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The dowager duchess of Salterdon perched like a crow on the church pew, her stubborn old chin outthrust, her liver-spotted brow creased, and her shoulders slightly humped within the black garment she wore -- she was not, after all, here to celebrate the most gossiped about marriage since my brother Clayton had wed some red-haired waif who haunted a crumbling old lighthouse and stole the King's horses.
The dowager's gnarled, bejeweled fingers curled around the crook of the cane she used to hobble around, and she impatiently bumped the cane upon the chapel floor, looking neither right nor left, seemingly oblivious to the whispers and occasional giggles of the guests who had packed the church, more for entertainment and perverse curiosity than to honor the bride and groom.
She wasn't oblivious, of course. I, Trey Hawthorne, the dishonorable, infamous, and disgraceful Duke of Salterdon -- the bane of the dowager's existence -- suspected my grandmother's hearing was still as sharp as the diamond facets on the ridiculously ostentatious ring she wore on her left hand. If someone within a country mile so much as murmured the Salterdon name in anything other than worship, she knew about it -- and God help the "hateful befouler."
"Hateful old bitch," I murmured as I gazed beyond the ajar rectory door, straight into my grandmother's eyes -- gray as my own -- and watched her thin, silver eyebrow lift, knowing full well she could read my lips.
I returned her look with a cold curl of my mouth, a lift of my port glass in toast, and a slight bow that was more mocking than courteous.
"There's still time to back out," came my brother's voice near my ear.
I turned my head a little too fast. The liquor in my veins slammed me hard enough to totter me backward.
My twin brother's face swam before me, my mirror image -- dark hair, slightly curly, stone gray eyes, chiseled features, and a mouth that reflected both concern and bemusement over my situation.
But that's where the similarities ended.
While Clayton Hawthorne had the heart and soul of a flipping saint, and the luck of the blessed, I was one thin hair from burning in hellfire for eternity.
My peers didn't refer to me as "Old Scratch" for nothing.
Clayton frowned and put out one hand to catch my arm, offering support. He sighed and shook his head.
"For the last three years, your objective in life has been to make Grandmother suffer -- and suffer she has. You've burned through your inheritance, you consistently find ways to get your name blasted throughout the London news, and finally scandalize with the ultimate revenge -- to marry not one of the acceptable young ladies of Grandmother's choosing, but
a notorious, thrice-divorced, twice-widowed older woman, whose penchant for cheating on her husbands and ruining them financially exceeds even your reputation. Edwina Narwhal Frydenthrope Thromonde Wohlstetter Rhodes is a...a..."
"Hussy." I quaffed the last of the port and plunked the empty glass aside. "Whore. Doxy. Slut. Slattern. Bawd. Harlot." I grinned and blinked sleepily at Clayton. "Shall I continue?"
"And you're marrying her."
I shrugged and adjusted my silk cravat. "So I am."
"It won't last."
"Of course it won't. But she's entertaining in bed. And she has money. In case you haven't noticed sufficiently, I need money."
Clayton's eyes narrowed. "How could I not notice? Thorn Rose Manor has gone to rack and ruin the last year. You're down to one scullery maid with a habit of pinching the family silver -- or what's left of it that you haven't sold to appease your gambling debts, a butler who is too frequently prostrated by the grape, and a groom too lazy to swat flies, much less muck the stalls. Trey, if you need money -- "
"I won't take it from you."
Frustration darkened Clay's face. "Damn you, brother, don't do this. I know you're still hurting -- "
"I don't want to hear it."
I shoved my brother aside and walked unsteadily to the mullioned window overlooking the grounds. For as far as I could see were the fancy coaches of every high-stocking, blue-blooded family in England.
"If you bring up Maria again, I'm going to punch you. Hard."
"Admit it. You're still in love with her."
"The hell you say."
Clayton moved up behind me, placed a compassionate hand on my shoulder.
I shrugged it away and laughed, a brittle, angry sound, as heat rushed to my face.
"Obviously, the young woman wasn't nearly so serious in her supposed affection for me as I was for her, or she wouldn't have vanished. She simply didn't care to be found. At least not by me."
Looking at Clayton, I added, "Had Grandmother not sent her from the house -- "
"What difference would it have made, if Maria didn't love you?"
My eyes briefly closed. The heat in the small room made me sweat. The tailored wool suit I wore clung to my skin and I began to feel nauseous.
Maria Ashton's image rose before my mind's eye -- a pretty face with big blue eyes, tumbling silken flaxen hair, and a gentleness of spirit that had rescued me from hell's torment. I might have died, had she not responded to my grandmother's call for a nurse to minister me in my illness and the injury to my head inflicted by highwaymen who had left me for dead.
Maria not love me? Ah, but there was the problem in a nutshell. She had trembled with passion beneath my body, sacrificing her cherished innocence. She had vowed her love for me in a thousand ways.
The entire world had turned its back on me. Maria, daughter of a vicar, had appeared like some earth-bound angel to save me.
For the first time in my miserable life, I had actually fallen in love. Deeply. And it wouldn't leave me. Despite the betrayal of her disappearance. Despite my immense anger. Though I was about to wed another, my heart thumped like a hot lead weight in my chest when I recalled the months I had searched for her, and the letter that had eventually arrived six months to the day after she had ridden away from Thorn Rose in my grandmother's coach.
"Your Grace, what transpired between us was a mistake. I have wed another. I wish you happiness. Maria."
Maria. God, how I had adored her. In my fogged lunacy I had poured out my heart and soul to her in music -- my only way, during that dreadful time, that I could confess my feelings.
Even now, three years later, the strands haunted me, playing over and over in my mind until I felt insane again.
Music from the chapel drifted to me, as did the murmuring of the collected guests. No friends there. I had no friends. Not any longer.
Dressed in their splendid clothes, arriving in their fine coaches, their wealth and titles dripping from their aristocratic pores like chips of ice -- they were here for one reason. To watch a man step from the precipice of his crumbling dignity and spiral into the abyss of total ruin.
And when I plummeted into that perdition, I would drag my dowager duchess grandmother along with me.
The port beat at my head like a cudgel as the vicar spoke solemnly, first to the breath-holding onlookers, then to me, then to Edwina, who peered up at me with a knowing smirk. Her fiery red hair was covered in a lace cap and her plunging décolletage revealed the most voluptuous breasts outside of Paris.
With any luck I would get through the ceremony before I passed out completely. God forbid the vultures collected in the cushioned pews would come all this way only to have their entertainment spoiled by the groom passing out before he committed his life to total perdition.
The vicar's words floated to me, scattering like leaves in a wind -- something about if anyone knew of any reason these two should not be wed, speak now....
Oh, there were many, many reasons. The least of which -- we didn't love one another.
But she had money. I needed money.
She needed a compliant lover to satisfy her bent for erotic escapades, and since she had burned through five husbands -- the last two dying in the throes of her orgasms -- there wasn't an available man on two continents who would come within a wink of her eyes.
Besides, if there was any woman on En-gland's beloved soil my grandmother despised, it was Edwina -- the duchess's deceased husband's paramour.
"I do," came a voice from the congregation.
The words were followed by a gasp and a sudden silence that rang through the room as resoundly as a church bell. The vicar, his expression frozen in shock, his face pale as flour, stared over my shoulder while the hands gripping the book went slack.
Clayton, standing at my side, let out a soft "Thank God."
Edwina spat out a curse as she slowly turned.
I shook free of my inebriation and confusion as I swayed around to focus on a drab little creature, round as she was tall, wearing a dingy cap of sorts and a gray, shapeless frock covered by an equally dingy pinafore, standing center aisle, her body shaking as if with ague.
The duchess struggled to her feet, her face gray as her hair, her eyes too big for their sockets -- eyes that locked with those of the intruder, who stepped back as if she anticipated an asp strike.
Lifting one shaking hand, the rotund little woman pointed at the dowager duchess and declared in a squeak, "She done it. All of it. May me sorry soul burn in hell for keepin' shut 'bout it. But I cum soon as I heard 'bout yer weddin', Yer Grace. I cudn't keep me mouth closed a minute longer."
Clayton stepped around me. "What the devil is this about?" he demanded.
I caught his arm, stopping him in his tracks.
Focusing on the terrified woman's face, I spoke with no hint of the inebriation that had sullied my blood and brains seconds before.
"Let her speak."
The woman sidestepped past the dowager, who clutched at her cane and opened and closed her mouth, saying nothing.
" 'Tis the lass, Yer Grace. Maria? I know where she is. Where she's been since the night she done rode off in yer grandmother's coach. 'Twasn't Huddersfield where yer grandmother had her took. 'Twas Menson, Yer Grace."
Another burst of gasps, twitters of shock mingled with nervous speculation.
"Menson." I stepped from the dais, the port's sluggishness replaced by a heat that began in my belly and sluiced through my body. "Surely you're mistaken. Menson is an asylum for the criminally insane."
The woman gulped and nodded, wrung her hands and began to cry. "Aye. Y'll find 'er there, Yer Grace. Or what be left of 'er, God bless 'er tormented young soul."
Copyright © 2004 by Katherine Sutcliffe