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A Duchess to Remember
By Christina Brooke
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2012 Christina Brooke
All rights reserved.
Hertfordshire, England, 1816
Lady Cecily Westruther was not often at a loss for words. In fact, it was said by her family that she had far too many of them at her disposal and was all too ready to use them at every opportunity.
But the sheer audacity of this request shocked the speech right out of her.
Lavinia pouted and her china blue eyes darted sparks. "You are so disobliging, cousin! I ought to have known how it would be."
Lavinia, Countess of Davenport, was a pretty, voluptuous blonde with a gaming habit and a penchant for dangerous men. Dangerous men who weren't her husband, that was.
Cecily exchanged an exasperated look with the small pug dog who sat drooling into a pink satin cushion on top of an ornate chaise longue. The furniture in Lavinia's boudoir was gilded and tasseled and braided to within an inch of its life. Lord, but the woman had terrible taste. It hurt the eyes to look upon all that pink and gold.
"I know what it is," said Cecily. "The décor of this room has finally turned your brain. You ought to refurnish it in blue, dear cousin. A very calming color, blue. Then you will feel much more the thing."
"Oh, come now, Cecily," said Lavinia, her voice growing sharp. "Surely it is not such a great favor to ask."
"Not a —?" Cecily found her voice and her words. Slowly, she said, "You want me to remain here after your houseguests leave so you can carry on an affair while your husband — my cousin — is away from home."
"Must you be so vulgar?" sighed Lavinia. "Really, such plain speaking will get you into trouble one of these days. Lord Percy is a friend, that is all. I find him amusing company, and with Bertram called away to Town, how else am I to occupy myself, pray?"
By visiting your tenants and seeing to their comfort, thought Cecily. By reading something to improve that wasteland of a mind of yours. By taking the smallest interest in anything or anyone but your own spoiled self.
"Don't look at me like that," snapped Lavinia. "Once you are married to your dull old duke, you will understand precisely how it is."
"He is not old." The response was automatic by now. Norland wasn't old — he just appeared that way. And besides, Cecily had always been accounted mature for her age.
But she refrained from voicing the argument. It was true that she harbored no romantic feelings toward Norland. On the other hand, she had better things to do with her time than to bed an endless succession of men behind her husband's back.
She had plans for her future that did not rest upon the opinions or permission or even the participation of any man. Except as a means by which she might get her hands on part of her inheritance, of course. If she chose not to marry, she'd be obliged to wait until she was thirty to come into her fortune, and that didn't bear thinking about. Besides, married women had so much more freedom than unmarried ones.
Of course she understood how marriages of convenience were supposed to work. Equally, she knew Norland would keep his current mistress after the knot was tied. But the sort of lifestyle pursued by countless bored aristocrats of the ton was not for her. She detested hypocrisy in any form. If she followed Lavinia's example, she'd soon grow to despise herself for such sneaking, sordid behavior.
And now Lavinia wished Cecily to be a party to duping Bertram. Well, she would not do it, no matter what threats Lavinia held over her head.
It wasn't as if she owed Lavinia any favors.
Returning to Garraway Hall since Cousin Bertram inherited it from Cecily's brother was always a painful experience. Ordinarily she'd inveigle her cousin Rosamund into coming with her, but Rosamund was busy with her new husband.
At least, thought Cecily, she might congratulate herself on suffering through this tedious house party with good grace.
The house party culminated in this evening's ball. Everyone left tomorrow — everyone save Lord Percy, it seemed — and Cecily could at last return to the London residence of her guardian, the Duke of Montford. There, she would wash the bad taste of Bertram and Lavinia from her mouth with a good dose of her more congenial relatives' company.
"I'm afraid I could not stay even if I wanted to, Lavinia. Montford has accepted all sorts of engagements on my behalf. The season proper is about to begin, after all. Besides, if you are intent on this scheme, you need a matron to chaperone you, not a debutante."
"I suppose you are right," said Lavinia, toying with the scent bottle on her dressing table. "Could you lend me Tibby, then?"
"No." As if she could pass her companion around like a handkerchief! "Why don't you try Mrs. Arbuckle? As long as you feed her well, I'm sure she will look the other way."
"I could, I suppose." Lavinia rose and moved gracefully to stand before the looking glass. "If you will not oblige me, I fear I must." Lavinia bit her lush lower lip. "If only she will be discreet."
She tweaked the lace at her bosom, then swept delicate fingertips over her impressive décolletage. A dreamy smile flitted across her face, as if she recalled something pleasant.
She transferred her attention to Cecily. The blue eyes widened, then narrowed, homing in on the necklace Cecily wore. A double strand of exquisite pink pearls. They were among the few jewels her mother had left her that the duke thought it suitable for a girl in her first season to wear.
Cecily knew a sudden foreboding and wished she had not worn this necklace tonight.
"Ah! I remember what I meant to tell you, Cecily," said Lavinia. "I discovered Jonathon's diary in an old trunk in the attic the other day. Lord, it must have lain up there gathering dust these nine years or more."
Lavinia's careless words came at Cecily like a fist.
The well of grief that always lay inside her seemed to swell until it flowed into her chest, her throat, the backs of her eyes.
It was a few moments before Cecily could speak. "His diary?"
Her voice scraped. She knew she ought to try to sound as unconcerned as Lavinia, but she couldn't smooth the rawness of longing from her tone.
Jonathon. The dearest and best brother in the world.
When Cecily had inquired years ago, Lavinia told her that she'd burned all Jonathon's papers. How like Lavinia to tell her such a spiteful lie.
With Jonathon's death, Cecily's world had been upended. Suddenly everyone she'd ever loved was gone. Everything she'd taken for granted as hers for eleven years became theirs — Bertram's and Lavinia's.
And nothing could rid Lavinia of the notion that even the jewels Cecily rightfully inherited from her mother belonged to her as the new countess.
"Yes," said Lavinia. "I thought perhaps you should have the diary." Her attention never wavered from Cecily's necklace. "Would you like to have it, do you think?"
Immediately, Cecily understood. Her hand stole up to her throat in a gesture that was absurdly protective. She fingered the smooth, round pearls that had grown warm against her skin.
Her heart revolted at the mere thought of Lavinia wearing them. The necklace was more than an exquisite, expensive piece, more than a mere keepsake. These pearls had absorbed the warmth of her mother's skin, just as they did Cecily's own at this very moment. Each small, lustrous globe contained a hint of her mother's essence.
A romantical notion. An uncharacteristically sentimental one. And how could she hold on to it when Jonathon's diary lay almost within her grasp?
"How kind of you, Lavinia." With an effort, Cecily kept her voice even. "Will you show me the diary now, please?" Perhaps if she ignored the clear implication of Lavinia's manner, she might negotiate a different price.
Lavinia pursed her lips. Her eyes narrowed. "I don't see why I should when you won't do the smallest thing for me."
Risking her own reputation to guard Lavinia's did not count as a small thing in Cecily's book. But it didn't take a soothsayer to predict where this conversation would lead. Cecily couldn't immediately think of anything else she might offer in lieu of the pearls. Besides, Lavinia was so capricious, she might burn the diary if Cecily didn't instantly fall in with her wishes.
Her mouth went dry. "What if ... What if I lent you my pearls for the evening?"
Lavinia looked thoughtful. "That is tempting, but ... One evening does not seem quite enough, does it?"
Cecily licked her lips. Surely Lavinia didn't intend her to give her the pearls outright. Even if she wished to do so, she couldn't. Her maid would notice their absence as soon as she took an inventory of Cecily's jewel box. Once the duke discovered the loss, there'd be hell to pay.
"All right, then," she said reluctantly. "You can have them until you return to Town." She would have to make up some tale to satisfy Saunders.
Lavinia had never concealed her emotions well. Avarice and cold calculation made her pretty features as hard as the looking glass that reflected them.
Cecily feared Lavinia would try to drive a harder bargain, but instead, the countess nodded. "Put them on for me, will you? I'll wear them tonight."
The thought of the delicate shell pink hue of those pearls against Lavinia's mint green silk bodice made Cecily shudder to the bottom of her fashionable soul. But she reached behind her own nape to unfasten the diamond clasp. She must seal the bargain quickly, before Lavinia demanded more.
It made her heartsick to lend her mother's pearls to such a woman as her cousin's wife. But for that small connection to Jonathon, she would pay the price.
The pearls felt alive in Cecily's hands as she carried them to her cousin. Standing behind Lavinia, she took several seconds to summon the will. Then she reached up to her relation's superior height and used her fingertips to brush away the bright curls that tumbled in an arranged profusion from an ornate bandeau.
Carefully, Cecily draped the pearls around that slender neck. She fastened the diamond clasp and let the necklace drop against the milky perfection of Lavinia's nape.
Lavinia preened as if Cecily had set a crown upon her head.
When she couldn't stand the sight of her cousin admiring herself in those pearls any longer, Cecily said tightly, "The diary. Now, if you please, Lavinia."
"Ah. Yes, of course." She made a twirling motion with her index finger. "Turn your back."
Cecily nearly rolled her eyes. She already knew Lavinia's hiding place. She'd discovered it as a curious child. Somehow, she doubted Lavinia would have changed it since then. She lacked the imagination.
However, Cecily did as she was told and listened while Lavinia moved around her dressing room for an inordinate amount of time.
Before Cecily's patience gave out entirely, Lavinia brought the diary. She all but tossed it at Cecily before returning to the looking glass to continue admiring her reflection.
With shaking hands, Cecily clutched the diary to her. Her fingertips tingled as she smoothed them over the tooled leather binding. If Lavinia had found this, might there be other possessions of her brother's lying discarded, unloved somewhere in this house? She'd thought Bertram and Lavinia had taken everything of value for their own use and burned or sold the rest.
Now, the notion that this was not the case sprang to her mind. Remembering the last letter she'd ever written to Jonathon, Cecily felt a cold hand clamp around her heart.
"Do you happen to know what became of the rest of my brother's papers?" she asked. "I should like to have the letters I wrote to him." She hesitated. If Lavinia knew how badly Cecily needed to retrieve that one letter in particular, she'd surely withhold it.
She tried to keep her voice light. "Did you happen to find any correspondence with the diary?"
Lavinia frowned. "No, nothing like that. What on earth do you want with letters you wrote?"
Cecily ignored that question. "What about his scientific notes and such?"
Surely Bertram and Lavinia had no use for those.
"Oh" — Lavinia gave a Frenchified shrug of her shoulders — "someone came looking for all Jon's papers and I said he might take them with my goodwill. But that was years ago."
Lavinia had sold them, Cecily deduced. She would never part with anything without demanding a price. What if the letter were among those papers? Dear God, the scandal if the letter were published did not bear thinking about.
"Who was it?" asked Cecily. "Was he an acquaintance of Jonathon's?"
"It was the Duke of Ashburn, if you must know." Lavinia's tone was careless but she didn't fool Cecily. "Such an attractive man. That dark hair. And those eyes!"
Astonished, Cecily repeated, "The Duke of Ashburn? What could he want with Jonathon's papers?"
"How should I know?" Lavinia rolled her eyes. "But when a duke makes such a request, you don't deny him. Particularly that duke."
Cecily could well believe it. Ashburn's was the kind of autocratic personality that brought Cecily out in a rash. Oh, she didn't know him, but she knew who he was. A power broker with a finger in every imaginable pie. His reputation for omniscience rivaled Montford's. In fact, it was said Ashburn had become quite a thorn in Montford's side when it came to politics.
"Those papers were likely to have been valuable," said Cecily coldly. "I trust His Grace paid you handsomely for them."
Lavinia glanced away, but not before Cecily detected a triumphant sparkle light the countess's eye. She concluded that a handsome sum had indeed changed hands. She also deduced that Lavinia had not seen fit to pass this information on to her husband. She'd spent the proceeds on new gowns or squandered them on the gaming tables, no doubt.
"When did this occur?" asked Cecily, frowning. "I didn't know His Grace was acquainted with Jonathon."
"Oh, yes, I believe so. It was very soon after Jonathon's passing." Lavinia picked up a strand of the pink pearls and ran them against her teeth with a clack-clack-clack, her lips drawn back in a slightly terrifying grimace.
"In fact," said Lavinia, "it was the Duke of Ashburn who brought us the news of Jonathon's death."
* * *
Cecily lost no time in more conversation with Lavinia. She sped back to her bedchamber, nearly tripping over the flounced skirts of her sprigged muslin gown in her rush.
She gained her room and plumped down on the bed, holding Jonathon's diary to her chest as if his spirit resided between its tooled leather covers.
She tried to calm herself. This was only a diary, after all. It could not bring her beloved brother back.
She hadn't wept when they told her Jon was dead. She'd been ten years old and Jonathon was her world. The loss seemed to swallow her whole; the pain too great for tears. So she'd buried that jagged agony deep inside herself and never exhumed it.
He'd been four-and-twenty to her ten. Almost a father figure, but not forbidding or aloof the way her guardian, the Duke of Montford, was. Nor had he been absentminded like their scholarly papa, who'd died along with their mother in a carriage accident when Cecily was six. Jonathon was simply the best, most beloved brother in the world.
And then his mad intelligence, his brilliance and exuberance were gone, incinerated in a fire that tore through his laboratory one bright summer day.
Bertram and Lavinia had taken possession of Jonathon and Cecily's home immediately. Cecily needed them to look after her, they'd said.
She hadn't needed them. She'd needed Jon.
Days later, the Duke of Montford had swooped down and plucked her from this place like an eagle bearing off his prey. Only to tuck her safely in a cozy nest with his other orphaned chicks.
A trite metaphor. One could scarcely equate the palatial Harcourt with a cozy nest, nor her confident, vibrant Westruther cousins with helpless fledglings. And she herself had been far from docile on the way to London. She'd given Montford a hellish journey, used every opportunity to ruffle his dignified feathers, made several determined attempts at escape.
But Montford had been unmoved by her antics. Looking back, she rather thought they'd amused him. Now, she enjoyed the challenge of making Montford smile at her tricks. Then, she'd found his equilibrium infuriating.
And here she was, twenty and making her debut this spring. And at the height of the season, she was to be married to the man her parents had chosen for her when she was little more than an infant.
Excerpted from A Duchess to Remember by Christina Brooke. Copyright © 2012 Christina Brooke. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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