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"How can you refuse a dying man his last wish?" demanded the Duke of Whitfield in a hoarse whisper. Frail fingers plucked weakly at the coverlet, pulling it tighter around his shivering shoulders.
"You are a long way from dying," protested his grandson. "The doctor swears this is no more than a chill. You will continue plaguing us for many years to come."
"Hah!" The snort turned into a rasping cough. "What does that quack know? A man who is nearly ninety cannot expect to survive even a simple malady."
"Perhaps, but you must pass three more years before reaching that august mark, so cease this maudlin prattling." He stilled his hand as it moved to tear off his jacket. He could hardly breathe in the stifling bedchamber, which increased his concern over the goose bumps covering the duke's hand. Fear raised a few on his own. Whitfield had never been prone to peevish complaint.
"Quit pacing the floor," grumbled the duke. "Sit down where I can see you. How can I rest when you prance about like one of those terriers the duchess used to keep?" He sighed, a tear glinting in each eye. "How I swore at those plagued little beasts. Now I miss the lot of them. Giving them away severed a tie to her memory." He covered his eyes as if the light hurt, though draperies blocked the afternoon sun and only one candle augmented the glow of the fire. His pallor matched the white lace at the wrist of his bedgown, casting suspicion on the doctor's diagnosis, for he did indeed appear severely ill.
George Edward Randolph Catherwood, by courtesy Earl of Symington, stifled his own sigh as he settled into the chair next to his grandfather's sickbed. Was the doctor hiding the truth to sparethe family from useless fretting? He had to consider the possibility, for his father, Whitfield's only son, was incapable of attending a deathbed.
Please, let it be a simple chill, he prayed fervently. He wasn't ready to deal with death--not because of the inevitable pain and grief, but because his life would undergo profound change when his father acceded to the title. He wanted to pursue his own interests for a few more years before taking on the duchy.
The duke was being uncharacteristically sentimental today, but Symington did not have the heart to halt the memories that flowed from those ancient lips. And perhaps they were helping. Whitfield's voice grew stronger as he talked about his wife of fifty years.
Theirs had been a love so powerful that everyone had commented on it. Year after year, generation after generation, their continuing passion and public affection had raised sighs in young girls and embarrassment in young men. As standards of behavior tightened and Society began to eschew honest shows of emotion, the sticklers viewed the Whitfields' behavior as increasingly scandalous. Surely by their age, a couple should be past all that!
Symington smiled as the reminiscences continued. He had never allowed anyone to criticize his grandparents to his face. Nor had he taken the comments seriously. Most of the mockery covered envy. And even some guilt. If more couples achieved such harmony, there would be little reason to pursue other liaisons. He could only pray that when it was time for him to wed, he could find a wife as loving and caring as his grandmother had been.
Whitfield's voice weakened, his words slurring toward sleep. Symington rose to leave, then suddenly froze in his tracks.
"But at last I will see my darling Mary again," the duke murmured. "I am coming, my sweet. I can no longer live without you."
"You will not be joining her just yet," Symington replied firmly. "Be patient. These past ten years are as nothing compared to an eternity together. Nor would twenty or even thirty matter. She would not want you to lay down your duties prematurely. You still have much to accomplish in this life."
"Which is why I summoned you, George," said the duke.
Symington grimaced. He hated the name George and had insisted on using Randolph since childhood. Only his grandfather still refused. But the fear that he had just walked into a trap overrode his usual irritation. If this was a trap, he would not escape. Whitfield was the one man he had never bested--at anything.
The duke released a heart-wrenching sigh. "How can I recover from this dratted chill when my mind frets constantly over the succession?"
"There is nothing wrong with the succession," Randolph insisted.
"Not today, but what about tomorrow? You know how quickly lives can change. Look what happened to your father."
Definitely a trap. It was Randolph's turn to sigh.
Several months earlier, his father had fallen awkwardly across a wall. He would never walk again and had barely recovered enough to sit in a chair for an occasional hour.
The duke's voice strengthened. "Richard is my only son, just as you are his only son. You know the Dukes of Whitfield have never been prolific breeders. What if something happens to you? The next in line is a third cousin! How would you get an heir if you were crippled, or worse?"
"That is unlikely," he protested. But tight bands constricted his chest, making breathing difficult. The overheated room didn't help.
"At the moment, perhaps. But only because you lock yourself away at Orchards like some medieval monk. Yet you cannot hide much longer. Once I'm gone, you must oversee the estates, which will require frequent travel and expose you to accidents, illness, and this growing unrest in the lower classes. Richard can no longer manage it." His voice choked, for he had long been proud of his son's grasp of agriculture and other ducal affairs. "You have a duty to the title, George. Before I die, you must marry and get an heir of your own. You are already one-and-thirty. How long were you planning to wait?"
"I have yet to meet anyone suitable."
"Because you never mingle with Society. Do you expect eligible ladies to break down your door?"
Randolph bit back an angry retort. Eligible misses did indeed break down his door. Two suspicious accidents had happened near Orchards in the past year alone, though he would never consider wedding such scheming jades. Others accosted him whenever he left the estate, flirting outrageously or seeking to compromise him.
Their antics were one reason he avoided London society, for the problem was worse in the ballrooms of the Marriage Mart. His friend Sedge had described the stratagems desperate chits employed to trap prized lords. Randolph wanted nothing to do with rapacious fortune hunters. Yet his prospects made it impossible to separate greed from genuine interest.
But trepidation was already creeping up his spine, for he was assuredly trapped. Pat on the thought came the words he had been dreading.
"You must go to London, George. It is time."
"What a bore," Randolph muttered under his breath.
"The Season is rapidly approaching. You will spend it in Town," ordered the duke, his voice ringing with authority despite his illness. "You will participate fully in all social events, and you will announce a betrothal no later than July."
Randolph shivered. Despite the stifling room, his sweat congealed into icy knives. Damn, but he hated Town! He hated the gatherings crowded with hopeful misses and fawning gentlemen, none of whom cared a whit for Randolph Catherwood, seeing him only as Lord Symington, heir to Whitfield's power and fortune. He hated London's narrow streets, its dirt, its stench, its hordes of importuning beggars--and not just the crippled, sick, and poor. Everyone begged. For pennies, for patronage, for favors, for marriage.
But that wasn't the worst of it. London lacked the open spaces he loved. And it robbed him of control over his life. Social obligations filled every hour of the day and night, leaving him no time for reading or study. He could never ride for pleasure, for streets were crowded, parks had rules, and the heath was too distant. But worse, he could exercise little choice in thought, word, or deed, for Society's demands stripped away the last vestige of freedom.
And London had another drawback. Formal clothes fit tightly, limiting his ability to move and raising the constant specter of danger, for their constriction would hamper him in a crisis. Could he escape a footpad, for instance, when a fanciful cravat prevented him from moving his head, when tight jackets restricted his arms, when form-fitting pantaloons made sitting impossible and walking difficult? Yet the duke would not allow him to appear in public in the loose-fitting clothes he preferred. Nor would his valet. Neither of them understood his need for freedom.
Whitfield was staring at him, a calculating expression in his eyes. "You can avoid Town if you choose," he said slyly.
"Oh?" His tension rose another notch.
"I know of a lady who might suit you quite well. She has the necessary breeding, her interests mirror your own, and she would be content to remain in the country year-round."
"And who might this paragon be?" His chest tightened, forcing out the air. Only serious effort refilled his lungs.
"The granddaughter of my dearest friend." The duke paused while Randolph wracked his brains in a vain effort to identify the man. "I owe him a debt I've never been able to repay."
"But you are wealthy."
His brows snapped together. "Books don't teach you everything, George. Some debts cannot be satisfied with money, though I would gladly have done so. But despite his circumstances, Andrew wouldn't hear of it."
"Circumstances?" This was growing curiouser every second.
The duke sighed. "Andrew lost his inheritance, so neither his son nor his grandchildren made their bows to Society. He died two years ago, still lamenting the effect of his folly on his oldest granddaughter. Without a dowry, Elizabeth is unlikely to contract a suitable marriage. But she might interest you. Why don't you pay her a visit?"
"You know that I cannot do so. Calling at her home would raise expectations, forcing an offer even if she proves less than suitable. What do you really know of her?"
"Only what Andrew wrote," he admitted. "I last saw her when she was a babe. He did not leave Ravenswood for the final fifty years of his life, and you know that I have remained here for the last twenty. But a visit commits you to nothing. The current Earl of Fosdale wishes to sell an original Chaucer manuscript. We have exchanged several letters on the subject. You will authenticate it, then negotiate its purchase. If Lady Elizabeth does not suit, you can leave with a clear conscience and deliver the manuscript here on your way to London. I will make Whitfield House available for the Season."
"Very well." He was neatly boxed in. The duke was ornery enough to die if his wishes were ignored. "But I must know more about the family. How many daughters are there?"
"Fosdale has three children. The son is away at school. You needn't bother with the younger girl, for she would never suit. But do consider Lady Elizabeth. She is not your typical miss--in fact, she is four-and-twenty."
He grimaced, for the girl was already on the shelf. Yet that wasn't her fault. Her situation alone would discourage serious suitors. He wanted more information, but Whitfield's compressed lips proclaimed that he would learn nothing here. The duke loved being enigmatic. "Where is Ravenswood?"
"Good God! It will take more than a week just to get there."
"When shall I tell Fosdale to expect you?" His voice was implacable.
Randolph shoved the hair off his forehead and resumed his restless pacing. "I did not bring sufficient clothing for a journey of such magnitude. Nor did I spend more than a few hours checking Father's estate on my way here. Neither Orchards nor Wyndport are ready for a Season's absence. I must--"
"When?" demanded the duke.
He sighed. "Early March, if all goes well." He would be hard-pressed to make it, for he must call at both estates before leaving. But the trip to Cumberland was unlikely to produce a bride, so he must also allow time to revisit them before going to London.
He accepted a packet of information on the Chaucer and took leave of his grandfather, but his mind was already focused on all the things be must do to comply with these unexpected demands. Several years had passed since he'd last made the social rounds, so he needed a new wardrobe. But that was a minor problem. His valet could place the order, and Weston would have everything ready for final fittings when he arrived.
His father's steward represented a more pressing issue. Randolph had known since the accident that he would have to replace Jackson, but the man had been a loyal employee for years, so he must find him a good position elsewhere. Yet how was he to manage that? Given Whitfield's frailty and his father's infirmity, he could not install Jackson on any of the duchy's estates.
Whitfield waited until his grandson was gone, then summoned his valet.
"Help me out of these infernal rugs," he grumbled, all trace of hoarseness gone. He scrubbed off the rice powder that had enhanced his pallor. "There is much to be done if we are to see George wed by summer."
And he would, he added to himself. Andrew had been his closest friend since they'd met eighty years ago. Ten years had passed since he'd promised to find Elizabeth a husband. They had both known that her father would never do so. The man was a nip-farthing who lacked any trace of family-feeling, loyalty, or conscience. Unless he could sell the chit, he would let her dwindle into spinsterhood. She was nearly there already.
The casement creaked as his valet opened the window to release the stifling heat. Whitfield fished out the block of ice that had raised all those goose bumps, recoiling when he rolled onto the wet spot it left behind.
The plan was in place, and no one could discern his real motives, he decided as his valet helped him into a dry bedgown. George's expertise was recognized by everyone who knew rare books. This wasn't the first time he had investigated a manuscript.
Thus the Chaucer provided an admirable excuse to introduce George and Elizabeth. And an excuse was necessary, for despite what many people thought, he would never coerce the boy. If George was uninterested, he would settle Elizabeth elsewhere.
But he had little doubt that George would find Elizabeth intriguing. Andrew's descriptions made her sound very much like Mary, so she would bring the same joy into George's life as Mary had brought to his. George had crawled too firmly into his library. He needed a change, and Richard's accident added a new urgency to the question of the succession.
And perhaps securing Elizabeth's future would finally atone for the disaster he had precipitated all those years ago.
"Lady Luck is finally smiling on us," exclaimed the Earl of Fosdale to his wife. "Whitfield is sending his grandson George--Lord Symington--to buy that manuscript Father claimed was so valuable. The boy will call here on his way to London. He remains unwed, so we must see that he chooses Elizabeth. It is long past time that she married."
"She will not agree. And what do you know about him?" asked Lady Fosdale weakly.
"He is wealthy and will one day be a duke. What else need we know?" And the boy was young, he added to himself. Negotiating an advantageous price for the Chaucer would be easier than if he faced Whitfield or a hardheaded man of business. An untried boy would not even recognize his manipulation. But this was not the time for such planning. His wife was looking mulish--a trait she should have abandoned after all these years. "Elizabeth is nearly on the shelf," he pointed out. "I can give her neither a Season nor a decent dowry, thanks to Father's idiocy. Do you wish her to dwindle into an old maid?"
"Of course not," she protested. "But a duke's heir will hardly be interested in a penniless wife, especially one who lacks impeccable bloodlines. Nor can she claim either beauty or accomplishments. Besides, she has shown no interest in marriage and will likely balk at the idea."
"I have been far too lenient with the chit," he growled, pacing his study. And too lenient with his wife. She should know better than to mention bloodlines. Who did she think she was? A loyal wife would help him instead of raising objections. "This is the best opportunity we will ever have. If we arrange the meeting properly, he will pay for the privilege of wedding her."
"You cannot use force." Her voice rose to a squeak, then died under his glare. But she again demonstrated a woeful faithlessness. "Would it not be easier to interest him in Cecilia? She is beautiful, accomplished, and vivacious--far more likely to draw the eyes of a powerful lord. Once she is wed, she can find a match for Elizabeth. Symington might even provide a dowry."
"No. This is our best chance to get Elizabeth off our hands. Cecilia is already settled. Sir Lewis offered for her a month ago. We will sign the contract as soon as he returns from Carlisle."
"Why have you said nothing?" gasped Lady Fosdale.
"Are you questioning my authority to arrange matters?" he demanded softly.
"Of course not."
"Nor will you." He glared until she cowered in her chair. Good. The woman finally remembered her place. "You will enjoy having her nearby. In the meantime, you will not mention this to either of them," he ordered firmly. "If you are tempted to chatter, recall the advantages of obedience. We will have a wealthy son-in-law; one with a luxurious town house, who will invite us to London for the Season." He flashed a guileless smile.
She would never accept such an invitation, of course. Her continued intransigence did not entitle her to such a reward. The real goal was to attach a man with bottomless coffers, who would be embarrassed by his father-in-law's penury. A man with access to the most powerful gentlemen in the country. "He will arrive tomorrow, or possibly the next day," he added, noting that the rain continued. Travel would be difficult.
Lady Elizabeth Walton gritted her teeth to control her outrage. How could even Fosdale hate his own children?
But why are you surprised? asked a voice in her head. You know he cares for nothing but himself.
Yet his attitude went far beyond selfishness. His antagonism was so overt that she could no longer even think of him as her father. He had become an enemy. A stranger. Fosdale. Childish, perhaps, but she could no longer acknowledge the blood tie.
She and Cecilia had been in the morning room when their mother entered the study across the hall. The study door had not latched, allowing them to overhear the entire exchange. Now they stood out of sight on either side of the doorway, their horrified eyes meeting across the opening.
Lady Fosdale quietly closed the study door, slinking away like an abused dog. It was her typical reaction to orders from her husband. She was miserably unhappy in her marriage but lacked the backbone to stand up to Fosdale. Sometimes Elizabeth suspected that his sole purpose for denying her wishes was to break any hint of spirit that might have survived five-and-twenty years under his thumb.
Cecilia silently closed the door to the morning room. "How can he accept Sir Lewis without even consulting me?" she hissed.
"A rather silly question, don't you think?" Elizabeth paced the floor. "He wants us off his hands and out of his purse as quickly as possible. Sir Lewis is available and genuinely cares for you. You are unlikely to find another suitor. You heard Fosdale. He will never take us to Town."
"I cannot wed Sir Lewis!"
"Why? You get along well with him."
"Don't you understand?" Her voice was rising, but a gesture dropped it back to a fierce whisper. "I will die if I stay in this godforsaken valley. I must see London. I must! I need Society's excitement, its vivacity, its approval. I need to be with people of my own class. But Sir Lewis leaves his estate only to visit his mother in Carlisle. How can I survive even one more year of stultifying boredom, let alone a lifetime? Look at how we pass our days--skulking about the house with nothing to do, or drinking tea with village women who barely qualify as gentry. Even their conversation is boring, for they repeat the same stories over and over again. Merciful heavens! They still chatter about Peter Finchley eloping with Flora Matthews, and that happened two years ago!"
Elizabeth had read enough London newspapers to know that visiting and gossip were the mainstay of Society everywhere. "London is no different," she pointed out, hoping Cecilia would listen this time. Her complaints were old ones, but escaping the valley would change nothing. "From what I have read, ladies gossip in Town as well."
"Fustian! Who would waste time telling trite tales when there is so much to do? I must escape, Elizabeth. My beauty is wasted here. What good does it do to play the harpsichord like an angel or paint delightful watercolors when there is no one capable of appreciating my skill? In London, I would be a diamond, with gentlemen falling at my feet in droves. They would write poetry in my honor, overwhelm me with gifts, vie day and night for my favors. I would have at least three escorts to every party, dance until dawn in luxurious ballrooms, attend the races, ascend in balloons, drive with royalty. I would wed a handsome prince and live happily ever after, dashing the hopes of hundreds of beaux."
Her eyes had taken on a faraway expression that was all too familiar.
Elizabeth bit back exasperation. She had heard this recital too often, but nothing could convince Cecilia that it was naught but imagination embroidering wishful thinking. "Pull your head out of the clouds, Cecilia. Reality rarely matches expectations, as you should know merely from watching Mother. She was just as beautiful as you, and her accomplishments were quite as spectacular. But like us, she lacked money and prestige. Has she ever attained a single dream?"
Cecilia glared, unwilling to admit the truth, so Elizabeth did it for her.
"Of course not. Nor will you if you do not pursue more realistic goals. London's standards of behavior are far more rigid than we adhere to in the country. You would never be allowed to attend a race or risk your life in a balloon. Not that it matters. Fosdale will never take us to London, and if he has already accepted Sir Lewis's offer, you will have no choice. Unless you agree, you will have to endure his wrath for the rest of your life."
She shuddered as she said the words, for it was precisely what she feared for her own future. So far, she had avoided a forced marriage. It had not been difficult, for poverty tied them to Ravenswood, and she had discouraged every eligible male in the area. No one was willing to put up with her.
"Lewis hasn't signed anything," Cecilia reminded her, rebellion sparking in her eyes. "And Mama is right. I stand a far better chance of attracting Symington's interest than you do. Why would a duke's heir look at a bluestocking spinster whose countenance is so plain she would be considered an antidote in Town? I can offer beauty, charm, and every female accomplishment he could ever want. Thank God for Lady Mitchell's illness. Lewis cannot return for at least a fortnight. By then I will be promised to another."
Elizabeth started to object, but Cecilia swept on.
"It is perfect, Elizabeth! We will live in London and never see Cumberland again. You heard Papa. Symington is wealthy and heir to a great title. No more unfashionable gowns. No more antiquated carriages. No more pitying looks from merchants' daughters whose wardrobes are newer than mine. I will be a duchess, with all the world at my feet! Imagine the power--and the good I could do for the less fortunate," she added, abandoning her baser motives for the moment. Oddly enough, her generous gestures were every bit as genuine as her selfishness and blind stubbornness.
"I see nothing wrong with flirting with him," agreed Elizabeth. "He may fall madly in love with you."
"Of course he will!" She was back to her usual self. "Every gentleman I meet is smitten by my beauty. Symington will be no different."
"We all know that you are the local diamond. But be careful. Fawning will likely disgust him. London gentlemen dislike girls who are too coming. The heir to a duchy will be accustomed to girls who throw themselves at his title. If you act like every other scheming miss, he will brush you aside without a second look."
"And you had best not let Fosdale suspect your plans, or he will lock you in the attic until Symington leaves," Elizabeth added.
For once Cecilia did not protest the warning. They had both heard the determination in his voice. "I will wed him," she vowed, grasping the door handle. "And you will do nothing to stop me. You have to admit that you don't want him."
Elizabeth gave up. "As you wish. But at least take the time to honestly consider the future. You have always liked Sir Lewis. He cares about your happiness and will make a devoted husband. Symington might prove to be an ogre, no matter how dazzling his wealth and status."
Anger flared, but Cecilia suppressed it. "Very well."
Elizabeth grimaced. Calculation had remained in Cecilia's eyes. But it really wasn't her affair. She had done her best to point out the difference between fantasy and reality, but Cecilia's dreams were too deeply embedded. As was her skepticism.
Since neither of them had traveled beyond Cumberland, Elizabeth's voice carried no more authority than if they had been discussing the exact population of heaven or the fashions currently popular in China. And Cecilia considered herself irresistible. Elizabeth could only pray that the girl would do nothing stupid. Trickery would lead to the same barren existence that plagued their mother.
Cecilia considered London a glittering paradise. Her imagination had woven twisted images of Society into a vision of opulence, frivolity, and male adoration that could not possibly be true. Her success with area beaux made her think she was a modern Helen of Troy, capable of inciting wars--or at least duels--and winning the devotion of every gentleman she met. Rejected suitors would dedicate their lives to mourning their loss.
Such improbable fantasies were absurd, of course, but Elizabeth did not have time to tilt at Cecilia's delusions today. Her own problems were too critical.
Fosdale was not stupid. Tying her to Symington would require a compromise and could only be accomplished within minutes of the guest's arrival, for he must know that she would be on her guard as soon as she recognized his motives.
She had no intention of marrying anyone. Her mother was miserable--reason enough to distrust so permanent a union. The fact that a wife had no control over any aspect of her life merely confirmed her antipathy. Marriage was not for her. Let Cecilia have Symington.
She had already planned her own future, for remaining under Fosdale's control was equally repugnant. Yet she needed more time to escape. She had not yet amassed the wherewithal to support herself.
She paced the floor as she considered her dilemma. The suggestion that Fosdale might lock Cecilia up so he could foist Elizabeth on Symington was no joke. He would never allow interference with his schemes--especially by a female. With Cecilia around, no gentleman would even look at Elizabeth, which was another reason he would strike the instant Symington appeared. She wouldn't put it past him to lock them in a room together, then cry rape.
So how was she to escape?
She took another turn about the room. Symington was calling to buy the Chaucer, so he would not stay long. She stifled a shudder at the loss, for she had no chance of preventing its sale. Fosdale had no interest in books.
Keep your mind on business! The situation was too critical to permit sidetracking.
Idiot! Her feet came to an abrupt halt.
The solution was so obvious that she swore at herself for not seeing it sooner. If she was not here, then no one could trap her, and Fosdale would not object to Cecilia's flirting. She need only stay away for a week. By then, Symington would either be gone or in love with Cecilia.
Her great-aunt lived on her uncle's estate in the next valley. Uncle Jason's family was in Carlisle for the winter, and no one had checked on Aunt Constance in nearly a month. How was the woman enduring this endless rain? Calling would raise no questions, particularly if she left without discussing it first.
It was perfect. More than perfect, she realized when she noted that the rain had actually stopped falling. Dry skies would explain her precipitous departure, for sunshine was becoming a rare sight.
Her mother would shut herself in her sitting room for the remainder of the day, as she always did after a confrontation with Fosdale. He would stay in his study, plotting to rid himself of an unwanted daughter. Cecilia would be perusing her wardrobe, planning her own campaign. It would be hours before anyone missed her.
Satisfied, she packed a bandbox and called for her horse.