Authors: Laura Landon
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
by Laura Landon
October 16, 1853
The carriage slowed in front of the Earl of Etherington’s townhouse. Before its three occupants could disembark, Gabriel Talbot shot his arm out and braced it against the door.
"No one move," he demanded, preventing his best friends from exiting. "What did the two of you do to earn this command audience with your father?"
"I can’t imagine," Austin Landwell, the younger of the two brothers, said, sinking back against the cushions. "Everything was fine when we left the house this morning. Wasn’t it, Harrison?"
Harrison Landwell, Viscount Rundmoor, and heir to the Etherington title, released a heavy sigh before swiping his hand through his thick dark hair. "I
it was – well, as fine as things can be with Father’s constant concern over money issues."
"Do you think this is over money?"
Harrison and Austin looked at each other. "I can’t see how discussing money would be important enough to call us home in the middle of the day. And Father commanded
presence too. So this doesn’t involve just the two of us."
Gabriel considered what Austin said. "I’d like at least a little warning about what to expect before we have to face your father. I was going to request a meeting with him tomorrow to offer for Lydia’s hand."
Smiles broke out across both brothers’ faces and before he could protect himself, Austin and Harrison’s arms shot out and punched him on the opposite shoulders.
"About time," Harrison said on a laugh. "I wasn’t sure how much longer Austin and I were going to survive competing with your near-perfection. When Lydia isn’t walking around with that syrupy moonstruck look in her eyes, she’s extolling your godly virtues to everyone within earshot. I swear, sometimes I feel like I should bow when you walk into a room."
"It’s disgusting," Austin teased. "The other morning I was foolish enough to mention the trouble cropping up in the Crimea and heard a ten minute dissertation on the reasons you think we’ll end up in a war over it. I thought women only cared about shopping and balls and the latest fashions. Look what you’ve turned our Liddy into – a woman with a mind."
Gabriel smiled. He’d hoped it wasn’t obvious how much Lydia meant to him. Austin’s next statement told him it was.
"Bloody hell, Gabe. You’ve got it as bad as Liddy. You should see the look on your face. You’d better not wait until tomorrow to talk to Father. You’d better offer for our sister today."
Gabriel moved to the edge of the seat. "Maybe I will. After we find out what’s so important your father has commanded our presence."
Gabriel jumped out of the carriage and strode up the slate walk a short distance behind Harrison and Austin.
Ruskins, the Etherington butler, held open the door, then took their hats and gloves when they entered.
"Lord Etherington is in the library, my lord. Mr. Landwell. Sir," he said with a moving glance that included each of them. "He asked that the three of you join him as soon as you arrived."
"Are there clouds on the horizon?" Harrison asked the austere butler. If anyone was privy to the prevailing mood of his employer, Ruskins was the perfect judge.
"Lord Etherington asked not to be disturbed after you joined him," Ruskins answered and Gabriel felt a hitch in his breathing.
Harrison and Austin must have felt the same foreboding because a worried glance passed from one to the other.
"Well, then, we’d best face the lion and see what we can do to calm the beast," Harrison said, taking the lead across the foyer’s parquet-tiled floor. A footman scrambled to open the door and Gabriel followed the two brothers into the room.
"Good afternoon, Father," Harrison and Austin both acknowledged somberly.
"My lord," Gabriel said with wary apprehension.
"So, what’s so terribly important that you called the three of us away from the sale at Tattersall’s?" Austin jumped right into obviously troubled waters.
No one could coax a smile from someone in a foul mood better than Austin. No one was better company when you needed a friend to cheer you. But on the opposite side of the coin, no one needed a friend to watch over him more than Austin did. Although Gabriel was fond of both of Liddy’s brothers, he felt a special kinship toward Austin. He always had.
"There was a beautiful stallion just going up for bid that Cummings and Rothman were both determined to own. Harrison and Gabe put their money on Rothman, but I thought Cummings looked more determined to—"
"Austin," the Earl of Etherington interrupted. "Perhaps you could cease your chatter long enough to greet our guest."
They turned in unison to where Etherington’s gaze was focused at the back of the room. A man Gabe didn’t recognize stood in the shadows. He didn’t step out when they looked at him, but only lifted his shoulders and faced them with a pompous air that seemed to come naturally. For no reason he could explain, Gabe felt an instant stabbing of dislike.
"Chisolmwood, you remember my eldest son, Harrison, Viscount Rundmoor. Harrison, the Duke of Chisolmwood."
Chisolmwood nodded slightly.
"And my second son, Mr. Austin Landwell."
Chisolmwood barely greeted Austin. His attention was already focused on Gabriel.
"And may I present Gabriel Talbot. Talbot is—"
"I’m well aware of Talbot’s lineage. You are Baron Talbot’s son – his. . .
Gabriel tried to ignore the condemnation in the duke’s voice and raised his chin. "Yes, Your Grace. I am my father’s. . .
son. Are you acquainted with my father?"
The duke’s expression hinted that Gabriel’s question was a blatant affront to his elevated station.
"No, Talbot, I’ve never met your father."
Since Gabriel couldn’t remember the last time his father had come to London, he knew it was highly unlikely Chisolmwood and his father were acquainted. And since his two older brothers were content to stay in the country with their wives and children, he doubted Chisolmwood was acquainted with them, either. If it weren’t for Harrison and Austin – and of course, Lydia - Gabriel doubted he would have spent the last several months in London or met half the people to whom he’d gained introduction.
"I’m sure you didn’t call us away from Tattersall’s because His Grace came to call," Harrison said to his father, his voice carrying a note of wariness that matched the unease sifting through Gabriel. "Has something happened?"
"Yes," Etherington said, slowly rising from behind his desk. He paced four steps toward the open window then stopped and turned. "I called you here because His Grace has come with an offer. An offer that affects all of you."
Gabriel stood rooted where he was, unable to move. The fact that he’d been summoned was warning enough. The worried frown on Etherington’s forehead reinforced the concern eating at him. That the Duke of Chisolmwood was at the center of the issue tripled the danger.
Etherington clasped his hands behind his back and looked at Gabriel.
"His Grace has come with an offer of marriage."
The earth shifted beneath Gabe’s feet. He clenched each hand in a grip that sent waves of pain up and down his arms and he forced himself to take one breath after another.
"An offer of marriage?" Austin sputtered. "For whom? Lydia?"
Harrison took a step forward. "You can’t be serious. For God’s sake, Father. Surely you aren’t considering His Grace as a husband for Liddy?"
Etherington slammed his fist against the corner of the desk. "Enough. Both of you. His Grace isn’t offering for himself. He’s offering for his son, the Marquess of Culbertson."
Gabriel felt the air freeze in his lungs, yet he somehow kept breathing as if Lydia’s father hadn’t just spoken words that had the power to destroy his future. He knew he had to do something to stop this from going further or he’d lose her.
"Lord Etherington," he said, stepping into the room. "Lydia and I have already come to an understanding concerning our future together. I do not claim to have His Grace’s wealth or influence, but I’m not without means. Nor am I without a future. Lydia will never lack for anything. Of that you have my promise."
Etherington looked uncomfortable. And defeated.
"That isn’t the issue, Talbot. Surely you can’t expect me to consider any proposal you might make when I am presented with the chance for my daughter to become a duchess?"
Gabriel’s jaw clenched. "Have you asked Lydia her wishes? Perhaps she doesn’t wish to become a duchess."
"That doesn’t matter. You and I both know she’s too young and too impressionable to know her mind."
Gabe couldn’t stop the smile that lifted the corners of his mouth. "You don’t know your daughter nearly as well as you think, my lord." He paused. "Or perhaps you don’t care nearly so much for her happiness as you do for how her marriage to a duke’s son can benefit
The color drained from the Earl of Etherington’s face and the earl staggered back a step before he caught himself against the chair behind his desk.
"I want what is best for
my children," the earl said, and Gabriel heard something in the earl’s voice he hadn’t recognized before - an absence of hope.
"Then you will at least consider my offer for your daughter’s hand."
"No, he will not," the Duke of Chisolmwood said from behind them.
Except for their frosty meeting, Chisolmwood had been ominously silent. Gabriel recognized the challenge in the duke’s words but refused to let him domineer. He turned to where the duke stood and faced him.
"For months now, neither Lydia nor I have made a secret of our feelings for each other. Out of all the eligible women to consider for your son’s bride, why have you chosen someone whose heart is already taken?"
The duke’s eyebrows shot up. "My reasons for choosing Lady Lydia are none of your concern."
"They are when you’ve chosen the woman I love."
"Then you’d best choose someone else to love because you will
"I hardly think that’s your decision to make, Your Grace. Lady Lydia has a father to see to her best interests."
"The woman’s father has already made his decision. Haven’t you, Etherington?" Chisolmwood’s voice was commanding enough to stifle any argument.
All eyes turned toward the Earl of Etherington.
"What does His Grace mean?" Austin asked. "How can you have already decided who Lydia marries?"
"Would you like to tell them, Etherington? Or shall I?"
The Earl of Etherington sank into the chair behind his desk and buried his face in his hands. Gabriel thought how old he suddenly seemed, how pitifully weak.
"Tell us what, Father?" Harrison stepped forward. He stopped and his gaze rested on a bundle of papers lying on the top of the desk. He stared at the papers before tentatively picking them up. One by one he sifted through each sheet, the frown on his forehead deepening with each flip of a new page. "What are these?"
"They’re every note your father has ever signed," Chisolmwood said, stepping out of the shadows to be the center of attention. "They are all now paid in full."
Austin snatched the packet of papers out of Harrison’s hands and shoved them toward Chisolmwood. "We don’t need you to pay our debts. All our creditors have agreed to wait until the
docks. The profits from the tea it’s bringing from China will—"
sank going around the Cape nearly a month ago. Its cargo and most of its crew were lost."
A deafening silence enveloped the room. Gabriel knew how much Lord Etherington as well as Harrison and Austin had been counting on the profits from the delivery of the tea. Austin had told him that all three of them had borrowed as heavily as they could to finance the venture. Now, to have it lost. . .
"Then we’ll find a way to pay you back," Harrison said, the bravery Gabe knew he strove to achieve in his voice faltering. Chisolmwood knew it, too, and a sinister smile crossed his face.
"The amount is over one hundred thousand pounds, Rundmoor. A sum even I find staggering."
"How long before you demand payment?"
"Tomorrow! You can’t be serious."
"But I am. Your father intends to sign the papers agreeing to a betrothal between his daughter and my son in exchange for the complete payment of his notes."
"If Liddy refuses?" Austin said with a defiant look on his face.
"My man of business will seek out the authorities. You will all be in prison by the end of the week. Is that what you want, Etherington?"
The Earl of Etherington looked into the faces of his two sons then dropped his gaze to the void in front of him.
Chisolmwood took a threatening step closer to Lydia’s father. "I didn’t think so."
Chisolmwood placed a single piece of paper in front of the earl. "Sign this and consider your debts paid in full."