Benedict Grey sat as close to the fire in his library as he could without singeing the book—Remarks on the Antiquities of Rome and Its Environs: Being a Classical and Topographical Survey of the Ruins of that Celebrated City—in his lap. It was good to be in his own home again, to sleep in his own soft bed, to eat his favorite foods. To wash in the morning and know that he would not be covered in dust inside of an hour.
But after spending the larger part of six years in Greece, London was cold.
There was a knock at the door and, at Benedict’s easy “enter”, his butler stepped into the room. “The Marquess of Whitby to see you, sir.”
“It’s deuced dark in here, Benedict,” Whitby proclaimed, brushing past the butler and heading for a big wing chair opposite his host. “Why are all the curtains closed?”
Benedict’s reply—and nod to the retreating butler—was matter-of-fact. “To keep the heat in.”
Whitby laughed. “Of course! You must be positively freezing. Why on earth did you come back to England in November of all months?”
“I came back with the last load of cargo. It was either sail with it, or wait until the winter storms had passed. With two wars on, I didn’t want to become stranded in a foreign country.”
“Wish you’d stayed in Athens, now, don’t you?”
Whitby was grinning. Benedict found himself rubbing his arms and grinning back. “Absolutely.”
“Have you been to see Elgin yet?”
Benedict sobered somewhat at the mention of his patron. “I have—it was his endeavor after all. His lordship bore the expenses, he has a right to hear the particulars first hand.”
“But you didn’t call on any of your family?”
Benedict shifted in his chair. “I wanted a few days to recover first.”
“And to hide, eh?”
Benedict ignored the jibe. Instead, he rose from his chair and placed a marker in his book, stroking a finger gently over the cover as he set the volume on his desk.
He strode toward the sideboard to pour drinks. “What are you doing in Town? I thought you were rusticating in the country with your flock of daughters.”
“It’s my ‘flock of daughters’ that brings me here.”
Benedict heard the sudden seriousness in Whitby’s voice and turned at once. “Is everything well with the girls?”
“Oh, they’re hale and hearty. All aflutter about dresses and bonnets and such, I imagine. They’re going to visit my wife’s sister for a month, and were twittering about what to pack when I departed.”
Benedict turned back to the sideboard, feeling his shoulders relax as he poured a clear liquid into two glasses. “What do you need from me, then?”
“Two things. First, my wife is holding a house party while the girls are away to celebrate Christmas and your safe return.”
Benedict returned to his place by the fire, handing a glass to his cousin. “Try this—I brought it back with me. And I’ll not think you a coward for sipping it.”
Whitby took the glass and sniffed at it. “Smells like the biscuits Cook makes on special occasions.”
“Stin uyeia sou.” At his cousin’s blank look, Benedict translated his words. “To your health.”
Whitby sniffed again, then tossed back the entire glass.
And came up coughing.
Benedict was obliged to get up and pound his cousin on the back, receiving a scowl for his trouble.
“What the hell is this?”
“It’s called ouzo. The Greeks drink it regularly.”
“Well the English do not. You should have warned me of its potency—actually warned me, instead of provoking me like that.”
Benedict resumed his seat, arching an eyebrow at his cousin. “You let your wife give a house party for me.”
“Let her? You know better than that.”
Benedict allowed a small smile to form on his lips. If any wife had charge of her husband, it was certainly Lady Whitby.
“Well, we’re even now. What was the second thing?”
“You said there were two things you needed of me. The first was the house party—which I haven’t yet agreed to. What is the second thing?”
Whitby sat forward in his chair, leaning his forearms against his thighs. “Take a drink of that ouzo first.”
Benedict did as instructed before replying. “Please don’t tell me you want me to squire around some silly girl at this house party.”
“Worse,” Whitby said slowly. “I need you to get married.”
Benedict looked at his cousin for a long moment, trying to analyze his expression in the dim light of the fire. Was he joking?
“And produce an heir.”
He had to be joking. Not that Benedict didn’t have a fondness for women. Perhaps he had a bit less experience with them than other men of eight-and-twenty years, but he’d enjoyed every moment of what he’d had.
Before a man could marry a woman, though, he had to first find one of the right class and breeding, the right family and wealth. Then he had to court her.
“Truly, Benedict. I wouldn’t ask if it was not of the utmost importance.”
Benedict downed the rest of his ouzo in one swallow.
Whitby sat back, hands still resting on his thighs. “To secure the succession.”
A great, long sigh whooshed out of the marquess. “You’re my heir—and the last Grey male. You had to know this was coming.”
“Eventually, yes. But not three days after I returned to London. Bloody hell, Whitby, I’ve been gone for most of the last six years—you couldn’t wait a few more days?”
“I thought you could use as much warning as possible.”
Benedict pressed his lips together in a tight line. “Your lady wife is planning more than just a house party.”
Whitby nodded, his eyes—the same hazel as Benedict’s—flicking toward the fire. “She’s…she’s been having a bad time of it these last months.” He stopped and drew in a deep breath, as if steeling himself for the worst. “She can’t have any more children.”
“Why not?” His mother would likely have elbowed him in the ribs for such a lack of delicacy, but Benedict ignored the thought.
Whitby’s eyes dropped from the fire to the floor. “She’s past her childbearing years. She’s seen physicians and midwives, consulted apothecaries. They all say the same thing.”
“She’s not that old, is she?”
“I didn’t think so—my mother bore her last child when she was nigh on five-and-forty, and Lady Whitby has more than a few years to go before she reaches that milestone. But our youngest is nearly six now, and there’s not been even a hint of another babe since. She won’t say it aloud, but I can see it all over her face—she feels old and useless. She gave me seven daughters, but doesn’t think that’s good enough.”
“I’m…sorry.” Benedict was sure that was not the correct sentiment to express, but he didn’t know what else to say.
“Of course, having you as my heir helps. We both know you’ll do the title honor when your turn comes.”
Understanding dawned. “And now Lady Whitby can turn her attention to my matrimonial prospects.”
Whitby’s eyes shifted back to his cousin. “It’s cheered her up considerably, planning this house party and dreaming up eligible ladies for you to meet.”
Benedict realized he was still holding his empty ouzo glass and set it down on the hearth at his feet. “She feels useful again.”
A long silence stretched between the two men. Benedict took his turn staring at the fire, but he could feel his cousin’s eyes on him. He knew Whitby wanted him to agree to the whole scheme, to attend the house party with pleasure and throw himself into a search for a suitable wife.
Benedict, however, knew what he was like around the Society set—or anyone outside his fellow antiquarians.
He bored them to tears.
Each time he had returned home during the expedition to Greece had been a disaster. Once, his arrival had coincided with the height of the Season, and his mother had dragged him to every entertainment she’d been invited to. He’d been polite, of course, and had tried to make conversation with the countless people she’d introduced him to. But when they had asked him breathless questions about his time in Athens, he had inevitably responded with the condition and significance of items recovered during the previous months. When people had asked his opinion of the war against Napoleon, Benedict’s reaction had been to condemn it—if Britain had not embroiled herself in armed conflict, he might be able to travel safely to Italy and work on the excavation of Pompeii.
After that, few people had asked him questions. In fact, few people had spoken to him much at all.
But he couldn’t bring himself to damage Lady Whitby’s delicate mental state. Given his cousin’s news and the way in which he’d deliver it, Benedict suspected that if he rebuffed the marchioness’s matchmaking machinations she’d sink into a deep depression. And if he could prevent that, or lessen its severity in any way, he was certainly willing to try.
But surely he needn’t submit to all her machinations.
“Well, I won’t deprive her of her house party, then.” Benedict paused, making sure to catch Whitby’s gaze and hold it. “And I will allow that, under the circumstances, it’s time I started looking for a wife. But how and when I do so will be my decision.”
“That’s fair.” Whitby was nodding his head agreeably. “A good start, at least.”
“Not a start, cousin. That’s my line in the sand. You and I have always been like brothers, despite the difference in our ages, and I love your wife like my own sister. But I’ll not be dictated to on the matter of my wife and the mother of my children.”
“Sure, sure. You’ll find the right woman. I have no doubt.”
There was a slight slur to Whitby’s words, and Benedict looked more closely at his cousin. His cheeks were flushed pink, his mouth pulled into a lazy smile.
Benedict grinned, leaning against the high back of his chair. While he was accustomed to Greece’s favorite alcohol, Whitby was clearly not. He wondered briefly if he might extract other promises from the marquess, but discarded the notion. It would be dishonorable to attempt such a thing. And Whitby would never do so himself.
Instead, Benedict simply continued the conversation, albeit in a slightly more relaxed tone. “I’m surprised you didn’t suggest one of your daughters for me.”
Whitby waved a hand at his cousin. “No, not my girls. They’re sweet creatures, but flighty…and no sign that any of ’em will settle down. Besides, the oldest is only seventeen—would you want to be leg-shackled to a flighty girl of seventeen?”
Benedict felt himself wince at the thought. “No, I would not. And I thank you for taking that into consideration.”
“But there will be a multitude of other ladies for you to look over. Best decide what kind of girl you do want.”
“I suppose I must,” Benedict answered, slumping down in his chair. “And what kind of girl might want me.”
“Oh, that’s easy,” Whitby grinned. “You’re the grandson of a marquess, heir to a venerable old title…and you’ve got some money in your own right. The matchmaking mamas will be pounding down your door!”
Benedict slouched further in his chair. “Perhaps I’ll tell them I expect my wife to accompany me on future digs.”
Whitby laughed. “That would put off the title hunters!”
And pretty much every other lady of the ton. Which would break Lady Whitby’s heart, and put an end to the Grey line.
Well, there was no turning back now. “I’ve never been to a house party, cousin. Tell me how it’s going to go, and what I must do.”
Copyright © 2015 by Cora Lee
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