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Authors: Judith McNaught

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Romance, #Historical

Almost Heaven (3 page)

BOOK: Almost Heaven
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His gruffly spoken avowal of loyalty made Alex’s eyes sting with tears even before he added, “We must not let her uncle send her into the gloom, which is what he always does.”

“Is there a means to stop him?” Alex asked, smiling. Bentner straightened, nodded, and said with dignified force, “I, for one, am in favor of shoving him off London Bridge. Aaron favors poison.”

There was anger and frustration in his words, but no real menace, and Alex responded with a conspiratorial smile. “I think I prefer your method Bentner, it’s tidier.”

Alexandra’s remark had been teasing, and Bentner’s reply was a formal bow, but as they looked at each other for a moment they both acknowledged the unspoken communication they’d just exchanged. The butler had informed her that, should the staff’s help be needed in any way in future, the duchess could depend upon their complete, unquestioning loyalty. The duchess’s answer had assured him that, far from resenting his intrusion, she appreciated the information and would keep it in mind should such an occasion occur.

CHAPTER 3

Julius Cameron looked up as his niece entered his study, and his eyes narrowed with annoyance; even now, when she was little more than an impoverished orphan, there was regal grace in her carriage and stubborn pride in the set of her small chin. She was up to her ears in debt and sinking deeper every month, but she still walked about with her head high, just like her arrogant, reckless father had done. At the age of thirty-five he had drowned in a yachting accident, along with Elizabeth’s mother, and by then he’d already gambled away his substantial inheritance and secretly mortgaged his lands. Even so, he’d continued to walk with arrogance, and to live, until the very last day, like a privileged aristocrat.

As the younger son of the Earl of Havenhurst, Julius had inherited neither title nor fortune nor substantial lands, yet
he
had managed by dint of unstinting work and vigilant frugality to amass a considerable fortune. He had gone without all but the barest necessities in his ceaseless efforts to better his lot in life; he had eschewed the glamour and temptations of society, not only because of the incredible expense, but because he refused to hang about on the fringes of the nobility.

After all of his sacrifices, after the Spartan existence he and his wife had led, fate had still contrived to cheat him, for his wife was barren. To his everlasting bitterness, he had no heir for his fortune or his lands – no heir except the son Elizabeth would bear after she was wed.

Now, as he watched her seating herself across the desk from him, the irony of it all struck him with renewed, painful force. In actuality, he’d spent a lifetime working and scrimping . . . and all he’d accomplished was to replenish the wealth of his reckless brother’s future grandson. And if that wasn’t infuriating enough, he’d also been left with the task of cleaning up the mess Elizabeth’s half-brother, Robert, had left behind when he’d vanished almost two years ago. As a result, it now fell to Julius to honor her father’s written instructions to see her wed to a man possessed of
both
title and wealth, if possible. A month ago, when Julius had launched his search for a suitable husband for her, he’d expected the task to be fairly easy. After all, when she’d made her debut the year before last, her beauty, her impeccable lineage, and her alleged wealth had won her a record fifteen marital offers in four short weeks. To Julius’s surprise, only three of those men had answered his letters of inquiry in the affirmative, and several hadn’t bothered to answer at all. Of course, it was no secret that she was poor now, but Julius had offered a respectable dowry to get her off his hands. To Julius, who thought of everything in terms of money, her dowry alone should have made her desirable enough. Of the dreadful scandal surrounding her Julius knew little and cared less. He shunned society along with all its gossip, frivolity, and excesses.

Elizabeth’s question pulled him from his angry reverie: “What did you wish to discuss with me, Uncle Julius?”

Animosity, combined with resentment over what was sure to be an angry outburst from Elizabeth, made his voice more curt than normal. “I have come here today to discuss your impending marriage.”

“My-my what?” Elizabeth gasped, so taken aback that her tight facade of dignity dropped, and for a split second she looked and felt like a child, forlorn and bewildered and trapped.

“I believe you heard me.” Leaning back in his chair, Julius said brusquely, “I’ve narrowed it down to three men. Two of them are titled, the third is not. Since titles were paramount to your father, I shall choose the man with the highest rank who offers for you, assuming I
have
such a choice to make.”

“How –” Elizabeth had to pause to gather her wits before she could speak. “How did you happen to select these men?”

“I asked Lucinda for the names of any men who, during your debut, had discussed marrying you with Robert. She gave me their names, and I sent messengers to each of them, stating your willingness and mine – as your guardian to reconsider them as possible husbands for you.”

Elizabeth clutched the arms of her chair, trying to control her horror. “Do you mean,” she said in a strangled whisper, “you made some sort of public offering of my hand in marriage to any of those men who’d take me?”

“Yes!” he bit out, bristling at her implied accusation that he’d not behaved in a manner befitting his station or hers. “Furthermore, it may do you good to hear that your legendary attraction for the opposite sex has apparently ended. Only three of those fifteen men expressed a willingness to renew their acquaintance with you.”

Humiliated to the depths of her being, Elizabeth stared blankly at the wall behind him. “I cannot believe you’ve
done
this.”

His open palm hit the desk like a thunderclap. “I’ve acted within my rights, niece, and in accordance with your wastrel father’s specific instructions. May I remind you that when I die, it is
my
money that will be entrusted to your husband and ultimately to your son.
Mine.”

For months now Elizabeth had tried to understand her uncle, and somewhere in her heart she comprehended the cause of his bitterness and even empathized with it. “I wish you had been blessed with a son of your own,” she said in a suffocated voice. “But I am not to blame because you were not. I’ve done you no harm, given you no cause to hate me enough to do this to me . . .” Her voice trailed off when she saw his expression harden at what he regarded as pleading. Elizabeth’s chin rose, and she clung to what was left of her dignity. “Who are the men?”

“Sir Francis Belhaven,” he said shortly.

Elizabeth stared at him in stupefaction and shook her head. “I met hundreds of new people during my debut, but I don’t recall that name at all.”

“The second man is Lord John Marchman, Earl of Canford.”

Again Elizabeth shook her head. “The name is somewhat familiar, but I can’t recall a face to go with it.”

Obviously disappointed in her reaction, her uncle said irritably, “You apparently have a poor memory. If you can’t recall a knight or an earl,” he added sarcastically, “I doubt you’ll remember a mere mister.”

Stung by his unprovoked remark, she said stiffly, “Who is the third?”

“Mr. Ian Thornton. He’s –”

That
name sent Elizabeth jolting to her feet while a blaze of animosity and a shock of terror erupted through her entire body.
“Ian Thornton”
she cried, leaning her palms on the desk to steady herself. “Ian Thornton!” she repeated, her voice rising with a mixture of anger and hysterical laughter. “Uncle, if Ian Thornton discussed marrying me, it was at the
point of Robert’s gun!
His interest in me was never marriage, and Robert dueled with him over his behavior. In fact, Robert
shot
him!”

Instead of relenting or being upset, her uncle merely regarded her with blank indifference, and Elizabeth said fiercely, “Don’t you understand?”

“What I understand,” he said, glowering, “is that he replied to my message in the affirmative and was very cordial. Perhaps he regrets his earlier behavior and wishes to make amends.”

“Amends!” she cried. “I’ve no idea whether he feels loathing for me or merely contempt, but I can assure you he does
not
and has
never
wished to wed me! He’s the reason I can’t show my face in society!”

“In my opinion, you’re better off away from that decadent London influence; however, that’s not to the point. He has accepted my terms.”

“What
terms?”

Inured to Elizabeth’s quaking alarm, Julius stated matter-of-factly, “Each of the three candidates has agreed that you will come to visit him briefly in order to allow you to decide if you suit. Lucinda will accompany you as chaperon. You’re to leave in five days. Belhaven is first, then Marchman, then Thornton.”

The room swam before Elizabeth’s eyes. “I can’t
believe
this!” she burst out, and in her misery she seized on the least of her problems. “Lucinda has taken her first holiday in years! She’s in Devon visiting her sister.”

“Then take Berta instead and have Lucinda join you later when you go to visit Thornton in Scotland.”

“Berta! Berta is a maid. My reputation will be in shreds if I spend a week in the home of a man with no one but a maid for a chaperon.”

“Then don’t say she’s a maid,” he snapped. “Since I already referred to Lucinda Throckmorton-Jones as your chaperon in my letters, you can say that Berta is your aunt. No more objections, miss,” he finished, “the matter is settled. That will be all for now. You may go.”

“It’s
not
settled! There’s been some sort of horrible mistake, I tell you. Ian Thornton would never want to see me, any more than I wish to see him!”

“There’s no mistake,” Julius said with complete finality. “Ian Thornton received my letter and accepted our offer. He even sent directions to his place in Scotland.”

“Your
offer,” Elizabeth cried, “not mine!”

“I’ll not debate technicalities any further with you, Elizabeth. This discussion is at an end.”

CHAPTER 4

Elizabeth walked slowly down the hall and turned a corner, intending to rejoin Alexandra, but her knees were shaking so violently that she had to stop and put her hand against the wall to steady herself. Ian Thornton . . . In a matter of days she would confront Ian Thornton.

His name whirled through her mind, making her head spin with a combination of loathing, humiliation, and dread, and she finally turned and walked into the small salon where she sank down onto the sofa, staring blankly at the bright patch of wallpaper where a painting by Rubens had once hung.

Not for one moment did Elizabeth believe Ian Thornton had ever wanted to marry her, and she could not imagine what possible motive he might now have for accepting her uncle’s outrageous offer. She had been a naive, gullible fool where he was concerned.

Now, as she leaned her head back and closed her eyes, she could hardly believe she’d ever been as reckless – or as carefree – as she’d been the weekend she met him. She’d been so certain that her future would be bright, but then, she’d had no reason to think otherwise.

Her parents’ death when she was eleven years old had been a dark time for her, but Robert had been there to comfort her and cheer her and promise her that everything would soon look bright again. Robert was eight years older than she, and although he was actually her half-brother her mother’s son by her first marriage – Elizabeth had loved and relied on him for as long as she could remember. Her parents had been gone so often that they had seemed more like beautiful visitors who flitted in and out of her life three or four times a year, bringing her presents and then vanishing soon after in a wave of gay good-byes.

Except for the loss of her parents, Elizabeth’s childhood had been very pleasant indeed. Her sunny disposition had made her a favorite with all the servants, who doted on her. Cook gave her sweets; the butler taught her to play chess; Aaron, the head coachman, taught her to play whist, and years later he taught her to use a pistol should the occasion ever occur when she needed to protect herself.

But of all her “friends” at Havenhurst, the one with whom Elizabeth spent the most time was Oliver, the head gardener who’d come to Havenhurst when she was eleven. A quiet man with gentle eyes, Oliver labored in Havenhurst’s greenhouse and flowerbeds, talking softly to his cuttings and plants. “Plants need affection,” he’d explained when she surprised him one day in the greenhouse, speaking encouragements to a wilting violet, “just like people. Go ahead,” he’d invited her, nodding toward the drooping violet, “give that pretty violet an encouragin’ word.”

Elizabeth had felt a little foolish, but she had done as instructed, for Oliver’s expertise as a gardener was unquestionable Havenhurst’s gardens had improved dramatically in the months since he’d come there. And so she had leaned toward the violet and earnestly told it. “I hope you are soon completely recovered and your old lovely self again!” Then she had stepped back and waited expectantly for the yellowing drooping leaves to lift toward the sun.

“I’ve given her a dose of my special medicine,” Oliver said as be carefully moved the potted plant to the benches where be kept all his ailing patients. “In a few days, you come back and see if she isn’t anxious to show you how much better she feels.” Oliver, Elizabeth later realized, regarded all flowering plants as “she,” while all others were “he”.

BOOK: Almost Heaven
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