Authors: Stephanie Laurens
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical
Stephanie Laurens lives in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, with her husband and two daughters. To learn more about Stephanie’s books visit her website at www.stephanielaurens.com.
THE REASONS FOR MARRIAGE
AN UNWILLING CONQUEST
A COMFORTABLE WIFE
A LADY OF EXPECTATIONS
FOUR IN HAND
artin Cambden Willesden, fifth Earl of Merton, strode purposefully along the first-floor corridor of the Hermitage, his principal country residence. The scowl marring his striking features would have warned any who knew him that he was in a foul mood. A common saying among the men of the 7th Hussars had been that if any emotion showed on Major Willesden’s face the portents were bad. And, thought ex-Major Willesden savagely, I’ve every right to feel furious.
Recalled from pleasant exile in the Bahamas, forced to leave behind the most satisfying mistress he had ever mounted, he had landed in gloomy London to face an uphill battle to extricate the family fortunes from the appalling state they had, apparently unaided, tumbled into. Matthews,
the elder, of Matthews and Sons, his and his family’s man of business, had warned him that the Hermitage was in need of attention and would not, in its present state, meet with his approval. He had thought that was all part of the old man’s attempt to persuade him to return to England without delay. He should have recalled Matthews’ habit of understatement. Martin’s lips thinned. The grim look in his grey eyes deepened. The Hermitage was in even worse case than the investments he had spent the last three weeks reorganising.
As he paced the length of the corridor, the crisp clack of boot-heels penetrated his reverie. In a state bordering on shock, Martin stopped and stared down. There were no runners! Just bare wooden boards and, to his critical eye, they were not even well-polished.
Slowly, his grey gaze lifted to take in the sombre tones of decaying wallpaper framed by faded and musty hangings. A pervasive chill inhabited the gloom.
His frown now black, the Earl of Merton swore—and added yet another item to the catalogue of matters requiring immediate attention. If he was ever to visit the Hermitage again, let alone reside for more than a day, the place would have to be done up. Downstairs was bad enough— but this! Description failed him.
Setting aside his aggravation, Martin resumed his determined progress towards the Dowager Countess’s rooms.
Since his arrival eight hours ago, he had postponed the inevitable meeting with his mother on the grounds of dealing with the problems crippling his major estate. The excuse had not been exaggeration. But the critical decisions had been made; the reins were now firmly in his grasp.
Despite such success, his hopes for the coming interview were less than certain. Curiosity brushed shoulders with a lingering wariness he had not thought he still possessed.
His mother, Lady Catherine Willesden, the Dowager Countess of Merton, had terrorised her household for as long as Martin could recall. The only ones apparently immune from her domination had been his father and himself. His father she had excused. He had not been so favoured.
He halted outside the plain wooden door that gave access to the Dowager’s apartments. Despite all that lay between them, she was his mother. A mother he had not seen for thirteen years and whom he remembered as a cold, calculating woman with no room in her heart for him. How much of the blame for the decay of his ancestral acres could be laid at her door? The question puzzled him, for he knew her pride. In fact, he had a good few questions, including how she would deal with him now; the answers lay beyond the door facing him.
Recognising the instinctive squaring of his shoulders as his habit when about to enter his colonel’s domain, Martin’s
lips twitched. Without more ado, he raised a fist to the plain panels and knocked. Hearing a clear instruction to enter, he opened the door and complied.
He paused just beyond the threshold, his hand on the doorknob and, with a practised air of languid ease, scanned the room. What he saw answered some of his questions.
The tall, upright figure in the chair before the windows was much as he remembered, more gaunt with hair three shades greyer, perhaps, but still retaining that calm air of determination he so vividly recalled. It was the sight of the gnarled and twisted hands resting, useless, in her lap and the peculiar rigidity of her pose that alerted him to the truth. They had told him she kept to her room, a victim of rheumatism. He had interpreted that as a fashionable response to a relatively minor ailment. Now, reality stared him in the face. His mother was an invalid, bound to her chair.
Pity stabbed him, sharp and fresh. He remembered her as an active woman, riding and dancing with the best of them. Then his eyes locked with hers, chilly grey, haughty as ever—and more defensive than he had ever seen them. Instantly, he knew that pity was the very last thing his mother would accept from him.
Despite the real shock, his face remained impassive. Unhurriedly, he closed the door and strolled into the room, taking a moment to acknowledge the round-eyed stare of
the only other occupant of the large chamber—his eldest brother’s relict, Melissa.
Catherine Willesden sat in her high-backed chair and watched her third son approach, her features as impassive as his. Her lips thinned as she took in his long, powerful frame, and the subtle elegance that cloaked it. The light fell on his features as he drew nearer. Her sharp eyes were quick to detect the hardness behind the elegance, a ruthless determination, a hedonism ill-concealed by the veneer of polite manners. It was a characteristic she was honest enough to recognise.
Then he was before her. To her horror, he reached for her hand. She would have stopped him if she’d been able but the words stuck in her throat, trapped by her pride. Warm, strong fingers closed over her gnarled fingers. Her surprise was swamped beneath a sudden rush of emotions as Martin’s dark head bent and she felt his lips brush her wrinkled skin. Gently, he replaced her hand in her lap and dutifully kissed her cheek.
The single word, uttered in a gravelly voice deeper than she recalled, jolted Lady Catherine to reality. She blinked rapidly. Her heart was beating faster. Ridiculous! She fixed her son with a frown, struggling to infuse an arctic bleakness into her grey eyes. The slight smile which played about his mouth suggested that he was well aware he had thrown her off balance. But she was determined to keep this black
sheep firmly beneath her thumb. She could, and would, ensure he brought no further scandal upon the family.
‘I believe, sir, that I sent instructions that you were to attend me here immediately you reached England?’
Entirely unperturbed by his mother’s icy glare, Martin strolled to the empty fireplace, one black brow rising in polite surprise. ‘Didn’t my secretary write to you?’
Indignation flared in Lady Catherine’s pale eyes. ‘If you are referring to a note from a Mr Wetherall informing me that the Earl of Merton was occupied with taking up the reins of his inheritance and would call on me at his earliest convenience, I received it, sirrah! What I want to know is what the meaning of it is. And why, once you finally arrived, it took you an entire day to remember the way to my rooms!’
Observing the unmistakable signs of ire investing his mother’s austere features, Martin resisted the temptation to remind her of his title. He had not expected to enjoy this discussion, but, somehow, his mother no longer seemed as remote nor as truly hostile as he recalled. Perhaps it was her infirmity that made her appear more human? ‘Suffice it to say that the Merton affairs were in a somewhat deeper tangle than I had understood.’ Placing one booted foot on the brass fender, Martin braced an arm against the heavily carved mantel and, with unimpaired calm, regarded his mother. ‘However, now that I have managed to spare you some time away from the
damnable business of setting this estate to rights, perhaps you could tell me what it is you wish to see me about?’
By the conscious exercise of considerable will-power, Lady Catherine kept surprise from her face. It wasn’t his words that shook her, but his voice. Gone entirely were the light, charming tones of youth. In their place, there was depth containing a great deal of hardness, harshness, with the undertones of command barely concealed beneath the fashionable drawl.
Inwardly, she shook herself. The idea of being cowed by this scapegrace son was ludicrous. He had always been impudent—but never stupid. Such languid insolence would be a thing of the past, once she made his position clear. Wrapping herself in haughty dignity, Lady Catherine embarked on her son’s education. ‘I have much to say concerning how you should go on.’
Exuding an attitude of polite attention, Martin settled his shoulders against the mantelpiece, elegantly crossing his long legs before him, and fixed his mother with a steady regard.
Frowning, Lady Catherine nodded towards a chair. ‘Sit down.’
Martin’s lips twisted in a slow smile. ‘I’m quite comfortable. What are these facts you needs must inform me of?’
Lady Catherine decided not to glare. His very ease was disconcerting. Much better not to let on how disturbing she found it. She forced herself to meet his unwavering gaze.
‘Firstly, I consider it imperative that you marry as soon as possible. To this end, I’ve arranged a match with a Miss Faith Wendover.’
One of Martin’s mobile brows rose.
Seeing it, the Dowager hurried on. ‘Given that the title now resides with the third of my four sons, you can hardly be surprised if, in my estimation, securing the succession is a major concern.’
Her eldest son George had married to please his family but Melissa, dull, plain Melissa, had failed lamentably in satisfying expectations. Her second son Edward had died some years previously, part of the force which had successfully repelled The Monster’s invasion. George had succumbed to the fever a year ago. Until then, it had never dawned on the Dowager that her impossible third son could inherit. If she had thought of it at all, she would have expected him to die, somewhere, on one of his outlandish adventures, leaving Damian, her favourite, as the next Earl.
But Martin was now the Earl; it was up to her to ensure that he toed the line.
Determined to brook no opposition, Lady Catherine fixed her son with a commanding eye. ‘Miss Wendover is an heiress and passably pretty. She’ll make an unexceptionable Countess of Merton. Her family is well-respected and she’ll bring considerable land as her dower. Now you
are here and the settlements can be signed, the marriage can take place in three months’ time.’
Prepared to defend her arrangements against a storm of protest, Lady Catherine tilted her chin at an imperious angle and regarded the lean figure propped by the fireplace with keen anticipation. Once again, she was struck by the changes, enveloped by a unnerving sense of dealing with a stranger who was yet no stranger. He was looking down, his expression guarded. Unexpectedly curious, Lady Catherine studied her son. Her last memories of Martin were of a twenty-two-year-old, already steeped in every form of fashionable vice—drinking, gambling and, of course, women. It was his propensity for dabbling with the opposite sex that had brought his tempestuous career to a sudden halt. Serena Monckton. The beauty had claimed Martin had seduced her. He had denied it but no one, least of all his family, had believed him. But he had steadfastly resisted all attempts to coerce him into marrying the chit. In a fury, her husband had bought off the girl’s family and banished his third son to a distant relative in the colonies. John had regretted that action bitterly, regretted it to his dying day, quite literally; Martin had always been his favourite and he had died without seeing him again.
Intent on finding evidence that the son of her memories had not in truth changed, Lady Catherine acknowledged the broad shoulders and long, lean limbs with an inward snort.
He still possessed the figure of Adonis, hard and well-muscled through addiction to outdoor pursuits. His long-boned hands were clean and manicured; the gold signet his father had given him on his twenty-first birthday glowed on his right hand. The hair that curled about his clear brow was as black as a raven’s wing. All that she remembered. What she could not recall was the strength engraved in the chiselled features, the aura of confidence which went further than mere arrogance, the graceful movements that created an impression of harnessed power. Those she could not remember at all.
Unease growing, she waited for some show of resistance. None came.
‘Have you nothing to say?’
Startled from his reverie, induced by memories of the last time his mother had insisted he marry, Martin lifted his gaze to the Dowager’s face. His brows rose. ‘On the contrary. But I would like to hear all your plans first. Surely that’s not the sum of them?’
‘By no means.’ Lady Catherine threw him a glance that would have wilted lesser men and wished he would sit down. Towering over her, he seemed far too powerful to intimidate. But she was determined to do her duty. ‘My second point concerns the family estates and businesses. You say you’ve been acquainting yourself with them. I wish you to leave all such matters in the hands of those
retainers George hired. They’re doubtless better managers than you could ever be. After all, you can have no experience of running estates of such size.’
A muscle at the corner of Martin’s mouth quivered. He stilled it.