Lady Sarah Evanston wants to reclaim her life after losing both parents in quick succession. Mourning them has kept her from society. Now she must find a suitable husband or risk being a spinster and living the rest of her life alone. She has promised herself she will reopen her family home and live there alone, rather than marry someone she does not truly love.
Lord Reginald Guilworth, the Marquis of Ellswarren is feeling family pressure to assume responsibility, marry and produce an heir to the Guilworth fortune. He contemplates a marriage of convenience to shield himself from being hurt by love, again.
Sarah and Reggie have been close family friends since her childhood. Sarah has always adored him, yet he has never taken notice of her. She has resolved to move forward giving up that childhood dream.
Reggie's cousins, members of the exiled French aristocracy, come to stay with the Guilworth family, embroiling them all in international intrigue involving the teetering French government and upheaval of the aristocratic class of France. Among the political chaos and the horrific year of natural disasters, Reggie and Sarah are drawn together and realize they do share an abiding love for one another.
But events conspire to tear them apart, with deadly consequences for all those involved, threatening to end their happiness almost before it begins.
An Awe-Struck Release
Connie Crow has always been a writer. Her first essay was published when she was young -- an essay protesting the demolition of a historic building, from the building’s point of view.
A true e-book pioneer, Connie's first book was published electronically in April of 1996, when most people had never heard of "e-books". She couldn't even read her own books electronically, because they came out only in PC format and she worked on a Macintosh. Remember those days?
She was a beta tester on the first e-book reading device, the Rocket-Book in 1998. Now e-readers abound at reasonable prices. Even grade schoolers are downloading their favorite books and libraries are lending readers full of e-books.
An Romance Writer's of America member, she applied for PAN ( Published Authors Network) membership in 1996. She became the first electronically published author to become a PAN member and set off the discussion within that organization over e-books that continues today. She's also a member of EPIC the Electronically Published Industry Coalition, an international e-book organization. Her book "Daughter of the Dragon" was a finalist in the world-wide EPIC contest in 2004. She is also a past officer of the Nebraska Writer's Guild, the state's oldest professional writer's organization.
Her six novels have been published in both e-book and print format and are now slated for conversion to audio books. She lives in Nebraska with her husband of nearly 50 years and a very spoiled Brittany who keeps her company while she writes. It's been a busy eighteen years.
Java, Indonesia, April 15, 1815
Sir Thomas Raffles adjusted his monocle, staring in horror at the filthy young officer, shaking waves of dirt all over his office floor. “Captain Phillips! What is the meaning of this? Just look at you!”
The hapless young man glanced at his bedraggled uniform. He squared his shoulders and faced his superior. “Sorry, Lieutenant Governor, but I could not take the time to tidy up. We have an extreme problem, sir!”
“What, pray tell, is such an emergency that you cannot properly present yourself? His majesty’s navy prides itself in maintaining the proper image, at all times.”
Phillips’ shoulders drooped the slightest bit. “Yes, sir. But something terrible is happening to the east. We found no ships, no attackers, nothing to cause the booms we have heard.”
Raffles adjusted his monocle and sat down at his desk. “Then what is the problem, Phillips? Come, come, man, out with it. And stand still, you are shedding!”
“Excuse me, sir. But this is not dirt. It is ash. Hot ash; so hot it caught the ship’s sails on fire. We finally came about, to keep from losing them. The further east we sailed the more ash fell on us, the louder the booming and the blacker the skies. I believe we have a volcanic eruption, sir, somewhere near Sumbawa Island.”
Raffles shoved away from his desk, towering over the young officer, staring him into submission. “Do you mean to tell me that an officer of his majesty’s navy turned tail and sailed away from a little fly ash in the air? I cannot believe my ears, Phillips. I am extremely disappointed in you.”
He was rewarded with a deep red flush creeping across Phillips’ face. “I felt it was necessary, sir.”
Raffles opened his mouth to continue his dressing down, but an ear-splitting explosion rocked the entire building. The room filled with hot air. Raffles staggered and pulled his handkerchief from his vest pocket, trying to protect his mouth and nose from the searing blast. “Well, Phillips, that seemed like an explosion. A bit bigger than most, I will admit.”
“Yes, sir. If you will step to the window, Sir Thomas, you will see the reason for my concern.”
Raffles crossed to the opening and gazed to the east. “Good Lord, Phillips. What a storm!”
“No sir, it is not a storm.” Phillips waved an arm toward the blackness stretching across the eastern horizon. “It is an ash cloud, sir, I am sure of it.”
Raffles spun on his heel. “Well, do not stand there like a ninny! We must save the ships. They will burn to the water line.”
“Yes, sir, my thought as well.” The two rushed out the door, Raffles shouting orders while they dashed to the dock.
London, April, 1816
“Will this nasty weather never end?” Hortense, the Countess of Breckenridge, shivered, glaring at the fire in her town house grate. “I have never seen London this cold in April.”
Lady Sarah Evanston shrugged and pulled her woolen shawl tighter. “Nor have I. I certainly hope it warms soon, dear Aunt.” She glanced toward her only living relative, who at the present moment was ensconced in a great wing chair near the drawing room fireplace, wrapped up like an Egyptian mummy. The heavy winter snows had been hard on all of them and spring seemed to be a continuation of the miserable conditions. She turned back to the window that overlooked Berkley Square.
“Oh, Aunt, the Hestons are arriving. They are unloading trunks across the way.”
“Finally. Perhaps we will have some company this spring. I am not sure which is more uncomfortable, a manor in the country or this frigid townhouse. My bones just ache, Sarah, they really do.”
Sarah moved quickly to her aunt’s side. “Shall I ring for some tea? The warmth might help the pains.”
Hortense nodded. “That sounds lovely. Tea will warm my insides at least.” Sarah rang for the butler and seated herself next to her aunt, allowing the warmth of the fire to invade her shawl.
Jamison stepped into the drawing room. “Yes, my lady?”
“Please, bring us some tea and scones.”
“Yes, ‘m.” She noted the silver salver in his hand. He raised the plate. “My lady, a post for you, if you please?”
“I shall take it now.”
Jamison presented the letter, then left the room.
Hortense brightened considerably at the introduction of a new distraction in their day. “Well, dear. Who is it from?”
“Hmmm.” Sarah perused the note, studying the elegant cursive letters adorning the outside. “I do believe Lady Janette sends us news. It looks like her beautiful lettering.”
Hortense turned away, feigning disinterest. “I dare say you will want to read it later, will you not?”
Sarah hid a smile. She knew her aunt well. “Nonsense. We shall read it together, right now. Let us see what Janette has to say.” Memories of Janette’s beautiful wedding last fall filled her mind as she broke open the seal. Lady Janette Dupree and her new husband, American diplomat Andrew DeLong, were enjoying their honeymoon to France. The paper looked a bit wrinkled around the edges. A trip across the channel did that to mail. She shook out the note and peered at the written flourishes covering the page. Even Janette’s handwriting was full of energy. “Janette sends you her love and inquires as to your health in this miserable weather. You must send her a note yourself so she will not worry.”
Hortense smiled. “I will. She is such a dear.”
Sarah nodded absently, reading further. “Oh, Aunt Hortense! They have found her brother, Emile. Alive! Injured, but alive!”
“What a relief. I had my doubts, what with all the intrigue and fighting in France—dreadful.”
“Truly. Let us see what else she says.” Sarah read quickly through the letter. “Conditions are even worse in Paris. They are rationing food and people are rioting in the streets. Janette says she has contacted the Guilworths. They are bringing Emile back to London.”
“How nice—and how nice for you. I know you have missed her.”
Sarah nodded, finishing the letter. “Yes, Janette is such a good friend. It will be nice to have her close again. You may read for yourself, she is looking forward to being back. Their trip has not been a good one.”
Sarah handed the paper to Hortense, allowing her mind to wander back to Janette’s wedding day, while her aunt devoured every word of the note.
Hortense looked up from her reading. “I do hope you are entertaining thoughts of finding a husband this season, my dear. You really should have been married by now; you are older than Janette, I fear.”
Sarah shook her head. “Perhaps I am not meant to be married, Aunt.” She gave a great sigh. Janette’s wedding day had been a confusion of good feelings and disappointments; happiness for Janette and emptiness for herself, realizing she was almost too old to hope to attract a husband. Losing both her parents almost immediately after her coming out had completely distracted her from thinking about a husband or marriage for herself.
Hortense let out a snort. “Nonsense. Of course you are meant to be married. Every gently bred young lady is meant to be married and to run the household of a proper lord. Your mother was, as was I. The Marquis of Ellswarren, Viscount Marten, Lord Thompson–any one of them would be a perfect match for you.”
Sarah heaved an even deeper sigh, remembering the crowning ignominy of Janette’s wedding reception—in a private moment between them, the Marquis’ veiled suggestion that a marriage of convenience to her might be considered. Not that the Marquis, the future fifth Duke of Guilworth, would not be a magnificent catch. She had grown up knowing him, watching from afar, and imagining being the future Duchess. But Lord Reginald Guilworth was an enigma, coming and going, charming to all the ladies but attracted to no one in particular. She turned to Hortense. “The Marquis is too busy with his own mysterious life to make room for a wife, Aunt. You are aware of his trips to–to Timbuktu!”
Hortense sniffed. “He does disappear now and again. Beatrice is at her wit’s end. She does so want more grandchildren. But, an often absent husband is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as he is kind and generous.”
Hortense’s gaze shifted to the massive portrait over the fireplace; her late husband, the Earl of Breckenridge, in his entire military splendor. Sarah glanced up, nodding. Her often absent uncle had taken extremely good care of Aunt Hortense, seeing to it she would never want for anything, should he be killed in battle. Yet from Sarah’s point of view, they had been truly in love, traveling together on the continent whenever possible. Aunt Hortense had been broken hearted at the news of his death on the Peninsula, fighting Napoleon. They were never blessed with children.
Children... her heart would break to be in a marriage of convenience to Reggie, loving him, but knowing he did not love her; to just provide the next heir to the Guilworth fortune. No, that would never do. She had stopped their secret reception conversation cold. She was not interested in such a union and had let him know in no uncertain terms that a marriage of convenience was not in her future at all. But, cutting him off had left a hole in her heart, a hole that no one else had been able to fill, as yet.
Janette’s letter, full of love and excitement for her new life and finding her brother alive, did nothing to help that feeling of emptiness. Hortense’s voice interrupted. “Sarah, according to this, they should be here very soon. You should contact Beatrice and plan a welcoming party for them. Weather or no weather, we shall enjoy ourselves this spring.”
Sarah returned to the present with a start. Beatrice, Duchess of Guilworth, Reggie’s mother and Aunt Hortense’s best friend. Yes, a note to Her Grace was certainly in order.
A scritch at the door demanded their attention. “I believe our tea is here, Aunt.” At her call, Jamison slipped in with a perfectly set tray of tea pot, cups, and scones. The warm scent of cinnamon wafted through the room. Hortense clapped her hands. “Oh, my favorite—cinnamon scones. How lovely.”
Sarah smiled. Her aging aunt was truly very easy to please. “I will write Her Grace directly. We must welcome Janette and Drew back to England. I am anxious to meet her brother, Emile. He has suffered greatly. He deserves to recuperate in safety. I do hope all the villains who wished him harm are in prison by now.”
“Or dead!” Hortense exclaimed. “Remember, they tried to murder Janette as well.”
Hortense’s strong outburst surprised Sarah. “Yes, Aunt, or dead. Newgate is a strong prison. Her attacker, that horrid revolutionary, Montanian, is locked away forever.”
“True, but we don’t know all of the revolutionaries. The ones in France certainly may still be at large. Emile may still be in danger from them.”
Sarah picked up a cup from the tray, filling it with steaming liquid. “We can only hope that Emile has put enough distance between himself and the brigands to keep him safe. One lump or two, Aunt Hortense?”
“Oh, two, and one of the scones, dear. They look delicious.”
In a moment, Sarah served her aunt and herself. She sipped her tea and mentally composed a note to Beatrice. A welcome party would be just the first step in returning to society. Losing her mother and father in quick succession had kept her in seclusion far too long. She could not continue to hide away, safe in Aunt Hortense’s home.
She had a sufficient income from her mother’s family settlement and the trust her father had set up for her after her mother died. But, she needed to take her own life in hand. She needed to fill it with something besides grief, loneliness and pining for a relationship that evidently was not to be. It was time to reclaim her life, with or without a husband.
Reggie pulled his snuff box from his waistcoat pocket, expertly flicked it open and took a pinch. The snuff ricocheted through his nose, clearing his head. He stared hard at the young officer sitting in the massive leather chair across from him. The heavy, calm atmosphere of White’s lounge was in stark contrast to the sailor’s agitated conversation.
“I am serious, Guilworth, it is total destruction out there. There is nothing left. Everything that was not washed away by the tidal waves is burned to a crisp. You will be giving the Dutch piles of rock, nothing more.”
Reggie shook his head. “Now, Captain Phillips. Surely it cannot be that bad. You are positive one volcano wiped out several islands?”
Phillips mopped his brow, while nodding furiously. “Java is nearly 400 miles from Tambora. We were inundated with ash, nearly eight inches deep. We fought fires on Java for days. Everything closer burned. Mt. Tambora itself and at least three other small islands are gone. The British East Indies have been devastated.”
Reggie leaned back in his chair, stroking his chin, conflicting thoughts demanding his attention. “We are committed to returning the Indies to the Netherlands. We cannot help it if nature has rearranged the landscape.”
“Sir Thomas is directing a census of the islands, to see if any of the natives escaped. He had found one chief and a few family members when I left.”
Reggie nodded and stared into the fireplace. What an inconvenient turn of affairs. The Dutch would not be pleased. All his delicate negotiations to restore Dutch colony in return for their support in the Verona talks might be for naught. It was damned inconvenient to have natural conditions get in the way of his work. A volcano ruining a paradise, then totally unnatural weather conditions spoiling crops and unsettling the civilized world; what next?
“Are you home for good, Phillips?”
“No. Sir Thomas still needs help. We brought a cargo from India with us, and we will take a full load of supplies back.”
“What? Warships will carry cargo?”
“I am telling you, Guilworth, no other ships survived the fires. We took the warships out and ran on the wind ahead of the ash, until we could find protection behind islands, against the burning embers. The slower ships got buried in ash and burned. The cargo ships are all gone.”
Reggie shook his head. “I cannot imagine it.”
“Neither could we, but it is true. If we are going to meet your timetable, I need to return to Java. Raffles cannot possibly do it on his own.”
“Good man. We have to meet our part of the bargain with the Dutch. England needs their support in the European negotiations. When do you leave?”
“We may be here a while. The ships are almost loaded. But we must wait for the weather to break. The storms in the channel have been brutal. No sense risking the ships unnecessarily.”
Reggie nodded, glancing over his shoulder toward the club’s butler waiting in the shadows. At his wave, the man came forward, carrying a tray.
“A small repast, gentlemen?”
Phillips beamed. “Oh, good, I am starved.” The butler set the tray on the table between them and busied himself pouring drinks. Reggie waved a hand toward the steaming fowl.
“Help yourself, Phillips. The chicken is excellent.”
The butler held out a glass. “Madeira, Lord Guilworth?”
Reggie nodded and accepted a glass of shimmering liquid.
Phillips devoured a chicken leg while Reggie sipped his drink. His father, the duke, would need to know about conditions in the Indies. Waiting for supplies and the weather would hold Phillips in port long enough to deliver a report himself. The loss of a year’s revenue from the East Indies was sobering news. The Lords were counting on that last revenue collection before the transfer. Even though Parliament had met once, conditions were deteriorating to the point that another session might be required. The repeal of the temporary income taxes had created a huge deficit.
Reggie tossed back the last of the wine. He was committed to helping Lord Castelreigh find a way to fill in the monetary shortfall for the government. Missing the Indies revenues would be a great blow.
The next day, Sarah stood in the foyer of Guilworth House. This grand structure was larger than most aristocratic town houses in London. The fourth Duke of Guilworth had inherited a huge fortune and land holdings, the likes of which most nobles only dreamed. And yet, they were wonderful people. The Duke, Harriman Guilworth, wore the mantle of power and responsibility very well, and his wife, Beatrice was charming. Sarah looked up to see Beatrice descending the grand staircase into the foyer. Her sunny countenance brought a smile to Sarah’s lips. One could not help responding to Beatrice’s greetings.
“Sarah, darling, do come in. It has been far too long!”
“I know, Your Grace, but the weather has made travel impossible.” Sarah stripped off her bonnet and plisse, allowing them to drop into Wellsley’s waiting hands. She greeted Beatrice with a warm hug and kiss in the general direction of her cheek. “It is so good to see you.”
Beatrice glanced toward her butler. “Wellsley, we will take tea in the green room, please.”
“Yes, Your Grace.” Wellsley disappeared down the great hall. The two walked into the expansive drawing room. A roaring fire took away the chill threatening to overtake the room, even at midday. Sarah glanced around, admiring anew the sumptuous furnishings. The duchess had an exquisite eye for decorating and the wherewithal to match. She sank into a beautiful brocade side chair by the fireplace.
“I am so pleased you are receiving guests. How fares the duke?”
“Harriman is well. He is at the Parliament building today. They are fussing over the government as usual. Men. They do make everything so complicated. He should be home soon.”
“I do hope I’m not intruding, Your Grace.”
“Oh, my goodness, no, Sarah. I love your company. The winter has kept us all indoors. This spring is been miserable.”
“Aunt Hortense says the very same thing, Your Grace. She sends her love.”
Beatrice smiled. “I do hope the Countess is well?”
“The weather aggravates her rheumatism, but she is doing well. In fact, she is the reason I am here. Aunt is feeling the need for a party to start the spring season. No one has done anything yet. Even the opening at Almacks could not tempt her.”
Beatrice nodded. “Yes, it has been dull.” She pulled her shawl closer around her shoulders, frowning at the crackling fire. “Are you quite comfortable, Sarah? This place is so drafty.”
“I am fine, Your Grace. Please, do not trouble yourself on my account.” Sarah continued. “I received a note from Janette, saying they were coming to stay with you.”
“Actually, they are coming to our country home, Guilworth Hall. With the conditions so bad in the city, Harriman has decided we should move from London and retire to the country within the week. We’ll have more than enough room for everyone. But, is it not wonderful? They found Emile alive and the three are coming, for a while at least.”
“Yes. Aunt Hortense is contemplating a welcome back party. She thought you might have started plans.”
Beatrice laughed. “I had given it some thought. Once they arrive, you and Hortense must join us at Guilworth Hall for at least a month. We shall have a grand time. We will have room for more guests there.”
“Oh, Your Grace, that would be wonderful. We would be delighted.”
“That monstrous hall was built to hold a multitude of guests. The last time I counted we have at least thirty-three bedroom suites.”
Sarah laughed. Guilworth Hall was huge and imposing. “Yes, you could house an army.”
“We may have to. Our daughter, Cowina and her children may come from Wales for a while as well. Food is getting more and more scarce. Her husband, Lord Lindley has suggested that perhaps she and Robert would be safer here. And the babe does need to be christened. Baby Lindley will not suffice. Lindley himself may join them. We could have the entire family.”
Sarah remembered Cowina, Reggie’s sister, fondly. Her son, Robert, was adorable. A sturdy, happy child, but not in line for the Guilworth fortune. He was the Lindley heir. And no one in London had seen the new babe as yet. Sarah couldn’t imagine Cowina traveling with an infant, even one four months old. Of course, it was a girl. Not the “spare” to the title, as a boy would be, so perhaps she might take the risk.
Beatrice turned her attention to the tea tray, brought in by the butler. “Sarah, my dear, would you pour?”
“Certainly, Your Grace.” She carefully lifted the heavy silver tea pot, filling the delicate china to just over half full. “Two lumps as I recall?”
Beatrice’s laughter filled the room. “Just so. What a good memory, Sarah. It has been ages since we have enjoyed tea together.”
“True. It has been a long winter. I suppose we take our food and our safety for granted, Your Grace. Conditions across the country seem quite serious.”
Beatrice nodded, sipping her tea. “Lindley feels that once spring arrives and the crops start growing, conditions in Wales will improve, but right now, it is bleak. Cowina and the little ones may be better off with us.”
Ah, how complicated things became for the titled nobles of England. The world she needed to re-enter. Now was the time to start. “Your Grace, I would like your advice on a matter, if you have a moment to listen.”
“Certainly. What troubles you?”
“I am convinced I need to make some changes in my life. Even though I love my aunt dearly, I believe I have been a quiet companion long enough. My parents have been gone for some time; I no longer need to seclude myself.”
“By all means, Sarah. You must move on. It has been four long years—high time you rejoined society. Your mother and father would not want you to hide yourself away. I am sure Hortense would agree.”
“Aunt Hortense has been fussing about finding me a husband. She thinks I should be married off quickly.”
Beatrice laughed. “I can just hear her. And I must say, I would agree. You are certainly excellent wife material, my dear.”
“I am afraid, Your Grace, I am old enough to be on the shelf. I doubt many of the young lords would consider me marriageable material.”
“Pish-tosh! Considering your family estate and your financial security, four and twenty is not on the shelf. Not yet. However, you should bestir yourself this season. It is time.”
“Yes, of course. But, I have an idea I would like to discuss with you—to explore, if you will.”
“Yes. I would like to re-open the manor house at Sweet Briar. It has been closed since my father’s death, when I came to live with Aunt Hortense.”
“You want to live there—alone?”
Sarah steeled herself to continue, seeing Beatrice struggle to contain a terrific nose twitch—a sure sign she was not pleased. “That thought crossed my mind; however I know that would be totally unacceptable. Do you think I could move to Sweet Briar, if Aunt Hortense and a complete staff were there with me? Would that be suitable enough to satisfy all the critics and stop the wagging tongues?”
Beatrice took a deep breath, then composed herself and exhaled a long, silent breath. “Living in the country, even with Hortense as chaperone, would certainly be a challenge. You would be cutting yourself off from the society you need to rejoin. That is quite a long way to come to the assemblies or to a ball. Social invitations would be few and far between, as would opportunities to mingle with the young lords and possible suitors. What does Hortense think?”
Sarah laughed quietly. “I have not mentioned my idea to Aunt Hortense. She will have a fit and fall right in it. I know it is not the usual behavior for a gently bred female who should be looking for a husband. I know I should stay in London for the season.”
Beatrice could not help but laugh. “You are quite right. Hortense would be rightfully upset at your not being in London. However, reopening Sweet Briar may still be an idea worth entertaining. That property is surely in your trust. Perhaps it should be earning rents for you. Sweet Briar is not far from our estate. Your manor house has been vacant since your father died.”
Beatrice peered intently into her tea cup, stirring mightily as though the motion helped her think. She finally raised her gaze to Sarah. “Once we make the move to the country, you are going to join us for a lengthy visit. While you are with us, perhaps we could visit to see what would have to be done to make it acceptable again.”
Sarah sipped her tea, mulling over Beatrice’s suggestion. Moving to Sweet Briar, even with a chaperone, would indeed make it difficult to interact with the lords who might wish to wait suit upon her. She did not want to end up a spinster, so perhaps she should heed the duchess’ advice.
But re-opening Sweet Briar, for a rental property, might be just the thing she needed to do to allow her to move on, to put all the old thoughts and ghosts to rest and get on with her new life.
Beatrice’s voice interrupted her deep thought. “In the meantime, bring me up to date about yourself. How are your music lessons progressing? Are you still working with Master Alonzo?”
Sarah smiled at the mention of her excitable pianoforte instructor. “Ah, yes. He tries to convince me I could be a great concert pianist. I certainly will not be, but I do enjoy the music. The lessons keep me busy and keep Master Alonzo employed, so we press on together.”
“Well then, let us retire to the music room. You may play your latest piece for me. We will see how much your playing has improved over the winter.”
“Hopefully I will not hurt your delicate ears with my banging on the keys, Your Grace.”
“I am sure you will do fine, Sarah, you always have.” The two chatted easily as they moved to the music room and the pianoforte.
Reggie took note of the enclosed carriage leaving as he drove his own curricle in front of Guilworth House. Handing his reins to the footman in the drive, Reggie strode into the town house, nodding to Wellsley and leaving his greatcoat. He stepped into the green room, just as Beatrice attempted to move her chair closer to the fireplace. Struggling to move the chair, she slipped. Reggie lunged forward, catching her before she hit the floor. “Mother! Whatever are you doing? You have a houseful of servants to move chairs for you.”
Beatrice steadied herself, balancing delicately against Reggie’s strong arm about her waist. “Pish-tosh! I am not an invalid. I have never had a problem sliding that chair across the floor. I do not need to be waited on hand and foot, Reginald. I simply lost my footing. I am fine.”
Reggie reluctantly released his hold, noting as he did that his mother’s beautiful blond hair was becoming increasingly shot with silver. He really did not want to think of her aging, yet her health had never fully recovered from the influenza bout last summer. She was still not her same, strong self. “Of course you are able to do it, Mother, you just do not need to. Please, summon one of the footmen next time. Let them do their duties. They are paid well.”
Beatrice’s nose shifted the tiniest bit. “Very well, I will try to remember to let them take care of me, if you insist.”
Beatrice settled herself in the chair. “What brings you home, dearest? You have been very busy of late. I thought perhaps you had taken up permanent residence at Whites.”
Reggie inclined his head in what he hoped looked like an indication of contrition. “No danger of that, Mother. Your cook sets a far better table than any club, even White’s. But I have been busy with negotiations with the Dutch. And I need to speak to father about those negotiations. I thought he might be home from Parliament by now.”
Beatrice glanced at the afternoon shadows lengthening on the floor. “He should be here soon. They have not been going into the evening lately. Will you join us for dinner?”
“I would love to. It has been a while.”
“Hmm.” Beatrice shot him a look, and then opened a new topic. “Lady Sarah Evanston came to visit this afternoon. She is such a sweet thing.”
“Oh? Was that her carriage? I saw it leaving. I agree she is charming.”
Beatrice nodded. “She got a letter from Lady Janette, as did I. I have invited Sarah and Hortense to Guilworth Hall when Janette and Andrew arrive. We are planning a grand party in their honor. We must do something to brighten up this season.”
Reggie struggled not to laugh. A grand party was his mother’s solution to every problem in the world. She would throw a party in Paris, invite all the heads of state in Europe and have everyone playing charades, whist, and dancing reels in the ballroom within two hours. All the diplomats would be out of jobs in no time and the European borders would be redrawn as Her Grace saw fit. What a shame the world did not run that way.
“You will need to join us as well.”
Reggie glanced up with a start. “Perhaps some of the time, Mother. I have business that keeps me in the city.”
“Which is why you are not married yet. You attend too much to the business of state and not enough to your own business, my son.”
“No buts! Finding a suitable wife and producing an heir should be your first priority by now. I am surprised your father has not spoken to you.”
Reggie turned away. “He has, Mother, he has. I am considering a list of possible young ladies, even if it does not seem like it. I do not want to think of the two of you not being here forever. I do not want to contemplate trying to take father’s place or needing another heir, not for a long time.”
Beatrice held out her hand. “You are a good son, Reggie.”
Reggie bestowed a kiss on the thin fingers. “Thank you.”
“But, I would love to enjoy another grandson. He will have plenty of time to grow before your father and I depart this earth.”
Reggie laughed. “You are not going to let up are you?”
Beatrice smiled. “No. I would already have your bride picked out and into the family by now, if it were up to me. But I do hope you find the love of your heart, Reggie. You really need to join us for the parties. It should be a jolly time with all you young people in the Hall.”
Beatrice glanced into the fireplace, then looked back to Reggie. “It may take all of us to talk some sense into Sarah.”
“Oh? I have always pictured Sarah as very level headed.”
“As have I. But she has a most unusual idea in that pretty little head right now.”
“What might that be?”
“She wants to re-open Sweet Briar and live there with Hortense and her staff. She was actually contemplating living there by herself, I am sure.”
“What! What foolishness! Totally unacceptable! She would be ruined.”
Beatrice chuckled. “I thought you would react that way. That is exactly why I told you now. So you can get the explosion out of your system before you see her.”
Reggie could feel the heat flashing up his neck, suffusing his face. “What other way should I react? A gently bred young woman simply cannot live in the country alone. What nonsense! It is not done.”
“You are absolutely right.”
“Besides it would not be safe out there; without male protection, in a manor the size of Sweet Briar. Even with the countess there, two women cannot possibly run that house and estate by themselves.”
“And you, darling, simply cannot say that to her. You are neither her father nor her husband. You have no say in the matter.”
“But, but...” Reggie could only sputter.
“Listen to me, carefully. I do not think it is an acceptable idea either and I told her so.”
Reggie paced the floor, his calm facade shattered. “Good! Damnation, Mother. She has been close to this family since she was young, especially after her mother died. With her father now gone as well, she needs someone to look out for her until she is properly married.”
Beatrice watched her normally-calm son stomp in front of the fireplace. “I totally agree with you. What I did suggest was that she consider re-opening Sweet Briar as a rental property. The house could be offered separately from the stables, giving her a second income from that property.”
Reggie stopped his pacing and faced Beatrice. “You may have a point. The house sitting empty is a target for vandals, especially in these hard times. Estates are having problems with raiders. Having renters in the manor would certainly stave off that kind of damage. But, two women out there, even with staff, would be an immediate target for ruffians of all kinds.”
Beatrice pressed her fingers to her forehead, considering Reggie’s remark. “That argument might carry more weight than some others. We will keep it in mind. Perhaps you could press that point with her. This should be an interesting summer. Hopefully, I was just hearing the stirrings and dreams of a young woman wanting to start her life anew.”
Reggie nodded. “She has been locked away for a long time. What with losing her mother, and then her father, she has not had much of a life, except at the countess’ side—which would be a trial.”
“Now Reggie, the Countess means well.”
“I know, but...” Doors scraping and voices in the hallway caught their attention. The parlor door swung and Harriman, the Duke of Guilworth, strode in, arms outstretched. “My angel, you are a welcome sight for these tired eyes. Reggie, glad you are here. We have much to discuss.”
Beatrice rose. “Harriman! At least say good evening. All the parliament business can wait until after dinner, surely.”
Harriman crossed the floor, gave his wife a gentle hug and a kiss on her forehead. “Of course it can, my angel.” He turned to Reggie. “You are staying for dinner?”
“Yes, sir. I need to talk to you as well.”
Beatrice took Harriman’s arm. “Shall we retire to prepare for dinner? Reggie, your rooms are always ready.”
Reggie smiled. It was good to see his parents together. The love in their eyes had not dimmed in all these years. Would he ever find that kind of love? Would he ever find that perfect mate? He sincerely doubted it. He thought he had, when he was young. And he was wrong—very, very wrong. The hurt of that rejection had never really gone away. He had never trusted his heart to another and now, he was not sure he could.
He walked into the foyer and watched them ascend the stairs, a new heat sneaking up his neck. He realized he had told his mother a lie; a bald-faced, shameless lie.
He had no list of possible candidates for a wife. He had carefully stayed away from serious relationships and entanglements. Nearly all of the young ladies of the ton who might make an acceptable duchess knew him and were leery of his “gone away too much” lifestyle. None of them knew of his secretive exploits on behalf of the crown.
A marriage of convenience sounded palatable on its face. He would not have to risk feelings and commitment to loving someone, while fulfilling the responsibilities to his family, but even his casual comment on that subject was summarily squashed by Lady Sarah at Janette and Andrew’s wedding.
He had always held close the idea that Lady Sarah, several years his junior, had developed a tendre toward him in her youth; a spark that might be fanned and blossom into a suitable wife when he was ready. One who was so overwhelmed at his choosing her, he would not have to commit to loving her. He could be a kind and generous and gone-most-of-the-time husband. She could run her life and his house as she chose, and bear his heir. Neither one would risk being hurt by love nor fettered by feelings.
Humph. She had slammed the door on that idea with one sentence. No lady would ever consider an ‘inconvenient’ marriage of convenience.
That pretty well cut it. His thoughts about Sarah’s feelings for him were obviously wrong. He would have to look elsewhere for a bride. But he did not have to let her make a fool of herself and ruin her chances for a good match. He would still watch after her and speak his mind, should the need arise. He might even use his own considerable influence to make sure she found a proper husband.
Muttering over Sarah’s pronouncement concerning Sweet Briar, he stomped up the stairs to his suite. He would have to make up that list of possible wives. His father would hear of it very quickly and want to know who was on it. Right now, he had no clue.