Authors: Michelle Diener
Tags: #Regency, #Historical Romance, #Fiction
Dervish’s eyes narrowed. “His heir, most likely. If he has one. I know his parents are both dead.”
“And Miss Hillier?”
“Eventually someone will speak to her. Most likely she’ll hear it in the press before anyone official gets to her.”
“I’ll tell her.”
Dervish looked at him over the rim of his coffee cup. “She’ll most likely not thank you for it.”
James shrugged. “I don’t want someone else telling her, in case they upset her.”
“She’ll be upset, no matter how she’s told.”
James shrugged. He would do it. He couldn’t explain why he felt so strongly, but it was almost a compulsion. “I’m also worried she might come under another attack.”
Dervish tapped his lips with his forefinger, watching him with a strange, knowing expression. “You’re sure she can be trusted? You mentioned before you thought she was hiding something?”
James stared back at him coolly.
Dervish gave a grunt, and scraped back his chair. “As you like. Do whatever you need to do.”
he Duke of Wittaker is here to see Miss Hillier.” Lewis sent her a quick look, and she wondered if he was debating whether to tell her aunt this was the duke’s second visit in two days.
She smiled to herself. Make that the fifth.
“The Duke of Wittaker?” Phoebe could see her aunt trying to recall what she knew about the duke. “Didn’t I hear…?”
“Please show him in, Lewis.” Phoebe took control.
Lewis bowed, slid another look at her and left the room.
“I’m sure I’ve heard something…”
Phoebe ignored her aunt and stood. She caught Wittaker’s gaze as he appeared in the doorway.
He looked grim. All traces of the playfulness she’d seen in him last night were gone. He didn’t look capable of laughter.
“Miss Hillier.” He bowed to her.
“Your Grace, allow me to introduce my aunt, Mrs. Patterson.”
“My lady.” Wittaker bowed to her as well.
“I had no idea you knew His Grace, my dear.” Her aunt slanted her a look but Phoebe merely nodded. Her aunt had only been a regular visitor to London since Phoebe’s father had died and she’d been in need of a chaperone. She wouldn’t know who Phoebe had and had not met.
“I’m afraid I’ve come to give you bad news.”
Phoebe’s eyes jerked back to his face, and she frowned. “Bad news?”
Was this his solution to arrange for her safety? Some ruse to give her a good reason to remain indoors or go into hiding?
“Please, I think you should sit.”
He seemed too serious for this to be some plan he’d concocted. She shivered, suddenly cold. Her aunt sank slowly into a chair, and Phoebe followed suit. Wittaker did not join them.
“I heard this morning from a government official that Lord Sheldrake is dead.” He was looking only at her as he spoke, and she could not read him. Could barely understand what he was saying.
Her aunt gasped. “How?”
“It appears to be a carriage accident.”
Phoebe could not look away. She heard the word ‘appears’, heard his inflection.
They had killed Sheldrake. She reached out blindly to hold onto something, and ended up clutching the armrests of her chair. “I thought he was leaving the country.” She tried to make sense of it. “Did he die in England, or abroad?”
Her aunt turned to stare at her. Too late she remembered she still had not told her of Sheldrake’s betrayal.
“He died ten miles from Dover.”
“What is this, Phoebe? Why was Sheldrake leaving the country?” Her aunt’s voice was sharp and high.
“He called off our betrothal on Sunday evening.” At last Phoebe tore her gaze from Wittaker’s face to look at her aunt. “I’m sorry, I didn’t tell you because his rejection was difficult for me to explain. He told me he was leaving the country, that he was in trouble and owed money…” She trailed off in the face of her aunt’s horror.
“The…the…” Too well-bred to say what she surely wanted to say, her aunt looked down at her lap, her hands so tightly entwined Phoebe could see the whites of her knuckles. “After the promises he made. After everything your father went through…” She stopped short, and glanced across at Wittaker. “Thank you for giving us the news, Your Grace. I am not sure why someone as high-placed as yourself was so kind as to come and inform us personally…” There was stiff formality in her aunt’s voice now, as she rallied herself like a general facing poor odds.
“I came because I consider myself a friend of Miss Hillier’s and I didn’t want her to hear the news from anyone else.”
Her aunt’s mouth opened and then closed with a snap. “I…see.” She looked at Phoebe, and Phoebe could see she did not see at all.
“May I have a word with Miss Hillier in private?” He was already walking forward to take her hand, as if the question had merely been for form’s sake. He didn’t care whether her aunt gave her permission or not.
And the permission was Phoebe’s to give, and no one else’s. She was mistress here. She had to keep remembering that. Society conspired to make her feel in need of following rules or obeying instructions from others, but she
“Certainly, Your Grace.” She raised her hand and allowed him to help her to her feet. “We can take a moment in the garden.”
She led him out the room to the library, avoiding her aunt’s gaze, her back straight and stiff.
The doors were still locked from last night, and she turned the key and stepped out, with Wittaker close behind her.
She waited until they were down the steps from the house and in the garden itself before she turned to him. “Is it true? Sheldrake is really dead?”
He looked genuinely shocked at the question. “I would never lie about something like that.”
She looked at him for a long moment, and eventually turned away.
“I’m sorry. For your loss.” There was an edge to his tone, and she turned to face him, but he was looking away, across the garden toward the wall.
“Thank you.” She crossed her arms and hugged herself, her head down. “You might be the only one who understands this, but while I’m sorry that Sheldrake is dead, I’m finding it hard to feel the level of grief expected of me.”
She sensed his quick look, but he said nothing.
She kept her head bowed. “I’ve been so angry with him. And before…” She sighed. Steeled herself to speak the words, because she didn’t think she could say them to another person and they were bubbling up inside her, demanding to be voiced. “I held him in a sort of contempt.” She rocked back on her heels. “He treated me like a brainless ninny, like some dim-witted little twit. He never saw me. Never saw me as I was. I think he genuinely thought he was my intellectual superior. It galled me. The only way I could bear it without screaming was to make snide comments about him in my head. It’s lowering now to think that I had to do that. That I couldn’t rise above it. But I had to make myself hold still as he patted my arm in that patronising way he had, count numbers in my head instead of thinking how I was to be married to him. That this would be my life forever…” She drew in a deep breath. Finally looked up to find him much closer to her than he had been.
“I don’t understand why your family bound you to him.”
She gave a dry laugh. “Don’t you? Surely you must have seen a hundred such matches, poorly conceived and for practical matters that have nothing to do with the personalities of the bride and groom?”
He conceded her point with a nod. “What reason did your family have?”
Long years of keeping her secrets made her hesitate, but she had already said the worst. What harm could it do to explain the whole thing?
“My father was a third son. Both his older brothers died before he did, though, and without heirs; the last one only a year before my father himself passed away. I’m my father’s only child. My father’s title and the part of the estate that is entailed were to go to the next male heir, and that happened to be Sheldrake, who’s my father’s second cousin. My father’s title is lower than Sheldrake’s family’s, so Sheldrake had no use for it, but the estate, that he wanted. That, and the fortune my mother brought to her marriage with my father.”
She sighed. “I’d been difficult about accepting a husband since I came out, something that had once caused my parents considerable distress, but when my father inherited his brother’s title and lands, it was suddenly treated as if it had been my father’s idea all along. That he was keeping me free for Sheldrake, who would inherit the estate and title on his death, and through marriage to me, my father’s, or rather my mother’s, fortune.”
Wittaker angled his head. “I can see why that would be beneficial to Sheldrake, but how was it beneficial to you?”
“Keeping it all in the family? Continuing my father’s line through my children? My son to inherit the title from Sheldrake?” She spoke without bitterness. She had let that go. Or thought she had. “My father only died six months ago, and he had the contract drawn up on his deathbed. It was all that kept him alive in the last few weeks, finalizing that document.”
“I see.” His eyes narrowed. “And what did your father think of your son inheriting nothing but debt in Sheldrake’s wake?”
“My father knew what Sheldrake was like. He talked up his virtues to me, to the point where I started avoiding him altogether it was so painful to hear, but the contract he made Sheldrake sign shows he had no illusions about Sheldrake himself, no matter what he wanted
That betrayal still had the power to hurt. He had known,
what he was shackling her to. But keeping things in the family, the idea of dynasty, was more important to him. More important than her. “Sheldrake would have done anything to get even part of my dowry. I don’t think he even read the contract properly, but he discovered the terms were…strict…when he decided to leave the country. It seems my father has all my money tied up in a trust that Sheldrake was unable to touch.” That she was unable to touch, as well. Or only as her trustees saw fit. “He was most surprised to find he had no access to my funds when he was preparing to leave the country.”
She was sensible, intelligent and old enough to decide her own future, but since her mother’s death her father had taken as much power away from her as he could.
He’d regretted her education, her mother’s insistence on the best tutors and the widest possible range of subjects for her daughter. Her mother had come from a practical, hard-working merchant family who had risen to wealth through brains and effort, and she had wanted Phoebe to understand as much about the world as she could. Her father, though, would have preferred her to be ill-informed and more pliable.
She clenched her fists and tried to breathe through the tightening of her chest. She needed to stop thinking of this. To calm the rage that kept gripping her.
Her father was dead and the deed was done.
She knew she was privileged. That she lived in surely one of the most beautiful houses in London, and had everything she could ask for. But she would give up much of what she had for some acknowledgement of herself. Of her worth. Of her capabilities.
“Sheldrake told you this? That he had tried to get hold of your inheritance?” Wittaker’s incredulous question drew her back to the present.
She forced herself to let the anger go. “On Sunday night. He said he’d approached the trustees, trying to get his hands on some of the money. To make his life in exile a little easier.”
“My God.” Wittaker took two steps away, and she could hear he was breathing heavily. “The man was a fool.”
“Yes,” she said, and even she could hear the regret, the sadness in her voice. “He was.”
He smiled at her suddenly, and it was so unexpected she blinked.
She looked away again and let her arms fall to her sides. She felt the same edge of panic she had last night, as Wittaker crouched on her windowsill, looking at her with hungry eyes. She grasped desperately at a new topic. “However wrong it was of them to kill him, it will have one consequence perhaps they didn’t expect.”
His gaze was steady, but the heat in them was still there. “What’s that?”
Phoebe avoided his eyes. “I have the perfect excuse to stay close to home for a few weeks.”
He raised a questioning eyebrow.
“No one knows Sheldrake broke our betrothal. I’ll be expected to be in mourning.”
ittaker almost enjoyed sparring with Gibbs’s clerk when he arrived at the Attorney General’s chambers, and only produced his card, thereby winning the war of wills, some time after he could have done.
He longed for a little violence.
It was easy to work out why, but it didn’t lessen the need.
He could go to The Scarlet Rose and stir up enough trouble to satisfy the pounding in his veins, the hot-blooded energy that was coursing through him. Initiate a fencing duel or fisticuffs.
The thought enticed him. And it would have the added benefit of keeping himself in character for the meanwhile.
He smiled, and Gibbs’s clerk lost the supercilious look on his face and almost fled the room in his haste to show James where the transcripts were kept.