The Earl of Pennington. She mouthed his name as her fingers clenched the edges of her pelisse.
Only one type of man arranged a marriage with a mousy spinster sight unseen—a desperate one. A deranged and desperate one. And that was exactly what the Earl of Pennington was rumored to be—deranged. Gazing out the carriage window, Aida shivered deeper into her coat. The frost-coated world stared back, as bleak as her future.
The carriage rocked to a stop. Startled from her reverie, Aida turned to the other window. Before her towered an Elizabethan manor, all diamond windows and symmetrical towers. With trembling hands, she tightened her hairpins and pinched her cheeks.
Bright light flooded the interior as a shadowed figure opened the door and offered to hand her down. The earl? she wondered, her breath catching. Blinking, a foot on the steps, a hand in his, she allowed her eyes to adjust.
Pursed lips and beady eyes observed her descent.
The man at her side said in way of a greeting, “If you’ll follow me. His lordship is indisposed but requests you join him in the dining room at eight. I am Mr. Mueller, his lordship’s secretary. Should you need aught, ring for me.”
So, his lordship could not be bothered to meet his bride. Hardly an auspicious beginning.
Wordless, she nodded and followed, her maid in their wake.
One timbered hall after another, they walked until they came to an ornate door. With a bow, the man retired. Aida’s first impression of the room was that life as a countess might not be bad after all. In fact, she could not immediately recall why she had hesitated to say yes when her father first apprised her of the situation. The hearth dominated one wall, the four-poster bed the other. What warmed the room was not the fire but the ceiling-to-floor tapestries, richly hued, each depicting a mythological scene. Her future brightened.
Only an hour did she remain in the chamber. Eight o’clock was eight hours away, after all. Feeling refreshed, although it had not been a lengthy drive from the inn at which she had stayed the night, she set out to explore her new home. Fingers laced at her waist, she ambled down the hall, peering out one casement window at a time. The next hall brought walls of mirrored portraits. Upon each she looked, admiring a ruff here and a banyan there.
When Aida turned the corner, she heard a voice, a low rumble of baritone. A door flanked by Doric columns hid the source. The rumble reverberated inside, echoing in crescendo.
Cold wood bit her ear as she pressed herself against the door.
“Your eyes sparkle of starlight, your teeth straight and unstained. I ask again, will you be mine?”
A high-pitched, nasal voice replied, “You, sir, are as dashing as a toad.”
A third voice with a posh intonation said, “Clearly, old man, she’s not moved by your perfumed words.”
Behind the door clunked a chair, then footsteps, the shuffle of movement. Aida stumbled away from the door. Smoothing the length of her dress and touching a hand to her hair, she expected at any moment guests to queue and find the new mistress before them. When no one opened the door, she pressed ear to wood once more.
A tender push was all that was needed to open the door and peer inside. A slight creak of the floorboard beneath her feet brought no one’s attention. The room appeared empty at first glance. But no, not empty. The scratch of a quill perked her ear. Leaning in, she eyed the far corner.
A mop of hair in disarray was her only sight above a desk. Where were the guests? Sweeping her gaze around the room, she saw two doors into which they could have ventured.
Aida nearly leapt backwards at the crack of wood against wood. The gentleman’s chair met an unwarranted fate against the wall as he pushed himself to stand, grumbling and muttering to himself. Aida shrank further behind the protection of the door to remain unseen.
He prowled the room, pacing, circling, snarling.
Wisps of black strands shadowed a face already dark with stubble. Lengthy tresses frizzed a halo about his head. No coat or waistcoat adorned his torso, only a shirt, sleeves rolled to the elbow.
She recognized him by reputation. Although she knew not his ailment, for it was not whispered on wagging tongues, she knew this must be her betrothed. As he paced, muttering to himself, mumblings punctuated only by curses, he fisted his hair and strangled the locks, leaving it more disheveled than before.
Oh dear. Oh no. There must be a way to escape. But to where? Could she reason with him for why she would make a terrible wife? This man could not possibly be her husband until death did them part. He was feral! To look this way before guests was unconscionable. And what of the bestial behavior? This would not do.
Pulling the door to a silent resolution, she fled the scene to the safety of her bedchamber.
Not until the longcase clock chimed eight did she venture out once more. Dressed her best, her heart in her throat, she followed a footman down the main stairs and to the dining room. All her fretting could not have prepared her for the man standing at the head of the table. Had she not halted her progress at the sight of him, she would have stumbled on her feet and made a cake of herself in the first meeting.
The man before her, greeting her with a bow, was immaculate. The wild tresses were combed back, held by a blue ribbon at the nape of his neck. He wore a form-fitting ensemble of matching blue. Aida was transfixed. His cheeks were smooth, his eyes smiling in welcome.
“My lady,” he said. “Join me.”
Two gulps and a mental shake.
How she took her seat or began the first course, she could not say. Her attention was fixed on him.
“You find your room satisfactory?” he asked between bites.
“Yes,” she answered dumbly.
Although he waited for her to say more, she could not form the words. How was one to speak to such a handsomely perfect man after witnessing him in his madness? Was there some bit of trickery, perhaps a twin brother? She smiled to herself at such silliness.
“You find the meal amusing, Lady Aida?”
Oh no! A hand to her lips, she flushed. All this worry that he would ruin the meal, and it was she who was embarrassing herself.
When she did not reply, he asked, “Would the end of the week be agreeable to you for our wedding in the estate chapel? I thought it might give you time to accustom yourself to the estate, the staff, and—” he paused as though to recall the final words not yet spoken, “and to me.”
“Yes, the end of the week.” She stared at her plate, anxious.
If her betrothed were to be this man rather than the one she had seen in the study, how different would be her future, for never could she have imagined such an attractive man for herself. Now that he had met her and realized how ineffectual she was, how plain, he would surely change his mind and send her home. And how humiliating it would be to return. If only he knew how ferocious was her mind, full of ideas and opinions.
“Are there guests at the estate?” she asked rather than speak her mind.
At his arrested look, she bit her tongue, realizing she might have revealed her eavesdropping.
“Guests?” His brows furrowed in perplexity before rising in dawning. “Ah, you must mean Mr. Mueller’s family. Yes, they’re staying in the east wing until their cottage roof is repaired. You’re fortunate to have missed the season’s heavy snow.”
Her polite smile, disguised with tight lips, settled them into a lengthy and uncomfortable silence. One million questions she wanted to ask, beginning with, who’s the madman in the third-floor study, for it cannot be you, can it? But all she could do was rearrange her meal with gilded cutlery.
“No, that won’t work,” he mumbled under his breath during the final course.
Aida turned to her betrothed and was about to ask what would not work before he spoke again.
Shaking his head in frustration, he argued, “Yes, yes, it will.”
Concerned, she watched him set down his cutlery and mutter incoherence, words she could neither hear nor understand. With a flourish of his napkin, he stood, his chair knocking backwards with a clatter.
“Yes, that’s it. Yes, I have it.” He took two steps from the table then about-faced. With a vacant expression, he said, “Excuse me.”
Aida stared at his retreating back, stunned. He was deranged!
The next day brought Aida no sense of relief. However immaculate he had appeared at supper, there was no denying a beast lurked behind his eyes.
In her exploration of the house and garden, she avoided the hall with the study, not wanting to witness him in a madness, preferring the fiction of the evening without its strange conclusion. Remembering his staid visage at the table could almost convince her all was as it should be.
Not until supper did she see him again. He was as immaculate as the evening prior. She could not deny the thump of her heart at the sight of him. For four London Seasons she feared no one would have her, not dowdy Aida whom no one gave a second glance or a second dance. For the two quiet years after, she knew her fate sealed. Now, could this man be hers?
“You must be wondering,” he said between the first and second course, “why I arranged the betrothal through correspondence rather than finding a bride in London or by other means.”
She squeaked a noncommittal answer.
“I’m a busy man. I’ve no time for socializing,” he justified. “I also desire a wife who speaks her mind, a trait that comes with maturity, I find. With my list of criteria, Mr. Mueller searched until he found the best match. You.”
His gaze lingered on her, although she could not say if he was admiring her “maturity” or suspecting he had chosen the wrong bride if he wanted a wife who would speak her mind. Aida wanted to speak with candor. Such ideas she had! And yet she remained mute, bashful under his scrutiny.
As with the evening prior, the two lapsed into silence until he chose to carry on a lively conversation with himself under his breath. So enraptured by his own mutterings, he seemed to forget her presence until, once again, he removed himself from the table with a hasty bow.
On the third day, Aida chose not to fear the earl’s domain. If the beast was to be her husband in a few days’ time, she could not fear him. Determined, chin raised, fingers clenched, she set off for the study. He could be elsewhere, of course. He could be anywhere but the study.
“’Tis the sparkle of starlight in your eyes and the perfume of your breath. I ask again, will you be my blushing bride?”
Aida stopped before the door, tugging her lower lip between her teeth. Was this not what she had heard days before?
Pressed to the door, she heard the same pinched tones.
“Nay, you knave! You’ve the manners of a toad.”
The same third voice said, “Clearly, old man, she’s not moved by your prosody.”
The first gentleman responded with a laugh. “You doubt my sincerity, milady? When I come to you on bended knee and accept the abuse of you and brother both?”
A commotion ensued inside the room—shuffling of feet, a thud, the rifling of paper, a growl. Footsteps echoed across the room, approaching the door.
Approaching the door!
Aida leapt back and scurried down the hall in hopes the guests would not think her snooping. The door flung wide with a crack of wood against wall. Out stepped the beast.
Beneath the mane of wild hair, he entered the hall snarling and cursing. With long strides he turned the corner away from her, never looking her direction. She pressed a hand to her breast and exhaled relief.
But then heavy footsteps returned, the string of curses preceding. When he turned back into the hall, he saw her standing with hand to bosom. Without missing a step, he growled and reentered the study, sealing the door behind him.
It took long moments to recover. From what, exactly, she could not say. Fear of discovery? Humiliation at snooping on guests? Confirmation that her betrothed was mad? Certainly being snarled at factored into the equation, for it was not every day she faced bared teeth. The peculiar part was she did not think he saw her, not really, at least not her. He mistook her for staff most likely.
“Give me one good reason why I should marry you?” Came that high-pitched voice again.
“I’ll do better than that. I’ll give you two. Your eyes are made of starlight and your hair of silk and—”
“I’ll not listen to one more word from you, you knave! I’m in love with the blacksmith.”
If Aida thought the commotion of before had been dramatic, it was nothing to now. A foul string of obscenities followed the woman’s confession, along with a clattering of objects. Neither wanting to intrude nor get involved in whatever chaos the beast hosted in the study, she could nevertheless not stop herself from cracking open the door and peering inside.
Her temple to the door, she leaned into the room. Her first sight was of the earl pacing the room again. Clenched fists grappled his hair as he argued, in one breath disagreeing and in the next agreeing.
Leaning further still, she looked for the guests but saw no one. The room was empty save the earl.
“You, sir, are a fortune hunter!” screeched the banshee.
Aida’s hand flew to her mouth as she realized the words came from the earl, who, in that moment, turned to no one in the room to reply in a different voice.
“I’m not a fortune hunter. I’m a man in love. Your eyes glimmer like starlight. And—devil take these lines!” In a fury, he stomped to the desk, crumpled a bit of parchment, and tossed it into the hungry flames of the fire.
She realized in an instant his malady, something far worse than madness.
With bold steps, she walked into the room.
Fury turned on her in force, bellowing rage. “Get out! You know the rules. Never intrude when—” His words suspended between them. Eyes wide, the earl ran both hands through his hair, calming the strays. “I do beg your pardon. I thought you were one of the staff. Is there something you need? Shall I ring for the butler?”
“You’re a writer.” Firm words met his questions.
A smirk hinted at the corners of his lips. “A playwright, though I lack inspiration. My publisher calls this latest play trite. It’s a comedy—is it not supposed to be trite?”
“Your publisher’s brave to say such words to an earl.”
He barked a laugh. “Never. I use a nom de plume. He’s no idea who’s behind the name. Join me?” Upturning a chair next to his desk, he made quick work of tidying strewn papers.
“You maintain the narrative of being deranged to keep your writing a secret,” Aida surmised, accepting the seat next to his.
Knit brows and a curious gaze studied her as he propped an ankle over a knee and steepled his fingers. “Deranged? They say I’m deranged?”
Oh dear. This was her reward for candor.
Cheeks warming, she wrung her hands in her lap, no longer confident. “If you’ll pardon my saying, you do look frightful, and your behavior is often, shall we say, distracted.”
In slow movements, he stood to catch his reflection in the mirror above the hearth. A low chuckle rumbled. Pulling free a tangled ribbon, he combed his hair with deft fingers and tied it with a tidy bow. After running a hand over his morning’s stubble, he shrugged in apology.
“Do you find me less than savory?” he asked, returning to his chair.
“Quite the opposite,” she said, pressing cold palms to heated cheeks. “Although, I’m not certain I can marry a man who writes such contrived dialogue.”
“Contrived…can’t marry…what is this abuse?” He leaned forward, gripping the arms of his chair.
“Eyes of starlight? A knave and a toad? Really, my lord. Shall we conceive better lines?”
He stared at her in wonder. His silence stretched for so long, she worried she had overstepped.
“I see you now,” he said, leaning into the chair. “Why are you hiding in drab clothes and behind a demure mask?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I’ve been searching for you all my life. And yet, so wrapped up in my own obsessions, I didn’t recognize you when you finally came to me. But I see you now.” Pushing himself to his feet, he bowed with reverence. “You’re my muse, Lady Aida. Now, inspire me.”
Grabbing his quill, he readied a fresh page.
With fluttering heart, Aida shared her thoughts, feeling more alive with each of his smiles than she had in all her five and twenty years. For the first time, she was not a wallflower. He saw her. He knew her. And no longer was he the beast of rumor.
When the final candle guttered into the night, he leaned a rough cheek to hers and whispered, “How beautiful and brilliant you are when you speak your mind. Will you marry me as I am?”
“Those words, Andrew, are not contrived nor trite. I believe you’ve found your inspiration. Yes, I’ll marry you.”
Their eyes shone with the passion and intelligence of shared vision. Together, they would write the story of their life. His hair would never again be frizzed by his fingers, rather hers. They would live life through the scratch of a quill—between romps on the study floor, of course.