Lady Sarah stared at the clock on the mantel in her aunt’s receiving room, willing the hands to move faster. She had been summoned to the room ten minutes previous when her aunt had informed her Lord Ewan Stratford, Viscount Stratford, heir to the Earl of Lofton, was closeted with her uncle asking his permission to pay his addresses to Lady Sarah.
Sarah was having difficulty believing this was the case. It wasn’t that she doubted her aunt’s word, it was just that while she had, she was sure, been introduced to the viscount at some point during the Season, she was certain they had not exchanged more than a dozen words during the three weeks she had been attending Society events, so it was therefore surprising to her he would be prepared to offer marriage.
The sound of activity in the hallway drew Sarah’s eyes away from the clock to focus on the door. She could feel her pulse trembling in the base of her neck, and for a brief moment, she felt a faint hovering on the periphery of her consciousness. Shaking her head, she called herself to task. She absolutely refused to be such a ninny hammer, even if the viscount really did wish to propose to her.
Lord Stratford paused at the threshold of the room and Sarah felt the breath catch in her throat. He really was the most remarkable man she had clapped eyes on. She wondered if he realized the effect he exercised on people. Seeing the haughty tilt of his face she rather thought he accepted it as his due.
Feeling her automatic, welcoming, polite smile starting to fade, Sarah was relieved to see her aunt and uncle had accompanied their caller. Despite the fact she found her aunt and uncle’s presence to be overbearing at times, she rather hoped they did not leave her alone with the viscount. Her unspoken hope was not to be fulfilled.
Sarah gritted her teeth as she watched her uncle’s effusive attention to the viscount. She knew the man was rumored to be as rich as Croesus, but in her opinion that was no reason to treat the man as though he were any more important than any other of his peers. She admonished herself to make an effort to keep her attention on the matter at hand rather than be distracted by her uncle’s onerous behavior. As she regained her focus she realized her aunt and uncle were excusing themselves.
“We’ll just leave you two young people to your discussion for a few minutes,” her aunt was saying with a sly grin as she backed from the room. “Of course, the door shall remain open to observe the proprieties, but surely you are entitled to a few moments of privacy.”
Sarah wanted to object, but she could feel the viscount’s appraising stare so she bolstered her fading smile and refrained from comment. Forcing her gaze to hold his steadily, she lifted her eyebrow in a gesture she hoped was questioning rather than sarcastic as her aunt often accused her. Relief flooded her as she saw his face relax slightly, and he almost smiled as his gaze became less forbidding.
Lord Stratford finally broke the silence. “No doubt you know why I am here, my lady.” Sarah was surprised to notice it was a statement rather than a question.
“I cannot say that I do, my lord,” she remarked in reply. “My aunt said something but I cannot credit it, so I would appreciate it if you would be so kind as to tell me yourself.” She felt heat climb into her cheeks at her meandering words and could no longer hold his gaze.
She wasn’t even offended when she saw his lips quirk in genuine amusement. If she were observing the tableau instead of being a party to it, she would probably find it funny as well. But she was a very involved party, and she saw nothing in her present situation to amuse her. She held her breath and waited for his reply.
“I have asked your uncle if I might have the honor of taking you as my wife.”
Sarah blinked at him. Again a statement, not a question. What was she to say in response, she wondered. Pique stirred in her chest and she could feel her cheeks heat as she tried to reign in her temper.
“And did my uncle answer you?”
“That is why we have been left here on our own,” he explained, his brow wrinkling as though he were beginning to question her comprehension abilities.
She allowed silence to follow his words, waiting to see if he would actually ask her, or if he thought it was a settled matter. Of course, she reasoned, it really probably was, but she felt she deserved at least the courtesy of being asked rather than informed of her marital prospects.
To her delight his gaze actually faltered under her stare and color touched his cheekbones momentarily when he seemed to realize her intent.
Bowing to her formally, the viscount said, “My Lady Sarah, would you be so kind as to do me the honor of becoming my wife?”
Now that she had won that small victory Sarah was at a loss as to what to say. She could feel her face flood with hot color, and she felt goose flesh break out on her skin as she struggled to meet his eyes. “Could I ask you a question before I answer yours, my lord?”
He seemed taken aback by her words but rather than being angered he appeared to be further amused. “But of course.”
“Why are you asking?”
“For your hand in marriage, do you mean?”
Now he did not bother even trying to hide his amusement. He grinned at her. He countered her question with another one of his own. “Is there a reason why I should not?”
“Not at all, my lord, but you cannot take my word on the matter. And you cannot have any first hand knowledge on the matter in either direction as this is the first time we have ever conversed. So I do think it is a valid question. Of all the debutantes you had to choose from, why did you decide to offer for me?”
Sarah was shocked to see the viscount’s gaze was flooded with warm approval. “That right there is exactly why, my lady.”
His reply made no sense to her and she would not be able to explain why it filled her with warmth, but in that moment her doubts were greatly alleviated, and she actually thought there was a chance they could have a happy future together.
“Do you have any objections to the match, my lady?” he questioned her gently.
She knew her color was rising once more, and she couldn’t meet his eye as she shrugged slightly. “Nothing specific, my lord.” She cringed inside over how shy her voice sounded to her own ears but forced herself to carry on. “It is just that I would have thought it would be better to know one another better before deciding to wed.”
“We have the rest of our lives to get better acquainted,” he replied, his voice reasonable but kind.
“Wouldn’t it be better to know if we would suit before we decide to wed?” Sarah was filled with embarrassment but felt her question was valid.
“I already know we will suit.” Sarah could hear his certainty in his deep, steady tone, and her eyes flew to meet his.
He had stepped closer to her as they spoke, and now he grasped her hand as it fluttered by her side. With laughter hidden in his voice he held her hand and teased her, “You are going to become faint if you blush any deeper, my dear.”
That only served the purpose of intensifying her embarrassment which forced a chuckle from the viscount, but Sarah refused to allow her embarrassment to prevent her persistence. “Would you be able to explain your words to me, my lord?”
Lord Stratford sighed but as Sarah searched his face she could not discern any frustration. His steady gaze appeared to be kindly disposed toward her. Finally he began his explanation. “As you pointed out, we have not had the opportunity to converse, but I have been watching you while attending the endless round of infernal events of the Season. I am quite certain you have been aware of my regard during at least the last couple of balls, but I do not think you realized I was watching you before that.”
Sarah was torn between being uncomfortable at the thought of him watching her without her knowledge and gratified he had taken the time to observe her. She realized he had been correct. She did feel a trifle faint as she felt her color rise even further. Shaking her head to settle her senses she prompted, “And what did you observe, my lord?”
“You are a lovely, pleasant, somewhat romantic, young lady who will make an exceptional countess one day.”
“How could you tell that?” She couldn’t help but laugh over his words.
“You are unfailingly polite and kind to anyone you encounter, even your unfortunate selection of relatives,” his serious face creased into a smile as she chuckled again at his words before he continued. “That explains the pleasant and exceptional. The lovely is obvious to anyone with eyes as you are a beautiful, young woman.” He said this in such a matter of fact tone she couldn’t even be embarrassed. He continued, “The romantic was easy to perceive as your gaze would soften whenever it would settle on one of your friends who appeared to be contracting a love match. Were you hoping for a love match yourself?”
Sarah had been watching him occasionally since she had first laid eyes upon him, although there was no way she would be willing to share her conclusions as he had with her. He had given her the impression he was a haughty, forbidding, even overbearing man, one she would have difficulty ever growing close to. But while his handsome face was one she would enjoy gazing at all day, it was their conversation that was making her think she might actually be able to develop a love match of her own.
Realizing she had not yet answered his question and he appeared to be waiting for her to do so, she smiled shyly at him and nodded. “Doesn’t every silly young debutante hope for that?”
He shrugged. “Perhaps, my lady, but that description does not apply to you. So I shall ask you again, will you do me the honor of marrying me?”
Lady Sarah was sure most of her thoughts were written on her face as she gazed at him and weighed her options but that could not be helped. She had already been in Town with her aunt and uncle for three weeks, and this was the first offer she had received. She had no desire to prolong her time as a debutante. Her uncle’s financial situation was such that he could not afford for her to have more than one Season and her own funds were tied up until she turned twenty-five or married. Marrying the viscount would make her more of a success than she would have ever expected, not that that weighed with her, but it would be important to her guardians. But it was the current interview with the viscount that was leading her toward saying yes. She felt her heart stutter as butterflies fluttered in her belly.
Dipping into a curtsy, Sarah’s smile widened as she held his gaze. “I would be deeply honored, my lord.”
“Then you ought to call me Ewan,” he murmured as he pulled her into his arms and stole her breath with his tight embrace.