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Authors: Stephanie Laurens

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical

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BOOK: Fair Juno
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Lady Catherine, absorbed in ordering her arguments, missed the warning. ‘Lastly, once you and Miss Wendover are married, you will reside here throughout the year.’ She paused to eye Martin speculatively. ‘You may not yet realise, but it is my money that keeps the Merton estates afloat. Remember, I wasn’t a nobody before I married your father. I’ve allowed what passed back to me through settlements on your father’s death to be drawn upon for living expenses as the estates are unable to pay well enough.’

Martin remained silent.

Confident of victory despite his impassivity, Lady Catherine advanced her trump card. ‘Unless you agree to my conditions, I’ll withdraw my funds from the estate, which will leave you destitute.’ On the word, her eyes flickered over the long frame still negligently propped against the mantelpiece. The subtle hand of a master showed in the cut of his dark blue coat; the pristine state of his small clothes was beyond reproach. Gleaming Hessians completed the picture. Martin, his mother reflected, had never been cheap.

The object of her scrutiny was examining the toe of one boot.

Undeterred, the Dowager added a clincher. ‘Should you choose to flout my wishes, I’ll see you damned and will settle my fortune on Damian.’

As she made this final, all-encompassing threat, Lady Catherine smiled and settled back in her chair. Martin had always disliked Damian, jealous of the fact that the younger boy was her favourite. Knowing the battle won, she glanced up at her son.

She was unprepared for the slow smile which spread across his dark face, softening the harsh lines, imparting a devilish handsomeness to the aristocratic features. Irrelevantly, she reflected that it was hardly surprising that this son, of the four, had never had the slightest trouble winning the ladies to his side.

‘If that’s all you have to say, ma’am, I have a few comments of my own.’

Lady Catherine blinked, then inclined her head regally, prepared to be gracious in victory.

Nonchalantly, Martin straightened and strolled towards the windows. ‘Firstly, as regards my marriage, I will marry whom I please, when I please. And, incidentally, if I please.’

The stunned silence behind him spoke volumes. Martin’s gaze skimmed the tops of the trees in the Home Wood. His
mother’s suggestions were outrageous, but entirely expected. However, while her machinations were unwelcome, he understood and respected the devotion to family duty that prompted her to them. Even more to the point, they confirmed his supposition that she had had no hand in the decline of the Merton fortunes. As she was tied to her room, her household under the sway of an unscrupulous factor he had derived great satisfaction from verbally flaying before evicting him in the time-honoured way, he doubted his mother had any idea of the state of the rest of the house. Her chambers were in reasonable condition, better than any others in the rambling mansion. The factor had succeeded in intimidating the rest of the staff and, very likely, had gulled Melissa and possibly even George into believing that the decay was unavoidable. And if the section of gardens he could now see was the only fragment of the grounds still deserving of the title, how could his mother know the rest was wilderness? Martin paused by the window, his fingers drumming lightly on the wide ledge. ‘Apropos of Damian, I should point out that he will hardly thank you for rushing me to the altar. He is, after all, my heir until such time as I father a legitimate son. Considering his current pecuniary embarrassments, he’s unlikely to appreciate your motives in assisting me to accomplish that deed, and in such haste.’

Lady Catherine stiffened. Martin spared a glance for his
sister-in-law, huddled back in her chair, listening intently to the exchange between mother and son while ostensibly absorbed with her embroidery. One brow rising cynically, Martin turned to his mother’s fury.

you!’ For a moment, rage held the Dowager speechless. Then the dam broke. ‘You will marry
as I say
! To think of any other course is out of the question! The arrangements have been made.’

‘Naturally,’ Martin replied, his voice cool and precise, ‘I regret any inconvenience your actions may cause others. However,’ he continued, on a sterner note, ‘I am at a loss to understand what gave you the impression that you were empowered to speak for me in this matter. I find it hard to believe that Miss Wendover’s parents were so ill-advised as to imagine you did. If they have, in truth, done so, their discomfiture is the result of their own folly. I suggest you inform them without delay that no alliance will occur between Miss Wendover and myself.’

Stunned, Lady Catherine blinked. ‘You’re mad! I would be mortified to do so!’ She sat bolt upright, her hands twisting in her lap, her expression one of dawning dismay.

Martin quelled an unexpected urge to comfort her. She would have to learn that the youth who left this house thirteen years before was no more. ‘I hesitate to point out that any embarrassment you might feel has been accrued through your own machinations. It would be well if you
could bring yourself to understand that I will not be manipulated, ma’am.’

Unable to meet his stern gaze, Lady Catherine glanced down at her crabbed fingers, conscious for the first time in years of an urge to fuss with her skirts. Suddenly, Martin looked very like—sounded very like—his father.

When his mother remained silent, Martin continued calmly, his tone dry. ‘As for your second point, I can inform you that, having become thoroughly acquainted with my inheritance, I’ve rescinded all the appointments made by George. Matthews and Sons and Bromleys, our brokers, together with our bankers, Blanchards, remain. They date from my father’s time. But my people are now in charge of this estate and the smaller estates in Dorset, Leicestershire and Northamptonshire. The men George hired were bleeding the estate dry. It’s beyond my comprehension, ma’am, why even you did not question the story that estates of the size of the Merton holdings were, within two years of my father’s death, mysteriously no longer able to support the family.’

Martin paused, tamping down the anger simmering beneath his calm. Just thinking of the state of his patrimony was enough to summon his demons. Surmising from his mother’s stunned expression that she needed a few minutes to adjust to his revelations, he let his gaze wander the room.

Lady Catherine’s mind was indeed reeling. A niggling memory of the odd look old Matthews had given her when,
angry at Martin’s inheriting, she had given vent to her frustrations in a long catalogue of his shortcomings, returned with a thump. She had been taken aback by the man’s quietly tendered opinion that Mr Martin was just what the Merton estates needed. Martin, expensive profligate that he was, was hardly the sort she had expected Matthews to support. Later, she had learned that Martin had engaged the same firm his family had long used to represent him in his business dealings. It had come as something of a shock to realise that Martin had the sort of dealings with which a firm such as Matthews and Sons would assist. Matthews’ comment had bothered her. Now she knew what he had meant. Damn him—why had he not explained more fully? Why had she not asked?

After gazing at Melissa’s bent head, pale blonde flecked with grey, and recalling his conclusion of years before that nothing much actually went on inside it, Martin turned back to his mother. As he guessed rather more of her thoughts than she would have wished, his lips twisted wryly. ‘You’re quite right in saying that I’ve little experience in running estates of this size—my own are considerably more extensive.’

Confirming as they did that her third son had changed in more ways than met the eye, his words seriously undermined Lady Catherine’s composure. They more than undermined her plans.

At her thunderstruck look, Martin’s grin converted to a
not ungentle smile. ‘Did you think your prodigal son was returning from a life of deprivation to hang on your sleeve?’

The glance she threw him was answer enough. Martin leant back against the window-ledge, long legs stretched before him. ‘I’m desolated to disappoint you, ma’am, but I’m in no need of your funds. On my return to London, I’ll instruct Matthews to call on you here, to assist in redrafting your will. I pray you hold to your threat to disown me. Damian will never forgive you if you don’t. Besides,’ he added, grey eyes gleaming with irrepressible candour, ‘he needs the support that the news that he’s your beneficiary will bring. If nothing else, it should relieve me of the necessity of repeatedly rescuing him from the River Tick. As far as I’m concerned, he may go to the devil in whatever way he chooses. If he uses your money to do it, I’ll be even better pleased. However, regardless of what you may choose to do, no further monies from your settlements will be used for the Merton estates, in any way whatever.’

Martin examined his mother’s face, sensitive to the encroachments of age on past beauty. After her initial shock, she had drawn herself up, her eyes grey stone, her lips compressed as if to hold back her incredulity. Despite her ailment, there was a deal of strength and determination still discernible in the gaunt frame. To his surprise, he no longer felt the need to strike back at her, to impress her with his
successes, to demonstrate how worthy of her love he was. That, too, had died with the years.

‘And now to your last stipulation.’ He pushed away from the window-ledge, glancing down to resettle his sleeves. ‘I will, of course, be residing for part of the year in London. Beyond that, I anticipate travelling to my various estates as well as visiting those of my friends, as one might expect. I also anticipate inviting guests to stay here. As I recall, during my father’s day, the Hermitage was renowned for its hospitality.’ He looked at his mother; she was staring past him, plainly struggling to bring this new image of him into focus.

‘Of course, such visits will have to wait until the place is refurbished.’

?’ The unladylike exclamation burst from Lady Catherine’s lips. Startled, her gaze flew to Martin’s face, her question in her eyes.

‘You needn’t concern yourself about that.’ Martin frowned. There was no need for her to know how bad it really was; she would be mortified. ‘I’m sending a firm of decorators down once they’ve finished with Merton House.’ He paused but his mother’s gaze was again far-away. When she made no further comment, Martin straightened. ‘I’m returning to London within the hour. So, if there’s nothing further you wish to discuss, I’ll bid you goodbye.’

‘Am I to assume these decorators will, on
redo these rooms as well?’ The sarcasm in Lady Catherine’s voice would have cut glass.

Martin smothered his smile. Rapidly, he reviewed his options. ‘If you wish, I’ll tell them to consult with you— over the rooms that are peculiarly yours, of course.’

He could not, in all conscience, saddle her with the task of overseeing such a major reconstruction, and, if truth be known, he intended to use this opportunity to stamp his own personality on this, the seat of his forebears.

His mother’s glare relieved him of any worry that she would react to his independence by going into a decline. Reassured, Martin raised an expectant brow.

With every evidence of reluctance, Lady Catherine nodded a curt dismissal.

With a graceful bow to her, and a nod for Melissa, Martin left the room.

Lady Catherine watched him go, then sought counsel in silence. Long after the door had clicked shut, she remained, her gaze fixed, unseeing, on the unlighted fire. Eventually shaking free of her recollections, she could not help wondering if, in her most secret of hearts, despite the attendant difficulties, she was not just a little bit relieved to have a man, a real man, in charge again.

Downstairs, Martin briskly descended the steep steps of the portico to where his curricle awaited, his prize match bays stamping impatiently. A heavy hacking cough greeted
him, coming from beyond the off-side horse. Frowning, Martin ignored the reins looped over the brake and, patting the velvety noses of his favourite pair, rounded them to find his groom-cum-valet and ex-batman Joshua Carruthers propped against the carriage, eyes streaming above a large handkerchief.

‘What the devil’s the matter?’ Even as Martin asked the question, he realised the answer.

‘Nuthing more’n a cold,’ Joshua mumbled thickly, waving one gnarled hand dismissively. He gulped and stuffed the handkerchief in his breeches pocket, revealing a shiny red nose to his master’s sharp eyes. ‘Best get on our way, then.’

Martin did not move. ‘You’re not going anywhere.’

‘But I distin’ly ’eard you say nuthin’ on earth woul’ induce you to spen’ the night in this ramshackle ’ole.’

‘As always, your memory is accurate, your hearing less so. I’m going on.’

‘No’ without me, you’re not.’

Exasperated, hands on hips, Martin watched as the old soldier half staggered to the back of the curricle. When he had to brace himself against the curricle side as another bout of coughing shook him, Martin swore. Spotting two stable boys gazing in awe, whether at the equipage or its owner Martin was not at all sure, he beckoned them up. ‘Hold ’em.’

Once assured they had the restless horses secured, Martin grasped Joshua by the elbow and steered him remorselessly towards the house. ‘Consider yourself ordered back to barracks. Dammit, man—we wouldn’t get around the first bend before you fell off.’

In vain, Joshua tried to hang back. ‘But—’

‘I know the place is in a state,’ Martin countered, sweeping his reluctant henchman back up the steps. ‘But now I’ve got rid of that wretched factor, the rest of the staff will doubtless remember how things should be done. At least,’ he added, stopping in the gloomy front hall, ‘I hope they will.’

He had given orders that the household should conduct itself as it had previously, in his father’s day. Enough of the staff remained for him to expect a reasonable outcome. All locals, many from generations of Merton servitors, they had been overwhelmed by the outsider George had installed over them. Freed from the tyrannical factor, they seemed eager to return the Hermitage to its proper state.

BOOK: Fair Juno
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