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"Is he gone?" Alexandra Merideth Vale poured tea for her cousin, who served as her companion.
Sarah Vale nodded, limping to her usual chair near the fireplace. "But you should have seen him off, Alex. He was annoyed that you chose to sulk in your rooms."
"Hah!" Her snort lodged a crumb in her throat, triggering a coughing fit that increased her irritation.
Her father's pique had been feigned, as usual. He never stopped manipulating people. She had given up hope that he would change, though she saw no reason to join his games. Dutiful-daughter-saying-painful-farewell-to-beloved-father was not a role she enjoyed at any time, but after a week of argument and recrimination, she refused to even try.
"Why should I regret his departure?" she demanded once she caught her breath. "You know how unpleasant life is when he is here."
"Manners." It was the closest Sarah ever came to criticism.
Tea soothed Alex's throat. "All right. I am unmannerly. But I could not tolerate another lecture. He has done nothing but scold since he returned last Tuesday. Sit down, Alexandra. Don't display your indecent height." Her voice matched Sir Winton Vale's growl to perfection. "Put that book away, Alexandra; you must cease flaunting these ridiculous pretensions. How dare you contradict Mr. Bowles; can't you act like a lady for even one hour? Such vulgar enthusiasm; people will think you escaped from Bedlam. Oh, why was I cursed with an abnormal freak instead of a son?"
"He doesn't mean to be disagreeable," said Sarah soothingly.
"Of course he does. He was born disagreeable."
"Sweet Sarah, who can find a kindword for the most debauched reprobate in the realm." She forced the sarcasm from her voice when Sarah flinched. "You know little about gentlemen, Sarah. Even the best are condescending fools, lacking either wit or substance. Father is worse. He despises any female capable of seeing his faults--like Mother, God rest her soul. He never forgave her for exposing his questionable logic, even when she saved him money and embarrassment. Nor did he pardon her for producing only me in twenty years of marriage."
"She also produced Richard."
"That was in year twenty-one. You were fortunate not to have been here, Sarah. He celebrated her pregnancy, positive that it was a son at last." Her voice betrayed remembered pain. He had made no effort to hide his satisfaction that he would finally have a child he could point to with pride. His daughter was merely a misbegotten female.
"He was right. That one was a boy."
"Yes." She clamped a firmer control over her tone. "Once Mother performed her wifely duty by conceiving an heir, he publicly excused her twenty years of stubborn intransigence--even the doctor choked on that one. Of course, she betrayed him by dying of a fever two weeks later. So no spare. He's never forgiven her."
Nor did he care a whit for Richard. The heir's existence was all that mattered. He'd rarely been home in the ten years since, leaving her to raise her young brother. Richard's departure for school last month had ripped a hole in her heart that she had not yet filled. "Did you notice that he did not mention Richard even once this trip?"
Sarah sighed. "His guilt is growing. He cared for Aunt Sophy and knew she was too old to bear another child. That is why he ignores Richard. Seeing him is a reminder of the selfish way he killed her."
"Men care nothing for their wives when it comes to begetting an heir. All that matters is the perpetuation of their precious names." She snorted. "He has heaped so much dishonor on the name of Vale, I wonder how Richard will bear it."
Sarah refrained from comment, picking up her needlework.
But Alex still seethed with frustration from a week of arguments. "Now that Richard is gone, I am useless to him. His revulsion shows whenever he looks at me. He hates me."
"You could try to be conciliatory." Sarah's needle flashed, fashioning a perky bird perched on a pine branch.
"How? By pretending to be something I am not? I despise deceit. And overcoming his objections is impossible." Unable to sit quietly while turbulence churned in her stomach, she rose to pace the room, striding faster with each word. "He hates me for understanding more than one word in ten that I read. He hates me for caring more for his dependents than he does. Half of our recent arguments arose because he is stripping the estate of capital to finance his gaming. How can we manage repairs? Milton's barn is ready to collapse. The Howitches need a new roof. Doris Timmons will starve before spring without help. Summer was so cold that the harvest is the smallest in years. Some crops failed entirely."
"Don't work yourself into a megrim over things you cannot control," advised Sarah.
"I never have megrims. But I hate injustice. Would you have me ignore it? Yes, I lack the authority to effect permanent change, but thinking only about things I can influence requires closing my eyes to everything around me. You know I cannot control any aspect of my life." Her hand stopped Sarah from interrupting. "Father may be the author of my current frustration, but I know better than to expect change from him. He will never approve of me. The last straw was growing a handspan taller than him. He despises looking up to anyone, especially his own daughter."
"What really galls me is that others treat me no better--ladies, gentlemen; it doesn't matter. Even perfect strangers look at me with suspicion because I refuse to squander my days on needlework and gossip. Why wasn't I born a man?"
It was a question she had asked since childhood. Her mother had understood, for she had also resented the restrictions women endured. Thus she'd used her pin money to buy Alex lessons with the vicar. Sir Winton never knew, for he had rarely visited the estate even then. One pregnancy in ten years of marriage had erased his hope for a son.
But education had merely increased Alex's unhappiness. Fate had played her a dastardly trick, first trapping her in an ungainly body, then filling her with curiosity about subjects ladies usually ignored, and finally thrusting her into a society where men made all the rules.
Education had taught her how much she was missing and had raised unanswerable questions. Why must ladies remain quietly in the drawing room while men attended universities and ran the country? Who had decreed that only men could explore the world or think great thoughts? How could men justify ignoring her when her logic was sounder than theirs? And when had women agreed to live their entire lives under the thumb of a father or husband? If only she could escape long enough to do something for herself.
Not that it would do any good. Who would know? Men did not listen to women. Nor did they recognize any female accomplishment beyond music, drawing, needlework, and entertaining.
She tried to relax her jaw, lest it snap under the pressure of grinding teeth. Gathering her control, she returned to her chair.
The butler rapped on the open door.
"What is it, Murch?"
"A letter, Miss Alex."
Her heart pounded, for she recognized Lord Mitchell's frank. The vicar must have delivered it the moment her father's carriage passed through the village.
Lord Mitchell was a well-known antiquarian. Six months ago, she had taken the enormous risk of writing to him, in the vicar's name.
A clearing in the woods had long served as her refuge, a place where she could read or study, free from eyes that might report her activities to her father. A year ago, unusually heavy rain had pounded the clearing, exposing the corner of a foundation. Curious, she had dug down to its base, but had hesitated to excavate further until she knew what it might be. Study convinced her that there were actually two buildings--a Roman temple atop an earlier Druid shrine.
But confirmation was tricky. Interest in Roman sites had grown in recent years, yet most of the searchers sought only gold or other treasure that would lead to fame and fortune. Her own fascination lay with the buildings themselves--what they had looked like and how they had been used. Since her small collection of books contained no authoritative works on the subject, she'd had to devise her own theories. Yet without confirmation from a reputable antiquarian, her ideas were little better than idle speculation.
Seeking help had been a frightening, but necessary, step. No man would take a female's questions seriously, so she'd borrowed the vicar's identity. Revealing the site's location was also dangerous. If her father discovered it, he would loot anything of value, destroying the rest in the process.
She had deliberately chosen Lord Mitchell because of his age and health. He rarely left home, having contracted a painful gout condition some years before. Since he lived in a remote corner of Yorkshire, he was unlikely to visit her or request that she call on him. And he was one of the few who showed as much interest in the ancient Romans themselves as he did in their treasure.
Despite his initial caution, he'd soon warmed, and had actually sent her copies of papers that had been presented to the Antiquarian Society. Even though she knew his secretary had done the actual transcription, it was an enormous kindness. For the first time in her life, a man was treating her as an intellectual equal.
But each new contact increased her wariness. She made light of the find, describing only the foundation stones and omitting any mention of roof tiles, Latin inscriptions, or her growing collection of artifacts. If she raised too much curiosity, he might send an assistant to investigate.
She hated the deception--all her deceptions--but she had no choice. More than the site was at risk. Her father owned it, so if he chose to desecrate it, she could do nothing to stop him. The staff would also suffer if word of her work reached his ears. They knew she was digging, but said nothing. If he discovered their secrecy, he would turn them off for disloyalty, then lock her away. Her interests had always embarrassed him. Learning that his freakish daughter enjoyed mucking about in Roman ruins would be the last straw.
Pushing her father from her mind, she read the letter through, then did so again, hardly believing her eyes.
I congratulate you, sir. Your thesis on the siting of early Roman temples would account for the rapid decline of Druidism...
Organize your thoughts into a treatise for the Antiquarian Society, to be presented at the winter meeting...
I will sponsor your membership.
She was breathing too fast.
This opportunity might never come again. But how could she present a paper without appearing? Dressing as a man would never work. Her bosom was too full--another bane; she was tired of fending off men's advances.
But she would think of something. Could she plead illness at the last minute, sending the vicar to read her paper? He would have to use a false name, of course, for she was already using his.
More deceit. Her head spun.
Another thought tempered her excitement. A formal treatise would reveal the temple's location. Even deliberate vagueness could not disguise the general area.
She couldn't do it. The risk of discovery was too great. Recent test holes had convinced her that other, larger buildings had once stood nearby--a definite attraction.
But could she insult Lord Mitchell by refusing to share her ideas? Turning down this opportunity might prompt an investigation. At the very least, it would prevent him from ever helping her again.
Crumpling the summons, Anthony Torwell Linden hurled it at the door. Who was carrying tales this time?
Fisting his hands controlled their shaking, but several minutes passed before he overcame his fury.
Not that the tale-bearer's identity mattered. His father had many correspondents, any one of whom might assume he was neck-deep in the River Tick because he'd lost ten pounds at White's last week. Or perhaps a meddler had seen him driving in the park and mistaken Ralph's sister for a light-skirt. Or Mr. Tolliver could have...
It didn't matter, he reminded himself firmly. Nothing mattered. Knowing who was exaggerating would make no difference. He ought to be used to the charges by now. Seventeen years of condemnation had cast his reputation in bronze. But protest was useless. No one cared that the rumors were false.
"Fool," he muttered, retrieving the letter. Many times a fool. He could blame no one but himself.
Taking a deep breath to steady his temper, he read the missive again.
Nothing had changed.
A matter of grave import requires immediate consultation. You will call at Linden Park no later than Thursday.
The wording was as stilted and condescending as ever.
"Idiot," he grumbled, directing the epithet at himself.
Why the devil had he started this? Granted, he had been young, but even a frustrated fifteen-year-old should have realized where it must lead. Chucking his reputation away was the most stupid thing he had done in a life full of stupid behavior.
He shook his head, for the question itself was stupid. His reasons may have been childish, but he could still recall every moment of that infamous day.
His father, Lord Linden, was the most rigid, disapproving man he had ever known. Nothing satisfied him. Every word the man uttered was a complaint, criticism, or accusation--or a punishment.
Punishment had been part of life for as long as he could remember, even when his behavior was no worse than other boys'. He had endured it as long as possible, but his temper had finally snapped.
Sighing, he dropped his head into his hands.
That day was not one he was proud of. Seventeen years later he was still living with the consequences. But what else could he have done?
He'd arrived home for long break, happier than he had been in years. He had enjoyed the term, discovering a serious interest in the classics that had brought praise from all his tutors. Even the harsh school discipline had softened, for no one had indulged in pranks for more than a month.
But he'd hardly reached his mother's sitting room when his father summoned him to the study.
The confrontation was no different from a hundred others. Linden cared nothing for his son's school performance or his plans for the future. All that mattered was behavior. His correspondents had reported a host of infractions, proving that Tony was an incorrigible hellion hovering on the brink of ruin.
He was a disgrace. His language alone would guarantee an eternity in hell--someone must have reported the oath he had flung at his horse for scraping him against the stable wall last month. Or maybe his friendship with Haskell's heir was enough to condemn him; Mark could put a sailor to the blush.
Linden then launched his favorite rant against the evils of gaming, decrying his son's penchant for impulsive wagers and canceling a quarter's allowance to prevent even greater losses. It had taken awhile to work out that charge. Though playing at cards and dice were common at school--indeed, eschewing such activities would draw ridicule from the other students--he rarely lost more than a few shillings, usually breaking even over time. The past quarter he'd actually come out ten pounds ahead, though there had been one game several weeks earlier that had cost him twenty pounds.
But his father refused to listen, listing other indiscretions in a tirade that lasted a full hour. His punishments were more severe than ever before. Besides forfeiture of his allowance, he was to spend four hours a day in the chapel, contemplating his crimes. "And you must remain inside the Park. You are weak-willed, Anthony. Duggat hired a new maid for the Striped Cat, but the girl is naught but a harlot, leading lads straight to the devil. I'll not have you disgracing your name. Since you've proven yourself incapable of control, I must keep you away from temptation."
The tirade had finally snapped Tony's temper. Living up to Linden's standards was impossible. If he was going to pay anyway, why should he not enjoy himself? Thus had begun a bitter clash of wills. He found a hundred ways to slip in and out of the Park without being caught. He sampled the Striped Cat's ale, its maid, and two of her friends. He indulged in card games whenever possible, wagering on anything and everything. And he laughed at each new punishment. By the end of that summer, he'd acquired a reputation for debauchery and excess that surpassed hellions ten years his senior.
Linden believed he was worse than ever, though the excesses of that summer were long behind him. Even in the early years he had not been as wild as rumor claimed. While it was true that he had hovered on the brink of expulsion a dozen times in the terms that followed, he had always stopped short of actually being kicked out. He'd made a great show of gaming, but had never lost more than a few pounds. In fact, his investments had grown until he could almost live on the proceeds. In like manner, his debauchery had been mostly show, as was his legendary drinking.
But none of that mattered.
His sigh filled the room. That childish rebellion had once been satisfying, but it had been years since he had done anything to maintain the fiction. Yet his reputation worsened every Season. No one knew the real Tony Linden. No one wanted to know. Young bucks actually admired the imaginary rakehell. Others envied his supposed disdain for society's rules. And while parents tried to keep their daughters out of reach, the girls themselves often sought him out, thrilled to flirt with the danger he represented.
You are such a fool.
"True." Though he was still admitted to most drawing rooms--unlike Devereaux, who truly was despicable--his reputation made it impossible to relax. He had to constantly think ahead, examining every word lest it be misconstrued, behaving more formally than anyone else so nervous hostesses would not bar their doors, and hiding his identity whenever he needed people to listen seriously to his ideas.
It was time to redeem himself. He was tired of living two lives. His alter ego could only skulk in isolated places, cutting him off from society. He had hesitated to reveal the truth for fear he would lose everything he'd accomplished, but until he did, both lives would suffer. And the need that had led to his alias no longer existed.
He smoothed the summons.
Ten years ago, his lurid reputation had made it impossible to find funding for his excavations. No one had believed Tony Linden was serious about anything but debauchery, so he'd invented Anthony Torwell. The antiquarian was now a renowned authority on Roman England, though establishing that expertise had been difficult. Too many people knew Tony Linden, so Torwell could only work in remote areas. He had to avoid sites owned by lords, for they might recognize him, even if they had not previously met--Lindens shared a strong family resemblance. And Torwell had to cultivate an image as a recluse. Even correspondence from other antiquarians went to an anonymous address. England had enough eccentrics that no one questioned his habits, but the stress of keeping his two lives separate made relaxation impossible.
It was time to live in the open. And the first step was to convince his father to cease persecuting him. Since Tony Linden could not disappear completely without raising speculation, he had to spend time in London and other gathering places. But his father encouraged his correspondents to report every hint of vice, keeping his reputation alive. Even impeccable behavior could not counter Linden's constant reminders.
So he must answer this summons. Never mind that he needed to organize his summer notes and had promised The Edinburgh Review an article. He would go to Linden Park and try to make peace with his father.
But reading the summons one last time raised a frown. The tone was off. Something was wrong--very wrong.
Please don't let it be Mother, he prayed before issuing a spate of orders to Simms, who doubled as his secretary and valet. His mother had kept him sane through his childhood. She was one of only two people he could count on for support.
Never had his isolation seemed so stark.