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"Of course, you know I am dying." His mother extended slim fingers from beneath the bedclothes and patted the hand that he offered to her.
Marcus Radwell, fourth Duke of Haughleigh, kept his face impassive, searching his mind for the appropriate response. "No." His tone was neutral. "We will, no doubt, have this conversation again at Christmas when you have recovered from your current malady."
"Only you would use obstinacy as a way to cheer me on my deathbed."
And only you would stage death with such Drury Lane melodrama. He left the words unspoken, struggling for decorum, but glared at the carefully arranged scene. She'd chosen burgundy velvet hangings and dim lighting to accent her already pale skin. The cloying scent of the lilies on the dresser gave the air a funereal heaviness.
"No, my son, we will not be having this conversation again. The things I have to tell you will be said today. I do not have the strength to tell them twice, and certainly will not be here at Christmas to force another promise from you.'She gestured to the water glass at the bedside. He filled it and offered it to her, supporting her as she drank.
No strength? And yet her voice seemed steady enough. This latest fatal illness was probably no more real than the last one. Or the one before. He stared hard into her face, searching for some indication of the truth. Her hair was still the same delicate blonde cloud on the pillow, but her face was grey beneath the porcelain complexion that had always given her a false air of fragility. "If you are too weak...perhaps later..."
"Perhaps later I will be too weak to say them, and you will not have to hear. A good attempt, but I expected better."
"And I expected better of you, Mother. I thought I had made it clear, on my last visit to your deathbed—" the word was heavy with irony he could no longer disguise '—that I was tired of playing the fool in these little dramas you insist on arranging. If you want something of me, you could at least do me the courtesy of stating it plainly in a letter."
"So that you could refuse me by post, and save yourself the journey home?"
"Home? And where might that be? This is your home. Not mine."
Her laugh was mirthless and ended in a rasping cough. Old instincts made him reach out to her before he caught himself and let the hand fall to his side. The coughing ended abruptly, as though his lack of sympathy made her rethink her strategy.
"This is your home, your Grace, whether you choose to live in it or not."
So if fears for her health would not move him, perhaps guilt over his neglected estate? He shrugged.
Her hand trembled as she gestured towards the night-stand, and he reached for the carafe to refill her glass. "No. The box on the table."
He passed the inlaid box to her. She fumbled with the catch, opened it and removed a stack of letters, patting them. "As time grows short, I've worked to mend the mistakes in my past. To right what wrongs I could. To make peace."
To get right with the Lord before His inevitable judgement, he added to himself and clenched his jaw.
"And recently, I received a letter from a friend of my youth. An old school companion who was treated badly."
He could guess by whom. If his mother was planning to right her wrongs chronologically, she had better be quick. Even if she lived another twenty years, as he suspected she might, there were wrongs enough in her past to fill the remaining time.
"There were money problems, as there so often are. Her father died penniless. She was forced home and had to find her own way in the world. She has been, for the last twelve years, a companion to a young girl."
"No." His voice echoed in the still sickroom. "You say no, and, as yet, I have asked no questions." 'But you most certainly will. The young girl will turn out to be of marriageable age and good family. The conversation will be about the succession. The question is inevitable and the answer will be no."
"I had thought to see you settled before I died." 'Perhaps you shall. I am sure we have plenty of time." She continued as if there had been no interruption. "I let you wait, assuming you would make a choice in your own good time. But I have no time. No time to let you handle things. Certainly no time to let you wallow in grief for losses and mistakes that are ten years past."
He bit off the retort that was forming on his tongue. She was right in this at least. He needn't reopen his half of an old argument.
"You are right. The girl is of marriageable age, but her prospects are poor. She is all but an orphan. The family lands are mortgaged and gone. She has little hope of making a match, and Lady Cecily despairs of her chances. She fears that her charge is destined for a life of service and does not wish to see her own fate visited on another. She has approached me, hoping that I might help..."
"And you offered me up as a sacrifice to expiate the wrong you did forty years ago."
"I offered her hope. Why should I not? I have a son who is thirty-five and without issue. A son who shows no sign of remedying this condition, though his wife and heir are ten years in the grave. A son who wastes himself on whores when he should be seeing to the estate and providing for the succession. I know how quickly life passes. If you die, the title falls to your brother. Have you considered this, or do you think yourself immortal?"
He forced a smile. "Why does it matter to you now? If St John inherited the title, it would please you above all things. You've made no effort to hide that he is your favourite."
She smiled back, with equal coldness. "I am a fond old woman, but not as foolish as all that. I will not lie and call you favourite. But neither will I claim that St John has the talent or temperament to run this estate. I can trust that once you are settled here, you will not lose your father's coronet at cards. Your neglect of your duties is benign, and easily remedied. But can you imagine the land after a year in your brother's care?"
He closed his eyes and felt the chill seeping through his blood. He did not want to imagine his brother as a duke any more than he wanted to imagine himself chained to a wife and family and trapped in this tomb of a house. There were enough ghosts here, and now his mother was threatening to add herself to the list of grim spirits he was avoiding.
She gave a shuddering breath and coughed.
He offered her another sip of water and she cleared her throat before speaking again. "I did not offer you as a sacrifice, however much pleasure you take in playing the martyr. I suggested that she and the girl visit. That is all. From you, I expect a promise. A small boon, not total surrender. I would ask that you not turn her away before meeting her. It will not be a love match, but I trust you to realise, now, that love in courtship does not guarantee a long or a happy union. If she is not deformed, or ill favoured, or so hopelessly stupid as to render her company unbearable, I expect you to give serious thought to your offer. Wit and beauty may fade, but if she has common sense and good health, she has qualities sufficient to make a good wife. You have not, as yet, married some doxy on the continent?"
He glared at her and shook his head. "Or developed some tragic tendre for the wife of a friend?" 'Good God, Mother." 'And you are not courting some English rose in secret? That would be too much to hope. So this leaves you with no logical excuse to avoid a meeting. Nothing but a broken heart and a bitter nature, which you can go back to nurturing once an heir is born and the succession secured."
"You seriously suggest that I marry some girl you've sent for, on the basis of your casual correspondence with an old acquaintance?"
She struggled to sit upright, her eyes glowing like coals in her ashen face. "If I had more time, and if you weren't so damned stubborn, I'd have trotted you around London and forced you to take your pick of the Season long ago. But time is short, and I am forced to make do with what can be found quickly and arranged without effort. If she has wide hips and an amiable nature, overcome your reservations, wed, and get her with child."
And she coughed again. But this time it was not the delicate sound he was used to, but the rack of lungs too full to hold breath. And it went on and on until her body shook with it. A maid rushed into the room, drawn by the sound, and leaned over the bed, supporting his mother's back and holding a basin before her. After more coughing she spat and sagged back into the pillows, spent. The maid hurried away with the basin, but a tiny fleck of blood remained on his mother's lip.
"Mother." His voice was unsteady and his hand trembled as he touched his handkerchief to her mouth.
Her hand tightened on his, but with little strength. He could feel the bones through the translucent skin.
When she spoke, her voice was a hoarse whisper. The glow in her eyes had faded to a pleading, frightened look that he had not seen there before. "Please. Before it is too late. Meet the girl. Let me die in peace." She smiled in a way that was more a grimace, and he wondered if it was from pain. She'd always tried to keep such rigid control. Of herself. Of him. Of everything. It must embarrass her to have to yield now. And for the first time he noticed how small she was as she lay there and smelled the hint of decay masked by the scent of the lilies.
It was true, then. This time she really was dying.
He sighed. What harm could it do to make a promise now, when she would be gone long before he needed to keep it? He answered stiffly, giving her more cause to hope than he had in years. "I will consider it."