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St. James’s Square, London
Fate had just dealt Viscount Dewland a blow that would have felled a weaker, or more sympathetic, man. He gaped silently at his eldest son for a moment, ignoring his wife’s twittering commentary. But a happy thought revived him. That same wife had, after all, provided him with two male offspring.
Without further ado he spun on his heel and barked at his younger son, “If your brother can’t do his duty in bed, then you’ll do it. You can act like a man for once in your life.”
Peter Dewland was caught unawares by his father’s sudden attack. He had risen to adjust his neckcloth in the drawing-room mirror, thereby avoiding his brother’s eyes. Really, what does a man say to that sort of confession? But like his father, Peter recovered quickly from unpredictable assaults.
He walked around the end of the divan and sat down.
“I gather you are suggesting that I marry Jerningham’s daughter?”
“Of course I am!” the viscount snapped. “Someone has to marry her, and your brother has just declared himself ineligible.”
“I beg to differ,” Peter remarked with a look of cool distaste. “I have no plans to marry at your whim.”
“What in the bloody hell do you mean? Of course you’ll marry the girl if I instruct you to do so!”
“I do not plan to marry, Father. Not at your instigation nor at anyone else’s.”
“Rubbish! Every man marries.”
Peter sighed. “Not true.”
“You’ve squired about every beautiful gal that came on the market in the last six years. If you had formed a true attachment, I would not stand in your way. But since you haven’t made a move to attach yourself, you will marry Jerningham’s girl.
“You shall do as I say, boy,” the viscount bellowed. “Your brother can’t take on the job, and so you have to do it. I’ve been lenient with you. You might be in the Seventh Foot at this very moment. Have you thought of that?”
“I’d rather take a pair of colors than a wife,” Peter retorted.
“Absolutely not,” his father said, reversing himself. “Your brother’s been at the point of death for years.” Inside the drawing room, the silence swelled ominously. Peter grimaced at his elder brother, whose muscled body proclaimed his general fitness to the world at large.
Erskine Dewland, who had been staring meditatively at the polished surface of his Hessians, raised his heavy-lidded eyes from his boots to his father’s face. “If Peter is determined not to marry, I could take her on.” His deep voice fell into the silent room.
“And what’s the point of that? You can’t do the job properly, and I’m not wedding Jerningham’s daughter to . . . to . . . in that case. I’ve got principles. The girl’s got a right to expect a sound husband, for God’s sake.”
Quill, as Erskine was known to his intimates, opened his mouth again. And then thought better of it. He could certainly consummate the marriage, but it wouldn’t be a very pleasant experience. Any woman deserved more from marriage than he could offer. While he had come to terms with his injuries, especially now that they had ceased to bother his movement, the three-day migraines that followed repetitive motion made his likelihood for marital bliss very slight.
“Can’t argue with that, can you?” The viscount looked triumphantly at his eldest son. “I’m not some sort of a caper merchant, passing you off as whole goods when you’re not. Mind you, we could. The girl wouldn’t know a thing, of course, until it was too late. And her father’s turned into such a loose screw that he’s not even accompanying her out here.
“Point is,” Dewland went on, turning back to his youngest son, “the girl’s expecting to marry someone. And if it can’t be Quill, it’s got to be you. I’ll send your picture over on the next boat.”
Peter replied through his teeth, each word spaced. “I do not wish to marry, Father.”
The viscount’s cheeks reddened again. “It’s time you stopped gadding about. By God, you will do as I say!”
Peter avoided his father’s gaze, seemingly absorbed in flicking the smallest piece of lint from the black velvet collar of his morning coat. Satisfied, he returned to the subject at hand. “You seem to have misunderstood me. I refuse to marry Jerningham’s daughter.” Only the smallest tremor in his voice betrayed his agitation.
The viscountess broke in before her husband could bellow whatever response he had in mind. “ Thurlow, I don’t like your color. Perhaps we might continue this conversation at a later time? You know what the doctor said about getting overtaxed! “ “Balderdash!” the viscount protested, although he allowed his wife to pull him back onto a couch. “By George, you had better obey me, Mister Peter Dewland, or you will find yourself out the door.” The veins of his forehead were alarmingly swollen.
His wife sent a beseeching glance to her youngest son. His jaw was set in a manner that his father would have recognized, had there been a mirror in the near vicinity.
But before Peter could say a word, his father erupted out of his seat once again. “And just what am I supposed to say to this young girl who’s coming all the way over from India? Tell her that you prefer ‘not to marry her’? You planning on telling my old friend Jerningham that you decline to marry his gal?”
“That is precisely what I suggest,”Peter replied.
“And what about the money Jerningham’s lent me over the years, eh? Given it to me without a word of advice, just sent me over the blunt to do with as I like! If your brother Quill hadn’t pulled down a fortune speculating on the East India Company, Jerningham might still be lending me money. As it is, we agreed to consider it a dowry. You will marry the gal, or I’ll . . . I’ll . . .”
The viscount’s face was purple all over now, and he was unconsciously rubbing his chest. “Quill could pay back the money,” Peter suggested.
“Bloody hell! I’ve already allowed your brother to turn himself into a merchant, playing around on the Exchange, I’ll be damned if I’ll allow him to pay off my debts!”
“I don’t see why not,” Peter retorted. “He’s paid for everything else.”
“That’s enough! The only reason your brother, the only reason I allowed Erskine to take on the smell of the market was because, well, because he’s a cripple. But at least he acts his age. You’re naught but a fribble, a sprig of fashion!” As the viscount drew a breath, Quill raised his head and met his younger brother’s eyes. In the depths of Quill’s silent apology, Peter saw the manacles of marriage looming.
His father was glaring at him with all the frustration of a ruddy, boisterous Englishman whose younger son has proved to be nothing like himself. Peter cast a desperate look at his mother, but there was no help to be found.
He quailed. His stomach churned. He opened his mouth to protest, but could think of nothing to say. And finally, the habits of a lifetime’s submission took hold.
“Very well.” His voice was hollow.
Kitty Dewland rose and came to give him a grateful kiss on the cheek. “Dear Peter,” she said. “You were always my comforting one, my good child. And in truth, darling, you have escorted so many women without making an offer. I’m certain that Jerningham’s daughter will be a perfect match for you. His wife was French, you know.” In her son’s eyes there was a bleak desolation that Kitty hated to see. “Is there someone else? Is there a woman whom you were hoping to marry, darling?”
Peter shook his head.
“Well, then,” Kitty said gaily. “We will be right and tight when this girl what’s her name, Thurlow? Thurlow!” When Kitty turned around she found her husband leaning back and looking rather white. “M’chest doesn’t feel so good, Kitty,” he mumbled.
And when Kitty flew out of the drawing room, she was far too discomposed to note how odd it was that her beloved butler, Codswallop, was hovering just on the other side of the door.
“Send for Doctor Priscian,” she shrieked, and trotted back into the room.
The plump and precise Codswallop couldn’t resist taking a curious look at the elder Dewland son before he rang for a footman. It was that hard to believe. Erskine had a physique Codswallop had secretly admired: a body remarkably suited to tight pantaloons and fitted coats, the kind of body housemaids giggled about behind stairs. Must be some sort of injury to his private parts. Codswallop shuddered sympathetically.
Just then Quill turned about and looked Codswallop in the face. Quill’s eyes were a curious green-gray, set in a face stamped with lines of pain and deeply tanned. Without moving a muscle, he cast Codswallop a look that scathed him to his bones.
Codswallop scuttled back into the hall and rang for a footman. The viscount was supported off to his bedchamber, followed by his clucking wife. Young Peter bounded out the door looking like murder, followed rather more slowly by Quill, and Codswallop pulled the drawing-room doors closed with a snap. d
Some three months later, the whole affair was tied up. Miss Jerningham was due to arrive on the Plassey, a frigate sailing from Calcutta, within the week. There was one last explosion of rage on the part of the viscount when Peter announced, on the day before Miss Jerningham was due to arrive, that he was taking a long sojourn in the country.
But by supper on the fifth of September, the sullen bridegroom had taken himself off to his club rather than to Herefordshire, and Viscount Dewland repeated over stewed pigeon that the marriage would be an excellent solution to all their problems. There was an unspoken acknowledgment between Thurlow and his wife that Peter, if left to his own devices, might indeed never marry.