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Sutherland Hall, England
Alexander Daniel Christian alighted from the sleek traveling chaise the moment it rolled to a halt in front of his massive Georgian mansion in Southampton. With a curt nod to a footman, he swept through the double oak doors and into the marble foyer where two more footmen waited with his butler, Finch.
"Welcome home, your grace," Finch said with a bow.
Alex tossed his hat to a footman. "Finch," he responded blandly, and handed the butler his leather traveling gloves. Another footman in the silver and blue livery of the Duke of Sutherland stepped forward to divest him of his cloak. "You may inform my mother I have returned. Where shall I find the correspondence?" he asked as he straightened the French cuffs of his silk shirt.
"The study, your grace."
Alex nodded and strode swiftly down the marble corridor, his polished Wellingtons clicking softly beneath his determined stride. He did not glance at the new damask wall coverings, nor the dozens of roses displayed on the consoles along the hall. As he crossed the threshold of his study, he shrugged out of his coat, tossed it carelessly to an overstuffed chair of dark green velvet, then strolled to the intricately carved Louis XIV desk in the middle of the large room. "Whiskey," he said to a footman and picked up the correspondence. Settling gracefully into a chair of burgundy Corinthian leather, he sifted through the stack of letters that had accumulated during his two weeks in London. In addition to standard business correspondence, there were a few invitations to social events. Those he tossed aside. His eyes fell upon a missive sealed with the signet of his solicitors in Amsterdam. Ignoring the whiskey the footman placed at his elbow, he tore it open. Scanning the letter quickly, he cursed softly.
Christ, he had more trouble with that blasted trading company! He abruptly crumpled the report of yet another loss and tossed it across the room in the general direction of the fire. As if the rash of recent losses wasn't enough, Britain's tariffs were strangling him. If he actually had cargo, the import taxes were so damn high as to make it almost economically unfeasible.
Restlessly he stood and picked up his whiskey, dismissing the footman with a terse nod as he crossed to the bank of floor-to-ceiling windows. He stared at the massive green lawn and gazebo at the edge of a lake marking his brother's grave. Alexander Christian, Viscount Bellingham, was not supposed to be the Duke of Sutherland with all the attendant responsibilities of the family fortune. Anthony was supposed to be the duke–he was supposed to be the second son with lesser titles and the luxury of time to indulge in the pursuit of worldly adventure.
Some might argue that he had seen enough adventure to last a lifetime, but he could not agree. When Anthony was very much alive and performing quite nicely as the duke, Alex had been plagued with stifling ennui. When an old family friend had reported the treasures he had found in Africa, Alex had eagerly accepted an invitation to accompany him on a return trip. That experience in the Serengeti Plain had whetted his appetite for raw adventure. Since then, he had traipsed the Himalayas, had sailed to the Orient, and had discovered the wilds of North America.
It was a lifestyle that suited him well and one for which he still yearned, but a tragic accident on horseback unexpectedly claimed Anthony's life five years ago. He bitterly recalled being abruptly summoned home to find his beloved brother truly dead and himself an instant duke. The change in his responsibility was almost as instantaneous as the change in attitude of those around him–old and new acquaintances alike were suddenly scraping their knuckles in front of him. And in addition to coping with his loss he suddenly found himself at the head of a powerful dukedom and a vast fortune. He no longer had the luxury of several months to leisurely explore the world.
For five years now, he thought wearily, he had been a duke. Five years it had taken to grow accustomed to being the center of attention. Five years to learn the intricacies of the family holdings and accept the enormous responsibilities of being a duke, not the least of which included the production of heirs. At least Anthony had made that part of his responsibility easy enough, and he had, finally, set a wedding date with Lady Marlaine Reese, just as everyone expected him to do.
Anthony had been promised to Marlaine almost from the moment of her birth. The Christian-Reese family alliance was almost legend. His father Augustus had befriended the young Earl of Whitcomb before either had married, and the two had formed a monopoly of sorts through their partnership in iron manufacture. The Christian-Reese factories had successfully underpriced other factories for the production of cannons, guns, and ironworks during the Peninsular War, making both families obscene profits. The two men were of like minds, and the powerful voting bloc they formed in the House of Lords had further solidified their long-standing friendship. Everyone knew that a Christian-Reese vote on a bill was as good as passing it.
It was perfectly natural that their children should continue the alliance, and Anthony was quite content to marry Marlaine, even though he was fifteen when she was born. Alex remembered she was always a pretty, affable girl, but she was still in the schoolroom when Anthony died. When she made her debut three years ago, Alex had determined she was as good a solution to his ducal responsibility to produce heirs as he was likely to find. His title required a good business arrangement in a marriage, and Marlaine was definitely that. Moreover, she was trained to be a duke's wife, was pleasant enough, and was a comfortable, quiet companion. As those things went, she would make a good wife, and he had finally offered for her–as everyone expected he would do–two years ago when she had turned twenty-one.
The sound of the pocket doors sliding open interrupted his thoughts, and Alex turned.
"Welcome home, darling." His mother, Hannah, glided into the room, followed by Marlaine on the arm of his younger brother, Arthur.
Alex crossed the room to greet her. "Thank you, Mother. I hope I find you well?"
"Of course! A small ache in my back is all I have to complain of," Hannah said with a smile. "And it is not worth mentioning. You should be quite pleased to know that Lord and Lady Whitcomb are visiting Lady Whitcomb's sister in Brighton. As it is such a short drive, I invited Marlaine to visit this weekend."
"I am quite pleased," Alex said, and kissed Marlaine on the cheek.
She blushed slightly, shifting her smiling gaze to the carpet. "You look fatigued. Have you been sleeping?" she murmured.
"I am fine, Marlaine."
"Are you quite certain? You look as if you have something on your mind," she insisted.
"It's business." Extending his hand to Arthur in greeting, he added, "East India."
"What, again? By God, Alex, we should withdraw!"
Alex chuckled as he sat on a leather couch. Arthur dropped beside him while Hannah took a seat near the hearth. Marlaine picked up Alex's discarded coat and folded it carefully over one arm before joining her there. Alex reported the contents of his correspondence to Arthur, absently playing with his empty whiskey glass. Unnoticed, Marlaine rose from her seat and crossed to Alex's side. "A drink, darling?" she asked softly. He glanced briefly at her as he handed her the glass, and returned his attention to Arthur, who was quite adamantly reviewing the pros and cons of investing in the East India Company. Marlaine returned with a fresh whiskey and handed it to him with a quiet smile.
From the corner of his eye, Alex watched her as she returned to her seat. He had the brief, blasphemous thought that on occasion, she behaved like a well-trained dog. Sitting prettily with his coat folded across her lap, she smiled softly at the others without breathing a word. In contrast, Hannah sat on the edge of her chair, leaning forward and listening intently to her sons as they spoke of high tariffs and the need for economic reform. Every so often, she would interject her own opinion.
They talked until Finch appeared and, moving immediately to divest Marlaine of Alex's coat, announced a bath had been drawn for his grace. Alex tossed the last of the whiskey down his throat and stood. "If you will excuse me, Mother. Marlaine," he nodded, and began to stride across the thick carpet. "I assume supper at the usual time?" he asked over his shoulder.
"Eight o'clock, dear. Lord and Lady Whitcomb will be joining us."
Alex nodded, and walked out the door, Finch trailing behind.
Hannah Christian, the dowager Duchess of Sutherland, peered over the rim of her wineglass at Alex and sighed softly. His handsome face and warm green eyes betrayed no emotion whatsoever. It was silly, she knew, but she had worried about him since the day he had assumed the title. In contrast to Arthur, who enjoyed each day as if it was a new beginning, Alex seemed to take each day too seriously, as if the success of each one was his own private responsibility.
It was perfectly ridiculous, in her humble opinion. He was a strong and capable leader, with a sharp mind for business details that had enabled him to expand the family's holdings beyond her wildest imaginations. He could manage the family fortune standing on his head and, as his leadership was also highly regarded in the House of Lords, he could be the toast of all London if he so desired. Certainly the ton had tried to make him so. He was one of the most sought-after personages in all of Britain. A young duke, excessively wealthy and exceedingly handsome, his influence was unparalleled among the peerage. Yet he seemed forever bored–at times, even anxious. Her gaze shifted to Marlaine sitting on Alex's right, her quiet smile reserved for him alone. Alex hardly seemed to notice her.
That's what Hannah hated about the whole betrothal. He hardly noticed Marlaine.
She casually sipped her wine as she contemplated the pretty blond. She had nothing against Marlaine; she was a pleasant, well-bred young woman, the daughter of the affable Earl of Whitcomb, and a very suitable match for a duke. But not her son. Hannah wanted Alex to know the sheer joy of love she and her beloved Augustus had known, that complete adoration one feels for a true soul mate. She wanted her son to marry for love, not for some arcane sense of responsibility. She had hoped that in some dark corner of his soul, Alex might want to love the woman he would marry. That maybe, just maybe, he would realize Marlaine did not strike the chord in him that made him want to move mountains just to please her.
Alex's gaze met hers across the table, and he very subtly lifted a brow, as if inquiring what she was thinking. Hannah shrugged helplessly. He smiled faintly and shifted his gaze to Arthur, who was relating some outrageous event that had occurred at a rout of the infamous Harrison Green, much to Edwin Reese's considerable amusement. Hannah had noticed that other members of the youthful set hung upon every detail of a Harrison Green affair, but Alex, as usual, looked bored.
His mother was mistaken–Alex was not bored. He was quietly plotting to entice his future father-in-law into supporting a set of reforms sure to make their way out of the House of Commons next Season. Reforms that would lower the sky-high tariffs he was paying on his shipping line.
When supper was concluded and the women retired to the green salon, Alex, Arthur, and Lord Whitcomb stayed in the dining room for the customary cigar and port. Alex absently watched the hands of the porcelain mantel clock as Arthur and Whitcomb discussed a pair of hunting dogs. Convinced the expensive timepiece was winding down, Alex checked it against his pocket watch.
"Are we boring you, Sutherland?" Whitcomb grinned. Startled, Alex hastily shoved his pocket watch out of sight.
"He's smarting over another reported loss from East India," Arthur said, chuckling.
"That so? Never thought dallying in shipping was the way to go," the elderly earl remarked.
"It would be quite profitable if the tariffs weren't so damned high," Alex said.
Whitcomb shrugged. "Those tariffs also keep foreign grain from coming to our shores and competing with what you grow out here, son."
"Yes, and when the domestic markets are flooded, it keeps the smaller farmer from exporting his grain to the continent."
Whitcomb chuckled and puffed on his cigar. "Don't know why you'd worry about that. From what I hear, most of them can't afford the labor tax necessary to harvest the grain to begin with. It's not as if they are competing with your exports."
"My point exactly, Edwin. Competition is healthy. This country is long overdue for economic reform. Taxes are strangling the shipping and agricultural industries–the system is antiquated and lacks equity. Just think of the profits you would realize in your factories if the labor tax was equalized across all industries," Alex said calmly, and took a long sip of his port, eyeing his future father-in-law above the rim.
"Perhaps," Whitcomb said thoughtfully. "Can't deny the countryside suffers worse than the manufacturers. But I don't like the reform package the Radicals are pushing–they want to do away with the whole parliamentary system, I fear, and the first step would be allowing the Catholics a seat. Can't have that, you know."
Alex did not immediately respond. Catholic emancipation was a point of great contention among his peers, but he honestly could not care less if Catholics held a seat in Parliament. "All I know is that we need relief and a new, fair system of taxation. Perhaps next Season we could work together toward a more palatable set of reforms."
Whitcomb smiled as he drained his port glass. "I might be amenable to that. Always enjoyed a good fight in the Lords. Well, gentlemen, shall we see what the ladies are about?" He did not wait for an answer, but shoved away from the table. Alex and Arthur dutifully followed him to the green salon, where they sat quietly listening to the ladies talk of engagement parties for two hours more.
Later, as Alex stood in the foyer with his mother, he heard Marlaine mention that she and Lady Whitcomb would return the next day to discuss the winter engagement party. He managed not to snort impatiently.