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The Duke's Daughters
Ravenwood's Lady, Lady Brittany's Choice
By Amanda Scott
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1989 Lynne Scott-Drennan
All rights reserved.
Bright morning sunshine poured through the tall, narrow east windows of the breakfast parlor, giving promise of the fine spring day ahead. The occupants of the room were not, however, enjoying the sort of peaceful meal to which the adults of the household had accustomed themselves, for, in a manner completely at odds with an all-consuming anxiety to please her employers, Miss Fellows, their ladyships' governess, had taken to her bed with a putrid sore throat.
As a result of their mentor's indisposition, three bright-haired young ladies who would normally have broken their fast by the schoolroom fire had been allowed to join their parents and two older sisters in the breakfast parlor. Consequently, an unceasing cacophony of high-pitched feminine chatter mingled with the clatter of crockery and the clink of ornate silverware against fine Sèvres breakfast china, causing the Duke of Malmesbury's bushy grey eyebrows to draw together ominously above his long, narrow countenance. From time to time, he could clearly be seen to clench his jaw, and His eldest daughter, the Lady Cicely Leighton, watching him with some misgiving, was certain her father was grinding his teeth. If he was, however, the sound could not have been heard, not even by her youngest sister, the pixielike Lady Amalie, aged seven, who squirmed impatiently in the chair next to his.
Diverted momentarily by a stirring of her blue-sprigged muslin skirts, which was promptly followed by the touch of a cold, wet nose pressing against her silk-clad leg, Cicely slipped a smidgen of bacon from her plate and held it under the table, where it was promptly nipped from her fingers. She wiped them daintily on her serviette, then glanced warily at her father to see if he had observed the gesture. His attention, however, was firmly rooted to his breakfast plate.
"Mama, shall Tani wear feathers and a hoop?" piped Amalie suddenly over the general din. Having intended her words to reach the plump, pink-cheeked, lace-capped lady at the foot of the table, she had pitched her voice quite loudly, startling the others. The ensuing silence and the sudden turning of six pairs of eyes toward her small self brought a rush of color to her freckle-dusted cheeks, but she tilted her chin bravely. "Well, shall she?"
"Of course she will, you little bagpipe," put in thirteen-year-old Lady Alicia, flipping a strand of long, wheat-colored hair over her shoulder. "What else, pray, does one wear when one is presented? I just hope the old Queen don't cock up her toes before it is my turn!"
The duke turned a disapproving eye toward his outspoken younger daughter, but it was fourteen-year-old Arabella who leaped into the breach, saying with quick firmness, "Lissa, apologize for that at once. You know Papa don't like it when you speak disrespectfully of the Royal Family."
"Well, I'm sorry, then," said Alicia before adding with her customary candor, "but 'twould be prodigious unfair for one to miss being presented merely because one had the misfortune to be a fourth-born child."
The duke had not yet returned his attention to his plate, so Cicely was not at all surprised to hear the Lady Brittany, closest of her four sisters to herself in age, speak up in her gentle voice. "I am afraid you are still being impertinent, Alicia. There is, in any case, no reason to fear you will not be presented. There is always the Princess Caroline, you know."
"Yes.," Cicely put in, slipping another bit of bacon under the table, "if his highness ever allows her to return from her exile in Italy. But, Lissa, considering that Tani, thanks to Uncle Ashley's death, had to postpone her come-out for a whole year, and that I have been here rusticating for that same length of time when I might have been on the lookout for a husband, it is a bit much for you to be worrying about a presentation that is still some years off."
"Well, Tani is scarcely on the shelf," said Lady Alicia scornfully, "and you did have two full seasons in which to find a husband before Uncle Ashley died, and you know perfectly well that you sent scores of eligible suitors to the right-about. I certainly hope I shan't be so daft as that when my turn does come."
"How shall Tani manage a hoop?" asked Amalie, getting back to more important matters.
"Miss Fellows shall teach her, dear, just as she taught Cicely, though you won't remember so far back," responded the duchess vaguely, her mind clearly elsewhere.
"Mama, really," Cicely protested, laughing. "'So far back,' indeed! You make it sound like another century. It has been only three years."
"Yes, dear. But you know, although I cannot commend her manner of speaking, Alicia is perfectly right. You were very difficult."
"They called her the Ice Princess," Amalie chuckled. Then, encountering a strait look from her eldest sister, she insisted, "They did! Lissa told me so."
"Lissa had as little business saying such things to you as you have repeating them, my dear," reproved the duchess. "Not that it isn't perfectly true," she added with a long-suffering sigh. "You know it is, Cicely, and I cannot help but think it is going to make matters very difficult indeed when we go to London. If we could have given you a third Season last year, I'm sure I should have had no hesitation in putting off your sister's presentation, and no doubt matters would have arranged themselves perfectly well. But she is eighteen now and simply must make her come-out this year. And people will think it odd if she goes off before you, so if you mean to continue in the same finicking manner ..." Her voice trailed off, and she made a helpless little gesture with her hands. "It really was a pity that your poor Uncle Ashley died when he did. I'm sure he didn't mean to cause any difficulties—"
"Ha!" snorted Alicia. "It was just the sort of disobliging thing he would do. And two days before my birthday, which spoilt it entirely, for what must we do but cancel all the invitations and sit about glooming at each other. Why, even Papa was used to say Uncle Ashley was as selfish as be da—"
"That will do!" The duke's fork crashed onto his plate, and Cicely jumped, ignoring the impatient paw at her knee when his grace turned a withering glare and an accusing finger upon the erring Alicia. "You will leave this table at once, young lady, to seek your bedchamber, where you will contemplate your extreme lack of conduct until eleven o'clock, at which time you will present yourself to me in the bookroom, in order to discuss this matter further."
Lady Alicia stared at him in dismay, but even she was not outspoken enough to defy him. A footman stepped forward hastily to pull back her chair, and with a look of helpless reluctance, she stood up. Moving toward the door, she paused and glanced over her shoulder, but the looks of shock and sympathy still imprinted upon her sisters' countenances seemed to give little comfort, and her expression was dismal when she turned away again. While the footman was occupied with opening and shutting the door for her, the duke pushed his own chair back impatiently and got to his feet, transferring his glare to his unfortunate wife.
"I cannot conceive, madam," he growled harshly, "how it comes about that in thirteen years you have not yet managed to teach that chit some manners, but she is not to dine with the family again until she has acquired some!"
He turned toward the door, and at that ill-conceived moment a shrill, indignant yap was heard from under the table. The sound froze everyone in place, but the duke recovered quickly, turning without hesitation upon his eldest daughter.
"Cicely! What is that damned mongrel doing under my breakfast table again when I have expressly forbidden his presence at meals?"
She looked up guiltily. "I'm sorry, Papa. He must have been there when we came in."
"And you have been feeding him again, have you not?" Biting her lower lip, she nodded. Malmesbury gave an exasperated snort and barked an order at the interested footman to "remove that animal." It seemed for a moment that this would be an impossible task, for the animal in question objected at the top of his voice to such a procedure and dashed from one end of the space under the table to the other in his attempt to evade capture. Amalie laughed, ignoring Arabella's hushed attempts to silence her, and Brittany spoke coaxingly to the culprit while the poor footman did his possible but with no signal success.
The much-tried duke roared for silence, whereupon Cicely put her hand under the table and snapped her fingers. "Come, Charlie." Her voice rang with authority, and a brief moment later a small King Charles spaniel, with eyes that glinted mischief, fell panting to his belly near her left foot. She scooped him up and handed him to the grateful footman. "Take him into the garden, Paul."
"At once, m'lady." He slipped quickly past the still-glaring duke.
"I am going to read the Morning Post," Malmesbury announced. "But when you have quite finished your breakfast, Cicely, you will attend me in the bookroom, if you please."
"Y-yes, Papa," she replied, her stomach tightening into a familiar knot, despite the fact that she had long since outgrown any real fear of him.
He turned back to his duchess, glaring down his long nose at her. "You need not bother your head, madam. The problem you anticipate is well on its way to being solved."
"G-goodness," Arabella breathed when the door had shut behind him. "Whatever do you suppose he meant by that?"
"I don't know," Cicely replied. "I confess to being a good deal more interested in why he wishes to speak with me."
"P'raps he means to thrash you for feeding Charlie under the table," suggested Amalie helpfully.
"Don't be a goose, Amalie." Lady Brittany smiled, but her gaze was fixed encouragingly upon her elder sister. "Papa wouldn't thrash any of us for such a small thing as that. Besides," she added on a wry note, "I've no doubt he means to save his strength for Lissa."
There being nothing to say to that, a small silence ensued, during which Cicely wondered if it might be simply a matter of a trimming for encouraging Charlie to beg at table. Then Arabella suggested that it would be just as well for both Cicely and Alicia if their father found nothing to annoy him in the political columns of his morning papers, and Cicely joined in the chuckles that met the sally. Only her grace seemed detached.
"I do wish he would be more precise," she complained. "How on earth does he propose to solve the problem of establishing Cicely before Brittany's come-out?"
That she did not seem particularly distressed by the duke's burst of temper came as no surprise to any of her daughters. The duchess had long since become inured to such scenes, as well as to the fact that his grace generally seemed to lay the blame for any of their offspring's peccadilloes at her door. Lord Ashley Leighton, the duke's younger brother and erstwhile heir, had once said that Malmesbury had been a cantankerous old man since the day he came into the title; and despite the fact that the duke had scarcely passed his twenty-second birthday when that notable event took place, Cicely, for one, was quite certain her uncle had had the right of it.
She supposed she had once or twice seen her father smile, but she knew she would be hard pressed to name an occasion. He was not a genial man at the best of times. Nevertheless, his daughters had learned at a tender age that although he would have preferred sons, he meant his daughters no harm, and however much he blustered and scolded, he was rarely moved to sterner methods. She smiled a little to herself when it occurred to her that Alicia might presently choose to dispute that last notion.
Poor Alicia. She was at that awkward age when no one, least of all Alicia herself, knew what outrageous thing she would say or do next. As far as Cicely could remember, neither gentle Brittany nor practical Arabella had suffered through such a stage, but she remembered her own difficulties only too well. For what had seemed an incredibly long passage of time, beginning midway through her twelfth year and continuing well into her fourteenth, it had seemed to Cicely that she spent an inordinate amount of time on the carpet in the bookroom. And a good number of those scenes, besides being vocal, had been painful as well. She, probably more than Arabella or Brittany, could sympathize with Alicia's present predicament.
She glanced toward Amalie, wondering whether she would have a difficult time. She doubted it. Amalie, being so much younger than her sisters, might have been spoiled by them all had it not been for her innate sense of dignity. But she was very like Arabella, if a good deal more precocious, and possessed self-assurance beyond her years. She had a tendency to treat the duke much as she might a tame bear, with a certain wary but indulgent tolerance.
Cicely realized suddenly that the object of her thoughts was staring rather pointedly at her, and she glanced toward the others to see that they had all finished eating. When Amalie wriggled again, Cicely grinned at her and waved to the footman to clear her place.
"Please, ma'am," Amalie said promptly, "may I leave the table now?"
The duchess nodded, smiling, and the others soon followed the child's example. Brittany and Arabella announced that they meant to examine some drawings in the Lady's Monthly Museum to discover what accessories were deemed necessary for a young lady in her first Season, and the duchess said she would join them as soon as she had spoken with her housekeeper. Cicely only shook her head in response to Brittany's lifted eyebrow.
"Don't look for me," she said quietly. "I expect I'll exercise Connie after I've heard whatever it is Papa will say to me."
"Why the gloomy face? You don't truly think he will lose his temper, and only Bella quakes like a blanc mange when he summons her. You never do."
"It's not fear, just a presentiment of sorts." They had reached the stairway now, and she paused with her hand on the polished oak rail, smiling at her younger sister. "Don't fret, Tani. I'm certain poor Lissa merits your sympathy far more than I do."
Lady Brittany chuckled, and a glint of sunlight from the gallery window danced across her burnished gold tresses. Cicely quickly suppressed the familiar pang of envy. Next to her golden sister, she always felt pale and washed out. Always one to underrate her own beauty, she had once said that she had been sketched in charcoal, whereas Tani had been painted in vivid colors. Others stared to hear her say such things, however, so she had learned to keep her opinions in the matter to herself.
The two girls were at opposite ends of the palette that had colored the five Leighton sisters. Cicely, with her straight, flaxen hair, clear gray eyes, and pale complexion fit her London nickname of Ice Princess very well. But to call herself "washed out" was to carry things too far. Her eyes were large, and the long lashes that outlined them were startlingly black, as were the rims around her pupils. And her lips and cheekbones were tinted with the delicate blush of roses.
Brittany, by comparison, was taller and more buxom, with eyes of deep blue-violet, skin the color of ripe peaches, and that glorious mop of golden hair, piled artlessly at the moment atop her well-shaped head. She would, Cicely was sure, take London by storm, and no doubt would contract an eligible marriage in the twinkling of a bedpost. It occurred to her that the thought was scarcely a proper one, and she grinned, giving her sister a quick hug. "I'd better go before he sends for me."
As she descended the long, curving stairway she saw her youngest sister scamper across the great hall below. A red knitted cap had been jammed over her light-brown curls, and she was attempting to drag a disreputable duffle coat over her light woolen frock as she hastened toward the front door. A footman sprang to open it for her, and Amalie turned at the last moment to wave to Cicely before disappearing down the front steps. Cicely chuckled. Her little sister clearly meant to enjoy the brief reprieve from studies Miss Fellows's illness had occasioned. No doubt she was on her way to the stables, a visit that would not have been allowed had their governess been on her feet, for normally the three youngest girls would have spent the morning at their studies.
The door to the bookroom was closed, but the same footman saw her approaching and stepped quickly to open it for her. Cicely smiled her thanks and his eyes warmed in response. The gentlemen in London might have dubbed her chilly, but they would have been hard pressed to find a servant, either at Malmesbury Park or at the huge ducal manse occupying a full city block in May fair, who would have agreed with them.
Excerpted from The Duke's Daughters by Amanda Scott. Copyright © 1989 Lynne Scott-Drennan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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