Read Rexanne Becnel Online

Authors: The Matchmaker-1

Rexanne Becnel (2 page)

Olivia grimaced. Could her mother have set her cap for Archibald Collins, the new Earl of Holdsworth, a man nearly ten years her junior?
Augusta rose from her seat quivering with fury. “You had better mind your tongue,” she warned Sarah, “else I will send you packing back to Nottingham.”
“I’d rather be there than here where I am forced to watch you make a fool of yourself!” With that Sarah stormed from the room, leaving an awful silence in her wake.
“Well,” Augusta huffed, jerking angrily at the skirt of her sky-blue striped morning dress.
Even angry she was a pretty woman, and for a moment Olivia simply stared at her mother. Striking blue eyes; rich blond hair. If there was any gray it did not show. Her figure, too, was delicate and still youthful. Hard to believe she’d borne three children, one to each of her husbands.
But in the two years since Sarah’s father had died, their mother had been terribly lonely. Even her children could not fill the void, for Augusta Lindford Byrde Palmer was a woman lost without a husband. It was an aspect of her mother’s personality that Olivia did not understand. She’d wed an old man first, then a dashing wastrel, and finally a true gentleman. Wasn’t that enough? Olivia could see no reason for Augusta ever to chain herself to a man again. She had an income in the vicinity of three thousand pounds a year, plus a country home near Nottingham, and James’s town house. There was also the Byrde estate in Scotland, held in trust for Olivia from her father.
But though she had sufficient homes and sufficient children, Augusta still needed a man. Olivia and James did not oppose the idea of her remarrying. Young Sarah, unfortunately, could not bear the thought of anyone replacing her beloved Papa.
Olivia capped the bottle of ink, then sent a silent signal to Mrs. McCaffery to leave them. Once the housekeeper closed the door, she said, “Mother, surely you can understand Sarah’s objections.”
“He is only a very few years younger than I. A very few. Besides, no one can believe I am a day over thirty-five.” She glanced at her reflection in the towering pier mirror, straightened her posture and lifted her chin. “And you needn’t inform anyone to the contrary,” she added with a stern look.
“It is not his age that has Sarah so upset.”
Augusta made a circuit of the room, then halted in the open window and caught the billowing lace curtain in one hand. “My mourning period is long past.”
“Yes. But that means nothing to Sarah. She loved her father dearly. We all did,” Olivia added more softly. Humphrey Dunmore had been as good a father to Olivia and James as he had to Sarah, his only offspring.
Augusta bowed her head. “I do so miss him. But think, Olivia. James is Viscount Farley now and maintains his own household. Eventually he will wed, as will you. Then Sarah will have her come-out, and you know with her pretty face and considerable fortune she will go quickly. What am I to do then? Live alone or in my son’s household? No.” She looked up, shaking her head. “I simply could not bear that. So you see, I must remarry while I am still young enough to do so. ’Tis past time. Why can she not understand that?”
Olivia blew out a frustrated breath. Between her carefree brother, her childlike mother, and her moody sister, she often felt like the sole parent in their irregular sort of family. “It’s hard for Sarah to understand that, Mother. You must give her time. And you must not get so upset by her outbursts. It will take a while for her to accept a new man in her mother’s life. You forget that James and I have been through this before.”
Augusta sent Olivia a fond smile. “You are such a good girl, Livvie. Such a wonderful daughter. You will make some lucky man a marvelous wife. And I shall miss you terribly.”
Olivia laughed, then rose and, crossing to her mother, gave her a hug. “Then why do you press me so hard to marry and leave you?”
Augusta squeezed Olivia’s arm. “You think me irresponsible, and perhaps in some matters I am—just a little. But I know my responsibility as a mother. I mean to see you properly
wed, Livvie. This is your third season and you are already one-and-twenty. I’ll not have it said that one of my girls is headed for the shelf. So tell me. You’ve turned down Mr. Prine already, and that other fellow—I always forget his name. But what of Lord Hendricks? I saw how you behaved last night. You practically ignored him, save for a dance or two. And you know the teeniest sign of encouragement would bring him swiftly up to scratch.”
“I believe we were speaking of your prospects, Mother, not mine.”
Augusta slipped her arm around Olivia’s waist and gave her a grateful smile. “So you do not object to Archibald?”
“I didn’t say that. I don’t know him well enough to form an opinion.”
“You mean you haven’t made any notations about him in that shabby little journal you drag about?”
Olivia made a face at her. “He’s only lately come on the scene. But I shall certainly pay attention to any remarks I hear of him in the future.”
Augusta pulled away and patted her hair, checking for any imagined disarray in her perfect coiffure. “If you should hear anything about him—you know—anything that I should be aware of …”
“Such as his attentions to any other women?”
Augusta gave her a grateful smile. “Not only are you beautiful, but you’re smart as well, and awfully kind to your poor mother.” Then her demeanor grew solemn. “I know he is much younger than I, Olivia. And though he has heirs to spare from his first marriage, he would probably not object to more children—something I will never give him. But I do so like him. He is charming and amusing—and I’ve always wanted to be a countess. You do understand, don’t you, dear?”
“Yes, Mama. I understand. But you must understand Sarah’s feelings. She needs you now. She’s lost one parent already. The last thing she needs is to believe she’s losing the other one as well.”
“Oh, pooh. How could she possibly believe such a thing of me?”
Again Olivia sighed. Although her mother did not have a mean bone in her body, her self-centeredness oftimes could be wounding. “Tell me about this sojourn to Yorkshire,” she said. “I know why you are going. But why is Archie, Earl of Holdsworth, going? Aren’t his estates in Suffolk?”
“Yes, but there is a horse race in Doncaster, Wednesday next, with a rather large purse, and a horse auction. All the sporting crowd attends, for it’s quite the thing, and Lord Holdsworth is said to keep a very fine stable.”
Olivia toyed with a stray curl as she considered. She, too, would love to get away from town, for she’d had quite enough of the season, and last night’s ball had been absolutely the limit. But a week was not enough. She wanted to return to their country residence, only she knew her mother would never agree, especially if the Earl of Holdsworth remained in London.
Then from out of nowhere came inspiration. “Mother,” she began. “Doesn’t the shooting season for grouse begin in Scotland soon?”
“In Scotland? Yes, I believe so. Then after that there’s the partridge season. Why do you ask—Oh!” Augusta looked at her, and Olivia fancied she could see the wheels turning in her pretty head. “The shooting season in Scotland,” Augusta repeated. Then her fair face lit up. “Men do so love to shoot and tramp about in the woods. You’re thinking about Byrde Manor, aren’t you? We could host a country house party there. You’ve been wanting to go up to Byrde Manor these past several years anyway, haven’t you?”
“And you’ve always found a reason to deter me.”
“Oh, the countryside is so boring. Besides—well, never mind all that. Do you think Archie—Lord Holdsworth—would accept our invitation?”
“Unless he has a grousing club of his own, I don’t see why not. We could get up a small party. I’m certain James would agree to play host. So what do you say, Mother? Shall we devise a guest list for a country house party? It would suit your purposes as well as mine.”
“And what are your purposes?”
“I am weary of all this matchmaking you do on my behalf. A few months of country life would do me a world of good.”
“But you have to find a husband, Olivia. You know you do.”
“And I intend to. But I’ve met no one this year who interests me, nor am I likely to. Besides, if you want to spend time with your Archie and soften Sarah toward him, this is a perfect opportunity.”
Olivia could see the tug of war in her mother’s face. Though Augusta worried about her eldest daughter’s marital status, it seemed she worried more about her own. Augusta pursed her lips. “I know precisely what you are doing, Olivia. You’re trying to put off any decision on your own marriage.” Then she laughed, as delighted and eager as a child. “Let’s do it. Let’s invite Archie and whomever else he likes. We can have picnics and long walks, and entertain ourselves with music and cards and charades in the evenings. And maybe we might even find a wild Scotsman for you, since English gentlemen do not seem to suit.”
Olivia gave her mother an even stare. “Someone like my father?”
Augusta sobered at once and wove her fingers together. “Your father may have had his faults, Olivia. But he was not a bad man, no matter what tales Mrs. McCaffery tells you.”
Olivia chose not to enter into that debate. “In truth, I hardly remember him.” But what little she did remember supported everything Mrs. McCaffery had let slip. Still, although she took no comfort from remembering her father, memories of her childhood home always brought her a sense of peace. Just the thought of spending autumn in the wild Cheviot hills around Byrde Manor filled her now with a nameless longing.
She’d been back only once since her father’s death. Five years ago her stepfather, dear Humphrey, had insisted over Augusta’s objections, that Olivia reacquaint herself with the people of the country estate her father had left to her in trust. Since then she’d struck up a regular correspondence with the steward, old Mr. Hamilton. The estate produced little income, just enough to keep the house up and a few servants employed.
It would never be a grand place, but the grounds were glorious, and when she married, control of it would pass entirely to her. For practical purposes it already had.
She closed her eyes now and tried to remember it: a gray stone house, covered with centuries of moss and vines; wild hills, green valleys, and bright, rushing streams. Her father had been an avid sportsman, and according to Augusta their life in Scotland had been good. But Mrs. McCaffery’s version was different. Drinking. Gambling. Womanizing. If it had seemed worse in London, it was only that he’d hidden it better in Scotland.
As a child Olivia had only seen that her mother was beautiful and her father dashing. But as time passed, she’d come to understand. Her father had not been a man suited for marriage. Perhaps that was why she analyzed the young men of the ton so carefully now. She did not wish to repeat her mother’s mistake.
Despite her father, however, Byrde Manor was still the best part of her early childhood, and it had been left in trust to her. The thought of going there now filled Olivia with unexpected longing. How ironic if she found a husband among the Scottish half of her heritage. She suppressed a chuckle. Her socially aware mother had been jesting, but it would serve her right should it turn out that way.
She turned to face Augusta. “I believe for once that you and I are in complete agreement. Sarah is tired of town. I’ve been wanting to go to Byrde Manor, and you shall have your Archie all to yourself. Even James must approve this plan.”
“Really, Olivia. You talk as if I can only interest Archie by getting him away from any other females. Nevertheless, I agree. A country house party is just the thing. You’ll have to go ahead of the rest of us, however, to prepare the house.”
“Yes, and I can take Sarah.”
“You’ll need to hire extra servants.”
“Yes, I know.”
“And air out the bedchambers. And wash and bleach the linens.”
“I’m quite able to run a household, Mother.”
Augusta patted Olivia’s cheek and gave her a sweet smile. “So you are, darling. So you are. And I shall miss your competent handling of our domestic affairs when you finally marry. Some fine lord is going to be very lucky when you deign to bestow your hand upon him.”
NEVILLE Hawke jerked awake. His heart thudded with the sharp staccato of gunfire. His eyes darted around at the oppressive thunder of cannons.
But it was not cannon fire that besieged him, he realized as his head cleared. He heard three low echoing gongs. The tall case clock down the hall near the head of the stairs tolled the early morning hour.
He shuddered, then took a slow, shaky breath. All was as it had been. All was as it should be.
He pushed up from the deep leather chair and on unsteady feet headed for the liquor cabinet. The fire in the grated hearth had burned low, but the two oil lamps shone brightly still, and in his wood-paneled study they kept the dark at bay.
He ran a trembling hand through his unkempt hair. Thank God this accursed night neared its end. Thank God it was summer and the days were so long. Just two more hours or so and he would once more have defeated the unforgiving night.
He poured a short tumbler of whisky and tossed it back with quick efficiency. It burned his tongue and throat, and all the way down to his belly, and he shuddered anew at the harsh bite of the raw spirits. From the finest Scotch whisky, to the Duncan brothers’ potent brew, to the locally made whisky distilled up the road in Fergus’s shed, his choice in deadening agents had declined of late from smooth and subtle to strong and effective.
But nothing was effective enough to completely erase his memories or fight off these nightmares. No matter how hard
he drove his body with work, or how heavily he sedated his brain with liquor, he could not escape these night terrors.
He reached for the crude pottery jug, so out of place among the empty crystal decanters arranged on the silver tray. His mother had purchased the set in Edinburgh, so long ago he could hardly remember. His father had always kept them filled with the best Scots, Irish, and English liquors, just as he’d kept the wine room stocked with the best French wines. But Neville had long ago emptied Woodford Court’s stores of the good liquors.
He poured another shot of the raw stuff and downed it, then set the jug aside with a thud. One of the decanters tilted, teetering like a drunken man, then fell and shattered on the slate floor. He flinched at the sound, so abrupt in the quiet night, like the crash of buckshot through leaded glass windows. But it was not buckshot. It was only a frivolous decanter, splintered now across the floor of his father’s study.
He stared at the other decanters and at the squat whisky jug with its double handles and thick corked mouth. How fitting it was to set the inelegant jug among its sparkling brethren, for he was much like that sturdy clay vessel. His family had been so noble and upright—and so fragile. One by one they’d shattered apart until now only he was left. The coward, crude and weak—and indestructible, he feared.
He swayed and pressed one hand over his eyes. He was so tired. All he wanted was to sleep. But sleep was a torture he was afraid to risk, not until the night was done. Not until the sun burned away the threat of his hideous dreams. He turned away from the whisky jug and scrubbed his face with both hands. He was pitiful. A craven drunkard by night who slept off his excesses by day.
For some inexplicable reason, his torturous dreams came only at night. If only he could hold out until daylight. Just two more hours and he would have his reprieve. But he was so tired, weary to the bone—to the depths of his soul.
He looked around, blinking back the insidious threat of sleep, and focused on one of the oil lamps. He crossed the room to it, staring all the time at the steady, glowing flame.
The glass chimney was hot and he spread his hands around it, holding his palms against the glass until he could not bear the pain. Then he held it longer still.
“Bloody hell!” he swore, jerking away from the pain at last. Breathing hard, he stared at his reddened palms. Damnation, that hurt! But the pain would keep him awake until the sun crept above the eastern horizon, and that was all he cared about. He could endure physical pain. But the memories, and the nightmares …
He yanked open the fringed burgundy draperies that covered the room’s east-facing windows, ignoring the sting of the thick-piled velvet against his raw palms. Then he turned his chair to the window and threw himself into it with a groan.
Just two more hours, he told himself. Just two more hours. He slid his hands back and forth on the worn leather arms of the chair, reveling in the pain, for that pain would keep him awake. It would keep him safe.
But the hands of the tall case clock moved slowly. Too slowly. He heard the toll at four, and the chimes that marked the quarter hours that followed. The first hint of the dawn flirted with the horizon, a scene he had viewed every day since he’d returned from that damnable war.
But his lids grew heavy. His eyes closed, his head tilted to one side, and like the enemy it was, the stealthy dark of sleep crept up. Silently it settled over him like a heavy blanket, a smothering hand. Soft. Deceptive. Deadly.
Then the shooting began—the piercing pain of a bullet in his leg, the chilling screams of men attacking and men dying.
“No! No!” He lurched up from the chair, his heart pounding, his mind shrieking. “No!”
Neville knew it was only a dream, the same horrifying dream that refused to let him be. But that didn’t matter. Now it was a dream. This night and every other, it was a dream.
But once it had been real.
He thrust his shaking hands through his hair, then ground his burned palms into the bristles of his beard. But that pain was minor compared to the intense tortures of his soul. He’d had enough. He could take no more. If even the liquor would
not buy him peace, what was left for him to do?
He lurched over to his desk and yanked open the bottom drawer. There, among his medals and letters of commendation, lay his two pistols and a carved wooden box of ammunition. With trembling hands he grabbed the box and one of the weapons. He would end this torture once and for all.
He loaded the pistol, then stared about the brightly lit chamber. Not here. He could not do it here, in his father’s study. It would insult the memory of his beloved parents, and they deserved better.
So he flung open the tall French doors and stepped out onto the east terrace. He clenched the weapon. His hand shook violently. Then he stared fixedly ahead and readied himself—until the pink edge of the dawn registered in his stricken eyes. Until the familiar silhouette of the long stable complex showed, and beyond it, the rooftops of the cottages at the home farm.
All around him the shapes of buildings and trees and fences—shapes he’d known all his life—came into focus. His home. His home that he should not abandon. Then he blinked as another realization struck him.
Morning had come.
The night was done.
With a sob he dropped to his knees, and the pistol fell harmlessly into a potted rhododendron. The night was done.
How long he stayed there, his head bowed, as dry sobs wracked his body, he did not know. When he finally dragged himself upright, the edge of the sun showed its hazy edge between the hills. The sunlight fell on his face, warm and reassuring. Now he could sleep. Now he could seek his bed and fall into the oblivion he craved.
He staggered back into the study, forgetting the pistol, forgetting the open window. He sloshed a generous glass full of the raw whisky, and banging open the door, headed blindly into the hall. Upstairs in his bedchamber he threw the window drapery wide and stared at the sun inching its slow way into the sky. A cock crowed. Soon the village would come to life. The weavers and dyers would be off to their daily tasks. The
shepherds to their fields; the children to the village school—young Adrian among them.
He saw Otis, the stable master, shuffling up the gravel path to the stables. Forty years and more Otis had worked at Woodford, as had so many others.
Neville passed a shaking hand across his eyes.
He did not deserve their faithfulness. He did not deserve any of the loyalty and admiration and honor showered upon him. But the people around him chose not to see his wretchedness, his worthlessness. And he was too cowardly to confront them with it.
He shuddered and stared at the brilliant slice of the sun. Then he closed his eyes, finished off the contents of the glass, and once again shouldered his responsibilities. He needed to talk to Otis and his son Bart, the horse trainer, about the breeding mares and the horses they planned to run in the late season races. Later he must meet with the head carpenter about the lower sheep sheds. He also should approach old Hamilton again about leasing those fallow fields and meadows across the river.
But not now. Not now.
Now he needed to sleep. He’d had his moment of madness, and he’d once again survived. Now he could deaden his brain with whisky and finally disappear into the blackness of a sleep so deep that no dreams could ever find him.
Olivia tucked her journal into her portmanteau, then stepped back as one of the housemen hoisted it up. They’d spent two busy days in Nottingham preparing for their journey to Doncaster and then on to Scotland. Pulling on a pair of gray kidskin gloves, she glanced at her sister.
“I do wish you would reconsider, Sarah, and join Mother and me.”
Sarah blew out a breath. “And watch Mother make a perfect goose of herself over that Archie person? Lord Holdsworth,” she amended, imitating her mother. “Thank you, but no.”
Olivia studied her younger sister. “I wonder. Is it Lord
Holdsworth you object to? Or would any man Mother liked rouse this antipathy in you?”
Sarah cocked her head and laid a finger against her chin. “Let’s see,” she began, her voice sharp with sarcasm. “Which answer should I make? That I think he’s far too young for Mother—better that you set your cap for him than her? Or would you rather I tearfully confess that I don’t want any new father at all? None.” Her jaw jutted forward belligerently. She was the very picture of sullen disapproval.
But Olivia saw also the wounded look in her sister’s eyes. She crossed her bedchamber and wrapped her arms around Sarah. At first the girl struggled against her. But finally she slumped against her in resignation.
Olivia rubbed her back. “Poor Sarah. I know how much you miss your father. I miss him too.”
“But she doesn’t miss him at all, does she? She can hardly wait to get married again. Then she’ll forget all about Father, and all about me.”
“No, Sarah, no. She would never do that. You forget that James and I have both been in identical circumstances as you. She didn’t forget us when she married your father. Indeed, he made our lives ever so much better. He was that good to us.”
“Yes, but James was too young to remember his father. And your father was a bounder. Everybody says so.”
Olivia tugged one of Sarah’s plaits. “It’s not nice to speak ill of the dead.”
Even if it is true
. “The point is, Mother is happiest when wed, and her children fare better with a father than without. If you will just give this fellow a chance you may find him quite agreeable.”
Sarah slipped out of Olivia’s hold. “He probably wants someone younger than her anyway.”
“Perhaps. At any rate, this trip to Doncaster is our chance to observe him. Please say you’ll come.”
But Sarah only shook her head. “I’d rather stay here with James. You go on with Mother, Olivia, and I’ll be along with Mrs. McCaffery next week to collect you in Doncaster. Then we’ll have loads of time together on the ride up to Scotland.”
Olivia stared at her sister, so young at twelve, and yet in
some ways so much older than her years. “Yes, we’ll have a long ride and a long talk, and I’ll bring you up to date on whatever I learn in Doncaster.” She took Sarah by the hand. “We shall spend such a lovely time at Byrde Manor, so please, Sarah, try not to fret. Mother loves you, you know, and she wants you to be happy.” Sarah sighed and gave a lopsided grin. “I know. Just promise me you will not allow her to invite everyone she knows to join us. I’m so weary of being surrounded by people I don’t know. Besides, Byrde Manor is your house, not hers.” “You needn’t worry on that score. I plan to limit the guest list to a dozen, including the four of us. The house isn’t that large.”
A commotion in the hall ended their conversation. “Olivia! Come along, child.” Augusta hurried down the hall, trailed by Mrs. McCaffery.
Sarah gave her mother a perfunctory kiss, but Augusta cocked a brow at her youngest child’s bland expression. “Don’t you dare get into any mischief while I’m gone, Sarah. I’ve given Mrs. McCaffery strict instructions. No riding without a groom in attendance. No fishing with the stable lads or gallivanting with the servants’ children. You’re getting too old for that. And lessons every day. Every day. Do you hear me? When we settle in at Byrde Manor I expect to be impressed by your skill on the pianoforte. Oh, that reminds me, Olivia,” she said as they descended the front steps of the towering limestone house, and the coachman assisted her into the barouche. “As soon as you arrive at Byrde Manor, be sure to have the pianoforte in the second parlor tuned.”
With a final hug Olivia bid her sister good-bye. Then they were off, with Augusta chattering about who would be attending the horse races, while Olivia daydreamed of a long quiet autumn in Scotland.

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