Authors: Jaclyn Reding
Grace, Lady Cholmeley had been the truest
reflection of an age when elegance had reigned, when women had been cherished,
and when honor had meant everything. Her stance regal, her hair perfectly
coiffed, she stood surrounded by her spaniels on the riverfront lawn at
Ledysthorpe. Even with her present situation, Grace found herself smiling at
the portrait, longing for the days when it had been just the two of them—before
before London, before the Duke of Westove had come to assess her as a
The duke turned, regarding Grace once
again, comparing her, she knew, to her grandmother’s image before he returned
his attention to her uncle. After a moment of silent contemplation, he made to
rise, thunking his cane once on the floor before him.
“I shall take the matter of a
marriage under consideration, Cholmeley.” He turned for the door. “My
man will write to you should the need arise.”
As she watched the duke leave, Grace
quickly began a mental catalogue of the Cholmeley silver, wondering how much
she might fetch for it in sale.
Wycliffe, Marquess Knighton, alighted from the steps of his shining yellow
barouche even before his coachman could reach the door to open it properly for
The coachman’s name was Parrott, one that
suited him well for both his peculiar habit of always repeating the last words
of what was said to him and for his nose, which did indeed resemble a hooked
“I’ve got it, Parrott,” said the
marquess, nodding to the man as he swept toward the front door of the Georgian
town house shaded by elms before him.
“Got it,” repeated Parrott,
bowing to the marquess’s backside. “Got it indeed, my lord.”
Parrott had been in Lord Knighton’s employ
ever since his cousin Willem had vacated the post upon leaving England for
America five years before. Willem had recommended Parrott as his replacement
before he’d gone, a day the coachman would never forget no matter if he lived
to see one hundred years.
How nervous he’d been as he had tooled his
lordship about the streets of London, demonstrating his skill with the horses;
how struck by the young marquess’s affable and unruffled demeanor. In his
efforts to impress his prospective employer, Parrott had nearly run down a
wealthy-looking matron who was crossing the street. He’d managed to turn the
horses before striking her, knocking her instead on her bottom upon a patch of
grass. Crestfallen, Parrott had thought his chance for the Post immediately
lost, but Lord Knighton hadn’t so much as batted an eye as he’d tipped his tall
hat to the affronted madam while congratulating Parrott on his success
at finding her such a soft place on which to land.
From that moment, Parrott had thought the
marquess the most pleasant, most generous man he’d ever met, able to conquer
any obstacle put in his path. A gentleman, a hero, a veritable god.
It hadn’t taken long, however, after he’d
been assigned the coachman’s position, spending part of most every day with
Lord Knighton, for Parrott to discover that the marquess was really a man who
wore two different, very contrary faces.
To most, Christian, Lord Knighton was the
handsome and courteous lord, wealthy and self-assured, a man who had the very
world bowing at his feet. Most anything he desired was his for the taking. Even
the clouds seemed incapable of lowering when the marquess was about.
It was only when he was away from the
scrutinizing eyes of society that Parrott came to know the other side of the
marquess, the one most everyone else never saw— the one who seemed to bear the
full weight of the world upon his shoulders.
It was the face that Lord Knighton had
begun to wear far more frequently of late.
To the rest of the world, the marquess was
the heir to the wealthiest man in the land, his grandfather, the great Duke of
Westover. Wherever Lord Knighton went people knew it. You could see it in their
eyes when they begged his acquaintance, or sought his opinion out of false
flattery, or even pushed their unmarried daughters in his path—as often
happened when the marquess was about. A room immediately hushed at his
entrance. Traffic stopped at the sight of him. The pleasure of a solitary walk
in the park was something denied him, for inevitably some romantic miss would
devise a plan to gain his attention—the last one had even trained her lap dog
to bring the marquess her shoe so that he’d be made to return it to her, just
like Cinderella and her fateful glass slipper.
In the past year or so the marriage-minded
misses and their mamas had become doubly bold, as if they had somehow decided
his lordship’s bachelorhood had gone on long enough.
“He is approaching
his thirtieth year,”
Parrott had once heard one of them say,
past the time when he should be presenting the old duke with an heir.”
Lord Knighton was what most ladies would
call “handsomely cut.” His features were strong; his dark hair cut
short and worn naturally. He wore his face clean shaven and his suit of clothes
seemingly without effort. Coupled with the vast fortune he was set to inherit,
it was no wonder the man never had a moment’s peace.
“Would you be wantin’ me to await you
here in front with the coach then, my lord?” Parrott asked, bowing his
head as the marquess rapped at the door.
Christian nodded, adjusting the cuff of
his coat. “I would expect this to prove a visit much like any other I have
made to my grandfather’s house, Parrott. The sooner cut short the better.”
“The sooner, the better. Indeed, my
lord,” said Parrott, ambling away.
Of the countless places Parrott had driven
the marquess, Westover House here on Grosvenor Square was certainly the one at
which he spent the least amount of time. It looked a fine enough establishment
from the outside—weathered red brick and gleaming windows behind an iron fence
topped by finials that shone golden even on an overcast day such as this.
Parrot could only guess at the finery inside; he’d never once been admitted nor
had he so much as glimpsed the stables in the mews at the rear, although he’d
heard from some of his acquaintances that they were equally fine.
The young marquess, however, seemed
oblivious to it all. He came to this place only when summoned and emerged just
as quickly as he could, always in a far worse humor than he’d been upon
arriving. There was bad blood between the marquess and the duke, his
grandfather—bad blood, indeed.
“Pull the coach around the square and
park it under that large oak on the corner, Parrott. I’ve a notion a visit to
my club will be in order once I leave here.”
“In order. Aye, milord.”
Christian remained at the door as Parrott
made off, watching as the coachman climbed onto his seat and clicked his tongue
to the horses to urge them forward. He knew a sudden desire to walk back down
the steps and disregard the summons that had brought him to this place even as
he realized it would do him little good. Eventually he would find himself back
at this same spot, waiting before this same door, for this same purpose. It was
Christian turned when he heard the sound
of the latch opening behind him. The door swung open and he nodded to the
butler, Spears, a man who’d been at his station in the Westover household as
long as Christian could remember.
“Good day, Lord Knighton,” said
Spears, bowing his head dutifully as he immediately secured Christian’s gloves,
beaver hat, and many-caped carrick, brushing a hand over the fine wool to
dislodge an offending bit of lint.
Christian mumbled his response and headed
directly for the study, the usual setting for these nonsensical meetings. What
would it be today? A lecture on his responsibilities at the northern
properties? A justification of the invoices for Eleanor’s new wardrobe? No
doubt the old man had forgotten that his granddaughter, Christian’s sister, was
to have her long-awaited coming-out. Or perhaps the duke sought to delay it
another year and make Nell’s chances for a safe and happy future all the more difficult.
If that were his aim, Christian was fully prepared for a confrontation.
Instead he was brought up short by the
“I beg your pardon, my lord. His
grace is not in his study this morning. He wished me to inform you he awaits
you in the garden instead.”
Christian wondered that his grandfather even knew the
house had such a thing, for he ate, slept, and even relieved himself within the
paneled walnut walls of his ducal study, a place just as gloomy and severe as
its most frequent occupant. As a child, Christian could recall sneaking into
the place at night to see if the marble busts of the various historical
personages that were set about the room actually did come to life as his father
had once told him.
“The garden?” Christian queried,
unaware of his Parrott-like response.
Spears nodded once, offering no further
explanation. Christian simply took a turn and headed off for the rear of the
As he made his way through the lower
chambers, past furnishings and ornaments that were meant to impress more than
to enhance, Christian tried to shake away the foreboding that had greeted him
with his morning coffee. No matter how he tried, he could not shake the sense
that something was terribly wrong. He’d felt it in his gut the moment he’d
found his grandfather’s summons sitting atop his newspaper on the breakfast
tray, instructing him to make this urgent and unscheduled appearance. While
this wasn’t the first, second, or even twentieth time his grandfather had sent
such a request, somehow this time just
out of the ordinary.
Whatever it was that had brought the old
man to calling for him, Christian knew it could not be for any good. Through
most of his nine-and-twenty years, it never had been. The duke seemed to spend
his waking hours devising new and inventive ways to plague his unfortunate
heir, as if he felt it his sole duty to assume the tradition of enmity that had
previously existed between the king and his heir, the then Regent, before the
old king had died earlier that same year. It shouldn’t have come as any
surprise. After all, the duke had certainly modeled his life after old George
in more ways than one, periodic insanity seeming sometimes among them.
But the nearer Christian drew to the
garden, the more that feeling in his gut began to burn. He hated the fact that
he should feel this way at all, that his grandfather should be allowed to have
this effect over him. By the time he reached the double doors leading outside,
Christian had convinced himself that the reason for the summons had to be
Eleanor’s coming-out. The duke was going to refuse it again.
He found the duke sitting in a cane-backed
chair beneath the feathery boughs of a large willow tree. The drooping branches
nearly shrouded him from view. His pale hair was undressed, falling about his
shoulders in thinning strands, and he wore a brocade dressing robe over his
shirt and breeches, slippers of red morocco on his feet.
He had not yet noticed his grandson’s
arrival. Christian delayed a moment in the doorway. He hadn’t been to these
gardens since he’d been a boy, since shortly before his father had died, taking
him immediately from the innocence and freedom he had known in childhood to the
penitentiary role he now held as ducal heir. From then on, Christian’s imaginative
games of pirate and adventurer, even his interest in the wars taking place
overseas, were forbidden, for these were pursuits deemed unnecessary for a
future duke. After all, as heir to the Westover fortune, he would never be
granted the officer’s position he had so often dreamed of as a boy. His
grandfather had made certain of it, filling Christian’s: days instead with
studies of Latin and philosophy.
Stepping further into the garden,
Christian noticed a glass of lemonade and a book—
— sitting on
the table beside his grandfather. It appeared that the duke’s attention was
wholly taken up with watching a bird picking at the ground a space away.
Christian wondered if his eyes were deceiving him. A novel? Bird watching?! His
grandfather, the distinguished Duke of Westover? The burning feeling in his
stomach began to curdle. There was no longer any doubt about it; something was
Christian came to a halt several feet away
from the duke’s chair, stood tall and straight, and bowed his head respectfully
as he’d been taught as a boy.
“Good day, Your Grace.”
Elias Wycliffe, the fourth Duke of
Westover, turned in his chair to regard his grandson and only living heir.
“Christian,” he said in his
usual dispassionate tone. When Christian made no attempt to converse further,
he added, “You received my message, I see.”
Again Christian remained silent, which
prompted the duke to say after an awkward moment, “Thank you for taking
the time to come.”
Christian abandoned his stance for
another, one slightly more defensive. “Haven’t I always come when you’ve
summoned me, sir? I wasn’t aware I had any choice in the matter.”
Christian watched his grandfather’s
expression darken as it always did whenever they were together, and he wondered
how they had come to be such adversaries. It had been this way so long now, he
no longer could recall it being any differently between them.
“I will make this brief and come
straight to the point. Christian, I have summoned you here to tell you that it
is time for you to fulfill your part in our agreement— the first part of it,
that is. I have made the necessary arrangements for you to marry.”
It was a statement Christian had always
known he’d one day hear from the duke, still he couldn’t quite temper the
breath-stealing impact that came immediately after the words had been spoken.
For nineteen years he had known this day would come. At twenty, even at
twenty-five, he had anticipated it. But as time had passed on without mention
of it, Christian had begun to think that perhaps the old man had forgotten the
bargain he’d made with his grandson so long ago. He should have known better;
the duke had simply been biding his time, waiting until he knew Christian would
be occupied with the arrangements for Eleanor’s coming-out before delivering
the blow he had been waiting so long to give.