The Virgin and the Viscount (The Bachelor Lords of London #2) - Charis Michaels

PROLOGUE

On April 12, 1809, Franklin “Frankie” Courtland, sixth Viscount Rainsleigh, tripped on a root in the bottom of a riverbed and drowned. He was drunk at the time, picnicking with friends on the banks of the River Wylye. According to an account later given to the magistrate, his lordship simply fell over, bumped into a fallen log, and sank.

It was there he remained—“enjoying the cool,” or so his friends believed—until he became too heavy, too slippery, and, alas, too dead to revive. But they did dislodge him, and after that, they claimed he floated to the surface, bobbed several times, and then gently glided downstream. He was later found just before sunset, face down and bloated (in life, as also in death), beached on a pebble shoal near Codford.

At the time the elder Courtland was sinking to the bottom of the river, his son and heir, Bryson, was hunched over a desk in the offices of his fledgling shipping company, waiting for the very moment his father would die. It had been an exceedingly long, progressively humiliating wait. Years long—nay, decades.

Luckily for Bryson, for his ships and his future, he was capable of doing more things at once than waiting, and while his father drank and debauched his way through all respectability and life, Bryson worked.

It was unthinkable for a young heir and nobleman to “work,” but Bryson was given little choice, considering the impoverished state of the Rainsleigh viscountcy. He was scarcely eleven years of age when he made his first foray into labor, and not so many years after, into private enterprise. His life in work had not ceased since. On the rare occasion that he didn’t work, he studied.

With his meager earnings (he began by punting boats on the very river in which his father later drowned), he made meager investments. These investments reaped small gains—first in shares in the punting station; later in property along the water; later still in other industry up and down the river.

Bryson lived modestly, worked ceaselessly, and spared only enough to pay his way through Cambridge, bring up his brother, and see him educated him as well. Every guinea earned was reinvested. He repeated the process again and again, a little less meagerly each time ’round.

By the time the viscount’s self-destructive lifestyle wrought his river- and drink-soaked end, Bryson had managed to accrue a small fortune, launch a company that built and sailed ships, and construct an elaborate plan for what he would do when his father finally cocked up his toes and died.

When at last that day came, Bryson had but one complaint: it took fifty-two hours for the constable to find him. He was a viscount for two days before anyone, including himself, even knew it.

But two days was a trifle compared to a lifetime of waiting. And on the day he learned of his inheritance—nay, the very hour—he launched his long-awaited plan.

By three o’clock on the fourth day, he’d razed the rotting, reeking east wing of the family estate in Wiltshire to the ground.

Within the week, he’d extracted his mother from the west wing and shipped her and a contingent of discreet caregivers to a villa in Spain.

Within the month, he’d sold every stick of furniture, every remaining fork and dish, every sweat-soaked toga and opium-tinged gown. He burned the drapes, burned the rugs, burned the tapestries. He delivered the half-starved horses and the fighting dogs to an agricultural college and pensioned off the remaining staff.

By the six-week mark, he’d unloaded the London townhome—sold at auction to the highest bidder—and with it, the broken-down carriage, his father’s dusty arsenal, what was left of the wine stores, and all the lurid art.

It was a whirlwind evacuation—a gutting, really—and no one among polite society had ever witnessed a son or heir take such absolute control and haul away so much family or property quite so fast.

But no one among polite society was acquainted with Bryson Anders Courtland, the new Viscount Rainsleigh.

And no one understood that it was not so much an ending as it was an entirely fresh start. Once the tearing down ceased, the rebuilding could begin. New viscountcy, new money, new respect, new life.

It was an enterprise into which Bryson threw himself like no other. Unlike all others, however, he could do only so much, one man, alone. For this, he would require another. A partner. Someone with whom he could work together toward a common goal. A collaborator who emulated his precise, immaculate manner. A matriarch, discreet and