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"Davidhe can't be serious! Why does he suddenly wish me to return after all this time? Nothing has changed! Nothing!"Thea dragged in a breath. 'I am still" At the sight of her brother's taut mouth, the sudden tension in his clenched fists, she changed what she had been about to say. 'I am still of the same mindI have no desire to return. What has changed Papa's stance?"
David's mouth opened and then closed, as though he too had thought the better of something. Then, 'I don't know, Thea. Not definitely. I have a suspicion, but since he didn't tell me anything beyond that I was to bring you back to town with me, I'd prefer not to say."
Exasperated, Miss Dorothea Winslow stared at her brother across the confined gloom of their aunt Maria's parlour. If David's unannounced arrival in North Yorkshire from London had been unexpected, the news he bore was doubly so. She clutched the warm shawl closer, shivering despite the warmth of the fire crackling in the grate. Twenty minutes ago she had been knitting socks, a pot of tea beside her, quietly content and perfectly warm. Now the chill of the bitter rain gusting against the windows had seeped into her bones and the old panic stirred restlessly.
"Papa was more than happy for me to stay out of the way for the past eight years." She added, 'He wouldn't even let me journey south to attend Mama's funeral. Why now, David? Don't tell me he wants me to be a comfort to him in his old age!"
David snorted. 'Hardly." He stared into the fire for a moment. 'He is talking of a match for you, Thea."
Her blood congealed, along with her forgotten cup of tea. 'What?" Her breath came raggedly. 'But"
Davidsaid, 'At Mama's funeral eighteen months ago, several people asked where you were. Remarked upon your long seclusion. Theaburying your heart in the grave with your betrothed does not constitute a sufficient reason for not marrying. If people ask enough questions" He broke off.
She steadied her breathing. 'I see." If people asked enough questions, someone might hit on the truth
He stood up abruptly and said, 'Our father fears the gossip. Which is at least part of the reason that he is essentially compelling you to come to London for the Season."
David nodded. 'He has instructed me to inform you that if you do not, you will receive no allowance at all." His expression was grim.
Thea bit her lip. And then she gritted her teeth. 'I can still remain here with Aunt Maria."
"He has already written to hertelling her that you are to come to London. Do you imagine she will defy him? She depends on his support."
"But why? If I remain here"
His grey eyes were flinty. 'As far as our father is concerned you have had ample time to recover from your ' He hesitated and then said, with an edge of violence, 'Your disappointment."
Thea made a sharp movement and the now gelid cup of tea beside her crashed to ruin on the floor.
She ignored it. 'I see. Of course, eight years is ample time to recover from a disappointment.'She laid her hands carefully in her lap to prevent them clenching into fists. 'Especially a disappointment that never happened, according to one's point of view."
He returned no answer to that. 'David, can't you?" 'Damn it, Thea! Do you think I didn't try to talk him out of it?" David surged to his feet and prowled about the parlour, his movements jerky. 'I know this is not what you want, and if what I suspect is true, then in part it is my fault, but nothing would sway him."
"And you aren't going to tell me?"
He shook his head. 'Better not."
She shivered. There would be compensations. To hear good music again, visit Hatchards and apparently she had no choice. But living in her father's house again
"I suppose a chaperon has been arranged?" she said with forced calm.
David's mouth twisted. 'It is arranged that you should stay with Lady Arnsworth for the Season, and that she will chaperon you."
Thea let out a sigh of relief, but said nothing; she merely knelt down and began carefully picking up the shattered porcelain. Aunt Maria was going to be most annoyed at the desecration of her best tea service.
Aunt Maria sat in a chair by the rarely lit fire as Thea packed later that evening. 'Certainly not, Dorothea!" she snapped, diligently folding handkerchiefs. 'Aberfield,"she continued, 'is obviously lost to all sense of decency and propriety!" She shot a hard glance at her great-niece. 'However, it is not for me to gainsay him; so, no, Dorothea, I will not attempt to change his mind."
Along with her back, her lips were ramrod straight. 'Let us hope that your sense of duty to your family has increased in the past eight years. I say no more than that I have done my best to ensure that it should be so." Her tone suggested that she doubted her best had been anywhere near good enough.
Miss Maria Winslow flung up her hand. 'No, Dorothea. Aberfield,"she proclaimed in the tones of one invoking a deity, 'is your father, and Head of the Family. It is not for me to argue with him. You will do as you are bid."
No choice at all. With no money and no refuge, she was going to London. Thea laid her best gown, the dove-grey silk reserved for expected visitors, carefully layered in tissue paper, in the open trunk on her bed. She doubted very much that she would wear it again more than once or twice. What was adequate for the depths of rural Yorkshire would be despised in London. Thea stared at the gown. Three years she had been wearing it. Only yesterday when she had changed to greet the rector's wife, she had put it on with loathing, longing for something pretty, something pink, instead of the never-ending grey. Now it looked safe, secure. Anonymous. All of which were about to be torn from her.
In the corner of the post-chaise rocking its way down the Great North Road towards London, Thea sat straight and stiff, a book open and forgotten on her lap. David lounged in the opposite corner reading a newspaper. Outside, northern England fell away behind them, every mile, every hoofbeat taking her closer to London
"I have been thinking, David."
He looked up from the newspaper. 'I assumed there was a reason you hadn't spoken or turned a page in half an hour."
She gave him a rueful smile. 'Was I being rude?" He grinned comfortably and laid the paper aside. 'No. I'm your brother. It's not technically possible for you to be rude to me."
Despite the roiling tension, she chuckled. 'Oh? You were used to be rude enough to me!"
"That," he informed her, 'is different. Brothers exist only to be rude to and, on occasion about, their sisters. What were you thinking?"
Slowly, she said, 'Papa cannot want me quartered on him in London for evereven at Arnsworth House."
"No,"said David. 'He doesn't. He's counting on your marriage." She twisted her battered old gloves between her hands. 'It won't happen," she said shortly. 'He may force me to London, but he still can't force me into marriage. If I do not marry by the end of the Seasonsurely once he realises" 'Do you think," asked David, his voice diffident, 'that you might, our father's machinations aside, find some fellow to care for? One who will care for you?"
Leaning forward, he reached out and covered her hand with his. She couldn't help itinstinctively, she jerked back, every nerve jangling at the unexpected touch.
Very slowly David sat back, his eyes shuttered.
Silence grew and stretched. When Thea spoke it was as though the words dropped into an abyss. 'I hope to God that I don't."
"Really, Richard! What were you thinking? Seventy thousand pounds! Of course it was snapped up! And after all my efforts to cultivate the connection, where were you? In Kent!"
With forced patience, Richard Blakehurst listened to the continuation of his aunt Almeria Arnsworth's tirade. He had heard most of the countess's diatribe before and this particular version had been runningwith minor variations upon the original themefor the past several months.
"I wrote to you, explaining the urgency! And now the wretched girl is betrothed! To someone else."
With a silent prayer of thanks to a benevolent deity for this circumstance, Richard settled himself as comfortably as possible in an Egyptian-style gilt chair built for a female form rather than a six-foot male and cast a considering glance at the decanters gracing a console table supported by a pair of sphinxes. His cup of tea wasn't quite hitting the mark under these circumstances. It was weak to start with and Almeria had put sugar and what tasted like half a cup of cream in it.
No. It would be extremely bad form to dump the tea and stalk across the Dowager Countess of Arnsworth's drawing room for the brandy. Even if she was his aunt and godmother.
Sweet, weak tea and good manners were not much to fortify a fellow against a determined assault on his bachelor status. It had been bad enough before, but the betrothal last week of a major heiress to someone other than himself, appeared to have escalated the crisis in Almeria's view. 'After all, Richard," she went on, 'if you are not to inherit the earldom, due to Max's selfish marriage, then you must be established in some other way and how better than"
'No." Before she could get into her stride again, he said, 'AlmeriaI do not lack for money, so I have no need to marry a fortune." The jibe about his twin's marriage stung. He added, 'And no one could be more delighted about Max's marriage than I am. He's happy. You must see that."
His godmother's glare consigned that hope to Hades and beyond. 'He hasn't even come up to town this year!" she snapped. Richard gritted his teeth. 'No," he said patiently, 'because Verity is increasing. He wanted to stay with her. Braybrook promised to keep him abreast of all that takes place in the House. He will come up if he is needed."
Apparently knowing that her other nephew, Earl Blakehurst, was not completely neglecting his parliamentary duties didn't help at all. Almeria's nostrils flared.
"Richardyou must marry. It is your duty!'
His duty? To whom? To what? Duty was reserved for heirs. He'd only just purchased his own small estate. Surely it wasn't quite that desperate!
He voiced the question. 'Er, Almeriato whom do I owe this?"
"The earldom!"she said, replacing her teacup in its saucer with a decided click.
Richard felt his jaw sag. The earldom? That was a bit much to swallow. With two brothers originally between himself and the blasted earldom, he'd never expected to inherit. Or wanted to. Especially not since it would mean the deaths of his brothers. Abandoning the tepid cup of syrupy tea, he limped over to the decanters and poured himself a glass of brandy. He ignored Almeria's obvious disapproval. A little early, but with Almeria in this frame of mind he needed more fortification than a cup of tea would provide, if he were not to deal her a resounding set-down.
Reseating himself, he sipped the brandy, and said mildly, 'Almeria, Frederick's death was a stroke of misfortune." He resisted the temptation to emphasise mis. 'You can hardly fear the same sort of accident happening to Max! Besides, he is married. And Verity is on the point of giving birth to their first child. How the devil can it be my duty to marry?"
"It might be a girl," said Almeria hopefully. 'In fact, I wouldn't put it past that that hussy to present him with a score of daughters!"
"Verity,"said Richard between clenched teeth, 'is not a hussy." Almeria had the grace to look slightly abashed. 'Oh, very well, but even so, Richardthere is no guarantee there will be an heir!"
No, there was no guarantee. Indeed, given his twin's current state of terror over his adored countess's perfectly normal pregnancy, it was entirely possible that he'd already sworn an oath of eternal celibacy. Not that one should dismiss the risks. Childbirth was childbirth. Risky. But still
As if reading his thoughts,Almeria continued. 'And childbirthwhy, you never know what might happen!" she said hopefully. 'Really, Richard! You are being most unreasonable about this."
Forbearance crashed into smoking ruin. He nearly spat out the brandy. 'Max is my twin, ma'am," he grated. 'I have a considerable affection for both him and Verity. You can hardly expect me to be reasonable about a suggestion that I ought to be counting on her death in childbed!"
He noted Almeria's flush with grim satisfaction.
She recovered and rattled in again. 'But, Richard" He flung up a hand. 'Enough, ma'am! I've every intention of marrying."
She blinked. 'But who? There were several eligible girls out this year, and they are, each and every one, snapped up, while you sat in Kent!" She counted the eligibles off on her dainty fingertips. 'Lady Sarah Wilding, Miss Creighton, the Scantlebury chit"Her lip curled slightly. 'Trade, to be sure, but one hundred thousand! I suppose one can make allowances." She glared at Richard. 'All betrothed! So whom do you have in mind?"
"How in Hades should I know?" he answered with forced calm. Trust Almeria to take him literally! 'All I can tell you is that I am not on the catch for an heiress!" Then, with fell intent to end the conversation once and for all, 'Besides, you know Max. He'll probably give Verity a dozen strapping sons in his image." He watched, fascinated, as Almeria's colour rose. Judging by the peculiar sounds emanating from her, it was entirely possible that she was actually choking. His baser self stirred. 'I mean, it didn't take him long this time. They'll barely have been married nine months."
She favoured him with a look that would have felled a dragon and said, 'I do not consider this a suitable topic of conversation. And if you had the slightest regard for one who has only your well-being in mind" She halted mid-flight and drew a deep breath. 'Well, that is neither here nor there. Now tell me, you arrived yesterday; where are you staying?"
At the sudden change of tack, the back of his neck developed a most unpleasant prickling sensation.
"With Braybrook, just for the moment," he said. 'I mean to be up for a few weeks though, so I'll probably take lodgings." No need to tell Almeria that in addition to the small estate he had bought the previous year, he was in the process of purchasing a small town houseshe was likely to go into convulsions when she did find out. Bloomsbury was not on her list of eligible addresses for a gentleman.
"And you mean to take part in the Season?" She sounded as though she held out little hope in this direction.
"Actually, yes," he confessed.
She blinked. 'Really? Well, thenyou must stay here." Richard stiffened. 'Here?" 'But of course!" she said. 'Lodgings!" She shuddered in distaste. 'Quite ineligible. Of course you must stay here!"
He thought about it. He preferred lodgings. Much safer. He knew the signs. Almeria was up to something. Something that involved him.
Oh, for God's sake! As if he couldn't dodge yet another of Almeria's matchmaking attempts! Even if it was compounded by his own intent to seek a bride this year. Besides which, staying with Almeria, he might be able to give her thoughts about Max and Verity a happier turn. If she could see that he really didn't mind, had never considered the earldom his, then perhaps she would become reconciled to the match. Spending a few weeks at Arnsworth House would be a small price to pay for healing the breach in the family.
Taking a deep breath, he said with a tolerable assumption of pleasure, 'That is really very kind of you, Almeria, if I won't be in your way."
She waved that aside. 'Of course not, Richard. Shall you be in for dinner this evening?"
Richard shook his head. 'No. I'm promised to Braybrook for the evening. I'll stroll back to Brook Street shortly and have my man bring my things over, if that's convenient."
Lady Arnsworth looked like a cat drowning in cream. 'Perfectly. Myles will give you a latch key."
Suspicions redoubled, Richard simply nodded. 'Thank you." She waved his thanks aside. 'Oh, nonsense, Richard. And you must not be thinking that I will for ever be expecting you to dance attendance. You may not have realised, but I will be chaperoning Dorothea Winslow this season."
Richard stared. 'Chaperoning Thea? But didn't shesurely she must have married years ago?"
Almeria's eyes opened wide. 'Dorothea marry? Dear me, no. Such a sad story I dare say you will recall she was betrothed to one of Chasewater's younger sons?"
Richard remembered that only too well. At not quite seventeen, Thea Winslow had been betrothed to the Honourable Nigel Lallerton, third son of the late Earl of Chasewater. As a gentleman set for a career in Parliament, naturally he required a welldowered bride. Thea had been it.
But Lallerton had died in a shooting accident.