The carriage bounced over a particularly nasty void upon the carriage-way, jerking Nathaniel awake.
He sat upright, blinking around the gloomy carriage.
“Ah, you’re awake, slumberer.” Mary Cavendish said, smiling. She was reading a book, some shocking new novel that featured a frightening Gothic castle, a scheming, dastardly villain, and a beautiful heroine that seemed to faint a lot. Mary Cavendish seemed to be laughing quite a bit, although Nathaniel could have sworn that it wasn’t meant to be a funny story.
“Are we nearly there yet?” Nathaniel asked, sitting up and stretching.
Their family carriage was a comfortable one, but even a nice, warm, padded carriage interior couldn’t keep them comfortable enough on a journey of this length. Still, Mary kept reminding him that it would be worth it, when he reached their destination and saw his grandparents.
Nathaniel didn’t know his grandparents well. His parents lived nowhere near London and weren’t particularly fond of the city. He’d met his grandparents before, of course, and they exchanged regular letters, but the idea of meeting them properly in person was quite exciting. He knew, too, that they were the Duke and Duchess of Carlwood, a title which his father would inherit one day, and himself after that.
Until then, they were just the Cavendishes, and Nathaniel was entirely content with that.
The carriage jolted again, and Luke Cavendish dropped his book on the floor with a clatter.
He tutted, rapping on the roof of the carriage.
“Tobias, please! Have a care.”
“Sorry, your lordship.” Came Tobias’ thick northern tones. “There’s a mist coming up from the valley, and it’s not easy to see.”
“I don’t like the sound of that.” Mary said, frowning. “Why don’t we stop somewhere for the night, Luke?”
Luke shook his head. “There’s nowhere near here. Besides, we’re only an hour or two away. I’d rather press on and get there tonight, rather than spend the night in some ratty, filthy inn.”
Mary bit her lip but said nothing, returning her gaze to her book.
Nathaniel glanced out of the window. For the first time since he’d drifted off to sleep, he realized that he had no idea where they were. It was dark outside, and since they were deep in the countryside, it could have been barely past sundown or around midnight; either way, it was pitch black. He could see the moon, filling the world with a silvery light. A lantern hung inside the carriage, to provide light for Mary and Luke to read, and Nathaniel knew that another lantern was affixed to the front of the carriage, to show the coachman and horses the way to go.
He shifted closer to the window, peering out, and paled.
The road they were travelling along was narrow, with a steep rocky face to their right and a sheer drop to their left.
“That’s a long way down, Papa.” Nathaniel mumbled. “Is it safe?”
“Quite safe.” Luke said firmly, turning a page. “Besides, don’t you trust Tobias? He’s an excellent driver.”
Nathaniel bit his lip. He wanted to say that it wasn’t Tobias’ expertise that he doubted, but the quality of the road. The mist that the coachman had mentioned was thick and impenetrable, rolling in from the fields, creeping up the cliffs towards them.
He shivered. It felt like an omen, somehow, not that the thirteen-year-old Nathaniel understood the meaning of omens.
It was hard to say what happened next. Nathaniel’s memory was patchy and unreliable for years at a time, although he and Tobias were able to agree on the crucial points.
The horses screamed at the same instant that Tobias did, and suddenly there was no more earth underneath the carriage wheels.
Later, Nathaniel learnt that the path, old and seldom used, had crumbled away, sending the carriage and the poor horses crashing down into the valley below. He would find out that Tobias, perched on his seat in the front of the carriage, had been thrown clear. It was Tobias who had risked his life a second time, climbing down the cliffside to the smashed carriage. He had dragged Nathaniel free of the wreckage and limped the few miles to the next village.
It was far too late for Luke and Mary Cavendish, of course. A torn copy of Mysteries of Udolpho was found beside the wreck of the carriage, with Mary’s dainty, well-worn bookmark still placed neatly between the pages.
“You needn’t worry, my boy.” The Duke of Carlwood said, his gnarled old fingers wrapped around Nathaniel’s. On his other side, the Duchess was sobbing quietly into a handkerchief, mourning a son and a daughter-in-law she’d loved like her own.
Nathaniel wasn’t crying and couldn’t quite understand why not. He felt… numb. The only feeling he could sense was when the dressings on his various cuts and his broken arm were changed, and that was just pain. He watched the earth heaping up on his parents’ graves and felt absolutely nothing.
No, that wasn’t true. There was a sort of livid ache, something that didn’t seem to be anything at all.
Nathaniel loved his parents more than life itself. He felt, in a dull sort of way, that it would have been more convenient if he’d died in that carriage, too. He wasn’t sure whether to be grateful to Tobias or to resent him. His grandfather’s hand squeezed his, and Nathaniel glanced up at him.
“Shall we go and have a quiet moment over on the bench, Nathaniel?” the Duke said, his old eyes glistening with emotion.
Nathaniel nodded wordlessly, following his grandfather to a quiet corner of the cemetery. They sat in silence for a moment or two.
“You feel numb, don’t you?” the Duke said eventually.
Nathaniel rested his chin on his chest.
“I know that it’s wicked, but yes.”
The Duke glanced sharply at him. “Wicked?”
“To not grieve for my parents. I thought I’d cry a lot more. I miss them so, so much, but it doesn’t seem…that is, I can’t…” Nathaniel trailed off, not quite able to grasp the words he wanted.
The Duke sighed. “You aren’t wicked, Nathaniel, not one bit. Grief is a strange thing, and everybody experiences it differently. I know that you loved your parents very much. Grief is a complicated thing, and it shows itself differently in different people. Just because you don’t cry doesn’t mean that you didn’t care for your parents, do you understand?”
Nathaniel nodded, feeling a little better. “I think so.”
“That’s good. Remember, your grandmother and I are grieving too, and it’s a terrible thing to bury a child before oneself.”
Nathaniel glanced up at his grandfather, and took in the ashen, stricken expression on his face. It seemed as if the tragedy had peeled away years and years from the man, those years piling up on his face in a series of lines and wrinkles.
Was that what grief did to a person? When you were hurt, or made miserable, or betrayed, did it make you old before your time, haggard and bitter and guilty? Nathaniel knew in that moment that one day he would grieve his grandparents like that and felt a flash of panic for the future.
In that case, was it worth it? A person couldn’t help loving their grandparents or their parents, but why put yourself at risk of being heartbroken again, and suffering the confusion and pain all over again? He shuddered, tears finally pricking their way towards his eyes.
“Where shall I live?” Nathaniel asked. He was speaking more to have something to say than out of any real concern. Now that his mamma and papa were gone, what did it matter where he lived?
“You shall live with your grandmother and me.” The Duke said, smiling tearfully. “That’s some good news, at least. You’ll be happy with us; I can promise you that. We’ll take care of you, like your dear parents – God rest their souls – would have wanted.”
Nathaniel digested this news. He hadn’t quite given up hope of being presented with a little brother or sister one day, but of course that hope was entirely gone now. Was this to be the rest of his life, running around the quiet, empty halls of his grandparents’ manor, constantly reminded of what he had lost?
“We shall bring your cousin, Reginald, to stay with us as often as we can.” The Duke said, as if reading Nathaniel’s mind. “If, heaven forbid, anything was to happen to you, Nathaniel – and it came sickeningly close, in that carriage – Reginald would become the Duke of Carlwood instead. There’s no reason why you should not be educated together. What do you think?”
Nathaniel knew Reginald a little, and they’d always been friends. He’d heard his papa talk about how Reginald’s parents seemed to think he was closer to the dukedom than he really was, whatever that meant, but surely all that bad feeling and gossip was long gone by now.
“I like Reginald.” Nathaniel said. “I look forward to spending time with him. Won’t we all be in mourning, though?”
“We will be in mourning. Frankly, I don’t think your grandmother and I will ever stop mourning. But you listen to me, Nathaniel. Don’t let your mourning hold you back from being happy, not even today. Your parents wouldn’t want that for you.”
Nathaniel nodded, but he felt as though his eyes had been opened. This was what life was like. You were hurt, at the most unexpected times, and there was no reason or warning to it. Life was not fair, and Fate was cruel.
He would remember that in future. He’d learnt a hard, painful lesson, and it was one that would stay with him. Forever.
Of that, Nathaniel Cavendish, future Duke of Carlwood, was entirely convinced.
Thirteen Years Later
Wentworth House, London, Late Summer
“More tea, Alice?”
Evelyn watched her friend glance down at the teapot, as if she could see the weak, over stewed tea inside. They were running out of tea and had been forced to ration themselves to a third of a spoonful per teapot. Half a spoonful for guests, although judging by Alice’s expression, that still wasn’t enough. Evelyn thought that it tasted like tea-flavoured water. Perhaps it tasted like water that had been used to rinse out a teacup that had once contained tea.
Either way, it was awful. They’d run out of sugar, so there wasn’t even any of that to sweeten the foul mixture. Evelyn was pretending that she’d simply forgotten the sugar bowl, and Alice was playing merrily along.
“I’m quite full, thank you.” Alice said, without a hint of reproach. She really made it all sound like it was her personal choice to forego a second cup of tea, rather than the harsh reality of the fact she couldn’t stomach a single sip more.
She’d dealt with the business of the stale biscuits and sawdust-flavoured cake with the same grace.
“Are you attending Miss Levington’s coming-out ball later in the week?” Alice asked, when an uncomfortable pause descended.
Evelyn mentally reviewed the contents of her wardrobe. There were no suitable dresses left for a coming-out ball, not until she’d fixed the torn hem on her emerald silk.
“No,” she said, “I fear we’re otherwise engaged.”
That was a lie, of course. Engagements of any kind often required money, and it was quite a while since the Wentworths had been invited out to a friend’s house simply to enjoy their company and a good meal.
Alice blinked at her friend, a slight frown appearing between her brows.
“Something’s going on.” She announced. “With you, Evelyn. Why don’t you tell me what it is?”
Evelyn buried her nose in her teacup, hopefully hiding her guilty flush.
“Nothing is wrong, Alice. What do you mean?”
She ought to have known that Alice would sniff it out immediately. The two girls were on the cusp of twenty and had known each other for almost all of their years. Evelyn had heard herself described as the prettier of the two girls, an off-hand comment which never failed to arouse incredible hatred for the speaker.
Alice was short, round-faced, cheerful, and romantic. She enjoyed novels and had a tendency to ignore fashion and dress her sleek golden-brown hair in the style of her favourite heroine’s, depending on which book she was reading.
At that moment, her hair was twisted into a knot of complex braids, with curled tendrils falling down to frame her face. Evelyn wasn’t entirely sure which heroine she was modeled after.
Aside from that, Alice had rather ordinary blue eyes and a spray of freckles across her nose. Evelyn thought that her friend was exceptionally beautiful and defied anyone to say otherwise.
Evelyn herself was taller and slimmer, with straw-colored hair and large grey-green eyes that were often remarked upon. Perhaps it was just as well she had good features, as it meant her shabby, out-of-style dresses weren’t remarked upon.
Except under Alice’s hawkish eyes, of course.
“The gilt mirror is missing from the hallway.” Alice said bluntly. “I know how much you and your mamma like that mirror, so I cannot see of any reason why it would be taken down.”
Evelyn cleared her throat, silently cursing Alice and her eye for detail.
“It fell and smashed, unfortunately.”
“Nonsense. That thing is secured to the wall so firmly that a veritable hurricane wouldn’t shift it. That’s not all. Several paintings are missing, and a few ornaments from here. And the chaise longue. In fact, the parlour is looking very sparse these days, Evie. Something is wrong.” Alice paused, breath hitching and eyes widening. “Oh… have you been robbed?”
It would be wonderfully easy to say yes, they had been robbed, but Evelyn had never been much of a liar. Certainly not when it came to her oldest friend. She set down her teacup with a clumsy clack – she ought to be more careful, it wasn’t as if they could afford to replace any of the crockery at the moment – and rested her elbows on her knees.
That was a gesture which would have sent her finishing school instructor into an apoplexy.
Perhaps her gracelessness was why Evelyn had embarked on a second Season, which had turned out to be no more fruitful than her first.
“Papa finds himself in something of a predicament.” Evelyn said at last.
That felt silly. Something of a predicament didn’t at all cover the growing horror that had overtaken the family over the last few months. There’d been the secrets, the sneaking around, the lies. Then, when Mr Wentworth had finally blurted out the whole awful secret, the final demands had begun to arrive. Red-printed bills with angry scribbles in the margins, men hammering on the door at unearthly hours, demanding money that nobody had.
It all built up inside Evelyn, like a bottle shaken and left corked, the pressure bubbling up inside with nowhere to go. Her parents wouldn’t discuss it. Lady Wentworth seemed to be pretending that there was no problem at all, and Lord Wentworth apparently believed that there was yet still time to claw his way out of the hole he’d dug for his family.
Beatrice didn’t grasp the enormity of the situation, and Evelyn didn’t have the heart to tell her. What would be the point?
“We may have to file for bankruptcy.” Evelyn said shortly.
Alice made a choking noise, setting down her teacup hard enough to make the dregs of her tea slop over the side. It pooled on the table, a greyish stain spreading over the old, well-worn wood.
Perhaps I ought to have explained it first, Evelyn thought sheepishly. Perhaps she would have preferred a little warning.
“Bankruptcy?” Alice spluttered. “But… but how? Why? When did this happen? Why did you never tell me? I knew that money was a little tight for you all at the moment, but then you said all that sort of thing about elegant economy, whatever that is, and then…”
“It’s worse than I let on.” Evelyn interrupted, or else Alice would gabble on all day. “I suppose I didn’t want to believe it myself, but of course there’s no point pretending otherwise. Why do you think I’ve been missing so many parties and so on? I didn’t have anything to wear.”
Alice bit her lip. “I thought it was… forgive me, but I rather thought it was because you hadn’t made a match yet. People can be very cutting about that sort of thing, you know. Somebody called me an old maid, and I’m not even twenty yet.”
Evelyn winced. “I’m sorry, Alice. I ought to have told you. But then, what’s the point of you worrying about all of this? It’s not your problem.”
Alice rolled her eyes. “How long have we known each other, Evie?”
“Forever.” Alice confirmed. “You can tell me anything, you know that. So, how has this happened? It all seems rather sudden?”
Evelyn shrugged. “Not really. From what I’ve gathered, our finances have been slipping for quite a while. Papa fancies himself as a businessman, and he’s a very poor investor, as it turns out. And then there were my two Seasons…” She bit her lip, not wanting to think about the ludicrously expensive gowns and trinkets she’d bought for her first Season, all funded by her magnanimous Papa. There’d been the tremendous expense of her coming-out ball, to say nothing of the endless little dinners, soirees, garden parties, and informal teas they’d hosted.
In some ways, the second Season was worse. Evelyn had expected to find a match earlier than that, and the novelty of being a debutante was gone. So, she made up for it with fine fabrics, new styles of dress, and jewels. More parties. More expense.
And now that money was wasted. Wasted on nothing, and they’d never get it back. The Season was all but over, and Evelyn had not found a match. Not even close. Her last opportunity was gone.
“I should have tried harder to find a match.” Evelyn continued, pulling herself up in her seat. “I shouldn’t have been so selfish. I was so picky. There were plenty of decent gentlemen who might have made me an offer, if only I had encouraged them. Instead, I wasted my time dancing and drinking and having fun, and now the opportunity is gone.”
“Oh, darling.” Alice murmured, leaning forward to take Evelyn’s hand in hers. “You’ll be alright. Everything will work out, you just wait and see.”
Evelyn stared down at her friend’s hand. Alice’s gloves were made of delicate white lace, the same pair Evelyn had stared at so longingly at the milliner’s last week. She couldn’t afford them, of course. She couldn’t even afford to buy a single finger of those gloves. And here Alice was, wearing them to an informal tea at her friend’s house.
It stung, even though there was no reason to feel envious. Alice’s father was a baron, and he wasn’t in the habit of frittering away his fortune on silly investments and doomed money-making schemes. Alice’s dowry was safe. She could have Season after Season if she wanted.
You don’t understand, Evelyn thought, her heart clenching inside her. You don’t have the faintest idea of what this is like.
But that would be an unkind and unfair thing to say, so she smiled back and patted Alice’s hand.
“Oh, I’m sure it will work out just fine. Are you sure you don’t want more tea?”
Dinner at the Wentworth house was a bleak affair these days. Beatrice was only sixteen, and so didn’t seem to remember how dinners used to be.
For Evelyn, though, every suppertime was a disappointment. She remembered the slow, gradual slide from the well-laden table and fresh courses served at every meal, to the few plates served now. There was just enough for everyone, and sometimes Evelyn did go to bed hungry.
She glanced around the table, taking everything in. The cook had whipped up a stew made of leftovers tonight. It was tasty, but they’d run out of all their spices, including salt. She wondered how long they’d be able to keep the cook on at all. Lady Wentworth, a faded blonde woman with a seemingly endless supply of optimism, picked at her stew at one end of the table, smiling briskly at her family. Beatrice was reading a book while she was eating. She’d been told many times not to do that, but it seemed that nobody had the energy to tell her to stop.
Lord Wentworth hunched over at the head of the table, staring down at his cooling stew without making a move to touch it. Evelyn remembered him as a tall, powerful man, with salt-and-pepper hair and a spring in his step.
It was hard to reconcile the father she knew as a child with the stooped, anxious man she saw before her now. At last, Lord Wentworth had come up with a problem he could not talk his way out of.
“Mary O’Malley and I will be coming out together.” Beatrice said, closing her book with a snap. “Not next year, but the year after. I’m quite excited about that. Her mother is already choosing dresses and making plans. Ought I to start thinking of that sort of thing, Mama?”
Lady Wentworth flinched, eyes widening. She composed herself quickly, flashing a smile at Beatrice.
“Not just yet, dear. I know that Mary and Mrs O’Malley must be tremendously excited, but it’s really too soon to start making preparations. After all, who knows what the fashions will be like two Seasons from now?”
Beatrice nodded, satisfied with this answer.
Evelyn swallowed hard, staring down at her half-finished bowl of stew.
Beatrice, of course, did not understand that there would be no Season for her. They really hadn’t even been able to afford this one, but if Evelyn was to stand even the smallest chance of marrying a rich man, they at least had to be in London for the Season.
Next year, Lord Wentworth might well be in debtor’s prison. The year after, the family would be entirely destitute. There’d be no talk of Seasons at all.
A lump of emotion lodged itself in Evelyn’s throat. She shot a quick glance at her sister and hated what she saw. Beatrice was smiling to herself softly, no doubt dreaming of silks and furs and dances, of meeting handsome gentlemen and making mischief with her friend Mary.
She wouldn’t get to enjoy any of that. Her whole future had been whisked away from under their very noses, and that was that.
A bang started them all, and Evelyn glanced up sharply.
Lord Wentworth had slammed his hands down onto the table on either side of his plate and leapt to his feet. His face was grim and set, and he looked almost angry.
“I know we’ve had some financial difficulties lately.” Lord Wentworth announced, “But I want you all to know, my dear family, that I am going to get us out of this. I promise.”
Beatrice and Evelyn exchanged uneasy looks.
“What do you mean, Papa?” Evelyn spoke up.
To her surprise, her father wouldn’t look at her. He kept his eyes fixed on a vague point above her head.
“We shall employ every measure necessary to ensure the safety of our kin,” he murmured, his tone hushed. “Shall we not, dear Evelyn?”
Evelyn swallowed hard, an ominous feeling of dread creeping along her spine.
“Of course, Papa. Of course, we will. That is, of course I will.”
“Good.” He murmured softly, so quietly that Evelyn almost did not hear him. “That’s very good, child.
Nathaniel hurried down the stairs, rearranging his cravat as he went. His new valet was a nervy young man named Simon, who had made a bit of a mess of the whole thing. Never mind, he’d learn. Until then, Nathaniel decided to fix his own cravat, in case his grandmother saw and decided to dismiss Simon and hire a valet of her own choosing behind his back.
“You’re late.” Lillian announced, when Nathaniel stepped into the dining room.
Lady Lillian Cavendish, the Dowager Duchess of Carlwood, was generally an even-tempered and pleasant woman.
That had been until she lost her beloved husband, of course. Since then, her temper had soured, and she found fault with everyone and everything. Nathaniel did his best to be patient with her. After all, she and his grandfather had raised him after the loss of his parents, and it was thanks to them that Nathaniel was the man he was today.
The role of Duke of Carlwood was not an easy one to fill, but Nathaniel flattered himself that he was managing well enough.
“Sorry, Grandmother.” Nathaniel said, leaning down to kiss her powdery cheek.
He sat down beside her and began filling his plate. She watched him, tutting.
“You ought to let the servants serve you.”
“I prefer to control my own portions.” Nathaniel replied blandly. “After all, what if I want a particular piece of bacon? It’s very tiresome, having to point out exactly how many spoons of scrambled egg you want, and which piece of bacon catches your fancy today, or which piece of toast. It’s much easier to get my own, you see.”
Lillian huffed in annoyance. “I wish you’d be a little more gentlemanlike, Nathaniel.”
“I think I am perfectly gentlemanlike, Grandmother.”
“This would never have happened if your parents had taught you properly. By the time you came to us, you were already thirteen, and the damage was done.”
“Well, you’ve had another thirteen years, exactly the same amount of time that my parents had with me.” Nathaniel replied, shoveling another fried egg onto his plate. He had a meeting with a client soon and wanted to be gone.
“Humph. Well, your wretched business has kept you busy all through the Season. You missed most of it.”
Nathaniel chuckled. “With my ungentlemanlike behaviour, I would have thought you’d feel relieved.”
“Oh, you wretched boy.” Lillian gave him a good-natured pat on the arm. “There were plenty of suitable ladies this year. Most of them are married or at least engaged now, but if you’d participated in the Season…”
“Grandmother, please. I’d rather not discuss this now.”
Nathaniel felt the familiar vice-like grip of panic tighten around his heart. He didn’t want to get married. The whole business seemed exceptionally tiresome, and he hadn’t met anyone he wanted to marry in any case.
Lillian pursed her lips. “You never want to discuss this. Unfortunately, this problem is not going to go away. You need to marry, and you need to produce an heir. I would be more than happy to help you with finding a nice young woman. If you weren’t so picky…”
“I’m not picky, I would just like to be in love.”
She leaned back, narrowing her eyes. “You only say that because you believe you won’t fall in love, and therefore will be safe forever.”
Nathaniel grinned. “Yes, that’s right.”
“I really must go, Grandmother.” Nathaniel got to his feet, shoveling in one last mouthful of scrambled eggs. He’d like to eat more, but a long conversation about his future prospects and all the various young women his grandmother wanted him to meet was a surefire way of getting indigestion.
He hurried out of the dining room, relieved that Lillian didn’t follow him.
“Smythe,” he called to the butler, “When Lord Wentworth arrives, show him directly to my study, won’t you?”
He should have spent his valuable time in preparing for work, for the dealings with his clients later. Nathaniel had never expected to live life as a lord of leisure. By rights, his father should have been the Duke after his grandfather, so Nathaniel ought to have decades as plain old Lord Cavendish. He was quite happy at the idea of doing business and making his own money.
Besides, the business of running an estate of this size was nothing to be sniffed at.
Then, too, there was the matter of succession. The Cavendishes expressed hope that there would be more children, in which case Nathaniel might have nephews and nieces to carry on the family line.
No such luck. There was only Reginald, and they weren’t on good terms these days.
Nathaniel knew that he needed to marry, but the idea seemed so bleak. He’d dabbled in the occasional Season, but there was such an air of desperation and vulgar practicality about the whole thing that he was immediately put off. It wasn’t that the ladies weren’t beautiful, charming, and intelligent. It was that their entire purpose during the Season was to exchange their beauty for security. Beauty for money, beauty for family, beauty for status. Far too many of Nathaniel’s acquaintances couldn’t give a toss about the contents of a woman’s head, so long as her face and form were acceptable.
It sickened him, and he chose to distance himself. None of those Society belles had tugged at his heartstrings, anyway. At least not in the way he expected his heartstrings to be pulled.
He knew, in a disinterested sort of way, that he was handsome. He was rich, young, and had an impressive title, along with a lithe, wiry frame, ash-blond hair, and large brown eyes the colour of honey. Plenty of young ladies gave him a second glance, even before they knew about his money and title.
But he never once felt a tug of attraction towards them, besides the obvious admiration of their beauty.
That didn’t change the fact that Nathaniel was twenty-six, and tramping steadily towards twenty-seven, and soon he would be thirty, and time would start to trickle away. Men did marry and sire children at forty, that was true, but there was no denying that it was rarer, and a risky endeavor. What if he were hit by a runaway cart next year, and either killed or permanently disabled?
Well, Reginald would take over, and Nathaniel wasn’t sure that he liked that idea.
He glanced up at the clock and saw that it was eleven o’ clock exactly. Somehow, the hours had melted away without anything being done at all, and he had wasted the morning.
On cue, a sharp rap came at the study door.
Smythe poked his head around the door. “Lord Wentworth has arrived, your Grace.”
Nathaniel sat back in his seat and sighed. Better get down to business, then.
“I see. Show him in, please.”
Smythe bowed and withdrew. Nathaniel picked up some papers and made a show of shuffling through them. He needed to appear like a brisk, busy sort of man – which he was – and not to give off any weakness. He knew men like Lord Wentworth very well, and they would leverage whatever they could to get their debts forgotten.
Nathaniel was not very sympathetic. Lord Wentworth was not a man born into poverty, struggling to feed his family. Nor was he a man desperately trying to attain something better for himself and his children. No, he’d been born into privilege, and he chose to fritter it away on get-rich-quick schemes and bad investments.
The man deserved everything he got.
“Lord Wentworth, your Grace.” Smythe intoned, stepping into the room. “Shall I fetch a tea tray?”
Nathaniel glanced up from his papers. “No, thank you. That will be all, Smythe.”
The butler bowed and retreated, leaving Nathaniel and Lord Wentworth alone.
Lord Wentworth was a tall, vigorous sort of man, remarkably good-looking for his age, which was somewhere in his early forties. He was generally well-liked, and had a jovial, good-natured way about him.
He’d used that charm to weasel money out of quite a few ladies and gentlemen so far.
He wouldn’t use it on Nathaniel.
Nathaniel flicked through the papers for a moment, letting Lord Wentworth fidget in front of him. At last, he sighed and sat back, gesturing for his guest to take a seat. Lord Wentworth was a head taller than him, and had a much broader frame, so Nathaniel preferred not to measure their heights together.
Lord Wentworth did sit, perching stiffly on the edge of the chair.
“Can I assume you have not brought the money you owe me, then?” Nathaniel said heavily.
Lord Wentworth coloured. “I have not, your Grace.”
“Hm. And yet the date for your repayments has passed. I have been very patient with you, sir. I have renegotiated the terms of our loan – twice, I might add – and shown a lot more leniency than you deserved. And yet, my money is not repaid. Why are you here, Lord Wentworth? I sent a letter to inform you that I would begin proceedings against you to retrieve my money, so unless you have that money, I’m not entirely sure that we have anything to discuss.”
Lord Wentworth drew in a deep breath, squaring his shoulders, like a man about to dive off a cliff.
“Actually, I believe I have something of equal value.”
Nathaniel’s eyebrows shot up towards his hairline. That was intriguing, he had to admit. No doubt it was another ploy. A new scheme, perhaps, no less reputable than the last.
“Is that ‘something’ money? If not…”
“Not quite. I… forgive me, this is a delicate subject. May I speak freely?”
Nathaniel resisted the urge to point out that Lord Wentworth never spoke freely. Every word from him was calculated, carefully thought out, practiced, and weighed before it left his mouth.
“Of course.” He said instead.
“You are not married, your Grace. Nor engaged, nor courting, nor even in a state of understanding with a young lady.”
Nathaniel hadn’t been expecting that. He bristled, despite himself.
“I’m not sure how this is any business of yours.”
Lord Wentworth held up one shovel-sized palm. “Please, bear with me, your Grace. I understand how difficult it must be for a man in your position.”
“Oh, you understand, do you?”
He leaned forward. “I do. When I courted my wife – my darling Ann – we were not titled persons. Not yet. It was easy and simple. She was no heiress, no Society Beauty, and I was nobody of any consequence at all. We could court in peace, at our own pace, and fell in love entirely at our leisure.”
Nathaniel swallowed hard. Whatever he’d expected from this meeting, it wasn’t that. He had to admit, the picture Lord Wentworth painted was an appealing one. Falling in love at one’s leisure.
“What is your point?”
“My point is,” Lord Wentworth continued eagerly, “You don’t have that leisure. You are a duke. You are a rich, influential man, well-connected. You are a handsome gentleman, and generally thought to be a kind and charming young man.”
“Flattery will get you nowhere.”
“I’m only repeating what the Society matrons and mammas say to each other. You know as well as I do that every mother and father in London thinks of you as a husband for their daughters. You cannot go to a party or ball without being accosted by mammas and hopeful young ladies, all trying to catch you. Yes, catch you, like one catches an animal in a trap. Am I wrong, your Grace?”
Nathaniel opened his mouth to retort something snappy, but nothing came out. The fact was that Lord Wentworth was entirely right. Nathaniel avoided the Seasons for just that reason, but he couldn’t become a hermit entirely. His friends tried to push their sisters onto him, and his father and grandfather’s friends constantly tried to match him up with their female relatives. One wrong move on his part, one slip of vigilance, and he would find himself under a moral obligation to marry one of these women, or embroiled in a scandal that unforgiving Society would not allow him to forget.
It was exhausting.
“Let us suppose that you are correct.” Nathaniel said, with studied nonchalance. “Now what?”
Lord Wentworth shrugged. “You still have to marry and produce an heir. Do you let yourself be caught, or do you try and figure out which of these grasping young ladies feels real affection for you?”
Nathaniel swallowed. “Can I assume that you are offering me a solution?”
“Indeed I am.”
Lord Wentworth withdrew a palm-sized item from his breast pocket and slid it across the table. It took Nathaniel a half-minute to realize that he was looking at a miniature.
He leaned forward despite himself, and studied the young woman depicted.
She had Lord Wentworth’s piercing grey-green gaze, and his well-shaped jaw and lifted chin. She had blonde curls arranged in a slightly outmoded style and stared directly at the painter. That was a little unusual, as the fashion was for ladies and gentlemen to simper off into the distance when they were having their portrait painted. He guessed that she was around twenty years old.
“Can I assume I am looking at Miss Wentworth?” Nathaniel asked tautly.
“Yes, this is Evelyn. The portrait is recent.”
Nathaniel sat back in his chair, a muscle jumping in his jaw.
“Let me be clear. You are offering me your daughter’s hand in marriage, in exchange for your debts being written off?”
Lord Wentworth had the grace to blush but met his eye steadily.
“Yes, your Grace. I am.”
“Hm. And why should I take this offer? You said yourself that I’m a catch. I could step into Society the very next Season and pick up an heiress at the drop of a hat.”
“You could. But you’ll have to wade through a crowd of competitive mammas first. You’ll have to woo the girl and convince the world that you’re deeply in love. That seems like a lot of playacting for a gentleman as straightforward as you.”
Nathaniel narrowed his eyes. He was liking Lord Wentworth less and less as the meeting progressed.
“And instead, I should marry your daughter?”
“It’s a marriage of convenience. You marry a girl of good breeding, with a lovely manner, and a pretty face. My daughter is priceless to me, your Grace.”
Nathaniel snorted. “I think there is a sum written in my ledgers under your name that we could attach to your daughter. And what, may I ask, does the unfortunate woman think of all this?”
Lord Wentworth hesitated, just for a beat.
She doesn’t know, Nathaniel thought tiredly. To his credit, Lord Wentworth recovered quickly.
“She is keen to do whatever she can to help the family. She doesn’t want to see me in debtors’ prison, of course, and our family destitute. She is particularly keen to secure her sister’s coming out in two years.”
Nathaniel glanced back down at the miniature. He couldn’t quite believe that he was considering this. The bargain was barbaric, and it was entirely possible that poor Miss Wentworth would kick up a fuss and refuse to cooperate. He wouldn’t blame her.
But it would solve his problems. Sooner or later, Nathaniel knew that he would have to wade into Society and pick out a wife for himself. He’d long since given up on the hopes of a love-match, so why put himself through the turmoil of a Season?
Miss Wentworth was pretty, he had to admit. She was well-bred, that was for certain. Lord Wentworth wasn’t the sort of man he admired, but he had married for love, and he was considered to be a doting father and excellent husband.
Am I really considering this? Nathaniel thought, chewing his lip and meeting Miss Wentworth’s painted grey-green eyes.
“If I don’t agree, I suppose there’s no chance of me recovering my money anyway.” He said aloud.
Lord Wentworth drew in a short breath, obviously trying to hide his eagerness.
“I’m afraid not, your Grace. I have tried to get the money together, but…”
Nathaniel waved a hand, cutting off his excuses.
“I shall consider your proposition, on one condition. I want Miss Wentworth’s full and informed consent. I don’t object to a marriage of convenience, but it must be convenient for all involved. I don’t want some unfortunate young woman to be dragged down the aisle to me. If I suspect that she is not happy about the arrangement, or has been coerced in any way, I shall call off the whole thing.”
Lord Wentworth looked like he wanted to grin with delight, and only decorum held him back.
“Of course. Of course, your Grace. If you knew Evie, you’d know that nobody can coerce her into anything.” He paused, obviously wondering whether this put his daughter in a less-than-flattering light. “Not, of course, that she isn’t a sweet, obliging…”
“Oh, do be quiet. Get out, Lord Wentworth. I shall write to you when I’ve decided for sure.”
Lord Wentworth scrambled to his feet, barely restraining a grin. When the door closed behind him, Nathaniel leaned forward and inspected the miniature. It had probably been left behind deliberately.
Am I making a mistake? Nathaniel wondered, eyeing the paint-and-canvas version of Miss Wentworth. Almost certainly.