Authors: Elyse Huntington
To my mum, whose faith and strength inspires me every day. I love you, mum.
Our Hero's Forbearance is Tested
London, England, 1770
âJames, Cole and I have come to a decision. It is high time that you were married.'
James Cavendish, third Duke of Trent, second Marquess of Westbrooke, Baron Greenville, allowed himself to savour the taste of the expensive brandy as it burned a fiery path down his throat before turning his head to look at his brother. The declaration was doubtless supposed to sound majestic, but since Matthew was well in his cups, all it did was sound majestically ridiculous. The duke arched an eyebrow at his sibling. âThe notion that you have been thinking is a terrifying proposition at the best of times, but the notion that you have been thinking about my nuptial state is beyond imagining.' He turned to his friend. âAs for you, Dr Cole, I'm surprised that you would waste your valuable time pondering my personal affairs. Shouldn't you be spending your time searching for a cure for cholera or some such disease?'
Cole was more than familiar with jibes such as these. Being especially bright, he had attended Eton at the same time as the duke, despite being six years younger. He also knew that the duke was merely teasing, having been taken under the older boy's wing after the then marquess had happened upon a scene where Cole was being tormented by his older classmates. âI have more than enough time during the daylight hours for those pursuits. No, I agree with Matthew. It is time you remarried.' His face softened. âCatherine has been dead for five years.'
As always, the thought of his wife brought equal amounts of anger and regret. Not for the first time, he wished he had never met the woman. A woman who had so bewitched him that even five years later, he was still unable to understand how it was that he had not suspected her true character. Love really was blind, he thought bitterly. âI do not intend to marry again.' His tone made it clear that this pronouncement was final.
Matthew slopped an overly generous measure of brandy into his glass. âWhat about your duty to produce an heir?'
âI feel no such duty, Matthew. I plan to bestow this duchy upon you on my passing.'
âNo, absolutely not!' His brother's answer was emphatic. âThere is no damn way I'm inheriting this duchy, dear brother. I will run off to the Continent even as you lie on your deathbed. Then what would happen to all your beloved tenants, not to mention the family? If you care for them, you would do well to get to work and produce an heir.'
Cole spoke up. âMuch as I hate to agree with your brother, JamesÂ .Â .Â .'
âHear! Hear!' Matthew shouted drunkenly. Both men ignored him.
The doctor continued speaking. âSurely you don't believe he is someone who would be mentally or emotionally capable of such responsibility. And besides, he will more than likely drink your vast fortune in the space of five years.'
âI beg your pÂ .Â .Â .Â pardon!' interjected the subject in question.
James grimaced, unable to disagree with his friend on this point.
âFortunately for you,' said Cole, âMatthew has been in constant attendance over the last month at various balls and has been gathering information at Brooks's. Between us, we have come up with a list of prospective brides.'
âCole.' James put his snifter down carefully, trying to hold back his annoyance. âI never suspected you to be hard of hearing. Let me make myself abundantly clear. I have no wish to be married again. And even if I do, which I most certainly do not, you appear to have forgotten the circumstances surrounding Catherine's death. No marriage-minded mama, even at her most desperate, would dare expose her daughter to the Dark Duke, with his wife's blood on his hands. She would be more likely to sacrifice her innocent lamb on an altar to pagan gods.'
Cole raised his eyebrows. âHow unlike you to be dramatic, James. First, what happened to Catherine was a long time ago. Trust me, there have been many more scandals since that time. Why, just last week Lady Arrow was discovered
in flagrante delicto
with her gardener in the conservatory. Apparently it has been going on for years. There are now doubts as to the paternity of the viscount's two children.'
James sighed. âCole, you are sounding dangerously like a gossiping female at one of those tedious balls.'
His friend blinked owlishly, the dancing firelight reflecting on his spectacles. âI beg your pardon; I digress. Second, you are blessed with qualities that are currently unmatchable as a male candidate on the marriage mart.'
âReally? Do enlighten me.' James's tone was dry as he took a further sip of his brandy.
Cole looked thoughtful as he listed James's attributes. âWell, you are a duke, the highest peer in the realm. At thirty-three, you are in your prime, have a reasonably intelligent mind and, objectively speaking, you have a fine manly form. But the one thing which will tip the scales is that you, my friend, are richer than Croesus.'
It took several moments before James could reply, having swallowed the wrong way when Cole had commented on his âfine manly form'. His friend looked on with concern as the duke coughed violently. âFor God's sake, Cole! If you ever say the phrase “fine manly form” again, I will have to knock your teeth down your throat,' threatened James in a hoarse voice when he finally recovered.
âMy fervent apologies,' said Cole, looking and sounding completely unapologetic. He glanced over at Matthew, who, by this stage, had fallen asleep on the leather armchair and was snoring loudly. âThird, our list does not include the young ladies who are just coming out this season. We agree that you would most assuredly scare the poor little innocents with your, ahem, manly desires.'
âColeÂ .Â .Â .' James said threateningly. He could cut off the direction of this conversation any time he chose to, but he had to admit to being somewhat curious. He had only started to attend a select number of functions last season, and they could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Most of his information came from Matthew, whose recollections and opinions were unreliable at the best of times, and from Cole, who wasn't exactly the most sought-after guest, on account of his profession.
âAll right, we came up with four. The first is Lady Rathbourne, she â'
âI have as much manly desire as the next fellow, Cole, but even I would most likely expire from her attentions, which rumour has it was the cause of the earl's death.'
âJames, that is most likely untrue. I don't believe it is possible to expire from sexual exhaustion. And she is a very handsome woman.'
âI really don't wish to test out that theory. And I do not require beauty in a wife; as long as she is passable I will consider her. I need not bed her with the candles lit.' James was nothing if not practical.
Cole shook his head. âI am a man of science, and yet the extent of your cynicism astounds even me.'
The duke didn't deign to acknowledge that statement. âNext.'
âThe Marchioness of Lyndsey is sponsoring a young woman from the Americas who I understand is well-bred and well-spoken. However, she is the daughter of merchants. And I hear tell that her father is almost as rich as you.'
âThank you, but no. As you say, I have more money than Croesus. And the woman who is to be my wife needs to be well-versed in the social conventions and responsibilities that come with that position. I do not have the time or the inclination to tutor her.'
Cole looked as if he was about to disagree, but then changed his mind. âNext is Lady Anne, the daughter of the Earl of Derby. She is twenty, fair of skin and softly spoken. I think you stand a good chance of obtaining her hand in marriage, James.'
âCould that be because Derby is so deep in debt that he would sell his daughter to the highest bidder?' James had heard about the earl's uncontrollable gaming addiction. âI will most likely have to part with a significant portion of my fortune to have her as my wife.'
âWhat does that matter to you? You will recoup that in no time,' said Cole dismissively.
James suppressed another sigh. Cole seemed to think that money could reproduce like rabbits. âI'll keep her in mind. Who is the final candidate on the list?'
âThe last person we have is Lady Alethea, the daughter of the Duke of Alton. Please do not dismiss her before you hear me out.' Obviously the doctor had seen his friend open his mouth.
âFine.' It spoke volumes that, despite his infrequent visits to town, James had heard about the duke's wayward daughter.
âLady Alethea, as you probably know, is not in her first blush of youth. She is five and twenty, so she will not be an innocent in the ways of the world. I do not mean that she is not a maid, but one would presume that she would know more about life than the average chit just out of the schoolroom. She is reportedly a bluestocking, almost as educated as you and I. I understand Alton is of the belief that women should not be disadvantaged in this arena. Interestingly, she can also ride and shoot as well as the next man.'
âIn other words, she is a man in woman's clothing. She sounds perfect, Cole.' James knew he was being sarcastic, but he was unable to help himself. Cole was expounding this woman's attributes in a manner that was a trifle too enthusiastic. He had to admit that Cole had piqued his interest. There was nothing he disliked more than simpering, empty-headed young debutantes who could do nothing but talk about the current fashion or gossip. âI am curious, though. How do you propose to persuade her to accept my offer of marriage?'
Lady Alethea had reportedly turned down at least six offers in the past seven years. The description given by Cole had explained away most of this extraordinary phenomenon. She was a duke's daughter, a duke whose wealth possibly equalled James's, and as a consequence would have received offers on these facts alone. However, it seemed the duke had overly indulged his daughter to the extent that she was clearly deluded into thinking she could do what she wished. And that included breaking the hearts of her suitors.
âI hear tell that the Duchess of Alton is desperate to have her married off. Alton heeds her counsel, so if the suitor were to impress her, I would say that the deal is done.'
âReally? What would be Alton's plan if she were to refuse? Truss her up like a Michaelmas goose and deposit her at the feet of the bishop when it comes time for the nuptials?'
âJames, I'm not asking you to marry her tomorrow. Meet her first, then decide. She has a pleasing appearance and at least you'll know where you stand after the meeting. Apparently Lady Alethea Sinclair is not afraid to speak her mind. You'll get on famously.' Cole smiled in delight.
âNo doubt you've somehow managed to inveigle an invitation for me at the same affair?' James asked dryly. He was in London for the season. He supposed he could attend a few gatherings. He didn't much care about the reception he would get. Or what his peers thought of him. His wealth and station meant that he needed to please no-one but himself.
âYes. The Earl and Countess of Mulgrave are hosting a masked ball in three days' time. I happened upon Lord Mulgrave at the apothecary yesterday and he was delighted to hear that you were finally in town, so he is sending you an invitation post-haste. Lady Alethea will be attending with her family. Tell me you will give her a chance.'
James gave a negligent shrug as he drained the last of his brandy. âWhy the hell not? I suppose I have nothing better to do.' He would never admit it aloud, but the thought of meeting the woman who had the audacity to turn down marriage offer after marriage offer with not a care of what society thought of her intrigued him. Even though it would take an extraordinary woman to change his mind about marriage. An extraordinary woman indeed.