White Regency 03 - White Knight (3 page)

BOOK: White Regency 03 - White Knight
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Christian didn’t move for several moments
as he stood waiting for the feelings of anger and impotence that he so often
felt before this man to subside. He would not allow his grandfather to detect
even the slightest hint of emotion in him. He couldn’t allow him the
satisfaction.

“Indeed? A marriage?” Christian
finally said, managing to hide his response behind a mask of nonchalance. It
was a method he had come to master well during the past twenty years.

“Yes. She is of fine stock, a
nobleman’s daughter, good character, unsullied. I would allow no less for
you.”

Christian’s jaw tightened at the duke’s
cutting comment, one that implied he should be grateful. The notion of
Christian choosing his own wife had never once been a consideration. From birth
he had known this, a fact that had become all the more apparent since his
father’s death. While he could do nothing to change this part of his life, this
role he’d been born to, Christian would at least make certain the duke met his
obligation in their agreement.

“And Eleanor’s coming-out?”

“What of it?” “If you think
to refuse—”

“It will be taken care of just as we
agreed this season. Your sister will be given every opportunity to wed a man of
her choosing under the protection of the Westover name—without any fear of the
truth coming out.” He added, “Of course, that is
if
you are
agreeable to the match I have made for you.”

Bastard,
Christian thought, hating the duke for speaking as if
he actually had a choice, as if he might actually refuse. Perhaps he would, had
Christian not decided long ago to sacrifice his own future for that of his
sister’s f happiness. In order to protect Eleanor, Christian would have made a
deal with the devil himself if he’d had to; indeed he already had.

Christian pulled in a steadying breath. As
he stared [ at the pendulous blooms of the snowdrops blowing in the morning
breeze at his feet, he remembered Eleanor as a child—how she would bring him
flowers, how she had followed him wherever he went.
For you, Eleanor. I do
this for you, even though you can never know of it.
His feelings of anger
began to subside as they always did when he thought of his sister. Only then
did he return his attention to the duke.

“I assume some sort of public
announcement is forthcoming.”

“No!
There will not be an announcement made until after you
are already wed. I want no possibility of any trouble.”

The duke’s expression had grown agitated,
causing
Christian to wonder if some sort of threat had perhaps
already
been made.
Dear God, Eleanor…

The duke went on. “I have made
arrangements for a special license and have already settled the terms of the
marriage with your intended bride’s family. You have only to sign the contracts
before you are to wed on the twenty-ninth.”

April the twenty-ninth. Less than a
fortnight away, Christian thought, and on so significant a day. The very
anniversary of his father’s death. How his grandfather must have planned
this—every detail seen to, every precaution taken. No doubt even Christian’s
suit of clothes had been chosen for him. The duke had spent the past twenty
years waiting for this day, for the glory of his final domination over his
grandson’s life, so embittered had he been since the death of his only son,
Christian’s father. Even now, Christian could hear the duke’s words that
fateful morning so long ago.

Now your life is mine.

Christian stood, ready to leave before he
revealed to the old man just how very right he’d been in that prophecy.

“I assume you will send some sort of
missive to me instructing the pertinent time and place.”

The duke nodded.

“Then I shall take my leave, sir.
Have one of your footmen bring the necessary paperwork to Knighton House and I
will see to the signatures. I bid you good day.”

Christian didn’t wait for an acknowledgment
as he started for the door. Truth be told, if he didn’t leave at that moment,
he might possibly end up slamming his fist through a pane of one of the French
doors.

“Christian.”

He halted at the threshold, lingering a
moment before he turned to face his grandfather’s profile. The duke stared
outward at the garden, neglecting to look at him as he spoke.

“Do you not even wish to know her
name, this woman who is to be your wife?”

Christian hesitated but a moment in his
response. “What does it matter, sir, when you have spent nearly my
entire life assuring me that one wife is as good as any other?”

And with that, Christian departed, his
mood definitely blacker for the visit.

Chapter Three

“Westover.”

Grace
felt her legs immediately go soft beneath her, her consciousness blurring as if
she might actually faint. She quickly grabbed onto the back of the chair she
stood behind. It was the only thing she could think of to keep herself from
falling to the floor.

Dear God, no,
she thought as she struggled to gather her wits,
of
all the names her uncle could have given, why, oh why had he spoken that one?

Simply the memory of that man sitting in
this same room, in this very chair, questioning her about the authenticity of
her anatomy, made her shudder. It had taken all her will to make it through
that day without getting physically ill. And now Uncle Tedric was telling her
she was to be the man’s wife? To live under the same roof? Share his home?
Even—she closed her eyes against the thought—his bed?

Grace shook her head in denial, knowing
that no matter the consequences, she could never,
ever
agree to it, and
she said as much to Uncle Tedric a moment later, her voice oddly lucid for
thoughts so much in chaos.

“I won’t wed him, Uncle.”

Tedric’s face went rigid over the cheek-high
points of his collar, the fingers he’d been drumming on the rosewood tabletop
going suddenly still. “I beg your pardon, my dear Grace? I fail to recall
having asked for your consent in this.”

Grace frowned, standing her ground,
thankful for the chair in front of her lest her uncle notice the trembling of
her legs. “No, Uncle, you did not ask me, but I repeat:
I won’t wed
that man.
He is old enough to be my grandfather. I don’t care what he has
offered you. I won’t do it. Threaten all you like. Forbid me from leaving the
house. Take away all my things, if you must. But if you think to force me to
wed him, I promise you now I shall refuse to speak the vows. I will scream
hysterically even as you have to carry me bodily down the aisle to him. I would
rather live in the streets of … of …”

“Westminster,” Tedric said,
knowing perfectly well Grace knew about as little of London as would a
foreigner landing on her streets for the first time.

“Westminster! I would live in the
streets of Westminster before I will ever become wife to that disgusting
man.”

“Consider that the streets there are
named such things as Cut Throat Lane, Rogue’s Acres, and Pickpocket Alley.
Believe me, Grace, marriage to Westover is far preferable.”

Grace wasn’t to be deterred. “I don’t
care if he is the wealthiest man in England—or the entire world, for that
matter. I will not marry him!”

Tedric, Lord Cholmeley simply stared at
his niece, no doubt taken aback by her dogged determination, she who had meekly
accepted whatever Fate had doled out for her through the first three-and-twenty
years of her life. Well, let him stare till his eyes turned to dust. She would
not sit idly by and accept
this.

But instead of arguing with her as she had
expected, Uncle Tedric did the most peculiar thing. He began to laugh, a
chuckle first that quickly progressed to a sidesplitting, shoulder-shaking
roar. Tears sprang to his eyes even as he looked at Grace, hands poised at her
hips, chin thrust forward. He only laughed all the more as she stared at him in
growing disbelief.

What the devil was he about? Grace had
expected a quarrel, even threats—but mirth? Not when the rest of her life
depended upon this very moment. Regardless of his current financial
predicament, did he feel nothing for her, his only niece, his sole blood
relation?

Helpless tears came to her eyes, causing
him only to laugh more. Unable to bear his hilarity any longer, Grace turned to
flee the room.

“Grace! Wait a moment. You don’t
understand.”

But she was already at the stairs, wondering
if the Cholmeley coachman knew the swiftest route to Pickpocket Alley.

“Grace, no, you are mistaken. It
isn’t the present duke who is to be your husband. It is his grandson,
Christian, Marquess Knighton.”

Grace stopped cold halfway up the
stairwell. It was not so much at the news that it wasn’t the old duke who was
to be her proposed husband, but at the name her uncle had given her in his
stead.

Christian, Marquess Knighton.

Knighton.

Knight.

She suddenly thought back to a day months
earlier, not long before her grandmother had died. The two of them had been
sitting together on the terrace outside the dowager marchioness’s bedchamber at
Ledysthorpe, a quiet and peaceful place that faced onto the banks of the River
Tees several miles inland from the restless North Sea. It had been a lazy
summer afternoon—chilly, Grace remembered, for her grandmother had urged her to
wear a shawl. Grace had been reading Chaucer’s
Canterbury Tales
aloud
while the dowager had been sitting in her chair, eyes closed, listening. The
memory of that day was suddenly so vivid, Grace could hear the words now…

 

A
Knight there was, and that a worthy man,

That
from the time that he first began

To
riden out, he loved chivalry,

Truth
and honour, freedom and courtesy…

And
though that he was worthy, he was wise,

And
of his port as meek as is a maid.

He
never yet no villany had said

In
all his life unto no manner wight.

He
was a very parfit gentle knight.

 

Grace remembered that she’d looked up
while reading to see that Nonny had nodded off, as she so often did. She had
set the red ribbon marker between the book’s pages to mark her place, thinking
to work a bit on her drawing while Nonny dozed. Just as Grace had moved
to set the book aside,
with an abruptness that had unsettled the spaniel nestled in her lap, the
dowager had sat up, suddenly awake.

“You know you will have to
marry.”

Grace remembered wondering if perhaps her
grandmother had been dreaming. “Yes, Nonny, I know that. Someday I will
marry just like you did, but I do not wish to think on it just now. I do not
wish to think of ever leaving Ledysthorpe. This is my home. I love it
here.”

“I came here a young bride from what
had always been my home, dear. A lady makes her husband’s home her own when she
is married. It isn’t so very far off for you, either, my dear, this marriage I
speak of. Once I am gone, you will be unable to avoid it any longer.”

“And where are you off to,
then?” Grace had asked, coming to her side. “A jaunt across the
Continent, perhaps?”

Her grandmother had smiled, reaching to
rest a hand against the side of her granddaughter’s cheek. “My dearest, I
am not long for this life. I feel it in my heart. And once I am gone, I will be
unable to do much in the way of protecting you. Tedric will have charge over
your future, at least until you reach five-and-twenty. I had hoped to remain
long enough to see you to that anniversary of your birth and past that
restriction in your inheritance, however I fear now I will not. But know that
should I die before you have reached that majority, even though I shall be
gone, I will do whatever is within my power to bring you a good husband.”

“But however will I know who is the
right husband if you are not here to advise me?”

The dowager had smiled again, saying only,
“You will, child, because you are of my blood. I had only to dance once
with my true love and I knew I would spend the rest of my life loving him. It
will be the same when you have found your own one true ‘very parfit gentle
knight.’ “

Her last words whispered like the soft summer
wind through Grace’s thoughts.
Gentle knight. Knight…

Was it possible? Could this Marquess
Knighton be the one her grandmother had spoken of? Had Nonny somehow sent him
to protect her as she had promised, or was
she being silly and the significance of his name
merely a coincidence?

“Grace?”

At her uncle’s summons, Grace came into
the doorway of the study where he yet sat. She thought again of her
grandmother, whose own marriage had been arranged and which had still brought
her great happiness. Her mother and father had met only days before their
wedding and, according to Nonny, they could not have been more in love. All her
life, Nonny had read Grace countless tales of the great lovers—Tristan and
Isolde, Heloise and Abelard—whose loves had survived against great, almost
insurmountable odds. Nonny had promised her granddaughter that one day she
would have the same, that she would be given her own knight in shining armor.

Grace thought then of what would happen if
she didn’t agree to the marriage. Where would she go, what would become of her
should her uncle end up in debtor’s prison? She had no acceptable means of
supporting herself; few ladies of her social standing did. She had never been
to Westminster before, but from the sounds of it, it likely wouldn’t be a
pleasant place. The way things presently stood, it seemed she really had no
choice in the matter. She would have to marry eventually. It was the role she
had been raised to fill, all she had been taught to expect. Why not, then,
marry the duke’s grandson? At the very least, he was nearer her own age.

“I would see him first before I could
ever agree to wed him.”

Tedric looked as if he might refuse. His
mouth flattened into a thin line and his brow drew close over his eyes. After a
moment, though, he nodded. “I will see what can be arranged. But I cannot
promise anything.”

Several evenings later when Uncle Tedric
was on his way out—probably for his club, Brooks’s—he stopped a moment at the
parlor door where Grace sat playing at the pianoforte. She had often heard it
said that music had a way of uplifting one’s spirits—especially, Grace had
found, when one vented one’s spleen upon the keys.

From the corner of her eye, she could see
her uncle
lingering
in the doorway but she continued to play her piece, striking the keys with
renewed vigor. When she had finished, he came into the room, applauding softly.

“That was lovely, Grace. You are
growing more and more accomplished each time I hear you.”

It was quite a compliment, considering
that on the last occasion he had listened, she had been twelve. Grace looked at
him over her music sheet. He was smiling at her, his eyes filled with a
contrived warmth.

“You shall make a fine duchess some
day, Grace. Your name portends it.”

Grace took little solace from his comment.
Instead she turned the music sheet over for the next piece. Ah, perfect—
fortissimo.
She glanced at him. “I’ll take that as indication that you have
arranged for me to meet the marquess?”

Tedric nodded, obviously pleased with
himself as he adjusted his kid glove. “In a manner of speaking, yes.”

Grace lifted her fingers from the keys.
She folded her hands in her lap, waiting.

“Meet
is perhaps the wrong choice in words. You see, there
can be no introduction, no conversation between you. His grace the duke
expressly forbids it.”

“He forbids me to meet the man I’m to
spend the rest of my life with? What does he seek to conceal?”

“There is nothing to conceal, my
dear. Lord Knighton is considered to be
the
bachelor among the
ton,
quite
the buck about town, sought after for his wealth and title as well as his looks
by every suitable young lady with a mind toward marriage. It is precisely
because he is in such demand that the duke doesn’t want the marriage between
you made public until after the ceremony has been performed. It is really for
your benefit as well as the marquess’s, Grace. An announcement beforehand would
create a public stir. Any hope of peace in your life would be gone. Your every
move would be watched, your every gesture criticized. Some desperate miss might
even attempt to prevent the wedding from taking place altogether. Thus it will
be a private ceremony, in an obscure church in the country somewhere, arranged
by special license.”

“I am not even to be allowed a formal
wedding ceremony?”

As a girl, Grace had always dreamed of a
grand wedding. In fact, when Princess Charlotte had wed Leopold of Coburg, she
and Nonny had read every news report and had pored over every engraving they
could lay their hands upon. Grace had always known that she would wear the
dress both Nonny and her mother had worn before her in a church that would be
filled with fragrant flowers. It would be a day she would never forget, the day
on which she joined her life with her husband’s— that nameless, faceless
knight
Nonny had always assured her would be hers.

She now had a name, yes, but the face was
yet unknown. And if she could not meet him, speak to him, how would she ever
know for certain he was
the one?

“I’m sorry, Uncle, but I have already
told you I cannot wed a man I have never met.”

Tedric shook his head. “On the
contrary, my dear, you said you would ‘see’ him before you would agree to wed
him—and see him you shall.”

BOOK: White Regency 03 - White Knight
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