When it became clear to Vincent Hunt, Viscount Darleigh, that if he stayed at home for the remainder of the spring he would without any doubt at all be betrothed, even married, before summer had properly settled in, he fled. He ran away from home, which was a ridiculous, somewhat lowering way of putting it when he owned the house and was almost twenty-four years old. But the simple fact was that he bolted.
He took with him his valet, Martin Fisk; his traveling carriage and horses; and enough clothes and other necessary belongings to last him a month or two—or six. He really did not know how long he would stay away. He took his violin too after a moment’s hesitation. His friends liked to tease him about it and affect horror every time he tucked it beneath his chin, but he thought he played it tolerably well. More important, he liked playing it. It soothed his soul, though he never confided that thought to his friends. Flavian would no doubt make a comment along the lines of its scratching the boot soles of everyone else who happened to be within earshot.
The main trouble with home was that he was afflicted with too many female relatives and not enough male ones—and no assertive males. His grandmother and his mother lived with him, and his three sisters, though married with homes and families of their own, came to stay all too frequently, and often for lengthy spells. Hardly a month went by without at least one of them being in residence for a few days or a week or more. His brothers-in-law, when they came with their wives—which was not every time—tactfully held themselves aloof from Vincent’s affairs and allowed their womenfolk to rule his life, even though it was worthy of note that none of them allowed their wives to rule theirs.
It all would have been understandable, even under ordinary circumstances, Vincent supposed grudgingly. He was, after all, everyone’s only grandson or only son or only brother—and younger brother at that—and as such was fair game to be protected and cosseted and worried over and planned for. He had inherited his title and fortune just four years ago, at the age of nineteen, from an uncle who had been robust and only forty-six years old when he died and who had had a son as sturdy and fit as he. They had both died violently. Life was a fragile business and so was the inheritance, Vincent’s female relatives were fond of observing. It behooved him, therefore, to fill his nursery with an heir and a number of spares as soon as was humanly possible. It was irrelevant that he was still very young and would not even have begun to think of matrimony yet, left to himself. His family knew all they cared to know about living in genteel poverty.
His were not ordinary circumstances, however, and as a result, his relatives clucked about him like a flock of mother hens all intent upon nurturing the same frail chick while somehow avoiding smothering it. His mother had moved to Middlebury Park in Gloucestershire even before he did. She had got it ready for him. His maternal grandmother had let the lease expire on her house in Bath and joined his mother there. And after he moved in, three years ago, his sisters began to find Middlebury the most fascinating place on earth to be. And Vincent need not worry about their husbands feeling neglected, they had collectively assured him. Their husbands understood. The word was always spoken with something like hushed reverence.
In fact, most of what they all said to him was spoken in much the same manner, as though he were some sort of precious but mentally deficient child.
This year they had begun to talk pointedly about marriage. His marriage, that was. Even apart from the succession issue, marriage would bring him comfort and companionship, they had decided, and all kinds of other assorted benefits. Marriage would enable them to relax and worry less about him. It would enable his grandmother to return to Bath, which she was missing. And it would not be at all difficult to find a lady willing and even eager to marry him. He must not imagine it would be. He was titled and wealthy, after all. And he had youth and looks and charm. There were hordes of ladies out there who would understand and actually be quite happy to marry him. They would quickly learn to love him for himself. At least, one would, the one he would choose. And they, his female relatives, would help him make that choice, of course. That went without saying, though they said it anyway.
The campaign had started over Easter, when the whole family was at Middlebury, his sisters’ husbands and their children included. Vincent himself had just returned from Penderris Hall in Cornwall, country seat of the Duke of Stanbrook, where he spent a few weeks of each year with his fellow members of the self-styled Survivors’ Club, a group of survivors of the Napoleonic Wars, and he had been feeling a little bereft, as he always did for a while after parting from those dearest friends in the world. He had let the women talk without paying a great deal of attention or even thinking of perhaps putting his foot down.
It had proved to be a mistake.
Only a month after Easter his sisters and brothers-in-law and nieces and nephews had returned en masse, to be followed a day or so later by houseguests. It was still only spring and an odd time of year for a house party, when the social Season in London would be just getting into full swing. But this was not really a party, Vincent had soon discovered, for the only guests who were not also family were Mr. Geoffrey Dean, son of Grandmama’s dearest friend in Bath, his wife, and their three daughters. Their two sons were away at school. Two of the daughters were still in the schoolroom—their governess had been brought with them. But the eldest, Miss Philippa Dean, was almost nineteen and had made her curtsy to the queen just a couple of weeks before and secured partners for every set at her come-out ball. She had made a very satisfactory debut indeed into polite society.