The Scent of Roses

CHAPTER ONE

The Solution to All our Problems



“Let us not be coy, My Lord,” Lord Christopher said as he took the pewter goblet offered by his host. “Let us not pretend the whole county is ignorant of your circumstances. Pride is something you can ill afford.”
He sipped the wine and grimaced. It was diluted, hopefully with fresh water from the spring and not the muddied waters of the river. He placed the goblet down on the little table beside him, could not help but notice the film of dust on its surface. Did the man have no servants left? Apparently not.
“You are just ill-mannered enough to mention it,” Lord Sutton replied angrily.
“Manners are somewhat redundant at this point, do you not think? You are heavily in debt and gambling debts at that, the very worst kind. You will go to debtor’s prison or be in debt bondage to the vilest kind of men. Is that really what you want?”
Lord Sutton turned away to hide his embarrassment. It was true what his visitor was saying and he saw no way out. He had been a fool, a reckless, thoughtless fool who had lost everything, even his daughter’s dowry, and here was this powerful and wealthy man offering a solution. Had he really sunk low enough to accept?
“You know your reputation, My Lord,” Lord Sutton argued. “The things I have heard about you would give a decent man nightmares, yet here you sit, offering to make my daughter your countess. How can I do that for my benefit? How can I condemn her to a life with a man like you only to get myself out of the mess I have made?”
Lord Christopher’s expression did not change. His host expected him to be insulted; he should have been insulted, any normal man would, but Lord Sutton’s words passed over him without affect.
Christopher knew full well what his reputation was, he knew that people feared him, even his peers would rather not have to deal with him, and Lord Sutton’s reception of his offer came as no surprise.
He knew the man held his daughter in high regard and wanted the best for her, but he could no longer afford to provide that best and it was clear that an offer of assistance from Christopher only served to make him feel even more ashamed of his own folly.
“But it will not be for your sake alone, My Lord,” Christopher said. “What is to become of Lady Felice when you are condemned to prison, when this estate is sold to pay some of your debts? Would you have her live among the peasants, find work as a washerwoman or a servant of some kind? A lady in her own right? You would condemn her to that just to save face?”
“It is not to save face!” Lord Sutton shouted. “What sort of life will she have with you? You buried your late wife and your child in a pauper’s grave. Can you offer an explanation for that?”
Lord Christopher eyed him thoughtfully. He was not given to explaining himself or his actions to anyone, but in this case, he felt the man deserved it, if only to give him the peace of mind he would need to accept his own salvation.
“I can,” he said at last. “It was not my child.”
Lord Sutton caught his breath. He was not expecting that. He could not imagine what sort of woman would betray a man like this; she was either very brave or very foolish.
“She was untrue to you?” He asked hesitantly.
Lord Christopher nodded, his expression unchanging. Did the man have no feelings at all that he could speak of this without a sign of regret?
“I would be glad if you would keep it to yourself. I prefer not to share my private life with anyone else and I hate gossip.”
Ah, yes. He has a special device for gossips, Lord Sutton thought.
“How do I know you will not hurt her?”
Lord Christopher sighed deeply. It should not be so difficult to persuade someone to accept his money. The man must really love this daughter, a concept Christopher could hardly fathom. He did not trust women, any women, and he was sure if he ever had a daughter he would feel no differently about her.
“I believe you can trust my word, My Lord,” he said. “I will not hurt her. I give you my word. I can be harsh and ruthless, but I am not given to attacking defenceless women. I do demand loyalty from all my people, and that would include my wife. I see nothing unreasonable about that.”
“Nor I. However, I am still concerned as to why you want my daughter.”
“I saw her at Lord Eversley’s recent marriage celebration. I thought her a beautiful woman who would make me a good wife.” If such a thing exists. “At the time she was betrothed to Viscount Lindsay so I kept my thoughts to myself. Now I can voice them with honour.”
“Viscount Thomas’ father broke the agreement because my daughter has no dowry. What say you on that score?”
“Only that I have no need of her dowry. I shall provide enough for you to settle a new dowry on her if that is your wish. It will be hers alone for her security, but I will marry her without. It makes no difference to me.”
“I shall have to think on it.”
“I will leave you to do so,” Christopher said. “But do not think for too long. Your creditors will not wait forever and the sooner I have a favourable answer, the sooner I can give them my promise to settle your debts on my marriage.”
He got to his feet, his towering height making Lord Sutton feel insignificant in comparison. The man was a giant among other men, in stature at least, and his piercing blue eyes were always icy cold. He scared Lord Sutton; how would Felice feel about him? No, he could not do it, but he did not voice the thought.
“I will ask her,” he told his visitor.
Lord Christopher raised an enquiring eyebrow but made no reply. He picked up his riding crop and left the house.

***

Watching Lord Christopher leave the house from her bedchamber, Lady Felice felt what could only be called panic and her heart sank with despair. More trouble? She had not had a night’s sleep in weeks, not since she learned of her father’s debts, not since she found out why the dressmaker refused to come when last she sent for her. Why did he not tell her? And now Lord Christopher had come calling, which could only mean that her foolish father owed him money as well. He seemed to her to be the very last person anyone would want to make an enemy of.
She waited until he rode away, his blonde hair shining in the sunlight. It curled under just below his ears, like the pictures of all those old kings she had seen in various manuscripts.
Felice was a very fortunate maid in that her father had educated her the same as he would have a son. So she could read and write and possibly teach the children of other noble families. That would bring even more disgrace upon Lord Sutton, but it could not be helped; if she had to work, she would do so.
She had lain awake all night wondering if there was something she could do to earn a living. She would never make enough money to help her father, but she might at least be able to provide some service for which she could get bed and board, perhaps even a little money.
She descended the stairs slowly, looking about at the accumulated dust in the great hall. The servants had all left; Lord Sutton found them all positions in other houses and there was but one loyal one left. She could hardly do everything herself.
“What was he doing here?” She asked as she reached the bottom of the stairs. “Please tell me you do not owe him money as well? He surely will not hesitate to take this house and turn us out.”
He turned and forced a smile, offered her some of the diluted wine since that was all they had. There were no cows left even to provide milk, much less ale left in the barrels. Were it not for the fresh spring which ran through the grounds, they would likely die of thirst.
Felice shook her head. She did not want diluted wine; she wanted an answer.
“Well?” She demanded.
“On the contrary, my dear,” Lord Sutton replied. “Far from wanting to turn us out, His Lordship wants to rescue us.”
“What?”
Generosity was not something she expected to be one of that man’s traits.
“Lord Christopher has offered to settle all my debts and to provide me enough to restore the estate to its former glory. It will begin to produce an income again and I can pretend to be the all important Lord of the Manor who did not lose everything and almost get himself and his daughter thrown out into the street. Is that not a generous offer?”
“But father, why? What can he possibly want in return for such a gift?”
“He wants you,” Lord Sutton replied. “He wants to marry you and in return he will save me. I hate to admit that he will be saving us both, but as he did not hesitate to point out, what will become of you if I refuse?”
Felice’s legs seemed to dissolve beneath her and she sank down abruptly into the chair behind her. Lord Christopher wanted to marry her? Lord Christopher who never said a kind word to anyone if he could avoid it, who never smiled much less laughed, who terrified every tenant and servant for miles around. Lord Christopher who had locked a metal cage on the head of a peasant for breaking her friend’s trust and revealing her secret to him. Lord Christopher who had buried his late wife and child in a pauper’s grave with nothing to mark their passing but a rough, wooden cross.
“It seems the man is much wealthier than even I imagined,” Lord Sutton was saying.
“Why? Why does he want to marry me?”
Her father shrugged.
“I wish I knew. All he would say was that he saw you at Lord Eversley’s marriage celebrations and took a fancy to you, thought you would make him a good wife.”
Now her mind was busy. She pushed the fact of the man himself away and thought about the things he could provide, things like food and drink, things like freedom from sleepless nights and worry, things like a new start for her father.
“What was your answer?” She asked at last.
“I said I would consult you. I will not force you into a marriage with this man, Felice, no matter what the cost. I love you far too much for that. You are a sensible girl; the decision must be yours.”
“Yes,” she said without further thought. “Yes, I will marry him, and I will make him a good wife. He will restore your dignity.”
“You must not do this for my sake, Felice.”
“I do it for us both. I am tired of the worry, tired of the humiliation and tired of wondering if we will eat tomorrow. I will marry him.”
“Are you quite sure? If he hurts you I shall die of shame for having allowed it.”
She reached out a hand which he took in his own and sat beside her.
“Father, I have heard that he is a fair man. Why should he hurt me without reason? And I shall most certainly never give him a reason. He must have a generous nature to be offering so much; perhaps his fearsome reputation is only rumour.”
“It is tempting to be sure.”
“It is. Please, Father. I want to marry him. He is the solution to all our problems and I know I can make him happy.”
“That will take a miracle, I fear,” Lord Sutton said cynically. “And they do not happen often.”


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