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Hester Sheldon placed the vase of perfect chrysanthemums on a table in front of the parlour window, gazing out at the sodden grass and dripping trees that fronted the beautiful old house. Shelbourne had been built in the reign of Queen Anne and had all the grace and beauty of its period, though it was looking faded and had suffered some fire damage recently. Hester loved her home, but of late a dark cloud seemed to hang over them, for the family had been deeply affected by the death of her stepfather some months previously. The tragedy had quite possibly led to the Duke of Shelbourne's illness, and it was these things that made the house she adored seem so empty at times.
She turned as the housekeeper came into the room, prepared to deal with whatever might be asked of her since the burden of the estate had fallen on her shoulders these past weeks. Lady Sheldon had been delicate since the death of her husband, and the duke was unable to do more than advise her from his bedchamber.
'Yes, Mrs Mills? Is there something wrong?'
'His Grace has asked that you go up to him as soon as you have a minute, miss.'
'Yes, of course. I shall go now,' Hester said. 'And my compliments to Cook, Mrs Mills. The beef was excellent last night. Grandfather particularly remarked on it.'
'I am sure she will be pleased to hear that, miss.'
Mrs Mills stood back for Hester to leave the room, shaking her head as she went into the hall and up the stairs. It was hardly fair the way they all expected Miss Sheldon to do everything these days. Not that she was a girl, as she had passed her twenty-sixth birthday, and it was unlikely that she wouldmarry, which was, in Mrs Mills's opinion, a proper shame.
Hester was smiling as she went quickly along the landing to the stairs leading to the top floor of the west wing, which held the duke's private apartments. He seldom left them these days, because his illness had taken the strength from his legs and he had to be carried down the stairs—something he did not enjoy. She knocked and was admitted by the duke's valet, who smiled at her.
'How is he this morning, Simmons?'
'Oh, much the same as usual, miss. He will be all the better for seeing you.'
Hester went through the duke's private parlour into his bedchamber as he had not yet been allowed to get up for more than an hour or so a day. She had been anxious that he might have suffered a relapse, but he actually looked a little more healthy, which brought a smile to her face.
'What can I do for you, Grandfather?'
Although not a blood relation, she had always been encouraged to think of him as her grandfather. The child of her mother's first husband, who had sadly died soon after she was born, Hester had been adopted by Lord Sheldon and given his name when her mother remarried. She had loved him as the only father she had ever known, and the duke was in all respects but one her beloved grandfather.
'Nothing for the moment,' he said. 'I wanted to tell you that I have sent for the heir. If he agrees to come, it may make a difference to both Lady Sheldon and you, Hester.'
'Yes, of course. We might have to retire to the dower house, perhaps.'
'Not while I live,' the duke replied. 'But it is all in the air at the moment. As you know, I made inquiries about him and they were favourable. He seems to be in possession of a fortune… Heaven knows, we could do with some of that money here, girl!'
'Yes, sir—but he may not wish to use his fortune to help restore this house or the estate.'
'Well, I have persuaded Birch to go out there,' the duke told her and frowned. 'He must be told of his duty to the family. He may not be presentable, of course—but I dare say you could knock him into shape for us, Hester?'
'I am not sure I understand you, Grandfather.'
'He will need to learn English manners. I have no idea what sort of schools they have out there these days, but I dare say he may have some rough edges. His father was a riverboat gambler, as I understand it, though he must have done all right for himself.'
'I am willing to offer my help if he wishes for it, of course,' Hester said, looking doubtful. 'But he is Amelia's son and she will surely have taught him his manners.'
'Perhaps,' the duke said. The mention of his favourite child's name made him frown. She had run away to marry the man of her choice against his wishes and it had taken him a long time to forgive her. 'Well, see what you can do for him if he comes, Hester—of course, he may not…'
'If he does not wish to live here, he might give up his right to the title, sir.'
'And then there would be only Mr Grant to deal with,' the duke said and sighed. 'Why weren't you a boy and born to my son, Hester? If I had the money, I would break the entail and leave this place to you. You love it and none of my sons ever cared a hoot about the estate—and as for my half-brother's grandson…' He shook his head in disgust. 'I should turn in my grave if he became master here. He is a pompous idiot!'
Hester laughed softly. 'Do not upset yourself, dearest. You know that I have no right to inherit. Besides, this American heir may be everything you could wish for, especially if he has a fortune.'
'Well, Birch will sound him out. He cannot leave for America until a week or so after Christmas, but we must hope that his journey will be successful. I wrote to the heir as soon as your father died, but he has not answered my letters.'
Hester was silent. She knew that the duke was hoping that the heir would come over to take his rightful place as the next in line for the title, but she could not truly see what he could gain from it, particularly if he was already in possession of a fortune.
'I hope he comes for your sake, dearest,' she said. 'But if he doesn't, we shall manage. We always do…'
'We manage,' the duke said and thumped the bed. 'If I had my legs again, I would sort things out, but as it is I am helpless. If you ever decide to get married, this place will go to the devil.'
'Well, I have no intention of it,' Hester reassured him. 'I shall not leave you, dearest Grandfather. If the heir comes…' She left the sentence unfinished, because as yet they could not know whether or not the heir would wish to leave his home. 'We must wait and see what happens.'
'You—the heir to an English duke?' Red Clinton threw back his head and laughed deep in his throat. 'Don't make me laugh, Jared. You are kidding me, aren't you?'
Jared looked at his cousin, a lazy smile playing over his sensuous mouth. 'It sounds crazy, I know, but my mother ran off with my father when her family rejected the marriage. Pa didn't have much going for him then…'
He glanced round the richly furnished room above the gambling club he owned in New Orleans. It had been his father's legacy to him when he died, all that remained of the fortune Jack Clinton had amassed when he was younger. Jared's father had built a home fitting for the daughter of an English duke after making his fortune gambling on the riverboats that plied the Mississippi River, but it had been sold when she died, most of the money lost the way it had come. Jack Clinton's heart had been buried with his wife, and he had become reckless, neglecting his son, drinking and gambling carelessly until all he had left was a gambling saloon. After his death of a heart attack, Jared had taken what he'd inherited, swearing that he would never end the way his father had, and had since increased his wealth many times over. He was now much richer than his father had ever been, respected and admired by the highest in New Orleans society; he had recently been approached to enter politics by some of the elders of the city.
'I thought the family refused to have anything to do with her after she ran away with your father,' Red said. 'Why have they decided they want you now—after all these years? Isn't there anyone else?'
'It seems not. There were three sons and about four grandsons as I recall. A heck of a lot of people must have died for the title to come down to me.'
'Hell!' Red swore half a dozen times and pulled a wry face. 'What are you gonna do? You live like a king here— why would you want to go and live in some draughty old mansion that's probably about ready to fall down over your head?' He tipped his head to one side, the left eyebrow raised in inquiry. 'Or is the family dripping in gold?'
'I very much doubt it,' Jared said. He grinned, looking much like his more handsome cousin for a moment. They were both tall, strong men with broad shoulders, slim hips and the athletic look of men who had passed out of West Point with first-class honours. Both were rich men, both attractive in their own way, though of the two Red was the most striking, his hair a flaming torch as a ray of sunshine touched it. Jared's hair was a darker shade of auburn, his features harsher and less attractive when in repose. Only when he smiled was it noticeable that the two were cousins. 'The lawyer's letter was all about the honour of the family name. Apparently, it is my duty to go over there and set things to rights.'
'You mean they've got wind that you're as rich as Croesus and they want some of it,' Red drawled, his top lip curling in disgust. 'You're a fool if you do it, Jared.'
Jared nodded because his cousin was echoing the thoughts that had been running through his head for the past week since the latest letter arrived.
'What's more, they seem to imagine I need a lesson in manners,' he said. 'They are sending someone to talk to me and take me back on the ship to England. I have been advised that I should leave the purchase of any new clothes I might need until I get there. Apparently, a female cousin is going to teach me what to wear and how to behave in society.'
'Well, dang my hide!' Red exclaimed, a huge grin spreading over his face. 'Think you're an ignorant hillbilly, do they?'
'Well, the lawyer didn't quite say that, but that's about the size of it,' Jared agreed, amused by his cousin's unaccustomed language. 'He is coming today. I was wondering where to receive him.'
'What do you mean?' Red asked, puzzled. He glanced around the large room, which was furnished with the finest French furniture from the Empire period and contained treasures that a lot of Jared's neighbours would give their eye-teeth to own. 'You've plenty of property you could choose to receive him in. Why not this place? One look should disabuse their agent of any erroneous ideas they happen to have formed of your education and standing in American society.'
'Yes, I dare say it would,' Jared said, a wicked glint in his eyes. They were somewhere between green and blue in colour and at that moment the expression in them was both deep and mysterious. 'But it makes me angry when I think of the way the old man treated my mother. He was a martinet by all accounts and he could afford to ignore her, because he had all those sons and grandsons. It must have given him some grief to realise that I was the only one left to him.'
'Yes, I suppose so,' Red drawled. Knowing his cousin well from the time they spent at military academy together, he knew that some devilish plan was lurking behind that look. 'Going to tell me any time this week? Only I've got a pretty girl waiting for me to show this afternoon.'
'You know that shack down by the river?'
'The warehouse you bought last week?' Red's eyes narrowed. 'You were going to pull it down and build new, as I recall.'
'Fortunately, I haven't got around to it,' Jared said. 'Do you think your lady love would mind if you were a little late for your important meeting, Red? Only you can do me a favour if you will.'
'No problem,' his cousin said. 'Sue Ellen looks beautiful when she's angry. She may shoot me on sight, but I guess I'll take the chance.' He raised his brows. 'So what is the plan?'
'I'm going to meet Mr Birch there in the river shack,' Jared said. 'I'll dig out some of Pa's old working clothes and give him a fright. Since he's expecting me to be ignorant and disgusting, I may as well give him what he wants.'
'Good,' Red said and grinned broadly, loving the plan. 'Where do I come in?'
'Well, I think they may have done their research,' Jared said. 'But they made a big mistake. You see, I'm a no-good gambler, like my father, and last month I lost everything to you.' He smiled at his cousin. 'Think you can do that for me?'
'Yes,' Red said and laughed. 'I reckon that will teach those aristocratic relatives of yours a lesson—but what then? You won't actually go over there, will you?'
'Well, that depends,' Jared said. 'I'm curious to see what happened to all those sons and grandsons, but I'm still thinking about it.'
'Well, take your time making up your mind,' Red told him. 'If they have sent someone all this way, they want something—and they need it desperately.'
'Yes,' Jared agreed, his eyes narrowed, angry. 'I am certain they do.'
'Thank you for coming to me before you see Grandfather, Mr Birch,' Hester said when she greeted him in the parlour at Shelbourne. It was spring, some months since her grandfather had first told her of his intention to send for the heir, and Mr Birch's recent letter had shocked them. 'Your letter upset him and I have wondered if the heir can possibly be as terrible as you suggested. Grandfather's reports all indicated that he was wealthy and reasonably well educated. Didn't he go to an exclusive military academy?'