Excerpt from Christmas Angel

   
Leander Knollis, Earl of Charrington, has returned to England to take up his responsibilities and wishes to marry. However, he wants a wife who will not fall in love with him. Passionate love is an emotion he has never felt, but unfortunately he seems to inspire it in impressionable young ladies. He has sought refuge at the country house of a friend, the Marquess of Arden, and asked help of him and his new wife. Now he overhears them discussing a candidate in the stables.
 
     "Sorry if I was eavesdropping," he said, "but no one can resist the sound of their own name. Do I gather you have a candidate for my hand?"
     It was all very light but Beth sensed a serious interest. Whatever was motivating Leander Knollis it was not a whim soon to be forgotten. She purposefully didn't look at Lucien. "I thought so, but Lucien has pointed out that she's ineligible on all counts."
     Leander picked a straw out of a bale and twirled it. "Not on all counts, surely. You are far too clever to have scored a duck, Beth. What makes her eligible?"
     Beth shrugged. "She's highly unlikely to fall in love with you. It's the local melodrama. She was married to Sebastian Rossiter, a poet who rented Mayfield House in the village. He died before I married Lucien, so I never met him, but at the drop of a hat any of the locals will tell you the affecting story."
     "It'll affect you to nausea," Lucien interjected, shrugging into his jacket. "Sebastian Rossiter was a strip of dreamy wind with long flaxen ringlets—I'll swear he put them in curling papers—and long, limp white hands. I'm surprised he managed to beget two children."
     "He was very beautiful," countered Beth firmly, "or so the local ladies say. He was also gentle, kind, generous, and utterly devoted to his wife. They were madly in love, never apart. He wrote nearly all his poems about her, or to her. I believe one had a minor success—My Angel Bride."
     Lucien emotively quoted, "Though Angels throng the Heavens high,/ And bend to soothe each human sigh,/ Mere man's bereft on this bleak earth/ Lacking an Angel by his hearth." Though he declaimed it satirically, even he could not entirely blight the beauty of the sentiment. "There's more. Let's see... "My Judith sits in God's pure light/ And holds our child to bosom white./ And dew that pearls the gleaming grass/ Shows Angels' envy as they pass."
     "I certainly couldn't compete with that when courting."
     Lucien shook his head. "I'd disown you if you were to try."
     "So," said Leander, "what are the impediments to the match?"
     "Two children," said Beth.
     "How old?"
     "A boy of eleven and a girl of six."
     Leander considered it. "I don't see any problem there. The boy is old enough not to become confused about our own children and the inheritance. In fact," he said with a sudden inexplicable gleam in his eye, "I'd quite like a ready-made family."
     Beth shared a look with Lucien.
     "Lee," said Lucien, "think how old that makes her."
     Lee considered. "Over thirty?"
     "Not quite that, I suppose, but you're only twenty-five."
     "Why the heat? Nearly all my lovers have been older than I. In fact my father's firm advice was to have nothing to do with a woman younger than myself until I was at least thirty. I should have listened. If I'd gone bride-hunting among the older set from the start I'd have been far more likely to find a woman of sense, one too wise to make a fool of herself over me."
     He nodded contentedly. "Marriages of practicality are still common on the Continent, you know. I'm not uneasy at the notion. As long as this widow's still likely to bear me a few children, I don't care about her age. However, I see no reason why the lady would consider me if she still grieves as much as you say."
     Beth was succinct. "Money."
     "Poetry not lucrative?"
     "One gathers not, though My Angel Bride was on every sentimental school-girl's lips a few years back. Not everyone can be a Byron, I suppose. When Mr. Rossiter died the widow had to leave Mayfield House and take a cottage in the village. I gather she is one of a large family of a curate and can expect little help from that quarter. Her son is coming to an age to need schooling and a start in life. It's possible that she has been able to put money aside for her children's future, but I doubt it."
     Lee leaned against the edge of a stall and stroked a horse's nose. "I have to confess, it seems a situation cut to my requirements." He looked at Lucien. "What bothers you?"
     "Go to hell in a handcart if you wish," said Lucien shortly. "But," he added, putting a hand on Beth's shoulder, "love in marriage is not a thing lightly to dismiss."
 
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