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1816, St Claire House, London
'I have no immediate plans to marry, Hawk. Least of all some chit barely out of the schoolroom that you have deigned to pick out for for me!'
Hawk St Claire, the tenth Duke of Stourbridge, viewed his youngest brother's angrily flushed face across the width of the leather-topped desk that dominated the library in the St Claire townhouse, his mouth twisting slightly as he noted the glitter of rebellion in Sebastian's dark brown gaze. 'I was merely suggesting that it is past time you thought of taking a wife.'
Lord Sebastian St Claire felt the flush deepen in his cheeks under the steely gaze of his eldest brother. But this awareness of Hawk's displeasure in no way lessened his own determination not to be coerced into a marriage he neither sought nor wanted.
Although it was a little difficult to maintain that stand, Sebastian acknowledged inwardly, in the face of his brother's piercingly intense gaze. A chilling gaze from eyes the colour of gold and ringed by a much darker brown, and one that had been known to almost reduce the Duke's valet to tears on occasion, and to cause lesser peers of the realm to quake in their highly polished boots when Hawk took his place in the House.
'Do not take that insufferably condescending tone with me, Hawk, because it won't wash!' Sebastian threw himself into the carved chair, facing his brother across the desk. 'Or is it only that you have decided to turn your attentions to me because Arabella failed to secure a suitable match during her first Season?' he added slyly, knowing that his eighteen-year-old sibling had stubbornly resisted accepting any of the marriage proposals she had received in the last few months.
He was also completely aware that Hawk had hated his role as occasional escort for their younger sister. It had resulted in the marriage-minded debutantes and their ambitious mamas seeing the unusual occurrence of the Duke of Stourbridge's presence at balls and parties as an open invitation to pursue him!
Until, that was, Hawk had made it known, in his chillingly high-handed manner, that none of those young women met the exacting standards he set for his future Duchess!
Hawk's mouth tightened. 'We were not discussing a match for Arabella.'
'Then perhaps we should have been. Or possibly Lucian?' Sebastian mentioned their brother. Although it really should be you, Hawk,' he continued tauntingly. After all, you are the Duke, and of the four of us surely the one most in need of an heir?'
At one and thirty, and over six feet tall, his brother Hawk had powerful shoulders and an athletic body that was the pride and joy of his tailor. Today he wore a black jacket which fit snugly across wide shoulders, a pale grey waistcoat and paler grey breeches above highly polished Hessians. His thick dark hair, streaked with gold, was styled with casual elegance, and beneath a wide, intelligent brow were intense golden eyes, the straight slash of a nose between high cheekbones, and a thin, uncompromising mouth above a square jaw. All spoke of his arrogant and determined character.
Even without his title, Hawk was undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with. As the powerful Duke of Stour-bridge he was formidable.
Hawk looked completely bored by this particular argument. 'I believe I have made it more than plain these last months that I have yet to meet any woman who is up to the arduous task of becoming the Duchess of Stourbridge. Besides,' he continued, as Sebastian would have argued further, 'I already have two obvious heirs in my younger brothers. Although, going on your more recent behaviour, I would not be happy to see either you or Lucian becoming the next Duke of Stourbridge.' He gave Sebastian a silencing glower.
A glance Sebastian totally ignored. 'If either Lucian or I were to become the next Duke of Stourbridge, you can depend on it that you would not be around to see it, Hawk!'
'Very amusing, Sebastian.' The Duke's dismissal was absolute. 'But following the events of last month, I realise I have been somewhat remiss in not settling your own and Lucian's future.'
'Last month? What did Lucian and I do last month that was so different from? Ah.' The light finally dawned. 'Can you possibly be referring to the delectable and recently widowed Countess of Morefield?' he challenged unabashedly.
'A gentleman does not discuss a lady by name, Sebastian.' Hawk eyed his brother disapprovingly. 'But now that you have brought the incident to my attention ' he steepled slender fingers ' I could indeed be referring to your reprehensible behaviour concerning a certain lady of our mutual acquaintance.' His voice was icy.
Sebastian grinned unapologetically. 'I can assure you that no one, least of all the Countess, took our interest seriously.'
Hawk looked down the long length of his nose. 'Nevertheless, the lady's name was bandied about at several clubsmy own included. Many of your friends were making wagers, I believe, on which one of you would be the first to oust the Earl of Whitney from the Counfrom the lady's bedchamber.'
Sebastian looked unrepentant. 'Only because they were all aware that we were both totally in ignorance of the other's interest in the lady. Of course, if you had cared to confide in either of us that you intended taking up residence in that particular bedchamber, then Lucian and I would simply have backed off and left you and Whitney to decide the outcome!' He eyed Hawk challengingly.
Hawk's wince was pained. 'Sebastian, I have already had occasion to warn you of the indelicacy of your conversation!'
'So all this talk of the parson's mousetrap is because Lucian and I inadvertently stepped on your toes last month?' Sebastian could barely restrain his humour.
'Or possibly it was another part of your anatomy we intruded upon? Although I do believe,' he continued, as Hawk looked in danger of delivering another of his icy setdowns, 'that you have also now tired of the lady's charms ?'
The slight flaring of the Duke's nostrils was the only outward sign of his increasing displeasure with the trend of the conversation. 'After the attention you and Lucian brought to that unfortunate lady I deemed it necessary to withdraw my attentions so as not to add further speculation to the impending scandal.'
'If you were not so damned secretive about your mistresses the whole incident could have been avoided.' Sebastian shrugged dismissively. 'But I do assure you, Hawk, I am not about to marry just to appease your outraged sensibilities!'
'You are being utterly ridiculous, Sebastian'
'No, Hawk.' Sebastian's humour faded. 'I believe if you were to give this subject more thought, you would realise that you are the one who is being ridiculous in trying to choose my wife for me.'
'On the contrary, Sebastian. It is my belief that I am only acting in your best interests. In fact, I have already accepted an invitation on our behalf from Sir Barnaby and Lady Sulby.'
'I take it they are the parents of my intended bride?'
Hawk's mouth tightened. 'Olivia Sulby is the daughter of Sir Barnaby and Lady Sulby, yes.'
Sebastian gave a derisive shake of his head as he stood up. 'I am afraid that whatever invitation you have accepted on my behalf you will just have to unaccept.' He moved to the library door.
'What are you doing?' The Duke frowned at him darkly.
'Leaving.' Sebastian gave him a pitying look. 'But before I go I have a proposition of my own to set before you, Hawk ' He paused in the open doorway.
'A proposition ?' Hawk found himself so deeply disturbed by his brother's stubbornness thatunusuallyhe could barely hold his temper in check.
Sebastian nodded. 'Once you are marriedhappily so, of courseI promise I will give serious consideration to the parson's mousetrap for myself!' His step was jaunty as he closed the library door softly behind him.
Hawk sat back heavily in his chair as he contemplated the closed door for several long seconds before reaching for the decanter of brandy that stood on his desktop and pouring a large measure.
Damn, damn, damn.
He made a point of never attending house parties in the country once the Season had ended and the House had dispersed for the summer. He had only committed himself to spending a week in Norfolk with the Sulbys for the sole purpose of introducing Sebastian to the young woman he had hoped would become his brother's future bride.
His own acquaintance was with Sir Barnaby Sulby the two of them having dined together at their club several times. There had been no opportunity for Hawk to meet the other gentleman's wife and daughter during the Season, the Sulby family not having received an invitation to the three balls at which Hawk had been Arabella's escort, but Hawk knew from his enquiries that on her father's death Olivia Sulby would inherit Markham Park and its surrounding thousand acres of farmland. As the younger brother of a duke such a match could be considered perfect for Sebastian.
Except Sebastian had now told Hawkall too succinctly!that he had no intention of even considering taking a wife until Hawk had done so himself. Leaving Hawk committed to spending a week in Norfolka county of flat fenland so totally unlike his own beloved Gloucestershire.
It had all the appeal of a walk to the gallows!
'There you are, Jane. Do stop your dawdling on the stairs, girl.' Lady Gwendoline Sulby, a faded beauty in her mid-forties, glared her impatience as the object of her attention came to a halt neither up nor down the wide staircase. 'No, do not come down. Proceed back up to my bedroom and collect my shawl for me before our guests start to arrive. The silk one with the yellow rosebuds. I do believe the weather might be changing, Sulby.' She turned worriedly to her portly husband as he stood beside her in the spacious hallway in anticipation of the arrival of their guests.
Jane knew that Sir Barnaby was twenty years older than his wife, and he was looking most uncomfortable in his high-necked shirt and tightly tied necktie. His yellow waistcoat stretched almost impossibly across his rounded stomach, and his brown jacket and cream breeches were doing little to hide that strain.
Poor Sir Barnaby, Jane mused as she turned obediently back up the stairs to collect the requested shawl. She knew her guardian would so much rather have been out on the estate somewhere with his manager, wearing comfortable old clothes, than standing in the draughty hallway of Markham Park, awaiting the first dozen or so house guests who would shortly arrive for the start of a week's entertainments and gentile frivolity.
'Bring down my white parasol, too, Jane.' Olivia frowned up at her, a young replica of her mother's earlier beauty, with her fashionably rounded figure, big blue eyes, and golden ringlets arranged enticingly about the dewy beauty of her face.
'Do not shout in that unladylike manner, Olivia.' Lady Gwendoline looked scandalised by her daughter's behaviour. 'Whatever would the Duke think if he were to hear you?' She gave an agitated wave of her fan.
'But you shouted, Mama.' Olivia pouted her displeasure at the rebuke.
'I am the mistress of this house. I am allowed to shout.'
Jane smiled slightly as she continued on her way back up the stairs, knowing that the illogical bickering between mother and daughter was likely to continue for several more minutes. The arguments had been constant and sometimes heated during the last week as the household prepared for the arrival of the Sulbys' house guests, and most of them had the phrases 'the Duke' or 'His Grace' in their content.
For the Duke of Stourbridge was to be the Sulby's guest of honour this weekas every member of the overworked household had been constantly made aware, as they cleaned and scrubbed and polished Markham Park in preparation for 'His Grace, the Duke's' arrival.
Not that Jane expected to be included in any of the planned entertainments, or even to meet the illustrious Duke in person. She was only a poor relation. Jane Smith. A distant relation that the Sulbys had taken pity on and charitably offered a home to for the last twelve of her two and twenty years.
Markham Park had seemed rather grand and alien to Jane when Sir Barnaby and Lady Gwendoline had first brought her here, her childhood having been spent in a tiny south coast vicarage, being lovingly cared for by her widowed father and Bessie, his elderly but motherly housekeeper.
But Jane had consoled herself with the fact that at least Markham Park was within walking distance of the seaallowing her, during the brief times she was able to escape the seemingly ever-watchful gaze of Lady Sulby, to go down to the rugged shoreline and enjoy its wild, untamed beauty.
Jane had quickly discovered that she liked Norfolk winters the bestwhen the sea would seem to rage and fight against the very restrictions of nature as an inner part of her longed to fight against the ever-increasing social strictures that were placed upon her. For, after she had shared the nursery and schoolroom with Olivia, until she reached the age of sixteen, she had stopped being treated as Olivia's equal and had become more maid and companion to the spoilt and pampered daughter of the house.
Jane paused as she passed the cheval mirror in Lady Sulby's bedroom, studying her reflection critically and knowing as she did so that she was everything that was not fashionable. She was tall, for one thing, with long legs and a slender willowy figure. She wished she could say that her hair was an interesting auburn, but instead it was a bright, gleaming red. And, although her complexion was creamy, she did have that unattractive sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of her tiny nose. Plus, her eyes were green.
None of this was complemented in the least by the gowns Lady Sulby had made up for her. They were always of a pastel shade that did nothing for Jane's vibrant colouring. Her present one, of the palest pink, was so totally unflattering with the red of her hair.
Of course it was very doubtful that Jane would ever meet anyone who would want to marry her. Unless the local vicar took pity on her and made an offer. And as he was a middle-aged widower, with four unruly young children all under the age of eight, Jane did so hope that he would not.
She gave a weary sigh as she collected the requested silk shawl from Lady Sulby's dressing table, noticing as she did so that Lady Sulby's jewellery box had not been returned to its proper place in the top drawer.
But Jane's attention was diverted from the jewellery box as she heard the sound of a carriage outside, travelling down the yew-lined gravel driveway to Markham Park.
The Duke and his brother Lord Sebastian St Claire at last? Or one of the Sulbys' other guests?