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THE HEIRESS IN HIS BED
By TAMARA LEJEUNE
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2009 Tamara Lejeune
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe engagement between Lady Viola Gambol and the Marquis of Bamph was of long standing, having been arranged by their respective parents when the lady was cooing in her cradle and the gentleman was galloping to St Ives on his rocking horse. By the time Viola could walk and talk, the matter was so widely understood amongst her acquaintances that no one thought it necessary to tell her. Consequently, she learned of her good fortune no sooner than her twenty-first birthday, when all the provisions of her father's will came fully into effect.
Being of excessively gentle birth, she flew at once into a towering rage. Her elder half brother, the Duke of Fanshawe, remained at home to weather the storm, and was not, as everyone expected, called away on urgent business. When Viola entered the breakfast parlor the next morning, he was seated at the table engulfing his steak and eggs as usual, a motley assortment of dogs whining greedily at his feet.
The duke-known to his friends as Dickon-was short in stature, but he wisely made up for it in bulk. Froglike, his bald head sat squarely on his shoulders without the assistance of a neck. His clothes, though not inexpensive, did little more than reflect his love of food and country life, being stuck all over with burrs and splashedwith gravy. His mother had been married for her money, and it showed to a painful degree in the son's cheerfully ugly face.
Viola's mother, on the other hand, had been married for her beauty, and that beauty had been passed on to her daughter with scarcely any interference from the father. Her skin was flawless, if a little too olive for a well-bred English girl. Her bold eyes were a very dark blue, and her black hair grew in natural ringlets. She had an arrogant little nose and a stubborn little chin. When she smiled, nothing could stand against her. She was not smiling now, her brother could not help but notice, but at least she was no longer shouting.
"There you are," he said brightly.
"Here I am," Viola agreed, sounding as if she wished it might be possible to deny it.
As she went unsmiling to the sideboard, the palace dogs scrambled after the skirts of her expertly tailored riding costume. Viola dutifully tossed bacon to the dogs, but Dickon could tell her heart wasn't in it. Her heart wasn't in the chafing dishes, either; all she took for herself was a mean little slice of fish, hardly enough to keep body and soul together.
"Aren't you going to eat?" he asked her anxiously. "You'll need your strength for your wedding night. Men are beasts, you know."
Viola frowned at him, her dark brows drawn together in a straight line. When she frowned, she looked like a brooding young queen plotting wars and assassinations. "I'm not hungry," she said coldly.
"Not hungry?" he repeated in blank amazement. "No breakfast? And you didn't eat your dinner last night, either. Too busy throwing it at my head, as I recall."
The soup tureen had missed its intended target, but the memory was still unpleasant.
"It isn't fair," said Viola, pushing her plate away.
"No, it isn't fair," the duke agreed. "I had nothing to do with this engagement, after all. You had no reason to throw your soup at me. If you must throw your soup, you should throw it at our father. He arranged the marriage, not I."
"I can't," said Viola. "He's dead."
"And that should be enough for you, young Viola," he scolded her. "You needn't run about the place flinging soup just because you are engaged."
"I am not engaged!" she flashed. "I don't want to be married. I'm perfectly happy living here with you and the dogs."
"You don't look happy," Dickon observed.
"That's because I'm miserable," Viola explained. "I am not accustomed to the yoke of tyranny. Fathers should not be allowed to dictate to their children from beyond the grave."
"But he's nabbed you a marquis!" Dickon exclaimed in astonishment.
"Who asked him to?" she demanded in a rather surly tone.
"But why not marry Bamph?" Dickon wanted to know. "You'll have to marry somebody someday, young Viola. It might as well be a marquis."
"Why?" she demanded, her frown deepening.
Dickon gaped at her. "Why? Be sensible! There ain't any dukes out at the moment, and you wouldn't want to lower yourself with an earl."
"But why must I marry at all?" she demanded. "I have a home here with you. I'm not poor. I'm not bored. I'm not lonely. I don't need or want a husband."
"It's to do with the succession," he answered evasively. "You wouldn't understand."
"You mean you need an heir," she said scornfully. "Why can't you do it yourself?"
Dickon blushed hotly. "Because I can't, that's why," he snapped. "Cheeky madam! Now eat your fish like a good girl. There are babies starving in Ireland."
"What happens if I refuse to marry Lord Bamph?" Viola inquired haughtily.
Dickon was shocked. "Viola! You are bound by a father's promise. I know it's a cursed, shabby trick and all that, but you'll just have to make the best of it. If it's too beastly for you, you can always come home-after my nephew is born, of course. It's the only way to get your money, I'm afraid," he added.
"What about my money?" Viola said sharply.
"You should have listened to the attorneys before you lost your temper," he admonished her. "It's ironclad. If you don't marry Lord Bamph, you don't get your money."
There followed a long silence, in which Viola tried to imagine a life without money. To her, such a life hardly seemed worth living. "What sort of man is he?" she asked presently.
"Who?" Dickon asked blankly.
"Bamph, of course," she said impatiently. "Is he handsome at least?"
Dickon shrugged. "How should I know? I've never met the man."
"You mean you know nothing of him?" she cried.
Dickon bristled. "I know he's a marquis. That's not nothing. We'll know more when we meet him," he predicted. "You might even like him."
"No, I won't," she said crossly. "I shall make it a particular point not to like him."
"Come, now," he cajoled her. "Don't be so gloomy. He's sent you a letter. Wasn't that good of him? Wasn't that thoughtful?"
"That would depend on the letter," she replied. "What does he have to say for himself?"
"I hope you don't think I read your letters, young Viola," Dickon said indignantly. "I didn't even read the letter he sent me. Fetch the letters, Jem," he commanded the footman.
The footman quickly returned with two letters on his silver tray. Viola's was only a page folded in half and sealed with a wafer, but the duke had been honored with a large envelope.
"I can find no fault in his handwriting," Viola murmured, placing her letter on the table and lifting the wax seal with her knife. "But his spelling-! Someone should tell him there's no E in my name."
"There is so an E in 'my name,'" Dickon pointed out. "It's silent, that's all."
"Well, there's not an E in Viola Gambol," she snapped. "We're in DeBrett's. He could look us up! Or can't this person read?"
"Bah," said Dickon. "It was probably his secretary. None of them can spell."
"And listen to this!" Viola said, her eyes fixed on her letter, her cheeks growing pink with indignation. "'For many years now, dear madam, I have lived in breathless anticipation of the happy event which is upon us at last.'"
She stopped reading to give an exclamation of disgust.
"He can't really have gone without breath for years," Dickon scoffed. "He'd have died."
"He admits that he has known of this ridiculous, medieval arrangement for-and I quote-'many years'! And yet," Viola went on angrily, "this is his first letter. He has never deigned to visit me. He's never sent me a present. As a gentleman, he should have come to Yorkshire in person and applied for my hand. He is a man without courtesy," she decided. "I can't marry a man without courtesy! I shall have to be poor! I don't want to be poor!"
Shoving back his chair, Dickon ambled over to the sideboard and helped himself to the ham, bacon, and kippers that always came after his steak and eggs. "I don't see why a man should apply for something he's already been given free of charge," he said reasonably as he waded back to the table through a sea of Great Danes, Dalmatians, Pomeranians, and pugs.
"Don't you?" Viola said, shocked.
"No," he said simply, licking his fingers. "Do you suppose that Adam asked for Eve's hand in marriage after God gave her to him? No, of course not. The same principle applies here. Now, don't be angry, young Viola," he went on soothingly. "Read your letter. Ten to one it's chock-full of red-hot lovemaking, all the way from London."
"You're mistaken," she said coldly. "There is no lovemaking, thank God. His lordship merely writes to summon me. I'm to go to London at once! He seems to think I'm some sort of traveling exhibit! Oh, and he will condescend to marry me the first week of June at St George's Church, Hanover Square, London-by special license, no less!"
"The first week of June? But that's our holidays," the duke objected. "Then there's the grouse shooting when we get back. You couldn't possibly marry him until October at least."
"If then," said Viola, tossing her letter to the dogs. "As for St George, stuff and nonsense! I shall be married at York Minster, where I was baptized, and there will be no need whatever for such a vulgar, unnatural thing as a special license. I'd sooner elope! It's as if his design is to humiliate me-and we're not even married yet!"
Calming herself, she picked up her cup of chocolate and asked, with forced pleasantry, "And what, pray tell, has Lord Bamph to say to you?"
Dickon obligingly cracked the seal on his envelope. Inside was a thick sheaf of papers covered with tiny writing, precisely what he most disliked to find inside envelopes. But, for his sister's sake, he took up the top page, the frontispiece, as it were, and squinted at it.
"Oh ho!" he said presently. "I am summonsed to London, too, by God! To discuss the enclosed document." He glared at the enclosed document almost savagely. "Behold your marriage settlement, young Viola. Thirty beastly articles! I pity the lawyer who must read it."
Viola was on her feet. "How much money does he want?"
"Rather a lot, by the look of it," said Dickon. "But you're worth it, my dear."
"I suppose he thinks he's worth it!" said Viola, running down the room to him. "Don't sign it, Dickon, whatever you do!"
"I'm not such a fool as you seem to think, young Viola," he said indignantly. "I don't sign anything without a solicitor's advice, not since ... Well, never mind about that," he added hurriedly as Viola pored over the document. "The less said about that, the better. Now, don't worry, my dear. The lawyers will sort everything."
"That mumbling old fool!" Viola muttered, thinking very unkindly of their family solicitor. "Mr Peabody, Esquire, couldn't sort his own socks. This isn't a marriage settlement," she complained. "It's unconditional surrender! It's slavery. He wants everything I possess or ever will possess. I do not accept his lordship's terms."
"He doesn't want Lyons, does he?" cried Dickon, becoming alarmed. Lyons, pronounced simply "lions," was the lone piece of property Viola had inherited from her mother, and Dickon was very attached to it.
Viola stalked over to the fire and tossed Lord Bamph's proposal into the flames, stabbing it with the poker for good measure. "I told you I wouldn't like him."
The duke was almost as fired up as Lord Bamph's proposal. "He's not getting your hunting lodge, I can tell you that! Lyons has the best shooting in all Scotland. I may have to give him my sister, but I'll be damned if I let him shoot your birds, Viola!"
"No, he won't get Lyons," Viola assured him. "I will not become one of those pathetic, pitiful little women who must go to their husbands once a week and beg for their pathetic, pitiful little allowances. I may have to marry this cretin to get my fortune, but it is my fortune, and I mean to keep it! I'll just have to hide it somehow. He doesn't know how much I have. I could give him, say, ten thousand pounds, and keep the rest for myself."
"Perhaps he doesn't know about Lyons," said Dickon hopefully. "Maybe we could tell him it don't exist."
Viola walked up and down the room restlessly, following her own thoughts. "These old lawyers are too soft to be of any use," she complained. "I need a ruthless man. For my sake, let him be entirely without scruples. Let him be cold, hard, and hungry. Dirty, too, if at all possible. Have we got anybody like that in our pay?" she asked her brother doubtfully.
Dickon thought for a moment while chewing. "There's Dev."
Viola stopped pacing. "Dev?" she repeated cautiously.
"Dev," he clarified. "Devize. I don't know if he's hungry, but I've heard him called all those other things. In fact, I've heard him called a lot worse."
"Well, don't tease me," said Viola, taking a chair. "Tell me all about this paragon."
"Not much to tell." Dickon shrugged. "Dev's our man in London. He's a stockjobber. He manages our money."
Viola groaned in disgust. "Dickon, this is war," she protested. "One doesn't bring a blunt instrument to a war. I need a man so sharp he cuts himself getting out of bed."
"What sort of an idiot cuts himself getting out of bed?" Dickon wanted to know.
"The point is, a stockjobber knows nothing of the law. Bamph will have many clever lawyers on the case."
"What do you want a lawyer for?" Dickon retorted. "Everyone knows the law hates women. The law won't help you cheat your husband. A wife is a man's property, you know, and a wife's property belongs to her husband. That's the law."
"You're right," Viola conceded. "But what do you suppose Mr Devize can do about it?"
Dickon shrugged. "Something underhanded and clever, I should imagine."
"Oh, undoubtedly! But would he willing to, say, bend the law?"
"He'll do better than that-he'll break it," Dickon said proudly. "I told you he was a stockjobber, didn't I? The authorities keep trying to put him in gaol, but they can never prove anything. The law can't touch him, you see. He's too clever."
"Really?" said Viola, suitably impressed.
"It takes a toll, however," Dickon said sadly. "It takes a toll. When I met Dev, he was fat and brown. I thought him a handsome fellow. However, he's grown so pale of late, I hardly know him. A shadow of his former! Skin like library paste!"
"I don't care what he looks like," Viola interrupted. "Do you trust him? If I'm going to embark on a campaign of unlawful deception with this person, I must be assured of his integrity."
"Integrity!" Dickon spluttered. "I'll have you know his father's a baron!"
"Mr Devize, your stockjobber, is a gentleman?" she said incredulously.
"I just told you his father's a peer of the realm."
Viola sighed. "A gentleman won't help me, Dickon! A gentleman is bound by a code of honor. Your Mr Devize would be far more likely to help Bamph."
"Not Dev," Dickon insisted. "You wrong him, Viola. He ain't bound by a code of honor. He hates Society, and Society hates him. They say he's sold his soul to the devil, but that's probably just superstitious nonsense. I think they're all afraid of him."
Viola was intrigued. She had a low opinion of her brother's intelligence in general, but he did occasionally stumble across a good idea. "Very well. Send for him," she decided. "If he can help me, I'll make it worth his while. Will he care to bring his wife and children with him to Fanshawe, do you think?"
Dickon shook his head. "It's no good. He won't come. I've invited him to Fanshawe heaps of times, but he's always too busy to leave London. As for a wife, he can't afford one."
She smiled incredulously. "Can't afford a wife? What? In spite of all his shady, unlawful dealings? Where does his money go?"
"It goes to us, of course," Dickon answered. "Well, I suppose he takes what he needs to live on, and I don't begrudge him that. He told me once, he does it for the excitement, although what he finds exciting about speculating on the Royal Exchange, I can't tell you. To each his own. He gets all the excitement, and we get all the profits. Everyone's happy, except, of course, the poor fools who get in his way, but that's their lookout."
"Dickon," Viola said sternly, "if Mr Devize is dependent on us for his livelihood, he is ours to command. Command him to come to Yorkshire at once."
Dickon stirred uncomfortably.
"Would it be an act of courage?" Viola asked, amused. "Are you afraid of him?" (Continues...)
Excerpted from THE HEIRESS IN HIS BED by TAMARA LEJEUNE Copyright © 2009 by Tamara Lejeune. Excerpted by permission.
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