces were pale and thin. He had never remembered the tenants like this, not before he had left for the army. What must his father have been thinking of? His breath went short with anger. Not of his tenants, certainly. "How long has it been like this? Your house, the lack of repairs?"
"T'warnt long, yer lordship, and not bad, beggin' yer pardon, 'til maybe a year ago. Miss Marianne, she comes by to help, but with young 'uns the victuals goes quick, like."
"A year!" The man's words were like the blow of a hammer to Richard's gut, leaving him breathless. These people had lived a year in this condition. He pushed his hand in his pocket, drawing out what coins he had in it. "Here, take this, and buy some food."
The man stared at Richard's out-thrust hand. "Why, why, that's a whole five pound, yer lordship!" He did not touch the money.
Richard grasped the man's rough hand and pressed the coins in it. "Take it. I will not have people starving on my estate."
Wardle stared at the money in his hands, as if it were some foreign thing. A shiver went through his thin frame, and a few coins clinked to the ground. With a sob, the woman beside him bent and scrabbled for them, then clutched them as tightly to her breast as she did her own babe, and stared wildly at the viscount.
"Yer lordship...," the man said faintly. "I, I...thank you m'lord! Thank you!" Richard turned away, not wanting to see the tears he heard in Wardle's voice.
He climbed on his horse and rode off. Something must be done, and if it meant his soul was lost in exchange for the lives of his tenants, so be it.<hr w
"Dreaming, my dear?"
Eveline gave a little start. "Oh, I am sorry, Papa! I was not attending--how rude of me!" She turned from her seat by the parlour window and gave him all her attention. The bright sun and blue sky had beckoned her outside, but there was not anyone with whom she wished to go on an outing, really. So she sat in the parlour instead, listening to her father read from a newly-purchased novel. Or rather, not listening, for her mind had clearly wandered.
"It is nothing, Evie." Mr. Seton smiled. "I suppose you are thinking of some rascally young man who has caught your eye, eh?" He shifted himself in his Bath chair, and wished he did not feel so uncomfortable. He did not come down very often, but there had been something in his daughter's expression, a sort of abstraction, that had caught his notice of late. He was not a successful merchant by mere chance; he prided himself on his ability to pick up another's intent or mood from their tell-tale countenance.
His daughter blushed, but grinned mischievously. "Oh, no, dear Papa, much worse. He is all of a half-pay officer, just returned from the Peninsula."
Mr. Seton's eyebrows rose. "Is he, then? And I suppose this rogue is paying you extravagant compliments?" He pulled his wool blanket closer about him.
"Well, of course! Do not all rogues pay in Spanish coin?"
"Minx!" her father growled affectionately, but knew a moment's uneasiness nevertheless. For all that Eveline teased, there was a certain light in her eyes when she talked of her admirer. Mr. Seton had always been proud of his daughter's looks, her intelligence, and common sense. She had his own acute sense of the essentials of any situation, so much so that she handled with relative ease his business affairs when he had been so ill. But love, now. That was a different kind of cat altogether. It turned many a man's wits to mush, and as for women....
"So tell me of your admirer, then. Especially his name."
"Well, he is Richard, Viscount Clairmond. He was a captain in the Peninsular army."
"A viscount, is he?" Mr. Seton's gaze turned wary. "Better to stay with your own kind, Evie. Oh, I wouldn't say nay to a title for you, and it would have been your mother's dear wish. But a nobleman's ways are different than ours." A niggling uneasiness flowered in the back of the merchant's mind. There was something about the name Clairmond....but he let it go. It would come to him in time.
"How different?" Eveline crossed the parlour to the mantelpiece, her steps impatient. She picked up a delicate porcelain Limoges egg without looking at it, and rolled it around in the palm of her hand. "Are noblemen without feelings? Are not morals and right behavior the same for all?"
"Yes, and yes." Mr. Seton sighed. "But few of them know the struggle with life that most of our class have gone through, and as for their morals.... Let us say, my dear, that they take them less seriously than we do."
"Surely not all!" his daughter protested.
"No, of course not. But theirs is a rich and idle existence, full of privilege, and often without consideration for those not in their circle."
Eveline stopped rolling the little egg about, and held it tightly instead. "So are you telling me that he is trifling with me, because I am not of his class?"
"Do get off your high horse, daughter! Did I say that?"
"No, but I think you were leading up to it."
Her father laughed. "In a way, I suppose I was."
"How complimentary you are to me today, dear, dear Papa!" She tossed the ornament in the air and caught it neatly, then put it down on the mantelpiece again with a decided snap. "I am your daughter, Papa! Would I be such a fool? True, Lady Brookland takes me about to all the routs and balls and assemblies in Bath. True, I do have admirers. But do any of them call at this house? I think not. Do any of them mean marriage? Most certainly not." Eveline's smile was wry.
An ache grew in Mr. Seton's heart. His daughter was no wide-eyed innocent who saw nothing in people's actions but good. She, like him, could weigh a man's heart against his words. And yet, he wished that it had never been necessary for her to be so. He sighed. Certainly, there were many a promising young businessman he had asked to his house, and introduced them to Eveline. But she had never shown any interest in any man until now.
"Then how is this one different?"
Hesitation showed plainly on Eveline's face. She glanced at her father, then said: "I do not know that he is different."
The merchant wished he could stop his questioning at this point, that he could say, "Well, then, that is that." He could not, however. Eveline had a clear-reasoning mind--more sharp than many men he knew. Logically, of course she would state the facts: that objectively she did not know this admirer was any different than any other. Yet, clearly, this Viscount was different in some way essential to her. Mr. Seton sighed again.
"Is there one thing he does that other men do not?"
Eveline hesitated again. "He listens to me."
She blushed, then laughed slightly. "Perhaps it sounds silly--but he listens to me, to what I have to say...as if it were important."
"I should hope so!" Mr. Seton tugged at the shawl across his legs, pulling it closer to him.
"No, really, Papa. Most men will listen to me--to most women--with an indulgent air, as if they knew better no matter what I said. I declare, some come close to patting me on the head--as if I were a little dog! But Lord Clairmond...he listens, and takes my words quite seriously--unless I am not serious, that is, and then he responds in kind." Eveline put her hand on her father's arm. "Do you see what I mean, Papa?" she asked earnestly.
"Yes, I do, child." He did indeed see. It almost made him regret the education he had given Eveline. He'd educated her for a position far higher than a merchant's daughter would normally aspire for, yet her birth would never tempt anyone from the ton. But what else could he have done? She was his only child, and when her mind proved to be as sharp as his, how could he not give the girl all the lessons that would hone that mind to a fine edge? And with that sort of mind came the knowledge that Eveline would never be content with the usual life of a merchant's wife. Though she never spoke of it, she must know it. He had invited many eligible young businessmen to their house, but she never was more than civil in a friendly manner toward them. To tell the truth, once they'd found how much more astute a mind she had than theirs, the young men soon left for less daunting ladies.
Was this Viscount worthy? Certainly his title would be, thought Mr. Seton. But he wanted someone right for Eveline, not just a title. He patted Eveline's hand gently. "Well, my dear, if he wishes to call on you, I would like to meet him."
"Yes, if he wishes to call on me," sighed Eveline.