Read The Bargain Online

Authors: Mary J. Putney

The Bargain

BOOK: The Bargain
6.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads
Praise for Mary Jo Putney and her unforgettable novels . . .
“A complex maze of a story twisted with passion, violence, and redemption. Miss Putney just gets better and better.”
—Nora Roberts
“Mary Jo Putney is a gifted writer with an intuitive understanding of what makes romance work.”
—Amanda Quick
“Enthralling . . . Mary Jo Putney uses sparkling wit and devastatingly perceptive characterization to paint a compelling portrait of one of the most enduring creations of romantic fiction—the Regency rake.”
—
Romantic Times
“Ms. Putney has a gift of nonstop sensitivity, wit, charm, and a sense of vitality for telling a wonderful love story.”
—
Affaire de Coeur
“Dynamite!”
—Laura Kinsale
Books by Mary Jo Putney
The Lost Lord series:
Loving a Lost Lord
Never Less Than a Lady
Nowhere Near Respectable
One Perfect Rose
The Bargain
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
The Bargain
MARY JO PUTNEY
ZEBRA BOOKS
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
To my mother, Eleanor Congdon Putney,
from whom I inherited my love of travel, language,
and a good read
Prologue
Charlton Abbey, Spring 1812
T
he fourth Earl of Cromarty was buried with all the pomp and dignity due his rank. The village church bell tolled solemnly as he was laid to rest in a misty rain, all of the male members of his household dressed in black and suitably somber. The late earl had been a handsome, forceful man, fair of mind and quick to laugh. His dependents had all been vastly proud of him.
Chief mourner was the earl's only child, Lady Jocelyn Kendal. At the postfuneral gathering, she performed her duties with impeccable grace, her pale, perfect features still as a marble angel under her sheer black mourning veil. She and her father had been very close.
This would be Lady Jocelyn's last official act at Charlton Abbey, since her Uncle Willoughby was now the owner. If she resented the fact that she had been transformed from mistress to guest in her childhood home, she concealed her feelings.
Though a few elderly ladies might think her independent streak would be considered headstrong in a less well-bred girl, none of the men minded. At twenty-one she possessed more than her share of beauty and charm, and as she moved about the great hall men looked after her, and briefly dreamed.
The last ritual of the long day was the reading of the will. The family lawyer, Mr. Crandall, had come down from London to perform the duty. It was a lengthy task, with numerous bequests for honored servants and special charities.
Lady Jocelyn sat immobile in the crowd of listeners. A mere daughter could not succeed to her father's honors, but she would still inherit a substantial part of her father's fortune, enough to be one of England's greatest heiresses.
The new earl, a solemn-faced man without a tithe of his late brother's dash, listened gravely. Once it had been assumed that the fourth earl would remarry and get himself a male heir, but his experience of matrimony appeared to have soured him on that state. He had been content with his only daughter, and Willoughby was the beneficiary of that choice. Though the new earl sincerely mourned his brother, he was human enough to be glad for his elevation to the title.
The will presented no surprises—until the end. Mr. Crandall cleared his throat and glanced nervously at the statuesque beauty in the front row before starting to read the final provisions. “And for my beloved daughter, Jocelyn, I hereby bequeath and ordain . . .”
The lawyer's sonorous voice filled the room, riveting the listeners. When he finished, there was a murmur of startled voices and inhaled breath as heads turned to Lady Jocelyn.
She sat utterly still for an endless moment. Then she leaped to her feet, sweeping her black veil from her face to reveal blazing rage in her fine hazel eyes. “He did
what
?”
Chapter 1
London, July 1815
I
n his dream, Major David Lancaster was galloping across the Spanish hills on his horse, Aquilo, who ran with the grace of his namesake eagle. Between his thighs, the horse's muscles were powerful and responsive to the slightest pressure. David laughed aloud, his hair whipped by the wind, feeling as if the two of them could run like this forever, rejoicing in the exuberance of youth and strength.
A distant scream of agony jerked him awake. Years of war had trained him to leap to his feet and grab his rifle while he scrambled from his tent to ward off attack. But instead of movement, he felt only savage pain as his half-dead body failed to respond. From the waist down, nothing moved, his lifeless legs anchoring him to the bed.
He opened his eyes to the ugly reality of the Duke of York Hospital. Aquilo had died at Waterloo, and so had David, though his body stubbornly insisted on clinging to the last embers of life. The soldier's luck that had carried him through years of war without serious injury had deserted him at the end. A direct artillery hit would have been swifter and kinder than this lingering demise.
But it wouldn't be much longer now. He clamped his jaw as the waves of pain ebbed to a bearable level. Though the dingy room wasn't much, at least officer's privilege gave him the privacy to suffer in solitude.
He recognized the soft, regular click of knitting needles and turned his head on the pillow to see his sister's small form silhouetted against the fading light of the lone window. He felt a rush of tenderness. Sally had come every day since his return to London, arranging her duties so that she could spend as much time as possible with her dying brother. This was so much harder for her than for him. He felt no fear, only stoic acceptance. At the end, he would find peace. For Sally there would be loneliness, and the insecure existence of a governess with no family to fall back on.
Alert to his slightest movement, she glanced up to see if he was awake. Setting aside her knitting, she crossed the room to his bedside. “Are you hungry, David? I brought a nice beef broth from the Launcestons.”
He knew he should try to eat for Sally's sake, but the thought nauseated him. His stomach was one of the many parts of his body that had lost interest in life. “No, thank you. Perhaps later.” He glanced at the window. “Time for you to go, before it gets dark.”
She shrugged her shoulders. Dressed in a plain gray gown, she was the very image of a modest governess. It saddened him to think that when he was gone, there would be no one left who would remember her as a wild little tomboy, racing him on her pony, scampering through the meadows with bare feet and shrieks of laughter. They'd been happy then, growing up in the green hills of Hereford. A lifetime ago.
Correctly interpreting her shrug, he said sternly, “Home, Sally. I don't want you on the streets at night.”
She smiled, having known him too long to be intimidated by his officer voice. “Very well. I'll dose you and be on my way.” Lifting the bottle of laudanum from his bedside table, she carefully poured a spoonful, then held it to David's lips. He swallowed quickly, scarcely noticing the tastes of wine and spice that disguised the bitter opium that would mitigate his pain.
Sally put an arm under his shoulders and raised his head enough so that he could sip a little water. When he finished, she gently settled him back among the pillows. It had bothered him at first that their roles had been reversed, for it had always been his task to look out for her. But pride had swiftly dissolved in the face of his helplessness, and of Sally's calm acceptance of the sordid realities of nursing.
“Good night, David.” She straightened the blanket over his inert body. “I'll see you tomorrow afternoon.”
With a glance she confirmed that broth, water, and laudanum were all within his reach. The laudanum, at least would be needed before morning. Then she left, back straight and expression controlled. The room was mercifully too shadowed to show the bleakness in her eyes.
Colors began to intensify, shapes twisted, and pain eased as the opium began to take effect. His lids drifted shut. Thank God for laudanum.
While he wouldn't have minded living a few more decades, he couldn't complain. He'd had almost thirty-two years of mostly rewarding life. He'd traveled, fought honorably for his country, made friends closer than brothers. The only regrets he had were about Sally. She was a highly capable young woman, but life was uncertain. If only he could leave her enough to secure her future. If only . . .
The numbing warmth of opium soothed away the pain, and he slept.
Frowning, Lady Jocelyn glided into her drawing room, her voluminous riding habit belling around her. It was time to confide in her favorite aunt, who might have some useful insight into the situation. “Aunt Laura?”
She was about to say more when she realized that Lady Laura Kirkpatrick was not alone. Helping herself to tea cakes was Lady Cromarty, also an aunt but definitely not a favorite. It was too late to escape, so Jocelyn repressed a sigh and moved forward, saying with patent insincerity, “Aunt Elvira. What an . . . an unexpected pleasure.”
The countess smiled back with equal insincerity and an alarming array of teeth. “Since I was in town shopping, I thought I'd call to say hello. I can't stay long since it's a good two-hour drive back to Charlton.”
“I am quite aware how long a drive it is to Charlton.” Jocelyn seated herself opposite the two older women. She hated thinking of her childhood home. She loved the estate deeply and had even toyed with the idea of marrying her cousin Will, heir to the earldom. Like his father, he was amiable and easily managed, and through him she would eventually become mistress of Charlton again. Fortunately, common sense always prevailed. Will wasn't a bad fellow, but she certainly didn't want him as a husband.
Lady Laura poured another cup of tea and offered it to Jocelyn. “I'm glad you returned in time to join us.” As a military wife, she'd become an expert smoother of troubled waters, and where Lady Cromarty went, the waters were frequently whipped into a froth.
As she accepted the tea, Jocelyn hoped as she had often before that she would be as handsome as her aunt when she reached her forties. Both of them had the Kendal looks and coloring, with hazel eyes and chestnut hair gleaming with red highlights, but her aunt was blessed with the serenity produced by more than twenty years of happy marriage. A blessing that Jocelyn might never know.
Elvira, Countess of Cromarty, aunt by marriage instead of blood, was quite a different matter. Though she had not been born to a high estate, she had accepted her elevation to the nobility as proof that God was just. Today, her gaze was moving around the elegant room with proprietary interest as she devoured the cake.
Jocelyn's lips tightened. “Stop evaluating the furnishings, Aunt Elvira,” she said in her coolest voice. “You are
not
getting this house.”
A lesser woman might have been embarrassed at such candor, but Lady Cromarty only smiled blandly. “Are you getting uncomfortable with your birthday coming so soon, and you still unwed?”
The subject on all their minds landed in the middle of the room like a cat among the pigeons. Determined to have his own way, even after death, Jocelyn's father had left the bulk of his personal fortune to his daughter—on the condition that she marry by the age of twenty-five. If she didn't, most of the investments and Cromarty House, the magnificent London mansion where they were sharing tea, would go to Willoughby.
“Why should I be uncomfortable?” Jocelyn asked with equal blandness. “I'll admit I'm having some trouble deciding which offer to accept, but never fear. I shall certainly be married in time to fulfill the conditions of my father's will.”
“I'm sure you've had your offers, dear,” Elvira said, her tone implying she thought nothing of the kind. “But when a woman reaches your age unwed, one has to wonder . . .” She gestured vaguely. “So fortunate that if you prefer spinsterhood, you'll have quite a nice little competence, enough to live in some genteel place like Bath.”
“Since I dislike Bath, it is very fortunate that the issue will not arise,” Jocelyn said in a silky voice.
Elvira's polite mask slipped into a scowl. “It isn't as if you need the money. We have five children to establish. It was quite infamous of your father to leave Willoughby scarcely enough to maintain the estates.”
Actually, the fourth earl had left his brother ample income to support his family and maintain his lordly dignity, but the countess was the sort who could never have enough. Before Jocelyn could succumb to the temptation to point that out, Elvira shrieked. A tawny body had streaked over the back of the sofa and plopped onto her wide lap, eyeing the countess with golden eyes and a sadistic feline smirk.
Jocelyn repressed a grin. Isis had the usual cat genius for pouncing on those people who least wanted to be pounced on. Making a mental note to order oysters for the cat's dinner, she pulled the bell cord before crossing the room to scoop Isis from the countess's lap. “I'm so sorry, Aunt,” she cooed. “Apparently Isis has conceived a fondness for you. Or perhaps for that cream bun in your hand.
Bad
Isis.”
The cat blinked placidly, quite aware that the scolding wasn't real. Isis had been the gift of a naval suitor who claimed to have brought her from Egypt, and her velvety, lion-colored fur and fine-boned elegance did resemble the felines seen in Egyptian temple art. The cat had far more aristocratic style than the Countess of Cromarty.
When the butler entered in response to Jocelyn's summons, she said, “Dudley, my aunt was just leaving. Please have her carriage brought around.”
Even Elvira could take a hint that broad, but her expression was complacent when she rose. Clearly she thought that the husband hunting had been left too late. “Good day, Laura. And do invite us to your wedding, Jocelyn. If there is one.”
Accurately interpreting the look on her niece's face, Laura hastily escorted the countess from the room. On the verge of one of her rare but incendiary bursts of temper, Jocelyn rose and stalked across the room to stare out at the street as she struggled to master herself. Elvira had always been irritating, and it was a mistake to give her the satisfaction of losing control.
A few minutes later, she recognized Lady Laura's quiet footsteps entering the drawing room. Turning from the window, she said, “I'd marry a beggar from Seven Dials before I'd let the money go to Willoughby and that . . . that archwife.”
“One could wish that Willoughby had chosen a woman of more refinement,” Laura admitted as she sat down again. “But Elvira is right, you know. Time is running out. I haven't pressed you about marriage because you're no green girl, and you know your own business best. Relinquishing most of your inheritance is preferable to an unhappy marriage, and it isn't as if you'll be left penniless.”
“I have no intention of giving up the fortune I'm entitled to,” Jocelyn said crisply. “Certainly not to the benefit of Elvira.”
“You've had over three years to find a husband to your taste. The weeks left aren't much time.” Remembering what she had wanted to discuss, Jocelyn sighed and resumed her seat. “Oh, I know whom I want to marry. Unfortunately, I haven't yet succeeded in engaging his interest. At least, not the marrying kind of interest.”
“How . . . interesting. I hadn't realized you had set your sights on someone. Who is the dense fellow who hasn't yet recognized his good fortune?”
Jocelyn reached into the sewing box by her chair and pulled out an embroidery hoop with fabric stretched across the frame. “The Duke of Candover.”
“Candover! Merciful heavens, Jocelyn, the man is a confirmed bachelor,” her aunt exclaimed. “He'll never marry.”
“The fact that he never has doesn't mean that he never will.” Jocelyn threaded a length of pale blue silk through a needle, then took a meticulous stitch. “He and I are very well suited, and his attentions have been quite pronounced in the last few months.”
“He does seem to enjoy your company. You were just out riding with him, weren't you? But he has stayed well within the bounds of propriety. Morning calls and dances at balls, with the occasional ride or drive. Unless there is more that I don't know about?” Her sentence rose at the end, turning her words into a worried question.
“He has always behaved as a perfect gentleman,” Jocelyn said with regret. A pity that the duke hadn't crossed the line of propriety; he was not the kind of man to do that with her unless he had serious intentions. “But he has spent more time with me than with any other eligible female. He's in his mid-thirties, and it's time he set up his nursery.”
Lady Laura frowned. “You've set yourself an impossible task, my dear. Candover has perfectly good cousins, so he has no need to marry to get an heir. He's been on the town for years and has never come close to marrying. He's had his share of mistresses, but always widows or other men's wives, never a marriageable young woman.” Her mouth twisted wryly. “If you want him as a lover, marry someone else and he'll probably oblige, at least for a while. But he'll never make a husband.”
BOOK: The Bargain
6.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Ether by Dana Michelle Belle
The Dog Says How by Kevin Kling
The Captain and the Enemy by Graham Greene
Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
A Little Bit Scandalous by Robyn Dehart
Undercover Memories by Alice Sharpe
Haunted by Melinda Metz - Fingerprints - 2