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An elegant black curricle approached the austere front of a fine Palladian country mansion at a smart clip, scattering gravel as Sir Marcus Rutledge brought his perfectly matched bays to a halt. He handed the reins to his tiger, then leaped from his carriage, pausing to give a searching look at the house before proceeding up the steps.
His black greatcoat swirled about his tall, lithe figure as he strode to the entrance. An impatient tug on the bellpull brought immediate response.
Once invited inside, he handed his black hat to the butler, then swiftly followed a footman up the fine oak stairs and down a dimly lit hall. No one had to remind him that time was of the essence. He was well aware the hours remaining were few.
He truly had not expected a summons just now. A funeral command, yes. Not a demand that he present himself at once.
The door to his uncle's bedroom was opened for him, and Marcus entered with a cautious step. It didn't look much like the room of a dying man. Jonquil curtains allowed pale sunlight to flood the room. White walls and counterpane added to the illusion of a summer day.
But autumn was here, winter soon to follow, just as his uncle once removed was in the waning moments of his life. His winter's sleep hovered at his bedside, unless Marcus was much mistaken. He rarely was.
Eyes of faded blue surveyed Marcus with still acute vision. "So, you came."
"You knew I would." Marcus stepped closer to the bed, shedding his coat, then tossing it aside to fall on a bright golden chair. "The message was unexpected. I thought all was settled?"
"Sit down, sit down, my boy. You hover like a hawk about to swoop down on me. My time isnear, but not quite, I think." The Earl of Huntingdon managed a weak smile at his jest.
Marcus did as bade. He pushed aside his coat and drew the golden chair close to the bed, lowering his admittedly intimidating height. Silently he studied his father's cousin, who had been like a father to Marcus when his parents died. "There is more?"
"Indeed. I have made changes in the will I wish to discuss with you." The earl's voice might be no more than a strong whisper, but it could be clearly heard in the quiet of the room.
"And?" Marcus leaned forward so that the ill man would not feel the need to force what voice he had left to be heard.
"I have willed everything to you--the property is not entailed, as you know--the house, everything I have. I have made Charis a proper allowance, her sister and mother as well. But you will be my heir in everything but the title."
"And that must go to Charis." Marcus found it difficult to speak; the enormity of what had been revealed overwhelmed. "Why, if I may know?"
"My lawyer made a few notes. Read for yourself." The whisper faded into nothing, and with his eyes closed against the brightness of the day, the earl sought strength in sleep.
The valet who had hovered near the door stepped forward, a few papers in hand. "I believe these are what he wished you to read, sir."
Marcus rapidly scanned the words that covered the pages--legible, but outrageous. He looked to the servant, who stood patiently waiting by the bed, "She will not like this in the least." Marcus considered that was probably the most ridiculous remark he had made in some time. Not like this? He would be lucky to escape with his person in one piece. He gave a grim look at the man tucked beneath the covers of the bed; a barely perceptible rise indicating there was yet life in the still form.
What maggoty notion had possessed the earl to this madness? For madness it must be.
Pale winter sun brought little cheer to the young woman staring out of the window at the dreary landscape beyond. On the avenue to the house, a blanket of snow gradually melted, forming muddy slush that was impossible to travel through, no matter how fine the horses or how excellent the equipage.
The February sun picked out copper highlights in her hair and lightly warmed her peach-toned cheeks. She was a pretty young woman blessed with looks and an admirable figure, as well as a fine sense of humor and a spirit of adventure quite lamented by her mama. At present she was garbed in a deplorable black gown, indicating a state of mourning. The dull bombazine rustled when she moved.
"It is the only thing to do, Mama. I must go to London. You know that," Charis insisted, turning from the view to face her parent. "I have little dowry or money, no land--everything has gone to Marcus." She sounded realistic, not bitter as she had every right to be. "But there ought to be a number of decent men who would like a countess for a wife and a title for their eldest son!"
"True," the elder Countess of Huntingdon replied vaguely. She tugged at the cap she wore that was perpetually askew, trying to set it right and only making it worse. If possible, she had become even more absent-minded since her husband had died a little over a year ago. She looked at her daughter, now the Countess of Huntingdon in her own right, and smiled. "But you do have the title."
Harriet, the younger daughter of the family, studied her mother and sister, then piped up, "Where could we stay? Cousin Marcus has everything--including the London house." Her blue eyes were alert and auburn curls seemed to quiver with her curiosity--and hope.
With a sigh that acknowledged the truth of her sister's words, Charis looked at Harriet before turning back to her mother. "She is right, of course. We cannot afford the rent of a decent house in the city."
"Huntingdon House will suit us very well, I think," Lady Huntingdon said with a faraway look in her eyes. She gave her daughter a wistful smile, then continued, "We had such lovely parties there."
Charis turned to Harriet. "What do you think?" Even though seventeen, Harriet had ever been a practical girl and was always consulted as to her opinion on matters.
"Well, Marcus liked you when he was young," Harriet said cautiously. "Perhaps he would not mind so much if we stayed in what used to be our home."
"His partiality was hardly evident at the funeral," Charis snapped. She had been stunned when her favorite second cousin had inherited nearly everything that ought to have come to her. But when he gave her an aloof stare, looking for all the world like a hawk surveying its kingdom, she had felt crushed. This cold, enigmatic man, so virile, tall, and terribly handsome was a stranger to her. She had not been resentful as much as forlorn, as though she had lost far more than her inheritance. She chewed at her lower lip before venturing to give her thoughts voice. "Well, we live here at his sufferance. I can see little difference if we exchange this house for the London one."
Harriet looked rather dubious. "He might be living there, you know."
"Nonsense. He has a perfectly good house of his own." Charis abandoned the drapery cord she had toyed with while speaking and began pacing before the window while considering the matter at hand.
"So our former home ought to be sitting empty," Harriet said, eyes gleaming with obvious delight.
Charis plumped herself down on a nearby chair. "We will go." She glanced out at the scene beyond the window and grimaced. "That is, as soon as the roads improve."
"What shall we take with us?" Harriet said, rising from her chair and leaving their dog, Ruff, to his toy. "I have grown out of nearly all my dresses, and yours are so frumpish you would never catch the eye of a smart gentleman," she stated, her voice and manner the frankness of a younger sister.
Charis gave Harriet a vexed look. She had not bothered obtaining fashionable mourning clothes. Buried as they were in the country, she had not deemed it necessary. Besides, none of her beaux called once word got about she had been left almost penniless.
"If we save our allowance and take more care than usual, we ought to have enough for a few new gowns. I shall be a catchpenny countess. I will have little value and be got up to attract a purchaser." Charis did not feel very optimistic and said nothing about how poorly her father had seen to her future. What had possessed him to will it all to Marcus? She had adored Marcus as a child. She had not expected to see him win the estate and all the money, leaving her with but a pittance.
"Are you going to write Marcus?" Harriet wondered. She tossed a toy for Ruff, then watched him fetch it.
"No need," Charis replied carelessly. "It is not as though he is my guardian. He is merely the cousin who has it all." Whether she meant the money and land or his handsome looks and polish, she did not say.
Harriet studied her sister a moment before heading to the attics and their trunks.
Charis was hopeful the roads would dry with the next wind and they could be off to London. Pleased at the prospect, she followed Harriet to the attics. They would not need much in the way of baggage. Goodness knows they had little enough to bring with them.
So it was that as soon as the weather took a turn for the milder and the roads were passable, the Huntingdon traveling coach headed to London with a concerned Charis, a jubilant Harriet, and a preoccupied dowager countess aboard.
Charis observed that Harriet did not miss a thing on the way. With a travel book in her lap, she peered out of the window to make note of every landmark mentioned. When Charis failed to respond to her eager comments, Harriet fell silent but did not cease her scrutiny.
Even a necessary stay overnight at an inn did not dampen Harriet's enthusiasm. Two Countesses Huntingdon and Lady Harriet Dane brought very nice attention, and Harriet clearly reveled in it. When they at last approached the City, she could scarce contain herself.
Huntingdon House looked precisely as it had the previous and only time Charis had been in London. An elegant brick edifice, it was a trifle larger and more imposing than its neighbors. The steps to the large black door glistened with scrubbing, and the brass knocker gleamed with polish.
The groom dashed smartly up the stairs to give the knocker a firm rap, then returned to the coach.
"How good to know the staff is not lax merely because the ownership has changed," Charis murmured to Harriet while the groom assisted their mother out of the coach.
The door opened, and the butler who had been there since the dowager had come to the house as a bride, stepped forth to greet them. "My lady!" That he was visibly taken aback to see the countess exiting the traveling coach and revealed it said a great deal about his astonishment. Not only that, Charis thought he appeared a little discomfited as well.
"We are come for the Season, Seymour," the dowager said when at last untangled from her various shawls.
"I confess, I am surprised, my lady," the butler replied at his most dignified. "Sir Marcus said nothing to me."
"That is because he does not know," Harriet said with a grin. Her auburn curls danced in the breeze while her bonnet dangled from impatient fingers. "Charis figured he has his own house anyway, so we need not bother."
Suddenly seeming aware it was not the thing to stand conversing on the steps, the butler ushered the three women into the house. Directing them to the library, he promised tea and sustenance shortly. Frowning heavily, Seymour disappeared in the direction of the kitchen.
Harriet gave him a thoughtful look, then followed Charis and her mother into the well-remembered library.
Charis walked to the center of the room, looking around her. She stripped off her gloves, dropping them on the desk in preparation for their tea. "Little has changed, although I must say that it seems as though someone has been here recently." She paused to peer at the papers on the desk, taking note that the top page had a recent date on it. "This is addressed to Sir Marcus Rutledge." To her mother she added, "Do you suppose he uses this library rather than his own?"
Seymour entered bearing a tray covered with dishes, a teapot, and a plate of delectable-looking biscuits.
Ignoring the tray for the moment, Charis turned to the butler. "Does Sir Marcus use this room?"
"Indeed, he does, my lady." He stood stiffly at attention, looking, Charis thought, as though he would rather be elsewhere. "Will that be all, my lady?"
"Yes, thank you, Seymour," Charis replied, deciding she would find out more later and took note how he hurried from the room as though chased by Ruff. The dog was busy sniffing at all the corners.
"Why are you frowning, Charis?" Harriet queried. "These biscuits are wonderful. Do try one."
"Do you not think Seymour's behavior was a trifle odd?"
"He always was reserved," Lady Huntingdon murmured from the depths of the most comfortable chair in the room.
Putting aside the peculiar attitude of the butler, Charis poured tea for all, then helped herself to a biscuit. There was far too much to do to wonder about a butler.
Their maid directed the disposal of the small trunks and portmanteaus, quite aware of her superior position. She also collected Ruff, taking him along with her to the room set aside for Charis, a fine bedroom to the rear of the house.
Harriet explored the ground floor, then ran up the stairs to see what the rooms on the main floor were like.
"Charis, come see. These rooms are truly splendid. It is like a palace!" she called, leaning over the stair railing to be certain Charis would hear.
Charis responded to Harriet's excited call with amused tolerance. She had felt the same way when first viewing the London house. It was a good thing that Marcus handled the financial aspects--this house must cost a huge sum to run. She hurried up the stairs to join her sister, entering the drawing room in a rush.
"It looks just the same, love," she said when she studied the lovely room.
Indeed, the pale green silk on the walls had faded but slightly, and the elegant gilded trim shone as bright as ever. The numerous chairs and sofas covered in the same delicate green silk looked fresh. A tall flower-filled crystal vase graced a Sheraton mahogany sofa table. The Moorfield carpet in pale green and gold on ivory looked to have been freshly brushed. Indeed, it appeared to Charis that the room was fit to be occupied, even suitable for entertaining. She ran a finger over the smooth finish of one of the dainty side tables. Not a speck of dust in sight.
Charis gave Harriet a puzzled look. "I'd expected to find Holland covers on the furniture and certainly no fresh flowers about. You do not suppose that Marcus uses the entire house, do you? After all, he has his own."
"It is not only possible, it is an actuality, dear cousin Charis," said an amused voice from the doorway.
She whirled about, gasping at the man who filled the doorway. He must tower above other men, and if that was an example of his London attire, he could easily grace the regent's court. He was even more handsome than she remembered with that devilish half smile and those eyes twinkling at her with engaging charm. "What are you doing here?" she stammered.
"It is my home. May I inquire what you are doing here?" He strolled into the room, a perfect example of a gentleman of means. If Marcus was annoyed at their appearing in his home, he did not reveal it. He politely shook hands with Harriet, then turned to Charis, clasping her suddenly cold hand in his. He raised her gloveless hand to his lips to place a kiss on her bare skin.
Charis had the most peculiar sensation of little shocks streaking from his touch up her arm and throughout her. It was not an unpleasant feeling but rather one of excitement, a tingling she had never felt before. She could not speak, bewildered by her reaction to one she had known for so many years. Yet, he was not the boy she had known. Hardly! Marcus fairly oozed masculinity and charm, something that scamp of a boy had not.
"We came for the Season so Charis can find a husband," Harriet blurted when her sister was slow to speak.
"Is that true?" he asked Charis, not releasing her hand but giving her a look that seemed to judge.
After darting a look at Harriet that promised later retribution, Charis nodded, hastily pulling her hand from his clasp and ignoring his look of mockery. "Without a large dowry, no money or land, I must find a husband as soon as possible. We cannot continue to live on your charity." She lifted her chin in challenge. It galled her to admit that all they enjoyed was at his sufferance.
"No trouble at all, my dear Charis. What do you have in mind?" He gestured to a group of chairs, then sat after Charis sank down on the nearest one. Her knees were about to fail her, so his act had been most providential.
"I need to see who is in Town, look about.... "Words failed her at his expression. He had tilted his head in an attitude of polite attentiveness, but in his eyes she thought she saw a gleam of amusement.
"I suggest you see the premier mantua-maker in Town before you do anything. Your clothes are hopelessly out of date if that rag you are wearing is any indication." He leaned back in his chair, rubbing his chin pensively as he examined her appearance.
"We have been in mourning, sirrah," she snapped. "And you are as blunt as you ever were."
He nodded before continuing, as though she had not spoken, "If you seek a husband, you must not look penniless."
"But I am penniless," she reminded, matching his bluntness with her own. "I shall be a catchpenny countess on display." Now she mocked him.
"However, you have the title," he countered.
"That is just what Mama said," Harriet inserted. "So, may we stay here? Charis said we do not have the money to rent a proper house in the City, and this is a very big place for just one person." Harriet gave him a saucy grin, her blue eyes likely sparkling with the thought that perhaps she had put him on the spot.
"Perhaps we might work something out," he conceded.
"I thought you had a house of your own," Charis said, a puzzled frown creasing her forehead.
"When I inherited Huntingdon House, I decided to rent mine. There is always a dearth of available housing in the better part of Town."
Charis narrowed her green eyes. "I'll wager they fetch a pretty price as well."
He bowed his head in agreement.
"We would stay out of your way," Harriet promised.
"We would indeed try to remain out of your way, and if there is anything we could do on your behalf, you have only to ask," Charis added rashly.
He studied one of his hands before looking up to meet her concerned gaze. A slow smile crossed his face, and Charis uneasily wondered what he was thinking. She did not particularly trust that look. He did not reveal his thoughts, however.
"It will work," Charis persisted.
"Actually, it might do very well. I have wanted to give a few dinners, and your mother will serve well as hostess. I saw her when I entered the house."
"Mother?" Harriet said with a squeak. "You would have to be sure to remind her that there is a dinner. You must know how absentminded she is."
Charis found her eyes trapped in the depths of his gaze. His smile had broadened, and she wondered if he recalled a few of the more outrageous incidents from their childhood.
"I am aware of my aunt's weakness."
"So ... we may remain?" Charis persisted.
"Was it ever in doubt? My dear cousin, I would look like the most hardened of ogres were I to turn you out when you have no place to go. Of course you remain."
He rose, and Charis watched him as he walked to the door. He exuded an aura of masculinity that went far beyond anything she had experienced to date. He was awe inspiring, to say the least.
"I wonder if..." she began, then thought better of her remark.
"We shall make out very well, I believe," he said, pausing in the doorway. "In fact, I could not have hoped for better. And it is more than time that you find a husband."
When he disappeared from sight and they no longer heard his steps, Charis turned to Harriet and said, "Surely he does not intend to rely on Mama to that extent."
"I devoutly hope not," Harriet agreed. "But he agrees that it is time for you to marry. I wonder if he has someone in mind."
Charis walked to the door, ignoring the beauty around her to contemplate what manner of man Marcus would think suitable for her husband. Her mind boggled at the images conjured up at the very thought.
Later, when the baggage had been unpacked and their dearth of fashionable clothing had been made painfully evident, Charis sought paper and pencil in the library. She was in the midst of drawing up a modest list of necessities when Marcus entered the room. At his look of inquiry she explained her task.
"With our budget, I must spend with care. I am trying to create a wardrobe that will be attractive, yet not too expensive." She glanced at the paper and crossed out an item.
He walked around the desk to peer over her shoulder. Ignoring her gasp of indignation, he pulled the paper from her hand. He scanned the unpretentious collection of garments and other things, a frown growing as he perused the list.
Defensive, Charis said, "I have tried hard to put down only what we truly need. Harriet has grown so much, she has little to wear, and I've not bought any gowns for over a year. I dyed a few old dresses rather than have new black ones made up," she confessed.
"This will never do," he said dismissively, tossing the paper into the empty fireplace. "I would be declared a villain were you to have such a paltry wardrobe. And, dear cousin, no man wants to marry a woman who wears the same gown forever--as you would of necessity do if you adhered to that list." He gestured to the paper as though it contained something poisonous.
"You know I have little money! Even were Harriet, Mama, and I to combine our total allowances, it would barely cover what we need--and only if we went to a modest mantua-maker!" Charis was outraged and rose from the chair to remove the list from where he had tossed it. Glancing at it again, she had to admit it was not a list a countess would tolerate normally.
Again he took the paper, studying it with care. "Triple everything and send the bills to me." He handed the slip of paper to her and headed toward the door.
Angered at his high-handed behavior and dismissal of her straits, Charis followed him. "You want it known we depend on your charity?"
He paused in the doorway, giving her a remote look that chilled her to her bones. "Not in the least. Recall, the money would have been yours had not your father changed his will."
"I wonder when he did that." Charis mused as she followed him. She narrowed her eyes and gave Marcus a speculative stare. She recalled that hasty trip made by Marcus a week before her father died.
"If you think I had any influence in his decision, you are far off the mark." He turned to clasp her upper arms, giving her a slight shake. His eyes held a fierce look. "It was not my choice."
Charis trembled, not only at the fierce look, but also at her reaction to his touch. What in the world was the matter with her? She did not adore him anymore. That had been no more than her childish affection. Now she could barely tolerate him. And she did not wish to be beholden to the man! Yet she was realistic enough to know he was correct in his estimation of her situation.
"You feel that if I want to capture a husband, I must dress the part of a countess while in Society," she stated flatly.
"Very well," she said, capitulating. "I suppose you intend to supervise the ordering of gowns as well," she mocked, wanting to get under his skin, taunt that imperious male superiority.
"Curious you should think of that, little cousin. I believe that is one way the expenditure would be highly acceptable. Your mother always had a difficult time making decisions, and Harriet needs a nudge to know what is proper for a girl her age." His eyes teased her, making her realize he was quite aware of her tactics.
Horrified at his words and totally ignoring the expression in those dark blue eyes, Charis sputtered, "But surely I can guide both of them."
"You have been out of Town for some time--you cannot know what is all the crack now. Not that you do not have refined taste, dear cousin."
"Do not call me 'dear cousin' in that odious manner," she grumbled.
"Ah, but you are--my cousin and most dear." With that startling remark, he dropped her arms and left the room at once, leaving Charis in a confused muddle.
"What is the matter with you?" Harriet demanded. She waltzed into the library to pluck the paper from her sister's hand. A quick perusal brought a frown.
"Do not worry, Marcus said to triple the list!" Charis snapped out of her bemusement. Taking Harriet along with her, she sought out her mother to make plans.
She explained what had happened and all that Marcus proposed for them.
"So much?" the dowager exclaimed. "Such a darling boy to be so concerned for our place in Society. We shall visit Madame Clotilde tomorrow. She is the best. Leave a message for your cousin to that effect. He knows everyone and what is the latest fashion, you may be certain."
Charis wondered what the "darling boy" would have to say to such a presumptive command.
Rather than request that a servant take Ruff for a walk, she persuaded Harriet to go with her. They headed for Hyde Park as the nearest spot of greenery where the dog might have a little run.
About to cross the street, Harriet clutched her sister's arm and whispered, "There's Marcus. And he has a lady with him!"
Charis kept a tight hold of the dog's lead while she took note of her cousin's fine equipage, the high-stepping horses, and the elegance of the woman at his side. Fortunately they did not spot Charis and Harriet in the shadows.
"She is beautiful!" Harriet said, still whispering, although it was doubtful that Marcus might have heard her with the noise from the carriage as it rolled over the cobblestones.
"Indeed, she is very beautiful," Charis agreed, with an odd little pang in her heart. Suddenly she was resolved to purchase a gorgeous wardrobe, one that would enhance her green eyes and mahogany-colored hair that her country beaux declared so unusual.
"I think Marcus may regret telling you that you could have so many clothes. You mean to compete with her?" Harriet wondered in her usual frank manner.
"Compete? Heavens no," Charis replied with a laugh that did not ring quite true. She hurried across the street and let Ruff off his lead to chase a squirrel. When it ran up a tree, he sat at the base and barked until Charis called him away. She attached his lead and walked toward Huntingdon House again.
"Well, whatever you do, be careful," Harriet cautioned. "You do not want to antagonize the man who is making it possible for us to be in London."
Charis looked thoughtful and nodded. "I have no intention of antagonizing him." What she did intend, she failed to say.