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An Unsuitable Bride Chapter One
The Honorable Peregrine Sullivan drew rein on the high Dorsetshire cliff top and looked out over the calm waters of Lulworth Cove. The sea surged through the horseshoe-shaped rock at the entrance to the cove in a flash of white water and then smoothed out as it rolled gently to the beach.
Perry was not familiar with this southern coastline, having spent his own growing in the rugged wilds of Northumberland, where rough mountains and hilly moors were the usual scenery, but he found it rather soothing, the expanse of water sparkling under the Indian summer sun, the rough grass of the cliff top, the air perfumed with the clumps of fragrant pinks crushed beneath his horse’s hooves. It was altogether a softer part of the world, and none the worse for that, he reflected.
His weary horse raised his head and whinnied. Perry leaned over and stroked the animal’s neck. “Almost there, Sam.” He urged the horse forward with a nudge of his heels. It had been a long ride from London, three days in all. The Honorable Peregrine was not overly flush with funds and had decided a post chaise would be an unwarranted expense, and he didn’t wish to change horses on the road, leaving Sam in an unknown stable, so they’d taken it slowly, at a pace that the gelding could comfortably manage, but now they were within two miles of Combe Abbey, their final destination.
The gray stone building stood on a slight hill, easily visible from the road that wound across the cliff above the Solent. It was an impressive turreted building, with arched mullioned windows glowing in the setting sun. Well-tended green lawns swept down to the cliff top, and a stand of tall pines served as a windbreak along the boundary of the grounds and the cliff.
Perry felt a little surge of anticipation. In that impressive building was a library, and in that library were treasures, some known, such as the Decameron, which set his literary juices running, and many, he was sure, unknown and equally priceless. His good friend Marcus Crofton had assured him that he could spend as long as he liked in the library. Its owner, Sir Stephen Douglas, had given him carte blanche to browse as much as he chose.
Peregrine turned his horse through the gates, which were opened at his appearance by a robust gatekeeper. “Dower House is just around the first bend in the drive, sir,” he informed Peregrine in answer to the latter’s question. “They’s expectin’ you. Master Crofton told me to look out for ye.”
“Thank you.” Perry nodded his thanks with a smile and rode on up the drive. He was looking forward to this visit with his old friend, and not just because of the opportunity to see the library. Since his twin brother, Sebastian, had taken his new wife, the Lady Serena, on an extended honeymoon to the Continent, Perry had to admit that the house they had shared on Stratton Street seemed far too big, and very lonely. It had surprised him how lonely he had been. He’d always considered himself perfectly self-sufficient, perfectly content with his own company and that of his books. But he’d been mistaken, it seemed.
Now he nudged Sam into a trot as the Dower House came into view. It was a pleasant thatched building in the Queen Anne style, nowhere near as impressive as the Abbey itself but rather inviting. Smoke curled from the kitchen chimney, and the windows on both levels were opened to catch the freshness of early evening. Perry dismounted at the front door and pulled the bell rope beside it. He heard the chime within the house, and the door was opened almost instantly by a white-haired steward, who bowed and murmured, “The Honorable Peregrine, I assume, sir?”
“You assume right,” Perry agreed with an amiable smile, drawing off his gloves.
“Perry, is that you?” A cheerful voice hailed him from the cool depths of an oak-floored hall, and a young man of around Perry’s age appeared behind the steward. “Welcome, m’dear fellow.” He extended a hand in greeting.
Perry shook his hand warmly. He had known Marcus Crofton since their school days. But whereas Perry had had the protection of his oldest brother, Jasper, and the constant companionship of his twin, Sebastian, Marcus had been thrown into the brutal waters of Westminster alone and left to sink or swim. The Blackwater brothers had extended their protection and friendship, and Marcus and Peregrine had quickly become fast friends once they had discovered a shared passion for science. A passion that the less rigorously academically minded Sebastian had found hard to understand and after a few attempts had given up trying to share with his twin.
“I’ve been expecting you for the last two days. You rode?” Marcus peered over Perry’s shoulder to where his horse stood patiently behind him.
“In slow stages,” Perry returned. “Where should I stable Sam?”
“Oh, up at the Abbey,” Marcus replied. “My mother didn’t wish to go to the expense of opening the Dower House stables, and Sir Stephen offered to extend the hospitality of the Abbey’s whenever we need it. For a not so small stipend, of course,” he added with a cynical note that Peregrine didn’t miss.
“Mother keeps her barouche up there,” Marcus continued. “But, except when I’m down here for some hunting, we don’t trespass further on his generosity.” The cynical note was again difficult to miss. “Except for our visitors, who also use the stables. Roddy will take him up and see him settled. See to it, will you, Baker?”
“Of course, sir.” The butler disappeared into the back regions of the house.
“Come into the parlor,” Marcus urged. “You must be dying of thirst after all that riding.” He led the way into a square parlor. It had an intimate, family feel to it, the air scented with great bowls of roses planted on every available surface. “You’ll have to excuse my mother, Perry. The Dowager Lady Douglas suffers from ill health and spends much of the day on the chaise in her boudoir. She’s resting now before dinner.” He poured two glasses of ruby claret, passing one to his guest. “You’ll meet her at dinner, of course.”
Peregrine raised his glass in a toast of thanks before saying, “I hope the dowager doesn’t consider my visit an imposition.”
“Oh, good heavens, not a bit of it, dear boy. There’s nothing my mother likes better than visitors. She just don’t like to exert herself. But Baker and his wife, the inestimable Mistress Baker, run the house between ’em, and m’mother has to do little more than wave her sal volatile in their direction and miracles occur.” Marcus chuckled, clearly not considering this less than respectful description of his parent to be in the least offensive.
Peregrine smiled knowingly. His own mother had been of the valetudinarian stamp, and he understood the situation well. “I’m most grateful to the dowager for her hospitality. I confess I can barely hold my patience until I can see the library. Your stepfather was known as the most skilled antiquarian book collector in the country. And his father before him,” he added, his blue eyes sparking with enthusiasm. His fatigue seemed to have left him now that he was at journey’s end and so close to the object of his passionate interest.
Marcus chuckled. He knew well the depths of his friend’s literary enthusiasms, even though he could not himself summon up such intense interest for anything outside the realm of science. “I doubt the library will expand under Stephen’s caretaking. Sir Stephen Douglas doesn’t appear to share the literary interests of his two predecessors. But you should be able to see the collection soon. We shall dine quietly at home, and I should warn you we keep country hours, but afterwards we are bidden to the Abbey for an evening of cards. Every evening, Sir Stephen has card tables set up, either with his own houseguests or members of the local gentry.” Marcus shook his head with a slightly rueful smile. “I give you fair warning, my friend. If ’tis not whist, then ’tis fierce gaming. Sir Stephen plays for high stakes.”
Peregrine had neither the desire nor the funds to play for high stakes, but he would cross that bridge when he came to it. He shrugged the issue aside. “As long as there’s an opportunity to look at the volume of the Decameron, I’ll do the best I can.”
“Oh, no one will trouble you on that score, although you’ll have to beard the librarian.”
“Librarian? There’s a librarian?” Perry was surprised that a man with no interest in books should employ someone simply to take care of them.
“Yes, she’s been there for a while. Stephen has little interest in the collection, except in terms of its monetary value, so he employed this Mistress Hathaway to catalogue it with the aim of selling it to the highest bidder. ’Tis a damn shame, and I’m sure my stepfather is turning in his grave.” Marcus shook his head. “Such a waste of a lifetime’s assiduous collecting, and, as you said, not just Sir Arthur but his father before him. Some of the works are priceless. Anyway, Mistress Hathaway is just a dab of a thing, although I think she knows what she’s doing. She’s so shy and retiring, she’ll probably run a mile if you speak to her.”
“It’s hard to believe Sir Stephen doesn’t appreciate such a treasury,” Peregrine observed, sipping his claret.
“Truth to tell, m’boy, Sir Stephen Douglas has more than a little of the Philistine about him,” Marcus declared. “Money is his major passion, as far as I can tell. And social climbing is that of his lady wife, the inestimable Lady Maude,” he added with a sardonic grin. “Stephen does his best to further her aspirations, riding to hounds with the County set, offering generous hospitality to everyone who is anyone in Dorset, but the lady doesn’t appear overly appreciative of his efforts.” He drained his glass. “Let me show you to your chamber. You’ll want to wash off the dirt of the road before dinner.”
Marcus led the way upstairs to a commodious chamber at the back of the house. “John will valet you. I’ll send him up straightway.” He gestured to a pier table by the window. “Claret and Madeira should you feel the need. I’ll see you in the drawing room in half an hour.” The door closed behind him.
Peregrine surveyed his surroundings. His portmanteau had been unstrapped from his horse and unpacked, and his clothes were hanging in the armoire. A knock at the door brought a manservant with a jug of steaming water and an array of fresh towels over his arm. “Good evening, sir.”
“Good evening, John . . . I believe it is.” Perry stripped off his coat. “I’m covered in dust from the road, and I need a shave. Would you sharpen my blade?”
“Aye, sir.” The valet set to work with blade and strop while Perry stripped to his undergarments.
Half an hour later, he presented himself in the drawing room, dressed appropriately in a suit of wine-colored velvet, plain white stockings, buckled shoes. His only jewelry was a turquoise stud in the froth of lace at his throat and a clasp of the same stone confining the fair queue at the nape of his neck.
“Ah, there you are, Perry. Everything to your satisfaction, I trust.” Marcus poured claret and handed a glass to his guest.
“Perfectly, I thank you.” Perry took the glass, raised it in a toast, and wandered to the bow window that looked across the sweep of lawn to the glittering blue sliver of sea glimpsed through the windbreak. “Exquisite setting, Marcus.”
“Don’t I know it,” the other responded, coming to stand beside him. “My stepfather was a careful landowner. His death was very sudden, a fever out of nowhere, and he was dead within two days.” He shook his head. “The physicians couldn’t fathom it. He seemed as strong as a horse when he was struck down. They muttered about a weak heart after the fact, but ’tis still a puzzle. Anyway, he left the estate and the accounts in immaculate order.
“Unfortunately—” He stopped abruptly, cleared his throat, and changed the subject. “If you care for a day’s fishing, Perry, the trout stream is well stocked.”
“One of my favorite country pastimes,” Perry said easily, even as he wondered what his friend had been about to say.
“Lady Douglas is descending, gentlemen.” The steward spoke from the door behind them.
Marcus nodded. “Thank you, Baker.” He went to the sideboard, where glasses and decanters stood, and poured a small measure of ratafia into a delicate crystal glass.
“Ah, dear boys, you’re down before me.” The light voice emanated from what to Perry’s bemused gaze appeared to be a billowing ball of silks, chiffons, and paisley shawls. From within the depths of these fabrics, a pair of light brown eyes glimmered, and a small, very white, heavily beringed hand appeared. He bowed over it. “Lady Douglas, I am most grateful for your hospitality.”
“Nonsense.” She waved the hand airily. “My dear Marcus’s friends are always most welcome.” The ball of material flowed to a chaise longue and reposed itself in elegant folds, which, when they had finally settled, revealed the plump figure and doll-like countenance of a lady of early middle years. She smiled amiably at Peregrine and dabbed a lavender-soaked scrap of lace at her temples. “I am something of an invalid, unfortunately, so you must forgive me if I keep to my own chamber most of the time.” She sighed. “ ’Tis such a trial, but we must be grateful for what we have, isn’t that so, Marcus?”
“Indeed, ma’am,” her son agreed gravely, handing her the glass of ratafia. “I trust this will give you a little more strength before we dine.”
“Oh, yes, such a tonic I find it.” She sipped with a complacent smile. “So, tell me, Mr. Sullivan, what is the gossip from London?” Another little sigh, before she said, “I do so miss the bustle of town, but I no longer have the strength for it.”
Perry caught Marcus’s smothered grin and concealed his own amusement while he racked his brains for a suitable tidbit. His sister-in-law, Lady Serena, was always a fount of useful on dits, and he remembered a particular one concerning the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire.
Lady Douglas listened with bright-eyed fascination. She was really a very pretty woman, Perry reflected, with her pink and white complexion and rounded chin. Certainly younger than her invalid manner would imply. She was well pleased with Peregrine’s attempts to amuse her, and when dinner was announced, she rose with unexpected energy from the chaise, taking his arm for him to lead her into dinner.
Marcus followed, smiling to himself. He was very fond of his parent—only sixteen years separated them—but always delighted when the burden of her entertainment was assumed as competently as Perry was assuming it.
Mistress Hathaway paused at her dressing mirror to take stock of her appearance before descending to the salon of Combe Abbey to obey her employer’s summons to make up a four at one of the whist tables. She had dined as usual with the family and their houseguests but, as usual, had escaped rapidly to her bedchamber the moment the ladies had left the table for the drawing room. The unwelcome summons had followed when the gentlemen had repaired to the drawing room, replete with port, for an evening at the whist tables.
She was called upon to make a four whenever there were uneven numbers among the guests, and Mistress Hathaway cursed her stupidity in revealing her skill at cards one afternoon, when her employer wished for a game of piquet. She had always been too competitive for her own good, she reflected irritably. If she had let Sir Stephen win, she wouldn’t be in the abominable position of having to obey every summons to the table that her employer issued.
She glanced sideways at her reflection, at the small but unsightly hump at the base of her neck. The candlelight caught the faint brown birthmark below her right cheekbone and the scattering of gray hairs above her temples. Mistress Alexandra Hathaway sighed, even as she nodded her satisfaction. Everything was in order. She picked up her pince-nez and her fan from the dresser, drew on her black silk mittens, and went downstairs.
She was crossing the hall to the drawing room as the butler opened the door to two young men. She recognized Marcus Crofton, but his companion was unknown to her.
“Good evening, Mistress Hathaway.” Mr. Crofton greeted her in his customary genial fashion. She dropped a curtsy, lowering her eyes, murmuring a greeting in a barely audible voice.
“Allow me to introduce my guest, ma’am. The Honorable Peregrine Sullivan.” Marcus gestured to his companion, who was handing the butler his hat and cane. “Mistress Hathaway is the genius in residence, you should understand, Perry. As I explained earlier, she is cataloguing Sir Stephen’s magnificent library.”
Peregrine was eager to meet the guardian of the library and bowed with a warm smile. “Mistress Hathaway, an honor.”
“Sir.” She bobbed another curtsy, not meeting his gaze.
Peregrine frowned a little. What a strange little dab of a creature she was. Not at all what he’d expected of someone capable of appreciating and cataloguing such an intellectual treasure house as Sir Arthur Douglas’s library. However, looks could be deceiving, he told himself.
“I am most eager to view the volume of the Decameron, ma’am. I understand it is part of Sir Stephen’s collection.” Mistress Hathaway seemed to wince a little as he said this, but perhaps her misshapen back was paining her, he thought with a flash of sympathy.
“Indeed, sir,” she responded after a barely perceptible pause. She raised her eyes for the first time. Large and gray under surprisingly luxuriant dark lashes. “I would be delighted to show it to you at some point. But at present, my employer is expecting me at the whist tables.” She moved away to the double doors to the salon.
There was something puzzling about the lady, Peregrine reflected. Something slightly off kilter, but it was none of his business. He followed Marcus into the salon.
“Lady Douglas, may I present my houseguest, the Honorable Peregrine Sullivan?” Marcus bowed over the hand of an angular woman in a saque gown of magenta silk that hung from her thin frame as if from a coat hanger. Her décolletage revealed an expanse of sallow freckled skin, and her pale red hair was dressed in an elaborate coiffure of frizzed curls on her brow and tight ringlets curling to her sharp bare shoulders.
She greeted Peregrine’s bow with a nodded curtsy, subjecting him to a scrutiny that seemed to find him wanting. “Mr. Sullivan. You are welcome, I’m sure,” she murmured with a distant twitch of her lips that Peregrine thought could have been a smile with sufficient imagination.
“An honor, Lady Douglas,” he responded with impeccable courtesy.
Sir Stephen Douglas was a tall, well-built man of florid complexion. His belly pushed against the silver buttons of his striped waistcoat, and the seams of his green damask breeches strained against the fullness of his thighs.
A sportsman who was also a little too fond of the pleasures of the table and the decanter, Perry guessed, bowing as he greeted his host. In his late middle years, he would run to seed. It was an uncharitable reflection, but something about the man put his back up, even though he couldn’t pinpoint the cause.
“The Honorable Peregrine Sullivan, eh? One of the Blackwaters, I believe.” Sir Stephen took snuff as he responded to Peregrine’s bow. “I am slightly acquainted with your brother, the earl. We belong to the same London club. I don’t, however, believe I have met you there.”
“I’m sure I would have remembered had we met there, sir,” Peregrine responded with a smooth smile. “But I am not overly fond of cards. Blackwater, on the other hand, is quite taken with ’em.”
“Not overly fond of cards . . . Gad, sir. What gentleman is not fond of cards?” Stephen exclaimed, sneezing snuff into his handkerchief in vigorous punctuation.
“We are a rare species, Sir Stephen, but you find us in all the best circles,” Peregrine responded with an amiable smile that did nothing to conceal an edge of disdain to his voice. He became aware of a strange sound over his shoulder. A slight choking noise. He turned his head sharply, but only the librarian was close by, and she was plying her fan, gazing into the middle distance.
“Oh, good . . . good.” Belatedly, it seemed to occur to Stephen that he might have implied that his guest, a scion of the august Blackwater family, somehow lacked gentlemanly attributes. Disconcerted, he blinked and stuffed his handkerchief into the deep pocket of his coat. “Well, we have three whist tables set up. Mistress Hathaway has agreed to make a fourth at the third table. I trust you have no objections, Mr. Sullivan.”
“How could I?” Peregrine asked blandly. “If the lady has no objection to playing with a self-confessed amateur.” He glanced at the librarian with an inquiringly raised eyebrow.
“Maybe I will not draw you as partner, sir,” the lady murmured from behind her fan. “In which case, I can only be delighted to find myself playing against an amateur.” She moved away to one of the card tables set up on the far side of the salon.
Peregrine swallowed his surprise at this riposte. His host clearly hadn’t heard the sotto voce response and was busily allocating players to tables. The party divided, and Perry took his place at the third table with a keen-eyed gentleman in a suit of a vivid shade of turquoise and a lady of an uncertain age, dressed in a fashion too youthful for her slightly raddled countenance, the décolletage of her crimson gown revealing too much wrinkled flesh, none of it improved with copious applications of paint and powder. Mistress Hathaway took her place rather diffidently, keeping her eyes down as they cut for partners.
Peregrine was more than happy to draw the librarian as his partner. Not only would her skills offset his own inadequacies, but she had piqued his curiosity with that sotto voce riposte. Had he really heard her correctly?
“I fear you have drawn the short straw after all, ma’am,” he murmured as he moved into the chair opposite her. “I shall do my best not to let you down.” He hid a smile as he waited to see if she would rise to the bait.
Mistress Hathaway glanced across at him. “If you play as well as you are able, sir, I must be satisfied,” she responded, her voice as soft as ever, her expression as demure as before. “But I do beg you to remember in your bidding that a librarian’s purse is not particularly plump.”
There was an unmistakable glimmer of amusement, of challenge even, in the gray eyes. Perry’s lips twitched. She had not disappointed him. But he was still deeply surprised by such a sharp undertone that seemed completely out of keeping on the lips of this dowdy, downtrodden woman. And there was something about those eyes that did not match the face. They were young, bright, and very sharp. He leaned closer, his own gaze sharpened, but she instantly dropped her eyes to the cards she was sorting in her hand, and he sat back, for the moment prepared to bide his time.
Why on earth had she allowed herself to respond like that? Alexandra cursed herself roundly for such a foolish impulse, but there was something about the Honorable Peregrine that piqued her, that drew from her an urge to engage with him in some way. Maybe it had something to do with his knowledge of the Decameron—she longed to discuss the library with someone who might share her delight in its treasures—and maybe it had something to do with his sharp put-down of Sir Stephen’s pretensions. Whatever it was, it was as ridiculous as it was dangerous. She bit the inside of her cheek hard until the pain distracted her.
Perry realized quickly that his partner was indeed an expert. It was true that he’d never seen the appeal in cards—there always seemed more interesting ways to pass an evening—but he had a mathematical mind, and after a few hands, he found an unexpected pleasure in the intellectual exercise of memory and calculation at which Mistress Hathaway appeared to excel. There was something supremely satisfying in finding that they were completely in accord, each knowing how the other would follow a lead.
Once or twice, his partner would glance at him when they took a game, and he would see a light in her gray eyes that seemed at odds with the slack, faintly dark-shadowed skin beneath them. But she never spoke except to call her bid. She laid down her cards with the same brisk purpose with which she added up the scores and the wins and losses at the end of each rubber.
A formidable lady, whose outward appearance completely belied the efficiency of her play. Peregrine wondered if anyone else noticed the paradox as the evening finally broke up and he rose from the table with a respectable sum in his pocket. He shook hands with his opponents and then turned to where Mistress Hathaway had been standing, a smile on his lips, his hand outstretched, only to discover an empty space behind him. The librarian was nowhere to be seen, and Marcus appeared at his elbow, yawning.
“Stephen’s gathering a fishing expedition tomorrow at sunrise,” Marcus said. “D’you fancy joining it?”
“Certainly,” Perry responded with enthusiasm. “I’ve more stomach for fishing than for whist.”
Marcus chuckled. “You had a profitable evening, though, I gather.”
“Yes,” Perry agreed thoughtfully. “Not in some small measure thanks to Mistress Hathaway.”
“Yes, she’s an unusual woman. Don’t find too many of the dear souls with wits to match hers,” Marcus agreed, yawning again. “Still, with such an unfortunate appearance, ’tis good she has the wit at least to compensate.”
“Yes, I suppose so,” Perry agreed as they went out into the starless night to walk down the drive to the Dower House.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This series was a great read and easy to creat a mental picture of what your reading.