Everyone within five miles of the village of Throckbridge in Shropshire had been in a spirit of heightened sensibilities for the week or so preceding February 14. Someone—the exact identity of the person was undecided though at least half a dozen laid claim to the distinction—had suggested that an assembly be held at the rooms above the village inn this year in celebration of St. Valentine's Day since it seemed like forever since Christmas, and summer—the occasion of the annual fete and ball at Rundle Park—was way off in the future.
The suggestion having been made—by Mrs. Waddle, the apothecary's wife, or Mr. Moffett, Sir Humphrey Dew's steward, or Miss Aylesford, spinster sister of the vicar, or by one of the other claimants—no one could quite explain why such an entertainment had never been thought of before. But since it had been thought of this year, no one was in any doubt that the Valentine's assembly would become an annual event in the village.
All were agreed that it was an inspired idea, even—or perhaps especially—those children who were not quite old enough to attend this year despite vociferous protests to the adults who made the rules. The youngest attendee was to be Melinda Rotherhyde, fifteen years old and allowed to go only because she was the youngest of the Rotherhyde brood and there could be no question of leaving her at home alone. And also allowed to attend, a few more critical voices added, because the Rotherhydes had always been overindulgent with all their offspring.
The youngest male was to be Stephen Huxtable. He was only seventeen, though there was never really any question of his not attending. Despite his youth, he was a favorite of females of all ages. Melinda in particular had sighed over him since the very moment three years before when she had been forced to renounce him as a frequent playmate because her mama had deemed their romping together no longer fitting considering their advancing ages and differing genders.
On the day of the assembly there was intermittent rain throughout the daylight hours, though nothing worse than that despite the dire prediction of six feet of snow that elderly Mr. Fuller had prophesied with much squinting and head nodding after church the previous Sunday. The assembly rooms above the inn had been dusted and swept, the wall sconces fitted with new candles, fires laid in the large hearths that faced each other across the room, and the pianoforte tested to see that it was still in tune—though no one had thought to wonder what would happen if it were not since the tuner lived twenty miles distant. Mr. Rigg brought his violin, tuned it, and played it for a while to limber up his fingers and get the feel of the room and its acoustics. Women brought food in quantities sufficient to stuff the five thousand so full that they would be prostrate for a week—or so Mr. Rigg declared as he sampled a jam tart and a few slices of cheese before having his hand slapped only half playfully by his daughter-in-law.
Throughout the village women and girls crimped and curled all day long and changed their minds half a dozen times about the gowns they would wear before inevitably settling upon their original choice. Almost all the unmarried women below the age of thirty—and a number of those of more advanced years—dreamed of St. Valentine and the possibilities of romance his day might bring this year if only...
Well, if only some Adonis would appear out of nowhere to sweep them off their feet. Or, failing that, if only some favored male acquaintance would deign to dance with them and notice their superior charms and..._
Well, it was Valentine's Day.
And throughout the village men pretended to a yawning indifference to the whole tedious business of the assembly but made sure that their dancing shoes were polished and their evening coats brushed and the hands of the women of their choice solicited for the opening set. After all, the fact that this was St. Valentine's Day was sure to make the ladies a little more amenable to flirtation than they usually were.
Those too elderly either to dance or to flirt or to dream of romance on their own account looked forward to a good-sized gathering of gossips and card players—and to the sumptuous feast that was always the best part of village assemblies.
Apart from a few disgruntled older children, then, there was scarcely anyone who did not look forward to the evening's revelries with either open excitement or suppressed enthusiasm.
There was one notable exception.
"A village assembly, for the love of God!" Elliott Wallace, Viscount Lyngate, was sprawled in his chair an hour before the event was due to begin, one long, booted leg hooked over the arm and swinging impatiently. "Could we have chosen a less auspicious day for our arrival here if we had tried, George?"
George Bowen, who was standing before the fire warming his hands, grinned at the coals.
"Tripping the light fantastic with a roomful of village maidens is not your idea of fine entertainment?" he asked. "Perhaps it is just what we need, though, to blow away the cobwebs after the long journey."
Viscount Lyngate fixed his secretary and friend with a steady gaze.
"We? The wrong pronoun, my dear fellow," he said. "You may feel the need to jig the night away. I would prefer a bottle of good wine, if any such commodity is available at this apology for an inn, the fire blazing up the chimney, and an early bed if no more congenial occupation presents itself. A village hop is not my idea of a more congenial occupation. In my experience those pastoral idylls one reads in which village maidens are not only numerous but also fair and buxom and rosy-cheeked and willing are entirely fictitious and not worth the paper they are written on. You will be dancing with ferret-faced matrons and their plain, simpering daughters, George, be warned. And making lame conversation with a dozen gentlemen with even duller minds than that of Sir Humphrey Dew."
That was admittedly a nasty thing to say. Sir Humphrey had been genial and hospitable. And dull.
"You will keep to your rooms, then?" George was still grinning. "They might be vibrating to the sounds of fiddles and laughter for half the night, old chap."
Viscount Lyngate combed the fingers of one hand through his hair, sighing audibly as he did so. His leg continued to swing.
"Even that might be preferable to being led about on display like a performing monkey," he said. "Why could we not have come tomorrow, George? Tomorrow would have done just as well."
"So would yesterday," his friend pointed out with great good sense. "But the fact is that we came today."
Elliott scowled. "But if we had come yesterday," he said, "we might have been on our way home by now, our business accomplished, our young cub in tow."
"I doubt it will be as easy as you seem to expect," George Bowen said. "Even cubs need time to digest news they are not expecting and to pack their bags and bid their fond farewells. Besides, there are his sisters."
"Three of them." Elliott rested his elbow on the arm of the chair and propped his face in his hand. "But they are bound to be every bit as delighted as he. How could they not? They will be ecstatic. They will fall all over themselves in their haste to get him ready to leave with us at the earliest possible moment."
"For a man who has sisters of his own," George said dryly, "you are remarkably optimistic, Elliott. Do you really believe they will happily gather on their doorsill within the next day or two to wave their only brother on his way forever? And that then they will be willing to carry on with their lives here as if nothing untoward had happened? Is it not far more likely they will want to darn all his stockings and sew him half a dozen new shirts and... Well, and perform a thousand and one other useful and useless tasks?"
"Dash it all!" Elliott drummed his fingers on his raised thigh. "I have been trying to ignore the possibility that they might be an inconvenience, George. As females are more often than not. How simple and easy life would be without them. Sometimes I feel the distinct call of the monastery."
His friend looked at him incredulously and then laughed in open amusement mingled with derision.
"I know a certain widow who would go into deep mourning and an irreversible decline if you were to do that," he said. "Not to mention every unmarried lady of the ton below the age of forty. And their mamas. And did you not inform me as recently as yesterday on the journey down here that your main order of business during the coming Season is going to have to be the choosing of a bride?"
Elliott grimaced. "Yes, well," he said, his fingers pausing for a moment and then drumming faster. "The monastery may call with wistful invitation, George, but you are quite right—duty positively shouts it down, in the unmistakable voice of my grandfather. I promised him at Christmas... And of course he was quite right. It is time I married, and the deed will be done this year to coincide more or less with my thirtieth birthday. Nasty things, thirtieth birthdays."
He scowled in anticipation of the happy event, and his fingers beat a positive tattoo against his thigh.
"Perish the thought," he added.
Especially since his grandfather had made a specific point of informing him that Mrs. Anna Bromley-Hayes, Elliott's mistress of two years, simply would not do as his bride. Not that he had needed his grandfather to tell him that. Anna was beautiful and voluptuous and marvelously skilled in the bedroom arts, but she had also had a string of lovers before him, some of them while Bromley-Hayes was still alive. And she never made a secret of her amours. She was proud of them. Doubtless she intended to continue them with more lovers than just him at some time in the future.
"This is good," George said. "If you went into the monastery, Elliott, you would doubtless not need a secretary and I would be out of lucrative employment. I should hate that."
"Hmm." Elliott returned his foot to the floor and then crossed it over the other leg to rest his booted ankle above the knee.
He wished he had not thought of Anna. He had not seen her—or, more important, bedded her—since before Christmas. It was a damnably long time. Man was not made to be celibate, he had concluded long ago—another reason for avoiding the lure of the monastery.
"The three sisters will very probably be at the assembly tonight," George said. "Did not Sir Humphrey say that everyone and his dog will be attending—or words to that effect? Perhaps the cub will be there too."
"He is far too young," Elliott said.
"But we are deep in the country," his friend reminded him, "and far from the influence of all things tonnish. I'll wager on his being here."
"If you think that possibility will persuade me to _attend," Elliott said, "you are much mistaken, George. I am not talking business with him tonight beneath the interested gaze of a villageful of gossips, for the love of God."
"But you can scout him out," George said. "We both can. And his sisters too. Besides, old chap, would it be quite the thing to absent yourself when Sir Humphrey Dew made such a point of waiting on you as soon as word reached him that you were here? And when he came in person specifically to invite us to the assembly and to offer to escort us upstairs and present us to everyone worthy of the honor? My guess is that that will be everyone without exception. He will not be able to resist."
"Do I pay you to be my conscience, George?" Elliott asked.
But George Bowen, far from looking cowed, only chuckled.
"How the devil did he discover that we were here, anyway?" Elliott asked, having worked himself into a thorough bad temper. "We arrived in this village and at this inn less than two hours ago, and no one knew we were coming."
George rubbed his hands together close to the heat of the fire and then turned resolutely away in the direction of his room.
"We are in the country, Elliott," he said again, "where news travels on the wind and on every blade of grass and every dust mote and every human tongue. Doubtless the lowliest scullery maid knows by now that you are in Throckbridge and is trying desperately—and in vain—to find another mortal who does not know. And everyone will have heard that you have been invited to the assembly as Sir Humphrey Dew's particular guest. Are you going to disappoint them all by keeping to your room?"
"Wrong pronoun again," Elliott said, pointing a finger. "I am not the only one everyone will have heard of. There is you too. You go and entertain them if you feel you must."
George clucked his tongue before opening the door to his room.
"I am a mere mister," he said. "Of mild interest as a stranger, perhaps, especially if I had arrived alone. But you are a viscount, Elliott, several rungs higher on the social ladder even than Dew. It will seem as if God himself had condescended to step into their midst." He paused a moment and then chuckled. "The Welsh word for God is Duw—my grandmother was always saying it—D-U-W, but pronounced the same way as our dear baronet's name. And yet you outrank him, Elliott. That is heady stuff, old boy, for a sleepy village. They have probably never set eyes upon a viscount before or ever expected to. Would it be sporting of you to deny them a glimpse of you? I am off to don my evening togs."
He was still chuckling merrily as he closed his door behind him.
Elliott scowled at its blank surface.
They had traveled here, the two of them, on business. Elliott deeply resented the whole thing. After a long, frustrating year during which his life had been turned upside down and inside out, he had expected soon to be free of the most irksome of the obligations his father's sudden death had landed on his shoulders. But that obligation, George's search and discovery had recently revealed, was actually far from over. It was not a discovery that had done anything to improve Elliott's almost perpetually sour mood.
He had not expected his father to die so young. His father's father, after all, was still alive and in vigorous good health, and the male line had been renowned for longevity for generations past. Elliott had expected many more years in which to be free to kick his heels and enjoy the carefree life of a young buck about town without any of the burdens of sober responsibility.
But suddenly he had had them, ready or not—just like the childhood game of hide-and-seek.
Coming, ready or not.
Excerpted from First Comes Marriage by Mary Balogh. Copyright © 2009 by Mary Balogh. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.